A good fragrance isn’t just about how it smells, but rather how it makes you feel, what emotions it evokes, and which memories it conjures up. And that’s not about the packaging or advertising—it’s down to science.
“Scents have the ability to alter our emotions and moods more than any other sensory experience,” says Dr Rachel Herz, neuroscientist and author of The Scent of Desire (HarperCollins, 2007). “This is because of the unique connection in the brain where scent, emotion, memories and associations are processed.”
A good fragrance, therefore, is composed of notes that are designed to direct and target these emotions. Some, like sandalwood, elicit feelings of calm, while others such as vanilla might leave you feeling warm and sensual. Understanding which smells conjure which feelings is a great way to know which fragrance to wear depending on the occasion: a spritz of bergamot might provide the momentum you need to start your day, while jasmine could charge you up before a meeting.
To find out more, we spoke to Maxime Garcia-Janin, founder of Sillages Paris, one of a new wave of fragrance companies that tailor your fragrance to you, establishing which note (or combination of notes) might work best for you, depending on what feelings you wish to evoke and letting you choose the ingredients.
Taken from the pod of an orchid-like plant, vanilla is traditionally seen as an aphrodisiac, an idea that stems from Totonac folklore about a daughter of a fertility goddess transforming herself into a plant to provide pleasure, having been unable to marry a man due to her divine nature.
Whether natural or synthetic, vanilla is a key ingredient for perfumers and is most commonly found in the sweeter gourmand fragrances. “It’s a really precious raw material,” says Garcia-Janin, “often described as ‘black gold’ by perfumers. The scent itself is round, warm and sweet—it helps you relax as it can give a feeling of a warm hug.”
When to wear it: Designed to make its wearer feel sensual, dab on your vanilla-based fragrance before a date to enhance your powers of seduction.
The bergamot orange grows on a small tree, the citrus bergamia, which blossoms in winter. While incredibly sour and bitter to taste, it is often used in fragrances for its sweeter smelling citrus aroma.
“Bergamot is one of our perfumer’s favorite citruses because the scent is so complex with a touch of ‘earl grey tea’ about it,” says Garcia-Janin. “It’s fresh, zesty and sparkling so it’s perfect when you need a shot of energy and to bring back positive thoughts.” Popular within aromatherapy, bergamot essential oil can be used to help with depression and anxiety.
When to wear it: Said to uplift the spirits, a spritz of bergamot-laden fragrance is a great way to start your day.
Extracted from parasitic plants that grow on trees, sandalwood was used for centuries by the Ancient Arabs as the base for incense and used in many spiritual traditions in India. “This rare wood is the creamiest one, with a woody, milky and comforting scent,” says Garcia-Janin. “It is known in Asia to bring balance and harmony to the mind, and bring back focus.”
When to wear it: If you are feeling a bit anxious, a spray of sandalwood can help calm nerves.
There are more than 200 species of jasmine, among which is the prized jasminum grandiflorum, which Chanel grows in fields in Grasse, France.
“Jasmine is considered one of the key ingredients in a perfumer’s palette. You need one ton of hand-picked flowers to extract one liter of essential oil, so this ingredient is one of the most expensive in perfumery,” says Garcia-Janin. “The jasmine scent could be a fragrance on its own; it’s fresh, green, creamy and opulent. It’s perfect to bring your confidence levels up, and give you a power posture. I always use jasmine before my important meetings.”
When to wear it: A fragrance with notes of jasmine allows its wearer to exude confidence and a sense of allure. Save it for special occasions or splash it on every day for that extra je ne sais quoi.
5. White musk
Musk has been used by perfumers for generations, albeit in various iterations. The first musk was taken from the sex gland secretion of Tibetan deer. Today it is used in synthetic form to bring about an air of freshness, while preserving the scent of other ingredients on the skin.
“This synthetic ingredient recreates the scent of clean skin as if you were just jumping out of the shower,” says Garcia-Janin. “It can be described as light and cottony. It’s the ultimate feel-good ingredient to make you feel calm and less anxious.”
When to wear it: Clean, fresh, and inspiring optimistic thoughts, musk-based perfumes are perfect for everyday wear and whenever you need freshening up.
6. Pink pepper
Taken from the pepper tree common to Brazil and Peru, pink pepper is often used in fragrances to add freshness and an element of spice. “Its scent is spicy and floral, and more subtle than black pepper,” says Garcia-Janin. “When you smell it, it’s icy on the nose, as if you were smelling the fresh air of the ocean.”
When to wear it: Conjuring up images of the sea and the great outdoors, spray on some pink pepper-infused fragrance when you feel like connecting with nature or being transported on a big adventure.
Nuttier than vanilla, but with that same sweetness, almond is a popular ingredient for perfumers, although most use synthetic alternatives. “In perfumery, we use the apricot kernel to recreate the scent of almond,” says Garcia-Janin. “It’s so milky and sweet, and brings a lot of creaminess to the fragrance. It’s also considered as one of the typical scents of childhood, so it’s perfect to take you back in time.”
When to wear it: Nostalgic and comforting, almond-based fragrances are a great way to lift your spirits if you’re feeling down.