Stop And Smell The Top Notes

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We've said it before, but we'll say it again: Reading about perfume on the internet is hard work. Until the ground-breaking invention of the Smell-O-Computer takes the American consumer by storm, anyone hoping to select a fragrance from the comfort of wherever their laptop happens to be placed is left to his or her own olfactory imagination to assume just how Santal 33 will smell IRL. But since online shopping is the future the present, may as well start brushing up on the correct scent lingo should ever the mood strike for a new perfume while you're nowhere near a beauty counter.

Assuming you know the basics (see link above for a refresher), let's jump into a more intermediate field of study: top notes. In the simplest of terms, top notes are are the lightest and first notes you smell in a perfume. Think of it like this: If making a perfume is like writing a story, top notes set the scene. They're meant to draw you into the story but aren't meant to last very long before the main character shows up. This is how David Frossard, creative director of Frapin and co-founder of Les Liquides Imaginaires, describes his process. First, he develops the concept for the fragrance's story. After it's written, it's sent to the perfumer, and the end result is an experience—not just a combination of top, middle, and base notes thrown together willy-nilly.

Since top notes are effervescent and quick to show off, certain scents work better than others. Classical perfumery features citrus, herbs, and aromatic fragrances exclusively to top notes. These fade quickly, though sometimes spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove make their way from base notes to top notes to give a longer-lasting impression. It all depends on how quickly you want to reach the story's apex. Floral scents are reserved for middle notes, and base notes are when musky, animal, amber, woody, and spices again come in. Getting through a top note may take less than five minutes, but they're there for a reason. “When you smell a fragrance, it is like bubbles which burst at different moments,” said Brigitte Wormser, vice president of creation and development marketing at niche perfume line Atkinsons.

If you want a basic, true, but not necessarily accurate depiction of a top note, sniffing the bottle will suffice, Brigitte said. Though, for full impact, top notes are best sprayed on. “When you smell the fragrance in the bottle, it’s completely different. There, it exists as a block. When it’s fresh, it’s different. It's like smelling a wine,” she said. You have to pour it out and let it breathe to understand it better. “Of course when you spray a fragrance on your skin, the evolution of the fragrance is completely different from your skin to my skin,” Brigitte added. “We push the top note immediately to give the customer an idea of the fragrance,” Though while they give you an idea of what you're in for, top notes alone probably aren't the best feature to take into consideration when buying a fragrance.

If you want spicy, you might find that too in a top note, but expect it to last a little longer and the effect to be richer. Aromatic spicy notes blend well into smoke, which is not a top note Brigitte said, though don't confuse it for fizzy aldehydes that can sometimes create a foggy, prismatic feel. “Top notes are sharp when you want to immediately get the picture of the fragrance. When you are building a more traditional fragrance, then you need a fresh and low top note,” Call it the age of instant-gratification, the need for fast delivery and impact trickles down to the way we smell, too.

Though they're designed to disappear, there's something romantic about that aspect of the top note. It disappears before you even leave the house, but reemerges each time to spritz a little more on. “It’s like something that you can’t really see,” David said. “But it’s there, and it’s what makes the perfume alive,”

Photo by ITG. For more on fragrance, click here.

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