This glossary defines some commonly used terms in the world of perfume and fragrance.
For a list of perfumista slang, including some of the abbreviations you’ll see in the comments on this blog, see A Perfumista Lexicon.
Abelmosk: also known as Musk Mallow, and cultivated for its seeds, which are usually referred to as ambrette (see).
Absolute: also known as an essence, this is the material extracted from a plant or flower using one of various solvents.
Accord: a perfume accord is a balanced blend of notes which lose their individual identity to create a completely new, unified odor impression.
Agar wood: from the Aquilaria tree, and also called Oud or Aloes wood. The tree, when attacked by a common fungus, produces an aromatic resin that has long been used in the Middle East as a source of incense and perfume. Now considered endangered in the wild due to overharvesting, and modern oud fragrances frequently use synthetic substitutes.
Amber: in perfumery, this refers to accords developed using plant compounds (such as labdanum) or synthetics, and referred to as amber because they were originally meant to mimic the smell of ambergris (see below). For a more detailed explanation of the relationship between amber and ambergris, click here.
Ambergris: a sperm whale secretion. Sperm whales produce it to protect their stomachs from the beaks of the cuttlefish they swallow. Ambergris was traditionally used as a fixative, but in modern perfumery, ambergris is usually of synthetic origin (including the synthetic compounds ambrox, ambroxan (see), amberlyn). Ambergris is described as having a sweet, woody odor.
Today, the term “ambergris” is used nearly interchangeably with “amber” (see above) in lists of fragrance notes.
Animalic: refers to animal-derived ingredients such as civet, ambergris, musk, and castoreum. These are usually replaced by synthetics in modern perfumery. In large amounts, many of these notes are unpleasant, but in smaller amounts they provide depth and a sensual feel to a fragrance.
Anosmia: the inability to smell odors. Many people have selective anosmias, for instance, the inability to smell certain synthethic musks.
Artemisia: see Wormwood.
Attar: Attar is the English form of itr, the Arabic word for fragrance or perfume. A traditional attar is made from the distilled essence of floral or other fragrance materials in a base of sandalwood oil.
Baies de Genièvre: French for juniper berry.
Baies Rose: pink peppercorns, from the tree schinus molle, also known as the Peruvian or California pepper tree. These are actually dried berries and not “true” peppercorns, and you will sometimes see them listed as “pink berries”.
Balsam of Peru: a tree resin from Central America, so named because it was historically shipped from Peru. Balsam of Tolu is from a closely related species of tree grown farther south; both resins are said to smell like vanilla and cinnamon.
Benzoin: a balsamic resin from the Styrax tree. It has a sweet odor that is sometimes described as smelling like root beer.
Bergamot: the tangy oil expressed from the nearly ripe, nonedible bergamot orange (a variety of bitter orange). The oranges are grown mostly in Italy and are also used to flavor Earl Grey tea.
Bigarade: a variety of bitter orange, also known as Seville orange. The zest is used to make the bigarade note used in perfumery.
Calone: an aroma chemical that adds a “sea breeze” or marine note, and first used in large quantities in Aramis New West (1988).
Cannelle: French for cinnamon.
Cashmeran: an aroma chemical with a spicy, ambery, musky, floral odor. Meant to add a powdery, velvet nuance that invokes the smell or feel of cashmere. Often listed in fragrance notes as “cashmere woods”.
Cassie: floral note from acacia farnesiana (sweet acacia), a member of the mimosa family.
Cassis: black currant, or a liqueur made from black currant.
Castoreum: a secretion from the Castor beaver, or a synthetic substitute. Used to impart a leathery aroma to a fragrance.
Cedrat: French term for citron (see).
Champaca: a flowering tree of the magnolia family, originally found in India, also called the “Joy Perfume tree” as it was one of the main floral ingredients in that perfume. Traditionally used in Indian incense as well (see nag champa).
Chevrefeuille: French for honeysuckle.
Choya Nakh: a smoky aroma made from roasted seashells.
Chypre: pronounced “sheepra”, French for “Cyprus” and first used by François Coty to describe the aromas he found on the island of Cyprus. He created a woodsy, mossy, citrusy perfume named Chypre (launched by Coty in 1917). Classic chypre fragrances generally had sparkling citrus and floral notes over a dark, earthy base of oakmoss, patchouli, woods and labdanum. Modern chypre fragrances usually use less (or no) oakmoss because of regulatory restrictions; sometimes they use synthetic substitutes. See also Perfumista tip: on fragrance families.
Cistus: see Labdanum.
Citron: a citrus fruit tree (citrus medica), sometimes referred to as a cedrat lemon. It is not a true lemon, although it is related to both lemons and limes. The peel is the source of the note citron which is used in perfumery; the leaves and twigs are used to distill cedrat petitgrain.
