The Semiotics of Perfume

At a talk I went to once about semiotics I heard Theo van Leeuwen talking about the semiotics of perfume. Ever since then I’ve been checking out the “notes” of perfumes trying to develop a nose better than any connoisseur of wine.

Today after work I dropped by the Beauty department in Chanel (secretly hunting for that StriVectin cream …shhhh…) and managed to find my nose (followed closely by my body, my purse and my credit card) lured over to this new perfume. Let me outline the notes:

Soft Oriental Floral

Four of the six facets of ALLURE (Fresh, Timeless Floral, Woody and Fruity) have been reworked to take on fuller and sweeter accents that are all the more delicious and mysterious. The Oriental facet sets the sensual tone, with a combination of Vanilla and Amber Patchouli. Finally, a new, warm and airy Sunny Spicy facet – both fresh and provocative – evokes the refined mystery of the Orient.

Mmmm…. when will they invent scratch and sniff screen technology? I smell divine!

Back to the semiotics….

Here’s a taxonomy of sorts from Wikipedia, and I am going to bold and italicise some of my preferences to see if I can find a pattern:

Traditional

The traditional classification which emerged around 1900 comprised the following categories:

* Single Floral: Fragrances that are dominated by a scent from one particular flower; in French called a soliflore. (e.g. Serge Lutens’ Sa Majeste La Rose, which is dominated by rose.)
* Floral Bouquet: Containing the combination of several flowers in a scent.
* Ambery: A large fragrance class featuring the scents of vanilla and animal scents together with flowers and woods. Can be enhanced by camphorous oils and incense resins, which bring to mind Victorian era imagery of the Middle East and Far East.
* Woody: Fragrances that are dominated by woody scents, typically of sandalwood and cedar. Patchouli, with its camphoraceous smell, is commonly found in these perfumes.
* Leather: A family of fragrances which features the scents of honey, tobacco, wood and wood tars in its middle or base notes and a scent that alludes to leather.
* Chypre: Meaning Cyprus in French, this includes fragrances built on a similar accord consisting of bergamot, oakmoss, patchouli, and labdanum. This family of fragrances is named after a perfume by François Coty.
* Fougère: Meaning Fern in French, built on a base of lavender, coumarin and oakmoss. Houbigant’s Fougère Royale pioneered the use of this base. Many men’s fragrances belong to this family of fragrances, which is characterized by its sharp herbaceous and woody scent.

Modern

Since 1945, due to great advances in the technology of perfume creation (i.e., compound design and synthesis) as well as the natural development of styles and tastes; new categories have emerged to describe modern scents:

* Bright Floral: combining the traditional Single Floral & Floral Bouquet categories.
* Green: a lighter and more modern interpretation of the Chypre type.
* Oceanic/Ozone: the newest category in perfume history, appearing in 1991 with Christian Dior’s Dune. A very clean, modern smell leading to many of the modern androgynous perfumes.
* Citrus or Fruity: An old fragrance family that until recently consisted mainly of “freshening” eau de colognes due to the low tenacity of citrus scents. Development of newer fragrance compounds has allowed for the creation of primarily citrus fragrances.
* Gourmand: scents with “edible” or “dessert”-like qualities. These often contain notes like vanilla and tonka bean, as well as synthetic components designed to resemble food flavors. An example is Thierry Mugler’s Angel.

Fragrance wheel

The Fragrance wheel is a relatively new classification method that is widely used in retail and in the fragrance industry. The method was created in 1983 by Michael Edwards, a consultant in the perfume industry, who designed his own scheme of fragrance classification after being inspired by a fragrance seminar by Firmenich. The new scheme was created in order to simplify fragrance classification and naming scheme, as well as to show the relationships between each individual classes.

The five standard families consist of Floral, Oriental, Woody,Fougère, and Fresh, with the former four families being more “classic” while the latter consisting of newer bright and clean smelling citrus and oceanic fragrances that have arrived due to improvements in fragrance technology. With the exception of the Fougère family, each the families are in turn divided into three sub-groups and arranged around a wheel:

1. Floral
1. Floral
2. Soft Floral
3. Floral Oriental
2. Oriental
1. Soft Oriental
2. Oriental
3. Woody Oriental
3. Woody
1. Wood
2. Mossy Woods
3. Dry Woods
4. Fresh
1. Citrus
2. Green
3. Water
5. Fougère

The Fougère family is placed at the center of this wheel since they are large family of scents that usually contain fragrance elements from each of the other four families.

In this classification scheme, Chanel No.5, which is traditionally classified as a “Floral Aldehyde” would be located under Soft Floral sub-group, and “Amber” scents would be placed within the Oriental group. As a class, Chypres is more difficult to place since they would located under parts of the Oriental and Woody families. For instance, Guerlain Mitsuoko, which is classically identified as a chypre will be placed under Mossy Woods, but Hermès Rouge, a chypre with more floral character, would be placed under Floral Oriental.

