A Beginner’s Guide To Perfume: How to Train Your Nose, Learn Your Perfume Profile, & More

Source: goodfon.com

Source: goodfon.com

Most of you who post regularly on my site are hard-core perfume addicts already, but a large number of readers are not “fume heads” and just lurk, feeling out of their depth. Perfume is a world that you or they are intrigued by, but it’s a little alien to them, and they are unsure of where to begin or how. It all seems very complicated and somewhat overwhelming! I’m sure they wonder how on earth people can even smell half the things that perfume bloggers detect or write about. And I’m even more certain that the perfume world seems far, far too expensive to get addicted to in the way that one can get obsessed with nail varnish, makeup, or books. So, this post is for all you quiet lurkers and perfume newbies — a way to reassure that you can not only learn easily, not only train your nose, but also, enter the world of perfume without going (totally) broke.

One place to start is a succinct “How To” guide called: “How to Make Perfume Hobby Affordable and More Fun,” by Victoria of Bois de Jasmin. I will emphasize a few of her points which I will post, out-of-order, because I think they are key. And, in addition, I will provide a number of my own suggestions and tips.


Victoria’s fifth point is one which I would begin with if you are completely new to perfume and/or want to train your nose.

5. Smell Things Around You

If you are motivated to learn more about scents, smell aromatic things around you–herbs, teas, coffees, chocolate, olive oil, mangoes piled up at the grocery store.  Many perfumers come from a family of fragrance professionals, mostly because they are taught to use their nose at an early age. You may not have an arsenal of essential oils and perfumery materials, but if you can just sniff fruits or spices as you shop, you will not only hone your nose like a professional, you will end up with better produce on your table.

Open your spice cabinet and sniff cinnamon, allspice or vanilla extract. You need not order an expensive sample of Lorenzo Villoresi Piper Nigrum if you have black pepper in your kitchen. Crush the peppercorns and smell the bright top notes. Notice how they smell citrusy and cool. Then sniff them 10 minutes later to notice the woody-smoky nuances.  The scent of spices is as complex as that of any perfume, and most of your favorite fragrances probably use a spice  or two in their formulas.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of her point. Go out and smell the most basic things around you. If you’re at the park with your child, pick up some earth and smell what it’s like when moist or dry. That earthy smell is something that is often in perfumes, whether as the dry-down finish to patchouli, musk or other elements. If you’re walking by some flowers — like daffodils (often called narcissus in perfumery) — or if you’re near some pine trees, go up and give them a whiff. Close your eyes, deeply inhale, and try to mark the aroma in your mental “Scent Library.”

Then, of course, there is the whole world available to you in your kitchen or supermarket. Check out what cardamom, coriander or pink pepper smells like.


Turkish Spice Market. Source: Stefani’s Blog at http://blog.stephanijoy.com/?p=58

Try roasting some of the spices to see how the aroma may progress or change. Take a bottle of Cinnamon, All-Spice or Cloves, give it a whiff and then try putting on a dash on your wrist where your pulse point may bring out the heat. See how your body chemistry impacts the smell, especially over the course of an hour (or four). Cumin is in a lot of richer, spicier perfumes, and you may be surprised to see how it works on your actual skin or how the smell can change over time. That earthy smell can be very similar to the “skank” that perfume bloggers often talk about.

At the risk of sounding like a completely deranged loon, I would also recommend trying some other simple exercises:

  • Source: Fragrantica

    Source: Fragrantica

    If you’ve bought a new leather purse, smell the inside. That soft note of suede or leather is in a lot of perfumes, whether vanilla niche ones like Tom of Finland from Etat Libre d’Orange or in more mass-market perfumes like Ralph Lauren‘s Polo. You may want to also compare the smell of your new purse to that of an old leather jacket, leather gloves, or suede purse to see you can detect differences in the leather.

  • Next time you go to IKEA or a furniture store, stop by the wooden chest of drawers, open them and give the inside a whiff. So many perfumes nowadays have wood notes and — while you may not have access to things like agarwood (oud) or sandalwood — you can train your nose to pick up wood notes, even if they’re fresh and light ones.
  • Lemon Zest Source: Lovely Little Things blogspot

    Lemon Zest
    Source: Lovely Little Things blogspot

    Next time you’re cooking, take out a lemon, grapefruit or orange, and slice open the skin. Smell it when it’s just fresh and zingy, and compare the smell to that of the pulp inside. The oils in the rind should make a difference in the way the note translates: either more bitter, more zesty, more concentrated or more aromatic.

  • I would do the same thing for peaches, one of the more popular fruits used in perfumes. Smell the flesh and imprint its notes in your memory.
  • Smell fresh plums, and compare the scent to those of dried prunes. Then, compare both aromas to that of raisins. Can you detect the differences?
  • If you go to an Indian restaurant and order a curry or pilau rice dish, take a few moments to just sniff it with your eyes closed. See if you can detect any cumin, cardamom, or coriander in the curry. The rice may well have saffron in it and, for those of you who don’t have saffron in your kitchens, it will enable you to become familiar with a note that is increasingly common in perfumes.
  • Rum & Coke, next to a hand-made "Rum & Coke" soap from Aromaholic.net (click on the photo for the link.)

    Rum & Coke, next to a hand-made “Rum & Coke” soap from Aromaholic.net (click on the photo for the link.)

    Are you celebrating a birthday or anniversary with champagne? Is Rum & Coke one of your favorite drinks? Do you ever buy rum raisin ice cream? Then smell it. Champagne’s fizzy notes are often repeated in perfumes, especially those with aldehydes. And rum is frequently used in many, many gourmand scents. (It’s in so many that, sometimes, I feel as though I should just have a category for “Boozy Rum Perfumes!”)

  • Do you ever go to a garden nursery to buy plants, out to the countryside, or to a farm? If so, use those opportunities to give a sniff to the orchids, tuberose, jasmine and, in particular, to any trees they may sell. Try to see if they have any moss or peat lying around. And, at the risk of repeating myself, I can’t emphasize enough how useful it is to smell earth — whether fresh, dry, wet, moist, or dusty. If you’re in the country and see any hay, smell that as well. All of these floral, woody, green, and earthy aromas are common in perfume. In fact, they’re some of the most frequently used notes around!

The point of all this is to show you that it is really easy to train your nose once you are aware of how many perfume notes are in the world around you.


