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’…
As you might imagine, a perfume ingredient extracted from one of our sturdiest trees adds a bit of ‘heft’ to a scented creation: dry, woody, grounding. But there’s also a teeny touch of vanilla to oak (synthetic vanillin, used in many baked goods and confectionery, is derived from wood shavings!), to lighten the woodiness. Interestingly, the Thierry Mugler brand now says it’s ‘ageing’ its fragrances in wood casks – an echo of the wine and spirits world…
Smell oak in:
Oakmoss is among perfumers’ most beloved ingredients: an essential element of fragrances within the chypre family (which you can read more about here), in partnership with bergamot: it ‘anchors’ volatile notes. Its more romantic French name is ‘mousse de chêne, but this tight-curled plant – botanical name Evernia prunastri - is actually a lichen which grows on oaks throughout Europe and North Africa, only flourishing in unpolluted air. It can range in colour from light green to black depending on whether it’s dry or damp - and it smells a lot more beautiful than it looks.
Oakmoss smells earthy, and woody, sensual with hints of musk and amber and is really not like anything else in the perfumer’s ‘palette’ because it also works fantastically as a ‘fixative’ to give scent a longer life on the skin. As you might suspect, there’s a touch of damp forest floor to this material, too.
The use of oakmoss in perfumery goes back a long, long way. Coty’s Chypre perfume, in 1917, popularised this type of fragrance – but in fact, chypre scents, inspired by the island of Cyprus, had been beguiling people for centuries. For hundreds of years, from Roman times (that’s as far back as we know about) this style of perfume blended styrax, calamus and labdanum; in the Middle Ages, oak moss began to be added, to create ‘pastilles’ for burning.
But there’s one snag with this exquisite material: it’s been ‘blacklisted’ by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) as a potential irritant, its use restricted by European regulation to 0.1% in perfume compositions that are applied to the skin – a restriction which has sent ‘noses’ into tailspins in labs across the world, as they were forced to remove or reduce this lynchpin ingredient in their often very famous formulations. Some ‘noses’ played around with ingredients like patchouli, or synthetic ‘imitations’ of oakmoss to try to achieve some of the same effects as this wonder of the natural scent world, but there’s no question that some favourite fragrances started not to smell like themselves.
Now, though, there’s a way through – which is glorious news for chypre-lovers everywhere. Through a process of ‘fractionation’ – separating the different elements of an individual ingredient, and removing the potential sensitiser – it’s possible to get an ingredient that’s much closer to the oakmoss we know and loved.
However, as Guerlain’s in-house perfumer Thierry Wasser explained to us, whenever something is removed from an ingredient through fractionation, ‘it leaves a hole’. Thierry’s stroke of genius was to plug the gap with a touch of celery seed, instead. Hey, presto: Mitsouko – probably the most famous chypre in the world still available today – is restored to its former glory. (And we just love the way that perfumers rise to challenges like this…)
PS Oakmoss has a near-relation, known as ‘tree moss’ - Evernia Furfuracea - which grows on pine trees, has a turpentine-y scent before it’s blended, and is also very highly-prized among perfumers.)
Smell oakmoss in:
We’re used to slooshing this onto our salads or into our frying pans – but spritzing it onto our pulse-points? Well, yes: the fragrant use of olive goes back millennia: the early Arab perfume-makers used it as a base in many of their scented creations, and the Egyptians used it to steep jasmine blossoms, to produce a fragrant oil. Olive has had many other therapeutic benefits: as an aphrodisiac, in healing balms and creams, as sedatives and tonics. (And we’ve noticed that lately it’s having a moment in the sun in the form of olive leaf tea, packed with health-giving antioxidants.) Symbolically, olive leaves represent abundance (as well as glory) – and that’s certainly true of this Mediterranean tree, which is quite a multi-tasker in perfume-terms. The leaves, bark, fruits and flowers all offer different nuances: earthy, peppery, fruity, buttery or subtly herbal.
Smell olive in:
4160 Tuesdays The Gin Garden
Naughty, naughty, naughty. When you see opium listed as a fragrance note, it implies something mischievous and mysterious about the perfume itself. Since ancient times, the opium poppy has been regarded as a symbol of nocturnal decadence, intrigue – but also, with healing powers. It’s been used in ritual at least since the Stone Age (stoned age?), and Egyptian, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Greek and Arab empires have also used it made ceremonial, medicinal and culinary use of opium poppies. It only began to get a bad name during the 16th and 17th Century, with poets and authors among those who fell for opium’s narcotic charms. Not surprisingly, in perfumery it’s use to ‘hypnotic’ effect: a powdery, floral note that works beautifully in Oriental compositions.
