Wondering how to gift the perfect perfume? Keep it in the family, says Rachel Marie Walsh. Scent family that is.
For such a popular gift, fragrance is very easy to get wrong. Scent, I reason whenever someone’s Vera Wang Princess forces me from a lift, is subjective. The classics are safe bets - a bottle of No. 5 or Flowerbomb will never go to waste - but not terribly original.
Exotic choices do look thoughtful but also require a little target research to go over well. You cannot smell a perfume’s price or back-story, however impressive, so it helps to shop within the fragrance “family” of something you know your giftee wears.
A chyprè that represents decades of some perfumer’s hermitic devotion will still stay in the box if she only wears florals. Modern formulation allows for a lot of overlap between families, but a scent’s brothers and sisters can usually be identified by dominant ingredients they share.
This is the only patriarchal fragrance family, the others being dominated by women’s and unisex formulas. Houbigant Fougère Royale, its founding father, was developed in 1882 by perfumer Paul Parquet. Fougère (fern) does not smell but his premise was abstract: if its fronds had a scent this would be it.
Parquet’s thinking was not artistic but image-savvy. Fougère Royale sounds a regal species of the plant and Houbigant, est.1775, had noble ties (Napoleon III, according to Paul Sentenac’s History of a Perfumer, held a personal account until 1870).
Synthetic coumarin (tonka bean extract) is this scent’s real heart and that of the many fougères that followed. It has a crystalline freshness that’s inspired its popular use in fabric softeners.
With the infamous exception of Fabergé’s Brut, this family’s association with the well-heeled endures. The eponymous men’s fragrance of every fashion house is a fougère - Loewe pour Homme, Zegna pour Homme, etc.
Coty Chypré, launched in 1966, was the first of this fragrance family, which is traditionally based around a bergamot, rose, patchouli and oakmoss accord.
A chypré is dense, the kind of scent that lingers like cigarette smoke. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but such an imposing choice takes solid confidence in your taste (or maybe just a strong desire to conceal your smoking).
Charlotte Tilbury’s Scent of a Dream lives up to its name. Its strong white-floral heart has lemon, peach and black pepper top-notes and a fire tree-patchouli base.
YSL Mon Paris also subverts the traditional chypré with a white-floral heart. This one includes datura, an Indian aphrodisiac. The top notes burst with summer berries and pear while a warming note of ambrox adds a touch of luxe.
Warm and spicy, orientals are defined by warm notes of vanilla, amber, balsam, incense and musk. These are bold statement scents. Boss The Scent for Her is posh spice, opening with peach and orange blossom notes that dry to a warm osmanthus heart and cacao base.
Profumo is Armani Code’s fougère base amplified by cardamom and a woody-amber accord. French Lover, from Frederic Malle’s Editions collection, has been around since 2007 but I’m still crazy about it. A one-of-a-kind spicy-wood for your one and only.
This is the largest women’s fragrance group. As with chick-lit, you can miss some tall poppies for the abundance of cloying sweeties launched each year. A good rule of thumb with florals is to check what’s been used to temper the bouquet and why, as this is some clue to the taste it suits.
Fleur de Parfum, Chloé’s latest, is made youthful and more heliotrope than comparable Damask-rose scents by a bed of white rice. Marc Jacobs used champagne notes to glam up Divine Decadence’s gardenia-honeysuckle heart.
Apogée, the most floral of the seven-perfume collection Louis Vuitton launched in October, has a sexy guaiac and sandalwood base that persists long after its magnolia, jasmine and lily-of-the-valley.
This is the riskiest group from which to choose a gift, scent un-sniffed. Woody fragrances can polarise opinion like Marmite, especially if they incorporate spice or musk. They also have the greatest capacity to impress, hosting some of the rarest ingredients in the most beautiful bottles.
Oud Oriental is Versace’s boldest female fragrance yet. Sparkling orange and neroli top notes evaporate into a cardamom-saffron-olibanum heart and patchouli-oud base.
Citrus perfumes are compositions based on lemon, orange, bergamot, grapefruit or mandarin. Because these ingredients lack tenacity, they are often central to eau de colognes or used as top notes to lighten the headier perfumes of other families.
The olfactory equivalent of a winter warmer, Orange Bitters is a seasonal must-have for Jo Malone devotees. This cologne is a zesty cocktail of three kinds of orange with a rich sandalwood-amber base.
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