If you have just recently discovered the world of niche and artisan fragrance offerings online, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. The internet has encouraged an explosion of options, from large niche lines that are sold worldwide via specialty boutiques to small artisan lines like mine that are sold through brand websites. Here are some tips for those who are beginning to explore the world of scent beyond casual sampling at your local store counter. These tips apply equally well to mainstream and niche categories (treasures can be found in both), but you may find that you need more online help with niche options because they are less available at your local store.
1. Join the fragrance community
Online Resources: The online fragrance community began years ago on forums and then expanded to blogs and Facebook groups. You can visit several options to find a place where you feel comfortable. Good places to start include Basenotes, Fragrantica, MakeupAlley, Now Smell This, Bois de Jasmin, Cafleurebon, Perfume Posse, Colognoisseur, The Non-Blonde, EauMG, Chemist in the Bottle, PerfumeShrine, Undina’s Looking Glass, and many other blogs that you will find linked from those starting points. Fragrance aficionados are eager to share their love of scent with others and are generous with knowledge and samples. You will likely make some lifelong friendships that extend beyond the world of fragrance. Forums, Facebook groups, and blogs have developed their own communities, with some overlap in membership and content.
Offline Resources: Fragrance fans can meet in person at a number of events each year, including Sniffapalooza’s Spring Fling and Fall Ball, special events scheduled at boutiques (such as “meet the perfumer” events), and meet-ups coordinated by informal local groups of fragrance lovers on both coasts. You can hear of these in-person events through the online community. If you become interested in learning more about perfumery itself, you might check this post about perfumery schools and classes to find some introductory classes offered by indie perfumers or by organizations such as the Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO).
2. Sample, Sample, Sample!
Even though you will be tempted to buy unsniffed after reading an intriguing review, you’ll save money in the long run if you stick to a “sample first” policy. When you sample, use a large enough dose to simulate spraying from the bottle, and wait long enough to judge the drydown to be sure you won’t tire of the scent after the topnotes are gone. Give your nose some breaks, and don’t try to sample too many scents at once. You can buy samples from places like Surrender To Chance, Luckyscent, Twisted Lily, Indigo Perfumery, Indie Scents, Olfactif, and the brands’ own websites. You can also sample in person if you happen to live near a boutique like Scent Bar (Los Angeles), Tiger Lily (San Francisco), or Twisted Lily (Brooklyn). As you acquire samples, you can swap the ones you do not want to keep with other fragrance lovers who have things for swap that you want to try. You can even buy decants (small amounts of perfume decanted from a full bottle) when you want more than a sample but not a full size.
3. Discover your preferences, but keep an open mind and revisit samples
Try different types of scents; you may think that you only like certain types, such as fresh scents or light woodsy amber scents, but you may be surprised to find that you also enjoy other types once you try them. Realize that your tastes may change over time, and revisit samples as you learn. You may want to try some all-natural scents too; they usually stay closer to the skin and have shorter lasting power, but you won’t know whether you connect with them until you sample. You can read more about fragrance categories here on Now Smell This and here on the Art et Parfum site.
4. Learn the notes
As your interest deepens, learn to identify notes such as jasmine, rose, violet, orange blossom, iris, ylang, cedar, sandalwood, labdanum, aldehydes, fruits, spices, musk, leather, amber, and greens. Some notes will be familiar to you from foods and plants, while some notes will be new. Keep track of notes that you like or dislike, but realize that your preferences may be qualified by other factors and may change with time; for example, you may like jasmine as long as it is not too indolic, or you may like fresh smells as long as they are not ozonic.
To help you learn notes, you can sample scents that showcase single notes, and you can even buy samples of ingredients from places like Perfumer’s Apprentice (both naturals and synthetics) and Eden Botanicals (naturals only). Notes do not correspond one-to-one to ingredients because a note is often created with an accord that is built from multiple ingredients. Perfumer’s Apprentice lists examples of accord formulas for things like apple, sandalwood, and amber to illustrate how accords are built from individual ingredients, and you can purchase samples of the accords if you want to sniff them. Perfumers generally build their own accords for various notes, creating the desired character and nuance to the notes and to the overall composition.
I have links on my website to short descriptions of many of the notes in my scents, and other sites also have similar note descriptions. You can also find in-depth posts on quite a few natural ingredients on Smellyblog, which is a blog written by another indie perfumer, Ayala Moriel.