Smell opium in:
A wonderful name for a glorious gum resin ingredient that’s smokey and soft, luminous and sensual all at once. (Some people think it smells like crushed ivy leaves. Others are reminded of angelica, frankincense and celery, while we love this quote from the blogger Boisdejasmin, when she dipped her testing strip into some opoponax: ‘The wave of warm, sweet scent washed over me: it smelled of aged whiskey, mahogany shavings and bitter caramel, but it was also velvety and powdery.’ The resin is extracted from the bark of the Commiphora eyrthraea tree (mostly from Somalia), and is also known as ‘sweet myrrh’. (It’s sometimes spelled opopanax, too, with an ‘a’.)
Opoponax catches alight easily, which explains why it’s been used for incense for centuries: King Solomon apparently regarded opopanax as ‘the noblest of incense gums’. In perfumery, it lends itself most beautifully to Orientals, working its exotic magic in many much-loved scents.
Here's what perfumer Sarah McCartney has to say about this ingredient: 'I bought opoponax at first just for the name. It’s my new favourite word. I had to see what it was like, then I fell totally in love with it. No one outside perfumery knows what it smells like by itself because to blends to beautifully with other materials. I described it recently as having the consistency of molasses, but they’d never heard of molasses either so let’s say it’s like incense treacle. These resinous materials like myrrh, the Peru and tolu balsams, benzoin, labdanum and opoponax have been around for thousands of years, helping perfumes to stick around for longer, blending with flowers, citrus fruit and herbs. They give perfumes a gentle, deep dark, sensuality. When I take the lid off and sniff, I can’t help letting out a long appreciative mmmmmmmmm.'
Smell opoponax in:
Where would perfumery be, without orange...? The blossom of the bitter orange tree (a.k.a. neroli, when it’s extracted in a particular way) is one of the most precious scent ingredients of all. Bigarade, from the fruit of that tree, is another key ingredient in colognes, while its leaves give us petitgrain, another popular element in citrussy scents. And then there’s orange itself (sometimes referred to as sweet orange, to distinguish it from the bitter, ‘marmalade’ variety.)
Everyone knows what an orange smells like, of course: that burst of zest as you dig your fingers into the waxy skin to break into this juiciest of fruits. That ‘whoosh’ of uplifting zestiness is precisely why perfumers love to use it: as a sweet, refreshing, sadly fleeting top note, very often in colognes but also in Oriental and fruity-floral scents. Sweet orange oil itself is harvested by cold-pressing the fresh of this fruit – which turns out to be a hybrid between the mandarin and the pomelo, which only came into existence in Europe and China in the 11th Century. The key aroma compound in sweet orange oil, meanwhile, is something called d-limonene – and it’s also a sensitiser for some people, meaning it has to be listed (albeit in the teensiest writing) on labels.
Smell orange in:
Orange blossom and neroli are a bit confusing, as ingredients. They’re both from the small white flowers that blossom on the bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantia) - which is much more fragrant than the orange tree which produces the fruit for eating.
Orange blossom is extracted from the flower through the use of solvents. Neroli (which you can read about under ‘N’) is steam-distilled. They’re subtly different, in the hands of perfumers. Orange blossom absolute is richer, sweeter, headier – there are hints of that other white flower, jasmine, about it (and if you look at its chemical make-up, there are similar aroma compounds in both).
Orange blossom can be used almost symbolically in fragrance, as well as for its bewitching scent: over time, it’s come to represent purity, moral virtue and innocence, but fruitfulness and fertility, too. As a flower, orange blossom has long played a role in weddings: maidens have carried it in bouquets and woven it into bridal headdresses since the time of the Crusaders, when trees were brought from the East to Europe, and began to flourish here.
What better ingredient for fragrances suitable for brides, then...? But in fact, orange blossom’s versatility lends itself to all kinds of fragrances – so it’s very widely used, acting too as a natural ‘fixative’ to prolong the life of will-o’-the-wisp ingredients. You can enjoy it in colognes, Orientals chypres, as well as petal-perfect florals.
