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’…
When hawthorn blooms, you know spring’s here. ‘Queen of the May’, or ‘the faerie tree’, as this ancient, often gnarly tree is also known as, looks thornily off-putting throughout the winter - but then: ker-pow…! As May swings round, the Crataegus monogyna tree bursts into a froth of sweet-scented blooms, which have long been symbolically linked in the Pagan tradition with fertility and sexual abandonment. (For the Romans, hawthorn was a symbol of marriage. To the Greeks, it spelled good fortune.) Walk past a hedgerow in full blossom and you’ll breathe the spicy, almond-like scent of the flowers which has been prized for centuries by perfumers. But in modern perfume creation, hawthorn’s recreated synthetically - adding freshness and a sparkle to several well-known and a raft of gorgeous niche creations.
Smell hawthorn in:
Chanel Les Exclusifs de Chanel Beige
By Kilian Royal Leather
Davidoff Cool Water Woman
Kenzo Flower by Kenzo
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Petit Matin
Parle Moi de Parfum Totally White
Penhaligon's Blasted Bloom
The Merchant of Venice La Fenice Pour Femme
Valentino Donna Acqua
A hay meadow in a bottle? There are a few scents, yes, which capture the sweet, grassy, earthy warmth of hay, which also has almost animalic qualities. (Think: barns…) It’s not the actual essence-of-dried-pasture – used to feed cattle, horses, goats and sheep – that you’ll smell in a perfume bottle, however: hay notes are created synthetically - yet they’re no less glorious for that… (Do also read about coumarin, here: it’s another, quite similar synthetic, which gives us the scent of new-mown grass…)
Smell hay in:
When you smell something sweet, powdery, fluffy-little-cloud-like in a perfume, chances are there’s a touch of heliotrope in there. Or do you get a whiff of almond…? Maybe that’s chameleon-like heliotrope, in the blend… A touch of vanilla? That could be heliotrope, too.
The use of this gloriously purple-coloured plant in perfumery goes right the way back to Ancient Egypt. Technically, heliotrope can be still extracted by maceration (or through solvent extraction, the modern form of enfleurage), an echo of those times - but today it’s synthetic heliotropin – read about it here – which perfumers rely on.
Heliotrope’s teamed with violets and iris for a talcum-powdery, lipstick-esque sweetness – but as you may now have guessed, it’s actually very versatile, becoming almost mouthwatering when used alongside bitter almond, each ingredient turbo-charging the other’s marzipan-ish qualities. Put it with frangipani or vanilla, though, and their mutual sweetness comes out… (If you were to look under a microscope, vanilla essential oil actually contains a little heliotropin in its make-up.) You’ll find heliotrope in many legendary Guerlain fragrances, as well as countless contemporary ‘gourmand’ scents.
An annual-flowering member of the borage family, also known as ‘cherry pie flower’, you’ll often find Heliotropium arborescens on sale in nurseries and garden centres for summer bedding (and you can create a wonderfully scented display with the plants, which butterflies will also love).
Smell heliotrope in:
Guerlain L'Heure Bleue
Technically, heliotropin – the synthetic ingredient which recreates the heliotrope flower – is a member of the ‘aldehyde’ family of chemicals, and was first discovered in 1885.
Here’s the science bit: 1,3-Benzodioxole-5-carbaldehyde, piperonyl aldehyde, 3,4-methylenedioxybenzaldehyde and piperonal are all names for heliotropin. Here’s the non-scientific bit: this synthetic brilliantly copies the powdery, almondy or vanilla-y nuanaces of the beautiful purple, butterfly-magnet heliotrope flower (read about that here).
Like quite a few ingredients, though, heliotrope/heliotropin’s use has been reduced and restricted lately by the International Fragrance Association’s regulations (IFRA for short), and some iconic, heavy-on-the-heliotrope fragrances – including L’Artisan Parfumeur’s glorious Jour de Fête – have sadly been discontinued, as a result.
Smell heliotrope in:
Boadicea the Victorious Adoration
Carita Carita Eau de Parfum
Chloé Love Chloe
Dior Dolce Vita
Emporio Armani Lei
Gucci Guilty Intense
Guerlain Après l’Ondée
Guerlain Cuir Beluga
Guerlain L’Heure Bleu
Lacoste Pour Femme
Paul & Joe Blanc
Paul Smith London Paul Smith Women
You wouldn’t love the smell of hemlock if you got up-close-and-personal – and you’d be unwise to do that, as it’s a seriously poisonous plant: in Ancient Greece, hemlock was the poison used to execute prisoners (including the renowned philosopher Socrates).
Crush the leaves of this frothily-flowered plant, and they smell fetid, rotting – rank, basically. But as with many ‘unlikely’ perfume ingredients, add it in the teensiest dose, and hemlock can add depth and intrigue. (And in similarly teeny does, it’s also been used in medicine as a sedative…)
Smell hemlock in::
Illamasqua Freak Extrait de Parfum
Are you a honey-lover…? Then you’ll know that honey comes in so many different varieties, each taking their smell (and colour) from the flowers on which the bees that produce it have feasted. Orange blossom honey. Eucalyptus honey. Acacia honey: the variations are almost limitless, sometimes woody, flowery, herbal or even tobacco-y. The ancient Arab perfumers were the first to capture honey’s sweetness in perfumery, but today the honey featured is generally a synthetic note – one that’s drizzled sensually over quite a few fragrances in the past few years.
