Perfume is clouded with pretension, prohibitive prices and high-gloss ad campaigns, but everyone still needs a scent. That invisible self portrait that leaves an indelible mark; a wispy, mysterious trail that becomes part of your personal legend.
The scent you love could be as basic as a dab of patchouli oil or as complex as a bottle of Joy.
The pleasure dwells in the fact that it’s yours. Cleopatra understood this concept — practically doping Mark Antony with incense, waxed perfume and essential oils at every one of her grand banquets.
Marilyn Monroe told the world she slept in nothing but Chanel No. 5 and a million mid-century moms followed suit.
The perfumes most of our mothers wore were classics. Today the marketplace is much more aggressive, diverse and mercurial. Confronted with so much choice, you want a scent that doesn’t smell like it fell out of a magazine (remember Giorgio?) and you want a perfume that is appealing but appropriate (don’t try Fracas at the board meeting).
Above all, you don’t need to be intimidated or swayed by the charm of packaging or the daunting displays in department stores. The first and best tool to lead you out of the maze is your nose.
Every perfume is constructed of three notes; the top note, the heart note and the base and these are arranged according to how the scent disperses. The top note is your first impression and lasts about a minute. The heart note is the body of the perfume. And the base note is the way a scent lingers and rounds off at edges. To love all three you have to live with a perfume on your skin and take into consideration the seasons (summer suits a lighter scent because of the way we perspire), the oil level of your skin (darker complexions hold a scent whereas dry skins need more) and the magic of your own chemistry.
Some perfumes are compelling but unwearable. I love the idea of smelling like a Zen Buddhist (NU by Yves Saint Laurent) or a cookie factory in a Colombian rain forest (Jungle L’Elephant by Kenzo) but can’t do it day to day.
To find a perfume worth committing to, Jan Moran, the author of “Fabulous Fragrances II” (Crescent House Publishing), recommends sampling only four perfumes with each outing and getting scent samples out of a department store and into the elements and your own lifestyle to see if it fits.
Her book and Michael Edward’s “Fragrances of the World” (both available from www.fabulousfragrances.com) give the skinny on why we are attracted to specific scents and what groups they belong to.
Moran concentrates on the luscious history behind famous perfumes and Edwards provides a color- coded guide linking 2,695 individual fragrances to 12 basic scent categories.
It seems ambitious to apply a system to something as personal as smell, but perfume is part poetry and part science. If you are drawn to Arpege, First and Chanel no.5 you are responding to the soft florals created by substances that are found naturally in rose and citrus oils and used synthetically to create a powdery, almost charred, soft floral. Flip through Edwards book before you go the perfume counter and you are armed with the knowledge of 12 perfume categories (spanning from citrus and oceanic notes to incense and oriental resins), and the thousands of Fragrance finds fragrances that correspond with them. Like a personality test, the Perfume Wheel system tells you clearly which specific notes attract you and why.
Women who want to smell like lemonade and bleached bed sheets (Cristalle, Aqua Di Parma Colonia, cK ONE) are citrus lovers. Women who love heady, candied, almost plum-pudding scents (Boudoir, Bal a Versailles, Poeme) are classical Floral Oriental types.
FIND THE PERFECT PERFUME: 7 TIPS
- Be bold! Hound the cosmetic counters for a sample spray a day until you find what you want.
- Make a list of your favorite scents no matter how obscure (white chocolate fudge, sea spray, cut grass, peaches, sugared almonds) and look for them in a perfume.
- Go retro. Many of the greatest scents were designed between 1900 and 1945. Faithful to the original recipes, perfumes like Joy (1930) and Mitsouko (1919) have tremendous intensity, luxurious layers and earthy naturalism.
- Ignore packaging. A scent may come in ugly bottle or a granny box. Set the trend by wearing an unadvertised perfume.
- Search while you travel. The smaller apothecaries in Europe (Penghalion’s in London, Santa Maria Novella in Florence) have great little known scents. Markets in the Caribbean, Morocco and North Africa also sell rare oils and perfumes.
- When you find your true love, invest in parfum rather than cheaper dilutions, especially in winter when the dry air evaporates the scent.
- Buy small and build a seasonal fragrance wardrobe. Perfume lasts up to 18 months and longer when tightly sealed. Put your winter scents in the fridge during summer and try lighter less serious “accessory” scents such as Aqua Allegoria by Guerlain that comes in everything from grapefruit to violet.
If you can’t smell your signature perfume anymore you may have olfactory fatigue. Refrigerate your favorite and try something new.