Perfume Basics

For all the ads featuring girls twirling around in fields, the actual fragrance industry is as scientific as it gets. Scent designers work with perfumers in high-tech labs to perfect combinations, while scientists have studied olfaction for centuries. Every aspect of perfume, from the way it’s created to the way our minds process it, is complicated — it’s no wonder that picking a scent is tricky. We asked fragrance designer Raymond Matts to decode the perfume world for us.

Over the course of his career, Matts has worked on some of the perfume world’s breakout hits (hello Clinique Happy). Designers like Matts collaborate with perfumers to turn a stylistic concept into the next Chanel No. 5 or Shalimar. “I come in with an idea of where I want to go,” says Matts, “including all the feelings, sensations, and emotions that I want to evoke, and work with the perfumers to build it.”

A scent can contain anywhere from 60 to 100 ingredients, and they aren’t just thrown together willy-nilly. Matts designs top, middle, and back accords, with each group taking on a unique emotional profile. For example, “I might have a cozy and comfortable accord that is made up of notes like milk, which is creamy, plus spices.” When designed properly, “the layers work together to create a final product that is rich and layered.”

When choosing a scent, Matts says to begin with: how do you want to feel when you wear it? Start with adjectives that describe the feeling you’re after — cozy and comfortable, outdoorsy and fresh, rich and sensual. All those adjectives can be loosely mapped to fragrance families, which classify scents according to their most dominant characteristics.

The seven main categories are: Citrus, Watery, Floral, Oriental, Woods, Chypre, and Aromatic. For something refreshing and energetic, try something from the citrus family, while for a more classic feminine scent, look to florals, which may include everything from jasmine to rose. If you’re after a warm scent with lots of richness, you’ll probably like the wood or moss-based chypre family. But, Matts says, fragrances within families can vary drastically, which is why just because you hate jasmine, for example, you shouldn’t assume you hate all florals. Instead, learn the rules so you can disregard them. It all comes down to what your particular nose goes for.

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