Faced with a hundred different, beautiful bottles, with light-reflecting liquids in pretty colours inside them, makes choosing a fragrance for a gift or for one’s self a daunting experience; a bit like Carrie Bradshaw having to choose one pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes in the designer’s boutique. But it needn’t be. This is where Fragrance Families come to the rescue. Grouped according to common characteristics, fragrances start to become decipherable. Learning that a fragrance you love is classified in a certain family might also help along into sampling more out of the same genre. Like family, they all share comparable DNA.
There are several ways of classifying fragrances, some more complex than others. Most however follow the general plan laid out by La Société Française des Parfumeurs, i.e.the society of French perfumers, which we’re presenting you with in our detailed guide.
There are 8 basic and distinct fragrance families: Citrus, Floral, Oriental, Chypre, Fougere, Woody, Gourmand (a historically newer category) and Leather. We’re also adding one more, Avant Garde, for those ultra-modern compositions that defy classical classifications!
And there are several styles which nuance fragrances within those families: Aldehydic, Animalic, Aquatic, Aromatic, Fruity, Green, and Spicy.
For your ease, we’re explaining Style definitions first, i.e. tonalities that create a vivid impression even to the untrained nose, and then organize fragrances under Fragrance Families.
An invention of the 20th century, this genre was popularised by Coco Chanel, when she challenged the idea of aristocratic ladies smelling like flowers with her iconic Chanel No.5. Aldehydes are synthesized molecules which bring on a fatty, soapy, waxy, and sometimes fruity element to a fragrance, and it was their over-dosage in No.5 which made women, and men, sit up and notice. The term is invariably used in conjunction with floral (look under Floral Aldehydic) and it is somewhat ironic that they’re nowadays considered old-school and too ladylike for their own good. Don’t let that deter you though!
This rather odd construction of a word has come to denote one of two things in perfume lingo. Either that a fragrance is based on the essences traditionally derived by animals (nowadays ethically replicated to smell like the real thing, without harming animals), or that a fragrance pulls on animal magnetism, that mysterious quality that speaks of sex and intimacy. Using materials recalling smells of our own bodies, as well as essences of ambergris (an essence from sperm whales which is found floating on the ocean), civet (an African critter’s genital odour), musk (evoking the prized scent of the Nepalese musk deer) and castoreum (from the reproductive glands of beavers), this a heavy duty genre for serious perfume players. Proceed with caution!
Aquatic became a novel genre and a big hit in the 1990s, with the introduction of New West (Aramis), Acqua di Gio (Armani) and Cool Water (Davidoff), with molecules such as Calone which recall the particular smell of the seascape. The accompanying images left little to the imagination with splayed bodies of surfers being sprayed by the waves. Nowadays aquatic is not only a masculine style, but it can be part of other families, aimed at both sexes. Take a look under Floral and under Woody for instance.
It might sound redundant, since aroma, the root of the word aromatic, refers to scent, yet in perfumery the term gains a subtler and more specific nuance. Aromatic refers to the inclusion of herbal and agrestic elements, like clary sage, sage, basil, rosemary, tomato leaves and other similar notes, which evoke a rustic feeling; like wandering in the open countryside, or cherry-picking from what the French call jardin potager, a kitchen garden.
Lavender is the odd duck out in this group, being aromatic rather than floral, despite being obviously a flower, whose essence is distilled like roses. Its nature, recalling the vast purple fields in the south of France and the outermost extremities of England, where it grows abundantly, possesses an olfactory profile midway amidst the medicinal and the caramelic, and is traditionally associated with the scent of cleanliness thanks to its use in Roman baths and their heritage.
Although citruses are definitely fruits, fruity as a term does not evoke citrusy scents, as these are classified separately. Usually by fruity we mean succulent pulpy fruits such as plums, apricots, peaches, or pears, red fruits and berries of which there are endless varieties, and more tropical ones such as mango, and passion fruit. Typically upbeat, happy and youthful, fruits lend a good natured touch to fragrances and you can find this style under Floral especially, where the Floral Fruity has been a huge hit of the naughties.
