Fragrances today are mostly a fusion of ingredients taken from nature – or inspired by nature – together with the synthetics (man-made ingredients) that are used to make them last longer, ‘carry further’, or stay ‘true’, when worn on the skin.
Here, you can read about literally hundreds of the different perfume elements in use today. If you know which ingredient you want to read about, you can either input the name into our ‘search’ box (top right). Or click on a letter of the alphabet below – and it’ll take you to a collage of all the ingredients that start with that letter. Alternatively, let your eye travel over the scrolling, rolling collage below – and click on whatever takes your fancy: a visual ‘lucky dip’…
Labdanum – from the Cistus plant (better known to some gardeners as Rock Rose) – is a pillar of chypre perfumes and many Orientals. What you smell actually comes from a sticky brown resin, taken from a plant that grows (often in very inhospitable, dry locations) in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Harvesting techniques have become somewhat more sophisticated since the time when labdanum was collected from the coats and beards of sheep and goats that grazed on these tough little shrubs…! (Labdanum is today extracted from the leaves using solvents, although the branches can also be boiled.)
The early Arab perfumers used labdanum in their recipes – ‘the sweetest-scented of all substances’, as it was described, its links to perfumery actually go back to Egyptian time, when labdanum (a.k.a. ladanon, black balsam and gum cistus) was a key ingredient in the kyphi incense blend, used for ceremonial purposes. It’s also referred to in the Bible (as Balm of Gilead). In natural medicine, labdanum’s prescribed to boost the immune system.
One of the reasons it’s so widely used now is that it mimics the scent of ambergris – it’s also referred to as ‘amber’ – but it’s also a ‘fixative’, helping other ingredients to stay true, and to stay put. This warm and complex resin is sometimes perceived as leathery, sometimes honey-like, with hints of plum.
Smell labdanum in:
Atelier Cologne Ambre Nu
Byredo Rose Noir
Chanel Les Exclusifs 31 Rue Cambon
Dior Miss Dior
Dior Oud Ispahan
Hermès Un Jardin Sur Le Nil
James Heeley Cardinal
Le Labo Labdanum 18
Miller Harris La Fumée Arabie
Prada Intense Prada
Roja Parfums Risqué
Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan
Yves Saint Laurent Opium
Of all the fragrance ingredients out there, lavender’s probably the most widely recognised (even if blindfolded) for its soothing, calming aromatic qualities. (It’s actually been proven to quell anxiety and promote sleep.) An ancient natural remedy, lavender’s a flowering member of the mint family – well, several members, because different types of lavender are used in perfumery.
The types mainly grown for fragrance are Lavandula angustifolia (or Lavandula officinalis), Lavandula latifolia, or the more camphor-y Lavandula stoechas, which smells more like rosemary. The hybrid Dutch lavender, or Lavandula intermedia, produces an oil called lavandin, with a sharper and more medicinal odour. Steam distillation’s used to extract the essential oil.
Lavender is thought to have originated in the highlands of India, but today it’s happy in all sorts of sunny, stony, well-drained spots around the world. France is still the epicentre of production, though: more and 80,000 kilos of lavender are grown each year. The name comes from the Latin, so we’re told: ‘lavere’ means ‘to wash’, and the Romans perfumed their baths with lavender oil. In Medieval times, lavender was strewn on the floors of churches and homes, used to scent linen and clothing, and also in pot pourri and sachets. (It helps to repel insects – even though bees love it, on the plant.) Come Tudor times, quilted jackets and caps were stuffed with lavender. (A tradition we’d quite like to see revived…!)
In modern fragrance, lavender is lightly used in ‘feminine’ scents, although it turns up in plenty of ‘shared’ colognes and men’s fragrances; it works well alongside other aromatic ingredients like pine, sage and rosemary, as well as patchouli, oakmoss, bergamot, neroli and orange blossom.
Says 'nose' Julie Massé: 'Lavender adds a herb-y note - but interestingly, by adding it to other fragrance notes you can push it towards 'cool' herb-y, towards the smell of mint, or you can go in the other direction and push it towards 'hot' herb-y, almost spicy, like the scent of a hot summer's night.'
