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A Lexicon of Scent

Perfume Glossary

What are notes, accords and undertones? What makes a perfume 'natural', and what exactly are chemicals? What's the difference between an essential oil and an absolute?

Find out using this glossary resource for perfumery terms. An alphabetised collection of the most essential words and phrases in the culture of perfumery.

A

Absolute: Highly concentrated perfume ingredient obtained by the alcohol extraction of the concrete. Absolutes usually come in the form of oil, much like essential oil, but are differentiated by the extraction method and odour intensity.

Accord: The basic character of a fragrance. Perfume accords are a balanced blend of three or four notes which create a completely new, unified odour impression. Analogous to the musical terminology where several keys are combined to create a single note, which is part of a complete composition. 

Adulteration: The process of using synthetic perfume materials to enhance or support natural raw materials. This process is also called sophistication, cutting, boqueting, diluting or rounding. The technique is often used in the material trade where certain natural ingredients alter depending on their environment, thus the purpose of adulteration to conserve the ingredients original aromatic properties.

Aerosol: A method of instantly dispersing perfumes using a pressurised system and various propellants.

Aldehyde: Aldehydes are an essential class of perfume ingredients that impart a vivid top note to the perfume. Aldehydes were first successfully incorporated into a perfume by Ernest Beaux in 1921 in Chanel No 5. An aldehydic fragrance is a floral bouquet harmonised with a complex of fatty aldehydes which contribute to a fragrance blend.

Amber: As a perfume group, amber is often synonymous with Oriental. However, amber also describes scents that are sweet, woody and earthy. Labdanum, vanilla and benzoin all have amber qualities. Amber as a note is almost always a blended scent rather than one particular ingredient.

Ambergris: A historic and valued perfume ingredient produced by the Sperm Whale as a result of consuming squid. The squid's beak irritates the stomach of the whale and around this irritation a growth or calculus emerges which it either regurgitates or passes through it's intestinal tract. The calculus may float on the ocean's surface for many years before reaching landfall and being discovered by human harvesters. Fresh ambergris has a marine, faecal odour but as it ages ambergris develops a sweet, earthy scent reminiscent of isopropyl alcohol without the vaporous chemical astringency.

Animal, Animalic: Characterized by bodily aromas or aromas most associated with traditional animal materials such as those from Musk Deer, Civet Cat, Beaver (castoréum) and Sperm Whale (ambergris). These materials are now rarely used in commercial perfumes and have been replaced with musks obtained from plants and molecules obtained synthetically.

Anosmia: A medical term describing the total absence of the sense of smell. It is commonly the result of damage to the olfactory bulb. 

Application: The proper manner of fragrance usage to assure depth and character on the skin. It can vary according to the type of perfume, but usually involves layering. For example, first splash eau de cologne/toilette all over the body, then smooth or spray perfume on all pulse points from ankles up since fragrance rises. Here's a guide to applying Oil Perfumes.

Aroma Molecules, Aroma Chemicals: Molecules obtained from natural products or made by synthetic organic chemistry that have an aroma. Most of the synthetic aroma chemicals are nature identical, i.e., identical to the same molecule obtained from a natural product. Aroma chemicals can be found in food, wine, spices, flowers, perfumes and essential oils. Many form biochemically (naturally) during the ripening of fruits. In wines, most form as by-products of fermentation.

Aromatherapy: The use of volatile plant oils, including essential oils, for psychological and physical well-being. The therapeutic use of pure essential oils and herbs in body massage, which is described by proponents as “healing, beautifying and soothing” the body and mind. The term was coined by   French chemist, R.M. Gattefosse.

Aromatic: Fragrance family or type denoting intense a spicey-grass scent embodied by a combination of citrus and woody herbs, particularly lavender.

Attar, Otto: From the ancient Persian word “to smell sweet.” Attar or Otto refers to essential oil obtained by distillation and, in particular, that of the Bulgarian rose, an extremely precious perfumery material.

Athonite Incense: Athonite Incense is a holy incense made by hand by the monks of Mount Athos in an ancient tradition. The scents derive from the distillation the flowers, woods and resins of the flora of Mount Athos.

Ayurveda: A system of wellness with roots in India.

B

Balance: The result of carefully blended fragrance components to that no one aromatic body or effect is readily identifiable. The perfumer always seeks to create a balanced composition which results in one harmonious sensory experience.

Balsam: The sticky, resinous materials obtained from trees or shrubs which give a combined sweet-woody odour associated with well-seasoned, non-coniferous woods such as maple.