Source: entertainment.desktopnexus.com

Source: entertainment.desktopnexus.com

Another point that Bois de Jasmin brings up is the importance of the classics. Knowing the classic, legendary “basics” will enable you to better understand modern perfumes — whether niche or mass-market. As the founder of Basenotes put it in a New York Times article about the classic men’s colognes, “They’re like benchmarks — anything that comes after is almost always a direct descendant[.]” The same most definitely applies to women’s perfumes. You may not want to wear Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew or Chanel No. 5, but you should know what they smells like so that you have a reference point. As Victoria explains so well:

3. Hone Your Nose on Classics

I don’t think that anybody needs to have perfume classics in their wardrobe or that you should even like them. But as you dip your toe into the perfume hobby, smell the classics to learn about perfumes that are considered great. The classics available today are often reformulated. Even so, they were created at a time when perfume budgets were large, so even with the reformulations, the quality is often impressive. Though Chanel has reformulated Chanel No 19, it remains a costly formula, and I know of only a few perfumes on the market that cost as much as No 19 to produce.

Even if your local mall is depressing in terms of perfume offerings, I bet that it has Estée Lauder, Lancôme, Chanel and Dior.  Smell Estée Lauder Youth Dew and even as you find it too thick and heavy, notice how its drydown has a warm, chocolate-like sweetness. Or try Dior’s Eau Sauvage, one of the best fresh citrus scents available today.

Don’t feel obligated to love the classics. Revisit them from time to time to see if you find new facets to enjoy, but if you don’t end up in love with Guerlain’s Mitsouko, there are plenty of other perfumes to discover. For instance, I don’t much care for the grand dame Joy (Jean Patou), but if I want to know what an excellent jasmine smells like, Joy is my top choice.

4. Smell Classics Before Diving Headlong into Niche

[…] Another reason you should smell classics is that many pricey niche perfumes are really nothing but dressed up classical ideas. Bond No 9 Scent of Peace = Dolce & Gabbana Light BlueTom Ford Private Blend Bois Rouge = Guerlain Habit RougeAmouage Gold = Madame Rochas. It doesn’t mean that you should prefer Habit Rouge to Bois Rouge, but smelling classics gives you a more informed way of making your choices.


One thing I think you should definitely do is bookmark the encyclopedic reference site, Fragrantica. Sign up for a free account so that you can explore as many things as you want, and then look up some of the perfumes you own. To the top right of the page is a big empty space bar where you type in the name of a fragrance. It will pull up a page that lists the perfume’s category, its notes, any relevant background or company information, and commentators’ impressions of the scent.

You know all those samples you get when you order from Sephora? Take one, type in its name in that space on Fragrantica, then read the notes. What I would do is write down the notes on a piece of paper, then put on a generous amount of the perfume. Make sure your skin is clean and has no lingering traces of anything on it. My approach, if I’m testing at the end of the day, is to use unscented baby wipes all over my arms to ensure that I have a clean surface.

source: girlandboything.com

source: girlandboything.com

Put on MORE perfume than you would if you were going to work; you’re in the safety of your own home and don’t have to worry about your co-workers’ allergy issues. Plus, a greater amount may enable you to detect more notes than if you were to put on a discreet, work-appropriate amount. Dab or spray on both arms, your pulse points, and perhaps at the base of your neck. You should be aware that there is often a difference in how a perfume can smell depending on whether you dab it on or spray. (It has to do with the molecules being aerosolized.)

Once you’ve done all that and have your notepad before you, close your eyes and take a deep whiff of your arm (or wrist). Hopefully, you’ve put perfume on different places on your arm, so you can see how the smell may develop on areas that aren’t pulse points. For my personal use, I apply perfume all over but, when I test, I primary apply scent to my left forearm. Whenever possible, though, I try to apply fragrances to both forearms because I’ve sometimes noticed a variation in how something smells from one arm to the next. Don’t ask me why, it doesn’t make much sense, but I suspect that the skin on my right arm might be a bit drier than that on my left one. (Dryness can impact how long a fragrance lasts on your skin, so perhaps it also influences which notes it brings out, too.)

Amber, a common base note. Source: Bergdorf Goodman.

Amber, a common base note. Source: Bergdorf Goodman.

As you sniff, glance at your list of the perfume’s notes. Do you smell any of the things listed? Is the first thing that you detect something that is listed as a “base” ingredient? If so, don’t worry. If something is in the “base,” that generally just means that the ingredient’s molecules are heavier than the rest so that they will linger on the skin longer. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that is the gist.) Just because something is listed as a “base” note, doesn’t mean that you will only smell it at the end of a perfume’s development. Plus, skin chemistry can be wonky and can make a huge difference in how perfumes smell from one person to the next. In other words, don’t think your nose is “off” or “wrong” because you smell something right away that is listed as a “base” or because others say they detect it much later.

As you’re testing out your sample, jot down how the scent may change over time on your skin and any impressions that form in your mind. Compare your experiences with those of others by reading the Fragrantica reviews. That note that you couldn’t quite pinpoint and figure out? Well, someone wrote that they smelled coriander (to give just a hypothetical example). Is that what you smelled? Go to your kitchen cabinet, take out a jar of coriander, smell it and see if that is the note which perplexed you. If it’s not coriander, then it might be one of the ingredients that you’re not familiar with like, for example, labdanum, oppoponax, calone or peru balsam. You may want to read the Fragrantica explanation for that ingredient, or turn to my Glossary of Perfume Terms.


Doing small exercises like the one above can be a great way not only to train your “nose,” but also to learn about your perfume profile. We all come to perfume from different backgrounds, pasts and perspectives. Did you grow up in a house where most of the women wore powdery scents, fresh scents, or Orientals? Did the men wear citrus-y scents or rich, woody ones? You may be surprised to learn how your childhood experiences can influence your perfume tastes as an adult. But, even if you grew up in a household where fragrance was rarely used, you still have a “perfume profile” (as I call it) today. You just need to learn what kinds of perfumes you are drawn to, because all perfumes have a category. It’s really akin to having a perfume family. Are you a member of that perfume’s clan, or do you prefer another clan? Perhaps you’re a member of a lot of different clans, from fruity-florals to clean-greens and sweet gourmands?