The association of green with nature and foliage is not amiss in the Green style of scents. Associated with Floral and Chypre especially, green style compositions replicate the joy of snapped young leaves, freshly cut grass, and the verdant glory of a spring day. They have a sharp, subtly sweet, in a vegetal context, aroma which makes them perfect for warmer weather.
Traditionally associated with the Silk Route, the great trade route of the caravans from China to Istanbul and beyond, during the Middle Ages, spices have captured the imagination of the public for centuries. Their ability to tingle the nostrils, as well as to recall delicious dishes from ethnic cuisines and comfy desserts, such as apple pie, is unsurpassed. You can find pronounced spicy elements in several fragrance families, from Citrus, to Floral, and Oriental.
1. Avant Garde
Although most fragrances have a specified technical classification, there are a few contemporary niche creations which seem to defy that. Consider these the wild card among our selection, crazy stuff that’s daring perceptions and let yourself be guided by sensation alone. In this genre consider the chilling But Not Today (UNUM) and the sweetened woods of Mistpouffer (Stora Skuggan).
Fragrances with a high ratio of volatile notes of fruits with a thick pitted rind, like lemon, orange, bergamot and grapefruit, and the more exotic varietals of pomelo and yuzu, the family of citrus fragrances can also be called Hesperidic. The term comes from the Hesperides, nymphs in Greek mythology who tended the homonym Garden in the western Mediterranean where the end of the ancient world lied. Their precious, golden fruits, were snatched by Hercules, who was ordained to do so in the context of his 12 Labors.
Citrus essences, derived from directly the rind when pressed hard in a mechanical press, form the basic chord of the classic Eau de Cologne (Cologne’s Water). A refreshing and rejuvenating composition with aromatherapy properties and herbal accents, it became famous in the city of Cologne, Germany, hence the name. It was brought there in 1705 by an Italian pharmacist who bestowed the recipe to his siblings and named it after his adopted home town. The recipe still circulates to this day under the name Jean-Marie Farina, the pharmacist’s name, by the French brand Roger & Gallet.
Although Citrus stands for a separate category all its own, there are citrus “notes” scattered in every single Fragrance Family. This is because citruses aid evaporation and give lift to fragrances, making them sparkling, uplifting and combining with other materials to provide unique effects. When paired with lavender and herbal accents they give an agrestic effect. When paired with tree gums and patchouli they lighten the load and make the transition into the heart of the fragrance an easier journey, serving as a bridge to the heavier molecules. When paired with sweet and dense notes of caramel and vanilla, citruses cut the sweetness, so that you and, crucially, people around you, don’t feel like they’re becoming hyperglycaemic.
Nowadays citrus fragrances are light, fresh, invigorating compositions, which are greatly appreciated in the summertime, office wear, and situations when one’s scent should be optimistic and non offensive. Most people react well to citrus, interpreting the scent as simple, happy, joyful. In short, an easy pleasure!
The effervescence of citrus essences lifts the heavier load of a bit of animal essences, such as civet and musk, turning them into simultaneously fresh and sexy scents. The classic example of this genre is Eau d’Hermes composed in the 1950s. Orto Parisi has Bergamask which shades the citruses with musky elements that feel intimate.
The volatile nature of citrus fruits merges well with the typically ephemeral nature of herbal essences and grassy notes from plants. Herbs especially, popular from the kitchen, like basil, rosemary, sage and estragon, marry perfectly with the tart nature of citrus rind extracts, recalling the traditional Eau de Cologne, where they shine best.
Together they give a glorious lift to the composition which instantly creates a feeling of elation and optimism. If you have smelled Colonia Assoluta by Acqua di Parma you know what we’re talking about. From our catalogue Iskander (Parfum d'Empire) is a great example with delicate wisps of herbal touches to enliven further the sunny heart of the composition.
The classic reference for this style is the pomander, a mandarin pierced with cloves, a remnant from the Middle Ages when spices were a precious commodity and such a gift signified wealth and distinction.
Gingembre Latte (Affinessence) is zesty with ginger and lemongrass with a milky, chai-like heart.
