It’s fitting that perfumers are so often said to “compose” fragrances. Not only do musical composers and perfumers both use notes, their creations grapple with themes, transitions, and relationships — the musical composer with instruments and the nose with scent materials. Plus, they both play with volume. In perfume, that volume is called sillage.
In brief, sillage (pronounced see-′yawj) is the reach of your waft. Sillage can be thick and fill a room, delicate but still voluminous, soft and close, or even shrill and close. Sillage depends on a fragrance’s materials and, of course, how much you apply. Even though it carries a higher concentration of scent, Extrait isn’t necessarily more potent sillage-wise than Eau de Toilette or Eau de Parfum. (In fact, Extrait often carries a more intimate sillage, which can make it terrific for when you’re in close quarters with other people, like in the audience at a play.) Also, a hearty sillage doesn't necessarily translate to longevity. Sometimes a good, loud Eau de Toilette can burn off before you make it to work.
Just as an orchestra can play pianissimo or forte to best serve the music, in my opinion there’s no ideal volume of sillage. I remember reading somewhere that perfume should only be smelled within an arm’s length. I disagree. Sometimes it’s nice to wear a much quieter fragrance, and some perfumes, such as Guerlain Vol de Nuit, are nicer — feel more personal — when they're quiet. Other times I like a trumpeting blast when I first spray on a fragrance, knowing that it will tighten to my skin within a few minutes. Every once in a while, especially if I’m going to be among competing smells, I like robust sillage.
Fragrance can smell different depending on where you stand in the perfume’s sillage. Some perfume seems to create an airy cage of scent, and you can smell its facets almost as if you were standing in a garden. (To my surprise, this is how vintage Schiaparelli Shocking comes off to me.) Some perfume is dreamy from a distance but a punch in the nose up close. (Exactly how I feel about Chanel Coco Mademoiselle.)
The best sillage, though, happens when a perfume really agrees with you. Then, the fragrance doesn’t so much stand out, but it complements you so well that it doesn’t draw attention to itself, even when its sillage is clearly legible. It’s like a dress that doesn’t look like a beautiful dress — instead, it makes you look beautiful. You notice the scent, but almost as an afterthought, because it blends so well and subtly with the person wearing it. For me, that’s the ideal sillage. Or maybe it's simply the ideal perfume.
Do you think about sillage when you buy perfume? Do you have any fragrances that waft the ideal sillage for you?