Fragrance notes and their families
You may have heard of these terms before, but what do they mean?
Top, middle and base notes are three groups of notes that complete a formula to give balance to a fragrance.
Think of notes as the ingredients that make up a fragrance. From natural floral scents to synthetically created molecules, there are many notes for perfumers to choose from. In fact, it’s now possible to create almost any smell you fancy – candyfloss, baby powder, freshly cut grass and even rain. There’s no limit to the number that can be used in each fragrance, but all scents – even the simplest ones – blend at least three notes together. It is the individual arrangements of these notes that create a unique fragrance.
The Top Notes: Also sometimes referred to as the opening notes or head notes, the top notes of a fragrance are generally the lightest of all the notes. They are recognized immediately upon application of the perfume. The top notes are also the first to fade given their light molecular structure, but this does not mean they aren't of utmost importance.
The top notes of a fragrance represent the first impression. How many times have you tested a fragrance only to be turned off right away? Why? Because the top notes didn't make a lasting impression on you. It is hugely important that the top notes not only succeed at luring you in, but also smoothly transition into the heart of the fragrance.
Common fragrance top notes include citrus (lemon, orange zest, bergamot), light fruits (grapefruit, berries) and herbs (clary sage, lavender). The Middle Notes: The middle notes, or the heart notes
The centrepiece of any fragrance is aptly named the heart note, sometimes referred to as the middle note. This level is made up of a more robust oil than the lighter one used for the top note. It usually makes up at least half of the oils found in a bottle of perfume and is designed to last longer on the skin. Once the top note has faded, this is the scent that will be predominate.
The scents found in the heart note will react with your skin to form a fragrance that lingers for anywhere from two to four hours before leaving the base note to take over. This note is usually floral or fruity and robust. It is longer lasting than the top note, but not so long as the base note.
The job of the heart note is to create a harmonious dance with the earthier base notes below so that there is a seamless transition from where one level leaves off and the next begins. Common heart notes are coriander, jasmine or lemongrass, to name only a few. The Base Notes: The base notes are the final fragrance notes that appear once the top notes are completely evaporated. The base notes mingle with the heart notes to create the full body of the fragrance, but are typically associated with the dry-down period. The job of the base notes is to provide the lasting impression. These often rich notes linger on the skin for hours after the top notes have dissipated.
Common fragrance base notes include cedarwood, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, patchouli, oakmoss and musk.
Without the combination of the three levels of notes, a fragrance just wouldn't be aromatically appealing. But together, they create beautiful scents. The middle notes, or the heart notes, make an appearance once the top notes evaporate. The middle notes are considered the heart of the fragrance. They last longer than the top notes and have a strong influence on the base notes to come. A perfume's heart is generally pleasant and well-rounded. It is often a smooth combination of floral or fruit tones; sometimes infused with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamom. Common fragrance middle notes include geranium, rose, lemongrass, ylang ylang, lavender, coriander, nutmeg, neroli and jasmine.
The next area to master is the different fragrance families that all perfumeries use to characterise their creations. Floral, Oriental, Fresh, Fougère and Woody are the five main families, with each having additional sub-families within them.
This method makes it much easier to classify a perfume, and simplify the relationship between particular notes.
The Oriental family features four different types of fragrance within it: Floral Oriental, Soft Oriental, Oriental and Woody Oriental. Each sub-family offers a slightly different take on the theme but is associated largely with rich and sensual scents with a warming Eastern influence.
Soft Oriental, for example, comprises smooth carnation, incense and spices, while a Woody Oriental features more sensual notes of vanilla, musk and cardamom.
If you favour the fresh and romantic scent of roses, jasmine, lilies and frangipani, then your tastes definitely fall within the Floral family (of Soft Florals, Floral, Soft Florals and Floral Oriental), known for its light and feminine perfumes that uplift the spirits.
Warm and mysterious, the Woody fragrance family group, with its sub-families Wood, Mossy Woods and Dry Woods, is often used to create unisex or less overtly feminine scents.
Made up of deeper notes such as amber, cedar and sandalwood, Wood conjures up an air of mystery, making it perfect for evening when a more potent scent is what’s needed.
The Fresh fragrance family is made up of the sub-families Citrus, Green and Water, and beloved for its zesty, refreshing and effervescent qualities. A perfume made up of fresh notes – think freshly-cut grass, sea spray and crushed green leaves – will make you feel energised and ready for anything.
It’s also perfect for balancing or pairing with fruity notes that would otherwise be too sweet and overpowering.
Fougère is the final element within the fragrance family tree and contains elements from each of the other four families. Translating as “fern” in French, a Fougère fragrance usually features notes of lavender, geranium, vetiver, bergamot, oakmoss and coumarin to create a traditionally more masculine or unisex perfume.
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