A fragrance obsessive’s guide
Today’s post might be a girl’s only zone. But guys: if you are thinking of buying your gal a great perfume, then read on. And if you want to know what I think are great scents for men, keep reading. I’ve had a number of emails asking me to list what I consider the best perfumes. I’ve blogged many times on the loss of classic perfumes, which have been sacrificed on the altar of designer and celebrity brand smells (I refuse to call them perfumes). Go here and here for a refresher.
Before going on: remember, I am not a “nose” and am self-taught. I’m just someone whose grandmother used to own a perfume shop in 1950s Sydney and whose mother was equally obsessed with the world of scent. So I grew up surrounded by classic perfumes from Caron, Robert Piguet, Jean Desprez – and I’ve had a life-long love for the elegant, subtle smells of iris, honeysuckle, mimosa, rose, gardenia and sandalwood. I cannot imagine walking out the door without a spray of scent. Sadly, many of my favourites have been discontinued or worse – reformulated and are shadows of their former selves. And mostly we are left today with scents that are identical crappy smells. You need to avoid the perfume counters of department stores with the dolly birds standing there, ready to shove a small card drenched in some awful stench under your nose. You should not listen to the marketing hype or believe that wearing Beckham after shave will turn you into David Beckham. It might take yeeeeeaaaarrrs to find the perfume that you totally fall in love with. There are SO many perfumes being launched these days; it’s confusing I know. Don’t be afraid: experiment and play. Above all girls – don’t believe that you should smell like a flower. Try a perfume that is not floral.
But first, we need to start off by understanding that perfume is a highly complex combination of natural, essential oils from plants and synthetic chemicals (such as coumarin, vanillin, heliotropin, ionines, hedione etc). These materials are dissolved in alcohol and water (known as the solvent). It is the ratio of solvent to scented perfume concentrate that gives perfume strength. You should always aim to buy parfum (aka perfume, extract or extrait perfume) as it is the strongest – usually 25% or higher concentrate. Parfum will last the longest but it is also the most expensive. Next, you have Eau de Parfum (or EdP), which is around 15-18% concentrate. It lasts well and is not as expensive as parfum. The weaker concentrates are: Eau de Toilette (or EdT), which is around 10% concentrate or lower and Eau de Cologne, which is basically the same as EdT but often lighter. So Golden Rule #1 is try and afford the Parfum or Eau de Parfum as it’s more bang for your buck. Because it has stronger concentrations of perfume oils, you need less (so don’t drench yourself) and in the long run you will save money.
Golden Rule #2 is know your taxonomy of perfumes as I call it. I’m sure perfumers have a better name – probably fragrance families or something. I know there have been some changes to the taxonomy over the years, but the basics are:
Orientals – usually heavy, sensual, exotic, dramatic, warm, spicy scents with sandalwood often being a key ingredient. They were quite popular in the 1980s with Opium by Yves Saint Laurent being a good example. I would also include as Orientals to give you an idea: Balahe by Leonard; Cinnabar by Estee Lauder; Tocade by Rochas; Dune by Christian Dior; and Angel by Thierry Mugler (I describe this as a vanilla Oriental).
Floral – not my favourite category I’m afraid but certainly I’d say the most popular because, for some reason unknown to me, women want to smell like flower beds. Believe it or not, florals used to be masculine perfumes (I think in the 19th Century) but now women have taken over. A floral can be a bouquet of different flowers, where individual flowers complement each other or one flower can dominate. An example of the domination of one flower would be Michael Kors’ Michael, which is drenched in tuberose (my personal opinion is that this is one of the most horrid of scents – the tuberose knocks you over).
Chypre (pronounced sheep-r and French for Cyprus) – woody, mossy scents that can include leather or fruity notes. Hints of patchouli and bergamot are often in chypres. This category was named after the feminine fragrance by Coty called ‘Chypre’ in 1917. Examples of chypres would be Guerlain’s Mitsouko (gorgeous!), Balmain’s Jolie Madame, Insense by Givenchy, Alliage by Estee Lauder.
