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What We Talk About When We Talk About Fragrance

As much as we try to be good students, fragrance terminology can sometime leave us scratching our heads. (Base notes of wha?) Determined to master scent vocabulary once and for all, we sat down with Sylvie Ganter, co-founder of Atelier Cologne at her Brooklyn boutique. Ganter helped to clear the air, so to speak, when it comes to eau de toilettes, the “dry down process,” and other befuddling fragrance terms.

Types of Fragrance

The first step to finding the right scent is understanding the difference between various concentrations and categories. Here’s our cheat sheet for keeping it all straight:

Essential Oils: The pure, concentrated oil distilled from a fragrance’s main ingredients.
Eau de Cologne: Though sometimes thought of as a heavy men’s fragrances, colognes are actually defined by their 5% (or less) concentration of citrus-y essential oils.
Eau de Toilette: Contains 5 to 10% essential oil.
Eau de Parfum: Contains 10 to 15% essential oil.
Perfume: Contains 15% essential oil, making this the strongest (and longest-lasting) of all fragrances.
Cologne Absolue: Unique to Atelier Cologne, this formula combines the citrusy notes of an Eau de Cologne with the essential oil concentration (15%) of a perfume. The result? Bright citrusy scents like their Orange Sanguine that last as long as a potent perfume.

The “Dry Down” Process

Most fragrances are a careful composition of many ingredients. The notes are the scent of those individual elements as they evolve and fade on your skin. This process is known as the dry down. Because the aroma of the notes changes over time, Ganter urges her customers never to purchase a new scent based on the first sniff: “Spray it on your skin and walk away,” she advises. “Come back in half an hour.”

Top notes: This is what you smell after the first spritz, within the first five minutes. “They’re the first impression you get,” says Ganter. “They’re going to lure you in.”. Since top notes are usually bright, quick-to-fade citrusy scents, they are often not the aroma that sticks with you hours later.

Heart: The “heart” of the fragrance, or middle notes, will take over five to 20 minutes after you apply it. Heavier than a top note, but not as rich as a base, they are typically made from florals and help to transition your scent.

**Base: Base notes are the scent left at the end of the dry down process that lasts for up to eight hours. They tend to come in the form of heavier oils with moodier connotations—think: vanilla, amber, and wood—that stick to the skin without fading.

Accord When notes are combined to create a unique scent, they are called an accord (see Fougère below)

The Fragrance Families

How many times have you heard a scent described as warm? Rather than just smile and nod, we had Ganter explain this and other hard-to-pin-down adjectives:

**Woody ** The base notes notes (now you know what they are!) of a woody fragrance include patchouli and sandalwood, which conjure the scents you’d encounter during a walk in a forest. With a mix of vetiver and cedarwood, Atelier Cologne’s earthy Vetiver Fatal does just that.

WarmThese scents blend ingredients like vanilla and tonka bean to create a comforting, sweet and sugary scent, like those found in Atelier Cologne’s Vanille Insensée Petite Cologne Absolue.

Fougère When an accord (bam, now you know what that means too) combines woody ingredients with grassy, green scents the fragrance is called a Fougère (which technically means “fern-like”). Atelier Cologne’s Mistral Patchouli combines the woodiness of vetiver with the grassiness of patchouli.

Chypre This term is used to describe a feminine accord of woody and floral notes. Chanel No. 5 may be the most famous chypre of them all.

Musk “If clouds had a smell, the would smell like musk,” says Ganter. Well that pretty much sums it up. Think clean, comforting scents like Atelier Cologne’s Bois Blonds.

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