Balsamic: A odour characterised by a mild sweet, vanilla note 

Bandoline: Was a kind of hair fixer very popular in Western Europe during the 19th century. Contemporaneously, they were referred to as "fixatures" along with other products like wax pomatum. While wax was used very much as hair gel are used today - for example, to smooth down stray hairs - bandoline was used for the same purpose as hairspray used today: to fix a finished hairstyle in place. Read more about Bandoline as well as DIY formulas here.

Base, Fond: The base notes or “fond” (meaning “bottom” in French) are the underlying, most enduring tones. They are responsible for a fragrance’s lasting qualities as base note products have low volatility and high tenacity.

Bitter: An effect described as a metallic greenness devoid of sweetness.

Blend: A harmonious mixture of fragrance materials.

Blotter Strips: Highly absorbant paper, cut into fine strips and intended for dipping into a starting material or composition, allowing for evaluation.

Body: The collective whole or totality, but also to a fullness and richness. It also described the middle note or theme of a composition.

Bouquet: The dominant theme that expresses well known flower types or a well rounded blend or two or more fragrance complexes. 

C

Camphoraceous: a bracing, cool and and menthol-like scent as found in eucalyptus, tea tree or bay leaf.

Castor, Castoreum: A perfume material derived from the Canadian or Russian beaver. it is a creamy secretion from the two pear shaped membranous sacs of both sexes of beaver. Upon removal they are dried upon removal and the secretion is taken in the form of a resinous substance. It is ultimately used in the form of a tincture prepared by rubbing down with orris root or clean sand, macerating in ethanol and carefully filtered.

Character: What makes a note, harmony or perfume distinctive or singular.

Chemical: Put simply, a chemical is a form of matter having constant composition and characteristic properties. Everything you can breathe, see, ingest or touch is made up of chemicals. Water is a chemical: Dihydrogen monoxide.  The air we breathe is made of chemicals: Oxygen, Nitrogen, Hydrogen and many more. All matter, including us, is made of chemicals. An aroma chemical is simply a chemical that has an odour. There is no form of artistic expression more intimately connected with chemistry than perfumery.

Chromatography: A scientific method of analysis for identification of perfumery components.

Chypre: The French word for 'cypress' and often synonymous with the modern term Mossy-Wood. Francois Coty popularised the term in his 1917 perfume 'Chypre'. Oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood and vetiver are typical, along with orris, calamus, clary sage and tarragon. A generous addition of citrus gives the fragrance lift and floral notes are rendered from jasmine, rose and cassis.

Citrus, Hesperidic, Hespéride: Odours from citrus fruits such as orange, lemon, lime, mandarin and bergamot which give fresh, fruity top notes used especially in eau fraiche, classical and men’s colognes.

Civet: Also called Civet Musk, is obtained from the odorous sacs of the civets, animals in the family Viverride, related to the Mongoose.

Cloying: The ability of a scent to linger long after contact or that satiates the senses beyond a natural desire.

Cologne, Eau de Cologne: Contains the lowest concentration of 2-4% pure fragrance. It’s light, refreshing and can be applied often.

Composition: The finished mixture of a combination of products obtained as the culmination of creative work.

Concrete: Solid waxy substance obtained by the solvent extraction of plant material, e.g., flowers, bark, leaves, etc. The absolute is obtained by alcohol extraction of the concrete.

Coniferous: Odours reminiscent of cone-bearing trees and shrubs like pine.

D

Distillation: Steam distillation in order to collect fragrant components (essential oils) contained in certain natural raw materials. In a still, hot steam is led through the plant material laying above boiling water. The steam carries the volatile oils and after subsequent cooling, you are left with both the essential oil and the hydrosol, a fragrant water.

Dry: Describes the absence of sweetness including woody, grassy and fern scents. A powdery character can also give the impression of dryness.

Dry Down: The final phase of a fragrance – the character which appears several hours after application. Perfumers evaluate the base notes and the tenacity of the fragrance during this stage.

Dry Wood: Part of the broader Wood Family, fragrances that are detectably drier through elements of cedarwood or burnt wood. Dried tobacco and leather are often characterised as dry wood.

Dysomia: Distortion of the sense of smell. Includes phantosmia: a smell that occurs in the nose without the presence of an external stimulating vapor; and, heterosmia, where all vapors smell alike.

E

Earthy: The musty, stale smell of fresh turned soil.

Eau de Cologne: A perfume with a light concentration of 2-4%. Also a popular perfume preparation dating back to the 17th century Italy by De Feminis. It first became popular in the city of Cologne, hence its name. It is a composition based on citrus compounds 

Eau de Parfum: A perfume containing 8-20% pure fragrance mixed with alcohol or oil. The Parfum Apothecary perfumes are all eau de parfum to parfum grade at 20-25% concentration, meaning you can use less for the same impact, making each perfume last much longer.