Smell lavender in:
Goutal Paris Eau de Lavande
Crabtree & Evelyn Lavender
L’Artisan Parfumeur Mon Numero 4
L’Occitane en Provence Lavender Eau de Cologne
Penhaligon’s English Fern
Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely
Woods of Windsor Lavender
Yardley English Lavender
Fragrances can be ‘leathery’ – but it’s not really essence-of-leather in that bottle, as Andy Tauer explains below. It might be from birch tar (which has a leathery smokiness), or juniper, aldehydes or other synthetics, designed to give a skin-like scent. Patchouli, black tea and tobacco can also conjure up that old library/leather-jacket sensuality. Women’s chypres, and men’s fragrances, are most likely to have a leathery sensuality, but perfumers can take leather on all sorts of fragrant journeys: woody, aromatic, floral, even gourmand.
Here's what leather means to perfumer Andy Tauer, and how he uses it in his creations. 'The first association, when you tell me "leather", honestly, is "Swiss Army" and me serving there as soldier: my generation had the privilege of serving in thick leather shows that were made to endure a Swiss invasion of Moscow, including the way back. Solid and as uncomfortable as can be. Every evening we had to brush them, polish them. As mixed as my memories of proudly serving in the Swiss Army are, I loved the scent of my leather boots. Rough leather, made from Swiss cows, with a thickened skin due to a happy but rough life in the Alps (we can dream, can't we?). Leather in perfumery is not a natural essential oil that you buy.
He echoes our comment above: 'You have to make your leather chord. Birch tar can be one of the ingredients going in there. Leather as side note brings out, by contrast as so often in perfumery, flowers. Flowers bloom on skin when there´s leather in the base of a fragrance. It is like sticking bright colored flowers into my army boots. Wonderful, and a reminder how precious peace is.'
Leather and perfumery go way back together, meanwhile. The links are rooted in the tradition of the ‘gantier parfumeurs’, a guild of glove-makers in Paris who fashioned gloves for royalty and the aristocracy as far back as the 15th Century. The whole tanning process smells repulsive, though, so leathers were treated with oils, musk, civet and ambergris, to mask the smell of the animals’ skins.
The very first ‘leather’ scent, so far as records show, was worn by King George III: Creed’s Royal English Leather. He was so taken with the smell of scented gloves that he asked Creed to make it into a fragrance – and you can still smell that today…
Smell leather in:
Boadicea the Victorious Complex
Boadicea the Victorious Warrioress
Caron Tabac Blond
Chanel Les Exclusifs 28 La Pausa
Chanel Les Exclusifs Cuir de Russie
Dior Les Créations de Monsieur Dior Diorling
L’Artisan Parfumer Dzing!
Paco Rabanne 1 Million
Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque
Tom Ford Tuscan Leather
Lemons and flowers are a perfect marriage, in perfumery. (Think of the way that lemon can ‘cut through’ rich flavours, in cooking, and you get an idea of why the two work so well together.) So while you may be familiar with lemon in Colognes and summer splashes, lemon’s actually present in many, many fragrances.
Its history’s a bit blurry – were lemons first grown in Southern India, or Burma, or China…? But we do know that the Arabs brought this evergreen tree to Europe in around the 8th Century; lemon later made its way to America through seeds carried on Christopher Columbus’s ship, in 1493. The scented oil’s obtained by cold-pressing the peel – and unlike so many other plant ingredients, the aroma that you get from that process is almost exactly the natural scent of the ripe fruit’s peel.
Lemons grow all over the world and are a hugely popular fruit: where would cooking be without lemon’s zest and juice…? Ditto fragrance: it delivers energy, brightness, cheer and refreshment – like sparkling, sweet sunshine, bottled.
Smell lemon in:
Goutal Paris Eau d’Hadrien
Clarins Eau Dynamisante
Creed Bois de Cedrat
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Acqua Universalis
Miller Harris Fleur de Bois
Nina Ricci Nina
Put a few leaves of lemon verbena, or Aloysia triphylla, in a cup, add boiling water – and you’ve an incredibly refreshing drink. Add a little lemon verbena to a fragrance, and it delivers a brisk, pure, floral-citrus scent, like bruising the fragrant leaves of this shrubby plant between your fingers.
