The Perfume Handbook: The Fragrance Wheel & Olfactory Families

The perfume universe is divided into ‘families’. In reality, very few of us have a jumbled wardrobe of scents from lots of different families: often without even realising, we tend to fall for one family time and again. Instinctively, we prefer scents from some fragrance families and dislike others – although we may tend towards one particular family for colder weather, another for sunny times.

Although your sense of smell is emotional, the fragrances you most enjoy will probably belong to just one or two fragrance families. The Fragrance Wheel holds the key to your fragrance likes and dislikes. It lets you see at a glance the relationship between the 14 different families. Each family leads to the next, for example – Florals become Soft Florals when blended with sparkling aldehydes and balanced by a powdery drydown. Soft Florals are transformed into Floral Orientals by adding the scents of orange blossom and sweet spices.

Perfume expert Michael Edwards created the modern fragrance wheel in 1992. Other versions have been around since 1949, but this is the version we use today. Of course it’s evolved, reflecting modern fragrance and the way we perceive smell. And besides creating the wheel, Edwards is also author of ‘Fragrances of the World’, making him the leading expert on fragrance classification.

The Fragrance Wheel – Families

The fragrance wheel has four main families: FloralOrientalWoody and Fresh. Under each are sub-groups; these groups describe the scent in closer detail eg ‘Floral Oriental’, ‘Fresh Citrus’. Where they place on the wheel matters. A Floral scent, with the addition of certain notes, will become a Soft Floral etc. We usually prefer scents from only one or two families, though you may have an emotional connection to others.

The Fragrance Wheels – Sub Groups

Here are the sub-groups, together with their main notes – you’ll probably be drawn to some instinctively, while others will make you wince! That’s a good place to start if you’re a fragrance novice:

  • Floral – Can’t walk past a florist shop without slowing down, closing your eyes and taking a deep breath? Roses, jasmine, lily, frangipani… if these are the scents your dreams are made of, look for fragrances in the Floral family.
  • Soft Floral – Soft, powdery… sweet, musky and creamy. If these nostalgic scents transport you back in time, then you’ll love fragrances from the Soft Floral family.
  • Floral Oriental – Florals like Orange Blossom, made smooth, sweet and subtly spicy with incense and amber… if these are the scents that say “style” to you, then you’ll love fragrances from the Floral Oriental family.
  • Soft Oriental – Smooth Carnation, incense and warm spices… if these soft, yet sensual notes speak to you, then you’ll love fragrances from the Soft Oriental family.
  • Oriental – Vanilla and musk, cinnamon and cardamom… opulent, sweet and warm. If these sensual notes are what you are drawn to, then you’ll love fragrances from the Oriental family.
  • Woody Oriental – Take a healthy dose of patchouli and sandalwood, add a splash of spice and maybe something sweet enough to eat… if this sounds like the way you like to smell, then you’ll love fragrances from the Woody Oriental family.
  • Woods – Cedarwood, sandalwood and vetiver – raw and simple. Freshly sanded floors and sawdust… if these are the notes that make your senses sing, then you’ll love fragrances from the Woods family.
  • Mossy Woods – If it is traditional style fragrances with sweet, smooth, sometimes earthy woody and mossy notes that inspire you, then you’ll love fragrances from the Mossy Woods family.
  • Dry Woods – The smokiness of smouldering embers and the unmistakable leathery smell of new shoes… if these scents define your style, then you’ll love fragrances from the Dry Woods family.
  • Aromatic – If clean, uncomplicated and fresh describes you… if the blend of lavender and other herbs such as rosemary or basil teamed with the warmth of wood sums up your favourite smells, then you’ll love fragrances from the universally popular Aromatic Fougère family.
  • Citrus – If it is the smell of zesty, tangy and juicy lemons and mandarins that invigorates and energises you… then you’ll love the fragrances in the Citrus family.
  • Water – The smell of fresh sea sprays, or wet air after a thunderstorm… if these are the scents that move you, then you’ll love fragrances in the Water family.
  • Green – Nothing beats the smell of freshly mown lawns, and crushed green leaves, right? If you think so too then you’ll love the fragrances in the Green family.
  • Fruity – Sweet, juicy and edible. Tropical fruits, peaches, pears and orchard fresh summer apples… if these mouth-watering scents excite you, then you’ll love fragrances in the Fruity family.

Sources: Fragrances of the World, The Fragrance Foundation, Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent, Richard Stamelman, Perfume – Joy, Obsession, Scandal, Sin.