Perfume 101

Perfume Dictionary from A to Z


Perfume Dictionary from A to Z

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Do you speak Perfume? No? Well, this article may not turn you into a big time fragrance-connoisseur, but it will help you to get acquainted with the labels and the words that are often thrown around in the perfume world.

Flavors, emotions and scents are hard to define, but this does not mean it is a mission impossible.

This perfume glossary contains terms that are most frequently associated with fragrances in general. Just like in any other language, Perfume language includes usage of slang, but we will tackle this in another post.

Absolute: The purest form of material extracted from a specific flower or plant with the usage of a solvent. The term is also known as an essence.

Accord: It is a blend, a combination of at least two separate notes that, when combined, compose another distinctive scent. Many perfumers describe it using a color metaphor: two colors beautiful in and of themselves when mixed, produce a third – beautiful in its uniqueness. The more colors one adds, the more distinctive the result is. And when the artist is done mixing the colors, he can start painting his masterpiece. And so can the perfumer.

Ambergris: It is sperm whale’s stomach secretion. Until recently, this ingredient was used as a perfume fixative, but due to its high price, now it is being replaced with compounds of synthetic origin. You can find these synthetic compounds by the name of amberlyn, ambroxan and ambrox. Ambergris is an inevitable part of the iconic Chanel 5, and it has a distinctively sweet, woody odor.

Amber: Since ambergris is extremely rare, the next best thing in perfumery is amber. Amber is a chemically derived accord designed to mimic the scent of ambergris. Made of benzoin, a vanilla like oil from a Styrax Benzoin tree, labdanum resin which has a woody scent and just a little bit of vanilla to mimic that sweet, mellow soft warmth that drives perfumers crazy. Today 99% of the perfumes contain amber, and the two terms are used interchangeably.

Animalic: A broad term used to describe perfumes made with the usage of compounds of animal origin. Musk, castoreum and civet are the most popular compounds of animal origin. The vast majority of these animals are now endangered, so the compounds are being replaced by similar synthetic ingredients. 

Aromatic: Contrary to the culinary meaning of aromatic as in having an aroma, in perfume language aromatic means consisted of predominantly green herbs notes like sage, lavender and rosemary.

Balsamic: Heavy, sticky sweet scent that can be associated with balsamic vinegar and which has all of the properties of the vinegar itself: sweet woody odor with a thick consistency. The best way to describe the balsamic character of a perfume is to explain it with the drydown of Shalimar perfume.

Base Notes: The third and final stage of the perfume’s evaporation process. This is the stage that follows top and heart notes, or the scent that lives on your skin for the entire life span of the perfume. 

Benzoin: It is a resin derived from the Styrax tree that has a general balsamic trait – sweet, sticky odor reminiscent of the root beer.

Bergamot: Essential oil derived from bergamot orange, with a distinctive bitter fresh and orange odor.

Camphoraceous: The crispy clean and cooling effect eucalyptus, mint and other green herbal notes have on the skin upon the application of the perfume.

Chypre: This word like so many other words is lent from the French language and it stands for Cyprus. It is pronounced sheepra and refers to the earthy, woody scents which dominate the air in the forests after a heavy summer rain.

Citrus: The zesty fresh olfactory notes emitted by the inclusion of lemon, orange, bergamot and grapefruit in the perfume.

Compound: This term’s a.k.a is perfume oil, which is more popular than the word compound. It stands for the concentrated concoction of the perfume’s mixture of ingredients, and it marks the undiluted stage of the perfume’s life. Before it is bottled and sold to the end users (perfume lovers all around the world), the perfume compound is diluted with various solvents and the perfume is brought into the world. The compound is the virgin state of the fragrance.

Civet: It is a cat that lives in the African savannas. It looks like a fox and is a very close relative of mongoose. Now before you ask why this Animal Planet trivia has been featured in a perfume dictionary, you should know that back in the days perfumers used civet musk extracted from the cat’s anus gland to add warmth and depth to certain perfumes. What kind of person would want to use a cat’s odor in a perfume you ask? The list is very long and includes some of the all time favorites: No.5, Shalimar, Nina, pretty much all of Elizabeth Taylor perfumes, and many more. Still, you will be pleased to hear that due to the endangered status of this African mammal and civet musk sky-high price, perfumers nowadays use synthetic version of the ingredient.

Young Youthful Perfume

Dry Down: This is the stage when these base notes are finally revealed and when the perfume has been mixed with the chemistry of the skin. This is the stage when you love or hate certain perfume, because this is the true face of the perfume itself.

Eau de perfume, Eau de toilette and Eau de cologne are terms which are completely described in another blog entry right here. Read it and you will understand why every perfume dreams to be Eau de perfume.

Essential Oil: Essence of plants derived by expression or distillation. These oils are highly concentrated and also known as virgin oils.

Evanescent: Often this term goes hand in hand with the notes and is used to mark fragrant notes that evaporate quickly. Sometimes it is also used to describe fleeting perfumes. The ones that rather mix with the air than your skin and which cannot be felt neither by you nor anyone in your very, very close proximity.

Fixative: This is a special ingredient which is added to the perfume in order to make it anything but evanescent. Simply put, it makes the perfume lasts longer.

Floral: When the perfume is prevalent with floral notes, then it is categorized as floral, due to its flowery scented traits.

Floral-Fruity: Perfumes categorized as Floral-Fruity are an interesting mix, mostly because the fruity notes of the perfume are added as refined olfactory accessories to the prevalent floral presence. Imagine you apply a perfume, and at first the perfume smells temptingly fresh, but in its dry down – it’s predominately floral. If they are Fruity-Floral, then it is a vice versa situation.