Possibly the most mysterious and less known fragrance family of them all. But fear not, if you’re not quite the connoisseur yet; you will be very soon under our expert guidance.
The name chypre (pronounced SHEE-prh) derives from the French word for Cyprus. The island that gave birth to Venus in the Eastern Mediterranean also held the oldest known perfumery making plant, immersed into a countryside that is surrounded by bergamot trees, big oaks with green lichen attached to it, and the bitter-sweet material of labdanum, which is a gum gathered from the rock-rose, a sea-loving wild bush dotting the Mediterranean basin. These three materials therefore form the building blocks of one of the most sophisticated modern fragrance families in history.
There are many different styles within the chypre family, classic to contemporary and in-between, but they all exhibit a certain abstraction. These are fragrances that recall neither plant, nor living or inanimate objects, but only perfume, nothing that might exist beyond perfumery.
Chypres are pretty erotic scents already, in a “turn a screw in the brain” way, due to their complexity. The addition of civet and castoreum, synthesized essences which mimic the pheromones of animals, push the envelope with their audacity. Parfum de Peau (Montana) is infamous for its intensity in that regard.
Older style chypres that aimed at the ladylike mores of the 1950s were usually built on a floral heart of gardenia. Such scents included the iconic Miss Dior from 1947, Christian Dior’s first fragrance. Contemporary specimens are usually dark with patchouli, but still floral in their heart. We recommend Francis Kurkdjian's Promesse de l'Aube (MDCI).
This famous and classical style has utilized a special “base”, a ready-made combination of materials for perfumers, which smelled of prunes and raisins, to make the inky oakmoss in the base smell like peach fuzz. Famously Mitsouko (Guerlain) was the first to become a hit in this genre, and Rush (Gucci) is a modern equivalent, lush and tenacious. Have you tried the iconic Chypre Palatin (MDCI)?
Green Chypre is probably the purest form of chypre scents, since the family stands for greenery growing on a forest's floor in the temperate zone. The addition of intensely green resins, in the form of Iranian galbanum, which smells like freshly tossed green peppers, gives a sharp jolt enlivening the inkier elements of oakmoss in the base. Try Chypre Mousse (Oriza L Legrand) for a mossy, earthy chypre.
When placed in the context of a woody fragrance, the earthy aspects of the chypre are accentuated.
Woody Chypres tend to be powerful and intense fragrances, and can additionally include notes such as vetiver which can be both sharp and woody. We recommend Colonia No 0 from Antica Barbieria Colla with its underlying vetiver and birch notes within a fresh chypre structure.
Self-explained more or less, floral fragrances are based on a basic chord of essence recalling living flowers. The ingredients used are much more complex than pressing flowers inside a book and gathering the “oil” that would come off. In fact, the methods used are so sophisticated, that many scientists in the industry have made an illustrious career out of devising such techniques. Flowers being the mating organs of plants, floral fragrances have long been held as the most romantic perfumes to be offered to the ladies, almost codename for seduction.
The most common type of floral fragrance is the multi-floral composition, which uses several “notes” like a melody made out of rose, jasmine, lily of the valley, hyacinth or mimosa, and other anchoring materials, to render a bouquet. Nevertheless there are also some compositions which aim at capturing the allure and the natural grace of a single flower, using several ingredients to accomplish that. These are called soliflores. There is nothing more difficult than capturing nature’s beauty in action. Jasmin Antique (Rogue) is among those precious exceptions of excellence nevertheless.
The prototype of this genre is Chanel’s No.5 which first gave an over-dosage of aldehydes into a floral composition, making these waxy, synthesized materials hiss like a hot iron on a clean cotton shirt. This gave the characteristic clean and sharp element that these fragrances are famous for. Contemporary fragrances in this style include Sicily (Dolce & Gabbana) and also Marions Nous (Oriza L Legrand).
Typically this is light day wear, perfect for hot weather, or for young people who want something cosy and easy to wear without sweetness. Aqua Divina by Bvlgari falls into this group. Lotus and watery flowers make up a dreamy, serene set for the larger molecules of musk to surface and give tenacity to the scent. Try also Falling into the Sea (Imaginary Authors) with its easy going atmosphere of vacations by the ocean.
