Choose Your Own Smell-venture?
September 13, 2012 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Need the archetypal examples of various fragrance families, as well as a place to sample 'em on the cheap.

Now that I'm a grown-ass woman, I've decided that it's time to find my own signature fragrance. However, I am daunted by the vast (and pricey) array of options out there. I know that I can order decanted samples of various fragrances on Lucky Scent, The Perfumed Court, eBay, etc. - however, that only reduces the amount of cash I'll hemorrhage, NOT the number of potential perfumes to try.

What I'd like to know is this:

- What is/are THE classic examples of various genres of perfume? I know that there are various fragrance "families" (woody, floral, etc.) and I know that there are less-formal families ("stuff my grandma would've worn", "stuff teenyboppers wear", etc). To put it in SAT terms... "Bitches Brew" : Jazz :: [Particular Fragrance] : [Particular Perfume Family]

- I'm looking to smell nice for a man - namely, my man. I've already tried a lot of scents from BPAL, and while I adore them, his response to each 'n every one of 'em has been "hmmmn... smells like... Goth girl. But, um, not in a BAD way, honey!..." Ergo: scents that guys tend to enjoy a plus, heavy/incense-y/Gothy scents apparently NOT a plus.

- Any tips on how I should conduct my perfume hunt? Thus far, I've been utilizing the "select BPAL imp at random, smear on body, wait to see if boyfriend is unable to resist freaking me nasty" method, but this seems... unscientific. Should I be narrowing things down by fragrance note? Should I be doing something else I am totally unaware of?

Thanks, Hive!
posted by julthumbscrew to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (19 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
There are many hardcore perfumistas who could take several hours answering that question. It's kind of like asking "what's a classic example of a Pinot Noir" to a wine fan.

However, for a well-edited set of straightforward recommendations from a long-time perfume reviewer, try Katie Puckrick's Fume Finder app.

Short answer:
Aldehydic Floral: Chanel No. 5
Oriental: Shalimar
Stuff Teenyboppers wear: Pink Sugar
posted by matildaben at 11:48 AM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and here's an article to help you get a sense of the various fragrance families .
posted by matildaben at 11:49 AM on September 13, 2012

Response by poster: Hmmn, good point... I guess I'm looking for a non-challenging, "Idiot's Guide" for a total perfume novice. Like, if a mid-priced chain restaurant offered a flight of "sampler" Pinots... THAT'S the kind of perfume guidance I'm looking for! :-)
posted by julthumbscrew at 11:50 AM on September 13, 2012

The Perfumed Court offers decants of many many fragrances. Here's their article about fragrance families. Here are beginners' samplers by note and type.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:02 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

BTW, Surrender To Chance was started by 2 of the former partners in The Perfumed Court, and is at this time a more reliable source than TPC is now. Here is a link to their Beginner's Sampler Sets. There are still quite a lot, but I'd suggest the Beginner Niche and Classic sampler set. If you're interested in learning about perfume history, the Guy Robert Selects Best Perfume Masterpieces sampler set is good.

This article from Bois de Jasmin is also a great beginner's guide on how to choose a perfume.
posted by matildaben at 12:03 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best way I know of to test perfumes in person is to just go to a Sephora and use their little sample spray papers. Maybe do a little research online beforehand (or bring a smartphone) to look up the notes of a few perfumes you like.

Perfume finding is pretty unscientific, if only because everyone's body reacts differently to different scents. My friend's perfume smells absolutely amazing on her and on me it smells like BO; it's nearly impossible to tell what will smell good on you without trying it.
posted by sonmi at 12:03 PM on September 13, 2012

Perfume is going to cost the same no matter where you buy it. (Don't get all hung up in a cheap, flog off place. Could be counterfeit, could be discontinued.)

Hit Saks, or Macy's or Nordstrom, a place with a HUGE selection. A good place will have coffee for you to sniff between smells. You can bring a few beans just in case. I find the folks at Nordstrom to be very knowledgable and helpful.

Do you know what kinds of scents that you like?

Citrus: O D'Lancome (lemony), Calyx-Prescriptives, (Grapefruit) Love these for summer, not too heavy.

Oriental: Cinnabar (Estee Lauder), Youth Dew (Estee Lauder), Opium (YSL) Dior Addict. These are all heavy, grandma kinds of scents, but I wore the hell out of them back in the day.

Floral: This is the most popular right now. You've got floral families, rose, lily, jasmine, etc. I'm allergic to most flowers, so this doesn't work for me.

Green: Chanel 19 (on its way to being discontinued--BOO!) Estee (Estee Lauder), Lauren (Ralph Lauren-although I always think of it as smelling purple)

If you like purer fragrance, try Jo Malone. They use a lot of botanical oils in their fragrances.

So now you know what it smells like in the bottle, now you have to get some to try on your actual skin. That's where the rubber meets the road. Nordstrom will be generous with the samples.

