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’…
Say ‘papyrus’ and you probably think of an ancient form of paper, crafted from this member of the sedge (grass) family as an alternative to using wood (its botanical name is Cyperus papyrus). Abundant on the banks of the Nile and in the marshes around the river, its use goes back to the time of the ancient Egyptians: some scrolls still survive from that time, and are still being deciphered by archaeologists. But papyrus’s history isn’t just long, though: it’s fragrant. It can smell aromatic or woody, a little dry, earthy and spicy. And though it’s more popular in Indian perfumes, papyrus can still be enjoyed in some stunning contemporary scents.
Smell papyrus in:
Like so many juicy ingredients, passion fruit’s squeezed its way into many of the fruity-floral scents that have lately become so popular: tangy, a little grapefruit-y, and well-matched with other ‘tropical’ scent ingredients, adding a tart intrigue. (The actual aroma compound itself is called oxane, FYI.) You might think that the name has sexy overtones – but not at all: allegedly the passionflower (a glorious blue/purple, twining vine) and passion fruit were named by Spanish Catholic missionaries who saw the flower as the symbol of the Passion of Christ, because the ring around its heart looks like the Crown of Thorns. Passus means ‘suffering’; flos translates as ‘flower’ – so the plants are also known as ‘Flowers of Jesus’. And now you know.
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Deep, dark, earthy and present in plenty of Oriental perfumes, patchouli’s still got a hippie-dippy aura, even now. (It’s been called ‘the scent of the 60s’, because the essential oil was often worn neat on the skin of music-loving, party-loving – and sometimes drug-loving – youth.) So it’s always blown our minds that patchouli isn’t a wood, or a root: it’s actually a frilly green-leafed, purple-flowered member of the mint family, called Pogostemon patchouli.
Amazingly, from those fragile-looking leaves comes a sweet, spicy, smoky, cedar-y scent so powerful it has to be handled with care: patchouli is the most powerful of any plant-derived essence. But perfumers wouldn’t be without patchouli, for the richness that it gives to fragrances – and not just those heady Orientals: patchouli makes its way into many chypre and powdery fragrances, swirling exotically alongside lavender, sandalwood, labdanum and bergamot, clove, clary sage, as well as vetiver. (It’s a little like vetiver, if you close your eyes.) Used alongside rose, it extends and ‘fixes’ rose’s sweetness.
The name, quite simply, comes from the old Tamil words patchai (‘green’) and ellai (‘leaf’). It originated in India, Malaysia and Indonesia and made its way to the Middle East via the exotic silk route: patchouli is a fantastic insect repellent, effective against flies and other bugs. (We’re going to try it out on our cashmere, and will report back.) Paisley shawls were traditionally layered with patchouli leaves in transit. Frenchwomen in the 19th Century swathed themselves in these patchouli-scented shawls against the cold – a fashion started by the Empress Eugenie - and patchouli became desirable, as a fragrance ingredient.
The quality of the oil can vary hugely. The very best stuff comes from the three or four top pairs of leaves, where the highest concentration of the fragrant oil is found. Once cut, they’re turned frequently to prevent them breaking down too quickly. Then the leaves are stripped and placed into woven baskets, where a process of fermentation takes place that releases the incomparable fragrance. Then the leaves are either CO2-extracted, or steam-distilled. It’s highly skilled work, and only a few distilleries produce patchouli of a high enough quality to please a VIP ‘nose’, or creator. On a blotter, meanwhile, a single drop of patchouli can last for months.
For many today people, it’s still a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient, evoking plenty of prejudice. But we happen to adore it…
Smell patchouli in:
Bottega Veneta Bottega Veneta
Chanel Coco Mademoiselle
Givenchy Very Irresistible L’Intense
Gucci Gucci by Gucci
Cartier L’Heure Defendue VII
Lorenzo Villoresi Patchouli
L’Artisan Parfumeur Patch
Chloé L’Eau de Chloé
The Body Shop Patchouli
Thierry Mugler Angel
Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb
Soft, fuzzy, sensual peach. No wonder perfumers love it: peach almost gives the same velvety texture to a fragrance that you get from stroking the ripe fruit itself.