Citrus Floral is a lighthearted approach to floral fragrances, brightened and enlivened by the sunny notes of hesperidia. It makes us visualize beautiful citrus trees in full bloom, what the French call citronniers, bigaradiers, orangers... A perfect example is the beautiful Rose Magnetic (Essential Parfums). Those citrus flowers, you see, are so ephemeral in nature.
The darling scent genre of the naughties, floral compositions with detectable fruity top notes are easy to like, and they brighten one’s mood like a charm. Easy and breezy, they’re a no brainer. A popular fragrance in that style is Weekend by Burberry with its peachy floral heart. From our catalogue try Manakara (Indult) which is dominated by rose and lychee.
*Fruity Floral Gourmand
A glorified fruity floral, with enhanced sweetness, these fragrances are a good mid-point between the joy of the fruity floral and the playfulness of a scent that recalls a dessert. They lack the denser bases of gourmand fragrances, hence they’re grouped into the florals.
*Floral Woody Musk
This complicated mouthful is not really that complex. It refers to those abstract contemporary scents which were popularized with Narciso for Her by Narciso Rodriguez. They give a mysterious aura that is both clean and suggestive, and has a vague floral element you can’t really place, like imaginary flowers from Mars, and for that reason perfectly unisex. Yesterday Haze (Imaginary Authors) is a superb example of this category.
A field of blossoming wild flowers is probably one of the most evocative and romantically innocent images one can think of. Green elements only aid this nostalgic feeling. A classic fragrant specimen is Diorissimo, the great lily of the valley scent built on the green sweetness of the molecule hydroxycitronellol. A perfect contemporary example is Antonia by Puredistance.
A handful of flowers have a spicy element to their aroma, such as carnation or freesia, and this is often beautifully highlighted with the addition of actual spices in the formula. Cloves, cinnamon and pepper enhance these qualities. Oeillet Louis XV is an unmissable spicy Carnation scent from Oriza L Legrand.
Some floral fragrances have a beautiful patina of polished woods anchoring those more ephemeral floral notes in the heart, lending them a rather more unisex identity and a sombre character. Examples like Balmain's Ivoire come to mind. These are fragrances to wear from morning to dusk and beyond, as they usually are abstract and insinuating, rather than straightforward.
Cedre-Iris (Affinessence) combines a silky, buttery iris with creamy cedar wood. Heavenly!
Fougère (pronounced fooh-ZEHR) is French for fern, and as you can see many words in fragrances derive from the land of 1,600 types of cheese. Maybe that explains it. A people with a taste for such variety in flavour would appreciate nuances in fine fragrance as well, and invent new words for them!
Ferns don’t really have a distinct smell of their own, but they evoke green woods and a sense of calm, so this fragrance family is reflected in products of male grooming. Fougères typically include lavender, the traditional plant which evokes cleanliness, as well as coumarin, an almond like material that smells of freshly cut hay.
These fragrances often evoke the barbershop; cool shaving cream, traditional green soap, and herbal accents with piquant spices thrown in for good measure to give distinction. They’re mostly the realm of masculine fragrances, although anyone, regardless of sex, can wear them.
Sea spray and aqueous notes, evoking whitewater canoeing and rafting, pair exceptionally well with herbs and materials such as aromatic juniper berries. The latter especially lend a cooling, rustic and somewhat piquant note evoking the great outdoors which is perfect for visualizing a cold Arctic ocean rather than tropical waters and tan surfers.
Aquatic fragrances are a modern invention, anyway, entering the market in the 1990s, so the specimens you’re familiar with may harken not too fuether back than Bvlgari’s Aqua pour Homme, where clary sage and lavender make their presence known under the seaweed intro.
The par excellence masculine category du jour, aromatic fougère compositions are intensely popular to the point of cornering the market of masculine fragrances. Lavender is not an absolutely focal point of the fougère accord (bergamot-coumarin-oakmoss build the skeleton), but it’s an integral part of the bouquet, contrasting with the coumarin, therefore lending a fresh, clean profile to this otherwise rather woody smelling fragrance family. For many, losing the central lavender chord is akin to missing the very character of the fragrance family; it’s an archetype.