Using Fragrantica to read up about the basics of some of your favorite perfumes will help you discover which perfume category or categories you love best. Take your Thierry Mugler Angel, Narcisco Rodriguez For HerViktor & Rolf Flowerbomb or Dior J’Adore, and see what Fragrantica says. Angel is classified as an Oriental Vanilla; For Her is a “Floral Woody Musk;” Flowerbomb is categorized as a Floral Oriental; J’Adore is a Fruity Floral. I don’t always agree with Fragrantica’s categories but it’s really just an issue of semantics; as a whole, it’s a fantastic way to start learning about your perfume profile and what sorts of things you generally like. Remember though, you’re not locked in stone in some categories, and you should always give something a test sniff to see if there is an exception to the rule.

Reading up on your favorite perfumes is useful for another reason: it will let you know if there are any notes that you’re particularly drawn to. A friend who read my review of Chanel‘s Sycomore had a light-bulb moment, and went to look up some of her scents on Fragrantica. As she wrote to me, she suddenly realised many of her favorites had Vetiver in them! Do any of your favorites have a common note that you never realised before? It may help you to learn if you do, especially when reading perfume notes in the future.

One thing I recommend doing is playing my olfactory exercise outlined in Questions Part 9 or Questions Part 10 that forces you to sit down and analyse what notes you love, what you hate, and why. This is a way of forcing your brain to categorize odor as well as a way to learn what you should look for in fragrances when you see a note list.

Source: wsj.com

There are six different categories:

  1. Notes you love passionately. In essence, those which make you sit up when you see them on a perfume list.
  2. Notes you really like a lot.
  3. Notes you neither like or dislike. True and genuine indifference as to their appearance in a perfume.
  4. Notes that depend on how they are handled, their quantity, or their treatment in conjunction with other elements. In other words, potentially problematic notes that might fall into the Dislike column unless they are treated well. Also, if there are notes that you may not like as a soliflore or in large doses but that you enjoy in small quantities, then this would be the category for them as well.
  5. Notes you really (or generally) dislike.
  6. Notes that you hate with the searing passion of a thousand burning suns!

Photo: my own.

Categories #3, 4 and 5 are the ones that force you to think the most. What straddles the line where it depends either on how the note is handled (like me with lavender) or in what quantities it is present, and when does it gets pushed over into true dislike almost regardless of circumstances? Are there things to which that you are almost always indifferent, or that you like but are hardly going to get excited over? There are always rare exceptions to the rule, but what is the “rule” in general? You may want to consider how clear-cut things are for you from one category to the next.

As a side note, if you repeat this test over the course of your fragrance journey and as you hone your nose, you are likely to see changes as your experience with or exposure to more challenging aromas or notes develops. Oud, for example, is one category where I see a great transformation in a person’s response over time as they gain familiarity with some of agarwood’s more challenging aspects.


Once you’ve trained your nose a little, learnt what family of perfumes you prefer, and given a sniff to some of the classics at your local department store, the next step is niche perfumes. But they’re not cheap, and you won’t find them in your local Macy’s or Sephora. A large number won’t even be available at Saks, Neiman Marcus, Harrods, or similar department stores. What I would do is: read some blog reviews, see what tempts you, and then hit the sample sites. These fragrances are far too expensive and, in some cases, edgy for you to risk a blind purchase. Plus, you never know how something will develop on your skin. What it smells like in the ten minutes may not be how it ends up after three hours or even six hours. So, buy samples first!

You have a number of different options for samples. In the U.S., Surrender to Chance (my personal favorite and choice, due to the lower shipping cost), Luckyscent, The Twisted Lily, Osswald NYC, Indigo Perfumery, or The Perfumed Court all offer samples of niche perfumes that may not be otherwise accessible to you. The boutiques like Twisted Lily or Indigo frequently offer discovery sets, like 5 for $18, or sets with themes (like Fall fragrances, for example). Surrender to Chance does the same. In the case of Osswald, their samples sometimes end up being cheaper per ml than those of other places, particularly for some of the ultra-expensive brands that they carry. Many of the sites ship world-wide, like Luckyscent, Twisted Lily and Surrender to Chance. The latter charges a flat international rate of $12.95 for overseas orders below $150 and, within the US, you really can’t beat their $2.95 shipping rate on any and all orders, big or small.

[UPDATE – 4/5/13 – I have a long list of suggested sampler sets available at Surrender to Chance listed in this post here. There are links to beginners’ introductory scents, samplers by house, and a number of different sets based on a single perfume note (i.e., vanilla, amber, rose, etc.). I hope that helps.]

In Europe, there is First-in-Fragrance, Essenza Nobile, the Netherland’s ParfuMaria, and Germany’s Suendhaft. In the U.K., Roullier WhiteLes Senteurs, and Bloom Perfumery offer samples on almost all their fragrances. In Paris, Jovoy is a mecca for haute niche perfumes, and I’ve read that they’re happy to send you home with samples if you’re unsure of a fragrance.

There is also eBay. You’d be surprised how many people want to sell off their perfume samples — in all sizes and amounts. From Chanel to Amouage, Serge Lutens and European niche exclusives, it’s all there. I’ve been lucky to get some great deals on perfume samples on eBay, though it’s best to have a general idea of the prices for certain brands on the regular sample sites first. On a few occasions, some of the samples I’ve obtained on eBay have actually been priced much better — for the rarity and amount — than the pricing on places like Surrender to Chance.

The eBay mobile app is a particularly convenient way to save searches and be notified of new additions. For me, I find it easier and more manageable than even the regular email notifications you can get on your computer. I have searches set up by brand and, also, by general category (like “niche perfume samples”). I personally opt for sellers who are in the US, but I have friends who have scored some great deals for Tom Ford from overseas sellers. Just be aware that the UK has some new postal restrictions pertaining to perfume so, if you’re a US reader, I would stick to domestic sellers.


Another affordable way to buy expensive perfumes is to join a group of fellow perfume fanatics. These groups will either let you swap samples with other members or give you the chance to buy a large decant of a perfume. Let’s say that you’ve spent your $3.99 on a sample vial, know you love the perfume, but simply refuse to pay $300 for a full bottle. Well, there are groups who will buy that big bottle, and split it between members. The size of the splits can vary — anywhere from 5 ml to 10, 15, 20 and larger. All you really need is a Paypal account.

Basenotes has a whole forum devoted solely to perfume splits. There are also numerous Facebook groups devoted to fragrances. They are fun places to hang out and talk about perfume in general. Many are filled with generous people who will often say, “Oh, I have a sample of that. I’d be happy to send it to you.” Plus, members have splits for every kind of perfume imaginable.


