Now that we’ve deepened your understanding of perfume in preparation for finding your signature scent (see part 1), it’s time to get down to strategy. Store shelves groan with perfume. How do you choose “the one”?
My guess is that most people duck into perfume shops and department stores and try whatever catches their fancy at the moment, hope they'll be struck will love. That might work. Possibly. Maybe providence will toss a perfume in your path that will grab you and demand to be worn everyday.
But maybe it won’t. A surer path would be to explore the offerings of a single perfume house, then to apply whatever you learn to finding the fragrance that resonates with you most. Most — not all, but most — perfume houses aim to market a line of fragrances that appeals to a broad range of consumers. For instance, Chanel offers Chance for its younger market and Eau Première, No. 19 Iris Poudré, and Coco Noir for its more fashion-savvy customers who might not want to wear the older, fustier Chanels like No. 5 and No. 19 that appeal to those more experienced in fragrance (or with eyes full of stars for these icons). Similarly, Chanel’s luxury Les Exclusifs line encompasses the gamut with a true oriental (Coromandel); an elegant vetiver (Sycomore); the mistress’s fragrance (Misia); a leather (Cuir de Russie); and — well, you get it. By sampling each of Les Exclusifs, you gain a broad experience of fragrance, albeit through Chanel's lens.
If you’re looking to learn about fragrance through exploring a perfume line, one good bridge line is Jo Malone. The fragrances are approachable, nicely made, and easy to find. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try L’Artisan Parfumeur. You’ll find some fabulous perfumes ranging from earthy ouds to dainty florals, all intriguing. If you have access to niche perfumes, Parfum d’Empire offers a tightly edited but thorough range that will familiarize you with everything from grand florals to rich orientals to dry chypres.1 If you want to make a real study of perfume, plunge in and commit yourself to knowing the work of one of the grand old houses like Guerlain or Hermès.
Maybe you're already sure of the notes that intrigue you. Why not work through different perfumers’ treatment of those notes? If you love tuberose, you’ll want to dip into everything from Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower to Jungle Gardenia. You might want to experiment a bit with jasmine, orange flower, lily of the valley, and lily, too, to see where you fall in this dreamy constellation of tuberose's cousins. Or maybe you love rose. You’ll want to sample a pure rose, a rose chypre, a green rose, and a fruity rose. You’ll want to know what rose does when it’s sprinkled with cardamom or balanced with violet or dosed with incense.
When you test fragrances, be sure to try them side by side. Comparing fragrances is the best way to call out the individuality of each scent. Give the fragrance at least four hours to develop, and keep sniffing along the way. When perfumes start smelling the same, it’s time to stop for the day. You can breathe through your unscented scarf or cardigan to help “reset” your nose.
Don’t buy right away. It’s tempting to buy on the spot when you’re holding a beautiful bottle and a sales associate is cooing superlatives, but insist on a perfume sample. Perfume boutiques are generally wonderful about making samples if they don’t already have trade samples on hand, and some retailers — Sephora and Nordstrom come to mind — will make samples, too. If the store won’t give you a sample, go somewhere else. Perfume is personal. It can take a while to make up your mind, and you'll want to try it at home.
In fact, it’s best to expect that finding your signature scent won’t happen overnight. To me, that’s the beauty of the process. Take your time. Sniff, sample, make an opinion, change your opinion. Broaden your appreciation of perfume.
As you sample fragrances, you might decide to build on your signature scent idea by, for example, having a different formulation for day and evening. Fragrance companies often create an Extrait version of a scent that emphasizes different notes than the Eau de Toilette version. On the other hand, you might decide on a different fragrance altogether for day, one that harmonizes with your evening perfume. For example, you might adore Guerlain Shalimar for evening but wear a sheer lemon or light vanilla for day and dab on Shalimar at night.
Whatever you do, have fun! Finding a fragrance you love is a rewarding adventure.
Perfume lovers, what have I missed? What advice would you offer someone looking for a signature scent?
1. [Ed. note: see Perfumista tip: on fragrance families for more information on chypres and other "fragrance family" classifications.]