Fougere or Ferns (Fougere is the French word for fern) – this category was named after the discontinued fragrance by Houbigant called Fougere Royale (Royal Fern) which was the first fougere fragrance. Fougeres are popular with men due to their fresh, woodland smell. The key essential oils in fourgeres are lavender, coumarin and oakmoss. Examples: Brut by Faberge; Tabac Blond by Caron; Paco Rabanne Pour Homme.
Citrus – as the name suggests, scents with citrus notes such as lemon, orange, tangerine, grapefruit, bergamot. They are fresh and invigorating with examples being Cristalle by Chanel; Diorella by Dior; Eau Sauvage by Dior.
Now we get to Golden Rule #3 – understanding that there are different layers to a perfume: top, middle and bottom notes. The top notes are light and are what you first smell when you spray a perfume, usually lasting for 5-10 minutes. Middle notes emerge about 15 minutes after spraying and last for maybe a couple of hours. Bottom notes are the heavier ingredients and can last for many hours. This is why it is important not to spray around a perfume in a department store, sniff and buy. You have to let it settle onto your skin; walk away and see what it’s like several hours later.
Golden Rule #4 – and this is controversial so you might disagree. My grandmother always had perfumes in those crystal bottles with the bulb. I think that wastes perfume because a lot of the scent goes out into the air when you spray the bulb thing. Whatever you do, DON’T spray a perfume onto your wrists, then rub it in madly because it heats up the perfume. Just spray onto wrists and that’s that. You can (if you must) lightly dab your wrists together. I also think the old-fashioned thing of spraying the scent into the air and then walking under it is a waste of perfume.
So now that we have a good understanding of all things perfume, here is my list of the classic fragrances for women that I have loved and wear. Some are hard to get; others I suspect have been reformulated as they just don’t smell the same as I remember. I will also throw in some scents for men as I’ve had a few guys email me for suggestions. The list is in no particular order but I’ll start off with the one I tend to wear most, I guess because my grandmother and mother also included it in their perfume wardrobe – so it’s a smell I’ve long known and loved.
Fracas by Robert Piguet. Not an easy perfume to lay your hands on (at least not in Australia). This perfume first appeared in 1948 and is an example of a perfume that contains tuberose, but not the headache inducing concoction that Michael Kors’ Michael has. The tuberose works in perfect harmony with iris, jasmine, gardenia, lily of the valley, orange, rose and neroli. It was created by perfumer Germaine Cellier and disappeared I think in the 1980s. It re-emerged in the 1990s and I guess is a re-creation of Cellier’s formula. Most perfumers and perfume houses keep their formulations top secret squirrel and sadly many great fragrance “recipes” have been lost. Ladies, Fracas is not for the shrinking violets amongst us. I think it takes a woman of confidence to wear it. Someone who is not afraid to be individual, quirky or bold. Someone with a flair for the dramatic. It’s a sexy fragrance ladies!
Parfum Sacre by Caron. This has a wonderful peppery rose smell, with hints of jasmine, vanilla, coriander and clove. I’m not sure if this has been reformulated. (The House of Caron was founded in 1904 by Ernest Daltroff but is now owned by another company I think or is part of some perfume group). I don’t think that Parfum Sacre has been messed with (as Guerlain perfumes have been messed with). Narcisse Noir by Caron was another favourite. Created in 1911 it is based on Persian black narcissus, orange blossom, petitgrain, lemon, rose, jasmine and jonquil. I say WAS a favourite because I think this has been messed with. I have an old crystal bottle of Narcisse Noir from my grandmother and the bottle I bought recently doesn’t seem to be the same dark, dramatic, punchy perfume.
Angel by Thierry Mugler – one of the few “modern” perfumes I like and wear. I remember when this was launched in the mid-1990s; I was stunned by it. Gorgeous, although I did worry if I was going to smell like chocolate or a piece of candy floss. You have to wait for it to settle. I don’t like all the other versions – Angel Innocent, Angel Rose and so on. Stick with the original with its chocolate, vanilla, caramel, berries, honey, patchouli and bergamot. It’s a fragrance to love or hate. I do worry that it’s worn by too many women these days but it is a masterpiece in a very stylish star-shaped bottle.
