How to Smell and Evaluate a Natural Perfume

A post titled "how to smell" may illicit some eye rolling.  I know how to smell you may say, and I would counter with the question, "Ah, but do you know how to smell natural fragrances?"


Smelling and evaluating natural fragrance is different than the typical perfume sampling experience, just as natural perfumes are different from synthetic perfumes.  A common scenario may involve a trip to the local fragrance counter where one casually picks up bottles and quickly sniffs the atomizer or a slightly more involved process of spritzing the fragrance on a blotter strip that is hastily brought to the nose and evaluated.  Unfortunately neither of these options works when evaluating natural perfume.  

While mainstream perfumes are mostly synthetic and contain very little (if any) natural essences, they DO transfer very well to the blotter.  These perfumes smell almost exactly the same on your skin as they do on the tester strip.  This is not true of natural perfumes, hence the fact we must smell and evaluate them in a different manner.



Natural perfumes are complex and multifaceted and evolve with wear as they travel from the top, middle and base notes.  They have life and character and oftentimes this vibrancy is lost on a paper blotter.  Natural perfumes wear best on skin and should always be evaluated this way.  So, what to do?  

  1. Never try to evaluate a natural perfume by smelling the bottle.  This doesn't work.  The scent isn't usually strong enough to smell from a capped bottle and you will miss the beautiful nuances that natural perfumes possess.  You MUST spray the perfume onto a blotter or your skin.

  2. Be patient.  Once you've spritzed your natural scent wait a full minute to begin evaluating.  Resist the urge to sniff immediately.  This gives time for the alcohol to begin evaporating and the top notes to settle in.

  3. Evaluate the fragrance through all stages of the perfume.  In other words, to fully understand the transitions the perfume may go through it's important to smell after a minute or so, again 10 minutes later, and again a full hour later.

  4. Natural perfumes can be less linear than synthetic perfumes.  It is important to reserve judgement until you've been able to smell the perfume through it's entire cycle.  You may be amazed at how different a natural perfume smells after a few minutes.

  5. Whenever possible, it's always best to evaluate a perfume on your skin.  I recommend spraying natural perfumes onto perfume blotters, deciding which ones seem most interesting, and then applying one or two (never more than two) to opposite wrists for example.  Go for a walk, get some fresh air and decide which scent smells best on your skin.

  6. Don't pigeonhole yourself when sampling natural perfumes.  Many people claim they don't like florals but they've never smelled real rose or gorgeous jasmine.  Natural perfumes often contain beautiful rare essences that most are unfamiliar with.  Just because you've loathed a mainstream perfume that claims to contain rose doesn't mean you hate all rose scents. 


Follow these tips, you can expect to get a more thorough evaluation of a natural perfume.  Remember, 100% natural perfumes need a few moments to settle in.  They don't smell exactly the same on the blotter as they do on your skin.  Don't rush your sniffing experience and don't forget to revisit your scent strip.  Magical notes are slowly revealing themselves to you.


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Fragrant Reading: A Perfume Lover's Book List

I'm a reader.  Always have been, always will be.  As a child, I decided when I was an adult I would work with books.  One of my favorite places to visit was the library and I guessed I would become a librarian.  No matter how small or rural the town I inhabited, I could escape at the library.  I could visit exotic places and read about exciting people.  Books provided an education I wasn't able to obtain from my surroundings.

My first job out of college was working as an editorial assistant for an educational publishing house.  I beat out a hundred other applicants for the position and felt I must have mastered the interview and assorted proofreading tests.  After I was hired one of the senior editors revealed that I had been chosen for my hard-working scholarship driven background and more important, my sense of humor.  When asked during the interview where I saw myself in five years, I earnestly described a scenario where I worked for Random House, had a cushy corner office, sent my assistant out for complicated coffee drinks, and made verbal notes using a mini tape recorder.  These notes including quips like, "Note to Jackie Collins--Chapter 12 needs more sex!"  The editors thought I was hilarious.  I wasn't kidding.

Fast forward many years, and my career path has changed.  While I no longer work in publishing my heart still belongs to books.  I love the smell of them.  The feel of the pages.  And while I appreciate the ease of digital reading, nothing will ever replace the feel of holding a book in one's hand.