Frangrances have styles, just like clothing. I'm rotating 3 right now and they're getting harder and harder to find. (Chanel 19, Lauren and O D'Lancome.) I'm right at the edge between, "It's MY scent" and "Whew, grandma, when are you going to ditch My Sin?"
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:33 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've read in a few places that the scents that (most) men are most attracted to are vanilla-based. In my extremely unscientific research this seems to be true. Would he go perfume shopping with you, maybe?
posted by PaulaSchultz at 2:06 PM on September 13, 2012

Ah, sigh, yes, perfume. The Perfumed Court (looks like there is related and better option in the comments above) is great, because they sort their samples into categories. And it sounds like, since you are familiar with BPAL, you should probably avoid all the mall and department store counters and head directly into niche perfume category in any event. My favorite store is Lucky Scent, they sell samples, and I tend to just intuitively pick a selection when I have some money. They also have a pretty decent page sorting some of their collection.

Katie Puckrik does some very inspired and educated reviews of fragrance. You can find her on youtube.
posted by nanook at 2:13 PM on September 13, 2012

I think of perfumes as colors.

Pink is floral/fruity. Cotton candy. Cupcakes.
Green is herbs, leaves, cut grass
Yellow is citrus-- crisp & fresh
Medium Brown is leather, trees, amber, pine resin
Dark Brown is spice, vanilla, chocolate
Orange is animal musk-- fierce, bright & harsh
Purple is incense, patchouli, complex disturbing fragrances

Most men's perfumes fall in the Green or Medium Brown families. Axe body washes fall into Orange or Purple.
posted by ohshenandoah at 3:57 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Although I wear perfume, I actually prefer the scent of a natural man to one who wears aftershave. Maybe this is the case with your significant other-he may just prefer the way you smell naturally to any perfume.
posted by Jandoe at 5:33 PM on September 13, 2012

Get thee hence to your library/bookstore/online purveyor of choice NOW AND ORDER THIS:

Perfumes, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. It is pretty much the Bible of scent, especially for those who are getting their feet wet in the heady 'fumesphere.

I also very strongly recommend visiting and scavenging their sidebar - everything they sell is sorted by major note, and the descriptions of each offering are very cool.

MAJOR BONUS: You can order everything by samples of .07 size vials - usually starting at 3 bucks a toss and going up to 5 for the real top shelf scent.

Broad stroke recommendations on scent famlies:

For spicy/autumnal/woodsy notes - go with Andy Tauer's line or some of Serge Lutens.
For aquatics - anything sold at the frag counter (especially the men's counter) at Your Favorite Department Store will do. Think Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, etc. My personal favorite is from Parfums di Nicolai, entitled New York.

For citrusy stuff - the old French house of Balmain is one of my all-time favorites. Monsieur Balmain is technically a man's cologne, but it is also a holographic representation of Exact Lemon and it's fantastic for Spring/Summer or any time you want a serious pick-me-up.

For incense/smoky/wintry notes - again, Andy Tauer rules the school here. Go to luckyscent. com and pick up a sample of Incense Extreme and/or Incense Rose. Comme des Garcons has a well-known line of incenses from various points around the world which are hypnotic and very serene to wear. BONUS: They also are well-known for offering seriously off-the-map type scents like Copier Toner if memory serves.

You might also enjoy any fragrance with a strong backbone of vetiver if the wintry/incense angle appeals to you.

For other cool online sites to learn from, go to (it's an online database of scent notes and perfumes),, and of course,

Lastly, as a cheap and fun palate cleanse from all of the above, check out Demeter Fragrances. They don't so much follow the perfume families as do off-the-cuff impersonations of things everyone loves to smell: want to smell like your favorite tropical adult drink? They have it. Want to smell like a walking Christmas Tree? They've got you covered.

If nothing else, you can also go to any Sephora store and you get three freebie samples of any perfume they sell gratis.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 5:53 PM on September 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've gotten into fragrances over the past few years and a book I've found helpful is Perfumes by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. History, chemistry, and reviews all in one place and what I consider the idiot's guide. It is a few years old, but it is a starting place.

For an affordable start, Estee Lauder fragrances are both inexpensive and high quality. Azuree is one of the last good leathers, Cinnabar is similar to Opium but less expensive and a little lighter, and Youth Dew is just interesting. They also make Calyx (quality fruity floral clean) because they own the old Prescriptives label, but I don't think they sell it at the Lauder counters.

Nordstrom lets you have samples of anything. Bring a sharpie to label them.

If you get really interested, or want truly expert help, an actual perfume shop, usually one that isn't part of a big chain, is the best place to go. It looks like there are several good places to go in Philadelphia. If you can find a place that has the older Guerlains like Vol de Nuit, Mitsouko, and L'Heure Bleu ( my personal favorite) I highly reccomend them as sexy classic adult and somewhat unusual because of their rarity in the US.
posted by monopas at 6:05 PM on September 13, 2012

Boyfriend is right; pretty much everything at BPAL smells like Goth girl.