Feminite du Bois by Shiseido. This perfume was created by Serge Lutens whose Ambre Sultan I also love and wear. It has notes of cedarwood, orange blossom, rose, cardamon, cinnamon, plum and honey. US readers: I don’t think you can get it in the States. I buy it in Europe.
Baghari by Robert Piguet. Created in 1950 and reissued. I’m not sure how close to the original this is but it’s gorgeous. It’s a bit powdery, which put me off at first, but now that I wear it often, I love the notes of iris and jasmine that emerge once the perfume settles in.
Noir Epices by Frederic Malle. A great friend of mine was forced to pick up a bottle of this in New York for me. But now, thank goodness, Frederick Malle fragrances are available in Oz. Noir Epices is French for black spices so the name tells you that it is a heady concoction of pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. No, you don’t end up smelling like a spice rack because it has dark, rosy notes. What a spicy fire this perfume is. I also count Le Parfum de Therese by Malle as a favourite too. The great perfumer, Edward Roudnitska, created this for his wife in the 1950s or 60s and was only allowed to be released after his death.
Chinatown by Bond No 9. Girls, men will literally stop you and ask what this perfume is. It’s a truly stunning concoction of peach blossom, bergamot, peony, gardenia, tuberose, orange blossom, patchouli, cardamom, vanilla and sandalwood. Rush to the perfume store now! I also wear Broadway Nite by Bond No 9 (a plucky New York perfume house – who knew the Yanks could make perfume but to be honest, the house was established by a French perfumer who’s lived in NYC for ages).
These are my favourites but I could list a number of others that are also up there at the top of the list. Another post. And then there is a dazzling array of Arabian perfume oils I’ve recently discovered. Yet another post!
Loves of the past that have disappeared or just aren’t the same:
Zibelene by Weil. Yes, it’s still available but I cannot be fooled on this one. This was my mother’s MOST favoured of scents and I very well remember it and the amazing bath oil. The Zibeline you can find on online perfume websites is not the same. I bought one and nearly died. It’s a wimpy relic of the former stunner.
Antelope by Weil. Same thing.
Panthere by Cartier (1987). I’m not sure about this. I have a bottle from the late 1980s that is locked up. I have been told it’s discontinued but I’ve also been told it has been reformulated many times, so the vintage one I have is probably the original scent and I’m hanging onto it.
Cabochard by Grès. Blah! Reformulated and a sad relic IMHO.
Iris Gris. How sad this perfume has gone. It’s from the 1940s and my grandmother wore it. I scour the internet for this long-gone beauty. I read somewhere that Guerlain’s Mitsouko is somewhat similar or shares a dominant ingredient. You can still buy perfume bottles from the 1930s, 40s and 50s with remnants of scent in them. As long as they’ve been kept in a dark place, they should still be fine.
And now for the guys. Give up any cologne or after shave that has the word “Water” in it. Drab and boring! Don’t go near anything from a rap artist or sports dude. Here’s what I think will make you smell delicious:
Vetiver by Guerlain
Habit Rouge by Guerlain
Duro by Nasomatto (trust me guys, the ladies will be falling over themselves to get to you if you wear this)
Azzaro pour Homme
And finally, Golden Rule #5 – always remember your perfume should leave a lingering scent behind as you waft out of the room. It should not knock over everybody. It should not compete with the dinner you’re eating and it should not give anyone a headache. I believe the French refer to this as silage. Keep your perfumes in a cool, dark place like a cupboard. I have a specially-built area. Should your perfume be ages old, you might get a whiff of something that smells like nail varnish. This doesn’t mean it’s turned and can’t be used. As long as it has been stored correctly, just spray on your wrists or wherever and let it breathe and settle a bit.
Sooooo…talk to me. What are your favourite female and male scents?