Eau de Toilette: Contains 4-8% base. This form is light yet relatively lasting.

Enfleurage: A perfume manufacturing technique that consisted of immersing raw materials in odourless fats that are solid at room temperature to capture the fragrant compounds exuded by plants. Petals are placed between layers of purified fat, which become saturated with flower oil, and alcohol is then used to obtain the absolute.

Essence: The extract of a substance that retains its fundamental or most desirable properties in concentrated form.

Essential Oil: The “essence” of plants obtained by distillation of the plant material or its concrete. Plant materials include flowers, grass, stems, seeds, leaves, roots, bark, fruits, tree moss and tree secretions.

Ethanol: Denatured ethyl alcohol is added to a fragrance compound to serve as the carrier. It modifies the fragrance intensity and makes application to the skin easier. The concentration of alcohol to perfume oils varies from perfumer to perfumer.

Expression, Cold Press: A essential oil extraction process performed exclusively on the peels of citrus fruits. 

F

Family: Fragrances that are constructed in a similar manner and have key ingredient combinations in common are said to be in the same fragrance family.

Floral: Fragrance family or type; either characteristic of a specific flower or a blend of several flower notes.

Floral Oriental, Floriental: A fragrance note or family denoting a sweet, powdery base with deep floral and spicy elements.

Fougère: Pronounced as ‘foo-jair’ (with the ‘j’ a little soft – almost ‘foo-shair'), Fougère is derived from the French word for fern and denotes a fragrance family defined by  coumarin with hints of lavender, oakmoss, and geranium. 

Fragrance Layering: A fragrance application technique where different forms (soap, lotion/oil, perfume) of the same or similar fragrance are applied to make it last longer on the body.

Fragrance Oil: Either straight aroma chemicals, or a mix of aroma chemicals and natural ingredients like essential oils, extracts, and resins. Fragrance oils are often used in high-end scented candles for their fragrance strength.

Fragrance Wardrobe: A collection of fragrances that a person owns to meet different moods, occasions, and even times of day.

Fruity: A fragrance family or type indicating scents of sweet, fresh or tart edible fruits, such as coconut, peach or pear. Citrus tends to not be included in this category as they have a classification all their own.

G

Glycerine: a sugar-alcohol obtained from natural sources, it is used as a skin protectant and moisturiser in soap, because of its water-retaining properties.

Gourmand: A food-like quality in a fragrance, most commonly associated with sweet fruit or dessert-like scents, e.g. coconut, pear or vanilla.

Green: Fragrance family or type whose odour is reminiscent of fresh-cut grass, leaves or a warm, moist forest. Green notes are characteristic of some lighter herbs, green tea or cucumber.

H

Heady: An exhilarating, rich and stimulating scent.

Heart Note, Cœur, Middle Note, Body: The middle or “heart” notes make up the main blend of a fragrance that classifies the fragrance family or accord. It usually takes from ten to twenty minutes for the middle notes to fully develop on the skin.

Herbaceous: A fragrance note that is grassy-green, spicy and somewhat therapeutic, e.g., thyme, chamomile.

L

Lauric Acid: a saturated fat found in plants, particularly coconut and palm kernel. It is used in our soaps for its skin-soothing and anti-microbial effects.

Leather, Cuir: Fragrance type and odour resembling the sweet, pungent smokiness characteristic of the ingredients used in the tanning process of leathers.

M

Macassar Oil: A compounded oil popularised by celebrated London barber, Alexander Rowland. In 1793, it became one of the first nationally advertised products, boasting extravagant claims of thickening and growth stimulation. It was an effective hair and beard styling agent, though, giving shine and lustre, and importantly adding scent. Read more about Macassar Oil as well as DIY formulas here.

Mossy Wood: Often referred to as Chypre fragrances, it is characterised by wet, grassy woody scents, like oakmoss.

Muguet: The French term for Lily of the Valley. One of three most used florals in perfumery.

Musk: Originally derived from the perineal glands of the Tibetan musk deer, the animal is now endangered and protected. Because we love animals, TPA only uses musk odours derived synthetically or from plants to achieve the same fragrant result. Musk adds a warming and sensual element to perfume.

N

Natural: in perfumery, refers to aroma chemicals that are produced by or using living organisms, such as plants or animals.  Aroma molecules are produced naturally inside a living organism and then isolated as a distinct aromatic chemical. From a chemistry perspective, natural perfume ingredients are identical to lab-made aroma molecules. They have the same structure, behave the same way in and on the body and are identical in virtually every way. Perfumes labelled 'natural' perfumes commonly use essential oils, absolutes and concretes as opposed to fragrance oils.

