Ever read beauty sites that write poetic stories about fragrances and click away feeling slightly…dumber? Or perhaps you’re in front of the towering scent wall at Sephora, overwhelmed by descriptions that literally mean nothing (to you, at least)? Because you’re not the only one still wondering what the hell “oud” is, Barbara Herman wants to help. Author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume, she is an expert on both fragrances new and old. We asked her to give us a vocabulary lesson on the expansive world of modern perfume—everything from production methods to particularly well-loved scents (oud, for one, not to mention neroli and cuir). Fear the fragrance wall no more, folks.
Accord: In the same way you hold down several notes in music to create a chord that has a unique sound, in perfume, an accord is a scent made up of several perfume notes, or ingredients, that blend together to form a distinct fragrance. For example, the classic accord in the chypre perfume category is bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss.
Aldehydes: Aldehydes are aromatic chemicals that provide sparkle and lift to perfumes, and depending on their type, also provide their own scent. Aldehydes C-12 and lower (the C stands for carbon) provide sparkle; Aldehydes C-14 and higher add a fruit note. Chanel No. 5 and Guerlain Mitsouko are famous perfumes with aldehydes.
Balsams/balsamic: Does not refer to the salad dressing, but rather to warm, ambery, soft vanillic notes such as benzoin, Tolu balsam, and tonka bean. They’re in most Oriental fragrances.
Base note: The term for the heaviest ingredients, molecularly, in a perfume formula, as well as those that one may notice after the top notes and heart notes. Base notes help to fix other notes in the perfume formula (i.e. make them last longer); they enhance the scent of other ingredients; and, in some cases, they impart their own scent.
Amber: There is no amber ingredient in the wild. It’s an accord created with perfume notes such as labdanum, vanilla, and balsams such as benzoin and Tolu Balsam, which are sweet, warm resins that both come from tree barks. Amber is the cornerstone accord of Oriental fragrances.
Ambergris: A highly prized base note rarely used in non-synthetic form because of its rarity and cost. Why is it so expensive? Because of its origins: The sperm whale eats cuttlefish, whose bones are indigestible and painful to its stomach lining. As a result, it secretes a substance that surrounds the bones. This mass gets excreted, most likely from the whale’s back end. It then floats around in the water, ages, gets oxidized by the sun, and turns into the substance that washes ashore until it’s found by some lucky bastard who can sell it for more per ounce than gold. Ambergris smells earthy, sweet, tobacco-like, and provides a roundness and depth to perfumes. Christian Dior Dioressence perfume was said to have been inspired by perfumer Guy Robert’s encounter with both real ambergris and a knock-off Miss Dior soap.
Bergamot: The essential oil from the rind of the Citrus aurantium, an inedible fruit that looks like a small orange. Bergamot lends a sparkling citrus-y freshness to perfumes, and Le Labo Bergamote 22 highlights this ubiquitous top note. (Also see orange blossom, neroli and petit grain, which are all from the same tree.)
Castoreum: An oily secretion from the abdominal sacs of beavers, often a byproduct of the fur trade. Its warm, animalic, and even fruity scent is used in many leather perfumes—but mostly in synthetic form. In Amouage Fate Woman.
Chypre: The French word for the Greek island of Cyprus. Its classic accord features a citrus top note, such as bergamot, contrasting with a mossy base of, most importantly, oakmoss. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) is considering banning or severely limiting the use of oakmoss and tree mosses in scents due to their alleged allergenic properties, which has perfume lovers up in arms. Christian Dior Diorella is a chypre.
Civet: Yes, civet is the cream harvested from a civet animal’s anal gland. Or rather was harvested. Most civet is now synthetic. (It’s said that Chanel No. 5 stopped using real civet as late as the 1980s.) Fecal-smelling when undiluted, it becomes magic when added to other scents as a base note. Civet is usually subtly added to the base of perfumes, but because “animalic” styles are back in full force, perfumes such as Brent Leonesio Untitled No. 8 puts this skanky note in a starring role.
Concentration: There are four major concentrations of fragrance you can buy. They reflect not only the longevity of fragrance, but also its ingredients and qualities. From the least concentrated (smaller perfume oil ratio in relation to alcohol) to highest: Eau de Cologne, with around 2–5 % perfume oils; Eau de Toilette, with around 5–20% perfume oils; Eau de Parfum, with around 10–30% perfume oils; and Extrait or Extract, at around 20—40% concentration.