Fragrance Notes

Perfume is described in a musical metaphor as having three ‘notes’, making the harmonious chord of the scent. The notes unfold over time, with the immediate impression of the top note leading to the deeper middle notes, and the bass notes gradually appearing as the final stage. These notes are created carefully with knowledge of the evaporation process of the perfume.

* Top notes: The scents that are perceived immediately on application of a perfume. Top notes consist of small, light molecules that evaporate quickly: they form a person’s initial impression of a perfume and thus are very important in the selling of a perfume. The scents of this note class are usually described as “fresh,” “assertive” or “sharp.” The compounds that contribute to top notes are strong in scent, very volatile, and evaporate quickly. Citrus and ginger scents are common top notes. Also called the head notes.
* Middle notes: The scent of a perfume that emerges after the top notes dissipate. The middle note compounds form the “heart” or main body of a perfume and act to mask the often unpleasant initial impression of base notes, which become more pleasant with time. Not surprisingly, the scent of middle note compounds is usually more mellow and “rounded.” Scents from this note class appear anywhere from two minutes to one hour after the application of a perfume. Lavender and rose scents are typical middle notes. Also called the heart notes.
* Base notes: The scent of a perfume that appears after the departure of the middle notes. The base and middle notes together are the main theme of a perfume. Base notes bring depth and solidity to a perfume. Compounds of this class are often the fixatives used to hold and boost the strength of the lighter top and middle notes. Consisting of large, heavy molecules that evaporate slowly, compounds of this class of scents are typically rich and “deep” and are usually not perceived until 30 minutes after the application of the perfume or during the period of perfume dry-down. Some base notes can still be detectable in excess of twenty-four hours after application, particularly the animalic notes.

Aromatics Sources

Plant sources

Plants have long been used in perfumery as a source of essential oils and aroma compounds. These aromatics are usually secondary metabolites produced by plants as protection against herbivores, infections, as well as to attract pollinators. Plants are by far the largest source of fragrant compounds used in perfumery. The sources of these compounds may be derived from various parts of a plant. A plant can offer more than one source of aromatics, for instance the aerial portions and seeds of coriander have remarkably different odors from each other. Orange leaves, blossoms, and fruit zest are the respective sources of petit grain, neroli, and orange oils.

* Bark: Commonly used barks includes cinnamon and cascarilla. The fragrant oil in sassafras root bark is also used either directly or purified for its main constituent, safrole, which is used in the synthesis of other fragrant compounds such as helional.
* Flowers and blossoms: Undoubtedly the largest source of aromatics. Includes the flowers of several species of rose and jasmine, as well as osmanthus, mimosa, tuberose, as well as the blossoms of citrus and ylang-ylang trees. Although not traditionally thought of as a flower, the unopened flower buds of the clove are also commonly used. Orchid flowers are not commercially used to produce essential oils or absolutes, except in the case of vanilla, an orchid, which must be pollinated first and made into seed pods before use in perfumery.
* Fruits: Fresh fruits such as apples, strawberries, cherries unfortunately do not yield the expected odors when extracted; if such fragrance notes are found in a perfume, they are synthetic. Notable exceptions include litsea cubeba, vanilla, and juniper berry. The most commonly used fruits yield their aromatics from the rind; they include citrus such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit.
* Leaves and twigs: Commonly used for perfumery are lavender leaf, patchouli, sage, violets, rosemary, and citrus leaves. Sometimes leaves are valued for the “green” smell they bring to perfumes, examples of this include hay and tomato leaf.
* Resins: Valued since antiquity, resins have been widely used in incense and perfumery. Highly fragrant and antiseptic resins and resin-containing perfumes have been used by many cultures as medicines for a large variety of ailments. Commonly used resins in perfumery include labdanum, frankincense/olibanum, myrrh, Peru balsam, gum benzoin. Pine and fir resins are a particularly valued source of terpenes used in the organic synthesis of many other synthetic or naturally occurring aromatic compounds. Some of what is called amber and copal in perfumery today is the resinous secretion of fossil conifers.
* Roots, rhizomes and bulbs: Commonly used terrestrial portions in perfumery include iris rhizomes, vetiver roots, various rhizomes of the ginger family.
* Seeds: Commonly used seeds include tonka bean, coriander, caraway, cocoa, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, and anise.
* Woods: Highly important in providing the base notes to a perfume, wood oils and distillates are indispensable in perfumery. Commonly used woods include sandalwood, rosewood, agarwood, birch, cedar, juniper, and pine.-

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