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’…
Add a touch to cooking, and it turns a dish bright yellow. Add a touch to a perfume, and it gives a bittersweet, leathery, intimate quality: a little bit earthy, but soft at the same time. Honeyed and hay-like are other descriptions that perfumers give to saffron, which works especially well in Ambrée-type perfumes.
The priciest of spices – known as ‘red gold’ – saffron’s one of the most ancient perfume ingredients: it was popular in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, often as a ‘single note’ perfume, as well as in more complex blends. (The ever-extravagant Romans even strewed it over the floors of public places, to scent the air on special occasions). Saffron was also used to scent baths, houses and temples, while in medicine it was a narcotic. (Erotic postscript: in the tantric rite of the Five Essentials, saffron was applied to the female’s feet…)
The plant itself – Crocus sativus, from the iris family - was introduced into Europe in the 7th Century, after the conquest of Spain; by the 16th Century, English saffron was prized as the best in the world, grown in large quantities around Saffron Waldon (which is how come that town got its name). Today, we grow crocus in the garden – often the first herald of spring. (Without realising that the stamens of the true crocus can be used in our cooking…)
Smell saffron in:
Agent Provocateur Agent Provocateur
Bella Bellissima Royal Saffron
Boadicea the Victorious Regal
By Kilian Pure Oud
Comme des Garçons 8 88
Diptyque L’Eau de Tarocco
Donna Karan Black Cashmere
Giorgio Armani Idole d’Armani
Givenchy Ange ou Demon
L'Artisan Parfumeur Dzing!
Lady Gaga Fame
Laura Mercier Ambre Passion
L’Artisan Parfumeur Safran Troublant
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Oud
‘The sacred herb;’, the Romans called it – and pretty sacred sage is, too, to perfumers. More often used in masculine perfumery, an essential oil of sage – which is steam-distilled from the leaves - does add pep (and pepperiness), freshness and zing to some women’s scents – even though you’ll probably be unaware of its eucalyptus-like undertones. This well-known shrubby perennial garden herb, Salvia officinialis, was used to ward off evil in ancient times. It also cured snakebite, increased fertility – and was a cornerstone of ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’, a blend of herbs alleged to ward off the plague. All that, and a wonderful aromatic smell, too…
Smell sage in:
Salt’s a flavour. So how can it work, in a perfume…? A ‘fantasy’ note of salt can be used to add tang to marine, woody or even gourmand fragrances. In the same way that a touch of salt brings a caramel alive, saltiness can play against sweet notes like chocolate, praline and cream, as an almost show-stopping contrast. Fragrances with high levels of ambergris (natural or synthetic) can also smell ‘salty’.
Smell salt in:
Ancient Arab perfumers were seduced by sandalwood’s sweet magic long, long ago: in pulverised or sawdust form, it formed the base of solid perfumes and incense. And sandalwood has long key to spiritual traditions in India, too: so soothing, it’s considered an aid to meditation, helping to still a whirring mind. In rituals, sandalwood oil may be applied to the forehead, the temples, or rubbed between the eyebrows. And it’s used as incense and burned on altars, as a way of communicating with the heavens.
Santalum album isn’t actually a tree but a parasitic plant which grows by suckering itself to the roots of other trees, and slowly growing as high as 10 metres. To extract the deep, sweet woodiness, wood or root chippings are steam-distilled. If you ever come across a piece of the wood itself, it’s magical: the scent can still be enjoyed, years after it was harvested. (A little light sanding re-releases the scent, if it fades.)
Sandalwood’s creamy sweetness is used in the base of as many as 50% of feminine perfumes. Supremely versatile, it blends exquisitely with cloves, lavender, geranium, jasmine, galbanum, frankincense, black pepper, jasmine and patchouli; it works as a ‘fixative’, tethering other ingredients and keeping them ‘true’, in a composition. But it’s under a bit of a cloud, perfume-wise. So many sandalwood trees have been cut down in India, largely for production of perfume and incense – often illegally harvested, because it’s such a valuable commodity - that it’s become endangered. The good news, however, is that plantations in Australia are now coming on-stream, producing sandalwood oil of high quality – to the relief of ‘noses’. (And conservationists.) And at the same time, a wide range of synthetic sandalwood-like ingredients are now used in place of this at-risk wood, to give that smooth milkiness.
Smell sandalwood in:
Bobbi Brown Bobbi’s Party
Crabtree & Evelyn Nadiora
Crabtree & Evelyn Sandalwood
Dior Hypnotic Poison
Estée Lauder Sensuous
Keiko Mecheri Bois de Santal
Memo Quartier Latin Eau de Parfum
Serge Lutens Santal Blanc
Serge Lutens Santal Majascule
Versace Crystal Noir
A mighty tree, a mighty base note: this giant redwood member of the cypress family, which grows for thousands of years, is becoming popular in men’s fragrances – and a handful of women’s, for its dry earthiness. Because the Sequoia sempervirens tree is endangered, however – through loss of habit and over-logging – chances are it’s a ‘fantasy’ sequoia.
Smell sequoia in:
Aniseed, licorice, fennel, tarragon: star anise reminds us of all of these. Illicium verum has to be the most beautiful-looking spice ever: star-shaped, with tiny, pungently-scented seeds. The plant itself has dark green leaves and teeny flowers, followed by the star-shaped seedpods. Sun-dried, they make their way into all sorts of foods – and have been used in Ambrée medicine for over 3,000 years, for its stimulating effect on the digestion. The clear, almost colourless oil is steam-distilled from the fresh or partly-dried pods, and the spiciness of the resulting oil goes especially well in Ambrée-style perfumes, working well alongside cardamom, bay, coriander, lavender, neroli, orange, petitgrain, mandarin, cedarwood and rosewood.
