A Beginner’s Guide To Perfume: How to Train Your Nose, Learn Your Perfume Profile, & More

Most of you who post regularly on my site are hard-core perfume addicts already, but a large number of readers are not “fume heads” and just lurk, feeling out of their depth. Perfume is a world that they are intrigued by, but it’s a little alien to them, and they are unsure of where to begin or how. It all seems very complicated and somewhat overwhelming! I’m sure they wonder how on earth people can even smell half the things that perfume bloggers detect or write about. And I’m even more certain that the perfume world seems far, far too expensive to get addicted to in the way that one can get obsessed with nail varnish, makeup, or books. So, this post is for all you quiet lurkers and perfume newbies — a way to reassure that you can not only learn easily, not only train your nose, but also, enter the world of perfume without going (totally) broke.

I would start with the best, most succinct “How To” guide that I’ve read on the subject: “How to Make Perfume Hobby Affordable and More Fun.” It is written by Victoria at Bois de Jasmin, and is well worth the read. I will emphasize a few of her points which I will post, out-of-order, because I think they are key. And, in addition, I will provide a number of my own suggestions and tips.

SMELL THE WORLD AROUND YOU:

Victoria’s fifth point is one which I would begin with if you are completely new to perfume and/or want to train your nose.

5. Smell Things Around You

If you are motivated to learn more about scents, smell aromatic things around you–herbs, teas, coffees, chocolate, olive oil, mangoes piled up at the grocery store.  Many perfumers come from a family of fragrance professionals, mostly because they are taught to use their nose at an early age. You may not have an arsenal of essential oils and perfumery materials, but if you can just sniff fruits or spices as you shop, you will not only hone your nose like a professional, you will end up with better produce on your table.

Open your spice cabinet and sniff cinnamon, allspice or vanilla extract. You need not order an expensive sample of Lorenzo Villoresi Piper Nigrum if you have black pepper in your kitchen. Crush the peppercorns and smell the bright top notes. Notice how they smell citrusy and cool. Then sniff them 10 minutes later to notice the woody-smoky nuances.  The scent of spices is as complex as that of any perfume, and most of your favorite fragrances probably use a spice  or two in their formulas.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of her point. Go out and smell the most basic things around you. If you’re at the park with your child, pick up some earth and smell what it’s like when moist or dry. That earthy smell is something that is often in perfumes, whether as the dry-down finish to patchouli, musk or other elements. If you’re walking by some flowers — like irises — or near some pine trees, go up and give them a whiff. Close your eyes, deeply inhale, and try to mark the aroma in your mental “Scent Library.”

Then, of course, there is the whole world available to you in your kitchen or supermarket. Check out what cardamom, coriander or pink pepper smells like.

spicemarket3

Turkish Spice Market
Source: Stefani’s Blog
http://blog.stephanijoy.com/?p=58

Try roasting some of the spices to see how the aroma may progress or change. Take a bottle of Cinnamon, All-Spice or Cloves, give it a whiff and then try putting on a dash on your wrist where your pulse point may bring out the heat. See how your body chemistry impacts the smell, especially over the course of an hour (or four). Cumin is in a lot of richer, more spicy perfumes, and you may be surprised to see how it works on your actual skin and how the smell can change over time. That earthy smell can be very similar to the “skank” that perfume bloggers often talk about.

At the risk of sounding like a completely deranged loon, I would also recommend trying some other simple exercises:

  • If you’ve bought a new leather purse, smell the inside. That soft note of suede or
    Source: Fragrantica

    Source: Fragrantica

    leather is in a lot of perfumes, whether vanilla niche ones like Tom of Finland from Etat Libre d’Orange or in more mass-market perfumes like Ralph Lauren‘s Polo. You may want to also compare the smell of your new purse to that of an old leather jacket, leather gloves, or suede purse to see you can detect differences in the leather.

  • Next time you go to IKEA or a furniture store, stop by the wooden chest of drawers, open them and give the inside a whiff. So many perfumes nowadays have wood notes and — while you may not have access to things like the agarwood in Oud or to sandalwood — you can train your nose to pick up wood notes, even if they’re fresh and light ones.
  • Next time you’re cooking, take out a lemon, grapefruit or orange, and slice open
    Lemon ZestSource: Lovely Little Things blogspot

    Lemon Zest
    Source: Lovely Little Things blogspot

    the skin. Smell it when it’s just fresh and zingy, and compare the smell to that of the pulp inside. The oils in the rind should make a difference in the way the note translates: either more bitter, more zesty, more concentrated or more aromatic.

