A perfume is one of the most exquisite things to possess. It comes in limited quantities, a luxury which only a privilege few can behold. It is this finiteness that makes it as perplexing as it is exquisite. This primer will thus endeavour to explain the mystery behind the wonderful delicate world of perfumery. This is a collection of the details most asked about; a fast facts about the bottles that have everyone lining up for centuries now.
The word literally refers to smoke or, in those days, “a sweet-smelling fluid containing the essence of flowers and other substances”. In ancient Rome, worshippers of the gods would throw in crushed flowers, wood, spice and aromatic resins on top of blazing coals resulting to sweet smoke to rise above.
These days, the practice of creating these scents would be more scientific and systematic. A perfumer, called a “nose”, would combine notes to create subtle harmonies in scents. The greatest harmonies evoke memories or imagined scenarios, like “ozonic or marine fragrances” which evokes scenarios of the beach, palm trees and sea air.
Sometimes, it takes more than great olfactory skills of a nose to create something great. A new technique using ultra-sensitive equipment recreates all the lost elements, called “angels”, during the extraction process of the perfume oil. Thus, they are able to make perfumes that smell like living flowers.
Fragrance, Parfum, Scent, Extrait, Eaux de Cologne, Eau de Parfum and Parfum de Toilette is synonymous to perfume, and the more preferred term in places like the US. Of course, in Paris, that would be “parfum” while England calls it “scent”.
The terms perfume, parfum or extrait are also interchangeably used to refer to the most concentrated kind of perfume. This type has 12% to 30% more fragrance oils thus lasts longer. Eau de parfum or Esprit de parfum is the newer interpretation of the extrait. Eau de Toilette is the lighter version of the Eau de parfum, containing about 4% to 18%. Eau de Cologne has about 1% to 3%.
It would surprise most that the first eaux de cologne was formulated by a barber. Created by Giao Paola Feminis around 1680, this elixir that was first called “acqua mirabilis” (miraculous water). It was when Napoleon decreed the mandatory registration of the formulae in the 18th century that perfumers, as a gesture of dissent, registered the formulae as perfume.
For one to understand perfume, one must start with chemistry. Contrary to popular belief, perfume mist does not hover above the human skin, encapsulating the person wearing it in a fragrant bubble that will pop in a few hours. The skin absorbs whatever you spray on it and it mixes with the oil naturally produced by the skin that retains the scent molecules. Skin type thus plays a very important part in the chemistry between humans and perfume. This is the reason why different skin absorb scents differently. People with drier skin will get less scent retention compares to those who are have more oils on their skin.
It’s almost all about chemistry. Other factors like genes, diet, medicines we’ve been taking, pore size, fat layers, stress levels, and even skin temperature all go into the way a scent imprints itself on us. No one is created exactly alike, even identical twins. So no single perfume smells exactly the same on two different people. This is why it’s most recommended to test a perfume on the wrist rather than on a blotting paper. The entirety of factors will spell differences between your own scent print and the sample print. Remember: sniffing an opened bottle won’t help you decide if a perfume is right for you. What you get from sniffing straight from the bottle is the alcohol and the top notes, all too strong to make you appreciate the scent. A perfume must be put on skin to see… or smell… so it comes alive. Only your body will tell it if it suits you.
There are points on the body that are most strategic for scents. These are the wrists, inside the elbows, temple, below ear lobes, base of the throat, behind the knees and basically anywhere else that has a pulse. Damp hair, while it does not have a pulse, is also a great point to spray on. Dabbing works but spraying is even better. A distance of about 20 cm from the skin is ideal. If you dabbed on wrists, never rub them together to avoid bruising the notes. You can also spray on clothes and other articles of clothing like handkerchiefs and scarves to help the scent last longer throughout a busy day.
More than anything, people would want to know why. What made perfumes a must have from generations ago until now? Perfumes and the system of smells help people remember. The brain describes odour in terms of memories of events that are associated with it. Scents evoke snippets of data from the memory bank. Even more than that, scents help us preserve these memories. So that when we spray on citrus, we remember sunny summers and happy picnics. And that memory is forever preserved in that bottle.