Just like music, perfumes are made up of different notes. Understanding what notes are and how they work is key for any perfume lover. By understanding scent notes well, you can always find the perfect scent. Not only for yourself, but certainly also for your partner if you know what he or she likes. In this article we explain everything about the differences between top, heart and base notes and which fragrance families these combinations fall into.
What are notes in perfume?
Fragrance notes are the different scent layers in a perfume that together form a wonderfully fragrant whole. These layers are split into three different fragrance notes. The top notes, heart notes and base notes. Together, these three layers create a perfume whose scent continues to develop from start to finish as you wear it. You must have noticed that a perfume does not smell the same all day long. This is because each layer is based on the speed at which a scent dissipates. So a good perfumer plays with these three notes to create a unique composition, just like a musician does with music.
Top notes: the first impression
The top notes of a perfume are also called opening notes and provide the first impression. As soon as you spray an eau de parfum , it opens with the top notes. This layer is the lightest of the three notes, but the most dominant scent in the first minutes to about an hour. Top notes therefore consist of the most volatile molecules in a perfume and only linger very temporarily. To properly assess a perfume, you cannot immediately judge it in the first minutes, because it could just be that the top notes do not appeal to you, but that the heart of a perfume is exactly what you are looking for.
Typical top notes are citrus scents (bergamot, lemon, orange), light fruit (apple, blackberry, pineapple) and green/aromatic herbs (basil, thyme, lavender).
Heart notes: the heart of a perfume
When the top notes are softening, the middle notes present themselves. This layer gives a perfume its character and therefore forms the heart of a perfume. Heart notes are the most important element in a perfume, they prolong the freshness of the top notes and give warmth to the base notes. It is therefore not surprising that this layer determines about 40-80% of the final scent. Heart notes typically last 4 to 6 hours. The heart of a perfume should be pleasant and balanced.
Popular heart notes are flowers (jasmine, rose and neroli), leather, tobacco and spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon.
Base notes: the soul of a perfume
Base notes are the last layer in a perfume and give a perfume warmth and depth. After all other notes have disappeared, you can sometimes smell the base notes for days. It is therefore not surprising that base notes are called the soul of a perfume. They provide the memory of a fragrance and the moment you wore it. Base notes have the task of giving a long-lasting lasting impression. For example, when you put on your coat when you had just put on perfume and you can still smell the scent the next day.
Typical base notes are woods (sandalwood, oud and cedarwood), resins (amber, benzoin and labdanum), and sweet elements such as vanilla and musk.
What are Fragrance Families?
In order to categorize perfumes more clearly, they are also divided into fragrance families in addition to their characteristic notes. Choosing a fragrance purely based on individual notes can be quite complex. That's why perfume expert Michael Edwards introduced the fragrance wheel. This innovative tool groups perfumes into different families, making it easier to quickly grasp the essence of a perfume, even before you've smelled it.
Edwards' fragrance wheel provides a visual and understandable overview of the broad spectrum of perfumes. Not only does this wheel make scents easier to identify, but it also helps you find similar scents if you already have a favourite. The fragrance wheel is divided into four central fragrance families: Floral, Amber, Woody and Fresh. Within these families there are further subdivisions that highlight specific nuances and characters of perfumes.
But not everything is black and white, some modern perfumes combine elements from several families, sometimes making it challenging to categorize them precisely. And while the fragrance wheel is an excellent tool, there are times when experts disagree on the precise classification of a perfume. Ultimately, it's all about personal preference. The most important thing is to find scents that you enjoy yourself and that reflect your personality.
Floral scents are perhaps the most recognizable and loved in the perfume world. They often exude a soft, feminine charm and are perfect for those who want to surround themselves with the scent of nature. Typical notes within this family are rose, jasmine and lily. They can vary from light and airy to deep and seductive, depending on the chosen flowers and combinations thereof.
- Fresh Floral: Think fresh, floral aromas of woody, smoky rose or spicy, bright lily.
- Soft Floral: These fragrances are known for their aldehydes and powdery notes.
- Floral Ambery: Mostly limited to facets of fresh, floral orange blossom and various sweet spices.
