In The Cologne Series we explore the art of fragrance and how to use it as a tool in our grooming arsenal. We also muse on the artistic aspects of perfume, its history and the relationship men have had with cologne throughout the generations. After reading this series we are confident you will emerge an erudite intellectual who not only smells marvelous but has made an educated artistic statement with his scent.
Don’t miss a thing! Here are links to the other parts of the series:
Part 1: Why Cologne Matters
Part 2: How to Pick the Right One
Part 3: Telltale Signs of a Good Perfume
Part 4: Who Do We Wear Cologne For?
Part 5: How to Build a Fragrance Wardrobe
Part 6: Wearing a Fragrance with Intention
Your personal preferences aside, well-done fragrances share some common characteristics. Just like with any art form, what defines a good perfume is disputed. Most connoisseurs, however, agree on the following three.
Masterful Blending and Structure
Perfume-making is a different form of storytelling. If Hemingway used words to tell stories, Francis Kurkdjian uses fragrant essences to do the same. The art of perfumery is similar to the art of writing. It lies in masterfully arranging common ingredients in a unique way. The writer does so with words and the perfumer achieves it with oils.
Just like most stories, most perfumes follow the same structure. The majority of fragrances are built using the pyramid structure. On the bottom you have base notes, in the middle - heart notes, and on top are the top notes.
The top notes are the ones you smell first. They are light and fleeting and are usually the ones that project the farthest. Most citruses and fresh spices are used as top notes.
The middle notes (e.g. florals, fruits, spices) add more tenacity and complexity to the top notes. In citrus fragrances, it is the middle or heart notes that extend the longevity of the fresh citrus.
The base notes (e.g. resins, spices, musks, woods) are the ones that last the longest. Their tenacity determines your fragrance’s longevity.
The art of perfume-making can be summed up to creating a composition that seamlessly blends all notes.
In a masterful composition the notes will compliment each other. The fragrance will develop seamlessly from top, through middle, to bottom. The experience is similar to drinking a good wine and exploring all of its nuances.
Creating a fragrance with glorious composition takes skill and time. This is why many commercial fragrances with tight release deadlines fall apart. They start off smelling great just to quickly transition into a disaster after the first half hour.
A good fragrance doesn’t always have a clear structure. Some perfumes don’t follow the pyramid structure at all. The scents that are worth exploring are those that keep you intrigued. They are the ones that take you on a journey and reveal a different facet of their nature as time passes by.
The multifaceted nature of perfume requires you to be patient. Therefore, spraying some cologne on a strip and deciding on the spot whether it’s worth a buy is never a good idea. More on that is coming later.
Good Quality Ingredients
Rule no.1 of Italian cooking: use the best ingredients you can find. The same rule applies to perfume too. Using the highest quality ingredients is no guarantee for a masterpiece but it definitely helps.
When it comes to perfume, the ingredients we talk about are the essential oils and aromachemicals. Their quality determines the quality of the fragrance. Whether a raw material is of good quality depends on its source, and how it was extracted and stored. The origin of sandalwood oil, for example, determines its olfactory composition.
The Mysore Sandalwood oil, derived from a certain species of the sandalwood tree in Mysore, India, is known for its complex creamy texture. The one from Australia, on the other hand, is a bit more splintery and less creamy.
The same is true with vetiver. The oils extracted from Haitian vetiver have a distinct mix of notes and character. Vetivers from other regions or synthetic replicas may approximate the golden standard from Haiti but won’t be exactly the same.
Nowadays, many perfume houses list the origins of the ingredients in their perfumes. You can see some of them feature Florentine iris, Haitian vetiver, Bulgarian rose, etc.
While I don’t doubt the veracity of such claims, I don’t think they mean much to the average consumer. Unless you spend hours smelling perfume and studying raw materials, chances are you won’t be able to tell the difference between a Bulgarian rose, a Turkish rose or a French one, let alone if it appears in minuscule amounts in a complex composition.
The key point here is this: the source of the ingredients matters but don’t obsess over it. Focus on the smell and how you experience it, not where the neroli accord comes from.
Without getting too technical, CO2 extraction is the better of the two. It doesn’t produce as much waste and it doesn’t use heat, which can alter the smell of the oil. The downside of CO2 extraction is its cost. This is why, this method is not always used, especially if the quality of the essential oils is not a primary concern.
Just like with the origin of the ingredients, there is no way to tell how the essential oils in your cologne were extracted. It doesn’t even matter. What matters is whether you like the smell.
If you can’t tell where the ingredients come from and how they were extracted, should you really care what quality they are?
You should and here’s why:
High quality ingredients (natural or synthetic) add depth and complexity to the fragrance. In a way, they make it three-dimensional. Every time you smell it you find a different facet of it. It can be a truly rewarding experience.
The ingredients of a fragrance don’t always determine its performance. More than anything, they contribute to your tactile experience of the perfume. Just like a shirt made of 160 two-ply cotton feels soft and luxurious against your skin, a cologne made with the highest quality raw materials feels deep, complex and natural.
The only way to tell whether a fragrance is made with good raw materials is by smelling it. If the notes it claims to have smell realistic, deep and complex, chances are the ingredients used are of good quality. If you smell a chemical tinge or thin and flat notes, most likely your cologne was made on the cheap.
