Fragrance Families Explained
If you've had your nose in the fragrance world for any length of time, before long you hear the term 'Fragrance Families'. We tend to nod our heads, knowingly, and might be able to guess what 'Citrus' refers to, but some of these names can be quite baffling. What on earth do 'Chypre' or 'Fougère' mean, for example (and how do you even pronounce them?)
How does knowing about fragrance families help you?
Understanding fragrance families makes it much easier to understand your own preferences and create a beautifully fragranced home. Think of it like throwing open the doors of a wardrobe and suddenly noticing there are more blue clothes than any other colour in there. Looking closer, you notice the fabrics tend to be made of linen or cotton, and there are some stripes and polka dots but no large patterns. Studying that wardrobe will give you massive clues if you had to pick our a new suit or buy a new dress for that person. You'd have a real sense of their character, what they liked.
Studying the fragrances in your own 'wardrobe' of scents (perfumes you wear, scented candles or diffusers you fragrance your home with - even everyday smells you're always drawn to) gives you similar clues as to your own preferences (or those of someone you're trying to buy a gift for). If you look up the ingredients in those fragrances, you can trace these back to the main Fragrance Families - and suddenly, you will know your scent tribes, and which ones to look for when you're wondering which to try next...
What are Fragrance Families & why do we need them?
The scented universe is a vast and sprawling place, so the more ingredients perfumers had to play with, the more complicated their formulas became, and a wider range of fragrances became available. Until the 19th century, perfumes tended to be quite simplistic and either 'Colognes' (fresh, zingy splash-on scents named after the city of Cologne where they first became popular) or floral water, often made at home from ingredients people could grow in their gardens.
Scientific advances like the discovery of synthetic molecules - conjuring smells not able to be extracted from nature - was the dawning of 'the golden age of perfumery', houses like Coty, Guerlain and Chanel offering far more complex aromas to the perfume-buying public. And so, new names were needed to categorise fragrances in a more organised manner, and the 'Fragrance Families' we born.
These are the main (traditional) ways they're grouped...
Pronounced 'sheep-ruh', these are the multi-layered mixtures of floral, citrus, mossy and amber-y notes, traditionally including oakmoss, labdanum (cistus), patchouli with top notes of bergamot. Chypre-style fragrances can supposedly be traced to the Roman Empire, but the name is French for 'Cyprus': many of the fragrance ingredients in this style of perfume being native to the Mediterranean.
These can be bouquets of dew-sprinkled flowers that smell as though they're freshly picked from the garden and just-unfurling pretty spring blossoms. Or full-on diva-like sensuality with the hip-swivelling headiness of white flowers brought to the fore, such as jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom. Like all scents, it depends how much the perfumer uses, and the other notes they choose to blend them with.
Zesty, bright, immediately uplifting, fragrances in this family tend to have a lot of citrus fruits like lemon, lime, orange, bergamot, grapefruit, and mandarin in them. Often, they smell so life-like it's as though you've just dug your fingernails into the skin of the fruit and begun to peel it. Most Eau de Cologne fall into this family, though they are usually mixed with aromatic herbal notes as well, such as rosemary, mint and lavender. On their own, citrus notes don't tend to last very long, so perfumers today tend to mix them with woody base notes.
Chocolate, caramel, cakes, coffee - a whole perfumed pantry of ingredients are in this more modern fragrance family. Even candy floss and bubble-gum and feature in gourmand fragrances. Perhaps the most recognised (and first 'official') gourmand being Thierry Mugler's ground-breaking Angel perfume, launched in 1992. Since then, temptingly 'edible' sounding notes became increasingly popular, often smoothed with a swirl of vanilla or spices in the base.
This used to be called 'Oriental', but increasingly the term is being abandoned by fragrance houses, because that name is an outdated way of referring to 'the East' and is offensive to many. In perfumery, amber better describes this family anyway - it includes traditionally Arabic styles of fragrance, that usually have generous mixtures of vanilla, musk, patchouli, balsams, sandalwood, and hot, smoky spices.
French for 'fern like', you say it 'foo-jair' with the j quite soft, more 'foo-sihair'. The notes in these fragrances evoke woodland walks and freshly mown grass. Citrus, herbs and a synthetic ingredient called coumarin (that smells like drying hay and was first discovered in the 1800s) are used to create that countryside vision, often with woody notes and oakmoss, or sometimes the almost minty/rose note of geranium along with other fresh smelling flowers or cooler spices like cardamom.
A far easier one to understand, this family includes cedar, sandalwood, agarwood (also known as oudh) and sometimes patchouli and vetiver. Because woody notes mix so well with a plethora or perfume ingredients, they are rarely used in isolation, and you find wood in the middle ('heart') or dry down ('base notes') of pretty much every find fragrance out there today.
Fragrance Families aren't set in stone (as can be seen from the name-changing Amber category)
Often fragrances may be described as a mixture of several categories if they don't neatly fit into just one. Other more recent additions have been Leather (as the name suggests, mixtures of ingredients like birch tar, dark resins and woods that smell like cured leather), Aquatic (scents that smell of the sea, evoking rippling streams or rivers) and increasingly we've seen terms like Solar used to describe fragrances - these being light-filled and reminding us of sunshine, holidays and a feeling of literally soaring upwards when we smell them.
We're regularly discussing whether it's time to introduce another family but for the time being, to keep it simple our fragrances are split between Citrus, Herbal, Fruity, Floral, Spicy, Woody & Warm.
Naturally, if you've any questions or need help finding the right fragrance or fragrance family for you, don't hesitate to get in touch at [email protected] :-).