Cuir: Pronounced “queer,” cuir is the French word for leather. Leather perfumes are made with accords constructed from various perfume notes including birch tar, styrax, castoreum, myrtle, cade, and a variety of synthetic arochemicals. Chanel Cuir de Russie is a classic leather perfume.
Headspace technology: A method pioneered in the 1970s of capturing scent molecules and reconstructing their smell for perfumes. A bell-jar like apparatus is placed over the scented object and the molecules are extracted and saved. Once they’re analyzed, a synthetic version is created. This is how perfumes that are hard to distill, like gardenia, and notes like dirt, in Demeter’s much-lauded Dirt, are created.
Middle or heart note: Heart notes are somewhere between top notes and base notes in their longevity, and usually refer to florals, like jasmine and rose, or herbs, such as lavender.
Musk: Musk is used to extend the life of fragrances and to add a sensual feel, and perfumers now use a large array of synthetic musks in perfume that range from dark and animalic to fresh and laundry-like. Musk deer were once almost killed to extinction for their musk glands, which, when opened, had tiny grains of musk that were tinctured and used in perfume. Narcisco Rodriguez for Her was a recent popular clean musk scent.
Neroli: The essential oil from steam-distilling the orange flowers from the Seville Orange or Citrus aurantiam. It has a sharper, more citrus scent than orange blossom, which comes from the same flowers. Petit grain is the essential oil extracted from this same plant’s leaves and twigs, producing a woody-herbaceous scent used often in men’s fragrances. L’Artisan’s Seville À L’Aube features orange blossom. Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino showcases the steam-distilled orange flower essence, and Comme des Garçons Energy C Grapefruit has petit grain.
Note: A perfume term that basically means “ingredient.” Sometimes a note refers to actual discrete ingredients such as rose and orange blossom. Other times, it’s loosely used where “accord” would be more accurate, especially when perfume copywriters get extravagant and include notes such as “angel skin” in the list of ingredients (yes, that’s a real thing).
Oakmoss: A type of lichen that grows on oak trees that is crucial in chypre fragrances. Earthy, woodsy, and, of course, mossy, in scent. See: aforementioned potential banning.
Oriental perfume: A major category of perfume distinguished by the use of warm, ambery, sweet notes like vanilla, tonka, benzoin, and amber. The ingredients are oft-associated with the Middle East—like frankincense/incense, and amber. There are subcategories: spicy Oriental perfumes, woody Oriental, floral Oriental or Florientals, etc. Thierry Mugler Angel is a gourmand Oriental perfume, and Balmain Ambre Gris an example of an ambery Oriental.
Orris: The “butter” from the dried roots of the iris flower, orris is a prized and expensive perfume ingredient that creates a rich, earthy, carroty, powdery effect in fragrances. In Balenciaga Le Dix, and showcased and highlighted in Serge Lutens’ haunting Iris Silver Mist.
Oud/Agarwood: Made from the resin of the Aquilaria tree, which it emits when it’s attacked by pathogens, oud has an animalic, earthy, woody, tobacco, sometimes camphory quality that is complex and dark. Most scents featuring oud use a synthetic version, because the real stuff is understandably expensive to harvest. Regardless, its popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. L’Artisan Al Oudh and Christian Dior Leather Oud are incredibly animalic iterations, and a more romantic “feminine” version is in Kilian Rose Oud.
Tonka bean: From the seeds of the Dipteryx odorata tree. They are richly vanillic with a hint of cinnamon and almond. Biehl Parfumkunstwerke A102 has a gorgeous tonka note.
Top note: The molecularly lightest note in a perfume formula, like citrusy bergamot and mandarin. They’re the first notes you smell in a composition.
Vetiver: An essential oil steam-distilled from the roots of a tall grass native to India—though Haiti is now its largest producer. It has an earthy, peppery, lemony, dusty scent that has been used extensively in perfumery. Guerlain Vetiver and Hové Parfumerie Vetivert are two great examples of this important perfume note.
Photo by Tom Newton.