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’…
Jasmine and rose are the two ‘foundation stones’ of perfumery. There’s barely a scent out there which doesn’t feature a type of jasmine somewhere in its construction – but all jasmines aren’t created equal, and (dare we say it) there’s a lot of snobbery about jasmine, with fragrance houses falling over themselves to boast of the priceless quality of their jasmine…
There are actually over 200 species of jasmine – but two members of the beautiful white-flowered jasmine family are most ‘prized’. The first is Jasminun grandiflorum, which translates as ‘big-flowered jasmine’; Chanel have their own fields of this in Grasse, and you can read about the harvest and maceration process here - and this is sometimes just referred to, then, as ‘Grasse jasmine’, because it grows so well there. The other precious member of the family is Sambac Jasmine – sometimes known as Tuscan jasmine, or Arabian jasmine, depending on who you’re speaking to… Nowadays, jasmine is grown for the fragrance industry everywhere from India to France, Morocco, Algeria, Spain and Morocco. (It actually originated in India and China, and – who knew? – is a member of the olive family.)
Jasmine gives a richness and intensity to fragrances: a sweet floral note, but with a dead-sexy muskiness to it. If you smell different concentrated ‘absolutes’ (the oily liquids created through macerating the jasmine flowers), they have their own characters: some smell medicinal, some sweet, some musky, some green. It’s extraordinary that a single plant can smell so different, depending on where it’s grown. The genius of perfumers is knowing just what they have to do, to blend those into perfectly constructed scents for us to wear.
Once upon a time, jasmine’s scent was extracted through a process called enfleurage: the flowers were pressed into layers of fat, and gradually the scent migrated to the fat, from which it could be extracted. Nowadays, it’s usually a somewhat less romantic solvent process. Whatever: it takes kilo upon kilo of flowers to produce the oil – around 8,000 hand-picked blooms to produce one millilitre (1 ml) of the ‘absolute’ – which is why it’s so extraordinarily expensive. (Jasmine’s one of the priciest ingredients in perfumery.) It can also be created synthetically – and often is, why may explain why the brands which use ‘real’ jasmine are so keen to share its story…
No wonder it’s known simply as ‘La Fleur’, in the perfume world – or ‘The Flower’… Because there’s probably no note (other than the aforementioned rose) which is so important, to ‘noses’…
Smell jasmine in:
Acqua di Parma Gelsomino Nobile
Annick Goutal Le Masmin
Bobbi Brown Baby
Bulgari Mon Jasmin Noir
Calvin Klein Beauty
Chanel No. 5
Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Jasmin
In common with many contemporary fragrance ingredients, jatamansi – or spikenard, to give it a more familiar name – was originally used in incense, as an element of sacred Roman, Indian, Hebrew and Egyptian ceremonies. With its slightly musky, woody, aromatic, earthy, warm and sensual scent, jatamansi also featured in body oils and unguents, in Roman times…
It’s the roots of this perennial plant – a flowering member of the valerian family – which are used in perfumery, as well as in natural medicine and in aromatherapy, to soothe stress and anxiety. The plant valiantly grows in mountain areas above 3,500 metres, in countries like India, Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim. In fragrances, though, it works brilliantly as a fixative, and in chypre and Oriental scents: it complements oakmoss, lavender, vetiver, lemon and spice. To paraphrase Shakespeare, jatamansi by another name would smell as sweet – and it’s got plenty of those other names: nard, spike, muskroot, tapaswini and sumbul are just some of the other words used for this ingredient.
However, because it’s increasingly rare, the prices have – um – spiked, putting it beyond the reach of many contemporary perfumes. (Although L’Artisan Parfumeur built a whole fragrant collection around it…)
Smell jatamansi in:
Caron Secret Oud
L’Artisan Parfumeur Jatamansi
Xerjoff Shooting Stars Collection: Esquel
Think: ‘gin’. Because – as with that spirit – the juniper berry adds a bracing, exhilarating touch to fragrances. (When you smell gin, you’re basically smelling juniper, actually.) It has a touch of pine to it: a bit sappy, a touch bitter, but definitely fresh – and powerful, so it’s generally used in small doses. The berries are harvested from a small, shrub-like tree which belongs to the cypress family. It’s a harvest for patient souls: juniper berries (which can be blue, red-brown or orange) take three years to ripen, and are steam-distilled to release their pungency.
Aromatherapeutically, juniper is used for arthritis, sore muscles, poor circulation and (when sniffed) as a ‘pick-me-up’ – and as a perfume ingredient, it certainly revs up a composition. Thanks to its aromatic edge, you’re most likely to be intoxicated by it in ‘shared’ (or masculine) creations. Perfumer Christine Nagel - now working in-house for the Hermès brand - explains that juniper brings 'freshness and sharpness' to a creation...
Smell juniper in:
Bond No. 9 Brooklyn
Cartier Les Heures de Cartier L’Heure Brilliant VI
Demeter Gin & Tonic
Penhaligon’s Juniper Sling