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’…
Can a fragrance really smell of water? Issey Miyake would like us to think so: his iconic L’Eau d’Issey was created to conjure up the purity and clarity of water. (It was one of the first ‘juices’, or perfumes, to be almost as clear as fresh water in colour, too.) Mostly, ‘water’ in fragrance ingredient terms has come to mean an oceanic, salty/seawater vibe – which is actually recreated through the use of a complicated blend of synthetics. The idea is that ‘watery’ fragrances should actually should smell ‘breezy’, ‘outdoorsy’, like the mist that’s in the air when we take a walk on a beach with the surf crashing against the sand. (Because of course if you simply filled a bottle with water, you’d end up with something with no more of a scent than Perrier or Evian.)
Smell water (or rather ‘ozonic’ notes) in:
Issey Miyake L’Eau d’Issey
Water lily, as a perfume ingredient, is a little like lily ‘lite’. Same sweetness – but more subtle. Sensual, for sure, but again, with a more delicate touch. Certainly as elegant as a traditional lily,– but with a more ‘see-through’ and yes, watery quality. Altogether pretty, airy, feminine – rather than va-va-voom sexy.
Water lilies – Nymphea – get their name from Greek mythology, from the nymphs who played in springs or pools. They like slow-moving or still water: lakes, or the edges of rivers, and there are dozens of different varieties – all beautiful, and all short-lived: each flower blooms, closes at night, and lasts for just a few days. Nymphea odorata is the scented variety, and the one we’re interested in for fragrant purposes – though other types have a use in traditional herbal medicine: for hair loss, skin diseases, headache and palpitations. Certainly a note that makes our heart beat a little faster, when we smell it.
Smell water lily in:
Juicy watermelon has been quenching perfume-lovers thirst for fruity notes a lot, recently, thanks to the trend for fruity-florals. It’s summer in a bottle: very fresh, watery, sheer, but (unsurprisingly) sweet at the same time. Generally, it’s part of a cocktail of fruit notes – perhaps a dash of mango, a squirt of raspberry, a squeeze of guava…
Smell watermelon in:
West Indian Bay
This key ingredient of the legendary aftershave (West Indian Bay Rum) is actually no relation to the bay leaves we throw into our cooking pots and casseroles. The West Indian bay tree – Pimenta racemosa – with its leathery leaves, belongs to the myrtle family. But its aromatic nature really comes out when a distillation of the dried leaves and/or berries (in rum and water) is blended into perfumes (and aftershaves). This masculine splash started as an artisan creation on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, but many other West Indian islands (as well as American and European fragrance companies) now make a version. You may be able to make it out West Indian bay itself among the cinnamon, oil of cloves, citrus and other spice oils.
Smell West Indian bay in:
What’s a staple ingredient of bread and cakes doing in perfumes…? Adding a nutty quality, actually: soft, almost snuggly or ‘skin-like’. You’re most likely to encounter wheat in a gourmand (‘edible’) or Ambrée fragrance – though sometimes, used sparingly, it’s used as a ‘modifier’: an ingredient added to make something smell truly unique, rather than another ‘me-too’ scent.
Smell wheat in:
Strictly, white chocolate isn’t chocolate at all: it’s created from cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla. But it’s easy to see (or rather, smell) why white chocolate could add an almost edibly delicious creaminess to a fragrance. It’s mostly used for its good-enough-to-eat sweetness in gourmand scents - but occasionally by perfumers for extra richness in fragrances from other families.
Smell white chocolate in:
Captured in a bottle, wisteria’s as lush and beautiful as when it scampers up the outside of a house or over a pergola, garlanding them with multi-flowered, hanging ‘racemes’. There’s a touch of lilac about this feminine perfume note – but a slightly spicy undertone that adds intrigue, at the same time, reminiscent of the cloviness of carnation.
Smell wisteria in:
With the current frenzy for exotic cocktails, chances are you may tasted wormwood (Artemisia absinthum) – the key ingredient in absinthe, a drink that was for years banned in France but is now very much in vogue. (It’s also used in vermouth.) As a medicinal, use of this exceedingly bitter herb goes all the way back to Egypt. (It helps to dispel parasites – hence its name…) In fragrances, wormwood is also bitter and green – and so used with the lightest touch, generally (in men’s but also women’s scents), because it’s pungent and intensely herby. (See also Artemisia).
Smell wormwood in: