Updated: May 27, 2020
Just like men, perfume is never perfect right away; you have to let it seduce you - Jean Patou
Recall for a moment that there is a relationship between perfume and music.
Just as a musician has scales, a perfumer has taken fragrance notes and classified them in a similar way: top notes, heart notes (also known as middle notes) and base notes.
It is this precise and calculated blend of fragrance notes, just like a combination of musical notes, that gives your product a richer, more sophisticated scent.
So how do you define each of these notes? Let's look at each of them.
A top note is flirty and airy.
It is the first thing that you smell – the first impression. But beware, the top note is also the first to dissipate (remember I said that it is airy, so that means it will be the first part of the complex scent to disappear). As the molecules of the top notes are lighter than the heart and base notes, they are more volatile (link here for blog about scent and volatility).
MYTH BUSTED: Most people will argue that when you first smell a perfume, you are only smelling the top notes, followed by the heart then base.
Not true: One way to look at it, is through film. The first impression of a perfume is like watching a movie trailer: you immediately know the genre, the style, if it is to your liking, and who the main stars are. Basically you get the gist of what it's about in a few seconds, whether you want to stick around to watch the whole thing is another matter.
Therefore you are experiencing all of the notes like an overture, but the composition of it will evolve as the lighter notes dissipate and the heavier ones come further to the surface, a bit like peeling an onion. Whether you get a sad or happy ending depends upon the base notes which remember, can last for up to 24 hours or longer.
Remember that we are smelling a combination of notes (just like listening to a full chorus), so we are really smelling the perfume in a different way. At first, we remark on the top notes (like citrus, spices or mints). After only a few minutes, that same perfume will have a different character and the overall aroma will appear to have deepened. The lighter molecules will dissipate and we will distinguish the organic changes that it makes.
We've all been there. In the shop spraying a perfume on our wrists and exclaiming our immediate love for it only to later exclaim. "Fuck, what's that stink"
It may even be that you smell a new perfume and have no interest in it, yet hours later it has seduced you
Try it. Get out your favorite perfume, set a timer, and see for yourself. Spray some perfume on a scent stick and write down your first impressions. Smell the same scent stick after five minutes, twenty minutes and one hour. Does your impression change as the top and heart notes begin to fade and you experience the dry-down?
A very good reason to not buy a scent on impulse, see our blog on how to buy a new perfume.
Think of the top notes like a one-night stand. The heart notes are a short but valuable relationship, whereas the base notes are your long-term partner.
A range of good top notes helps to give your perfume a good first impression but read on to see why you should judge too quickly...
On to the middle notes, or the heart notes.
Why? They are the heart (character) of a perfume. It is the scent that you notice once the top notes evaporate. Since they have longer-lasting properties (the molecules are heavier), they play a supporting role to the base notes which are omnipresent and developing. The heart notes serve to decrease the distance between the top notes and the base notes. They can even serve as modifiers: that scent that gives your fragrance that “interesting twist.” These heart notes help to make your scent distinctive, unique and special.
The caveat is that the heart notes are difficult to detect on their own, since they are sandwiched between the other notes. Used as a middle note, many aromas will take on a whole new character. Take lavender, for example. Although it has an unmistakable fragrance, when blended in small amounts, it will take on a whole new accord that will be challenging to detect for the untrained nose. Why is that? Because it is “bouncing” off the top and base notes, not allowing it to have its own separate character. It becomes a team player, rather than an individual athlete. Kind of like a middle child – important but sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
Finally, we have the base notes.
These are heavier molecules with staying power. That proverbial lady singing at the opera. In our blend, this is the fragrance that lingers the longest (think oudh, vanilla, sandalwood, patchouli).
The base notes are what you are left with once the lighter molecules have evaporated.
Beware: if you only have one base note in a scent that you make, you will only be left with that one note after the top and heart notes have dispersed (we call this the “dry down”). This is why it is crucial to have a sophisticated blend of base notes in your fragrance if you want to remain smelling fabulous and complex.
FAQ: How much of each note do you use in your scent blend?
Jean Carles, a world-class inspirational perfumer and educator, created a revolutionary method in which he determined the following proportions in a composition: 25% top notes, 25% heart notes, 50% base notes
However, other perfumers state that your scent should consist of 30-40% top notes, 20-50% heart notes, 10-30% base notes.
It is time to start experimenting to see which proportions work best for you and your nose. It all depends on the type of perfume that you want to create, as well as your personal taste, of course.
Lesson du jour: Perfume is music and movies. Just because the overture or trailer doesn't interest us, we need to listen to or watch the whole thing for us to really understand it and then make a judgement.
Remember, just because an award winner actor is in a movie doesn't mean it'll be a blockbuster