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Perfume is one of those things that everyone can appreciate, but a very select few truly understand. If you’ve ever nodded along in blind agreement as someone praised the strong, woody oud of a particular fragrance or the faint trace of ambergris in another, it’s time to school yourself on scent vocab.
From absolute to vetiver, keep scrolling for the perfume terms every fragrance aficionado should know.
Also known as essences, absolutes are similar to essential oils: Both are extremely aromatic, oily mixtures derived from flora. However, unlike essential oils which are formed via steam distillation, absolutes are created by solvent extraction. This technique produces the strongest material extraction from a plant or flower, making for a highly concentrated scent that is intense and long-lasting.
Pictured: Balenciaga Rosabotanica (Discontinued)
A blend of two or more fragrances, an accord is the creation of a new, completely different smell. Escada Joyful blends fruity, citrusy top notes and floral heart notes with honey and sandalwood base notes to create a complex fragrance. It is both invigorating and—dare we say—joyful.
Pictured: Escada Joyful ($29)
While aldehydes may be found in natural materials—rose, citronella, and cinnamon bark, to name a few—they can also be made artificially. Perhaps the world's most iconic synthetic aldehyde is Chanel No. 5. The legendary eau de parfum boasts a complex floral-aldehyde fragrance profile that proved revolutionary when it was formulated nearly 100 years ago.
Pictured: Chanel No. 5 ($80)
Originating in the intestines of sperm whales, ambergris is basically sperm whale excrement that floats in the water, gets oxidized by the sun, and turns into a substance that’s washed ashore. While it may not sound all that appealing, ambergris is one of the most expensive perfume ingredients in the world, with a scent that can best be described as sweet, musky, and marine-like (go figure).
Pictured: Bobbi Brown Beach ($79)
These are the heaviest ingredients (on the molecular level) that people tend to notice well after smelling the top and heart notes. A combination of various tree resins (think: labdanum, benzoin, frankincense, etc.) give way to amber, a scent that is as woody as it is sweet. Amber can add great depth to a fragrance, which makes it an ideal base note.
Pictured: Guerlain Shalimar ($110)
Rich, sweet, and warm, balsamic is produced by using plant balsams and resins. Balsamic notes can be grouped into three buckets: soft (vanilla), resinous (opoponax aka "sweet myrrh"), and powdery (orris root). If you've ever picked up a scent in the Oriental fragrance category, it most likely exhibited balsamic notes. Exotic balsamic perfumes are some of the most seducing and intoxicating.
Pictured: Diptyque Volutes ($180)
Thanks to its potency, camphor is often used to highlight other perfume ingredients or provide balance. Camphor can be extracted from the evergreen camphor tree native to Asia, but it can also be found in eucalyptus and rosemary. Its scent is taken from the fresh, clean, cooling character displayed by eucalyptus but also peppered with the descriptiveness of rosemary and other herbal notes.
Pictured: Comme Des Garcons Hinoki ($120)
Chypre (pronounced “sheepra") is the French word for the island of Cyprus. It also refers to this lesser-known, yet sophisticated scent that exudes earthy, woodsy, and mossy base notes with top notes of citrus. If you're looking to be transported to beachy, summery days, a warm and refreshing a chypre scent is your best bet.
Pictured: Cartier Eau De Cartier Zeste De Soleil ($120)
Eau de Cologne
Taking its name from the city of Cologne, Germany, an eau de cologne has the least concentrated perfume-oil-to-alcohol ratio, with around two to five percent perfume oil in the formula. After application, they last on the skin for about two to four hours. Eau de colognes evoke youthfulness as they are typically light, fresh, and fruity.
Pictured: Acqua Di Parma Profumo (Discontinued)
Eau de Parfum
The heaviest of the eaus, an eau de parfum is made up of about 10 to 15 percent perfume oil. Since it's crafted with a high concentration of essences, it can last anywhere from five to eight hours. Still, a longer-lasting concentration would be extraits (or extracts), which have around 20 to 40 percent concentration perfume oil.
Pictured: Donna Karan Cashmere Mist ($100)
Eau de Toilette
Slightly heavier than an eau de cologne, an eau de toilette contains anywhere from three to 15 percent perfume compound. They are typically more affordable than their more concentrated eau counterparts. Eau de toilettes can be described as crisp with a focus on top notes and heart notes, making them perfect for daywear.
