The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English


I’ve described The Sniff Box as ‘perfume in plain English’, because my feeling is that too many men are put off buying fragrance for themselves because a lot of the language used in perfume reviews and marketing is pretty baffling unless you’re used to it.

In my own reviews I’ve tried to avoid using any terms that you wouldn’t find in everyday use. I think that even some of the most commonly used terms, such as ‘top notes’ and ‘middle notes’, are actually rather confusing, never mind when you get to things like ‘sillage’ and ‘Guerlinade’.

Still, it’s useful to have these terms explained, so I’m planning to add a short glossary as time goes on, which I’ll add to as words occur to me. Here are a few to start with.

When I was young, aftershave was what men wore; women wore perfume. I thought we’d got past such crude gender stereotyping by the 21st century, but I have one or two friends who still feel uncomfortable about the whole idea of perfume and refer (if they absolutely have to) to what they no doubt ‘splash on’ as aftershave. It may seem a harmless-enough synonym, like calling a woman’s shirt a blouse, but it also, unfortunately, adds to the fog of confusion that swirls around so many aspects of the perfume world, and leads many men astray. The word ‘aftershave’ was indeed invented – supposedly by American marketeers – to save nervous men from having to say the scary word ‘perfume’, but these days if you see the word on a bottle it generally refers to the concentration of the liquid inside. The industry uses a rough-and-ready grading system, with ‘aftershave’ being the weakest, wateriest solution, rising through eau de toilette and eau de parfum, with parfum being the strongest, least diluted (and most expensive) form of perfume.

The further away you can smell a perfume from the person who’s wearing it, the greater its projection can be said to be. Some perfumes are so discreet, and stay so close to the skin, that they have virtually no projection at all. Others are so strong they precede their wearer into a room. You might want to make a big entrance, or you may not want anyone else to know you’re even wearing perfume (though that seems slightly pointless to me), so when you’re choosing a perfume it’s important to take its strength into account, as well as whether you like its smell. Strong perfumes are great for cold weather and the great outdoors; discreet ones for close encounters and for meals with friends.

Not to be confused with silage (though some would say that silage has a perfume all of its own), sillage is a French term with no exact English equivalent, describing the trace a perfume leaves in its wearer’s wake.

These are probably the commonest terms that you see when you read about perfume, and they’re so endlessly repeated that not many perfume writers or copywriters really think what they mean. I think they’re actually really confusing terms, since when you think about it, how can a perfume have a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’ any more than it can have a width or a height (or for that matter a gender). Perfume is a smelly liquid, not an object or a person, after all. What ‘top note’ really refers to is the first thing(s) you smell when you first spray a perfume on – in other words, the most volatile ingredients, which evaporate most quickly, usually leaving little trace behind them, like the fresh, sharp citrus smells of lemon and lime. ‘Middle’ and ‘bottom’ notes are simply the less volatile, and therefore slower-to-evaporate ingredients, whose smells can last from a couple of hours to a day or more.

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