DECODING THE ENIGMA: THE FRAGRANCE PYRAMID

If the flamboyant and promising title caught your interest, it is because not many people know just how exactly a fragrance pyramid works. You might have read that it’s a tool to decipher how perfumes smell, from the opening “top notes”, which evaporate first, to the core (the “heart notes”) and the longer lasting phase of the “base notes”, but, truth is, you’re only half way there. Our short guide aims to fill in the blanks, as well as reboot the information, so you may gain a better grasp of how fragrances are built.

First of all, despite these pyramid guidelines, perfumers rarely work with ingredients in tiers of three. This is especially the case nowadays when synthetic materials are offering new possibilities, and greater efficacy in matters of stability and diffusion.

Historically the structuring into top, heart and bottom notes, taking the shape of a pyramid, is an educational tool devised by Jean Carles. Working in the first half of the 20th century, Carles was famous for such marvels as the original post-WWII Miss Dior, Carven’s Ma Griffe and Tabu by Dana. Jean Carles was almost rendered anosmic at the climax of his career. Drawing parallels to that of a deaf Beethoven, Carles solidified a system that would allow young perfumers and evaluators to devise and decode complex chemical structures into olfactory effects that would be easy to grasp. Furthermore, they would be easy to communicate to others without the need for a chemistry degree. To that end, he compiled lists of ingredients of natural and synthetic origin into groups, according to their volatility, and how well they go together. He also took account of something that is called chirality in chemistry. Simply put, like a right hand glove does not fit a left hand, being identical but not super-imposable, some molecules are identical yet mirrored opposites, thus their odour and intensity is different when interacting with other molecules. The pyramid system simplified that notion too.


When we smell a fragrance, the more volatile components are felt first. This is what the opening of the “bouquet” offers us, much like a good bottle of wine breathing before being actually tasted. The more robust components are emerging later on, while the most tenacious, molecules of great molecular size, are lingering on skin and clothing for hours, or even days after application. Some molecules of all the ingredients evaporate all the time, of course.

Our nose is attuned to perceiving the most angular, sharpest effects first, but it can be ‘numbed’ by molecules too large and complex to be deciphered in the brain. Musk components are an example of the latter, which is why many people seem to have partial anosmia to some musk types, or violet notes (often used in powdery scents). To avoid that, most perfumers use an array of them in a formula, so as to bypass that hindrance and score olfactory perception by all consumers at all times. So everyone’s happy, right?

The nose is a complex organ, being the only part of the body where nerves are directly exposed to the environment. Therefore, mechanisms for survival and endurance have dictated our path into the perception of smells. The brain is alerted to volatile, sharp scents, and to unusual scents, first, serving as a wake up call for danger or of eminent presence. We can smell the tangy feel of lemon before tasting it. We can also perceive the foul odour of spoiled food before putting it into our mouth, protecting us from food poisoning. The same preventive signals apply to smoke (there’s fire nearby, better run!) and chlorine (it’s a poison!). This is exactly the reason that a sulfurous ‘rotten egg’ scent is added to the naturally odourless domestic gas supply so that we are quickly able to detect any dangerous leaks.

In perfume lingo, this ‘protective jolt’ would encompass all citrusy scents, sharp and bitter scents like artemisia, galbanum, oakmoss, clary sage, and green violet leaf. In addition, there are a cluster of spices and herbs that produce hot and cold effects: clove, cinnamon, fennel, mint, cardamom and the like. You may see these notes as top notes in a given pyramid, but they’re not always technically “top notes”, i.e. quickly evaporating. Oakmoss, (or its synthesized analogues) is a good example of the opposite. It serves as a lingering base note in anchoring the formula, for better lasting power on the skin, though it can be felt from the very beginning; case in point, modern compositions such as Nomade by Chloe. Therefore the pyramid does not necessarily reflect the way perfumers work, but how the maker presents his ideas and desired effects to the public, how scents emanate from the bottle into our personal bubble.

To revert to the way our nose works, the bright and vivacious smelling notes of fruits and flowers are a call to our noses to gear down and enjoy; they’re just the right size to fit into our personal nose Velcro, and they do not raise our adrenaline when inhaling like sharp and jolting notes do. Most often you will see them in the centre of a composition, when the synergy of the introduction and main theme produce a smile on our face; it’s like when listening to a well known opera, the first aria is a welcome message “we’ve arrived” writ large.

The larger, less volatile components can be traditional sticky gums and resins of plant origin, like labdanum, tolu balsam, peru balsam, et al, which entail lots of mixing on the part of the perfumer in order to dissolve. Or they can be sophisticated amber-woody and musk materials, such as Ambroxan, Cashmeran, Habanolide and Cosmone, among others, that aid diffusion of the other notes. They’re seemingly coming and going, imperceptible at one moment, and very perceptible the next. Not always are they named with their proper patented names, much less their full chemical names; they’d mean very little to the consumer. Rather their effect is described as blonde woods, cashmere, musk, amberwood and the like, to better give an idea of how they feel when smelled. Therefore there is also an element of putting one’s imagination into this deciphering game. Our vocabulary borrows words from tactile adjectives, visual cues as well as from taste in order to describe smells.

Perfumers most often work in a rather different manner, nevertheless. They choose materials that provide a strong structure; usually two materials that work well together enhancing each others qualities, or they’re juxtaposed, and then they work around them adding accents and modifiers in order to achieve the artist effect they had in mind. For example patchouli makes rose seemingly fresher and moister, full of the ambience of the garden. Evernyl (a mossy note), which is inky-earthy, and bergamot, an elegant greenish citrus, contrast to give a cerebral effect at the core of Chypre fragrances. This harmonious blend of two or three notes is called an “accord”. The basic accord in any given fragrance is telling of its character. A classification into fragrance families will give you an idea, but it can also be hinted during the description of any given fragrance in the press communication of brands. When you see a fruity floral including a gourmand accord, you know that it’s a basic component of the formula, and you’re bound to be smelling a scent of pure indulgence, reminiscent of dessert.

There is no substitute for the hands-on testing of a fragrance yourself, but with knowledge of how things work, you’re now better equipped to understand just how your favourite perfumer is making that heavenly mixture that you adore.

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