Gourmand: Perfumes that smell sweet are called gourmand. These perfumes are dominated by notes such as vanilla, chocolate, caramel, cotton candy, toasted almonds and marshmallows and may actually have a profound effect upon your decision to be on a diet or not after all. The pioneer gourmand perfume is Thierry Mugler’s Angel. A perfume so delicious you want to eat the bottle.

Green: The general terms for olfactory molecules which our brain detects as the smell of grass, stems and leaves.

Heart (Middle) Notes: The second stage of the love affair between the perfume and your skin. After the initial perfume passion rush, the second stage is mellower and gives a meaning to the perfume before the final stage, also known as base notes opening and also known as dry down.

Herbaceous or Herbal: This is a term which usually describes notes that have hay like or leaf like scent. Most of the time this term is used as a fancy name for dried chamomile or sage dominated scents.

Hesperidia: A general term used to define all citrus oils.

Ionones: Synthetically derived compounds which are used in very small amounts and which are present almost in every perfume. Their olfactory character is similar to the one of the iris or the violet flower.

Leathery: This therm is used to define the pungent, strong smell that comes from the ingredients used in the process of tanning leather. The leathery notes have animalic quality and a smoky scent. Тhey can be detected in the smell of a new expensive car interior or a new pair of leather shoes. These notes are included both in women’s and men’s perfume, even though they are more preferred additions to men’s colognes.

Mossy: Perfumes that have aromatic, earthy notes and scents are called  mossy.

Musk: It is a class of olfactory substances which are predominately used as base notes in the craft of perfume making. Basically, if we put aside the fancy language, musk are glandular secretions from various animals. You will get the broad idea if I tell you that the name derives from the Sanskrit word muska, which means testicle.

Nose: A slang word for a perfumer, or a person who is to blame for all the people that swear by their perfumes. And just to be clear, these people do not have large noses, but they have the ability to detect, identify and define more scents in one minute that you and I will have in our entire lifetime. Which is why they are so good at what they do (mixing perfumes all day long).

Modern Perfumes

Oriental: A fragrance category based on exotic aromas such as spices, oakmoss and animal notes.

Ozonic: Olfactory trait of the smell of fresh air that lingers in the space after a rain or after a scary summer thunderstorm. Chemists have found a way to design aromatic compounds that have the ability to mimic this exact scent. Your very own ozone fresh from a bottle or a vial.

Petally: Soft sensation which evokes the smell and the feel of various flower petals. The floral perfumes in order to be successful need to evoke this sensation of femininity: the frailty and the perfection of each and every petal.

Phenolic: This is an adjective that is often used to describe perfumes which are made with the usage of a great variety of raw and natural materials. Perfumes that come with strong, penetrating scents like those dominated by leathery notes or even chocolate and coffee are said to have Phenolic propensities. 

Powdery: The perfumes that have baby powder distinctive trait are said to be powdery. The name derives from the famous Johnson&Johnson baby powder, and since than any perfume that includes violet, heliotrope, almond and musk notes are simply called powdery. You can detect this powdery trait if you are an admirer of the Chanel’s No.19 or Chloe’s Love perfumes.

Sillage: The scented trail which a perfume leaves behind. I personally prefer to call it a scented tail. Some perfumes have long, very long tails, and other perfumes are just shy and keep the tails close to the skin. You can measure the sillage of a perfume by its radius of olfactory emitting of its scented molecules. If you can detect someone’s perfume from afar, it can mean one of two things: either the perfume sillage is strong, or you have an unbelievably good nose for sensing various scents.

Top Notes: The initial impression of all perfumes comes from the top notes. They mark the first stage of the perfume’s life and they are considered to be the most volatile elements in a perfume. Just like passion, they are intense and tempting but short-lived.

White Floral: It is an extremely general term which encompasses the floral notes of all white colored petal flowers such as jasmine, orange blossom, gardenia and tuberose. These perfumes should evoke the sensation of innocence and utmost purity.

Woody: The scents that emit the smell of fresh cut wood, such as a freshly sharpened pencil or chopped fireplace logs. On the other hand, there are certain types of woods that do not smell earthy woody at all. Like sandalwood, for instance. It smells like dried rose and fresh, rich creamy milk in one.

Zesty: Perfumes which ooze with unbelievable freshness and boldness reminiscent to that of a grated citrus peel are said to have zesty character. One perfume that epitomizes the word zesty is Jo Malone’s Lime Blossom and Basil.

With this we conclude our glossary of the most popular perfume terms and words. In case you have been tortured by some other term, please let us know in the comments, and we will tackle it with the seriousness of a top priority state affair.

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  1. Avatar Of Debbie


    Very informative, thank you for the primer!

  • Avatar Of Jessica


    Great post, very informative! One word I see sometimes in perfume descriptions is "cloying". I have a basic idea of what it means - it's not positive, I don't think - but maybe you could explain it better?

    • Marina Ljubisavljevic

      Hi Jessica! Cloying usually means that the fragrance has a sweet, syrupy like quality. Every person has a different threshold when it comes to sweetness, which means that some people find the fragrances with fruity or oriental notes like patchouli and amber a bit irritating or cloying especially if these particular notes are used as base notes. Usually when people use the word cloying it means that the fragrance is suffocating. It is often used as a synonym for heavy fragrances, which is not always true. Hope this helps, Have a nice scented day, Marina

  • Avatar Of Rasia Unggol

    Rasia Unggol

    Hi, Hope to add what is the meaning of those in perfumery: 1. Performance 2. Uniqueness 3. Versatility

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