How to Talk About Perfume, Part 2: Fragrance Families
Simply put, a fragrance family is a category of perfume. It's part of a classification system that allows you and I to distinguish scents from one another based on their compositions and how we perceive them. This isn't standardized by any means—there are a handful of classification systems out there, and a single perfume can be assigned a whole slew of labels. But, there are significant overlaps as well.
Personally, I like the fragrance wheel, which was developed in the 1980s by fragrance expert Michael Edwards. I've always thought of perfumes in colors and densities, so the fact that it replicates traditional colour wheels is helpful to the way I think about relationships between scents. This system is a reminder that fragrance families constitute a spectrum, not clear-cut divisions—which, I suppose, is why we use the word family.
This wheel provides a simple vocabulary to talk about the world of scent (with some semblance of structure!) and the rudimentary ability to speak to each scent's characteristics. But more importantly, it's a shorthand that becomes immensely useful when I'm recommending perfumes to a friend, or trying to help the Sephora employee single out something that I won't crinkle my nose at.
The fragrance wheel can be separated into four quadrants: FRESH, FLORAL, ORIENTAL, and WOODY. These groups can be further subdivided into families—you'll sometimes see perfumes labeled as "woody aromatic green" or "floral fruity gourmand"—but for our purposes, they paint a pretty good picture of how scents can differ from one another.
This includes the CITRUS, WATER, GREEN and FRUITY families. It's a gateway category in that fresh fragrances dominate the mass perfume market and are, for the most part, completely inoffensive, so a lot of people end up choosing a fresh perfume as their first fragrance purchase. I did. Your high school crush probably did. Fresh perfumes smell like freshly-squeezed lemons and breezy summer love and residual salt water in your hair. They're bright and beautiful and super easy to wear. But the category's popularity is also its demise: the market is now flooded with cheap, synthetic-smelling juices that, due to their freshness, encourage the wearer to be offensively heavy-handed in its application. You can't have it all.
For a classic fresh perfume, try Calvin Klein CK One.
For a niche option: Maison Francis Kurkdjian Aqua Celestia.
This category includes the FRUITY FLORAL, SOFT FLORAL and FLORAL ORIENTAL families. The classic floral fragrance is, as you would expect, heavily marketed to women. It's the epitome of what's typically considered "feminine," although I would argue that anyone can wear anything that brings them comfort or joy, and who gives a shit. For years I resisted my love for florals, because I didn't want to smell like a cliché. Then I realized we only get one go in this sack of flesh we call our bodies, and life is far too short to wear anything but the scents that make your heart buzz around like a happy little animal.
Some floral perfumes highlight the scent of a single flower, like jasmine, or rose: those we call soliflores. Others use notes like citruses, woods and spices to complement the floral notes, or to coax out something other than their inherent prettiness. One of my favourite rose scents—Le Labo's Rose 31—is a floral/woody composition that uses notes like vetiver and caraway to give the romantic, old-school rose a darker, spicier edge. It's worn by men and women alike, and beautifully so.
For the record, I hate this terminology, but who am I to expect more from an industry established and run by white men?
The oriental group includes the FLORAL ORIENTAL, SOFT ORIENTAL, and WOODY ORIENTAL families. It encapsulates anything that can be described as (to be reductive, but also to spare you the nerdy details) "warm" and "sensual." Channel your inner European perfumer, and picture how he would fetishize the East, the kind of smells he would deem exotic. That's it. We're talking spices, musks, resins, and notes like amber, vanilla, patchouli and sandalwood. As a result, oriental fragrances are heavier, more dramatic, have more oomph. They're ideal fall/winter scents—but again, who am I to tell you what to do?
This section can be further divided into WOODY ORIENTAL, MOSSY WOODS, and AROMATICS. Woody fragrances are more concentrated in base notes, which gives them impressive lasting power on your skin. Since the compositions tend to be warmer and heavier, they make great fragrances to wear in the evening, or whenever you're seeking out a certain dimension of comfort. Common notes include warm, cozy sandalwood, cedar (dry and sharp), vetiver (smoky, earthy), and agarwood/oud (which is its own beast). These notes are usually paired with aromatic notes, like sage, rosemary, and lavender, and citrus notes, like bergamot and mandarin.
Woody smells are, at least for me, the easiest to identify and pin to a reality I know—whether that's grabbing a fistful of wet soil, or standing in a fireplace. They're the most rooted in nature, and the closest to the experiences that catch us in the throat. Which is why, I think, we surround our homes with these smells as much as we wear them on our skin.
Finally, we have a few fragrance families—common terms used by the perfume industry—that resist categorization:
CHYPRES (sheep-rah) - This is a classic perfume accord, named after Coty's Chypre. It's based on a harmony of bergamot at the top, labdanum in the middle, oakmoss and patchouli as a base. A classic chypre accord smells like the coming of fall. Today, perfumers take more liberties with the structure, and as a result, you can have a fruity chypre or a woody chypre. Here's an excellent interpretation by Heeley.
FOUGÈRES (foo-jer) - Fougère is the French word for fern, and connotes that green, fresh smell that comes with seeing a fern leaf unfurl in the wild. As a fragrance family, it's what I would call the classic barbershop scent: herbaceous, aromatic and masculine, with notes like lavender, oakmoss, and coumarin. For a modern take on this old-school concept, try Parfums MDCI Le Barbier de Tanger.
GOURMANDS - Some would classify gourmands as orientals, but others keep them distinct. These are scents that smell edible, like dessert—think notes of chocolate, caramel, sugar, toffee. Most smell sweet, as you can imagine, so if that's something you're sensitive to, it's best to approach gourmands with caution. A classic, beloved scent from this family is Thierry Mugler's Angel.
LEATHERS - This is a tough one to classify, because depending on what the leather is paired with, it could belong in any fragrance family. But generally, you'll have a leather or suede base note, some honey, a little tobacco, tar. Now Smell This breaks down the different types of leather fragrances for you here. One of my favourites: Tom Ford's Tuscan Leather.