I hope some of these tips have been useful. My goal was for you to know that perfume is not some terrifying, alien world that is just too complicated and too expensive for you to explore. We all start somewhere! You may not think you have a “nose,” but you might be surprised! Perhaps you’ve just never really thought about what you’re smelling, or put it in a context that your mind understands. I think we all know what peaches or pine trees smell like but, sometimes, we just don’t have the words to describe what our minds already know. If you set out to train your nose a little, the connection between your mind, your memory of already catalogued scents, and your nose will become stronger.

The main thing to remember is that perfume is supposed to be a fun trip. It enables you to go visit the forests of Peru, the spice markets of Istanbul or Marrakesh, or the exotic isles of Malaysia. It can take you back in time to the dressing rooms of the Moulin Rouge in the 1880s; to the world of the Cossacks on the icy Siberian steppes of Tsarist Russia; or to the rich, wood-paneled library of Downton Abbey where aristocratic lords smoked cheroots in big leather armchairs. Where you go is up to you. But go explore!

Source: Wikipedia

[UPDATE 9/23/2022: If you’re interested on the science behind the way you detect odors or scent, my article The Science (and Neuroscience) of Scent covers: how we smell what we do; why we have scent differences; the biophysiology of scent; scent receptors; the loss of scent or anosmia; olfactory neuroscience; the shape and movement of odor molecules; the link between taste and smell; how scent, emotion, and memory are intertwined; Super Tasters; the role of ageing, health, and even mental health in scent detection; and so much more.]

[UPDATE — 10/30/13 — For those of you who have found this posting because you wanted to learn how to become a professional in this field, you may be interested in an article I wrote about the life of a trained nose,” Viktoria Minya. It covers where she went to school, what she studied, the impact of IFRA/EU restrictions, the basics of essential or raw ingredients used in creating perfumes, and more.]

73 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide To Perfume: How to Train Your Nose, Learn Your Perfume Profile, & More

  1. You’ve outdone yourself, Kafka. This is a great article not only about novices but “fume heads”.

    Speaking of the classics, the perfumed court actually has a classics pack, which includes samples of all classics organized either by genre (orientals, fougere, leather etc.) or gender.

    Another thing I try to do is, when I sample a perfume I try to detect the individual notes from Fragantica. Oftentimes I wouldn’t detect a note unless I know to look for it. Fore example, I wouldn’t have detected the honey note in Bvlgari Man if I had seen it on the notes list.

    I’d also suggest smelling odd things – dust, plastic, the inside of a dry cleaner, latex, etc. These notes are usually present in some of the niche perfumes.

    Finding reference fragrances also helps. There are notes we cannot smell everyday. Take vetiver for example – you’d be hardly pressed to find the root and smell it in any big city. So, what I did, I picked Guerlain Vetiver as my reference vetiver fragrance. It has such a predominant and evident vetiver note that gave me a very clear idea what it smells like.

    • Thank you so much, Scent Bound! You raise some excellent additional tests. Wonderful, thank you. Yes, things like dust, plastic and latex…. really good subjects to learn about. One can also add in old books and — at the risk of sounding a bit gross — perhaps things like an undershirt or bra after one has worn them, to get that slightly “intimate” note. (I draw the line at Germaine Cellier’s panty sniffing as a suggestion for novices!)

      Another excellent point is the issue of creating a benchmark reference point for notes that one can’t have common access to: like vetiver! And, your choice of Guerlain’s Vetiver….. another excellent suggestion!

      As for the sample packs, I actually had 6 browsers open to various sample sets on Surrender to Chance for novices to start with, if they were interested. Everything from Guy Robert’s selection to the top 4-star and 5-star perfumes that one can order in a set of 3 for $9.99. But, to be honest, I was so completely wiped out after the long Suskind/Perfume book review and this Beginner’s Guide, that I totally forgot. I should probably do a whole post on that issue of good Beginner sample sets, but until then, I will post some here in case anyone stumbles upon these comments.

      So, for anyone reading this: here are a few good sample sets to start with and, since it my site of preference, they all come from Surrender to Chance:
      – Luca Turin/Tania Sanchez’s Perfume Guide’s 4 & 5 star perfumes: Out of 200 perfumes, broken down into category, choose any 3 for $9.99 (or 2 orders of 3 for $18.98, 3 orders of 3 for….): http://surrendertochance.com/perfumes-the-a-z-guide-4-and-5-star-best-fragrances-200-to-pick-from-pick-3/

      – Same thing for just the top 5 star rated perfumes, divided by category or list:

      -24 Best Perfume Masterpieces selected by the late, great Guy Roberts for $33.99. They’re not the vintage formulation but they’re a fantastic way to start on some legendary classics: http://surrendertochance.com/perfumer-guy-robert-selects-best-perfume-masterpieces-24-sample-pack/

      – 10 Best Niche Perfumes for a Beginner in 1/2 ml vials for $21.99: http://surrendertochance.com/niche-perfume-beginner-sample-set-10-best-niche-perfumes-for-a-beginner/

      – I’m not completely convinced on this next one but Perfume Posse selected 22 Classic and Niche Beginner Scents by type which are sold in a gift box for $44.99. I don’t think some of those would be on my Beginner Intro list, but I believe in giving people options: http://surrendertochance.com/beginner-niche-fragrance-classic-perfume-sampler-pack-perfume-posse-blog-picks-22-samples-in-a-gift-box/

      – Four whole pages of different sets for Beginners categorized by perfume note, from Amber to Saffron, peony to geranium: http://surrendertochance.com/search.php?search_query=beginner&x=0&y=0

      – Chypres: A Beginner’s Guide to Oakmoss: 9 samples of the most famous Classics for $27.99: http://surrendertochance.com/chypre-a-beginners-guide-to-classics-of-oakmoss-9-samples/

      Okay, that’s enough for now. I didn’t really mean to hijack the point of my reply to you but since yours is the first post and since people may find the tips useful, I thought I’d add them in here. I hope you can forgive me for the length of this reply. (But when am I not length??! LOL)

      • Haha, this is hilarious – now the panty sniffers have a good excuse for what they do – they are just exploring fragrant notes :).