  • I would do the same thing for peaches, one of the more popular fruits used in perfumes. Smell the flesh and imprint its notes in your memory.
  • Smell fresh plums, and compare the scent to those of dried prunes. Then, compare both aromas to that of raisins. Can you detect the differences?
  • If you go to an Indian restaurant and order a curry or pilau rice dish, take a few moments to just sniff it with your eyes closed. See if you can detect any cardamom, cumin or coriander in the curry. The rice may well have saffron in it and, for those of you who don’t have saffron in your kitchens, it will enable you to become familiar with a note that is increasingly common in perfumes.
  • Rum & Coke, next to a hand-made "Rum & Coke" soap from Aromaholic.net (click on the photo for the link.)

    Rum & Coke, next to a hand-made “Rum & Coke” soap from Aromaholic.net (click on the photo for the link.)

    Are you celebrating a birthday or anniversary with champagne? Is Rum & Coke one of your favorite drinks? Do you ever buy rum raisin ice cream? Then smell it. Champagne’s fizzy notes are often repeated in perfumes, especially those with aldehydes. And rum is frequently used in many, many gourmand scents. (It’s in so many that, sometimes, I feel as though I should just have a category for “Boozy Rum Perfumes!”)

  • Do you ever go to a garden nursery to buy plants, out to the countryside, or to a farm? If so, use those opportunities to give a sniff to the orchid flower, and particularly, to any trees they may sell, any moss or peat that is lying around, or to any hay. Those green or woody notes are some of the most common bases in perfume!

The point of all this is to show you that it is really easy to train your nose once you are aware of how many perfume notes are all around you.

THE CLASSICS:

Another point that Bois de Jasmin brings up is the importance of the classics. Knowing the classic, legendary “basics” will enable you to better understand modern perfumes — whether niche or mass-market. As the founder of Basenotes put it in a New York Times article about the classic men’s colognes, “They’re like benchmarks — anything that comes after is almost always a direct descendant[.]” The same most definitely applies to women’s perfumes. You may not want to wear Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew or Chanel No. 5, but you should know what they smells like so that you have a reference point. As Victoria explains so well:

3. Hone Your Nose on Classics

I don’t think that anybody needs to have perfume classics in their wardrobe or that you should even like them. But as you dip your toe into the perfume hobby, smell the classics to learn about perfumes that are considered great. The classics available today are often reformulated. Even so, they were created at a time when perfume budgets were large, so even with the reformulations, the quality is often impressive. Though Chanel has reformulated Chanel No 19, it remains a costly formula, and I know of only a few perfumes on the market that cost as much as No 19 to produce.

Even if your local mall is depressing in terms of perfume offerings, I bet that it has Estée Lauder, Lancôme, Chanel and Dior.  Smell Estée Lauder Youth Dew and even as you find it too thick and heavy, notice how its drydown has a warm, chocolate-like sweetness. Or try Dior’s Eau Sauvage, one of the best fresh citrus scents available today.

Don’t feel obligated to love the classics. Revisit them from time to time to see if you find new facets to enjoy, but if you don’t end up in love with Guerlain’s Mitsouko, there are plenty of other perfumes to discover. For instance, I don’t much care for the grand dame Joy (Jean Patou), but if I want to know what an excellent jasmine smells like, Joy is my top choice.

4. Smell Classics Before Diving Headlong into Niche

[...] Another reason you should smell classics is that many pricey niche perfumes are really nothing but dressed up classical ideas. Bond No 9 Scent of Peace = Dolce & Gabbana Light BlueTom Ford Private Blend Bois Rouge = Guerlain Habit RougeAmouage Gold = Madame Rochas. It doesn’t mean that you should prefer Habit Rouge to Bois Rouge, but smelling classics gives you a more informed way of making your choices.

TEST YOUR OWN PERFUMES OR SEPHORA SAMPLES:

One thing I think you should definitely do is bookmark the encyclopedic reference site, Fragrantica. Sign up for a free account so that you can explore as many things as you want, and then look up some of the perfumes you own. To the top right of the page is a big empty space bar where you type in the name of a fragrance. It will pull up a page that lists the perfume’s category, its notes, any relevant background or company information, and commentators’ impressions of the scent.

You know all those samples you get when you order from Sephora? Take one, type in its name in that space on Fragrantica, then read the notes. What I would do is write down the notes on a piece of paper, then put on a generous amount of the perfume. Make sure your skin is clean and has no lingering traces of anything on it. My approach, if I’m testing at the end of the day, is to use unscented baby wipes all over my arms to ensure that I have a clean surface.

