Look at most perfume reviews or try to describe your favorite cologne to a friend and you'll discover that you can only really talk about one smell in terms of another. Perfumes may be described as being musky or floral or having bergamot top notes.
If you're a perfume lover, you know what those things smell like, even if you have no idea what a bergamot is. But if you're new to the world of fragrance, it can be confusing.
To truly appreciate perfume, you need to know some basic ingredients. Bergamot, for instance, is one of many varieties of citrus. Citrus scents (lemon, orange, grapefruit and others) are sometimes grouped into a fragrance family called "fresh."
Florals come in lots of types and it takes a pretty educated schnozzola to truly distinguish between gardenias and tuberoses and tulips and iris and magnolias and all of the other different flowers that find their way into perfume bottles. Perfume makers usually blend numerous floral scents together. To get the bouquet effect, try Joy by Jean Patou or Eternity by Calvin Klein.
Some perfumes use one flower or make one floral note utterly dominant. Very Irresistable by Givenchy is a rose perfume; it uses lots of different types of roses to get some nice harmony going, but it's rose. The old-time Muguet de Bois by Coty was lily of the valley.
Many popular scents right now use fruity notes: peach, watermelon, guava, and so on. The newest Bond No. 9 perfume, Coney Island, smells like Margarita mix. Other food-like scents borrow notes of chocolate (Angel by Thierry Mugler), coffee (Harlem by Bond No. 9), and sugar (Sugar by Fresh).
More common perfume ingredients include sandalwood, patchouli, musk, and amber. These typically form the base notes or foundation of the scent. Most fragrances are built in three time-release layers. Top notes are experienced first, then fade into mellower heart notes, which finally dry down to the base notes. These layers are the reason that perfume can smell different after a few hours on your skin than it did in the bottle.
Spices and botanicals have long been an important mainstays in fragrance, and you can find scents with cinnamon, cardamom, cypress, and rosemary in them. These tend to be heavier, more dramatic scents.
Most perfumes today rely heavily on synthetic ingredients or lab-produced fragrance molecules. This allows not only for more uniform analogs (for instance, lab sandalwood smells the same batch to batch) but it has allowed creative aroma scientists to invent smells that are called things like "ozone" or "rain" or "fresh-cut grass."
The original synthetic ingredient in perfume had no natural counterpart. Aldehyde was an artificial scent, designed to be completely man-made. It found its way into Chanel No. 5, Evening in Paris, and other scents and is still used today. It frequently mixes with flowers and is often described in reviews as "sparkling."
What does aldehyde smell like? It cannot be described. A good way to find out is to go to a department store perfume counter and ask for a sample spray of Chanel No. 5. You'll probably smell the floral portion first. But notice the sparkles? The bubbly, not-really-floral smell? That's aldehyde.
Perfume reviewers typically name the dominant aromas in a perfume. They may describe the perfume in terms of top notes, heart notes, and base notes. Occasionally, a perfume reviewer will compare one scent to another.
Thus, for many perfume lovers, the description suffices. A critique is not necessary. After all, many of us have utterly subjective reactions to certain fragrance and a good perfume is in the nose of the beholder.
If you learn that Hanae Mori Butterfly is a woody Oriental fragrance with notes of strawberry, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, and almond, you should know if those things appeal to you. Personally, I am very partial to light Oriental fragrances and I love sandalwood, so this scent sounds good and the strawberry part makes me curious.
On the other hand, if you hear about Omnia Crystalline by Bvlgari and learn it is a light floral with bamboo and lotus, that describes a very different scent. Will you like it? That depends on how you feel about floral fragrances with some offbeat notes. (Sounds great to me.)
Perfume is a lot like music for the nose. There can be a lot of complexity in a great perfume that is not immediately apparent. The main notes are the melody; but what other layers support the melody line? Perfume reviews sometimes try to analyze how the perfume is "built."
Reviews can get even more descriptive. A review may call scents exuberant, airy, bold, sensual, or mysterious. That sort of description can be helpful in helping you to imagine what the perfume smells like. But it's sort of like the way some connoisseurs talk about wine ("bold," "impudent," or "robust"). If overdone, it starts to sound silly.
Many reviews characterize scents as mature or youthful, suitable for day or night, light or heavy. These are more like judgment calls and should be taken with a grain of salt. Just as we found out that you don't have to have red wine with beef, there are "scents for evening wear for mature ladies" that are being worn by kids in broad daylight.
A great perfume review is less like a criticism than a miniature portrait of a fragrance to help buyers understand what something smells like. That's actually a pretty difficult thing to capture in words!