The Penhaligon’s Guide to Perfume

  • Posted on 5th January 2015 by Nick
  • You’ll have read about notes used in perfume, as well as the various concentrations, but what does this mean?

    Modern perfumes are constructed in what we call a pyramid. This means there is an evaporation from top to base notes. Perfumers seek to create a harmonious and smooth development in a fragrance – if there are any gaps in the evaporation, then the perfume doesn’t smell complete.

    Top notes are the most volatile and impactful materials used in perfumery: citrus (bergamot, lemon), green (galbanum, violet leaf) and aromatic (lavender, sage) materials tend to be top notes, as they evaporate the quickest from the fragrance.

    Heart or Middle notes are what give the character to the perfume, and generally define the ‘family’ (floral, chypre, fougere, oriental and so on) that the perfume falls into. Usually these are spices (cinnamon, clove), fruit notes (peach, blackcurrant), and flowers (rose, jasmine), as these are less volatile than top notes, but not as long lasting as base notes.

    Base notes are the heaviest, longest lasting notes in a perfume. They will help the anchor the other notes to the skin and help slow down evaporation of the fragrance. Typically, base notes are woods (cedar, sandalwood), resins (frankincense, benzoin), amber notes (vanilla, labdanum), and animalic notes (musks).

    When you first apply a fragrance, you smell the entire scent and the effect of all the notes, and over time, the top notes fade, followed by the heart notes, until you are left with the base.

    When we talk about concentration in a perfume, what we mean is the percentage of perfume compound (the blend of aromatic materials) suspended in alcohol.

    Parfum or Extrait is the most concentrated form of fragrance, often referred to as ‘pure perfume’. There is around 20-30% perfume compound in alcohol, but since there isn’t much water included, they don’t smell ‘strong’. They have incredible longevity, and are very delicate, since they focus mostly on the long lasting base notes of the fragrance. The most sublime and decadent way of wearing perfume.

    Eau de Parfum is the typical strength most female fragrances come in. This means anywhere between 12-20% perfume compound in alcohol, and the composition will be focused around heart and base notes.

    Eau de Toilette is more often used in masculine fragrance, but as also as a more tonic way of wearing perfume. There can be between 7-12% perfume in alcohol in an eau de toilette, or even more in some cases! Eaux de Toilette are focused on top and heart notes, so often smell ‘stronger’ at first than an Eau de Parfum.

    Eau de Cologne is the lightest form of fragrance, with around 2-5% perfume, and is generally worn in summer with very tonic fragrances. They evaporate very quickly and as a result have a cooling effect.

    The ‘strength’ of the fragrance doesn’t always mean that it will last longer, as this is down to the composition of the fragrance and the materials used as much as it is the amount of perfume in the final product. Some Eau de Toilette can last longer than some Eau de Parfum, and some Eau de Parfum may smell more intense at the opening than other Eau de Toilette. It all depends on the perfumer’s intention.

    If one fragrance is available in several different concentrations, then each version will be a different formulation to achieve the effect desired of an Eau de Toilette (more diffusive, fresh), Eau de Parfum (richer, diffusive), or Parfum (warmer, delicate) – and you should smell all of them to make sure you are buying the version you love!

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