How Perfume Is Made

A few squirts of perfume can make anyone feel good and leave a lasting impression on others. People wear perfume for a variety of reasons: Some say it boosts confidence, some find it seductive and arousing, and some think it alters moods and memories. Today, the average bottle of perfume contains tens to hundreds of ingredients, many of which are synthetic. This makes finding the right one a daunting task. The perfect scent can be a matter of personal preference and could depend on the weather, your day’s vibe and even the mood you’re in at any given moment.

Fragrances have been around for thousands of years and were originally meant to emulate the pleasant smells of plants and animals. Ancient perfumers pressed, distilled, steamed and burned herbs, flowers and scented woods to create odour-evoking substances. The earliest perfumes also included animal secretions, such as musk from musk deer glands and ambergris (petrified sperm whale vomit). Modern synthetic fragrances are now used in place of these natural ingredients.

Today, a typical perfume contains a combination of a top note (the refreshing and volatile odour that is perceived at first), a middle note that adds full character and provides depth, and a base note, which is a long-lasting, rich odour and the main component of most perfumes. Perfumes are categorized by their dominant odours and can be placed in groups, such as floral (jasmine, rose and lily of the valley), oriental (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vetiver) or woody (cedarwood, sandalwood and moss).

Perfume briefs—the fragrance company’s instructions to the perfumer about what the fragrance should smell like—are often vague and artistic, such as “Give us the scent of a stroll through Palermo with lemon trees blooming over titanium raindrops.” The perfumer who interprets this request will create the best possible composition using a complex blend of raw materials.

The final perfume might include a mixture of natural and synthetic aroma chemicals, which are usually grouped according to their structural groupings, such as alcohols, esters, aldehydes and terpenes. The perfume may also contain fixatives, natural or synthetic substances that reduce the evaporation rate of perfume oils and increase their perceived intensity. Finally, the perfumer might use a solvent to help the perfume dissolve in the skin and disperse evenly.

Perfumes are sold in a range of sizes and price points, from $0.37 mini sprays to 3.4-ounce bottles costing more than $40. There are even special gift sets that include several different versions of the same scent, as well as smaller travel-sized bottles and a vanity box to make it easy to keep your favorite perfume at hand.