What Does Perfume Consist Of?
Perfume is made up of vegetable oils, the odours of certain animals and chemical additives. Perfume making, like cookery, is done from a recipe, a formula. The perfumer takes his list of ingredients and blends them together in a special way. One of the expensive perfumes worn by women on their throats and wrists (the heat from the throbbing at these pulse points brings out the smell) may contain up to two hundred ingredients.
The first smell that reaches you when you open the bottle and dab on the scent is the vegetable oil, a blend of the oils of flowers and herbs varying from lavender, jasmine and rose, to clove and rosemary and even carrot and onion oils. They are extracted by squeezing, or by the use of solvents.
The second category consists of animal odours which give the scent persistence. These include ambergris, which is phlegm coughed up by the sperm whale, a gland secretion of the civet cat, musk from the musk deer and castoreum resin from the beaver.
The third set of ingredients, the chemical ones, is used to set off and fill out the flower and animal products. They are much cheaper. The blending of these ingredients calls for great skill, and a perfumer takes many years to learn his art.
Not all perfumes are sold in bottles or even in cosmetic products. One of the perfumer’s main tasks is to disguise the bad smells in products such as detergents and plastics, and to provide the smells which people have come to associate with certain products. Plastic car seats are given the smell of leather. Restaurants can buy a bottle of bacon and hamburger essence for an appetizing aroma.
The precise formulae of commercial perfumes are kept secret. Even if they were widely published, they would be dominated by such complex ingredients and odorants that they would be of little use in providing a guide to the general consumer in description of the experience of a scent. Nonetheless, connoisseurs of perfume can become extremely skillful at identifying components and origins of scents in the same manner as wine experts.
The most practical way to start describing a perfume is according to the elements of the fragrance notes of the scent or the “family” it belongs to, all of which affect the overall impression of a perfume from first application to the last lingering hint of scent. The trail of scent left behind by a person wearing perfume is called its sillage, after the French word for “wake”, as in the trail left by a boat in water.
Perfume types reflect the concentration of aromatic compounds in a solvent, which in fine fragrance is typically ethanol or a mix of water and ethanol. Various sources differ considerably in the definitions of perfume types. The intensity and longevity of a perfume is based on the concentration, intensity and longevity of the aromatic compounds, or perfume oils, used. As the percentage of aromatic compounds increases, so does the intensity and longevity of the scent. Specific terms are used to describe a fragrance’s approximate concentration by the percent of perfume oil in the volume of the final product. The most widespread terms are:
parfum or extrait, in English known as perfume extract, pure perfume, or simply perfume: 15–40% (IFRA: typical ~20%) aromatic compounds;
esprit de parfum (ESdP): 15–30% aromatic compounds, a seldom used strength concentration in between EdP and perfume;
eau de parfum (EdP) or parfum de toilette (PdT): 10–20% (typical ~15%) aromatic compounds, sometimes listed as “eau de perfume” or “millésime”; parfum de toilette is a less common term, most popular in the 1980s, that is generally analogous to eau de parfum;
eau de toilette (EdT): 5–15% (typical ~10%) aromatic compounds;
eau de Cologne (EdC), often simply called cologne: 3–8% (typical ~5%) aromatic compounds; see below for more information on the confusing nature of the term “cologne”;
in addition to these widely seen concentrations, companies have marketed a variety of perfumed products under the name of “splashes,” “mists,” “veils” and other imprecise terms. Generally these products contain 3% or less aromatic compounds.
There is much confusion over the term “cologne,” which has three meanings. The first and oldest definition refers to a family of fresh, citrus-based fragrances distilled using extracts from citrus, floral, and woody ingredients. Supposedly these were first developed in the early 18th century in Cologne, Germany, hence the name. This type of “classical cologne” describes unisex compositions “which are basically citrus blends and do not have a perfume parent.” Examples include Mäurer & Wirtz’s 4711 (created in 1799), and Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Impériale (1853).
In the 20th century, the term took on a second meaning. Fragrance companies began to offer lighter, less concentrated interpretations of their existing perfumes, making their products available to a wider range of customers. Guerlain, for example, offered an Eau de Cologne version of its flagship perfume Shalimar. In contrast to classical colognes, this type of modern cologne is a lighter, diluted, less concentrated interpretation of a more concentrated product, typically a pure parfum. The cologne version is often the lightest concentration from a line of fragrance products.
Finally, the term “cologne” has entered the English language as a generic, overarching term to denote a fragrance worn by a man, regardless of its concentration. The actual product worn by a man may technically be an eau de toilette, but he may still say that he “wears cologne.” A similar problem surrounds the term “perfume,” which can be used a generic sense to refer to fragrances marketed to women, whether or not the fragrance is actually an extrait.
Classical colognes first appeared in Europe in the 17th century. The first fragrance labeled a “parfum” extract with a high concentration of aromatic compounds was Guerlain’s Jickyin 1889. Eau de Toilette appeared alongside parfum around the turn of the century. The EdP concentration and terminology is the most recent. Parfum de toilette and EdP began to appear in the 1970s and gained popularity in the 1980s.
The wide range in the percentages of aromatic compounds that may be present in each concentration means that the terminology of extrait, EdP, EdT, and EdC is quite imprecise. Although an EdP will often be more concentrated than an EdT and in turn an EdC, this is not always the case. Different perfumeries or perfume houses assign different amounts of oils to each of their perfumes.
Therefore, although the oil concentration of a perfume in EdP dilution will necessarily be higher than the same perfume in EdT from within a company’s same range, the actual amounts vary among perfume houses. An EdT from one house may have a higher concentration of aromatic compounds than an EdP from another.
Furthermore, some fragrances with the same product name but having a different concentration may not only differ in their dilutions, but actually use different perfume oil mixtures altogether. For instance, in order to make the EdT version of a fragrance brighter and fresher than its EdP, the EdT oil may be “tweaked” to contain slightly more top notes or fewer base notes. Chanel No. 5 is a good example: its parfum, EdP, EdT, and now-discontinued EdC concentrations are in fact different compositions (the parfum dates to 1921, whereas the EdP was not developed until the 1980s).
In some cases, words such as extrême, intense, or concentrée that might indicate a higher aromatic concentration are actually completely different fragrances, related only because of a similar perfume accord. An example of this is Chanel’s Pour Monsieur and Pour Monsieur Concentrée.
As a rule of thumb, women’s fragrances tend to have higher levels of aromatic compounds than men’s fragrances. Fragrances marketed to men are typically sold as EdT or EdC, rarely as EdP or perfume extracts. Women’s fragrances used to be common in all levels of concentration, but today are mainly seen in parfum, EdP and EdT concentrations.