Ever been walking down the street, gotten caught in someone’s sillage (siyaj), and ended up at the perfume counter saying “I want to try…..”?
Fragrance is one of the most personal things there is. There are even claims that your personality traits can be identified based on your choice of perfume.
The art of fragrance
The art of perfumery is old – older even than recorded civilisation. Our word ‘perfume’ has its origins in Latin, and means ‘through smoke’. Could this be a reference to the fact that incense was the first fragrance used after man learnt to record such things?
Frankincense & myrrh were staples of ancient perfumery. The modern perfumer has hundreds of scents at their disposal, of which 17 are roses.
From conception to the marketplace can take years. It all starts with an idea, often ethereal. Then the name is chosen. Next, development of a marketing plan is begun. What is the target audience? How much do we want them to pay for it? What image do we want to convey in our advertising? How much do we want to pay to advertise this scent? How will we advertise it? And of course, what type of bottle is to be used?
Now comes the actual process of creation. This is where the ‘nose’ (an individual with highly developed and trained olfactory senses) will try to emulate the designer’s vision by mixing fragrant oils & synthetics. This can take some time, as the nose is a delicate instrument, and can tire quickly. Once the ‘nose’ is happy that the fragrance meets all the requirements, testing begins. This takes many forms, of the scientific variety as well as the designer (& sometimes a ‘panel’ of their choosing) deciding what, if any changes need to be made. How long the fragrance lasts on the skin and how strong the different scents are, is a most important point of consideration.
Perfumes are often tiered, with Top, Middle & Lower ‘notes’. The top notes are the ones you smell first, and last for a very short time. The middle or heart note of the fragrance is where the main elements of the fragrance lie & can last up to 4 hours. The base note holds the other components of the fragrance together, and may last for a day or more.
There are also ‘linear’ perfumes available, which have no top, middle or base notes, but rather, all scents being released together, layered one on top of the other. There are also the faithful ‘single note’ fragrances, almost always floral, consisting of the scent of a single flower.
Top – ylang-ylang, neroli, aldehydes.
Middle – jasmine, rose, iris, lily of the valley.
Base – sandalwood, veviter, musk, vanilla, civet, oak moss.
Christian Dior Dune
Linear– broom, wallflower, bergamot, mandarin, lily, peony, jasmine, rose, amber, lichen, musk, sandalwood, vanilla.
There is much confusion over exactly how many families of fragrance there are. These groups or ‘families’ as they are sometimes called have many subcategories, but most fragrances fall somewhere in these 7 main groups.
Floral – a fragrance consisting of floral notes.
Green - the general fragrance of grasses & green plant parts.
Floriental - a mix of floral & oriental notes.
Chypre - top notes (bergamot) and a floral heart (rose) are added to a woody, ambery base (oak moss, patchouli, labdanum).
Amber - A fragrance with either a strong exotic spicy or balsamic base.
Fougere - a fragrance with fresh, herbaceous notes on a mossy, fernlike base.
Leather - with notes of, well, leather.
Why do I pay more?
The price of a top fragrance can sometimes make us (well me anyway) stand back and take a BIG breath before plunging ahead to the cash register. Why is there such a huge difference in the price of some perfumes?
The answer is the quality of the ingredients. A cheaper mass-marketed fragrance that uses poorer quality (& thus cheaper) ingredients is not going to last as long on the skin as one that uses top quality ingredients. Remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for”. Well, it holds true here.
The other factor to take into account is what strength of fragrance are you buying?
Parfum – 15-20% fragrant oils, in pure alcohol (90-95% pure).
Eau de parfum – 15-18% oil in a weaker alcohol mix.
Eau de toilette – 4-8% oil in still a weaker alcohol mix.
Eau de cologne – 3-5% oil in a very weak alcohol mix.
Also, as with so many things in our modern world, you may be paying for the name on the bottle. After all, would Chanel No5 be so expensive if it was created by an unknown, rather than Coco Chanel?
