A Noseful Of Ghosts: Beware Of Phantom Notes!

Whatever you do, don't inhale!

Typically when people enter the world of fine fragrance, their initial exposure to its technical aspects involves the concept of "notes." Anyone who has seen the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer recalls Dustin Hoffman mentioning notes to his criminal protégé. They are the fundamental building blocks with which the complex accords and dynamics of perfumes are made. One would think that those building blocks are actually "aroma chemicals," but that depends on your orthodoxy. If you're staying true to the "Perfume Is Art" narrative, you don't want to hear about aroma chemicals. You want to spend hours whittling away with the tired old saw that perfume is, by default, artifice. Therefore, mentioning the artificial materials used to compose perfumes is redundant.

Likewise, those who subscribe to the "Perfume Is Design" school of thought are primarily interested in avoiding the tedious parsing of chemical lists, favoring instead the more enlightening descriptions of what such lists are intended to impart. But unlike the first group, the "design" crowd isn't averse to acknowledging important and innovative steps using specific synthetics, like Hedione, Musk Ambrette, Dihydromyrcenol. Recognizing and naming raw materials is part of understanding the function of perfume, for design is merely a functional aesthetic.

And so the newcomer ventures into the tangled forest of purported notes, usually listed by cosmetic companies as advertising copy for their products, or on Fragrantica, which has a note pyramid feature that is democratically voted upon by members. Some can go their whole lives without ever questioning these things, and perhaps are all the better for it, but others express skepticism, confusion, and concern. Reading about notes is not inherently troubling, but forming expectations can be, especially if investments are made for the sole purpose of experiencing something later found to be absent.

How does this problem manifest? It usually begins with reading reviews. A fragrance is sought after, so people read about it. Perhaps it isn't sought after by many, but at least a few read about it. Then the purchase is made, and the perfume is worn, and hey, what gives? Where's the sandalwood? Where's the pineapple? Where's the civet? And that's when things get ugly. Instead of entertaining the possibility that these notes were being misidentified by prior noses, people begin to chant the mantra: "reformulation . . . reformulation . . . reformulation . . . "

There is a simple way to avoid becoming this sort of mindless zombie. Instead of endlessly repeating the "R" word and staggering through overgrown fields with your arms out in front of you, you might try considering the true source of your ire. Hint: it ain't the perfume. More than likely it's the guy or gal who wrote about the perfume. Either their nose is touched, or there's something wrong with their bottle in particular, but the likelihood that a reformulation has zeroed out the desired notes is very slim (though certainly a possibility). I can tell you from personal experience that I get very annoyed with people who claim to literally smell expensive materials like sandalwood in blatantly cheap fragrances - and I say "literally" as opposed to "figuratively," because claiming to smell a sandalwood note is not the same thing. Saying you smell a "sandalwood note" isn't troubling in itself, unless the note is nonexistent. In many cases though, readers expect a level of quality in a fragrance that never existed in the first place.

When a reviewer claims there's sandalwood in a composition that couldn't possibly have any real sandalwood in it, and there really isn't any in there, that results in people seeking the "vintage formula" of the scent, in the hopes that they will experience the supposedly high quality materials of yesteryear that have theoretically been replaced by unimpressive synthetics in subsequent releases. Consider how sandalwood is described in this excerpt from a review of vintage Zino by "ericrico" on Fragrantica:

"A huge blast of patchouli, warm vanilla, great wood (more prominent, rich sandalwood and dusty rosewood) along with a great cedar note strengthens the deep, dark and dank base of 'stewed' florals."

In this case, "ericrico" is describing what this perfume exudes, neglecting to use the word "notes" in the description of anything except cedar, and implying that the composition actually contains these things. Now consider this excerpt from a review of Aubusson Pour Homme, also on Fragrantica:

"This smells natural and it's somewhat dry; it's definitely not too sweet. Over time a nice sandalwood note emerges. Don't expect heavy patchouli, moss, or leather notes; this is more of a warm weather scent."

In the excerpt for Zino, readers are being led by the use of the adjective "rich" to believe that sandalwood inhabits the chemical structure. Sandalwood oil is rich. If the sandalwood in Zino is rich, there must be sandalwood oil in Zino. But in the excerpt for Aubusson PH, we're told "A sandalwood note emerges." Sandalwood, even synthetic sandalwood, is typically a basenote, and rich by default. Rich notes don't emerge; rich notes are laid bare with time. They're there to begin with, and subtler, hungrier impressions emerge from and exist around them. For example, from natural Indian sandalwood come hints of pepper, amber, cream, incense, and rose. These are more usefully called "facets," which I'll get to in a bit. Here I'll just say that a good, prominent sandalwood oil, when it is infusing a sandalwood profile in a scent, allows other subtler scent impressions to come forth. Richness is the forest from which wolves wander.