Since the time of the early Arab perfumers, the flesh of peach kernels was used in scents and ointments. Originally a native of China, peaches made their way to Europe after Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and brought back a botanical trophy, Prunus persica, then known as the ‘Persian apple’.
The nectar-like aroma you smell in a ‘peach-y’ fragrance, though, may actually be a synthetic: aldehyde C14 (a.k.a. undecalactone) smells delectably peach-like and edible, and we defy most untrained noses to tell the difference.
Smell peach in:
Soft, floaty, feminine: this so-pretty floral note has just a whisper of actual peachy fruitiness about it. Peach blossoms are much-loved by the Chinese, thought to protect against bad luck and all kinds of evil; it’s also a symbol of longevity. Watch out for peach blossom becoming a more popular perfume ingredient, as the influence of the Middle East – which has made for so many ‘heady’ perfumes in recent years – moves East, in response to the dawning love of fragrance among the Chinese.
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Pear’s so crisp and clean a note, you can almost hear it ‘crunch’. Subtler and ‘greener’ than many fruits, we’d say it was almost made to be garlanded by white flowers, for a spring-like touch.
Pears themselves are a fruit-bowl staple today (though only really satisfying when truly in season, we’d say). And a little background: pear seems to have originated in western Europe, North Africa and eastwards, across Asia. The tree probably gets its name from the Latin ‘pira’.
Pear’s fragrant bounty doesn’t begin and end with its fruits (and subtly powdery blossoms), though. It’s one of the most desirable firewoods, producing a highly aromatic smoke that’s brilliant for smoking meat and tobacco – and which perfumers seek to capture and recreate, quite aside from the delicate crispness of the plant’s much better-known fruit.
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For many of us, geranium has an incredibly nostalgic scent: the scent of a grandmother’s greenhouse, rubbing a furry-leaved plant between our fingertips. In fact, there are hundreds of species of geranium, with scents that conjure up many other plants: lemon, apple, lime, mint, orange, rose, citronella, camphor, pineapple, sage and more. The leaves and stems can be steam-distilled to produce oils, then, with quite different characters – depending on the variety.
Mostly, the type used in perfumery is Pelargonium graveolens, or rose geranium: it gives a scent that’s similar to rose, but with a lemony twist, and less of the powderiness. The most prized geranium of all comes from the Ile Bourbon, with its rich, green, fruity-mint rosiness. (Such complexity, in a single ingredient: no wonder many perfumers love it.) But it’s also grown in Algiers, Morocco – and in Grasse, we saw Chanel experimenting with growing geranium in their fields. Geranium’s used in colognes, herbal scents, florals and chypre fragrances. (Plus the fougère family, which is mostly men’s scents.)
Legend has it that geraniums first grew where the prophet Mohammed hung his shirt to dry in the sun. And there are other myths linked with geranium: they’re said to grow in pots near witches’ cottages. (Which probably pegs most British gardeners as witches, then.)
Smell Pelargornium in:
Revlon Charlie Blue
Frederic Malle Noir Epices
There’s something about the voluptuous but fragile beauty of peonies that makes them truly evocative and sensual, as a perfume ingredient. In China and Japan, it’s a national emblem and known as ‘the king of the flowers’. Closer to home, in mythology, mischievous nymphs were believed to hide in the petals of peony, giving it the meaning of bashfulness, shyness or shame, in the language of flowers.
Plants take from five to seven years to flower abundantly, with up to 60 flowers on a single plant – but that makes for a pricy ingredient. Through history, peony was known for its medicinal powers, and in Traditional Chinese Medicine it’s still used to treat night sweats, injuries and stomach pains.
In fragrance, though, peony is a fresh, soft floral note: uplifting, calming, working brilliantly alongside other floral notes, especially the equally delicately-petalled rose.
Smell peony in:
Annick Goutal Quel Amour
Chanel Eau de Parfum
Chloé Eau de Parfum
Estée Lauder Pleasures
Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gioia
Histoire de Parfums Vert Pivoine
Jo Malone London Peony & Blush Suede
L’Occitane en Provence Peony
Stella McCartney Stella
Versace Crystal Noir
Petit-what? Petigrain. (Say it ‘petty-gran’.) You may not know the name – but you’ve certainly smelled this key ingredient in fresh fragrances, and especially Colognes – something of the sweetness of neroli (orange blossom) - but also woody, fresh, green and maybe a touch bitter, with a slightly masculine edge.
