The Perfumer’s Language of Scent: A Formulators Guide

Do you speak perfume? If you are a champion perfume formulator, such as our masters at Alpha Aromatics, you don’t need it, but for others, a crash course in conversational perfume may well be in order.

Fragrance is said to be the poetry of the gods, but the enduring allure surrounding its mysterious language is both elusive and ethereal.

The decoding of ambiguous definitions and implied messages seems as baffling as the comprehension of a complex tongue like Mandarin Chinese might appear to an initiated westerner.

But why is this so? Aye, that is the redolent and puzzling rub, as one bearded Elizabethan bard once so eloquently stated.

A Short History of Fragrance in Personal Care Products

Down through the ages, fragrance has always been a subjective experience representing personal tastes and hidden desires. Even the meaning of the word, perfume, deriving from the Latin per fumen meaning through smoke, suggests antiquity.

The moniker refers to a customary ritual associated with the distant past in which herbs such as thyme, marjoram, chamomile, rosemary and olive, sesame and almond oils and natural salves were burned to produce incense for religious rituals.

The ancient cultures of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Carthage, Arabia and Rome recorded their usage of perfume in every day life. Preferred scent ingredients were: extracts of anise, pine, coriander, bergamot, almond, and parsley.

Fragrance has been infused in personal care products for thousands of years.

Cosmetics are an historical constant employed by almost all ancient societies to improve personal appearance, body scent and to promote general health. Cosmetic use clearly reflects a particular civilization’s concern for a number of factors.

Egyptians, for example, used scented oils, creams and ointments as part of their hygiene and health regimen.

They served as protection from the searing hot sun and dry winds; as a means to differentiate societal classes and as a reflection of their own unique concept of beauty.

Roman philosopher, Plautus, once observed: A woman without paint is like food without salt.

Possibly the oldest known perfume factory in human history dates back to 2000 BC and was excavated in Pyrgos, Cyprus in 2003.

Archaeologist, Maria Rosaria Belgiorno, from the Italian Archaeological Mission of the National Research Council headquartered in Rome, discovered the ruined industrial complex, which still retained remnants of perfume bottles, mixing jugs, and stills that were preserved despite the fact that all structures were destroyed during an earthquake in 1850 BC.

Belgiorno’s team analyzed the contents of the mixing jugs and they were able to clearly identify some 14 fragrances native to the Mediterranean region that were used in perfume production.

Problems With Fragrance Terminology and Language

All art is a lie in the most positive sense. (Just think about a novel, which word for word, from beginning to end, is a total fabrication.)

The “truth” about perfume lies in the deft manipulation of the perspective the formulator wishes to convey to the user. This is why it is so often so elusive. One advertising rule of thumb whispers that the more a work of art manipulates, the better it is.

The problem is that no one really applies language or art to perfume. Understanding a note of caramel, for example, is meaningless, and similar to describing a musical work written in a particular key.

Many composers, for example, write music in D minor, and they are all unique and diverse works of art. Therefore, in terms of describing a scent, essence of anything in reality describes essence of nothing.

While knowledge about the fragrance pyramid and its hierarchy of top, middle and base notes is important and as rudimentary to a perfume formulator’s knowledge as a child’s understanding of the alphabet, it is only one aspect of the total language of fragrance. It represents the mere tip of a marketing iceberg.

The true secret of fragrance communication lies in the deft techniques so exquisitely exemplified in the perfume formulations of Alpha Aromatics, that explain why women will not buy personal care products they believe have a masculine smell and men will not select a product that evokes femininity.

The language of fragrance is unlike any other because it is not about communication; it is meant to be vague.

There are usually just enough terms in a fragrance description, like a ‘tinge of this’ and a  ‘touch of that,’ to stir the imagination, but not enough for any competing fragrance house to duplicate that exact scent.

It is a dialogue that oddly remains ambiguous and unspoken.

Our perfume masters are well aware that the impression of a fragrance is of superior quality only when it can be compared to a tone of voice; that is, it conveys a message that goes beyond the power of the actual spoken words.

As revealed in Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, The Purloined Letter, the solution to all good mysteries lies in plain sight.

In the case of perfume, it is always invisible, but nevertheless, tells a story in its wake to all those who know how to listen.

Like the fleeting breath of a summer breeze, you can’t see or touch it, but you know it is there because you feel it. These factors epitomize the language of fragrance, which is both highly creative and technical.

Relevant Statistics & Studies About Personal Care Fragrances

Meeting consumer demand has greatly influenced the direction of the modern fragrance industry.

Formulators are forced to re-invent their perfumes used for personal products in order to improve and create new scents that will satisfy diverse consumer sections all over the globe.

Skin care, hair, makeup and bath products are the key players in the global fragrance market that set the trends, shape the concepts, and define the strategies for the market place.

The fragrance market, which is an integral part of the beauty and personal care industry, is expected to grow at an annual rate of approximately 7% to 8% until 2020, when its market size is estimated to total a little less than $43 billion.

