Monday, 20 September 2010

Pyramid Building - 1

Here's a question for you: how long does it take to smell a whole fragrance?

Allow me to explain what I mean. A well-respected and successful perfumer I know once stated that you can tell precisely what's wrong with a scent within moments of applying it onto a blotter or your skin. According to him, all it takes is a few seconds to determine if an ingredient has been overused or if the overall composition lacks something.

You may not be surprised to read that I was a little taken aback by his words. "So does that mean," I asked, "that you don't really believe in top, heart and base notes?"

"Not at all," he answered, "I think the idea of the three layers of notes is extremely useful."

"But then... how can you smell an entire fragrance in just a few moments without waiting for the heart and the base to emerge?"

"You don't need to wait for the whole development. You can smell all three levels pretty much straight away."

Having considered his statement very seriously, I'm not sure I entirely agree with him, but I'm aware that he's far more experienced in these matters than I am and, in some ways, I can see what he means. After all, if you spray Chanel No. 5, it takes no more than about thirty seconds for its distinctive identity to appear and linger - essentially unchanged - for hours. If Madame Persolaise sprays Nahema in the morning before going to work, the scent she leaves in her wake is basically the same as the one I detect when we have lunch together at midday. And yet it can't be denied that a well-structured perfume also changes with the passage of time, shedding some aspects of its personality whilst making room for others to grow more prominent.

Where are all these thoughts heading? Well, over the next few weeks, I would like to engage you in a discussion about the validity of the traditional top-heart-base pyramid. Do you think it serves a useful purpose or do you believe that it doesn't properly reflect the way a scent functions? Do you think that it works just fine or does it need tweaking? Is it more helpful to those who wear perfume or those who sell it?

I will, of course, publish my views and ideas here, but I also hope some of you will consider contributing your own opinions, if not in the form of a 'public' comment, then by sending an email to persolaise at gmail dot com.

So finally, just to bring things full circle, let me repeat my initial question: how long do you think it takes to smell a whole perfume?



  1. Hmm, I never thought about it like that. But I did notice sometimes that after I get my initial idea of perfume and then go to check the notes, I seem to notice notes straight away that are listed as middle or heart.
    I can't wait to read more of your thoughts on the subject.

  2. I'm not sure I want to smell an entire fragrance right away --part of my delight with perfumes is their development over time.

  3. I don't take the concept of the pyramid and the idea that you can smell a whole perfume within moments to be mutually exclusive. Base notes are there the whole time, but they are the "base" because they last the longest, so you don't smell them alone until the top and middle notes have all evaporated. For example, you can smell the patchouli in Angel right away, but it won't smell like nothing but patchouli until like 24 hours later.

  4. Thanks, Ines. Many top note materials last no longer than a few seconds, so perhaps you really are smelling the heart notes almost straight away. How long do you think it takes you to detect the base?

  5. StyleSpy, I agree 100%; I enjoy the development too.

    But can I take it from your comment that you don't agree it's possible to 'know' a whole fragrance within a few second?

  6. Thanks for your comment Elisa, and yes, I know exactly what you're saying.

    But what about those scents which - several minutes into their development - appear to surprise you with a note which you absolutely couldn't detect at the beginning?

  7. Detecting base? It really changes from perfume to perfume, sometimes it takes as little as 15 minutes, sometimes after 2 hours I'm still not sure it's finally base or there is something more happening.

  8. What heart and base? Perfume is perfume no? One smell,.... it depends how big the bottle is. The bigger the bottle the more time to smell the smell.

  9. Okay, thanks, Ines, so basically you're suggesting that it ISN'T possible to detect everything within a few seconds, right?

  10. Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I have a feeling you'd like me to take it with a healthy pinch of salt...

  11. Persolaiase, it would seem so from what I'm saying but I didn't plan on making it sound like that. :)
    I think the better and more complex the perfume, the less chance there is you will be able to get the whole idea right at the beginning.
    Smelling a perfume for me is like smelling a breeze that plays around and each time it passes my by there might be a slight difference to it, depending what it managed to catch on its way. :)

  12. Thanks Ines, that's an analogy to which I might return in future posts.

  13. Persolaise: I think that's happened to me (being surprised by a middle note), but I always assume I didn't notice it at first because I was distracted by the top notes. :)

    Often I focus on different things the first few times I wear a scent. It took me at least five wears before I recognized the chocolate in the base of Rossy de Palma. I almost didn't believe the reports that it was there.

  14. Hi Elisa. Yes, the way our olfactory organ functions is another factor to be taken into consideration. Apparently, the scientific view is that the vast majority of people can discern no more than three smells simultaneously; only a very small group of people can discern four smells simultaneously; nobody can detect five. What sort of an impact does THAT have on the perfumer working away at his/her organ?


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