“How to describe a smell?”
The sense of smell is something that we cannot see, hear, and touch, therefore hard to explain. However, it is something that we can memorize, feel, and sometimes taste. In this post, I am going to introduce a very simple way to describe a fragrance.
Smell and take notes
When you smell a fragrance, write down the first thing you remember when smelling it. If the smell is very new to you and you don’t have any memories, put a mark on it, and come back later. It will help you memorize a scent and help you describe the smell in the future.
Know the fragrance families
I have written about this here: Fragrance Families.
There’s a debate on whether we should consider the olfactive pyramid or ignore it. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the fragrance pyramid. The only thing to clarify here is the definition, or the objective, of the pyramid itself.
There are many molecules inside a fragrance. Natural or synthetic, all of them are chemical molecules. These molecules are smelling good, of course, but more than that, have their chemical properties. One of the features that we, perfumers, need to understand is the volatility.
Long story short, volatile raw materials are mostly “seen” in the top notes, while less volatile raw materials are in the base notes. However, it has little to do with the smell. For instance, is it possible to still smell citrus in the middle notes? Or, to smell woods in the top notes? Of course, yes. Because in the composition, the raw materials interact with one another. There are endless possibilities for what they can do together. It is also our job as the perfumer to understand this interaction and use it to our advantage. Key takeaway: see the pyramid as a whole, and take the “top, middle, and bottom” with a grain of salt.
However, in order to describe a fragrance, we can use this pyramid to our advantage. To make it easier, I will give general assumptions:
- Top notes are mostly citruses, fruits, aromatics
- Middle notes are primarily flowers, aromatics
- Base notes are mostly musks and woods
Therefore, when we smell a fragrance, ask ourselves these questions:
- What are the family and subfamily?
- What type of citrus or fruits?
- What is the flower?
- Is there any musk or wood?
- Which wood is this?
If you want to learn faster, don’t see the pyramid before you ask those questions above. Write down your impressions first.
I give you a little example.
Daisy Marc Jacob is a floral (family) and green (sub-family) fragrance. The flower smells light and transparent, so it’s probably a white flower. And the green part smells like leaves. It’s quite powdery, dusty, and smells like skin; there must be musks. It also smells dry in the dry down; it must be the wood.
That short description is good enough. Next, we can check the brand’s official description to understand each facet that we just smelled.
It is easy to find information on fragrance’s composition on the internet. We can also find out the family and sub-family. This important information will help us to elaborate on the smells.
Smell as many fragrances as possible
Smelling is the key. The only key. Do the exercise above, and I’m quite sure you will learn so much about fragrance. What to smell?
Perfumes are the ideal product to smell because the odor is clear and the fragrance concentration is high. Also, we can later check the notes on the internet to verify our impressions. However, if you don’t have easy access to perfumes, realize that our beauty and home products contain fragrance as well. Smell your shower gel, shampoo, body lotion, hand sanitizer, face cream, detergent, fabric softener, anything that smells. Many of them are smelling nice too! Smell them and try to describe their olfactive family, and one notes that smells the strongest to you. You’ll learn something.
Now, how to talk about them?
We usually use words like facet, note, and accord. I think those three are the most common. Facet is usually used to explain the character of the raw materials. Note is used to describe the raw materials and their impressions. Accord is used to describe the whole nuances of the scent or the family of the same notes.
I want to elaborate more on the fragrance accord. Fragrance accord is a combination of several raw materials that serve a purpose, whether it is to reconstruct existing scents or fully imaginative. An accord could be used as a raw material in the formula, or it could also be a starting point or a backbone of a fragrance. Fragrance accord is usually a short formula of three to ten materials. So when we say accord in our description, we smell several notes as a whole.
Let’s try to describe Daisy (Marc Jacobs)
Now, let me give you an example.
Daisy (Marc Jacobs) smells fresh in the top notes. The citrus accord is bitter and slightly green, reminiscent of grapefruit and lemon. The sour facet of the grapefruit provides texture and character, while the acidic lemon notes gives sparkles. There are also green notes at the beginning that smells like leaves. The fragrance progresses to be more floral. The floral accord is rich and opulent, reminiscent of white flowers. I can smell fruity facet of gardenia and jasmine fill the heart of this fragrance. The animalic facet of jasmine is faint here, leaving only the tea notes for us to enjoy.
In practice, there are really no rules on how to use these words. I guess by smelling, reading, and discussing fragrance, we will be familiar with these words.
Voila! That’s all from me now. If you have further questions or want me to elaborate more on a particular topic, please feel free to ask me on the comment box below, or connect with me through my Instagram.