It’s over 15,000 years since man first harnessed bees’ busy-ness to produce this natural sweetener. (According to cave paintings in Valencia in Spain, anyway.) Symbolically, honey stands for ‘the sweet life’, prosperity, even immortality; the word itself comes from the ancient Hebrew word for ‘enchant’… When man and bee teamed together, it turned out to be a win-win situation: bees got a safe place to live (and a reliable food source, in the form of flowering crops) – and we got to harvest honey and beeswax in unbelievably impressive quantities: a single beehive can produce up to 200 kilos of honey each season.
Rich, warm, luxurious and comforting, honey works wonderfully to emphasise floral notes, or add touches of amberiness. And with the profusion of gourmand fragrances out there, honey-lovers can easily find themselves in sweet heaven. (And read here about beeswax, which also makes its way into fragrances.) We love what the nose Christine Nagel has to say about this ingredient: 'Honey has two facets - half devil, half angel. In Ambrée structures, it has a sweet, comforting effect, taking you back to childhood. But a small touch in a feminine structure can be extremely sexy...'
Smell Honey in:
Elie Saab Le Parfum
Estée Lauder Sensuous
Giorgio Armani Armani Code for Women
Guerlain L’Abeille de Guerlain
Guerlain Rose Barbare
Hermès Hermessence Ambre Narguile
Jovoy Paris Chypre
Lady Gaga Fame
Lancôme Hypnôse Senses
Marc Jacobs Honey
Paco Rabanne Lady Million
Serge Lutens A La Nuit
Thierry Mugler Angel
Walk through a garden – especially at dusk – and you’ll smell honeysuckle way before you see it: heady and nectarous, a little like jasmine tinged with vanilla.
Over a hundred species of honeysuckle exist and among the most fragrant are the wild English honeysuckle (Lonicera caprifolium) the Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Lonicera fragrantissima, which comes originally from China. (All glorious if you’re looking for scented plants to scramble over a tree or a trellis – although beware with the Japanese variety: it’s so vigorous, it’s regarded as an ‘unwanted weed’ in several states of the USA, as well as in New Zealand.)
Many of us have picked a honeysuckle blossom and sucked the honey from the base – but alas, honeysuckle gives up its dewy sweet nectar a lot more readily than its smell, and the yield of essential oil from these plants is really low. So although honeysuckle’s dried flowers are used in sachets and pot pourri, it’s mostly a synthetic version you’ll encounter twining its way through perfume compositions. (Although some gifted natural perfumers manage recreate the smell of honeysuckle through clever alchemy of other naturals…) Depending on the other notes used, it can enhance a touch of aniseed, blend romantically with other white florals – orange blossom and jasmine – or add a fresh green note…
Smell honeysuckle in:
Goutal Paris Eau de Camille
Goutal Paris Le Chevrefeuille
Britney Spears Believe
Cartier Cartier de Lune
Crabtree & Evelyn Gardenia
Fresh Brown Sugar
Givenchy Organza Eau de Toilette
Katy Perry Meow
Dior Les Creations de Monsieur Dior Diorella
Marc Jacobs Dot
Michael Kors Island
Nina Ricci L’Air
Taylor Swift Wonderstruck
Tommy Hilfiger Tommy Girl
Vera Wang Vera
One of spring’s favourite flowers, hyacinth gets its name from the Greek language: ‘flower of rain’. There’s a romantic (if slightly gory) Greek legend woven around hyacinth, actually: according to myth, the flower grew from the blood of Hyacinthus, a youth accidentally killed by Apollo – and even today, in Greece, the flower stands for ‘remembrance’. (In fact, Hyacinthus ambréeis originated in Syria, but it’s now grown ornamentally all over the world.)
Intensely green – green as spring itself – the smell of hyacinth develops as the flower blooms. In tight bud, the scent’s lightly, almost ethereally floral; as it opens, the scent becomes pumpingly potent and intoxicating (though still with that damp greenness). It’s widely used in white florals, and scents seeking to capture springtime-in-a-bottle, but because real hyacinth oil – produced by a process of extraction – is heart-stoppingly expensive, can’t-tell-it-from-real synthetic hyacinth notes are what perfumers turn to, nowadays.
Smell hyacinth in:
Goutal Paris Grand Amour
Goutal Paris Heure Exquise
Bond No. 9 High Line
Boucheron Bracelet Jaipur
Crabtree & Evelyn Lily
E. Coudray Jacinthe & Rose
Estée Lauder Private Collection
Floris Edwardian Bouquet
Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio
Guy Laroche Fidji
Hermès 24 Faubourg
Hermès Un Jardin Sur Le Nil
Juicy Couture Juicy Couture
Juicy Couture Peace, Love & Juicy Couture
Oscar de la Renta Live in Love
Robert Piguet Fracas
Serge Lutens Bas de Soie
Vivienne Westwood Boudoir
Yves Saint Laurent Y