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 short guide.
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 Labours; hey, it’s a tough job but somebody had to do it.
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!
Juicy pears, succulent peaches, honeydew melon, tangy berries, delicious plums and mango fit to tango…The exotic appeal of fruit, as well as its association with nutritious sustenance and lively flavour, is pure magic when transposed into fragrance.
Although not technically a separate family in the classical French classification, Fruity is a major genre that is getting lots of attention in contemporary perfumery to warrant its own section. The typical upbeat, youthful quality of Fruity scents is different than the sparkling, rejuvenating appeal of Citrus. Citruses are fruits too, but those other ones have moving hips and those don’t lie…
Classical perfumery mainly utilised blends of ingredients that recalled prunes and steamed peaches, in fruity chypre fragrances (look into the Chypre category for more info), but during the 1990s a revolution came in the form of Bath & Body Works brand’s fragrances and body products, which took the world by storm. Essences borrowed from the food industry sneaked into fine fragrance for the first time, and perfumery changed for good. Niche perfume brands have refined this technique, using the latest and most sophisticated fruity aromas, rendering fragrances as delicious as steamed fruit puddings, and fresh like tall drinks laced with slices of exotic produce.
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, nevertheless, nothing more difficult than capturing nature’s beauty in action.
Last but not least, an intermediary genre is the Floriental, a type of scent that is heavily floral, but lies on a bed of oriental resins and heavier materials that provide it with richness and opulence.
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. They’re wonderful to pick for evening or cooler weather, but some can fit into the sultriest of summer nights too. After all, they are inspired by the hot East…
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.
Sub-categories within the family include Fruity Chypres, fragrances warm and feisty, with lots of peaches, raisins and prunes at their core; Floral Chypres with a sandwiched section of lush blossoms, usually white flowers like gardenia, jasmine or orange blossom; and Animalic Chypres with deep, erotic notes deriving from essences that used to be extracted from animals, but are now replicated cruelty-free.
Fougère (pronounced fooh-ZEHR) is French for fern, and as you can see many words in fragrances derive from the land of 1600 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 almondy-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 gender, can wear them.
Technically gourmand fragrances are 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?
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 oncomplex 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, agar wood 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 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.
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