Fragrance Notes – Exploring The Fragrance Pyramid and The Fragrance Wheel

Opening notes, dry down, fragrance families……what do all these things have in common? Fragrance notes!

Knowledge of how fragrance notes work together can enable you to narrow down your fragrance preferences and make informed choices when selecting your next fragrance.

The fragrance pyramid is a concept in perfumery that categorizes fragrance notes into distinct layers known as top notes, middle notes, and base notes. The fragrance wheel categorizes fragrances into families based on the scent of their notes.

Read on to discover the fascinating world of fragrance notes, including:

  • The Fragrance Pyramid: Top, Middle, and Base Notes
  • The Fragrance Wheel: Fragrance Families

The Fragrance Pyramid – Layers of Fragrance Notes

The Fragrance Pyramid

Each fragrance is a blend of various compounds that create its unique scent. When we apply a fragrance to our skin, these compounds start to evaporate. The various compounds each have different levels of volatility, meaning they evaporate at different rates. 

The first notes that you can smell are the most volatile, evaporating quickly and fading away fast. This reveals the next “layer” of compounds, and this process continues until the fragrance fades away completely. This process is referred to as the life cycle of a fragrance, and it explains why the scent of a fragrance changes throughout the day.

Fragrance notes form the different “layers” that make up the final scent. They can be categorized into top notes, middle notes, and base notes, based on the speed of evaporation.

Top, middle, and base notes can each contain numerous ingredients. The concentration of each can also vary from fragrance to fragrance, and the presence of one note may influence the perception of another. This complex interaction among the notes creates the unique and evolving aroma of each fragrance. 

Top Notes

Top notes, also referred to as the opening notes, are the scents that we perceive immediately after applying a fragrance. These are the lightest notes and they evaporate and fade quickly, usually within 5 – 15 minutes. They are important as they form the first impression of the fragrance. 

Common top notes include citrus and fresh herb elements.

Middle Notes

Middle notes, also known as heart notes, create the main body of the fragrance. They act as a buffer for the base notes, softening their initial impact. Middle notes usually evaporate within 1 hour. Middle notes can make up 40 – 80% of a fragrance and they are pleasant and well-rounded. 

Middle notes most commonly consist of floral, fruity, green, and warm spicy elements.

Base Notes

Base notes are the heaviest and longest-lasting notes. The base notes form the dry down of a fragrance, creating the final, lasting impression. They tend to be rich and smooth and can linger for up to 8 hours or more. Base notes usually make up 10 – 25% of the fragrance. 

Base notes have less variation since only a limited number of compounds can provide the required staying power. 

Common base notes include woody and ambery elements.

The Fragrance Wheel – Families of Fragrance Notes

The Fragrance Wheel

Image courtesy of fragrancesoftheworld.com and copyright Michael Edwards 1992-2022.

Fragrances can be categorized into fragrance families based on their notes. Being aware of fragrance families can help us to narrow down our fragrance preferences and make informed choices when selecting new fragrances. Although it is important to remember that categorizing fragrances can never be completely definitive, given the complex interaction of the many compounds in fragrances.

Different variations of the fragrance wheel have existed in the past, but the most commonly used variation currently was developed by Michael Edwards, a fragrance taxonomist and international expert in the field of fragrances. He developed the fragrance wheel to assist fellow perfumiers in recommending the best possible fragrances for their customers. [1]

When you look at the fragrance wheel, fragrance families are groups of similar scents placed together, with families that are closest sharing the most characteristics.

There are 4 fragrance families, each with sub-families that cross boundaries between adjacent families:

  • Floral
  • Ambery
  • Woody
  • Fresh

Floral Fragrance Family

Flowers illustrating floral fragrance notes.

Floral notes form one of the most popular fragrance families. The floral family contains a wide variety of fragrances, and these notes are found in both feminine and masculine-oriented fragrances.

Floral fragrances are popular year-round and are not associated with any specific seasons. They can range from being light and delicate to complex and powerful.

Common floral notes include rose, jasmine, lily, ylang-ylang, neroli, and tuberose.

