To discover the scent that’s right for you, it’s best to start by emulating the ancient Greeks (who, like us, liberally perfumed themselves) and heed the aphorism inscribed in their Temple of Apollo: Know Thyself.
Writer Marcel Proust suggested that our lives are stored in tastes and smells. This is the domain of American psychologist and smell scientist Avery Gilbert, author of What the Nose Knows, in which he explains how aversion and attraction to certain scents link to happy or traumatic past events in our lives. The brain’s olfactory receptors connect to what Gilbert calls ‘smell memory,’ which can be triggered by familiar odours. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, ‘Scents are surer than sounds or sights to make your heartstrings crack.’
That’s pretty heady stuff. On the practical side, the perfume industry has a system of classification that can help pave the way to a favourite new scent. Perfumers and fragrance houses such as Firmenich, Givaudan and Symrise, which develop scents for beauty companies, classify perfumes according to six basic olfactory families. For women, these are generally: fresh, fruity, floral, gourmand, oriental and woody (also sometimes known as chypre). Even a passing familiarity with the distinctions between them becomes an aid in a scent journey, since our tastes tend to gravitate to the same broad category. (Then within each of these again, there are sub-genres.) Peruse the fragrances in these categories online, then try sampling them in stores.
Such categories are the traditional way of narrowing down the right scent for you. Nazrin Ladha, a seasoned purveyor of niche scents at her boutique The Perfume Shoppe (with locations in Vancouver and Scottsdale, Arizona), takes another approach. Her initial perfume cues come not only from taste or memory but from a customer’s skin tone, which she thinks influences how a perfume diffuses and smells. Weather, body chemistry and even mood can alter the effects of fragrances, too, says Jan Moran, a perfume expert based in Carlsbad, California. ‘Diet, mood, environmental and other factors influence how a fragrance develops on the skin.’
Shop and spritz perfume in the morning
Danny Ventura, spokesperson for perfume licenser Beauté Prestige International, who works with designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Narciso Rodriguez, suggests approaching the perfume counter with a happy memory, preferably early in the day when your nose is ‘rested.’ ‘Was it your birthday, your wedding? A beach you walked on? Conjure up a scent from that moment,’ he says. ‘Let’s say it was your wedding and you had a bouquet of peonies. At the store, ask for perfumes with peony in them.’ Sample two or three, one on each wrist and the inner forearm below the crook of the elbow, and walk away. ‘Go, have lunch, let them dry down. By the end of lunch, you will know whether you love [a fragrance] or not. If you’re not sure, don’t buy it.’
Ventura developed a 20-question quiz called Discover Your Scent, which he uses in consultations during his many in-store appearances. ‘It’s more about personality than your actual taste buds, but one of the questions about food is if you like spicy or you like mild.’ These may correlate directly to taste in scents (for example, love of spicy Indian food begets a taste for oriental scents like Coco by Chanel), but other questions may speak to lifestyle’real or aspirational. He says the woman who likes Elie Saab Le Parfum (a new bright, floral and woody scent) is likely to have sophisticated tastes for things such as champagne and high heels.
Another innovative tool is an interactive screen at Sephora called Scentsa, developed by Moran. It allows customers to browse perfumes by scent family, and helps them choose the perfect fragrance by asking them lifestyle questions in areas of style, entertainment (dancing, versus going to dinner, versus shopping), favourite seasons, colour preferences, even what you like for dessert. It translates the answers into personalized suggestions for which scents to try. ‘Very few people say, ‘Oh, I really love chypre’ [the complex oakmoss category]. Most of them don’t know what it is, can’t pronounce it and couldn’t care less!’
As fun and simple as this is, there are complicated algorithms at work, decoding every response behind the 30-second quiz. ‘I’ve based it on research compiled from numerous sources and studies, and extensive brand research,’ says Moran.
For those on the go, perfume house Givaudan’s iPerfumer is a free iPhone app that provides a brief questionnaire about taste preferences, saves individual profiles and then uses its internal algorithm to suggest matches from its database of more than 4,000 scents. (It’s a great tool for gift shopping.)
Follow the nose behind the label
Another approach is to consider the perfume’s creator‘not the designer brand or name on the label, but the nose behind the juice. For every perfume there is a creator, be it a master perfumer or scent developer working on the composition’s formula. Like a fashion designer, some ‘noses’ have a style that gives their creations a distinctive character.
Increasingly, beauty and fragrance companies are listing who created the perfume in their press kits. A growing number of perfume devotee websites maintain encyclopedic databases of perfume creators and their signature scents.
Think of your taste in perfume as you would any other: In the same way as you might love comedies by Judd Apatow or mysteries by Agatha Christie, you may find that, regardless of the brand they’re working for, one perfumer’s style suits you more than another’s. Calice Becker, who created the wildly popular Tommy Girl, also worked on Vera Wang Rock Princess, Lola Marc Jacobs and J’Adore Dior, making the seemingly random collection of bottles on your bureau less of an accident than you may have first thought.
Ventura says the search for a favourite scent can be intensely rewarding. Sure, it requires a bit of sniffing around, but when it clicks, ‘it’s like a perfectly fitting pair of jeans or bra.’
And what could feel better than that?