        It sounds creepy and gross but in fact, it is not beyond imagination and Pierre Guerlain may have been pretty close to sniffing dirty panties when creating Mitsouko. I read somewhere that his idea behind it is to recreate the smell of his Japanese mistress’s body after sex. I can only imagine what he was sniffing to get inspired to create Mitsouko.

  2. Great article, Kafka. Even for your “seasoned newbie” readers, you provided some great tips. I have never had the intellectual desire / curiosity to pick out individual notes (well, except if I hate something and would prefer to avoid IT – I am looking at you Lily of the Valley). I also don’t have the patience to take notes on what I’ve smelled and it is for this reason that I appreciate perfumebloggers for the efforts they (YOU!) make in distilling a complex scent into its fundamentals.

    • Aaaah, but you bring up an EXCELLENT point for newbies: going through notes so you can see what to absolutely avoid! Just a bit of detective work on Fragrantica with regard to scents that they despise, and a total perfume beginner can learn what future perfumes (with those hated ingredients) they should stay away from. Excellent, EXCELLENT point, Hajusuuri!

      BTW, You and your unmitigated hatred for Lily of the Valley… ROFL! Just what the hell was in that Tauer perfume anyway???! *grin*

  3. Great post!! These tips are so helpful, you did an outstanding job breaking it down for us! Not to mention providing simple exercises to train your nose, like your spice cabinet. Who doesn’t have them at home. I would’ve never thought to rub some on my wrist!
    I find this exciting, but now I’m starting to worry my taste might be expensive! This week I’ve been wearing my Tom Ford’s private blend Amber absolute sample and I’ve notice how sometimes it can smell a little different on me. I think it has something to do with the amount I apply. Either way it’s interesting how it can change. As newbie I appreciate all the time and effort you put into the beginner’s guide to perfume. Amazing!!
    Thanks for the blog mention too :o)!!

    • First, I adore your blog and the great fashion photos you post, especially the killer runway ones! Each post is fabulous! I hope more people see Style My Dreams. 🙂

      Second, another trick to perhaps use while testing out perfumes is to use unscented lotion as a base before … erm… adding in a spice rub. LOL. I know that sounds crazy but using unscented lotion can prolong the scent of whatever goes on top — be it actual perfume or something from your spice cabinet!

      Honey, I already know you have expensive taste! YOU already know that too! I mean, look at the fashion designers you adore. LOL. So, it doesn’t surprise me that you may love expensive perfume, though the choice of Tom Ford does a little – given your prior experience. That said, I *absolutely* think that quantity can alter what you smell in a perfume. Not just for Tom Ford (but perhaps a bit more so for him than for some others given how potent his perfumes in general). As you can see in some of my reviews, I sometimes give 2 different descriptions of what something may smell like depending on whether I’ve put on my average amount or if I put on much less/much more!

      I think it’s great that you’re exploring how you feel about a perfume based on differing amounts or quantities of it. Keep up all your great work in developing your nose — whether it’s in learning about your previously-unrecognized love for vetiver, or being willing to test out things from your spice cabinet on your skin. I’m really proud of your openness and how far you’ve come! xoxox

      • Thanks!! That means a lot :o) I’m throughly enjoying the whole process, it makes me feel refined & elegant ( I’m such a geek )!lol I’m convinced in a former life I lived all over Europe. I guess that would explain my expensive taste…you’re absolutely right about that!! But I’m in good company, right;)

        Any tips on how to train my nose with florals? I can’t pinpoint my love/hate relationship with roses. For example, Coromandel – the rose notes work with me. Where as Bvlgaris’ rose essentielle ( gift from my mom ), I don’t like it on me but I do like the way it smells. And I think i feel the same way about white flowers. Not sure yet! lol!! However since it’s the dead of winter here…i can’t visit a nursery until April/May. Mind you that’s not too far away:o)

        • I generally don’t do well with roses. For example, some of them end up smelling like dirty socks (Shu Uemura Fleur de Rose) or vinegar (Le Labo Rose 31) As for the Big White Florals, the biggest one in my opinion is Carnal Flower and it is too strong for me (although I wouldn’t mind a travel spray of it); an alternative is Ineke Hothouse Flower.

          • Dirty socks and vinegar? Oh my. Some people like those types of smells, you don’t? LOL Those are you things I wouldn’t want to smell like. Speaking of smells, there is a foul smelling fruit called Durien that reeks of dirty socks. It literally smells like someone ran a marathon, pulled off their socks and put them right under your nose, but the strange thing is, it is very delicious, creamy and sweet. You just have to hold your nose while you eat it.

          • Of course I’ve always read/heard that you taste with your nose so I can’t imagine eating the foul-smelling durian and liking it.

            Yesterday, I had the undivided attention of 2 (!) Frederic Malle boutique SAs and I got to smell the ENTIRE line. One of the perfumes I tried (I wish I remembered which one but I never did nor will ever take notes because I am lazy)…smelled like body odor and I said as much to the SA.

          • Two Malle assistants waiting on you hand and foot? It must have been a blast! Now I’m curious about which one smelled like body odor and if cumin or civet was involved. Did you find one that made you swoon with love, Hajusuuri?

        • Jackie, it might be that rose is just a difficult note for you. We all have something that we struggle with and, oddly enough, florals can be on many people’s lists. (I have difficulty with rose scents myself, to be honest. It’s not something I’m drawn to, generally speaking.) The issue with you may be what *accompanies* the rose! I looked up the Bvlgari Rose Essentielle and, while I don’t know which version you have, it could be either the fruits and blackberries in the EDP or the more musky elements in the EDT version. Coromandel, in contrast, is more spiced and it is not predominantly a rose scent at all.

          So I think that — with rose scents — you need to look at what goes with it. Perhaps you just don’t like the fruity companions or the more powdery, musky undertones. Go through the ones you don’t like, check them up on Fragrantica, and see if they are part of a common sub-set of florals or if they have any common ingredients. That way, you’ll know for the future what won’t work for you. Perhaps a meatier, darker, richer rose with spices would be more up your alley. Something, perhaps, like Tom Ford’s Noir de Noir?

          • I agree K, a lot of the rose fragrances that I have tried, Ègoïste, Ègoïste Concentreè, Rose 31, Tuaer’s Incense Rose, have been heavy spice bombs instead of rose scents which is kind of disappointing. No rose in sight as far as I can smell. Instead the rose is covered up with dried fruits and spices, cinnamon,nutmeg, coriander, in Ègoïste ( both versions), cumin in Rose 31, and incense and orange oil in Incense Rose.