Civet: the African civet cat looks like a fox, and is related to the mongoose. Civet musk is produced by a gland at the base of the cat’s tail. Pure civet is said to have a strong, disagreeable odor, but in small quantities to add depth and warmth to a fragrance. In addition, civet acts as an excellent fixative. Most modern fragrances use synthetic substitutes.
Clary sage: an herb of the salvia family; the essential oil is described as smelling sweet to bittersweet, with nuances of amber, hay and tobacco.
Clou de girofle: French for clove.
Coffret: a gift box or set. A coffret might include several fragrances, or a fragrance and matching body products.
Coumarin: a compound that smells like vanilla. Usually derived from the tonka bean (see Tonka bean), but also found in lavender, sweetgrass and other plants. Coumarin is banned as a food additive in the United States due to toxicity issues, but is used to produce anti-coagulant medicines, rat poison, and as a valuable component of incense and perfumes.
Cuir: French for leather.
Cypriol: an essential oil derived from the roots of Cyperus scariosus, aka Indian papyrus, aka nagarmotha grass. The term cypriol is sometimes used interchangeably with papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) in lists of perfume notes.
Elemi: a gum resin which introduces a light, fresh, balsamic-spicy, citrus-like scent.
Epices: French for spices.
Factice: a perfume bottle made for commercial display only — the contents are not actually perfume.
Flanker: a “sequel” fragrance that capitalizes on the success of a master brand or “pillar fragrance” (see). For instance, J Lo Glow was followed by the flanker scents Miami Glow and Love at First Glow. Many flankers are released as limited editions. Some flanker scents are variations on the original fragrance (i.e. they might share certain notes), others share nothing more than the name. Flankers are usually packaged in the same bottle as the original (or “pillar”) fragrance, but the bottle might be done in a different color or finish, or have different decoration.
New concentrations of existing perfumes are not usually considered flankers.
Fougère: one of the fragrance families (see Perfumista tip: on fragrance families); this one named after the French word for fern and established by the 1884 Houbigant fragrance Fougère Royale. Fougères center on an herbaceous accord that might include notes like lavender, coumarin, oakmoss, woods, and bergamot.
Frangipani: the common name for Plumeria, a tropical flower. Frangipani is also known as West Indian Jasmine (although botanically speaking it is not a member of the jasmine family), and is frequently used to make leis.
Frankincense: a gum resin from a tree (genus Boswellia) found in Arabia and Eastern Africa. It is harvested by making an incision in the bark; the milky juice leaks out and is left to harden over a period of months before it is collected. Also called Olibanum.
Galbanum: a gum resin that imparts a “green” smell.
Gourmand: in perfumery, describes fragrances which evoke food smells, such as chocolate, honey, or fruits.
Headspace technology: a method of “capturing” the odor of a substance using an apparatus resembling a bell-jar. This has allowed perfumers to mimic the notes of flowers, plants, and foods which do not lend themselves otherwise to extraction. The different fragrance & flavor companies have their own fragrance capture systems based on headspace technology, including ScentTrek (Givaudan), “Jungle Essence” (Mane), NaturePrint (Firmenich).
Heliotrope: botanically speaking, this refers to more than one type of flower, but in perfumery, it refers to a flowers of the family heliotropium, which are said to have a strong, sweet vanilla-like fragrance with undertones of almond.
Hesperidia: a general term for citrus oils.
Immortelle: aka everlasting flower aka strawflower; the latin name is helichrysum. Has a greenish, herbaceous, almost bitter smell.
Indole: a chemical compound which smells floral at low concentrations, fecal at high concentrations. Used widely in perfumery, also found naturally in some floral notes, such as jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom. The term “indolic” usually means that a fragrance has a decidedly overripe or animalic characteristic.
Iso E Super: an aroma chemical; described by International Flavors & Fragrances as “Smooth, woody, amber note with a ‘velvet’ like sensation. Superb floralizer. Used to impart fullness and subtle strength to fragrances.”
Karo Karounde: (sometimes karo karunde) a flowering shrub from Africa. The scent, which is apparently very potent in the wild, has been described as somewhat similar to jasmine, but woodier, spicier and more herbal. Found in L’Artisan Timbuktu, Etro Shaal Nur and Comme des Garcons Sequoia.
Khus: also khus khus. An Indian term for vetiver, or the oil derived from vetiver roots (see).
Licorice: a shrub native to Europe and Asia. The roots are used for candy and flavoring, and are said to be 50 times sweeter than sugar. Almost all licorice candy sold in the United States, however, is flavored with anethole, which is derived from anise (see).
Lignum Vitae: see Guaiac.
Mastic: aka lentisc, a plant resin from a small shrubby tree (Pistacia lentiscus), the collected raw resin crystals are called “mastic tears” or “chios tears”. Mastic is used as a seasoning in Turkey and Egypt and is known for its medicinal properties. It is used in perfume, varnish, and as a liqueur flavoring.