How Do I Wear It?
Firstly, don’t rub the fragrance into your skin. This will bruise the scent. Allow about 20 minutes for the notes to reveal themselves
Perfume lasts best when applied to the pulse points at the wrists, navel, elbows, collarbone, or behind the knees. Application behind the ears is not recommended, as the alcohol will evaporate quickly, and the scent will fade. Application to slightly damp skin may help the fragrance to last longer on some people. Layering is also popular. You can start with soap or body wash, move up to body lotion, and top with the fragrance. Myself, I just spritz and go.
Balsam - has a vanilla-like odour, and is the resin from certain trees & shrubs.
Bergamot - an orange scented oil from the bergamot orange tree. Used in around 33% of women’s fragrances.
Bitter orange - from the rind of the Bigarade orange.
Frankincense – (Olibanum) – this is the gum resin from a small tree grown in South Arabia & Somalia. Used as a main ingredient in around 13% of modern fragrance.
Galbanum - gum resin from the giant fennel of Iran. Possesses a spicy-green, leaf like, musky odour.
Jasmine - after rose, the 2nd most used ingredient, putting in an appearance in around 80% of modern perfumes.
Labdanum (Ledanon) - also known as amber, this is a resin from the leaves of the Cistus tree, which is grown in the Middle East.
Lavender - I remember this from my grandmother’s closet. Very popular as a single note fragrance during the war years.
Lemon- used to give top notes a bit of extra Oomph!
Lily of the Valley (Muguet) - found in around 14% of today’s fragrances. Another oldie but goodie in the single note stakes.
Myrrh - gum resin from the myrrh tree. Provides a balsamic note, and is in around 7% of perfumes.
Neroli - from the flowers of the Bigarade orange (bitter orange tree). Used in around 12% of modern scents.
Oak moss - a lichen, found in one third of today’s perfumes. Taken from oak, spruce & other trees in Europe and Northern Africa.
Orris - long story short, this oil is from the rhizomes (bulbs) of certain irises. Looks like butter, smells like violets.
Patchouli - a herb, the leaves of which are dried and then fermented before distillation takes place. Used in one third of top fragrances.
Rose – 75% of ‘quality’ fragrances contain rose oil. By far the most expensive of the natural oils, it takes 1,000 pounds of roses to obtain one pound of rose oil.
Sandalwood - distilled from the sawdust of the sandalwood tree in India & Indonesia. Another expensive ingredient, used as a base note in over half of all ‘quality’ fragrances.
Tonka - from the beans of a South American tree, cured in rum. Used in around 10% of fragrances.
Tree moss – oak moss in the USA. In Europe this is a lichen found on particular spruce and fir trees.
Tuberose - taken from tuberose flowers and used in around 10% of top fragrances.
Vanilla - the fruit pods of the vanilla orchid vine form crystals. These are harvested and fermented. Vanilla is long-lasting and makes an appearance in the base notes of some 36% or perfumes.
Violet - oil from the leaves and the flowers of either the Victoria or the Parma violet plant. This proved to be so costly that most modern violet fragrances are synthetically produced.
Ylang-ylang - from the Ylang-ylang tree. The flowers are picked when they have been open for 2 weeks, as this is when the fragrance becomes evident. Distillation is done on-site.
Animal ingredients were once used in top-of-the-line perfumes. Now they are emulated in laboratories with synthetics. These included:
Ambergris – a substance excreted by the sperm whale after eating cuttle fish.
Musk – grains or seeds from a walnut-sized pod removed (apparently harmlessly) from the male musk deer in the Himalayas.
Civet – an excretion taken from a pouch under the tail of the civet cat of Ethiopia, Burma and Thailand.
Castoreum – taken from sacs on a beaver, first used by Arabian perfumers in the 9th century AD.
Headspace technology - The fragrance is extracted from a living flower/plant, without harming the plant. The part of the plant to be used is placed inside a special container, and a vacuum is the used to draw off the fragrance. This is analysed by a gas chromatograph machine, which measures the exact chemical makeup of the scent.