          • Honestly, Ferris, I think I would enjoy that a lot more than a pure rose scent. I have issues with that and it goes back to the early ’80s when I over-dosed on YSL’s Paris. I think rose spice bombs sounds right up my alley! If you like powder in addition to rose, you may want to check out my review for Frederic Malle’s Lipstick Rose. Unfortunately, it was a scrubber on me but it does have a lot of fans.

          • I think you’re right, it’s probably what accompanies the rose… Until I tried Coromandel, I thought rose wasn’t for me. Now, I’m starting to think that as long as rose isn’t the predominant scent…it may work. Not that I’m dying to smell like roses!lol
            Anyhow, I have the EDP version of Rose Essentielle, which makes me think it must be the fruit that may be turning my nose up. I have tried to like it on me (it was a gift) but I just can’t:(
            I’m usually not a huge fan of fruity scents in perfumes, I find they tend to smell synthetic, overpowering and sometimes nauseating. I like a touch or hint of fruitiness …preferably citrus. But this gives me some insight about roses… maybe meatier is the way to go.
            Kafka, you’ve lit a fire in me! Now I want to know why I like or dislike a scent. It’s no longer acceptable for me to simply say “ugh that stinks ” lol I need to know! That’s my inner geek coming out :o)

          • One Malle I sampled recently(Un fleur de cassis) smelled exactly like body odor on my skin. I wasn’t repulsed by it but would not want to wear it as perfume. I can produce my own body odor 🙂 !

          • Definitely sounds like the Cassis/black currant. It creates some very tricky reactions, depending on chemistry, though the sourness usually seems to translate more as cat pee than body odor. Regardless, I laughed at “I can produce my own body odor!” ROFL.

  4. Great article, Kafka!

    A couple of points:
    1) You have to start getting decants! (I would recommend Ruth on FFF – you’ll get the best experience);
    2) Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy samples from brands’ websites.
    3) Probably something should be said about MUA swaps: I participated just once but I know that many people use it.

  5. This is great! I think it’s so important for people to remember that one needn’t even buy samples to “test” different smells (although if one has the opportunity and means to do so, obviously they should!), but you can sniff around items in your home and even just the smells of day-to-day life.

    My main problem is I often remember a smell, but can’t remember what precisely it is. My mental rolodex, I’m afraid, isn’t so great at the naming/categorizing function for individual components of a perfume, though I could easily tell you upon sniffing which perfume is which in my collection. Of course, I haven’t really made a concerted effort yet to hone that skill — or at least not as much as I probably could — but perhaps someday I’ll get there. I also find it helpful to read reviews and summaries on Fragrantica and Basenotes before, during, and after trying something. It can also be helpful, if not time consuming, if you have access to scents with overlapping notes to compare the two of them and see if you can pick out the similar components, as it may help in identifying notes that you may not know the smell of otherwise.

    Awesome guide!

    • I’m so glad you like it, Kevin. Thank you!

      “Mental rolodex” is a great way of putting things. I think one has to just make a conscious decision to actually *NOTE* what one is smelling. We pass through our day aware of the scents around us but it may be subconscious. If we try to make the connections *conscious,* we can draw more easily on our “Mental Rolodex” or “scent library” (as I put it) when we’re sniffing perfume. You’re also absolutely right about how helpful it is to read reviews/summaries on places like Fragrantica or Basenotes before, during, and after testing out perfume. It’s a great way to hone one’s nose and to make those subconscious mental associations more conscious.

  6. Great post Kafka! An easy guide for people to ease into this complicated perfume world. Picking out notes can be difficult at first, but the more you familiarize your nose to certain smells the better you will get. I never realized how skanky orange blossom, civet, and cumin can be, which isnt necessarily a bad thing, in fact, those notes can be quite fascinating. I would also recommend stop wearing scented deodorants and lotions,because they can detract so much from you thoroughly enjoying a fragrance. One other suggestion to get familiar with your own body scent is to go without deodorant for a day( I not suggesting stinking up your office and alienating your coworkers) If you have the day off or about to head to the gym forgo the deodorant and see how your body smells. Do you smell musky, oniony, metallic ? Certain notes in perfumes are intensified by our own body chemistry. You may be surprised at what you smell and what perfumes actually compliment it very nicely.

    • I agree on the impact of scented lotions, deodorants, soaps, body washes and the like. It can definitely make a difference in being able to detect the notes in a perfume. Body washes, not so much as they can wear off, but deodorant and creams, yes. I had to go out and buy unscented everything to ensure that my perfume reviews weren’t impacted in any way by some underlying fragrance. Even Dove soap has a fragrance! I don’t think people *have* to wear unscented everything all the time but, if they’re tested out a perfume for the first time, they may want to have an unscented base. Great point, Ferris.

      Off-topic, orange blossom can turn or smell “skanky” on you? How fascinating!

      • Yes, orange blossom smells like overripe, almost on the verge of rotting flowers. It’s an underlying aspect you can detect once it’s on your skin ( on me at least ). My Fleur du Male created by Francis K is particularly so which uses an insane almost of the wonderful note. I hear pure orange absolute is really rank and skanky. I have to get my hands on some!

  7. Very thorough guide here! Extremely helpful. Wish I’d had it available when I got deeply into perfumes a few years ago.

  8. What an awesome post. Once again you have outdone yourself. Another recommendation: With your samples, keep them organized and go back and visit them every once in a while. You will find that a sample that you felt wasn’t good or right, next time you wear it you’ll love due to temperature, mood, etc. Additionally, tastes morph over time and so do fragrances. The journey is never the same each and every time! xoxoxoox Steve

    • Excellent advice, Mr. Hound!! All parts of it but, especially the note about revisiting scents. Tons of bloggers write about how they ended up falling in love with something that they were either ambivalent about initially or didn’t like. (Obviously, this doesn’t pertain to “scrubbers.”) And, yes, a change in the seasons or temperature can definitely alter the way a perfume turns out on your skin.

      I myself need to follow your suggestion of keeping my samples organised….. *sigh* My office is a bit of a catastrophic mess at the moment with perfumes littering the library shelves. Oddly enough, I just realised, all the Tom Fords are on the Caesar/Rome shelf, the Serge Lutens on the Medieval Europe along with, appropriately, Khoublai Khan (just as in the name of a Serge perfume!), and the Hermes/Guerlains are on the European royalty shelf. Hm. My subconscious at work….

