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’…
Close your eyes and think of aniseed… Or maybe tarragon… Licorice, even… The herb fennel can be used to add a herbaceous, soft, aromatic spiciness to fragrances. (Fennel is of course familiar to most of us as a food – but did you know it’s also used in creating absinthe, the no-longer-banned-but-it-still-makes-you-dance-on-tabletops French alcoholic drink?)
The seeds left behind when the pretty yellow umbelliferous (umbrella-like) flowers have faded are used in steam-distillation of the fennel essential oil. (Those seeds are also chewed, in countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, to freshen the breath.)
Actually, fennel produces TWO types of oil: bitter fennel, and sweet fennel, which can be used as top notes OR heart notes, blending well with lavender, rose, geranium, basil, lemon, rosemary, violet leaf and sandalwood.
Savvy perfumers know exactly which to use to get their desired effect…
Smell fennel in:
Elizabeth Arden Green Tea
L.Villores Piper Negrum
Between the Latin and Ayurvedic, fenugreek has almost too many names to count: methi, methikaa, vastikaa, dipani, bird’s foot, Greek clover – and so it goes on. (Don’t worry: we won’t test you.) This spice has been in use for thousands of years: Pliny described an ‘unguent of fenugreek’, and the roots were also used in early Arab perfumery.
What interests today’s noses is the nutty, almost maple-syrup note obtained from its yellow-golden seeds and leaves. (The seeds, meanwhile, can also be used in pot pourri.)
Smell fenugreek in:
Tom Ford Santal Blush
Cool, green, shady: we’re eternally fascinated by how perfumers use scented ingredients to give a sense of temperature, through their creations. Fern gives a cool, damp, sweet and woody feel to a fragrance – like walking into the embrace of a shady spot.
Ferns have actually given their name to an entire category of fragrances: fougère. (Say it ‘foo-jair’, with the ‘j’ a little soft – almost ‘foo-shair’.) Fougère means ‘fern-like’, in French, and the category grew from the launch of Houbigant’s Fougère Royale, in 1882. (Almost all fougère fragrances are targeted at men, by the way.)
The fern most widely used in perfumery is the Common Male Fern, which grows widely in Britain and the rest of Europe. Those frond-like leaves evoke the forest, and its damp, earthy, humus-rich floor – but actually, it’s the rhizomes (gnarly roots) from which the fern’s essential oil is extracted, using volatile solvents. Fern blends perfectly with lavender, oakmoss and coumarin, in fragrance creation.
Smell fern in:
Penhaligon's English Fern
Fig’s become an incredibly fashionable fragrance note for both men and women, lately, with its complex mix of bitter green and milky-sweet elements, conjuring up languid lunches in the shade of fig trees in hot, sunny places.
Notes of fig leaf and fig fruit can both be used. The almost bitter green leaf offers us a sense of cool and shade. The fruit, by contrast, is lush, juicy, ripe and sunny. Sometimes, a perfumer will put them side by side in the same fragrance, to create the equivalent of a fig ‘soliflore’. (Strictly it should probably be a ‘solifruit’, but there you go.) Fig also goes well with coconut, and other green notes.
As they have for thousands of years, these deciduous trees grow (impressively fast) in the Mediterranean and the Middle East – although the fig note we smell in contemporary fragrances is actually quite likely to be synthetic, from ingredients which go by the name of ‘stemone’ (it smells very green, and is produced by the fragrance house Givaudan) and ‘octalactone gamma’ (more prune-like and sappy).
According to the Bible, fig leaves preserved the modesty of Adam and Eve. Today, we’re more likely to wear fig behind our ears, and on our wrists…
Smell fig in:
Jo Malone London Wild Fig & Cassis
There are dozens of species of evergreen in the pine/fir family – and the essential oils produced by each of them have subtly different qualities. Generally, they’re wintry, balsamic, woody – conjuring up dark forests, or Christmas... In general, they lend themselves well to men’s scents, though there are some feminine examples, too.
Fields of flax are heart-stoppingly – maybe even car-stoppingly – beautiful, with pale blue flowers wafting in the breeze. Perfumery isn’t the most familiar use of flax (a.k.a. Linum usitatissimum): it gives us both linen and linseed (highly nutritious, and also terrific as an oil applied to wooden furniture to keep the elements at bay). But flax has also been used in perfumery as long ago as Egyptian times, as a base note – mildly nutty in character.
Smell flax in:
The Different Company Pure Virgin
Your memory isn’t deceiving you: if you’ve ever buried your nose in a bunch of these beautiful, delicate blue (or sometimes white or pink) flowers hoping for a whiff of something equally gorgeous, you’ll have been disappointed: they’ve almost no scent at all.
