One of the many obstacles facing perfume consumers today is how to go about finding fragrances they might like in the great sea of new releases. As I've written in the past, reading the list of fragrance notes for a given perfume can be misleading, but sometimes it's about all you have to go on other than the ad visuals or celebrity sponsorship. Just because you find Jude Law sexy as all get out, it doesn't mean you're going to love Dior Homme Sport; likewise, just because you like jasmine and saffron, it doesn't mean Ungaro by Ungaro is going to appeal to you.
Still, it helps to know a little something about fragrance notes. Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to smell absolutely everything. Figuring out which notes you find attractive and which you detest can at least help you to narrow down your choices, and if you want to spend time "talking" about perfume online at blogs or forums, you're going to need at least some basic familiarity with notes in order to follow the conversation.
I should say at the outset that identifying fragrance notes is hardly a particular skill of mine, and while being able to smell an unfamiliar perfume and immediately pick out all the notes would be a fun kind of parlour trick, it isn't something I'm able to do, nor is it something I really aspire to. I'm a perfume geek in some ways, but that isn't one of them. I don't really think you need to be an expert on fragrance notes to enjoy perfume — in fact, speaking for myself, I find too much knowledge has a way of "killing the magic". Still, in the interest of providing more fodder for Andrew Keen, here are a few suggestions for how you might go about learning to recognize basic notes in perfumery:
Smell the real thing
Many raw materials in perfumery come from nature; avid gardeners (or those who love to visit gardens) and cooks (or those who love to eat) therefore have a leg up on everyone else. If you don't know what common floral and plant notes smell like, you might start by visiting your local florist and/or botanical garden. If you don't cook, a visit to a spice market will also help, and if you've a really wonderful grocer nearby that carries all sorts of exotic fruits, that can be helpful too.
But bear in mind that smelling, say, figs, or saffron, or even roses, will only give you a vague idea of what you might smell in a perfume with that note. Perfume notes, even those that are naturally extracted from the material in question, do not always smell exactly like their "live" counterpart, in fact, sometimes they smell almost unrelated. Of course, not all perfume notes are naturally extracted to begin with, but don't assume that synthetic notes will smell "less real". They might, they might not. Moreover, it's important to remember that verisimilitude isn't really the point of perfume. I don't adore Diptyque's Philosykos because it best captures the scent of real figs, but because it's a gorgeous "fig" perfume.
In many ways, you'll learn more from smelling a variety of perfumes than you will from smelling the real thing. I don't have any idea what hawthorn smells like in nature, but I know what it smells like in perfume because I've smelled a handful of perfumes with a hawthorn note. Likewise, smell a handful of perfumes with "fig" and you'll find out what fig smells like in perfume — even if it's only vaguely related to the scent of real fig, it's a wonderful smell.
When I was starting out as a newbie perfumista, my tendency was to order whatever samples sounded appealing at that moment. In retrospect, I might have learned more by ordering groups of samples in the same fragrance family (see the FAQ for an explanation of the fragrance families) and with similar notes. I'm not sure that would have been as much fun, though.
If you're just starting out, you'll find that taking detailed notes on the fragrances you try, preferably in a searchable format, is crucial, and I'd also recommend that you hold onto as many perfume samples as you can, even those you don't like. That way, as you encounter new perfumes with similar notes, you'll have them on hand to compare.
Smell raw materials
Smelling the raw materials that perfumers use in their formulas is a more costly way to learn about fragrance notes, but it's probably the most helpful. Here are some resources:
Eden Botanicals has an extensive list of essential oils ranging from agar wood to ylang ylang, and all of them are available in small sample sizes. Do note that essential oils are not ready for use on skin — they must be diluted in a carrier oil or in alcohol first. You can find more information about diluting essential oils in alcohol at Snow Drift Farm (which, by the way, is another resource for essential oils and perfumery supplies, although it is not one I have used), or about diluting in carrier oils at From Nature With Love.
La Via del Profumo, in Italy, sells perfume making kits. The materials are all natural, and you get to select the notes you'd like included. They are one of few online sources for real animal-derived materials. As near as I can tell, the notes are already diluted.
Le Labo sells an "olfactionary" with "40 fundamental natural essences used in perfumery". These are pre-diluted, and all in 2.5 ml bottles, for $520.
The Perfumer's Apprentice sells a number of kits. Some are designed to help beginning perfumers, but there is also a "Perfumery Notes" kit which includes 40 natural and synthetic perfume notes, all pre-diluted, and geared towards consumers who want to become familiar with commonly used perfume notes. It is $95, and you get 4 ml of each material. This kit has become popular on MakeupAlley recently; you might try a board search there for more information.
Of all these resources, the only one I am personally familiar with is Eden Botanicals. If you're tried any of the others, or if you have any other suggestions, please comment!
Update: In 2009, Osmoz launched a series of olfactory kits — Les coulisses du parfum.
Note: image is Spring (Michelia champaca also known as champaka, champak and champa, sampige and shamba) by prashantby at flickr; some rights reserved. Update: the image does not seem to be of Michelia champaca, see comment from Huanani below.