When people learn that I write about perfume, I can usually count on two questions: "What’s your favorite perfume?" and "Can you recommend a fragrance for me? I want a signature scent." Forget about naming a favorite perfume. That’s a moving target. But for everyone who’s asked me to recommend a fragrance, this post is for you.
Before heading off to a boutique to find a signature scent, it’s helpful to know a few things about perfume. To me, it's most important to understand that perfume is an art, like music or painting. Just as you probably winced the first time you heard opera and puzzled at your first Jackson Pollack, there’s a good chance you won’t initially appreciate all of a fragrance’s subtleties. When a perfumista friend raves about Guerlain Mitsouko, all you might smell is “grandma” — or worse, “rotting grandma.” That’s okay. Part of the fun of finding perfume you love is exploring a whole new art form.
Some companies count on your lack of olfactory discrimination. They sell perfume with glitzy marketing and they trumpet lists of fragrance notes like “angel mousse” and “gardenia spasms.” They convince you that wearing their scent will transform you into a disco goddess. They make a perfume from cheap materials and give it a juicy top note with the hope that the perfume’s initial hit of Hawaiian Punch will open your wallet. Don’t fall for it. Few of us are entirely immune to sexy branding or a good story (think of how much Chanel No. 5 Marilyn Monroe moved when she said it was all she wore to bed), but try your best to choose fragrance based on your nose.
You don’t have to have an ultra keen nose to appreciate perfume, either. To me, it’s more rewarding to explore the “shape” of a fragrance than to be able to rattle off the names of notes. Composing a fragrance is like planting a garden border. When you design a border, you not only think about the sequence of color as plants bloom and fade, but about each plant’s size and rate of growth, which plants will shade out others over the season, how to group plants with the same needs for light and water — and a lot more. Similarly, a perfumer orchestrates a fragrance’s notes so that the whole composition develops harmoniously over time without “clunks” along the way. As with plants, each fragrance material is different in how fast it develops, how loud it is, how it overwhelms or enhances other materials, and a thousand other things that I, as a perfume civilian, only guess at.
As you pay attention, you’ll see that a perfume can whisper lullabies or roar massive oratorios and throw surprises at you every few hours. It can be dense, airy, cold, silky, gritty, or pulpy. It can smell different when you sniff it up close compared to at arm’s length. If you think about it, it makes sense. Unlike a dress or a piece of jewelry, perfume actually lives on your skin. Its molecules blend and dissipate according to body heat and the perfumer’s skill.
And now for a warning. It's likely your appreciation for perfume will eventually outstrip that of your friends and family. What this means is when you choose a signature scent, it has to be for you. Your husband may not empathize with your love of Miss Dior. Your wife might not get the seductiveness of Serge Lutnes Muscs Kublaï Khan’s funk. Hopefully, they’ll at least tolerate your fragrance (although the Muscs Kublaï Khan might be pushing it), but don’t expect your perfume to enchant everyone the same way it does you.
Let me add another warning. Exploring perfume might cause you to give up the whole idea of a signature scent altogether. You might discover you want a whole wardrobe of them, instead. If so, welcome to the club!