    • Great suggestion, to organize samples. I would also keep a notecard containing dates sampled, weather on those dates, and overall mood. That is what I’ll do from now on. And so very true about how your own personal tastes morph. There are frags I’ve had forever, and had loved wearing, but now, after life circumstances having changed, I am overcome by sadness when I smell them, or perhaps the actual scent itself makes me feel physically sick. I find everything about how we fragrance lovers respond to scent absolutely fascinating!!! And I have a question as well.. How strange do we look to others as we walk along, suddenly stopping to inhale deeply into the crook of our own arm??!! 🙂
      I’m loving these reviews and subsequent posts- but I fear that my salary is going to take a big hit!!! I’ve been dabbling, but now I want to get more serious and begin ordering samples, instead of just reading about some of these compositions!

  9. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide To Perfume: How to Train Your Nose, Learn Your Perfume Profile, & More | Kafkaesque « The Sixth Sense

  10. You know of course that I only have been doing this for a year now and fell into it blind. In reading your wonderful guide I was amazed at how many points you touched on that I came to on my own! How lucky is that? This is indeed a marvelous guide and I am printing it out to keep as a reference. GREAT JOB!

    • Thank you, Lanier! That’s very sweet of you. But I cannot believe that you’ve only been doing this for a year and fell into it blind. It shows that you have a natural instinct for perfume! xoxo

  11. Pingback: Perfume Review – Trayee by Neela Vermeire Créations: A Vibrant Kaleidoscope | Kafkaesque

  12. I have loved fragrance for as long as I can remember, and very attuned to smells of any kind. Not always a blessing in my work as a registered nurse! I will often read about perfumes, from the classics to the niche brands down to the ones found at Sephora. I love to see what notes have gone into the blend, when it was created, by whom, and what history, if any, is behind it. I will even stroll through the reviews, as I like to see what others liked or disliked about the scent.
    I stumbled upon some of your reviews this evening, including this one on how to begin this wonderful journey. All I can say is, I have to be up at 5:15am, and I have not been able to STOP reading, and its now 1:15am!!!!!! I can’t wait till Friday night, when I can gleefully rip into more of your fantastic reviews without worrying about that necessary brute, SLEEP!!
    Such beautifully-written, evocative reviews. I’ll fall asleep tonight dreaming of Mitzah… 🙂

    • Oh, I’m so, so glad you enjoyed the reviews and the Beginner’s Guide, Mari! Welcome to the blog. I look forward to seeing you more often and having you share your perfume journey with us. I hope you’ll be able to get samples of some of the perfumes whose reviews intrigue you (like Mitzah) and that you’ll find a few new loves. 🙂

  13. Excellent post, Kafka, very well done. A couple of things I’d add, or second or whatever: 1) as you train your nose you’ll get better at smelling, but it’s OK if you never get *really* good at parsing out all the notes in a complicated fragrance. I love perfume, but that’s not my strength. There’s no official “perfumista test” you have to pass, just smell and enjoy. 2) Take notes. Maybe create a spreadsheet or just have some loose-leaf lying around, but take notes. It’s amazing how quickly you’ll forget what you’ve smelled. Especially the fragrances that fall into the “Abyss of Nice” ie. not earth-shaking, but not horrible either (an awful lot of perfumes seem to fit into this category).

    • “Abyss of Nice”….. hahahaha. That’s so perfect! Really well put, Dionne. And I think your suggestion of notes is wonderful because you’re absolutely right about how quickly one can forget the details, especially if one is smelling a lot of things in a short period of time.

      Also, I’m really, really glad you pointed out that there is no official “perfumista” test. Thank you for saying that, because I sometimes get comments from people about how they’re not “in the same league” as the rest of the commentators, and I hate when people are minimizing their own contributions, abilities, or insights simply because of some imaginary, abstract standard. No-one should judge themselves against others, and, ultimately, until we all get the full, technical training of a “nose,” the simple truth is that NONE of us really, truly know what we’re talking about on any expert level. So, yes, don’t judge yourself by some sort of invisible, abstract test because there is none. Just jump on in, enjoy, and share your passion with others! 🙂

      Thank you again, Dionne, for two really excellent points!

    • The Abyss of Nice is the perfect phrase for what I’ve been experiencing lately! It’s been a few months of things really falling into the abyss of nice for me, and I think I need to do what you mention with a spreadsheet or document and revisit some after waiting some time. Lately, I’m finding the waiting can really change my initial impression of something, but as someone who has been largely unmoved, I’m definitely taking your idea under consideration!

  14. Pingback: Current Obsession: Perfumery | theasceticlibertine

  15. As good the second go round! I came back to reread because I am a longtime fumehead and think my tastes are shifting. I have yet to put my finger on how exactly beyond the quality aspect (and possibly better ability to sniff out chemical vs real) but these are great tips for anyone who loves fragrance whether they’re just getting into it or have loved it for years.

  16. I’m also a longtime perfume addict and just came upon this post recently. I took your advice about a perfume profile, and browsed fragrantica to find that leather is the dominant note in many of my favourites… Never would have noticed that, since Bandit was a scrubber on me and made me think I just couldn’t get along with the note.

    • Hi there, welcome to the blog. I’m so glad I could be of some help. As a side note regarding Bandit, it really may not be the leather that caused it to be a problem on you. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the galbanum that was to blame for your reaction. It certainly is one of my difficulties with Bandit! Galbanum has an incredibly sharp smell that is so green it is essentially black! It makes up a large part of the “leather” impression in Bandit, via virtue of being an “accord” or a mix of notes, if you will. So, the leather accord in Bandit is a very particular sort of black, almost rubbery, really sharp note. (There is something very similar in Etat Libre d’Orange’s fragrance called Rien.) Other leathers, however, can be soft and brown, more ambered in feel, or just a completely different vibe entirely.

      In other words, Bandit may be better used as a reference point for galbanum, not to mention a particular type of black leather. I’m glad you haven’t given up on leather as a whole. 🙂

  17. That does makes sense 🙂 Though it’s been awhile since I sampled Bandit and it might have also been a case of newbie overspraying that lead to my reaction… As for Rien, all that my notes say is: “has an off-note. yuck.”

  18. Nicely done.

    I agree with all recommendations to practice everyday olfactory awareness. I see it like opening my mind to more of my world. The real world. Like opening another window. Or as No. 5 might say, “Hmmm, more data.”