Put on MORE perfume than you would if you were going to work; you’re in the safety of your own home and don’t have to worry about your co-workers’ allergy issues. Plus, a greater amount may enable you to detect more notes than if you were to put on a discreet, work-appropriate amount. Dab or spray on both arms, your pulse points, and perhaps at the base of your neck. You should be aware that there is often a difference in how a perfume can smell depending on whether you dab it on or spray. (I think it has something to do with the molecules being aerosolized, if that is a term.)

Once you’ve done all that and have your notepad before you, close your eyes and take a deep whiff of your arm (or wrist). Hopefully, you’ve put perfume on different places on your arm, so you can see how the smell may develop on areas that aren’t pulse points. Personally, though I put perfume in dabs and smears all up and down my arm, I prefer to smell from the area near my bicep. Don’t ask me why, it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s my preferred place.

As you sniff, glance at your list of the perfume’s notes. Do you smell any of the things listed? Is the first thing that you smell something that is listed as a “base” ingredient? If so, don’t worry. If something is in the “base,” that generally just means that the ingredient’s molecules are heavier than the rest so that they will linger on the skin longer. (It’s a bit more complicated than that but that is the gist.) Just because something is listed as a “base” note, doesn’t mean that you will only smell it at the end of a perfume’s development. Plus, skin chemistry can be wonky and can make perfumes differ from person to person. In other words, don’t think your nose is “off” or “wrong” just because you smell something right away that is listed as a “base” or that others smell much later.

As you’re testing out your sample, jot down how the scent may change over time on your skin and any impressions that form in your mind. Compare your experiences with those of others by reading the Fragrantica reviews. That note that you couldn’t quite pinpoint and figure out? Well, someone wrote that they smelled coriander (to give just a hypothetical example). Is that what you smelled? Go to your kitchen cabinet, take out a jar of coriander, smell it and see if that is the note which perplexed you. If it’s not coriander, then it might be one of the ingredients that you’re not familiar with like, for example, labdanum, oppoponax, calone or peru balsam. You may want to read the Fragrantica explanation for that ingredient, or turn to my Glossary of Perfume Terms.

YOUR PERFUME PROFILE:

Doing small exercises like the one above can be a great way not only to train your “nose,” but also to learn about your perfume profile. We all come to perfume from different backgrounds, pasts and perspectives. Did you grow up in a house where most of the women wore powdery scents, fresh scents, or Orientals? Did the men wear citrus-y scents or rich, woody ones? You may be surprised to learn how your childhood experiences can influence your perfume tastes as an adult. But, even if you grew up in a household where fragrance was rarely used, you still have a “perfume profile” (as I call it) today. You just need to learn what kinds of perfumes you are drawn to, because all perfumes have a category. It’s really akin to having a perfume family. Are you a member of that perfume’s clan, or do you prefer another clan? Perhaps you’re a member of a lot of different clans, from fruity-florals to clean-greens and sweet gourmands?

Using Fragrantica to read up about the basics of some of your favorite perfumes will help you discover which perfume category or categories you love best. Take your Thierry Mugler Angel, Narcisco Rodriguez For HerViktor & Rolf Flowerbomb or Dior J’Adore, and see what Fragrantica says. Angel is classified as an Oriental Vanilla; For Her is a “Floral Woody Musk;” Flowerbomb is categorized as a Floral Oriental; J’Adore is a Fruity Floral. I don’t always agree with Fragrantica’s categories but it’s really just an issue of semantics; as a whole, it’s a fantastic way to start learning about your perfume profile and what sorts of things you generally like. Remember though, you’re not locked in stone in some categories, and you should always give something a test sniff to see if there is an exception to the rule.

Reading up on your favorite perfumes is useful for another reason: it will let you know if there are any notes that you’re particularly drawn to. A blog friend who has a lovely fashion blog, Style My Dreams, recently read my review of Chanel‘s Sycomore, had a light-bulb moment and went to look up some of her perfumes on Fragrantica. As she wrote to me, she suddenly realised many of her favorite perfumes had Vetiver in them! Do any of your favorites have a common note that you never realised before? It may help you to learn if you do, especially when reading perfume notes in the future.

OK, I’VE DONE ALL THAT. NOW WHAT?

Once you’ve trained your nose a little, learnt what family of perfumes you prefer, and given a sniff to some of the classics at your local department store, the next step is niche perfumes. But they’re not cheap, and you won’t find them in your local Macy’s or Sephora. A large number won’t even be available at Saks, Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom! What I would do is: read some blog reviews, see what tempts you, and then hit the sample sites. These fragrances are far too expensive and, in some cases, edgy for you to risk a blind purchase. Plus, you never know how something will develop on your skin. What it smells like in the ten minutes may not be how it ends up after three hours or even six hours. So, buy samples first!