Popular floral notes:
- Ylang Ylang
Formerly known as 'Oriental', Amber fragrances are known for their rich, deep, sensual and often exotic notes. These scents can be warm and resinous, often combined with sweet, powdery and spicy notes. Think of the warmth of vanilla, the sting of cinnamon and the spicy touch of cardamom. They are perfect for evening occasions or those who want to leave a lasting impression.
- Ambery: Musky notes such as vanilla, resins and a hint of cinnamon predominate here.
- Soft Ambery: This subfamily is more subtle and mixed with floral and aniseed notes.
- Woody Ambery: A blend of earthy sweetness, often enriched with nuances of soft sandalwood or deep patchouli.
Popular amber notes:
- Tonka bean
The woody fragrance family brings us closer to the earth, with notes reminiscent of forests, earth and nature. Typical woody notes are creamy sandalwood, soft camphorous cedar and earthy musky patchouli. These fragrances are often unisex and have a timeless quality. They exude a feeling of warmth, stability and earthiness, making them ideal for both everyday use and special occasions.
- Woody: Dominated by notes of sandalwood and patchouli.
- Mossy Wood: Light scents that are smooth, soft and earthy.
- Dry Wood: Think of scents like cedar and vetiver. Often with creamy sandalwood notes and smoky accents, such as the soft, sharp aroma of leather.
- Aromatic: A combination of woody notes and aromatic freshness such as rosemary or lavender. This subcategory bridges the woody and fresh fragrance families.
Popular woody notes:
- ISO E Super
Last, but certainly not least, we have the Fresh fragrance family. These fragrances are vibrant, energetic and often paired with notes of citrus, aquatic aromas and green plants. They are like a refreshing breeze on a hot day or the smell of freshly cut grass. Perfect for spring and summer, or anytime you just need a pick-me-up.
- Aromatic (Fougère): Originally derived from the French word for "fern". Characteristic are the pure, simple and fresh scents. Here we find a blend of sharp rosemary, spicy basil, calming lavender and warm, woody notes.
- Citrus: Vibrant, sunny scents dominated by complex bergamot, invigorating citrus notes, orange, mandarin and grapefruit.
- Water: Pure maritime and fresh aquatic notes, embodying the essence of the ocean and fresh water.
- Green: Stimulating, fresh, spicy and lively scents, often mixed with the aroma of green leaves or freshly cut grass.
- Fruity: While technically in between the Fresh and Floral families on the fragrance wheel, it features sweet aromas such as velvety peach, dense, slightly sugary pear, and crunchy apple.
Popular Fresh Fragrance Notes:
- Green tea
Other fragrance families
While Michael Edwards' Fragrance Wheel highlights four prominent fragrance families, there are several other fragrance families that also deserve recognition. These families fall outside its traditional categorization and offer a wide variety of fragrance experiences that are both unique and intriguing.
- Chypre : Inspired by the island of Cyprus, chypre fragrances combine the freshness of bergamot, the depth of oakmoss and the warm aroma of labdanum. They have a characteristic earthy and sensual profile, which makes them both mysterious and seductive.
- Gourmand : These scents transport you to a patisserie with their delicious, edible aromas. With notes reminiscent of vanilla, chocolate, caramel and other sweets, gourmand perfumes are like a dessert for the senses.
- Leather : The leather olfactory family imitates the rich and distinctive aroma of leather, often enriched with notes of tobacco, tar and smoke. These scents are strong and robust, leaving a lasting impression.
- Aldehyde : Aldehydes are organic compounds that add a tart, bright quality to perfumes. Made famous by Chanel No. 5, they offer a sparkling top note that is both clean and sophisticated.
- Boozy : Think of the warmth and richness of a fine brandy or the sharp sweetness of rum. Boozy fragrances have an alcoholic note that is both warming and intoxicating.
- Minimalist : These fragrances are stripped down to the essentials, often with only a few main ingredients. They are subtle and uncomplicated, making them perfect for lovers of simplicity and purity.
- Musky : Musk is a base note that gives warmth and depth to a perfume. Musky scents are both animalistic and sensual, often used to give a perfume a long-lasting sillage.
- Powdery : Think of the soft scent of baby powder or the velvety feel of cosmetics. Powdery scents have a subtle, soft quality that is both classic and comfortable.
- Smoky : This fragrance family mimics the deep, dark scents of burnt wood, smoke, and ash. They have an intense, almost meditative character and evoke images of campfires under the stars.