Perfumes are complex compositions of chemical compounds and synthetic or natural ingredients. Their true formulae are closely-guarded secrets. However, even if they were made known to the public, they would be almost incomprehensible.
Instead, the complex arrangement of a fragrance’s different aromas is broken down using musical metaphors and vivid imagery. Rather than explore the fragrance’s literal composition, enthusiasts describe the sensual experience it provides.
Perfumery is not unlike wine in that sense. Even for amateurs, the joy is discovering the bouquet and identifying its character.
In this guide, you will explore the enigmatic perfume pyramid. To better understand how it works, you will learn about concepts such as notes, accords, life-cycles and volatility.
Jump straight to a section or continue scrolling to read more:
- Fragrance Notes & Accords
- Fragrance Volatility & Life-Cycle
- What Is A Perfume Pyramid?
- Perfume Pyramid Drawbacks
- Alternative Fragrance Structures
- Perfume Pyramid Controversy
What Are Fragrance Notes & Accords?
Musical terminology is commonly used in perfumery as a metaphor for how a fragrance comes together. Notes are each of the different identifiable smells that make a fragrance. When these play off one another to make a harmony of aromas, they are referred to as accords.
Notes described should not be taken literally but they are aromatic interpretations drawn from the chemical compounds. Similarly, they are quite subjective. Enthusiasts can often heatedly debate on the presence or absence of notes in a fragrance.
Fragrance Volatility & Life-Cycle
Have you noticed how a perfume doesn’t smell the same throughout the day? This is because you can’t smell all of a fragrance’s notes at any one time.
The different compounds used to devise the notes have different levels of volatility, which are sometimes referred to as coefficients.
This is caused by the skin’s heat and the way a fragrance dries and evaporates off it. The compounds in a fragrance evaporate at different speeds rather than all at the same time. As this happens, the fragrance reveals different notes to the wearer.
The first notes that you can smell are considered the most volatile because they quickly fade away. Once they’re gone, something else seeps through and takes it places.
The process continues as the notes diffuse until you reach last layer of notes that tenaciously lingers for hours. This is often referred to as a fragrance’s life-cycle.
A life-cycle is quite simply the way a fragrance “cycles” through its life. It is the succession of notes until the perfume expires completely. Certain fragrances cycle through their notes one after the other in a straight-forward way. Other fragrances can be quite complex as their notes will overlap with one another to form different accords.
What Is A Perfume Pyramid?
An olfactory, fragrance or perfume pyramid is a concept used to visualise a fragrance’s life-cycle. The different notes are classed by their volatility to create a clear distinction between each phase.
These are arranged into 3 groups from the most to least volatile:
1. Head Notes
These are the first notes perceived after applying a perfume. They consist of the most volatile compounds, which evaporate very quickly. Head notes are short-lived but strong and sharp. They introduce the wearer to the fragrance and serve as first impressions.
2. Heart Notes
As the head notes fade, the heart notes tend to emerge. These are transitory notes that linger as the base comes noticeable. They are usually designed to hide base notes, which take a while to mature and can be unpleasant at first.
3. Base Notes
Base notes are the foundation of a fragrance. They are long-lasting aromas that usually form accords with the heart notes. Base notes are what provides a fragrance’s longevity and can usually last for hours.
The notes are then stacked on top of each other like layers, which serve to indicate the life-cycle’s chronology. This takes the form of a triangle but is colloquially referred to as a pyramid.
Each layer metaphorically supports by the one above it. The time between each phase varies drastically between fragrances, which relies on the different compounds and their volatility.
Some types of compounds have similar properties and their volatility can classed together. This can provide a better idea of what to expect from particular fragrances from different families.
Below is an expanded perfume pyramid that has been filled with different note types and a few examples.
If you are already familiar with the concept of olfactive families, you will notice that they are often partly or entirely grouped together. However, this is a general rule of thumb.
Some compounds of a particular fragrance family may be similarly sourced. However, their origins are not always the same.
Perfume Pyramid Drawbacks
The perfume pyramid is far from a perfect model. It serves as a concept for simplifying and visualising a fragrance’s character.
The system came into being long ago as a marketing tool for perfumers to present their concoctions to the public. At the time, most perfumes followed a simple three-tied French model.
However, not all perfumes are built on the same structure. Some are indeed pyramidal but constructed over more than three tiers with several transitions. These can be challenging to sum up into a conventional pyramid.
Alternative Fragrance Structures
Not to be confused with a linear life-cycle, linear fragrances are composed of only one or two notes. They are designed to stay the same from start to finish with the individual notes working together as an accord.
Kaleidoscopic fragrances are a tapestry of various notes. These colourful compositions don’t phase conventionally but are erratic tableaux of several complex accords of notes working in harmony.
Baseless Or Headless
These are fragrances that make lack either a head or base note. The move is usually intentional. Traditional colognes are good examples of baseless fragrances as they are designed to be fleeting scents. Some fragrances are designed without a head to the opposite effect.
Undulating fragrances come at you in recurring waves of notes, which phase in and out. Sometimes the effect is incidental and an illusion caused by using similar smelling notes in the head and heart.
Nevertheless, the logic of a perfume pyramid can still be applied to most fragrances. Even if a fragrance features undulating or kaleidoscopic properties, the chances are it will fit into a pyramid. Alternatively, baseless or headless fragrances find themselves with only two tiers, which is still a rarity.
Perfume Pyramids: A Controversy?
Some experts argue against using pyramids as they can be misleading. They believe that they encourage the misconception that the contents of a pyramid are also the contents of a bottle.
Other experts claim that all notes are perceivable at the moment of spraying anyway. Furthermore, even if there are transitions, they are numerous. The head, heart, base concept arguably restricts a fragrance to solely a three-part experience.
Nevertheless, perfume pyramids are effective tools as long as the distinction is made between the concept of a fragrance and its true ingredients. The Bespoke Unit Fragrance Formula incorporates a fragrance pyramid as a way to effectively visualise a fragrance’s note composition during reviews. Furthermore, this helps to classify and categorise the reviewed fragrances for reference.
Occasionally modern perfumers sometimes break away from the conventional model as described above. Still, by visually summarising the experience, it becomes far easier to present, discuss and analyse it in-depth.
After having learned about perfume pyramids, develop your knowledge even further by exploring the different fragrance families. Otherwise, learn how to try or test a fragrance to put your skills to practical use.