Distillation - Plant material is placed in boiling water; the steam is captured, and distilled. The plant oil floats to the top and is extracted.
Extraction by volatile solvents - Fragrant material is placed on a perforated metal plate, and a volatile solvent, such as ether, is passed over it, and then runs into a still, where it solidifies. The end result of solidification is called ‘concrete’ and consists of essential oil and stearoptene, a waxy substance. These 2 substances are then separated by alcohol, leaving the pure oil, also termed ‘absolute’, the most expensive product in any fragrance.
Expression - used to obtain fragrant oils from the rinds of citrus fruits. The rinds are crushed between spinning rollers, which throw the oil clear of the pulped rind.
Enfleurage - this technique was originally used by the Ancient Egyptians, and involves laying flower heads on oil or fat, to absorb the fragrance. It is not used by the modern perfumer, as it is too time consuming.
Paulina Porizkova & Elizabeth Hurley for Estee Lauder
Eva Herzigova for Givenchy
Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Halle Berry, Christie Brinkley & Karen Duffy for Revlon
Isabella Rossellini & Juliet Binoche for Lancome
Daryl Hannah for Karl Lagerfeld
Kate Moss & Christy Turlington for Calvin Klien
Linda Evangelista & Vendela for Elizabeth Arden
Patricia Arquette for Anna Sui
My 2 Cents
I love perfume. Ever since I was a child, I have loved the fact that a single ‘spritz’ from a bottle can transform a woman, at least in her own mind. We’ve all done it, sprayed on a favourite scent, and felt our outlook on the world change instantly.
Of course, there is no one fragrance that can cover every nuance of mood we are likely to experience, and nor should there be. How boring a world that would be! I love nothing more than picking up a bottle of liquid magic, inhaling deeply, and escaping my reality for a few seconds.
I usually stop there, unless I have had a chance to read up on the fragrant ingredients of that particular fragrance. Why? Because many perfumes smell divine in the bottle, but on my skin, they reek. After much careful research, and a lot of time alone, due to said research, I have come to the conclusion that sandalwood is the culprit. Which effectively rules out about 50% of perfumes for my personal use. Drat!
Speaking of research, I feel the need to mention that much of the technical information in this article came from Nigel Groom’s ‘The Perfume Companion’, my perfume bible. Without it, I would be lost. But I digress…..
Our bodies all have different chemical balances, and different fragrances react differently with each of us. Hence, what smells lovely on your sister or your best friend may empty a room when you wear it. And it’s not always so easy to determine which ingredients you are reacting with.
Why? Because the perfume industry is self-regulated (a law unto itself in layman’s terms), there is no requirement to list any of the ingredients in a perfume. And even if the fragrant items are listed, who is to say that you aren’t reacting with one of the man-made chemicals used to bulk or build up the perfume?
It is these same chemicals that many women have allergic reactions to. Because there is no definitive authority on the subject for them to confer with, they simply cease using fragrance. What a shame! I can’t imagine life without fragrance; I wear it every day, even if I am just doing housework. And I am fearless about approaching a complete stranger about her fragrance of choice if I happen to get caught up in her sillage.
So what is a sillage (Siyaj)? The residue of fragrance that surrounds and follows a woman, wherever she goes. Also the reason why so much of my research time was spent alone. Good, bad, or indifferent, every perfume will leave a sillage. And the bad will outlast the good every time.
I commented earlier on the cost of a ‘name’ fragrance. Of course, we could also go back to using what my nanna called ‘toilet water’ which was actually a home-made version of eau de toilette, and refresh our fragrance 3 or 4 times a day. But where would the fun be in that? Part of the appeal of a fragrance is that it allows us to unwrap some of those hidden layers within us, for no one but ourselves. And THAT is why we will pay top dollar for our fragrance, because we want a little bit of that inner mystery in every day of our lives.