So why does forget-me-not sometimes appear as a fragrance ingredient? (It’s even the name of a particular scent, from the Capri-based perfume house Carthusia). Our hunch is that forget-me-not is simply there to help conjure up an image for the perfume – either to give a sense of delicacy and softness, or for emotional reasons: according to folklore, the wearers of forget-me-nots would not be forgotten, by their lovers…
Exquisitely exotic, heady, tropical: frangipani is sultry hot nights – and sexy, sexy, sexy. Frangipani isn’t actually the name of a plant, though: it’s an ingredient from plumeira flowers, which have a gardenia-like scent: soft, peachy, creamy, fruity. And did we say sexy…? It pumps out its fragrance at night, to attract insects. (And seems to work equally well on members of the opposite sex.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, frangipani pairs well with ingredients from tropical fruits, and coconut.
There’s an intriguing back story to the naming of this plant, meanwhile. Once upon a time, frangipani was the name of an actual perfume – produced by an aristocratic Roman Renaissance family by the name of Frangipani, and created by mixing orris (iris root), spices, civet and musk. (Those last two are outlawed in modern perfumery, of course.) Wine was added to those ingredients to make a long-lasting perfume, which was also used to scent gloves – known as ‘Frangipani gloves’.
When a French colonist later came upon a plant in the West Indies that smelled just like that perfume – the Plumeira alba plant – he named it ‘frangipani’. Which is definitely the only instance of a plant getting its name from an actual fragrance: it’s far more usually the other way round…
Smell frangipani in:
Diane von Furstenberg Diane
Kenzo Kenzo Amour Florale
Ormonde Jayne Frangipani
The Three Kings famously presented frankincense as one of the gifts to Baby Jesus: THAT’s how far back frankincense goes. (The other gifts were of course myrrh – another fragrance ingredient – and gold.)
Also known as olibanum, frankincense is actually a resin from the Boswellia sacra tree, which grows in the Dhofar area of Oman, as well as Yemen. (There are also forests of it in northern Ethiopia – although ecologists report that production of this resin could decline by half, over the next 15 years, as those forests are systematically cut down to make way for agriculture.)
Once exclusively reserved for kings and queens, frankincense has been used in religious ceremonies, burial rituals and for embalming – including for mummification. (It clearly has extraordinary preservative powers, able to preserve skin for millennia.) It’s burned today in Catholic churches and Anglican high church ceremonies – and perhaps as a result, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient, depending on whether you were forced to sit through endless sermons and hymns on Sundays.
Frankincense is incredibly powerful as an ingredient – so it’s only generally used in teensy doses (except in perfumes designed to conjure up the smell of actual incense). But it also works brilliantly as a fixative: around 13% of all perfumes apparently contain at least a trace of frankincense.
Smell frankincense in:
Chanel Coco Noir
Guerlain Chant D’Arome
Jo Malone London Incense & Cedrat
Library of Fragrance Frankincense
Christian Dior Bois d'Argent
It’s no surprise that freesias are favourite flowers, for many of us: these delicate, multi-coloured flowers smell so radiantly sweet and airy, with an almost nose-tingling freshness – and a hint of citrus in there somewhere, too.
Yet try as they might, perfumers have never been able to capture the scent of freesias. As perfumer Alienor Massenet explains, 'Freesia in perfumery is an imaginary reconstitution - but the smell is gorgeous.' So: it’s produced synthetically, adding a hint of green sweetness – and airiness – to fragrance creations. Alienor adds: 'It's smells like tea, actually.' Freesia works perfectly to complement lily of the valley, peony, magnolia, but is rarely the shining star of a perfume itself.
Freesias get their name from a German doctor, from Kiel in Germany - Friedrich Heinrich Theodor Freese (1795-1876). A plant collector (who went by the equally glorious German name Christian Friedrich Ecklon) honoured his friend by calling the flower (which originated in Africa) ‘freesia’.
We love this quote about freesias that we first found on the perfume website Fragrantica, meanwhile.
'The happiness of that afternoon was already fixed in her mind, and always would the scent of freesia return it to her mental sight, for among the roses and violets and lilies and wall-lowers, the smell of freesia penetrated, as a melody stands out from its accompaniment, and gave her the most pleasure.' (Hugh de Sélincourt wrote that, in The Way Things Happen.)
Freesia notes contain a certain amount of linalool, which is a known sensitiser (and listed on perfume packaging as a caution to the sensitive).
Smell freesia in:
Calvin Klein Eternity
Elizabeth Arden Red Door
Estée Lauder Pleasures