It’s nearly impossible to convey a fragrance with words alone. That’s why product descriptions seem to be written by poets instead of hard-nosed copywriters. It’s why perfume commercials look like the fever dreams from romance novels. Strange as perfume marketing is, it's the right approach, but often gets lost in the translation. The sense of smell is a direct link to the brain’s memory center, able to transport an individual through a personal montage of disjointed experiences and fantasies.
The thing to do is to follow your nose - sample and experiment. That’s exactly what any great fragrance company does when creating a new scent: combining the energetic rhythms of fragrance notes until it becomes just complex enough to be able to slowly unlock attraction and feeling as it blends into the atmosphere.
Unlike the other senses that weaken with age, our sense of smell can get stronger with regular exercise. We’ll never be able to experience the olfactory wonderland of canines (as we are sight-first evolved), but through concentration and contemplation of scent, we all have sommelier potential. There’s no wrong answer, but some are just more right.
SOME THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT FRAGRANCE
Creating fragrances requires a lot of laboratory science. Whether a company uses essential oils distilled from plant materials or synthesized into “nature identical” aroma chemical isolates, the results are scent concentrates. These are then blended to unique effects. No two fragrances are identical and their recipes are kept under lock and key. The ingredients listed for a fragrance are more of a guide than the FDA regulated foods in a grocery store. However, paying attention to these listings on fragrance descriptions will help you discern personal taste when selecting something new. These fragrance notes are split into three main categories: Top, Middle (or Heart), and Base.
All fragrances have a family. Similar to how we share a taxonomic family with gorillas and chimps, fragrance families are broad but understandable. These are generally defined within the industry as the following...
Efflorescent (Floral): Evoking true floral scents, efflorescents represent a slightly feminine and highly traditional component of perfumery. Examples include Rose, Jasmine, Lavender and Honeysuckle.
Fruitaceous (Fruity): These scents bring the cool freshness of fruit. This category includes fruits of numerous types and origins, and can be further subdivided into fruity and citrus. Examples include Bergamot, Apple, Strawberry, Fig and Watermelon.
Gourmand (Edible): These are the scents that bring to mind fragrant edibles. This is a decadent family with deep and heady notes that can make the mouth water. Examples include Vanilla, Amaretto and Chocolate.
Arboraceous (Woody): These scents carry the character of the woods and plant resins. Arboraceous scents represent some of the most historic and storied scents traditionally used in perfumery. Examples include Myrrh, Amber and Cedarwood.
Verdant (Green): Composed of lush, green scents that call forth the fresh vegetation of spring and summer. Examples include Green Tea, Fresh Cut Grass and Green Leaf.
Terrestrial (Earthy): Terrestrial scents are the deep, yet subtle tones found in fields and amongst the thick humus of forest floors. This family can be further subdivided into earthy and animalistic. Examples include Tobacco, Fresh Dirt and Oakmoss.
Fragrances are classified by their “notes'' or scent characteristics. Below are the typical classifications used:
Top Notes: These normally evaporate quickly. They tend to be light, fresh and uplifting. Top notes are more volatile and fast acting - providing the first impression of the blend.
Middle or Heart Notes:These give body to the blend and bridge the Top and Base notes. The aromas of Middle Notes are not always immediately evident and may take time to establish their scent in the mix while balancing the brighter Top with the deeper Base.
Base Notes: These are the heavy fragrances. The scent will be present for a long time and slows down the evaporation of the other notes. These fragrances are typically intense, but invigorating. They are normally rich and relaxing in nature.
SOLID AND LIQUID PERFUMES AND COLOGNES
Solid perfumes and colognes are just that, using a cream or wax base instead of an alcohol or oil base. The terms “perfume” and “cologne” are interchangeable.
Liquid perfumes are divided into special industry terms to denote the dilution ratio. The following terms are used to quantify that distinction:
Splashes and Sprays: These are the lightest products, containing about 1-3% aromatic compounds.
Eau de Cologne: Contains 4-6% aromatic compounds.
Eau de Toilette: Contains 7-10% aromatic compounds.
Eau de Parfum: Contains 10-20% aromatic compounds.
Perfume Extrait: Contains 20-40% aromatic compounds.
(*These terms are listed here so that this article is comprehensive. Most of the retaW scents are either in solid form, as a spray (pictured below) or combined with other cleaning products like their conditioner. Other perfumers, such as CdG PARFUMS and 19-69, use the others and are put here for your curiosity and/or reference.)
Here’s the tough part: describing a scent without the help of Smell-O-Vision. As described above, a scent is the complicated chemistry and interplay of various notes that have the unique ability to transport someone through memory and experience. Most fragrance descriptions rely on a “picture this” scenario to aid in that personality-driven search for scent preference. Those descriptions tend to be general enough to be as broadly appealing as possible. And because retaW only provides the Fragrance Notes for reference, we have done our best to create a vision of their unique and wonderful scents.
Smells like a fancy spa by a large body of water - the tide clearing the mind with white noise rhythms. It’s a very relaxing scent. There’s a clean, lemon zest to it like natural cleaning products on already clean wood cabinetry where the hotel keeps little soaps wrapped in wax paper.