Smell orange blossom in:
Francis Kurkdjian APOM Pour Femme
Hugo Boss Boss Orange
Le Labo Fleur d’Orange 27
L’Artisan Parfumeur Seville a l’Aube
Mad et Len Eau de Fleur d’Oranger
Melvita Orange Blossom Floral Water
Penhaligon’s Orange Blossom
Robert Piguet Mademoiselle Piguet
Serge Lutens Fleur d’Oranger
Tom Ford Neroli Portofino
Do orchids smell? Not the ones we now buy in supermarkets, which have become such a popular design statement. But yes, in the wild, some do: the Cattleya orchid, in particular – though even that varies, from heady and vanilla-y to light and clean. (Other orchids - obviously not used in perfumery - can stink of rotten meat, or faeces. The smell is to attract the type of insect that pollinates the plant: some clearly get off on pretty smells, others on stinkers.)
There are thought to be over 20,000 different orchids altogether. The name (who knew?) comes from the Greek ‘órkhis’, literally meaning "testicle", thanks to the shape of the root.
Not terribly romantic, but we do like the Greek myth behind the naming of the plant. So the legend goes, Orchis – son of a satyr and a nymph (quite a combo) stumbled upon a festival of Dionysus (a.k.a. Bacchus), in a forest. As tended to happen at ‘bacchanales’, he imbibed too much, and became somewhat over-amorous towards a priestess. The Bacchanalians tore him apart. His father prayed for Orchis to be restored, but instead the gods transformed him into the flower we know today as the orchid.
In reality, when you smell ‘orchid’ as a fragrance note, today it’s more likely to be synthetic. Nice myth, though.
Smell orchid in:
Britney Spears Fantasy
Calvin Klein Euphoria
David & Victoria Beckham Signature for Her
Jean-Paul Gaultier Classique
Lady Gaga Fame
Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely
Tom Ford Black Orchid
Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb
A hugely precious ingredient, this – with a heart-stopping price-tag. That’s because the orris – from the rhizomes, or ‘bulbs’ of the iris plant – are odourless when harvested, and take three or four years to mature. (They’re left in a cool, dry place, and need protection against fungus and insect attack which would destroy the producer’s valuable harvest.)
Iris, or orris, has lent its sweetness to perfumery for centuries – as far back as Ancient Rome and Greece, or perhaps even beyond. Back then, it was made into hair and face powders, placed into pomanders, and was the basis for delicious perfumed sachets for wearing on the body. (An idea we’d rather like to see revived...) Iris has long been a symbol of majesty and power, too.
The most sought-after type of orris come from the Iris pallida variety, which flourishes in the warmth of the Mediterranean. Florentine iris ticks perfumers’ boxes, too. After those rhizomes have aged, they’re powdered – and then steam-distilled, producing orris oil, which solidifies into something known as ‘orris butter’ (or ‘orris concrete’), because of its oily, yellow texture and appearance.
It's been highly fashionable in fragrances for the past few years: sweet, soft, powdery, suede-like – rather like violets, which we tend to be more familiar with as a scent. Actually, iris runs the spectrum from sweet to earthy: it also works brilliantly to ‘fix’ other ingredients, giving a more lasting quality to florals and base notes. Often, only the lightest touch of orris is needed in fragrances – but ‘noses’ wouldn’t be without it, for the world.
Smell orris root in:
Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile
Chanel Les Exclusifs 28 La Paula
Crabtree & Evelyn Iris
Frederic Malle Iris Poudre
Guerlain Après l’Ondée
Jovoy Paris Poudre
Lolita Lempicka Lolita Lempicka
Prada Infusion d’Iris
Tom Ford Violet Blonde
Vivienne Westwood Boudoir
Yves Saint Laurent Paris
You may well have smelled osmanthus in a fragrance without realising: this creamy white blossom gives a surprisingly mouthwatering, succulent, hints-of-peach-and-plum-and-apricot nuance to perfumes. Fresh – but sophisticated, too. Succulent – but somehow creamy and milky. You may also get hints of violet. And what is it...? A Far Eastern flower, a member of the lilac and olive family: known as Kwei Hwa or Mo Hsi, it’s been used there to fragrance tea and other drinks, as well as jam. But in the perfumer’s repertoire, it’s a pricy ($4,000+ a kilo), refined ingredient worth its weight in gold – sometimes blended with synthetics that bring out its peachiness, however. Osmanthus also works beautifully in leathery, suede-like scents, as well as florals.
Smell osmanthus in: