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’…
Several names for this: Curry Plant, Herb of St. John, Immortelle (which you might know from a L’Occitane skincare range) - and botanically, Helichrysum angustifolium. (We also list this ingredient under ‘E’, for Everlasting Flower’) All refer to small herb, which somehow manages to thrive in the most inhospitable, rocky, sun-baked zones in southern Europe; its yellow flowers stay incredibly bright, even after they’ve been dried. Amazingly, this grey-leafed toughie gives off a lovely, almost straw-like sweet scent, with hints of honey, tea, rose and chamomile - giving a flowery sweetness to perfumes…
Smell immortelle in:
Annick Goutal Sables
L’Occitane Immortelle de Corse
When you read the note ‘incense’ in a fragrance, if often means ‘frankincense’. (Which we’ve filed under ‘F’.) But because of the huge range of incense-like aromas, ‘incense’ can mean a woody smell, a floral note, hints of spice or resin.
The history of incense itself goes back thousands of years – in fact, the first perfumes were burned, not worn: perfume actually gets its name from ‘per fumum’, or ‘through smoke’. The name ‘incense’, meanwhile also comes from the Latin: ‘incendere’ means ‘to burn’…
Incense can be created from a wide range of gums and resins: not just frankincense but storax, balsams of Peru/Tolu/copaiba and more – singly, or in combination, and sometimes with the addition of spices, herbs, flowers…
It all began in Ancient Egypt, where incense was first created using precious gums and resins from trees, imported from the Arabian coast and Somalia. Relics from the burning of incense, dating back thousands of years, have been uncovered by archaeologists. During the Roman Empire, huge quantities of frankincense made their way to Rome from Arabia.
Down the centuries, then, incense has been burned as a part of religious rites, as a fumigant – to cleanse the air and kill germs – or simply for the pure joy of its perfume. (It’s still widely used in religious rites, across different cultures – and has become very widespread in our homes, in the form of burning sticks and joss-sticks.)
And in liquid perfumes, a note of incense adds a richness, intensity and a touch of the exotic.
Smell incense in:
Encens et Lavande by Serge Lutens
Elixir des Merveilles by Hermes
Shalimar by Guerlain
Indole is sexy, powerful, intense – va-va-voom, in a bottle. 'A very powerful molecule, in both masculine and feminine fragrances,' notes perfumer Alienor Massenet. It’s a naturally-occurring chemical, found in many essential oils – especially the glorious white flowers (jasmine, orange blossom, neroli), as well as wallflowers, and some citrus fruits. Grasse jasmine contains the highest natural levels of indole – one of the reasons it’s the priciest jasmine in the world.
But indole can also be created synthetically, producing a crystal-like substance that smells of nothing so much as your great aunt’s mothballs, till it’s massively diluted. It then conjures up jasmine and orange blossom, and goes beautifully with green notes, and other floral ingredients.
Just sometimes, a fragrance is described as being ‘indolic’ - which is pretty unhelpful if you don’t work in the perfume world. That translates as having an overripe character. And, adds Alienor Massenet, 'it's very animalic...'
Ink? In a fragrance? Absolutely. You can smell scents featuring ink on their fragrance pyramid and be right back there in the classroom, getting a whiff from your inky fingers.
Although ink-y notes can come from natural materials like oakmoss, it generally isn’t really ink that you’ll smell in a scent. More commonly, ‘ink’ is a synthetic ‘novelty’ ingredient, used mostly in men’s fragrances to give a mysterious hint of solvent or damp moss, or (romantically) to conjure up the vision of someone writing love letters, perhaps, with a good old-fashioned quill.
Smell ink in:
Comme des Garçons 2
Meo Fusciuni Notturno
‘The sweetness of the violet’s deep blue eyes, Kissed by the breath of heaven, Seems color’d by its skies’, wrote Byron.
And who doesn’t adore those tiny nodding blossoms, with their almost-candied, sweet, powdery scent? Perfumers, that’s who. Because violet petals are really reluctant to give up their scent naturally. (And when they do, the essence is prohibitively expensive.)
Happily, ionones recreate the scent of Parma violets almost perfectly. Actually, the discovery of these synthetics – by two German chemists, Tiemann and Krüger – was a breakthrough moment in perfumery, changing the face of modern perfumery. And today, thanks to their sheer versatility, notes from the ionone family appear in almost every fragrance creation. ‘Noses’ – professional perfumers - love, love, LOVE ionones…
Different ionones have subtly different characters, though, ranging from soft violets in full bloom through the iris/earthy/woodsiness of an ionone variation by the name of methyl ionone. And they can be used subtly – like backing singers – or be pushed out into the spotlight, in a scent that’s pure violet femininity.
Perfumers, in their wisdom, refer to it as orris – but by whichever name, iris/orris is one of the priciest – and most important – perfume ingredients, worldwide.
Production of this beautiful powdery, soft, floral, elegant note requires great patience – hence the hefty price-tag. It’s the rhizomes, or gnarly roots, of iris which must be left for three to five years to mature. (Time is money, in perfumery.) They’re then steam-distilled to produce a gloopy, oily yellow compound, known in the business as ‘iris butter’. This powerful oil can then be played with by perfumers, who use it as an ultra-feminine heart note. (Recently, iris has become distinctly fashionable as a fragrance ingredient.)
The perennial lant itself, of course, is gorgeous: tall, with blowsy short-lived flowers that come in a rainbow of shades. In perfumery, the most useful iris plants are Iris Pallida (mauve in colour), Iris Germanica (strong purple) and Iris Florentina (white flowers). According to romantic legend, the name ‘Iris’ comes from the Greek ‘rainbow goddess’ Irida, who used a rainbow to slide from sky to earth, bringing the will of the Olympic Gods to share with mere mortals. Where she touched the ground, beautiful iris flowers grew out of her footprints. Today, iris plants happily grow everywhere from Europe to the Middle East, Asia and north Africa.
But as the stories behind fragrance ingredients go, they surely don’t come much more romantic than that…
Smell Iris in:
Iso E Super
Chemicals like Iso E Super (a bit of a tongue-twister, we’ll grant you) are important tools in a modern perfumer’s kit: perfumer Francis Kurkdjian told us it was ‘torture’ for him to create a scent for a recent Paris exhibition, without ingredients like this at his fingertips, to turbo-charge the staying power or help ‘fill a room’. (Many naturals are positively timid on the skin.)
International Flavors & Fragrances, who trademarked Iso E Super, describe it as a ‘smooth, woody, amber note, with a “velvet-like” sensation. Superb floraliser. Used to impart fullness and subtle strength to fragrances.’ On its own, though, it’s sometimes considered almost ‘non-existent’ – which just goes to demonstrate perfume’s magical alchemy, and what happens when different ingredients are blended together. Iso E Super’s said to help ‘personalise’ fragrances, creating an almost bespoke effect when they’re applied to the wearer’s skin. It goes especially well with musks, fruits and flowers.
Iso E Super is very popular in fragrance compositions, even though the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has rationed its use in a formula, because of its potentially sensitising/allergenic effects. And in just one instance – Escentric Molecules Molecule 01, created by daring contemporary perfumer Geza Schoen – it’s been made the star of the show. Why not sniff that out, and let your nostrils decide what they think of Iso E Super…?
Smell Iso E Super in:
Escentric Molecules Molecule 01
Smell carnation in a scent? It’s more likely to be isoeugenol, an ingredient found naturally in the essential oils of nutmeg and ylang-ylang, but which can also be synthesised from eugenol. (Look under ‘E’ for more about eugenol.)
Cool, dark, green: the leaves and the little black berries from this self-clinging evergreen plant can be steam-distilled and turned into a refreshing green fragrance top note, with just a dash of spiciness. The note has a mystical air to it: in the ‘language’ of plants, it’s been linked with prosperity, fidelity, virtue and positivity. Ivy was also carried by women who wanted to attract good fortune. Not bad allusions for a fragrance note, we’d say.
Smell isoeugenol in:
Annick Goutal Eau de Camille
Diptyque Eau de Lierre