5. Try some classics
Try mainstream classics like Chanel No 5 and Patou Joy, but don’t worry if they aren’t instant favorites. Be sure to try some classic niche choices too, such as scents from Serge Lutens, Comme des Garcons, L’Artisan, Annick Goutal, Frederic Malle, and Parfums de Nicolai. Surrender To Chance makes it easy to try classics with themed sample packs. They also have samples of vintage classics if you want to try some of the scents that are no longer available or that have been radically altered in newer versions (though vintage buying is prone to risk because scents can go off after a number of years).
6. Wear perfume to please yourself, and build a wardrobe
Advertisements would have you believe that perfume’s purpose is to influence those around you, but it can bring even more enjoyment to the one wearing it. If you collect a variety of scents to choose from each day, you’ll find that you enjoy changing scents with the weather and season, with the occasion, and with your mood. Some scents are subtle enough to be work appropriate, while others are better worn when you are not in close quarters. The idea of a signature scent has waned as people have realized that wearing the same scent daily can desensitize you to it and can lead to over-application; by changing scents frequently, your nose will stay fresh. Loved ones may have some special favorites that you will enjoy wearing when you spend time with them. Your collection need not be large, and you may decide to opt for smaller bottle or decant sizes to allow for more variety.
7. Pay more attention to scent in daily life
You will improve your sniffing ability if you pay attention to the scents of daily life: the aroma of ingredients, such as spices and herbs, when you are cooking; the scents of the foods you eat; the scents of flowers, leaves, and soil in the garden; the scent in the air just before it rains; the scent of a loved one. Most of us are quite focused on what we see and hear, but being more aware of the smells around you as you go through your day can add a new dimension to your senses and can increase mindfulness.
You’ve probably noticed how a scent can vividly bring back a memory of a person, place, or event. Scents of everyday surroundings make life richer and make memories stronger. To this day, I can’t smell star jasmine without it taking me back to when I was young and spent some happy sunny afternoons with friends swimming at our kind neighbor’s pool next to a long fence covered with an impressive wall of star jasmine. We all have scent memories associated with holidays and major events, but some of our most significant scent memories are associated with more mundane moments. I’m always touched when customers write to tell me that one of my scents has brought a memory back to mind.
8. Realize that people often smell different things from the same scent
I always mail test samples to friends as I work on new scent formulas, and this process has taught me how differently people smell the same perfume. Skin chemistry affects scent, but even if perfume is sprayed on a blotter to take skin out of the equation, people will not smell scent the same way. We each have genetic differences in our scent receptors that determine our relative sensitivity to different ingredients. Between being more sensitive to some ingredients and anosmic to others, the same scent will smell different to different noses. In addition to that genetic variation, we develop preferences over time through our experiences and scent associations, and this combination of genetics and experience helps determine why we love certain smells more than others.
Realize that you won’t always agree with reviews on blogs or forums; don’t let a negative review stop you from sampling something you think you might love, and don’t let a rave review inspire you to buy a full bottle without sampling first. You’ll gradually discover which reviewers and perfumers most often have similar noses and preferences to your own, but be understanding of those with different views because their perception is just as real to them as yours is to you.
9. Try different application methods
Rather than applying fragrance near my neck or face where the scent will be constantly in range of my nose, I prefer to use fragrance on my wrists where it will waft in and out of my breathing space as I move. You can experiment with placement and dosage to see what you like best. You’ll apply a larger dose if you spray a scent than if you dab it from a dauber vial. If you are new to scent, you may find that you enjoy it dabbed on your wrists but are overwhelmed if you spray it on your neck. You’ll also find that perfume oil behaves differently than alcohol-based perfume; oils generally stay closer to your skin.
10. Learn the language
Words like eau de parfum, accord, sillage, and chypre may confuse you at first, but you’ll soon speak the jargon. Bois de Jasmin and Now Smell This have helpful glossaries of perfume terms that can serve as references while you learn.
And finally, have fun with your new hobby, and enjoy your time spent with like-minded, or like-nosed, people!
Some of my readers with a long fragrance hobby history may have tips to add to this list, so please feel free to comment below. Also, newcomers can see the Perfume 101 posts on Now Smell This, Bois de Jasmin, and Perfume Posse for more advice and for recommendations for scents, by category, that you might want to sample.