Some things are impossible to describe. Smell for example. But fragrance is a huge multinational business worth billions. So with so much at stake it is necessary to try. There have been various schemes put forward over the years but they all rely on the same basic idea.
You first divide the components into three notes. The top notes are the ones that strike you first. These are very volatile, so they reach the receptors in your nose quickly. But they don’t last all that long – maybe a few minutes. Then you get the middle notes. These last for perhaps a few hours. In the end all that are left are the base notes. These can still be there the next day sometimes. Top, middle and base notes don’t just describe the length of time the smell impression lasts. Top notes are fresher and lighter, while base notes feel deeper and heavier.
Perfumers then classify the different scents into four fragrance families –
Those four are sufficient for most classic eau de toilette style fine fragrances. But they don’t stretch to cover some novelty ones, nor to all fragrances used to scent personal care and cosmetic products. There is absolutely no consensus on how to handle these, but handled they must be so terms get bandied about a fair bit. Food smells for example are often used. There are quite a few products that have chocolate smells for example. There is also a category called fantasy which seems to mean any fragrance that doesn’t fit into any other recognisable group.
Aquatic crops up from time to time, though it only ever seems to get applied to products that have some connection to water.
But lets stick to the agreed groupings and have a look at each of them in turn.
Floral is self explanatory, and includes the three classic notes rose, lavender and jasmine. There aren’t many subdivisions of this group in terms of different types of floral notes, but there are plenty of different scents which tend to have a particular flower in mind. Rose fragrances vary enormously but all have a certain ‘rosiness’ in common. Other flowers don’t match the appeal of roses but are still popular. Lily of the valley, often known by its French name of muguet for example.
Woody notes are reminiscent of the smell of freshly sawn wood. The best known woody fragrance is sandalwood, though it also applies to other exotic woods like cedar and oud. This family of smells is often associated with men’s fragrances, though it isn’t out of place in some very feminine blends too.
Fresh is sometimes called green. It’s that note that picks you up and makes you smile. Cut grass is fresh. Mint is fresh. It’s a very popular component of mass market cleaning products like shampoos and hand washes. Chemically, a lot of long chain alcohols can give a very fresh smell.
Oriental fragrances are warm, spicy and rather heady – ethereal even. The oriental family isn’t just composed of eastern oils like cinnamon and clove though. It also has quite an ambery subtext too giving it a rich well rounded character.
Well that at any rate is a very quick, very broad brush introduction to the subject. I know that scent is a very subjective area and that there are other ways of looking at it. If you are interested in this subject, there is a lot more you can delve into. Indeed if you are looking for a career, this is an area that you can easily make a good living from.