The subcategories of the floral fragrance category are as follows:

Fruity Floral – These fragrances combine floral notes with sweet and fresh fruit notes. These scents are lively and bright, featuring sweet and succulent fruit notes like berries, apples, or citrus, paired with floral notes such as roses, lilies, or peonies. 

Floral – Floral fragrances focus on pure and authentic floral notes, smelling like a realistic bouquet of fresh, vibrant flowers. These fragrances often feature notes such as rose, lily, and gardenia.

Soft Floral – Soft floral fragrances have a lighter touch, often containing powdery or creamy notes. These scents are subtle and graceful, featuring notes such as aldehydes, iris root, musk, and vanilla.

Floral Amber – Floral amber fragrances combine the elegance of floral notes with the allure of warm, rich spices. These fragrances often feature rose, jasmine, or tuberose, which are complemented by the inviting aromas of spices like cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom. 

Ambery Fragrance Family

Cinnamon, vanilla, and anise illustrating ambery fragrance notes.

Ambery fragrances are warm, sweet, and spicy. These fragrances have a smooth, luxurious feel, and are typically long-lasting.

Ambery fragrances are often associated with cooler weather, popular in the fall and winter.

Common ambery notes include amber, cinnamon, vanilla, tonka bean, and musk.

The subcategories of the ambery fragrance category are as follows:

Soft Amber – Soft amber fragrances bring in notes that soften the richness of the ambery family. These fragrances are warm and inviting, often featuring soft vanillas, benzoin, and musks.

Amber – Amber fragrances tend to be heavy, full-bodied, and rich. These fragrances often feature sweet, warm notes such as vanilla, tonka bean, cinnamon, musk, and cardamon, while incorporating spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and cumin.

Woody Amber – Woody amber fragrances have a sense of sophistication and elegance. These fragrances blend sweet and spicy amber notes with earthy, aromatic, woody notes such as patchouli, sandalwood, and cedarwood.

Woody Fragrance Family

Wood and moss demonstrating woody fragrance notes.

Woody fragrances are warm and earthy. These fragrances are quite distinctive and long-lasting.

Woody fragrances are another family that is often associated with cooler weather, popular in the fall and winter.

Common woody notes include sandalwood, cedarwood, vetiver, and patchouli.

The subcategories of the woody fragrance category are as follows:

Woods – Wood fragrances are earthy and aromatic, highlighting the elegance and complexity of wood notes. These fragrances often feature notes such as cedarwood, sandalwood, and vetiver.

Mossy Woods – Mossy wood fragrances are the sweetest and lightest of the woody family. These fragrances combine earthy notes such as oak moss with amber notes to create fragrances reminiscent of walking through a forest.

Dry Woods – Dry wood fragrances have a dry, smoky character, evoking the rich aromas of leather or tobacco. These fragrances often feature cedar, tobacco, and burnt wood notes.

Fresh Fragrance Family

Lime, lemon, oranges, and grapefruit demonstrating citrus fragrance notes.

Fresh fragrances have a broad range and are airy and refreshing. These fragrances are crisp, clean, and vibrant. 

These fragrances are often associated with the warmer seasons, popular in the spring and summer.

Common fresh notes include lemon, orange, bergamot, marine, ozone, and herbs.

The subcategories of the fresh fragrance category are as follows:

Aromatic – Aromatic fresh fragrances combine fresh notes with aromatic notes, commonly mixing fresh green herbs with lavender or other earthy notes. These fragrances often feature mint, rosemary, sage, and lavender notes.

Citrus – Citrus fresh fragrances are very bright, lively, and uplifting. These fragrances often feature notes of lemon, orange, grapefruit, and bergamot.

Water – Water fresh fragrances contain aquatic notes, recreating the scents of fresh sea spray or rain. These fragrances often feature marine, ozonic, and salt notes.

Green – Green fresh fragrances are uplifting, vibrant, and crisp, reminiscent of freshly cut grass and dewy vegetation. These fragrances feature notes of grass and leaves.

What Next?

Now that you have an understanding of fragrance notes, check out our perfume buying tips to find your next perfect fragrance!

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