Smell star anise in:
Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile
Bulgari BLV Eau de Parfum II
David & Victoria Beckham Instinct
Giorgio Armani Armani Code
Lolita Lempicka Lolita Lempicka
Marc Jacobs Blush
The waxy flowers of this tender twining shrub – also known as Madagascar Jasmine or Creeping Tuberose – are traditionally used in wedding bouquets and headdresses: romantic, sweet, and (yes) a little like tuberose and jasmine. Stephanotis generally appears as part of a bigger bouquet of blowsy, hypnotic white florals.
Smell stephanotis in:
In the wrong hands, strawberry can smell sickly-sweet and synthetic. But in the hands of a gifted perfumer…? Strawberry can be lush, juicy, fruity-green and not overpoweringly ‘jammy’, at all. One of summer’s favourite berries, strawberry’s turned up in a fruitbowl of scents in recent years, riding on a wave of fruity-floral popularity – sometimes paired with exotic white flowers like ylang-ylang, lily or jasmine, or in ‘gourmand’ creations alongside caramel and cinnamon. If you’ve been put off by a run-in with a Strawberry Shortcake doll, don’t write this fruit ingredient off till you’ve discovered the strawberry’s grown-up, sophisticated side in those scents listed below…
Smell strawberry in:
Dior Miss Dior Chérie
Givenchy Fleur d’Interdit
Givenchy Hot Couture Eau de Parfum
Juliette Has A Gun Miss Charming
Justin Bieber Girlfriend
Kylie Minogue Music Box
L’Occitane de Provence Délice des Fleurs
Marc Jacobs Oh Lola!
Nez à Nez Ambre à Sade
Paco Rabanne Ultrared
Ralph Lauren Ralph Wild
Sarah Jessica Parker SJP NYC
Also known as ‘storax’, both names for benzoin. In common with balsam of Peru and balsam of tolu, this is an oil – tapped from a tree (Styrax benzoin, hence the two names), after deliberately damaging the bark.
It was first described in the 14th Century; the Arabs called benzoin ‘frankincense of Java’, and it’s had a seriously long tradition of use in pomanders, pot pourri, incense and soaps. (Rather usefully, benzoin multi-tasks as an antiseptic and an inhalant, as well as a stypic, i.e. it actually stops minor wounds bleeding.) Benzoin gives ‘body’ to many perfumes (it’s especially widely-used in ambrées) and is sweetly seductive, very reminiscent of vanilla.
Adds perfumer Andy Tauer, 'Styrax actually comes in two forms, which give different effects. The first is resinoid, which is perfect with lavender. Don´t ask me why but it seems to fix it perfectly and it calms the hyperactive lavender. The other type is leathery with woody smoky, undertones - not like birch tar, though, with its association of smoked sausages and campfires in October with wet wood. It is more the leather that you expect your gloves to exhale. I love the warm leather tones of this quality of styrax - but it needs careful handling, though.'
Smell styrax benzoin in:
No, not really suede – but perfumers can recreate the suede’s enveloping sensuality, in perfumery using synthetic ingredients. It’s fascinating to us how perfumes – which are invisible – can have a ‘texture’, but the fragrances listed below really do give a sense of that, as they cocoon you with their musky, woody, velvety, leathery qualities.
Smell suede in:
Agent Provocateur Maitresse
Andrea Maack Smart
Bottega Veneta Bottega Veneta
Donna Karan Cashmere Mist
Donna Karan DKNY
Donna Karan Donna Karan
Guerlain Cuit Beluga
Halston Woman Amber
Lacoste Pour Femme
Serge Lutens Daim Blonde
Tom Ford Violet Blonde
With their sweet and vanilla-y softness, quite a few gourmand fragrances list ‘sugar’ as a note. It’s a ‘fantasy’ note, of course: as perfumer Christine Nagel explains, 'Sugar doesn't exist in perfumery - but sugary facets can be found in synthetic notes called maltol and ethyl maltol'; that sweet and caramel tone is very much used in perfumer, these days. When you're smelling a gourmand scent, then, see if you can make out either a ‘burned sugar’ caramel quality, or a candyfloss, spun-sugar airiness.
Smell sugar in:
By Kilian Love by Kilian
Fresh Brown Sugar
Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gioia
Gucci Flora by Gucci Gorgeous Gardenia
L’Artisan Parfumer Poivre Piquant
L’Occitane en Provence Délice des Fleurs
Max Mara Max Mara
Vera Wang Princess Night
Many a gardener’s favourite flower, the sweet pea: obligingly abundant, so long as you keep picking its long stems day after day. It’s certainly possible to capture the airy sweetness of sweet peas, or Lathyrus odoratus – which naturally smell somewhere between orange blossom and hyacinth, with a hint of rose – through a process of extraction. But the ingredient perfumers weave, mostly into floral fragrances, is generally a synthetic replica.
Smell sweet pea in:
Photograph courtesy of Sarah Raven
‘Mock orange blossom’, it’s also known as – or Philadelphus. Oh, and also ‘German jasmine’. A well-known family of garden shrubs, syringe bursts into a froth of white flowers in late spring, filling the air with its jasmine-like sweetness – which is what perfumers capture, often alongside other white florals, but also in chypre creations. A stunner, which deserves to be better known (and more widely-used).
Smell syringa in: