an education 
in fragrance

Our detailed guide for discovering your most fitting fragrance.


Photography by ANTHONY GOBLÉ

A perfume is like a piece of clothing, a message, a way of presenting oneself… a costume that differs according to the woman who wears it.—Paloma Picasso

In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a now-landmark study that found that for most people, having a multitude of choices can be more paralyzing than positive. In other words, more isn’t always better. And as the fragrance market—and, ergo, choice—continues to grow, settling on a scent can prove more daunting a decision than ever. Particularly because, as with our clothing, there are semiotics to fragrance that can’t be ignored. The scent we choose to wear telecasts something to the world about the way we would like to be perceived. Before you start your search, here is some guidance to fine-tune your fragrance aptitude.


Perfume, which is traditionally a blend of natural and synthetic materials or aroma-chemicals, is both art and science—and, really, a bit of magic too. The layers we often refer to as top note, heart, and dry-down are, according to acclaimed perfumer Frederic Malle, part of its chronological composition. “Perfumes are made of ingredients that have different evaporations,” Malle explains. “Some ingredients come quickly and evaporate very fast, like citrus. Others, like musk or ambers, hardly smell at the beginning and then they warm up to your skin and stay on it a long time. Top notes evaporate quickly, and the back notes are slow burners.” That composition also affects your experience of a perfume, which unfolds like a sequence of events, each often entirely distinct from the other.

To help figure out which fragrances speak to you, begin to familiarize yourself with the descriptive categories under which they usually fall. Although many are, as Malle points out, a combination of a few, developing a sense of what most attracts you will help you more swiftly navigate the fragrance section.

Musks: “Carnal and animalic,” says Ben Gorham, creative director of Byredo. Malle views musks as something capable of magically blurring perfume. “It warms up the scent and rivets it to the skin so it becomes part of the person wearing it, which is why we find it so sexy,” he notes.

Citrus: “A fresh fragrance class that is very natural, like a shower that you still feel long after you’ve dried off,” says Malle. “Bright and sunny,” adds Gorham.

Florals: “The floral spectrum is vast and spans from sweet and juicy to soft and powdery,” says Gorham. Florals can also be an expression of a solo flower or a bouquet. “They can be figurative products that copy nature or a mix of different elements of flowers to become another kind of abstraction,” Malle says.

Woods: “Warm and dry,” explains Gorham. Malle sees them as the olfactory opposite of musks: “Crisp and capable of generating a vibrant texture.”

Green: “Clean like grass or a little bit earthy, like a dewy moss,” says Gorham.  

Marine: Refreshing and a little salty, marine is built primarily on a molecule called the calone, explains Malle. “It gives the oyster, aquatic smells that you have within perfume, although there are rarely any purely marine perfumes,” he says.

Oriental: “Warm, spicy, and sensual,” says Gorham. Their sweetest sub-category, the gourmands, are what Malle calls “Orientals for children.”


Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s essential compendium on fragrance, Perfumes: The Guide, differentiates scent categories thusly: “Different concentrations of perfume oil are sold under different names: eau de toilette (edt) is around 10 percent perfume oil, eau de parfum (edp) somewhere around 15 to 18 percent, and parfum (also known as extrait) is 25 percent and higher.” While traditional fragrances are pure perfume oil dissolved in a solution of alcohol and water (usually 98% and 2%, respectively), the natural perfume category makes use of different carrier ingredients (like jojoba or coconut oil) by blending them with essential oils.

The different formulation methods for synthetic and natural fragrances have an effect on their sillage, or olfactory trail. “Sillage is a scent’s vibratory effects and how far it projects,” explains David Seth Moltz, co-founder and perfumer of DS & Durga. “It’s about how a fragrance fills a room.” For those who want their scent to have a big impact, sillage matters. “They like to smell something that is quite significant and they like to share it,” says Malle, who adds that most of his fragrances have a sillage of at least 10 feet. Much of the reason Julie Elliott started her natural brand In Fiore was because of the allergies and headaches she was experiencing from synthetic scents. “Truly natural essences are more rounded but also quieter,” she says. Because they don’t project or last as long as their synthetic counterparts, appreciating a natural scent (like the ones that Elliott formulates in a solid oil base meant to be anointed on the skin) is a more intimate experience. “You’re fragrancing yourself versus the environment around you,” she explains. “Someone usually has to be closer to you to smell a natural perfume, which I think is really sexy and kind of nice.”


“Perfume can be a fashion accessory, but it’s really much more of an artistic expression,” explains Moltz. “And people will be drawn to perfumes with depth the same way they are drawn to any other art form, whether it be music or painting.” But just as our artistic preferences can vary wildly, the same is true for fragrance—what we’re drawn to is entirely individual, based on our personal history, memories, deeply ingrained likes and dislikes, and cultural and physical environments. Another factor is how we want to feel: some crave familiarity, while others like to be transported. And it changes. “What many women like now is nothing like what they liked 20, 30, or 100 years ago,” says Moltz. Age plays its own role in our scent proclivities. “Our preferences change according to the way we want to seduce,” explains Malle. “We are influenced not only by the world around us, but also the stage of our life. A mother of five doesn’t want to seduce like a 14-year-old.”

There are multiple reasons that the same fragrance can smell different on one person versus another. Factors can include whether your skin is dry or oily, what your diet is like, and the fragility of the fragrance itself. “People often compare a perfume they have smelled on someone that was sprayed at least two hours before—so it’s in the middle or at the end of its evaporation stage—to one they smell on themselves a few minutes after it’s been sprayed,” explains Malle. “The variation from person to person has to do with the chronology of the perfume, the different skin types, and the distance from the skin.”


How you perceive a scent plays a critical role in your potential appreciation of it. First, forget the coffee beans. “It’s a retailer invention that never works,” claims Malle. “I’ve never seen a single coffee bean in a fragrance lab.” Instead, suggests Moltz, give your nose a break with a whiff of yourself: “In between fragrances just go back to your own shoulder.” Never smell something directly from the bottle. Spray it on a blotter first—“To see if you like the general shape and tone,” says Malle—and once you’ve narrowed down your favorites, take it to the skin. “The blotter is to make a rough selection, and the arm—never the hand, which in my experience is not a good spot—is to make sure you truly love it,” he adds. Once you’ve sprayed a full pump on your arm or wrist, advises Moltz, wave it around—don’t tap—then wait. “If you spray a perfume and smell it right away you’re ingesting ethyl alcohol, like if you pour a brandy and stick your nose into the snifter—your head is going to jerk back,” he says. Wait 10 seconds to take a first waft, then live with it for at least 20 minutes before making a decision. If you’re still feeling indecisive about which scent speaks to you, Gorham’s best advice: “Sleep on it.”


Judging a fragrance by appearance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Visual identity can draw you in as strongly as an evocative name,” says Gorham, whose own brand Byredo has become as recognizable for its singular fragrance interpretations as for its simple, graphic packaging and clean typography. While at the other end of the visual spectrum, In Fiore’s vintage-style presentation of its solid perfumes have a special pull for them as well, says Elliott. “People love the beautiful bronze compact because it feels like a really special piece and it fits nicely in your hand and you can carry it around with you,” she adds. A name can also be a valid guiding principle when looking for a new scent. It makes sense; what a scent is called is often an expression of its sensibility and intention. An immediate point of relatability for the fragrance buyer. A concept Gorham played with when he asked Byredo customers to come up with their own as he did with the release of Unnamed. “I loved working on it because it gave people the opportunity to communicate what a scent meant to them personally,” he adds.