    With respect to comparing my notes to Fragrantica. I have not been too successful. And it’s a strain on my brain. But sometimes it helps, especially with “aquatic”. I live Hawaii, and “aquatic” makes me think “aquarium”. Well, if the other guppies like it, why should I care..

    I have been trying to describe the fragrances I enjoy in Fragrantica lingo. I’m working on it.

    Then of course, there is one scent which I simply enjoy, but as one Fragrantica reviewer said, “It seems confused.” I guess I agree with him, but for me, it’s not a negative. I agree with you, I wish it had still had the presence for which it was originally known. You might have guessed it – the current Guerlain Heritage EDT. Since I like it, I want to describe it. Other than Luca Turin’s “spicy amber”, I can’t honestly describe it. Metaphorically, I agree with you. There are times when I think of it like the 1st movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th … with the volume just a little bit too low.

    I’m a guy, maybe I can get away with a food metaphor, like Beef Wellington or stew and rice.

    And by the way, the opening “barbershop cologne” touch may not be common in today’s world. It’s not where I live.

    Speaking of colognes, as in poor longevity, I like ’em. They still work for me. I still do Guerlain Eau de Cologne Imperiale and Royall Bay Rhum.

    Keep up the good work. Your reviewing method – by the hour. quantity, and application, works for me. Thanks.

    Last but not least, I have not noticed any references to the age of the wearer. I agree. I think that can be saved for the marketplace. Or, the aquarium.

  19. Pingback: You’re Doing It All Wrong: 8 Signs You Need to Rethink Perfume | Pioneer Perfume

  20. Hey..just came across your blog, and love your way of writing. This is a very elaborate and in-depth article, which will help not just the newbies, but perfume enthusiasts as well!! Best wishes!!

    • Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please note, however, that comments with self-promotional links or advertising links to your website will not be approved, or the links will be removed as I did here.

  21. Great read. Just wonderful. Up until this year (I am currently 20) I had very little sense of smell. And yes one day I just walked into my fast food job and found my sense of smell. Perfume was such an overwhelming topic until I read this. It’s a perfect guide for somebody like me who really does have zero idea on any of this. Thank you so much. This is truly a godsend 🙂

  22. i enjoyed your post!! inspite now, i’d try to connect what i smell with my own way to describe my smelling experience. Thanks

  23. Thanks Kafka, I love your tips..totally agree with you about smelling classics before Niche. There are a lot of people who know nothing about classics and disregard designers perfumes.

  24. I’m so thrilled to have found your blog! Yes I use Fragrantica with a passion. What a magnificent resource. Thank you for teaching me much more re basics one MUST know. Regards, Andrea


    • Hello there,

      This Guide should hopefully give you a few pointers and suggestions on how to improve your sense of smell.

  26. Hi, I love this article and how informative yet easy to read it is. I never really thought about how many smells we have around us until now and will be trying the spice on my arm and other things mentioned!

    I have known for years that perfume smells different on different people (something I am interested to learn more about) and was always told that it should be worn on pulse points, however, in the past I have purchased perfume because it smelled great on someone else or on the sample cards that are so often used in shops, only to discover that they didn’t work so well on me. Instead of wasting them I resort to spraying my clothes instead but always wondered if I am committing a sin in the eyes (well, nose) of well practiced persons in the perfume world? I wonder if it is obvious to someone with a better trained nose than myself, maybe even my dog feels disdain when I enter the kitchen in the morning with the scent of comfort fabric softener and my latest perfume favourite mingling in the air. as a Labrador she has very expressive eyebrows, so its hard to tell 😀

    I always struggle with knowing how much to put on, and find the whole thing so very confusing. If one person likes a scent and another hates it, we could potentially be offending others on a daily basis as they suffer our preferred scents, yet the person next to them may be basking in our beautiful aroma. I go with the assumption that we wear fragrance to keep ourselves happy and just try not to wear too much in case others don’t like it. This then leads to the scent wearing off after a few hours, or it could be that I stop smelling it myself but it is still noticeable to others…which negates the whole theory that we wear it for our own pleasure. Is there a general rule as to how much to put on? How do we know if it lasts all day or not, if we can no longer smell it because we have gotten used to it?

    I love to smell clean washing and people that seem to have that lovely clean, fresh smell to them all day long and have asked many people over the years what washing powder they use or what aftershave, but have yet to find it for myself. Do you think we smell different to other people than we do to ourselves?

    Thanks again for a great article, I didn’t intend to write so much, but you have really got my grey matter whirring. Apologies for all the questions!

    • My apologies for the late reply, but my dog has been terribly ill. Your questions are great ones, Amy, but there are no easy, set answers to several of them. How much to apply in order not to bother or offend others really depends on a variety of factors like, for example, the nature of one’s office work space, its layout, your proximity to others, etc. etc. Outside of the office, it depends on the circumstances which, again, involve different variables.

      There is also the question of the what the fragrance smells like in terms of genre, type, and the aromachemicals used. Not only do some materials project more than others, but there is also the fact that certain genres of fragrances (like, for example, animalic musks, etc.) may bother the people around you more than other genres. Really, though, how does one know which materials will bother which person? It’s so subjective and difficult to tell. I, for example, have extreme sensitivity to the sorts of white musks and aromachemicals used in the “clean, fresh” genre, while someone else may have problems with the darker, heavier scents which I like. You see, it’s so subjective, just like everything else about scent.

      Generally speaking, however, quite a few people do become acclimated to the scent that they are wearing and tune it out as a sort of olfactory “white noise.” But it really depends on the sensitivity of one’s own nose, not to mention that of people around them. How we smell to others also depends on that issue of other people’s olfactory keenness and sensitivity.

      I think a good rule of thumb is to consider the circumstances when deciding how much to apply. BUT… in terms of the nature of the scent and what sort of fragrance you choose, I firmly and strongly believe that you should always wear what makes *YOU* happy, not what makes others happy. Scent should be a source of joy and pleasure, it should be personal. It’s merely the quantity application that requires thoughtful consideration of others like, for example, your work colleagues. If you’re just wearing scent for yourself at home, though, and there is no scent-phobic person around, then you should feel free to go to town and you should also reapply as often as you’d like if you find yourself unable to detect a fragrance/scent which you love.

      I hope that helps a little.

Comments are closed.