Fragrance Terms, Explained
Ever read beauty sites that write poetic stories about fragrances and click away feeling slightly…dumber? Or perhaps you’re in front of the towering scent wall at Sephora, overwhelmed by descriptions that literally mean nothing (to you, at least)? Because you’re not the only one still wondering what the hell "oud" is, Barbara Herman wants to help. Author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume, she is an expert on both fragrances new and old. We asked her to give us a vocabulary lesson on the expansive world of modern perfume—everything from production methods to particularly well-loved scents (oud, for one, not to mention neroli and cuir). Fear the fragrance wall no more, folks.
Accord: In the same way you hold down several notes in music to create a chord that has a unique sound, in perfume, an accord is a scent made up of several perfume notes, or ingredients, that blend together to form a distinct fragrance. For example, the classic accord in the chypre perfume category is bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss.
Aldehydes: Aldehydes are aromatic chemicals that provide sparkle and lift to perfumes, and depending on their type, also provide their own scent. Aldehydes C-12 and lower (the C stands for carbon) provide sparkle; Aldehydes C-14 and higher add a fruit note. Chanel No. 5 and Guerlain Mitsouko are famous perfumes with aldehydes.
Balsams/balsamic: Does not refer to the salad dressing, but rather to warm, ambery, soft vanillic notes such as benzoin, Tolu balsam, and tonka bean. They’re in most Oriental fragrances.
Base note: The term for the heaviest ingredients, molecularly, in a perfume formula, as well as those that one may notice after the top notes and heart notes. Base notes help to fix other notes in the perfume formula (i.e. make them last longer); they enhance the scent of other ingredients; and, in some cases, they impart their own scent.
Amber: There is no amber ingredient in the wild. It’s an accord created with perfume notes such as labdanum, vanilla, and balsams such as benzoin and Tolu Balsam, which are sweet, warm resins that both come from tree barks. Amber is the cornerstone accord of Oriental fragrances.
Ambergris: A highly prized base note rarely used in non-synthetic form because of its rarity and cost. Why is it so expensive? Because of its origins: The sperm whale eats cuttlefish, whose bones are indigestible and painful to its stomach lining. As a result, it secretes a substance that surrounds the bones. This mass gets excreted, most likely from the whale’s back end. It then floats around in the water, ages, gets oxidized by the sun, and turns into the substance that washes ashore until it’s found by some lucky bastard who can sell it for more per ounce than gold. Ambergris smells earthy, sweet, tobacco-like, and provides a roundness and depth to perfumes. Christian Dior Dioressence perfume was said to have been inspired by perfumer Guy Robert’s encounter with both real ambergris and a knock-off Miss Dior soap.
Bergamot: The essential oil from the rind of the Citrus aurantium, an inedible fruit that looks like a small orange. Bergamot lends a sparkling citrus-y freshness to perfumes, and Le Labo Bergamote 22 highlights this ubiquitous top note. (Also see orange blossom, neroli and petit grain, which are all from the same tree.)