You have a number of different options. Places like Surrender to Chance (my personal favorite and choice, due to the lower shipping cost), LuckyscentThe Perfumed CourtAedes, and The Posh Peasant all offer samples of niche perfumes that may not be otherwise accessible to you. And Surrender to Chance ships worldwide for a really reasonable $5.95 on most international orders! (It’s a little bit higher if you’re ordering over $75 of perfume samples, but it’s still something decent like $7.95.) Within the US, you really can’t beat their $2.95 shipping rate on any and all orders, big or small.

[UPDATE - 4/5/13 - I have a long list of suggested sampler sets available at Surrender to Chance listed in this post here. There are links to beginners' introductory scents, samplers by house, and a number of different sets based on a single perfume note (i.e., vanilla, amber, rose, etc.). I hope that helps. Also, you should know that Surrender to Chance has increased its international shipping prices due to giant hikes by the U.S. Postal Service for all international packages. Surrender to Chance is now $12.95 for all international orders below $150, and a little bit higher for orders above that amount.]

In Europe, there is First-in-Fragrance and Suendhaft. In the UK, you can order samples from Les Senteurs. In Paris, Jovoy is a mecca for haute niche perfumes, and I’ve read that they’re happy to send you home with samples if you’re unsure of a fragrance.

There is also eBay. You’d be surprised how many people want to sell off their perfume samples — in all sizes and amounts. From Chanel to Amouage, Serge Lutens and European niche exclusives, it’s all there. I’ve been lucky to get some great deals on perfume samples on eBay, though it’s best to have a general idea of the prices for certain brands on the regular sample sites first. On a few occasions, some of the samples I’ve obtained on eBay have actually been priced much better — for the rarity and amount — than the pricing on places like Surrender to Chance.

The eBay mobile app is a particularly convenient way to save searches and be notified of new additions. For me, I find it easier and more manageable than even the regular email notifications you can get on your computer. I have searches set up by brand and, also, by general category (like “niche perfume samples”). I personally opt for sellers who are in the US, but I have friends who have scored some great deals for Tom Ford from overseas sellers. Just be aware that the UK has some new postal restrictions pertaining to perfume so, if you’re a US reader, I would stick to domestic sellers.

SWAPS, SPLITS & PERFUME GROUPS:

Another affordable way to buy expensive perfumes is to join a group of fellow perfume fanatics. These groups will either let you swap samples with other members or give you the chance to buy a large decant of a perfume. Let’s say that you’ve spent your $3.99 on a sample vial, know you love the perfume, but just refuse to pay $300 for a full bottle. Well, there are groups who will buy that big bottle, and split it between members. The size of the splits can vary — anywhere from 5 ml to 10, 15, 20 and larger. I will be honest and say that I’ve never personally joined in a split — yet — and something about it terrifies me a little, but it’s supposed to be an incredibly easy method that a LOT of perfume addicts use. All you really need is a Paypal account.

Basenotes has a whole forum devoted solely to perfume splits. There is also the lovely Facebook group called Facebook Fragrance Friends which has over a 1,000 members from all over the world, from Singapore to Poland, from Brazil to the U.S. and Canada. I’m part of it, and I think it’s an incredibly fun place to hang out and talk about perfume in general. They are generous people who will often say, “Oh, I have a sample of that. I’d be happy to send it to you.” Plus, members have splits for every kind of perfume imaginable.

GO EXPLORE:

I hope some of these tips have been useful. My goal was for you to know that perfume is not some terrifying, alien world that is just too complicated and too expensive for you to explore. We all start somewhere! You may not think you have a “nose,” but you might be surprised! Perhaps you’ve just never really thought about what you’re smelling, or put it in a context that your mind understands. I think we all know what peaches or pine trees smell like but, sometimes, we just don’t have the words to describe what our minds already know. If you set out to train your nose a little, the connection between your mind, your memory of already-catalogued scents, and your nose will become stronger.

The main thing to remember is that perfume is supposed to be a fun trip. It enables you to go visit the forests of Peru, the spice markets of Istanbul or Marrakesh, or the exotic isles of Malaysia. It can take you back in time to the dressing rooms of the Moulin Rouge in the 1880s; to the world of the Cossacks on the icy Siberian steppes of Tsarist Russia; or to the rich, wood-paneled library of Downton Abbey where aristocratic lords smoked cheroots in big leather armchairs. Where you go is up to you. But go explore!

[UPDATE -- 10/30/13 -- For those of you who have found this posting because you wanted to learn how to become a professional in this field, you may be interested in an article I wrote about the life of a trained nose," Viktoria Minya. It covers where she went to school, what she studied, the impact of IFRA/EU restrictions, the basics of essential/raw ingredients used in creating perfumes, and more.]