The journey of fragrance notes: how perfumes merge into a single entity

With few exceptions, perfumes contain multiple fragrance notes. Even with your favourite perfume, you might want to understand why those fresh citrus notes, for example, go so well with the woody base notes or the floral rose is enhanced by ambery labdanum. Discover how fragrance notes merge into a sophisticated whole, creating the most unique and sensual perfumes

The history of fragrance

Perfume originated from the desire to smell like flowers, herbs and spices. The first use of scented oils and perfumes dates back to ancient times when priests created sacrificial fires with balsams and herbs. From the 12th century, when the first distillation techniques emerged, the desire to smell like nature increased. Back then, perfume had little depth: everything consisted of one scent. But that changed when the first synthetic ingredient emerged in the late 1800s: coumarin, a hay and tobacco-like molecule. For the first time, scents were blended to form a unique whole. Bringing fragrance notes together became an art: different ingredients were fused from the natural and synthetic worlds to create a sophisticated perfume.

The art of layering fragrance notes

Fusing fragrance notes brings complexity to perfume: layering and olfactory composition are created. Many perfumes, therefore, use a pyramid, namely a top, heart and base. This is also known as an olfactory pyramid. The top notes are the first ones you smell when spraying the perfume on your skin. Typical fragrance notes include citrus, fruity, herbal and floral notes. This is because these fresh and cheerful notes dissipate faster and leave a pleasant aroma for the heart and base notes. How long these fragrance notes remain to be experienced varies from perfume to perfume and from ingredient to ingredient.

After the top notes, the heart is released. Floral, woody, green and aromatic notes characterise the heart. Heart and base notes are less noticeable but can be experienced longer. These heart notes create a distinctive and pleasant fragrance and are chosen for their rich and complex characteristics. Finally, the base notes open up. It can take up to an hour to detect the base notes, as this is the bottom layer of the perfume, which also remains the longest to experience. Base notes hold the fragrance together and reinforce the heart notes. You’ll mostly find woody and ambery notes such as musk, vanilla, patchouli and tonka beans here. The entirety melts together into a sophisticated and unique perfume.

How do olfactory portraits work?

A perfume that has a top, heart and base is called an olfactory pyramid, but there are more olfactory portraits in perfume. For instance, Matiere Premiere creates round perfumes with one fragrance note as the main ingredient. Think, for example, of Crystal SaffronNeroli Oranger and French Flower. Crystal Saffron, for example, revolves around saffron oil from Greece. Matiere Premiere wanted to create a "bright, crystalline saffron", using musk habanolide to enhance the saffron's brightness and radiance. Ambroxan highlights the addictive character, while Somali frankincense oil accentuates the vibrancy. The 'round' olfactory portrait is then a bright, crispy and clean perfume that is different because usually, it is precisely the spicy facets of saffron that are accentuated.

The perfume house Fueguia uses tonic, dominant and sub-dominant notes in their perfumes. You can compare the tonic note to a top note, the dominant note to a heart note and the sub-dominant note to a base note. But in the case of Fueguia, all fragrance notes can be experienced constantly rather than only after a while. For instance, the aromatic perfume Cactus Azul is the first perfume ever to use the fragrance note cactus. Fueguia fuses warm cedarwood as a tonic note with the cactus, supported by the fresh mint as a sub-dominant note.
So perfume houses use different olfactory compositions to make a perfume reflect the desired aroma. But how are these olfactory notes chosen together?

This is how to combine fragrance notes in perfume

You can categorise fragrance notes into families. Fragrance expert and author Michael Edwards wrote the book 'Fragrances of the World', in which the scent wheel is the basis for giving perfumes a place. Thus, fragrance notes are divided into woody, fresh, floral and ambery notes. You can then further divide these categories into subfamilies. You can compare the scent wheel to the colour wheel: combine fragrance notes from subfamilies that are opposite or far from each other so that they can contrast, making them stand out. On the contrary, notes that are close together complement each other more and create a harmonious whole.

A surprisingly spicy woody fragrance: Bois Impérial by Quentin Bisch

The beloved perfume Bois Impérial by Quentin Bisch was created around the precious and unique akigala wood. This synthetic fragrance note smells like patchouli with oud notes in the background. Green basil from Egypt provides a fresh contrast, after which black pepper from Nepal adds a spicy touch. Next comes the earthy scent of vetiver from Haiti, which blends with ambery ambrofix from sugarcane. Finally, patchouli is used, which, like vetiver, is close to the woody scent of akigala wood. This creates a harmonious fragrance that gives the woody perfume green, fresh and spicy characteristics.

A bold elaboration of the rose: Radical Rose

Matiere Premiere's Radical Rose perfume, like Crystal Saffron, is a round fragrance without a top, heart and base. The perfume is all about the rose in its purest form. For that, the floral Rose Centifolia from Grasse has been used, which is enhanced by the spicy touch of spicy saffron and pepper berries. Both scent notes are in the spicy and ambery fragrance family, which is close to the floral rose. This makes for a contrasting whole that reflects the rose in a surprisingly spicy way. Next, the ambery labdanum and earthy patchouli add a warm fragrance experience to the rose. These fragrance notes are further from the rose, providing a nice balance. Instead of magnifying the floral facets of the rose, Matiere Premiere boldly chooses to bring out warm and spicy aromas.

Unique in perfume: the cactus flower

The previously mentioned Cactus Azul contains the perfume oil of the cactus flower as the star of the perfume. You will experience this fragrance note as a green mix with citrus and earth tones. But first, the rich and woody aroma of cedarwood meets you, a fragrance note that sits right in between the citrus and earthy family. These notes complement each other and create a beautiful whole. Next, you experience fresh mint: a completely different ingredient that makes the fragrance notes stand out.


A perfume full of contrasts: Citrus Batikanga

Thibaud Crivelli was inspired for Citrus Batikanga by the taste of bergamot juice with chilli pepper, tasted on a hot day in an exotic and colourful environment. The fragrance, therefore, contrasts by fusing citrus notes with chilli, then warm, woody aromas and myrrh warm the scent. The result is a creation full of contrasting notes in a citrusy whole.


How to use the fragrance wheel?

The book 'Fragrances of the World', edited by Michael Edwards, is a handy way to use the scent wheel to find out which fragrance family you like to wear. For example, if you often wear woody perfumes, you can have our perfumes filtered by 'woody', allowing you to find the fragrances you might like in one go. Then you'll soon have an excellent selection to choose from for a Sample Set. Our Skins Experts advise you not to stick too firmly to these fragrance families: even if you don't usually choose floral scents, for example, each perfume is unique. This means that some creations categorised as floral may actually reflect the fragrance notes in a way you appreciate.