Smell lemon verbena in:
Acqua di Parma Colonia Acqua di Parma
Goutal Paris Eau du Sud
Clinique Aromatics Elixir
Creed Green Irish Tweed
Creed Neroli Sauvage
Issey Miyake A Scent by Issey Miyake
James Heeley Verveine
La Prairie Silver Rain
L’Artisan Parfumeur L’Eau de L’Artisan
L’Occitane en Provence Verbena Sorbet
Miller Harris Terre de Bois
Do you love licorice? Do you hate it? Most of us fall into one camp or the other, but even if you’re not a licorice-licker, you may still find its subtle aniseed-y, almost caramel-y note in perfumery intriguing and beguiling. It’s used to beautiful effect in gourmand fragrances, and blends with woods and earthy notes, too.
The word ‘licorice’ (or liquorice) comes from the Old French licoresse, and originally from the Greek meaning ‘sweet root’ (it really is, if you’ve ever chewed a licorice stick). It’s been around for thousands of years: archaeologists found Roman licorice along Hadrian’s Wall, and it was also uncovered in the pyramids. Though reminiscent of fennel and aniseed, Glycyrrhiza glabra is not actually related to them, however.
But did you know that licorce is used in love spells…? Sprinkled in the footprints of a lover, it’s said to keep them from wandering. And in a fragrance…? Equally bewitching.
Smell licorice in:
The powdery sweetness of lilacs fill the air in suburban streets and parks in late spring: short-lived, but utterly beautiful, with their pollen-y, jasmine-like softness, and tantalising hints of almond and roses. As perfumer Andy Tauer tells The Perfume Society, 'Lilac in perfumes is the note of spring, the promise of summer.'
Lilacs were introduced into Europe via Spain around the 16th Century, from the Arabs. The early fragrant use of the flowers was in pomanders. Our favourite lilac legend, though, is that the deep floral fragrance was believed in Celtic cultures to transport humans into fairyland and the spiritual world.
A fragrant oil can be solvent-extracted from the foamy blossoms of the Syringa plant (it comes from the Greek, meaning ‘pipe: shepherds made flutes from lilac wood and it was believed that whoever heard their music would never forget it). Nowadays, a synthetic form of lilac’s often used in contemporary perfumery, as it’s possible to recreate the tender natural fragrance perfectly, more reliably – and year round.
Do smell deep, though, and see if you can detect intrigue beneath the soft surface. Because Andy observes: 'My white lilac blooms early, due to an early spring in Zurich. I am convinced that I can detect a hidden note of car exhaust, modern car, there. How cool is that? It goes to show: flowers are more than what we see. I love them for that.'
Smell lilac in:
Aerin Lilac Path
Caron Fleur de Rocaille
Caron Royal Bain de Caron
Chloé Love Eau Intense
Cristobal Balenciaga Le Dix
Elizabeth Arden Fifth Avenue
Estée Lauder Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia
Frederic Malle En Passant
Givenchy Le de Givenchy
Guerlain Champs Elysées
Ralph Lauren Lauren
There are over 100 species of lily and it always slightly breaks our heart to buy a bunch and discover: they’re not always scented… But many varieties – the Madonna lily (named as a nod to the purity of the Madonna), the Casablanca Lily and the Oriental/Stargazer Lily most definitely are, and their subtly different scents are all caaptured in perfumes: intoxicating, heady, rich and sweet, reminding us of jasmine or tuberose. (‘Headspace’ technology is usually used to capture the scent: the air around the bloom is analysed, and the aroma compounds flawlessly recreated in the lab.)
Lilies have been used in perfumery since ancient times: they were very well-loved in Egypt, as part of a perfumed ointment ‘based on the flowers of 2000 lilies’, while the ancient Greeks used Madonna lilies to make a perfume called Susinon.