Niche Fragrance: Boutique artisanal perfumes produced on a small scale. Presence in mainstream retail stores is minimal or non-existent. These are the scents you might likely find at a perfume specialist or high-end fragrance boutique.

Note: Borrowed from the language of music to indicate an olfactory impression of a single smell, or to indicate the three parts of a perfume – top note, middle note, base note.

O

Olibanum, Frankincense: An aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia.

Oriental: Fragrance family or type denoting heavy, full-bodied and tenacious perfumes. Amber notes are dominant in this category. The term comes from French simply meaning 'East', a reference to origins of many key ingredients used in the family.

Oud: Also Agarwood, aloeswood or gharuwood, is a fragrant dark resinous wood formed in the heartwood of aquilaria trees when they become infected with a type of mould.

P

Parfum: Most highly concentrated form of fragrance, the strongest and the most lasting. Perfume may contain hundreds of ingredients within a single formulation.

Pastil, Pastille: Pastils (or Pastilles) are a form of granulated or powdered incense material that is mixed with a sticky binder like as dried fruit, honey, or a soft resin, that is then formed to into pellets, balls or shards. They are often allowed to mature and dry in a controlled environment where the fragrances can amalgamate and become more coherent.

This is generally the main style of incense used in Levant cultures, where in Arabic it is known as bakhoor (بَخُورٌ), and in Eastern Orthodoxy as thimiama. Japan also has a tradition of kneaded incense called neriko or awaseko.

Pentasodium Pentetate: Includes calcium and magnesium, and is used to maintain the stability of soap.

Perfumer:  An expert or professional creating perfume compositions, sometimes referred to affectionately as a 'Nose' due to their fine sense of smell and skill in producing olfactory compositions.

Petrichor: the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. To be more precise, it’s the name of an oil that’s released from the earth into the air before rain begins to fall. Some scientists suggest that humans inherited an affection for the smell from our prehistoric ancestors who relied on rainy weather for their survival.

Powder: Sweet, dry, somewhat musky odour, reminiscent of talcum powder or rose.

Propylene Glycol: An organic alcohol used in our soaps in small amounts to ensure the lather washes off cleanly with water.

R

Resin, Resinous: Extracts of gums, balsams, resins or roots (e.g. orris), which consist in whole or in part of resinous materials. They are generally used as fixatives in perfume compositions.

S

Sillage: The aura created by a perfume when it is worn on the skin.

Smokey: Mostly refers to scents that are reminiscent of incense, burnt wood or amber.

Soft Floral: is a fragrance family or type that has a soft, warm, powdery base softened by intense freshness of a floral bouquet. It one of the oldest and most important fragrance families, typified by Chanel Nº 5. Today it is one of the most under-represented families in terms of new releases. TPA hopes to change that.

Soft Oriental: A fragrance family with tones of incense paired with flowers, spices and amber creating a softer style of Oriental.

Sorbitol: a naturally occurring sugar-alcohol used in soap to prevent moisture loss.

Spicy: Piquant or pungent notes such as clove oil, cinnamon; characteristic of notes of carnation, ginger, lavender or the chemical spicy notes of eugenol or isoeugenol.

Stearic Acid: A fatty acid found in plants, especially cocoa and shea butter.

Synthetic: Perfume ingredients that are produced by synthetic organic chemistry rather than bio-synthetically by a plant. In most cases the synthetic ingredients used in perfumery are nature identical, i.e., identical to the same molecule made by the plant.

T

Tète, Top Note, Head Note, Departure: The first impression of a fragrance when sniffed or applied to the skin.

Tetrasodium Etidronate (EDTA): molecules used to bond ingredients together and is used in soap to make sure it washes clean off the skin and your shower.

Tincture: Fragrant materials produced by directly soaking and infusing raw materials in room temperature or warm alcohol.

Titanium Dioxide(TiO2): an earth mineral ideal for sensitive skin. It is used for colour in soap.

U

Undertone: The subtle characteristics of the fragrance background.

Unisex: A fragrance designed to be suited to all genders.

W

Water, Oceanic: an aquatic or oceanic fragrance that has a clean and aquatic scent.

White Flowers: Literally flowers that are white! But particularly jasmine, tuberose, gardenia, freesia and similar smelling flowers. The fragrance is heavier, richer and sexier than rose or iris, for example.

Wood: A fragrance family and odour which is linked to the aroma of freshly cut, dry wood or fibrous roots such as sandalwood or vetiver.

Woody Oriental: A fragrance group or type characterised by spicy oriental elements with warm wood accords like sandalwood or vetiver.

 

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