Or It’s like taking a swim after a workout and then eating the perfect filling of something clean like sushi - with just enough soy sauce and wasabi - followed by pickled ginger to cleanse the palette. There’s a human smell to it too, but just out of the shower - toweling off with fresh laundered, soft towels and then putting lotion onto sun-kissed skin, and after that, stepping onto the 4th floor balcony to snack on an orange and peeling it absentmindedly while you look out at the first colors of a sunset on the far horizon - pink, orange, and gold reflecting on the water.
Top Notes: Grapefruit, Orange, Olive
Middle Notes: Jasmine, Rose, Pine
Base Notes: Frankincense, Amber, Musk, Cedarwood
It’s a cool scent on a hot day like mowing over wild mint.
Sharp scent of fresh orange zest in a fizzy gin cocktail (garnished with radish scapes and nasturtium flowers) that you sip through the gap in your front teeth so that it glides over the length of your tongue on its way to warming your belly.
It’s like welding in a garage that’s heated by a wood stove that is slowly burning green walnut and mulberry branches with a pot of Earl Grey brewing on top.
Or maybe something more of a fantasy like fresh cucumber and fresh mint after a spicy meal in the dead of a Minnesota winter when fresh produce is only a memory - followed by a round of pond hockey on a night that’s so cold that your breath freezes in your nostrils.
Top Notes: Peppermint, Bergamot, Lemon
Middle Notes: Water Lily, Gernium, Green Tea
Base Notes: Moss, Amber, Cedarwood, Musk
Dark and mostly woodsy. Like cleaning the dirt and tree resins off your hands in very cold, running water after trimming an orchard and then pressing cider in fall’s cinnamon air.
It’s like an old cedar chest that someone put mothballs in for some reason a long time ago, but then restored it with a homemade wood polish made of natural beeswax.
It’s like eating a rich, natural vanilla ice cream with dark cherries and dark chocolate chunks during the winter in front of the fireplace after everyone else has gone to bed.
It’s like drinking IPAs with people that look too clean, happy, and good looking to know as much as they do about Heavy Metal.
Or it’s like catching a whiff of potpourri in a wicker basket in Gramma’s living room that mixes with the scent of Thanksgiving dinner she’s cooking up for the whole, loud family - adults telling jokes while the kids run around drinking too much bright colored juice.
Top Notes: Aldehyde, Green, Violet Leaves, Ozone
Middle Notes: Lily of the Valley, Lilac
Base Notes: Cedarwood, Amber, Musk
Bright and clean like a shower first thing in the morning on a spring day when the lily-of-the-valley is in bloom.
It’s like fruit that’s so ripe that it has almost gone too far, and the only thing to do is to dive right in and enjoy it. Plus roses.
Like someone that just did a chemical peel and then put on some anti-wrinkle cream and some moisturizer and then some cherry lip-gloss before climbing under clean sheets and saying good night.
It smells like a vintage rose perfume on someone young at a nightclub, drinking champagne and having fun.
It’s like strolling through a tropical conservatory a little while after the staff cleaned all the handrails with Pine-Sol disinfectant spray.
Or it smells like a NYC hotel in the mid 2000s (the kind with a lounge area that has a giant bowl filled with glass beads that glow via programmed LED color transitions and serves as the only light in the room while people sit in backless chairs and talk). Beautiful people walking in and out of the hotel and each one has a different fragrance to bring to the conversation.
Top Notes: Aldehyde, Green, Violet Leaves
Middle Notes: Lily Of The Valley, Lilac
Base Notes: Cedarwood, Amber, Musk
Bright and floral with a slight astringent nature like crushed juniper berries.
It’s like watermelon-flavored soft serve ice cream served poolside in fancy, green glassware.
Like strolling through an orange grove before the sun gets too hot with bees collecting nectar to make honey in their hives nearby.
Like tropical flowers growing all around an outdoor shower that is well-stocked with unscented bar soap and located within an evergreen forest.
Or it’s like putting blue colored aloe vera gel onto someone that is chewing cinnamon gum and telling you about their day of drinking fresh cracked coconuts on a white sand beach.
Top Notes: Champagne, Lemon, Orange
Middle Notes: Jasmine
Base Notes: Berry, Musk
Warm and dark. Like a sauna built from cedar (but recently conditioned with walnut oil) on a moonlit night, and then afterwards cooling down with a cold bite of waxy, dark chocolate.
Like mixing good soil into a garden bed of blooming anise when the dry country sage wind is swirling and then drinking a cup of strong, herbal tea.
Like eating an arugula salad with walnuts and cardamom-infused balsamic vinaigrette.
Like those bags of scented pinecones thrown into the corner of a carpenter’s workshop while sucking on sour cherry candy.
Or it’s like when you just got over a cold, but are still sucking on cough drops and your body craves a banana, but one of your hands is full so you peel it with your mouth, and then the wind picks up and you can smell that it’s going to rain.
Top Notes: Freesia, Casis
Middle Notes: Lily, Lily Of The Valley, Jasmine, Tuberose
Base Notes: Heliotrope
(Note: We played a little game with these, trying to match the writer’s descriptions of the scents without including the Fragrance Notes provided by retaW. It produced very mixed results - some people did very well, others really did not - so take these descriptions lightly. Better yet, write your own description and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to hear your personal take on a retaW scent.)