I'm often asked by budding perfumers which books I recommend they read to learn more about natural perfumery.  I've learned what they are often seeking is an instructional book, a magic guide, a detailed tutorial that will teach them exactly how to create a masterful perfume.  Alas, no such book exists.  Perfumery is an art that must be studied and practiced and practiced some more. A deep familiarity with the essences, the structure and nuance is required and this only comes with experience . . . and making many terrible perfumes along the way! The following list includes some of my favorite perfume related books.  Some are specific to natural perfumery, some are not.  Many are beautifully written books, with some instruction on perfumery.  I've separated the books into two sections.  The first group of titles are more instructional and non-fiction, the second group more fun and fiction.


1. Artisan Perfumery Or Being Led By The Nose by Alec Lawless.
One of my favorites. Chock full of information on creating natural perfumes. Late perfumer Alec Lawless breaks down many natural essences, their usage and describes their scent profiles. The author describes his unique blending method which breaks notes into categories he calls heart, nuance and intrigue. This book can be hard to find. I've heard rumors this book is selling for $100 on amazon. Skip the crazy mark-up and order directly from the Essentially Me site: (You will have to pay the conversion from pounds to dollars, but it's still much less than amazon.) Highly recommended reading!

2. Essence And Alchemy by Mandy Aftel.
The book that started it all. This to me is often referred to as the natural perfumers bible. My copy is worn and well loved. If you haven't read it, go get it at once! A beautifully written book that chronicles the legacy of natural perfumery and its evolution over the years.

3. Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent by Jean-Claude Ellena.
Penned by the uber-famous perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena who is best known for his masterful creations for Hermes. Check out the chapter on Materials of Natural Origin and Jean-Claude's limited list of ingredients he sanctions when creating fragrances. While I found it interesting to read, please know the focus is not on natural perfumery.

4. The Scent Trail by Celia Littleton.
The subtitle "How One Woman's Quest For The Perfect Perfume Took Her Around The World" really describes this beautiful book. Imagine tracking down every ingredient in a perfume and tracing it back to its source! We follow Celia on a whirlwind tour around the world from nutmeg plantations in Sri Lanka to fields of Haitian vetiver. Peppered with interesting factoids such as Casanova's use of ambergris--he added it to chocolate mousse and fed it to his date as a romantic aphrodisiac--it's sure to be a fascinating read for any interested in perfumery.

5. The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez
Witty critiques of many mainstream perfumes. Check out the revised reviews of many classic scents post IFRA reformulation. My favorite 2011 revised review of is of the reformulated L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain (see page 38.) Read it, you won't be disappointed.

6. The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr
Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a glossy big budget perfume launch? Ever wondered why celebrity scents are less than err, wonderful? If you enjoyed the BBC documentary on Perfume, you'll enjoy reading Burr's book on the fragrance industry.

7. Coming To My Senses by Alyssa Harad
Love this book! I've decided that Alyssa is my scent twin. We share a favorite natural fragrance. We also share a fondness for comfortable shoes, expensive perfume and books. Coming to My Senses was a pleasure to read and Harad's lush descriptions of fragrances and the emotions they evoke is well worth reading.


1. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind.
Translated from German, this macabre tale of murder and "scentual" obsession is a must read. You'll never think about the scent of skin the same way again. The movie version of the book Perfume was widely panned, but I enjoyed it.

2. The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose
A terrific suspense novel that starts off with a bang! On vacation this summer, I found myself in upstate N.Y. Super Upstate New York. More deer than people upstate New York. It was beautiful but very isolated: spotty internet, no t.v. or phone service. Realizing I was hopelessly "plugged in" and facing internet withdrawal, I read an excerpt of The Book of Lost Fragrances one evening on my ipad. Cleopatra? A magical ancient perfume formula? Now, we're talking! I was hooked and immediately decided to download the book (fingers crossed) when I lost the internet connection. My horrified scream of "NOOOOOO" echoed through the woods. Instead I spent the evening with a sunburn playing Boggle with the family . . . again.

3. Damage Control by Denise Hamilton
O.K. to be honest, this has just a few perfume references BUT the main character is a perfumista with an Adderall addiction working for a glossy Los Angeles PR firm embroiled in a murder mystery. Sounds pretty good, right? It is! Very well written with a great attention to detail, particularly aromas and the memories they trigger. Keeps you guessing right up to the last page; a book you'll want to devour in one sitting.

I love reading, and love perfume. When I can combine the two I'm even happier. If anyone has any other suggestions for fragrant reads, please send them along. Leave a comment and let me know what you recommend. Happy reading!

Providence perfume Co. makes and sells natural fragrances.