They’re wonderful in the home, possibly the perfume-lover’s must-have bloom. So long as the lily flowers you buy are indeed fragrant, they’ll pump their sweetness into the air without fading for a couple of weeks at a time…
Smell lily in:
Cacharel Anaïs Anaïs
Cartier Baiser Volé
Crabtree & Evelyn India Hicks Island Living Spider Lily
Estée Lauder Pleasures
Estée Lauder Sensuous
Frederic Malle Lys Mediteranée
Lily of the valley
The lily of the valley is The Perfume Society’s ‘adopted’ flower: we simply love the French tradition of offering nosegays of this delicate nodding white bloom on 1st May to people you love and admire. (And we’ve adopted it ourselves.) The tradition goes back centuries – to Charles IX, who inaugurated it in 1561. Since then, lily of the valley has also made its way into countless bridal bouquets (including that of Kate Middleton for her wedding to Prince Willliam); in many countries, it’s linked to this day with tenderness, love, faith, happiness and purity.
Almost spicy, so green and sweet, with hints of lemon: that’s lily of the valley – and a more spring-like scent it’s hard to imagine. The flowers themselves are really mean with their oil, though, and synthetics are more often used to recreate lily of the valley’s magic: Lilial, Lyral and hydroxycitronellal are among them.
As well as featuring widely in ‘soliflores’ (so-called ‘single note’ fragrances, which are often actually a lot more complex than that), lily of the valley works its magic in many other fragrances, used to ‘open up’ and freshen the other floral notes in a blend – as a clever writer on the Perfume Shrine blog puts it, ‘much like we allow fresh air to come into contact with a red wine to let it “breathe” and bring out its best’.
Smell lily of the valley in:
Antonia’s Flowers Floret
Caron Muguet de Bonheur
Crabtree & Evelyn Lily
Dior Hypnotic Poison
Dolce & Gabbana The One
Donna Karan DKNY Golden Delicious
Estée Lauder Pleasures
Floris Lily of the Valley
Goutal Paris Le Muguet
Jo Malone London Wild Bluebell
Ormonde Jayne Sampaquita
Woods of Windsor Lily of the Valley
Yardley Lily of the Valley
Zing! A top note of lime makes for the brightest and most energising of first encounters, in a fragrance – lighter and sweeter than a lemon, but at the same time more intense. 'A fantastically juicy, tart citrus note,' explained perfumer Julie Massé to The Perfume Society. 'When you smell it, you can almost feel it smarting on your tongue...'
Citrus aurantifolia is native to India, where lime’s used in Tantric rituals to ward off evil spirits from the body. Today, limes are farmed in many places (South Asia, Florida, Italy, Cuba and Mexico), and to capture a lime’s fragrant bounty a process of expression (squeezing) or distillation can be used. Just one downside to this uplifting fruit: the oil must be used with caution: anything but the teensiest squeeze can prove ‘phototoxic’, staining the skin if worn in sunlight.
Smell lime in:
Lime blossom (linden)
Lime blossom (a.k.a. linden, or Tilia cordata) almost seems to drip with honey. (In fact, if you’ve ever parked your car under a linden tree in full flower, it does just that, dropping sticky, furry and fiendishly difficult-to- remove syrup onto the paintwork…)
Tall and stately and one of the oldest trees in existence, it’s said to date back 70 million years. The flowers of the tree are wonderfully nectarous: a magnet for bees (linden honey is particularly delicious). Although linden - also known as ‘tilleul’ in perfumery - can be extracted from the dried flowers, it’s usually recreated synthetically: beautifully sweet, exhilarating, bright as a summer’s day.
(It’s completely unrelated to lime trees, by the way: the name ‘lime’ evolved from the 16th Century Middle English word ‘lind’.)
Smell linden in:
Linalool is a fragrance compound found in rosewood oil and other essential oils, including petitgrain, coriander and lavender. Its spicy-floral character works perfectly in many different florals – though in small quantities; a known sensitiser for a very small percentage of wearers, it’s one of the ingredients which perfume houses must compulsorily list on a label.