These figures are based on two significant factors: new product launches and increased consumer spending on personal care products.

Although women’s fragrances have dominated the market for many years and have been the catalyst for a myriad of innovations and product diversifications, the stability of increasing sales regarding men’s toiletries and cosmetics in the last few years have also spurred countless opportunities for experimentation and expansion.

Fragrance is considered a conventional element of the cosmetics industry. It has always thrived as an industry driven by consumer fashion and beauty trends.

The use of perfume for personal care products has skyrocketed the nature of perfume from non-essential luxuries to must-have personal grooming products largely due to the enduring success of companies like ours, who have been creating fine perfumes for more than seven decades.

Today, the global fragrance market is closely allied with luxury personal products of all types.

The Asia Pacific region of the world is estimated to glean by the year 2020 the highest rate of growth (about 23%) of the total fragrances market.

Conversely, in North America and Western Europe, the trend is a decline in demand, particularly for synthetic perfumes, and a rising insistence for those comprised of natural and organic ingredients, which is expected to continue until 2020.

This segment of the marketplace has been fueled largely by online shop sales, but these products are often much more costly than others, which has been a restricting factor in their predicted future market growth.

Fragrance companies try to offset their higher costs by introducing eco-friendly products and well-priced gift sets.

The increasing popularity of natural and customized perfumes will shape the perfume trends of tomorrow, which ultimately will lead to a richer, more diverse global fragrance market.

The Perfume And Fragrance Family Tree

Adding to the challenge is the fact that fragrance terminology has different meanings for different perfume formulators.

According to Mike Natale, “These differences can be rectified by focusing on the common fragrance families. Fragrance houses and perfumers often have their own language, but with this classification, we can all speak the same language.”

In most family trees there are many relatives twice and thrice removed, all of whom compete for their rightful place within the family unit.

Whether natural, adopted, step- children or siblings, black sheep or good little girls and boys, they each represent one solitary component within the perfume hierarchy.

From A to Z (up to W in this case), many descriptions that have been elusive will hopefully become a little clearer with the following list of definitions, which contains many (but not all) of the most commonly used perfume-related terms.


Similar to music in which several notes are held down to create a chord, in the language of fragrance, an accord is a scent comprised of several notes or ingredients that combine to create a distinct perfume. A prime example of this is the accord that falls into the chypre category (to be explained below) that is comprised of bergamot, labdanum and oak moss.


These sweet-smelling chemicals enhance the character of perfumes by providing vitality. Depending on their type, they can also impart their own scent. Aldehydes C-12 and lower (C stands for carbon) are the quintessence of a finished scent; Aldehydes C-14 and higher add a fruity note. Two famous examples of popular perfumes with this additive are: Chanel No.5 and Guerlain Mitsouko.


Amber is an accord that is the foundation of all Oriental fragrances. It represents a fusion of perfume notes such as vanilla, labdanum and balsams, such as benzoin and Tolu, which are sweet, warm resins that originate in tree barks.


Ambergis is a natural substance secreted by sperm whales, but is more often collected in modern times from remains found on beaches and at sea.  It is highly prized as a musky, base note in fragrance and because of its rarity and cost, is rarely if ever utilized in a non-synthetic form.


Most prevalent in Oriental fragrances, these notes refer to warm, ambery, soft vanilla notes such as benzoin, Tolu balsam and tonka bean.


This is a reference to the heavier ingredients in a fragrance. It is what remains after the top and middle notes have appeared and it affixes the scent for a longer period of time. Its job is to enhance the aroma and sometimes it even imparts it own fragrance. Learn more about the differences between base notes, heart notes and top notes.


An essential oil derived from the rind of the Citrus aurantium, an inedible fruit that resembles an orange, bergamot renders freshness and sparkle to any perfume.


This oily secretion comes from an oily secretion from the abdominal sacs of beavers and is a lucrative byproduct of the fur trade. It is a warm, musky and also fruity note that is utilized synthetically in many “leather” perfumes, which range from floral to tart and smoky. Leather scents were originally designed to mask the odors of leather production, since the urine and feces of cattle as well as blood and tar are integral to this manufacturing process.


The word for the island of Cyprus in French, this classic accord is comprised of a citrus top note and a controversial base note of oak moss, which the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has come very close to banning or very severely limiting due to its alleged allergenic properties.


This is one of the oldest and most popular olfactory families. Top notes are usually derived from bergamot, lemon, mandarin, orange, grapefruit, pettigrain (an essential oil extracted from the leaves and green twigs of the bitter orange tree), tangerine and aldehydes.


This is a cream that is harvested from the anal gland of the civet (Asian mammal). Today, this is synthetically produced. Oddly, this cream is fecal-smelling when undiluted but positively magical when added as a base note to other scents.