The most characteristic -and historical- example is Fougère Royale by Houbigant from 1882, but you might know it from modern examples such as Gaultier’s Le Male. From our extensive catalogue Fougère L’Aube (Rogue Perfumery) is a synergy of pure lavender absolute with freshly mowed grass and geranium leaf, which evokes the morning sun shining with promise through the leaves.
Technically gourmand fragrances began as a sub-genre off the Oriental family of scents, as some of the materials and basic construction blocks overlap in the two groups. However this delicious, mouth-watering genre of fragrances has gained its own devoted following in the last couple of decades, so they deserve their own special spot in the limelight.
Gourmand basically means “greedy” in French, and maybe it implies a bit too much of a soft spot for sweets and vanilla. If you’re one of them, you surely know. Then again many people find that wearing a sweet, tasty fragrance keeps them off calories in the menu, satisfying a craving in an inedible way; now there’s an idea.
These are fragrances full of the scent of caramel swirls, rich chocolate puddings, soft cone ice-cream, marshmallows, a dozen different flavours of booze, and rich, succulent nuts folded into buttery cream. Mmm….They’re yummy, and delicious, and can tempt you like nothing else can, because they aim with the unmistakable lure of a feel good dessert. They’re cosy, and tempting, and make people exclaim they want to devour the person wearing them. Who can resist?
From our extensive catalogue try the superb Tihota (Indult) which is so succulent, it will have everyone salivating at a one mile radius!
The smallest group in the traditional Fragrance Families by the French Society of Perfumers, and sometimes attached to the Chypre family as an addendum, since they share some building blocks, leather fragrances have become something of the mark of the discerning and elite customer.
These are compositions which rely on materials that recall the tanning process, which gives us such wonderful leather goods as leather jackets, riding boots, glossy handbags, and horse saddles. Understandably leather fragrances hold a fascination for those who appreciate aviation, horse-riding, danger and adrenaline.
Birch, tar, bitumen, saffron with iodine shades, and suede-like notes come out when you open a bottle of a leathery fragrance; arid, acrid, mysterious, and pungent, these are not your average “feel good” scents, but the experience can be very rewarding when you let them unfold on your skin. The niche market of scents has embraced leather fragrances as the field where they can excel, and the variation is now literally endless. You’re sure to find the one that fits your needs, from the softest buttery suede, to the harshest whiplash, so to speak.
Characteristic fragrances include The Black Knight (Francesca Bianchi).
Rich, sultry scents, these fragrances heavily rely on materials with a low evaporation rate, making them quite tenacious on the skin. Orientals were named during the first decades of the 20th century, when Western fascination with the Far East was growing in Europe.
The public’s imagination was captivated by the languorous essences of India and the Middle East, where precious tree resins, Biblical balms, and exotic blossoms mingle to give an intoxicating scent that recalls 1001 Nights. Materials like amber, fir balsam, musk, honey, precious agar wood, and sandalwood, are all classic ingredients in this prolific category of heady scents.
The starting point can often be a tangy, sour note of citrus, very often mandarin or orange, which are sweeter than the rest, blending effortlessly with the denser molecules.
But modern orientals, aided by modern techniques and novelties, can be lighter, airier, relying less on heaviness overall, emphasising depth instead.
From this category we recommend Azalai by Stora Skuggan.
Orientals are already dense and plush fragrances, but the addition of animalic pheromones makes them irresistible. Some of the legendary creations of yesteryear fall into this slot, from Molinard’s Habanita (with intense ambergris and castoreum) to Guerlain’s Shalimar (with lots of civet and musk, giving an ambery bronze tinge to the vanilla powderiness). Francesca Bianchi's silky Under My Skin is a perfect example of this style.
Lighter orientals with typically huge floral hearts, these are sultry, intoxicating scents that sweeten thanks to sweet blossoms such as ylang ylang, jasmine and tuberose. A good example is Nicolai's Rose Oud, which marries a jammy, sweet pink rose with a refined oud, all amongst a base of woods, musks and resins.