A Decent Longevity
Despite the artistic indulgences perfume gives us, it also has a practical aspect. Most of us buy cologne, so we can smell good, preferably for a long time. Therefore, a good fragrance will have a decent longevity.
For me, anything that exceeds the four hour mark is decent.
Four hours is half a day. If I am lounging at home on a weekend, while slowly getting ready to go out, a perfume lasting four hours will get me through my morning. Once I am ready to go out, I will apply it again or change the fragrance to a longer-lasting one.
There are perfumes that last over 12 hours. Those ones can be annoying. While putting on a crisp shirt on the morning after, the last thing you want to smell of is the heavy weapon of mass seduction you wore last night.
What makes a fragrance last longer is a complex topic. Several factors affect longevity - from your skin type to the molecules in your cologne. If you are interested to explore further, read ScentBound’s article on the topic. The simple rule of thumb is that citrus scents last the least, while musks and resins last the longest.
A Decent Projection
In the fragrance world projection means the distance from which one can smell your perfume. Some scent have enormous projection - you can smell them from a mile away, while others are skin scents - you need an intimate closeup encounter to smell them.
There is no universal answer to what is a good projection. It largely depends on the situation. A night out in Vegas would call for something with more presence; a deposition with your lawyers will require a more tamed fragrance.
What this means is that you need more than one perfume. This whole one signature scent thing is more of an ideal than reality. In many respects it is also a silly idea.
Choosing a signature fragrance you wear all the time is like choosing a signature outfit. Sure, Steve Jobs did it and Mark Zuckerberg does it too but so what? They are not known for paragons of style and, frankly, their outfits don’t get any accolades.
Regardless of the event, you want to be able to smell your fragrance without choking the room. This is why, you want a fragrance that has a somewhat balanced projection - nothing too quiet and nothing too loud.
Fortunately, most fragrances fall into this mid-projection category. Two to three sprays is usually enough for those close to you to smell your cologne.
Sillage is the French word for wake. The best way to understand sillage is to think of it as the ripples a rock makes when you throw it in a still lake. It is the trail your cologne leaves behind when you move through a space.
The best place to experience sillage is in the elevator. It is the perfume you smell when you get in and there is no one there.
Experiencing sillage this way is always a curious experience for me. I try to imagine the person who wore that fragrance; where they were going and what they look like.
Even if sillage is a curious phenomenon to experience, it doesn’t really matter to the practical wearer. What trace you leave behind is hardly of any significance for most of us.
Does Price Matter?
Unlike other luxury items, the price of perfume has little to do with its quality. Original scents with excellent technical qualities come at any price point. Nautica’s Voyage, one of the best aquatic fragrances, sells for $20 in some drug stores. Creed’s Green Irish Tweed, the harbinger of the aquatic genre, goes for approximately $400. Both are excellent choices and both have drastically different prices.
If it’s not quality, what determines the price then?
It’s basic economics and marketing. Most popular designer fragrances cost more or less the same. Four large fragrance companies create and produce virtually all designer colognes. To create a scent for their clients, the designer labels, these four firms hire from the same pool of perfumers and source their raw ingredients from the same suppliers. Generally, their manufacturing processes and distribution systems are the same, the volumes of bottles they produce are identical and so is their cost per bottle.
Considering the margins companies make on fragrances, they have little incentive to deviate from established market prices.
Compared to their designer counterparts, niche perfume makers tend to charge more for their fragrances. The reason for the higher prices is economic and market positioning too.
To begin with, a niche fragrance house with limited distribution and sales produces its perfumes in smaller batches. This means the niche perfume houses purchase their ingredients in smaller quantities. Their limited purchasing power prevents them from getting volume discounts the big four fragrance companies receive. Therefore, on average, the cost of producing a bottle of niche perfume is higher than the bottle of producing a designer one.
Besides the disadvantageous economies of producing a perfume, many niche brands differentiate themselves by providing fragrances of high creativity and quality. They usually position themselves a step above the baseline set by the designer scents.
If maintaining a certain level of quality and creativity is a marketing strategy, many niche houses are pressured to use higher quality ingredients and spend more time in developing their scents. Being creative by definition also means not necessarily being liked by the masses. In the world of commerce, creativity also means less sales and limited markets.
The point here is that the higher prices of a niche fragrance versus a designer one may suggest higher quality but it is by no means a guarantee. Further, many companies use high pricing to distinguish their offerings as luxury products. Creed is known to employ this strategy. They charge over $400 for their scents and this has nothing to do with quality.
To put it simply, prices up to $200 can be justified with high quality ingredients. Anything over this amount has likely to do with marketing positioning.
What Comes Next...
Now that you know how to pick a good quality fragrance, we need to step back and consider who we are buying the fragrance for. Even though we will be wearing it, to what extend do we need to consider the opinions of others? We answer these philosophical questions about perfume in Part 4 of the series. In Part 5 we cover go back to being practical and explain how to build a fragrance wardrobe.
Go here for Part 4: The Cologne Series: Who Do We Wear Cologne For?
Fast forward to Part 5: The Cologne Series: How to Build a Fragrance Wardrobe.