Updated: Sep 4, 2022
Botanical perfumery is becoming more popular, and that means we (as in you and everyone else) are now able to smell 'real' fragrances and find out just how beautiful the natural plant material is compared to *synthesised alternatives.
But how do you choose a scent for you? Do the terms used mean the same thing?
Will I end up with something completely 'different'? or can I hope to find something familiar and comfortable?
First up, the scents you may be very fond of may not smell like their authentic botanical counterparts. Think of things like 'Orchid', ‘Lily of the Valley’, ‘Lilac’, 'Fig', 'Vanilla' and ‘Strawberry’ for example… most of these are synthetically manufactured fragrances that do not smell like the fresh flowers or fruits. Even the well known ones like Rose, Jasmine, Honeysuckle or Lavender are faked for mainstream perfumery. Real Rose is often quite fruity and real Lavender can be intensely powerful...nothing like their powdery, nose-wrinkling counterparts in a gift shop, department store or supermarket body lotion... Real Vanilla is not sickly-sweet / marshmallow-ice-cream; it's warm, delicious, inviting, sensual and deeply comforting.
Synthetics take the strongest signature of the chemical compound and lose the subtle nuances of a fragrance. For this reason you may find that botanical scents are more complex and you need to (re)train your olfactory system (nose to brain) to re-learn and accept this new, winding pathway through thought, emotion and 'scentstory' experience.
Botanical perfumery in a classic sense is authentic Aromatherapy, in a concentrated form, combining the volatile components, herbal tinctures, infusions and macerations as well as alchemical ritual. ALL of the material is vital botanical. No petro-chemical derivative can compare.
So the starting point for you is to reminisce about the scents you enjoy most. The ones that make you smile or remind you of something 'vital'. But how do you articulate what you are thinking of?
How do you say it 'in perfumery language'?
To understand perfumery it's helpful to know some of the technical terminology and sympathetic vocabulary used to describe scent. Below is a 'The Scent Star' which helps us to sort fragrances into 'Families'. It's usually a 'Fragrance Wheel' but I find this depiction more helpful...
Once you can identify your style of scent and which Families you enjoy the most, it's time to order samples (yay!) and try them out for yourself. Botanical perfumes will react differently depending upon the kind of skin you have. People with dry skin may find they need to apply a base balm of some kind (Au Naturel AP Balm is great for those with sensitive skin) and even a solid perfume underneath a perfume oil or eau de parfum. Solid perfumes are made with organic beeswax or botanical wax, which acts as a preservative, but also a 'barrier' enabling the scent to stay on top of the skin for longer.
The next thing to consider is to go a little 'this way or that way' on the Perfume Wheel and try something just slightly different to what you thin you will like. I've had clients tell me they 'hate florals' only to fall in love with a Jasmine top note perfume with hints of Spice and Wood (a 'Florential' (this word is being phased out in favour of 'spicy-floral' or 'floral-spice') like 'Three Wishes' Perfume Oil). Or someone who despises 'those overly Green, leafy blends' and ends up addicted to something with Basil ('Invoke' Perfume Oil) or Galbanum ('Rain' EDP) in it.
Perfume is a very personal thing, and even though you haven't tried them all, there will always be a single note or blend that will come along and totally surprise you.
Here's a summary of Fragrance Note Examples, taken from the course notes for the Botanical Perfumery workbook (and one day it will become a short course), to assist you with defining your likes and dislikes...
FLORALS: Rose, Lavender, Jasmine, Honeysuckle, Ylang Ylang, Lotus, Tuberose, Helichrysum, Spikenard, Champaca, Carnation, Chamomile, Rose Geranium, Gardenia, Neroli, Palmarosa, Ravensara
GOURMAND: Coffee, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Ginger, Liquorice/Anise, Copaiba, Vanilla
CITRUS: Orange, Lemon, Grapefruit, Lime, Bergamot, Mandarin, Lemongrass, May Chang
FRUITY: Orange, Mandarin, Juniper Berry, Pomegranate Seed, *Raspberry, *Blackberry, *Grape/Currant *Plum/Prune, *Peach, *Strawberry, *Fig, *Apple, *Pear (*these scents are only obtainable by blending an accord that will mimic the fragrance as these fruits do not produce a commercial essential oil)
HERBS: Coriander, Parsley, Sage, Bay, Geranium, Mint, Fennel, Star Anise, Clary Sage, Basil, Rosemary, Thyme, Majoram, Oregano
BALSAM: Vanilla, Benzoin, Styrax, Patchouli, Valerian, Myrrh
CAMPHOR: Eucalyptus, Huon, Laurel, Fir, Sweet Birch, Tea Tree, Clove Bud, Thuja
WOODS: Cedarwood, Cypress, Spruce, Rosewood, Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Sandalwood, Oud, Frankincense, Sugandah Kokila, Myrtle, Buddhawood,
EARTHY: Patchouli, Vetiver, Lotus, Copaiba, Gurjun Balsam
SPICES: Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Cummin, Ginger, Star Anise, Cardamom, Pepper
RESINOUS: Pine, Cedar, Rock Rose (Labdanum), Oud, Frankincense, Mastic, Myrrh, Oppoponax, Patchouli
MOSS/GREEN: Oakmoss, Galbanum, Sweet Fennel, Narcissus, Violet Leaf
MUSK: Ambrette, Iris (Orris Root), Valerian Root, Cedarwood, Rock Rose, Spikenard, Black Pepper, Angelica Seed
SMOKE: Vetiver, Birch Tar
There could be vastly more examples, but these give you an idea of the sorts of fragrances that you can / might be able to associate with the various Fragrance Notes.
And if you are uncertain about what any of those oils smell like you may like to invest in a little aromatic 'therapy' and buy a few samples from credible suppliers. I hope you're ready to dive into the wonderful world of pure, botanical, natural perfumery. Choose a selection of the Samples or ask me about having a Personal Perfume Consultation.
Keep an eye out for the information & exploration workbook 'Botanical Perfumery', which promises a chance for you to learn some natural perfumery methods and create your own signature perfume. More about that soon...
Ever considered educating yourself about the ingredients in modern day perfumery? The read below is going to open up a whole new world...
If you have ever experienced a reaction to your own, or someone else's perfume and thought it was 'just you' not liking it, or you have been having 'a bad day' etc, this read will hit so many 'ah hah' moments (hint, it wasn't you having a bad day...).
The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, Kurt Schnaubelt
The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, Julia Lawless
Study online with introductory to advanced courses from an established holistic aromatic institution
One of my all time favourite influences in the world of Botanical Perfumery, Roxanna Villa brings the artistic, poetic and empathic quality to all that she writes and creates.