Monoi: the word means “scented oil”; in modern perfumery, this most always refers to tiare (gardenia) petals macerated in coconut oil. Sometimes called Monoi de Tahiti.
Mousse de Chêne: see Oakmoss.
Muguet: French for Lily of the Valley. The Italian term is “Mughetto”.
Myrrh: a gum resin produced from a bush found in Arabia and Eastern Africa.
Nag Champa: the name of a perfume oil originally made in the Hindu and Buddhist monasteries of India and Nepal and used to perfume incense. Traditionally made from a sandalwood base, to which are added a variety of flower oils, including that from the flower of the Champaca tree.
Neroli: an oil from the blossoms of either the sweet or bitter orange tree. True neroli is created using steam distillation, wheareas “orange blossom” is usually extracted with solvents. The Italian term for neroli is zagara.
Nose: a “nose”, or nez in French, is a person who mixes fragrance components to make perfume; another commonly used term is perfumer, or in French, parfumeur createur. There is a picture of a nose at her perfume organ on the parfumsraffy site.
Olibanum: see Frankincense.
Opoponax: also known as “sweet myrrh” and “bisabol myrrh”. Has a sweet, balsam-like, lavender-like fragrance when used as incense. King Solomon supposedly regarded opoponax as one of the “noblest” of all incense gums.
Orris: derived from the rhizome of the Iris plant.
Oud: Sometimes spelled oudh. The Arabic word for wood, in perfumery usually refers to wood from the Agar tree (see).
Ozonic: used to describe aroma chemicals that are meant to mimic the smell of fresh air. Frequently described as the smell of air right after a thunderstorm.
Pamplemousse: French for grapefruit.
Patchouli: a bushy shrub originally from Malaysia and India. Supposedly the leaves were folded into the cashmere shawls shipped from India to England during Victorian times in order to protect the fabric from moths; eventually, the scent became a badge of authenticity and customers refused to buy unscented shawls. Patchouli has a musty-sweet, spicy-earthy aroma; modern patchouli is often molecularly altered to remove the musty components.
Perfumer: see Nose.
Petitgrain: oil distilled from leaves and twigs of a citrus tree, usually the bitter orange tree.
Pillar fragrance: a pillar fragrance is a standalone fragrance meant to hold up the brand, that is, it is not a flanker (see). An example is Yves Saint Laurent Opium, which has been followed by a long string of flankers, including Belle de Opium.
Pikaki: a form of jasmine (jasminum sambac) grown in Hawaii and used for making leis. Also known as Arabian jasmine, and widely used to make jasmine tea.
Pivoine: French for peony.
Plumeria: see Frangipani.
Poivre: French for pepper.
Rockrose: see Labdanum.
Rose de Mai: rose absolute made from the centifolia rose.
Sandalwood: an oil extracted from the heartwood of the Sandal tree, originally found in India. One of the oldest known perfumery ingredients, the powdered wood is also used to make incense. Indian sandalwood is now endangered, so many modern perfumes use Australian sandalwood or synthetic substitutes.
Sillage: the trail of scent left behind by a perfume. Fragrances with minimal sillage are often said to “stay close to the skin”.
Soliflore: a fragrance which focuses on a single flower, or which tries to recreate the aroma of a single flower. Soliflores may in fact have more than one floral note, however.
Tilleul: French for Linden (see).
Tolu: also known as Balsam of Tolu. A tree resin from South America, which when dried is said to have a strong aroma with elements of vanilla & cinnamon. Also used in cough syrups. Balsam of Peru is from a closely related species of tree.
Tonka Bean: a thumb-size pod from a plant native to Brazil, said to smell of vanilla with strong hints of cinnamon, cloves and almonds. Cheaper than vanilla pods, and sometimes used as a vanilla substitute outside of the United States (see Coumarin).
Vanilla: vanilla is derived from the seed pod of the vanilla orchid, a flowering vine which is native to Mexico (although most of the vanilla available today comes from Madagascar). The vanilla orchid flower itself is scentless. True vanilla requires extensive hand-processing, and is therefore expensive.
Vetiver: a grass with heavy, fibrous roots, which are used to distill an oil with the scent of moist earth with woody undertones. The grass is also grown in many countries as a means of erosion control. There is a picture of the root system being harvested in the review of Hermès Vetiver Tonka.
Wormwood: diverse family of plants, so named because at one time they were used to prepare worming medicine. The latin name is artemisia, and in perfumery, wormwood and/or artemisia often refers specifically to artemisia absinthium, one of the key ingredients of Absinthe.
Ylang Ylang: the Malayan term for Cananga odorata, an Asian evergreen tree. Translates to “flower of flowers”.
Zagara: Italian for neroli (see).