There are four major concentrations of fragrance and they all reflect the ingredients, qualities and expected longevity of a scent. Concentrations are determined by the ratio of the perfume in relation to alcohol. From the least concentrated to the highest: Eau de Cologne contains about 2 to 3% perfume oils; Eau de Toilettte with 5 to 20%; Eau de Parfum contains 20 to 30% aromatic compounds and the range for perfume extract is 20 to 50%.


This is the final, most important phase of a fragrance’s character. It is the most lingering element of any perfume that remains after it has dried on the skin. It is an important consideration whether the fragrance stands alone or as a component in bath gels, body washes, shampoos and moisturizing lotions.


This category is further divided into floral/ fruity and floral/floral. The floral family is large, and top notes such as jasmine, rose and gardenia distinguish its many sub-categories. Floral/floral fragrances were developed in the early to mid twentieth century and they were comprised of expensive naturals such as rose, vanilla and musk, which were later supplanted with more affordable synthetic floral scents.


Meaning fernin French, this is the name given to a fragrance family comprised mostly of masculine scents. The name dates back to 1882 and a scent called Fougère Royalethat was created by Houbigant perfumers.


Originally a culinary term, in the language of perfume it refers to almost ‘edible’ fragrances with descriptive notes such as: caramel, vanilla, marshmallow and chocolate. Many women’s fragrances contain at least some gourmand elements.


A linear perfume is one that is not confined to a pyramid structure of notes. It is a scent that begins with a certain aroma and continues unchanged until the aroma can no longer be discerned.


Usually a floral or an herb, like lavender jasmine and rose, these notes lie between the top and base notes of any fragrance.


Always a base note that is marked by animalistic and sensual qualities, musk extends the life of any fragrance. Synthetic musk is more in use today, as the musk deer were almost killed to extinction for their musk glands.


An essential oil derived from the distillation of flowers from the Seville orange. The scent is particularly sharp citrus.


This perfume term refers to ingredients found in any given scent.


Fragrances within this family are exotic and sexy. They are based on ingredients traditionally used in Arabic perfumery, which include: vanilla, musk, patchouli, balsams, sandalwood and spices.


This is a base note that renders a crisp, cool aroma, simulating fresh-smelling tangy sea air or the electrically charged atmosphere that occurs moments before a rainstorm.


A powdery note provides the impression that a fragrance has a soft and fuzzy texture. Ingredients such as: violet, almond, heliotrope and some musks deftly combine to create this lack of clarity.


This word derives from the French and translates as ‘trail’ or ‘wake’. It refers to the scent left by a person as they pass by.


This term refers to any fragrance that is created to represent a single flower, such as: lily- of-the-valley, rose, lavender and gardenia. Ironically, most of these perfumes utilize many diverse ingredients to create one simple flower or plant.


This fragrance comes from the seeds of the Central and Southern American flowering tree, Dipteryx odorata. It is a scent that is rich in vanilla with the slightest hint of cinnamon and almond.


This is the lightest note in any perfume formulation, and it is the first that is noticed in any aromatic composition. Two popular ones are bergamot and mandarin.


This element in fragrances is known for its mesmerizing power. A scent comprised of white floral combines narcotic flowers such as jasmine, orange blossom, lilac, gardenia, jasmine lily-of-the-valley and others into one super feminine end perfume.


The meaning of this adjective is certainly clear enough. Notes with this element contain: rose-wood, cedar-wood and sandal-wood. Woody fragrances are almost always masculine in nature.

Alpha Aromatics And Personal Care Product Fragrances

The chemists at Alpha Aromatics are at the top of their game when it comes to addressing the trend of translating our wondrous aromas into personal care products.

Not only do our fragrances enhance the lives of millions of consumers all over the world, each client is important and treated the same way, whether their account is small or large.

Our scent branding experts begin at the beginning, which entails narrowing down the thousands of available scent choices to select those that best accommodate cosmetic and personal care products.

It is a formidable assignment for many reasons. Choices are compounded by the fact that consumers have been known to be notoriously fickle and can change their minds about preferred scents at the drop of a hat.

Also, certain fragrance families are better suited for certain personal care products such as: floral, fruity, fresh gourmand and fantasy.

Floral is a top favorite for soaps, body care and bath products, and fantasy fragrances fare best among top-selling deodorants.

Our fragrances enhance the lives of millions of consumers all over the world. Each client is important, and part of an unspoken commitment that includes building personalized relationships with each and every one.

Our extensive selection of fragrances represents the culmination of hard work and years of experience merging the art of fragrance with science.

Our fragrances are painstakingly researched and reflect the latest trends in perfume formulation and cutting edge technologies. These scents that are infused in personal care products are subtle but unmistakable

Call us today for advice on improving the olfactory logo(s) of your company’s personal product or product line tomorrow.

Final thoughts perfume: Women waste so much time wearing no perfume. As for me, in every step that I have taken in life, I have been accompanied by an exquisite perfume!~ C. Joy Bell

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