The bounteous bitter orange plant – where would perfumery be without it? – gives us petitgrain, but in this case it’s mostly the leaves and twigs from which the oil is extracted. Once upon a time, green unripe oranges – just the size of cherries – were also a source of petitgrain, hence the name (it translates as ‘little grains’). When the leaves and twigs are distilled alongside the flowers, you have what’s referred to as ‘petitgrain sur le fleur’.
There are a couple of ‘twists’ on petitgrain: a form known as ‘citronnier’ is distilled from the leaves of the lemon tree, in Mediterranean areas; as you’d imagine, it’s more – yes – lemony. And the mandarin tree gives us ‘mandarin petitgrain’, with a thyme-like scent. Today, most petitgrain production’s centred in France, Italy and Paraguay, with some in North Africa. And as with wine, petitgrain’s affected by the terroir, or the soil and conditions it’s grown in, with each crop having a subtly different scent.
All types of petitgrain contain aroma compounds known as geraniol and linalool that are known to trigger sensitivity in some people, so are listed on perfume packaging. Most of us are unaffected though, able to delight in the fresh, spirited joy of petitgrain’s citrus pleasures.
Smell petitgrain in:
Atelier Cologne Grand Neroli
Aveda Chakra 6 Intuition
Caudalie Zeste de Vigne
L’Artisan Parfumeur Fleur d’Oranger
L’Artisan Parfumeur Seville a L’Aube
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Amyris Femme
Miller Harris Cologne 1888
Ortigia Sicilia Orange Blossom
There are good pine smells, and horrid pine smells – and if you’ve ever sat in the back of a taxi with one of those ‘Christmas tree’-scented cards dangling from the rear-view mirror, you’ll probably get where we’re coming from…
But pine can also be wonderful crisp, spicy, outdoorsy and invigorating – and it’s been closely linked to perfume creation since the time of the early Arab perfumers, who liked it in combination with frankincense, in particular. (And that’ll surely open up your air passages.) The essential oil itself is distilled from the pine needles, young shoots and even sometimes the cones of this familiar evergreen, producing an oil with a refreshing woody-spiciness that conjures up Christmas like nothing else.
But if the Christmas tree’s the most familiar member of the pine family, it’s just one of 115 varieties that grow mostly in the Northern hemisphere. The wood itself is used for flooring, carpentry, for crackling log fires – but in the scented world, with only the lightest touch in actual perfumes for women, and especially men. And somewhat more heavy-handedly in home fragrance, loo cleaners – and those taxi-cab car perfumes…
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Pink pepper is now a ‘hot’ perfume ingredient (in several senses): bright, cheerful, with a woody-rosy scent that’s quite different to the nose-tingling spicy warmth of the more-familiar black pepper. And the difference shouldn’t surprise us: pink pepper comes from the Brazilian pepper tree and the Peruvian pepper tree (relatives of mangoes and cashews), not the Piper nigrum plant which provides the spice we scrunch onto our food. (Pink pepper – a.k.a. baies rose – is also edible, though, with a citrussy flavour.)
Jean-Claude Ellena and Geza Schoen - who creates scents for Ormonde Jayne – use a lot of pink pepper, and Karyn Khoury (Creative Director for Estée Lauder) has long been a fan, first introducing it into Pleasures, which has become a major classic: pink pepper adds a ‘piquancy’ and freshness, and it’s here to stay.
Smell pink pepper in:
Burberry The Beat
Carolina Herrera 212 Sexy
Escentric Molecules Molecule No. 1
Estée Lauder Pleasures
Kate Moss Kate
Max Mara Le Parfum
The Different Company Rose Poivrée
Yves Saint Laurent Elle
Rather like grapefruit, its near-relation, pomelo is a brilliant, vibrant top note or heart note which adds citrussy sparkle to many perfumes, especially Colognes. Mostly, pomelos are grown in South and South-east Asia: pale green to yellow when ripe and juicy, with flesh that doesn’t have grapefruit’s bitter edge. In aromatherapy, pomelo’s used for energizing – which is exactly what it delivers in a perfume. (We think of it as cheerfulness, bottled.)
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