Pictured: Narcisco Rodriguez For Her ($58)
Another French word, fougère means “fern.” Its scent can best be described as slightly sweet, woody, and fresh, given its makeup of oakmoss, lavender, and coumarin. In fact, coumarin also lends a distinct grassy note to fougère. These fragrances are popular among men, although interestingly, they were originally intended to be worn by women.
Pictured: Tom Ford Violet Blonde (Discontinued)
If you like smelling like your favorite dessert, a gourmand fragrance is for you. Edible notes like honey, chocolate, vanilla, or various candies make up these sweet-smelling scents and are often blended with base notes such as patchouli and musk. Gourmand fragrances emit warmth and are often worn during the fall and winter seasons.
Pictured: Hermès Eau de Merveilles ($153)
The general term for the odors of grass, leaves, and stems, green fragrances can be characterized as sharp and fresh. They work well in complementing other fragrance profiles, especially those that are floral or fruity. Green scents can be found naturally in violet leaf absolute and galbanum oil and are often displayed in summery perfumes.
Pictured: Memo Irish Leather ($300)
A strong, smoky scent that stems from ingredients used to tan leathers—the leather scent is usually used in fragrance with the help of synthetic chemicals. However, there are natural sources that allude to leather, such as, birch tar, juniper, tobacco, and honey. A mix of sweet and spicy, a leather scent often makes its way into men's fragrances but is also present in many women’s chypre perfumes.
Pictured: Maison Martin Margiela Replica Jazz Club ($130)
Middle (Heart) Notes
Middle notes, or heart notes, make up the body of the fragrance blend. They are usually used to classify which fragrance family a certain scent falls in. After applying a fragrance, middle notes might take 10 to 30 minutes to develop on your skin. They follow the initial and immediate scent of top notes.
Pictured: Elizabeth and James Nirvana White ($45)
Oriental scents are a major category of perfume and feature a mix of sweet notes, like vanilla and amber, and pungent notes like balsamic and benzoin. Oriental fragrances, like Gucci Guilty ($80), are often linked to the Middle East because of notes of frankincense and incense. In general, these exotic scents are warm and sensual, and best worn in the evening.
Pictured: Bvlgari Omnia Indian Garnet ($82)
Also called agarwood, oud is made with the resin of the aquilaria tree and has a woody, earthy, shadowy quality. Usually, scents that feature oud, like Byredo Parfums Oud Immortel ($145), use a synthetic version since real oud is expensive and difficult to harvest. Warm and smoky, oud fragrances are preferred among Middle Eastern wearers but are also prized by those seeking luxury and sensuality.
Pictured: Lancôme L’Autre Ôud ($208)
Aroma chemicals that are meant to mimic the smell of fresh air after a thunderstorm, ozonic scents are clean and oceanic. This aquatic fragrance conjures up the salty smells of marine life at the beach and even fresh morning dew. Ozonic scents are rather elusive and so are typically blended with floral, fruity, or woodsy notes to brighten and lift.
Pictured: Agonist Solaris ($137)
Sillage (pronounced "see-yazh”), or the trail of scent left behind by a perfume, is one of the most important characteristics of a fragrance. Sillage is strongest after a perfume is applied, slowly fading as time progresses. Contrary to popular belief, a heavy fragrance does not necessarily equate to having a large sillage. Perfumes with little sillage are said to “stay close to the skin.”
Pictured: Desigual Fun (Discontinued)
A soliflore, like Le Labo Iris 39 ($280) and Frédéric Malle Une Rose ($265), is a scent that focuses on a single flower, like a lily or a rose. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that soliflores are comprised of only one ingredient—in fact, it may take 100s of ingredients to replicate the complexity of a single scent. While most floral perfumes are single note soliflores, bouquets blend various floral notes.
Pictured: Christian Dior Diorissimo ($100)
Usually, what you immediately smell when you spritz a perfume, top notes arrive like a burst of scent and then fade with time. Also called head notes, these are the most volatile of perfume layers and the first to evaporate. Top notes are often described as being citrusy, fruity, or herbal. They are important in forming an initial impression of a fragrance.
Pictured: DS & Durga Rose Atlantic ($175)
Vetiver is an essential oil that is steam-distilled from the roots of a tall Indian grass. Its scent is complex, ranging from the lemony to the rich and earthy. It is a common, albeit, unique scent in men's colognes, but is also worn by women looking for a fragrance that will transition well from day into evening.
Pictured: Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb ($92)