As noted above, Sephora will decant you three small samples for free. If you buy an atomizer (~$10), they will fill it with the fragrance of your choice gratis. They also sell nifty sampler sets that come with 5-10 miniature perfume bottles and a gift certificate to redeem for a full bottle of the one you like best.

Hands down, the cheapest way to get crazy expensive samples is Aedes de Venustas -- they will send you 7 samples for $15 post paid. They don't carry everything, but the do carry some super premium brands like Amouage, Serge Lutens, Different Company, Histoires de Perfumes, etc. Buying 7 luxury/niche samples from a place like Perfumed Court would easily set you back $50 or more, so definitely get your 7 from Aedes first!

2nding Monopas on Nordstrom -- they actually leave out giant glass cylinders full of little sample bottles for you to walk around and make your own from the testers on offer. No interaction with sales assistant necessary! It's amazing!

I find Perfumed Court very draggy in mailing -- not unusual to wait 3+ weeks for an order to arrive. Some people from TPC left to form their own sample business, Surrender to Chance. Basically the same selection, but oh so much quicker. Oh, and I see it already mentioned above!

Two places online that I know are happy to make very specific recommendations: the fragrance board at MakeupAlley and the Monday Mail at Now Smell This.
posted by apparently at 6:51 PM on September 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I just got an order from Perfumed Court today - they sent it nine days ago, and I am in Australia. I have always found them to be wonderfully helpful and quick. And they send sweets with their orders!

I read around the perfume blogs (google: perfume blogs) to get a sense of what's around and what people think of them. Mostly I find perfume makes my head hurt (and I can taste it) but I do like to read about it. And I buy things for my husband.
posted by thylacinthine at 7:36 PM on September 13, 2012

Good advice already and here's another suggestion: Posset's Perfumes. You can spend hours reading her descriptions on her various offerings but I suggest ordering a sample pack of whatever interests you the most. She also includes a huge sample pack with every order, usually between 8-10 different scents. It's a good way to be exposed to things you may never think of trying. Personal example: I thought I hated amber as a dominant note, but I fell in love with one of the scents included in the free samples, and was surprised that this was a blend of nothing but different types of resins, with several different types of amber.

Also in my personal experience, if you find a perfume that you love, buy as much as you can afford because scents are discontinued all the time.
posted by luneray at 9:15 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

What lunersay says! Another thing about treasured scents, due to international laws about which ingredients are decent to use in the making of perfume, many great fragrances are "reformulated" and the results are definitely hit or miss.

If you find something you like, hold on to it! Many of the best and most venerable fragrances have been reformulated into pale, sad versions of themselves. Caron's Tabac Blond being the most handy example.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 2:42 AM on September 14, 2012

I'vbe had good service from, which are an offshoot of The Perfumed Court, and more reasonable for international shipping. I am too busy/lazy to head to department stores and when I do, all the smells linger together.

Both STC and TPC do family fragrance packs. It's tricky to get your head around - I'm still not good at picking out notes - but if you're familiar with any of the perfumes there, it helps. You have Sephora where you are, you lucky thing - they stock a good range of everything so you can try things there for no cost. Like Demeter. I hate you. The only issue is that perfume counters don't give out samples and I like to try things when I don't have body lotion/spray/fragrance already on. (Nordstrom sounds like it has the right idea - this would be awesome. In the UK they look at you like you're trying to shoplift the testers if you ask for a sample.)

If you like BPAL, I'd highly recommend checking out niche lines rather than mainstream fragrances (the stuff you get in department stores). Comme Des Garcons do a range of incense based scents, Serge Lutens 'Fil des Aiguilles' is a nice sweet pine, Le Labo do florals and spices which are slightly masculine as well, and Bvlgari Black is dirt cheap these days and is a very quirky, smoky vanilla. (If you know BPAL Stimulating Sassafras Strengthener, it's a more complex version.) I find a lot of current releases to be very sweet and samey, because the fruity/floral thing sells well at the moment, so don't be afraid of something unknown or old-fashioned looking. And as it's far cheaper where you are, CB I Hate Perfume do some really intriguing scents - I love Black March, it smells like a woodland after spring rain.

As others have said, vanilla is popular amongst men (I used to douse myself in the stuff as a teenager) so that could be a family to try. (Vanillas, like spices and fruit, are classed as 'gourmands'.) For me, teenage perfumes are things like Angel, Miss Dior Cherie, the floral Marc Jacobs lines, and the 3200 celebrity perfumes we seem to have in the UK which all smell like tropical-themed fabric conditioner to me. If you smell Taylor Swift's perfume, then try something like Guerlain's Shalimar, you'll get an idea of how different they are.

Perfumes: The Guide is a fun book, but I find it slightly intimidating and I disagree with them strongly on a couple of fragrances, even if other reviews led me to favourites. I'd supplement it with perfume blogs - Now Smell This is a good one and very accessible.
posted by mippy at 6:15 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also - what BPAL do you like? Maybe we can suggest something similar?
posted by mippy at 6:19 AM on September 14, 2012

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