How we perceive a perfume is based on how it is composed. The top, or head, notes are smelled first. They only last a short while, 5-10 minutes. The middle, or heart, notes come through when the top notes begin dissipating. They last much longer, at least 4 hours. The base, or bottom, or dry, notes compliment the heart notes, coming through only once the top notes are gone. They can last for days sometimes.
As the names suggest, the top notes are the first impression. They are sharp and volatile. If the top notes are not to your liking, they will turn you off the entire perfume. The middle notes are warmer; florals and fruity scents meant to mix with your skin. They are the heart of the perfume around which all the other notes are chosen. The base notes are typically dry: woods, musk, vanilla. Heavy scents that stick around, but are subtle as the perfume comes to an end.
The notes are described as top, middle, and bottom, not because they were manufactured to evaporate at those rates: the top notes quickly, the middle notes slowly, and the base notes slowest of all. Instead, William Poucher, in the 1920s, measured evaporation rates of essential oils. The ones that evaporated fastest were most suited to be top notes. The same with middle and base notes. This is why you won’t see citrus scents as base notes or sandalwood as a top note. It is because a scent evaporates quickly that we label it a top note.
The three tier pyramid is just a guide for the consumer. The professionals know how these oils evaporate. They understand how certain scents work together. They use all this to their advantage, mixing the scents, playing with their evaporation. This is how they control what you smell. It’s how they can create something that smells like “fresh water” or “taking a bath in champagne.”
Today, we are going to talk about notes from two different perfumes. Both of them are my mother’s perfumes. One I don’t like though it is a classic. The other I do like and helped pick out for her birthday. They are Chanel No. 5, by Chanel, obviously, and Omnia Crystalline Eau de Toilette, by Bulgari.
The notes in No. 5 are: top: ylang-ylang, neroli, lemon, bergamot, and aldehydes; middle: jasmine, rose, iris, lily of the valley, and orris root; base: amber, sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli, vetiver, civet, and oak moss. It is labeled as a floral aldehyde.
The notes in Omnia Crystalline are: top: bamboo, pear; middle: lotus, cassia, and tea; base: musk, oak moss, and guaiac wood. It’s a woody floral.
Now from my previous post about the fragrances I use, we know I like florals especially with neroli, jasmine, lily, and sandalwood. So, it would seem I should like No. 5 more than the Omnia. The No. 5 matches my preferences better. But this is not the case. The No. 5 is shockingly aggressive to me while the Omnia is smooth and sweet. The Omnia also compliments my mother. It matches her perfectly. Even my father agrees, and his nose isn’t the best. So, why the huge difference: a perfume that matches my favorite scents is distasteful to me while another that shares none of my favorite scents, and I love it?
This is because of how the perfumes present themselves, i.e. how we smell them. The No. 5, though it has neroli, ylang-ylang, and bergamot, all sweet, floral, citrus scents, the lemon and aldehydes punch you in the face. Lemon on its own is tart with a sweetness. Aldehydes are derived from alcohol. They are supposed to compliment plant smells and strengthen a fragrance, but in this case they come across as chemical, sharp and annoying. You shouldn’t have to persevere through the top notes of a perfume to get to the “good” notes underneath. A good perfume to should be well-rounded, all the notes bouncing off each other to create a new scent that you didn’t expect. Perfumes should inspire and compliment the scent of your skin.
On the other hand, Omnia Crystalline is very delicate, very light, but it has a deeper undertone with the base notes. It isn’t fruity or overly floral, but is more a dry floral. The scents balance each other creating a new warmer scent, a dry, fresh floral that still remains sweet.
Now some of the ingredients in each of the perfumes are confusing. Orris root has a violet-like scent, and it comes from the iris plant. Amber is not the rock, but a fragrance found in ambergris and labdanum. Ambergris is the excretions from a sperm whale after eating cuttle fish. A gross ingredient, but one that is used in many top name perfumes. Vetiver comes from the tropical Asian grass called khus-khus. It is earthy and violet-like. Oak moss is just what it suggests: moss taken from oaks and spruces. It is earthy, woody, and musky. Civet is another weird one. It is a secretion taken from a pouch under the tail of the civet cat. Musk is removed from the male musk deer of the Himalayas. All weird, but surprisingly useful scents.
This just shows how skilled perfumers are. They mix smells that you would never expect to work together, creating new fragrances every day. Having a perfume is now as popular as having a clothing line for celebrities, but creating a truly memorable perfume is in the hands of the perfumers. It also shows how different perfumes can be by just a few new notes. The same odors mixed together in a new way can create two different sensations.
My information on the Chanel and Omnia notes comes from Fragrantica.com. It is a great source for looking up hundreds of perfumes. The general knowledge about perfume notes comes from searching perfume websites, but mostly from the book Perfume: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Finest Fragrances by Nigel Groom.