These scent descriptions are unintentionally deceptive to readers. In the case of the Zino review, the writer suggests that there is a certain kind of "richness" to Zino, a quality that exists in a far different form than the one described. As I mentioned in February, there were some clever and relatively new synthetics being used when this fragrance was made, and the scent seems to possess at least one of them. While by no means a "mild" or "weak" scent, Zino is not an expensive and luxurious composition, although it certainly exhibits a level of sophistication that makes it a terrific value. To suggest to readers that it contains "rich sandalwood" is to lead them astray, for no such richness exists. Zino merely has a smooth blend of woody notes, those abstract accents of wood-like smells that together form a coherent impression of wood. Discerning noses know there are no lucid wood oils to be found.

In the excerpt for Aubusson PH, readers are led to believe that a "sandalwood note" exists in the scent. This is a sin of a different kind. While the Zino reviewer was wrong to suggest that natural sandalwood inhabited Zino, namely because it doesn't, this reviewer is wrong to assert that the possibly synthetic analog of the same note exists in Aubusson, for the same reason. There is no sandalwood note in Aubusson PH. That is to say specifically, there is no detectable synthetic analog of sandalwood in the composition!

I smell a clearly synthetic, nondescript, and very smooth woody musk note in the far drydown of Aubusson PH, for the record. Now, one could surmise that there is a sandalwood note, and that readers might not smell it for other reasons, but that blames the victim. Aubusson is actually a better scent than Zino on a few levels; while the Davidoff scent does possess a sprightly fern element with eerie lavender special effects of rosewood and sandalwood analogs, Aubusson spins fruity and musky notes into a more interesting cinnamon-spiced amber for even less money, and at the same level of quality. It contains the suggestion of Krizia Uomo's dense cedar and castoreum notes, but there is no impression of sandalwood, real or fake, to be gleaned from it.

Readers seeking sandalwood might read the aforementioned review, buy Aubusson, and be sorely disappointed that there isn't this facet to the composition, particularly if they're fans of sandalwood. There's no doubt the reviewer smelled what they thought was sandalwood in this composition, but I'm afraid it must be classified as a "phantom note" in this context.

Often "phantom notes" are pushed by companies and impartial reviewers as being confounding elements in simple compositions. Consider Caron Pour un Homme, one of the simplest fougères ever made. It is primarily lavender, vanilla, and musk, with very little else. Indeed, these are the only notes listed on Fragrantica. The top note of Caron PuH is mostly lavender, but basenotes mentions notes of lavender, rosemary, bergamot, and lemon. I smell the rosemary and the slightest twinge of bergamot, and will concede that although I don't smell it, lemon essence may be used as well. My bottle is a vintage from the nineties, by the way.

Once we get into the heart notes, I smell only a high quality vanilla touched with slightly urinous musk, and nothing else. Basenotes claims there is "clary sage, rose, rosewood, cedarwood," but no. Now the pyramid has gone from being descriptive to being sensational. I think this has happened because vanilla is not simple. Vanilla is a rather complex note. It's isn't the sugary sweetness found in many contemporary designer scents. Good vanilla has facets. And facets aren't the same as notes.

I remember when my nose became good at detecting notes. I realized that notes aren't the end of the road, because individual notes, when rendered with good materials, can be very complex. A good vanilla note has a bit of a crisp bourbon characteristic, a little dried fruitiness, a warm tonka edge, and a spicy twinge to it.

High quality lavender is also complex. It has a fruity quality, a metallic mint quality, and a warm-biscuit quality, a natural extension of its coumarin content. If you account for the boozy spiced warmth of vanilla, with all facets identified, and mate it to the fried ice cream of lavender, two notes suddenly seem like seven. You can pretend there are seven in the fragrance, but five of them are phantoms, and it behooves you to clarify your impressions to naïve readers. I was recently told that there's a bit of a sage note in Caron. Honestly, I never smelled sage in any iteration of the scent. And I'm particularly sensitive to sage, so I'd say its presence in Caron is also phantom-like.

One more thing to understand with notes is that no fragrance can be reduced to its notes and retain its identity. Fragrances are compositions, not stacks of notes. Some notes may poke out at you more than others, and some notes may possess complexities and facets that add yet more depth to a composition, but none of these things can be usefully separated from the overall abstract impression of the perfume itself. Most perfume companies know this, which is maybe why they don't take their own note pyramids very seriously, often resorting to descriptions that are pure fantasy (any of the Mugler or Dior pyramids, for example). It's not advised to read advertising and consider it a useful description of a fragrance. I've seen notes pyramids for mainstream perfumes that are phantoms from top to bottom.