Opulent, textured like brocade, bittersweet and bracing, spicy orientals made a huge splash in the 1980s when titans such as YSL Opium, Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men and Lauder’s Cinnabar reigned supreme. They owe their debt to the oriental classics (Shalimar, Youth Dew), but they brought on a very piquant, ticklish element of spice, notably cloves, pepper and cinnamon, to drive their message home. Try also Royal Oeillet by Oriza L. Legrand built on cloves and carnation.
In perfumery orientals with pronounced woody notes, notably sandalwood and rosewood, and less emphasis on amber and resins, are sometimes affectionately called woody orientals. A classic example if Guerlain’s Samsara, where sandalwood takes the lead making the jasmine extra strong and tenacious in true oriental fashion; the scent was inspired by the landscape of India where the finest varieties of sandalwood had been cultivated for centuries. Contre Bombarde 32 from Extrait de Musique uses vanilla to sweeten and depend its heard of pure sparkling church incense.
Some Fougère fragrances have a deep oriental base of resins, balsams, amber or vanilla. In Fougère Oriental fragrances, the classic pairing of lavender and coumarin is dramatically enriched, and subsequently, these scents are typically more unisex than most Fougères. Try the wild, spicy Fougere Bengale from Parfum d'Empire!
Usually this category is aimed at men, as the image of a robust, immobile tree is a powerful metaphor for unrelenting masculinity, apparently. If you’re chuckling a bit, then you know this is simply an obsolete stereotype and women are very welcome to wear these too!
Woody fragrances simply utilise the tenacious and suggestive essences derived via complex techniques from the bark and chips of various trees. These can take different, fascinating nuances: the milky, suave sandalwood from the Mysore region in India (now endangered and in short supply); the rosy rosewood, a wonderful addition to many floral fragrances; the pungent and Biblical agar wood, involving a parasitic fungus infesting the Aquillaria tree, which has become very popular in the last decade even in the western market; the Australian sandalwood, which is a different, rawer species than the one growing in India; and the sombre cedar wood, usually coming from either the Atlas mountains in Morocco in Africa, or from Virginia in the USA.
Woody fragrances are rarely, if ever, just comprised of woods, though. They rest on complex chords of materials which emphasize their many nuances. They are usually deep, dependable but quiet; just like trees in a forest! More quiet than many Orientals, Florals, or Gourmands, and therefore more suitable for the bookish types, or the introverts, when shopping for a gift. Nevertheless, agarwood fragrances, much more arid and pungent than most, and coupled with powerful ingredients in their formula such as patchouli, are a notable exception, projecting far and engulfing the space they occupy; proceed with discretion!
The woody notes of cedar and the synthetic molecule of Ambroxan (which is woody-ambery smelling) pair exceptionally well with essences recalling the sea or water, giving the impression of driftwood. A great example is the salt-encrusted woods of Orto Parisi's Megamare.
Woody fragrances can be bold and masculine, or smooth and unisex, but every kind benefits from that touch which polishes their sheen in the top and heart notes. Usually spicy and aromatic notes from cardamom, clary sage, basil, lavender, and juniper berries, lighten the load and turn woody scents livelier. For instance you might be familiar with Acqua di Parma’s Cipresso di Toscana, a characteristic example. From our extensive catalogue try Jorum Studio's unconventional and unique Carduus with its anise and mahogany woods.
Fruity Woody is not a frequent classification, since fruity nuances tend to erupt in compositions that are more exuberant than woody scents, which tend to be more introverted. Yet there are some which marry unlikely scents to great success. Two of our favourites in this category are from Imaginary Authors. In Cape Heartache, a pine forest explodes with a creamy, impactful strawberry note. Whispered Myths is an unlikely marriage of rockmelon and oud that you never thought you needed until now.
The addition of spices brings on a piquant nuance to the more typically sober woody compositions. Saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and pepper, to name but a few, darken or freshen up the formula, depending on the angle the perfumer is going for. Extrait de Musique's Trompette 8 brings a superb chilli note to a base of woods and sharp incense.
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