Lastly I'll mention that none of the "notes" that I or any other reviewer mention actually exist as natural representations of the material they smell of. In Halston Z-14 there are prominent pine and moss notes, but they exist because of synthetics. I've said before that Z-14 smells like one of the most natural perfumes in existence (certainly in my collection), but that doesn't mean it's a natural composition. It's purely synthetic, with a small amount of natural materials mated to a larger quantity of lab-made chemicals that serve as representatives for smells in nature. Approach reviews with an understanding of this, and you'll never be led astray.


  1. I have to admit that I kind of enjoy some of the subjective fumbling that accompanies the attempt to analyze fragrance. That said, this is a useful guide to making oneself understood that I wish I’d read, twice, before ever reading (let alone writing – jeez!) a fragrance review. One question though, regarding facets (and this could be in regard to sage in Caron, perhaps, as when I recently smelled a sprig of sage I’d just picked from my garden I swear it smelled, in the heart where the leaves met the stem, a bit musky, salty and - weird, I know- vanilla-like), and that is regarding the overlapping of like facets from different notes resulting in a kind of olfactory homophony.

    Visualize a venn diagram of overlapping facets that occurs in the interplay of notes in Eau Sauvage… Basil can be a lot of things: I might describe it as licorice-like (especially Thai basil), milky, fruity, green-pea, and a lemony in a way that can be bit metallic (thin and tinny) at times. Neroli can be tinny too, and both it and basil possess an emerging, suavely welcoming quality that offsets this. Factor in hedione (as you've mentioned) a citric-smelling molecule derived from jasmine that helps move things from the metallic edge to the suave welcoming without ever being ‘sweet’ per se. The overall effect – neither astringently citric nor luridly floral (I’ve only ever gotten a kind of dog-breathy indole feeling from Eau Sauvage when working up a sweat that was equal parts nerves and exertion, so maybe that was just me) is in the shadings and staging of these overlapping facets.

    I’ve become interested this notion lately, as I’ve been looking at Fahrenheit, which I wore regularly for a year or two in the early 90’s. I’m glad I have solid experience with this vintage on which to base my (so far mostly favorable) impressions of the current product. Was there ever a fragrance more confusing to approach from the perspective of reviews? Aside from all of the fussing over reformulations and excessive batch code accounting, there is the Fahrenheit’s status as an iconic masculine from an era of flamboyance and transition… For every review that tries to (accurately or inaccurately) account for and analyze notes, there are others crammed end of end with open-ended, all-caps hyperbole. I think another reason for the confusion surrounding this particular fragrance is that Fahrenheit’s profile is so much the product of overlapping facets: thus the ‘gasoline’, the ‘leather’, the dizzying, rather needy floral notes and the woody, lucid warmth, and the way this ‘facet-stacking’ seems to meld stylized, synthetic, beckoning accords that are almost-abstractions to form a further, overarching abstract signature (retro-futurist aspirational urban fougère) - or am I just another person confused by this composition?

    1. Faceted notes tend to be clearer the simpler the composition is. Caron's is a very simple and direct perfume, while Fahrenheit is much more complex. The melding you speak of is a result of good balance between accords (kinetic note clusters) and is not about notes, at least not to the degree you're talking about. The nose can only smell so much.

      Revisit Grey Flannel for a clearer idea of why Fahrenheit works. Beene's scent is the simpler DNA of the Dior.

  2. Whew!
    Just got back from sniffing my way from Delhi to Moscow to Miami.
    I haven't been back to 'civilization' for like 4 yrs.
    I guess I didn't miss much but the blandness that seems to be the prevailing theme being pushed by the fragrance industry nowadays. LOTS of 'blah'.
    I did learn that the Russkis LOVE fine fragrance! Like everything from Amouage to Escentric Molecules to Clive Christian to Ajmal to Byredo to Juliette Has a Gun to Xerjoff & so on- and this was just at the airport. Creed & Frederic Malle were strangely absent though. No bargains to be had in the Russian duty free zone except for one - Houbigant's 2012 reentry into prestige fragrance "Orangers En Fleurs" was only $80 at Sheremetyevo when it usually retails at $190-$160 at Neiman Marcus & Sak's & such. I did have a blast & the Russian duty free salespersons were quite generous with samples of 'fumes I would never spend so much $ on.
    Miami, (as far as fragrance goes anyway), was a bit of a dud. I was expecting to find a lot of the more tropical/ Yes, there was Escada, Tommy Bahama, Salvatore Ferragamo, & JLo's boring crap - but not even Comptoir Sud Pacifique, Jean Patou or even a decent tiare like Parfums de Nicolai or Montale. BORING. When I asked the saleslady at the duty free shop in MIA she pointed me to the CVictoria's secret display. BORING.
    PS - I sniffed about 7-8 of Robert Montale's collection- EW. I was shocked that they weren't just meh but absolutely RANK.


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