The fragrance industry does the bulk of its business around Christmas, mainly because that is one of the few times a year than unwilling shoppers are forced down the perfume aisles of department stores around the world in an attempt to somehow find the right fragrance gift for a loved one. Even people who love perfume and can nose their way around a perfume department blindfolded can feel your pain. Buying perfume is not easy and there are actually several factors you don't even know yet that are conspiring to make it even more difficult. Perfume seems very complicated. That's why I, like other denizens of the perfume world, can help you make a good choice.
Here are my 11 Rules for Holiday Perfume Shopping. Rule Number One is this: perfume is not cheap. If you hoped it would be cheap, wanted it to be cheap, need it to be cheap, or just would feel more comfortable if it were cheap, get over it.
Perfume has not gone on sale in the last eighteen centuries. Rule Number Two is a corollary of Rule Number One. While perfume may not be cheap, you may find yourself being wooed a bit by eager perfume merchants with package "deals." They will take several of their products, put them together in a festive holiday box and knock a little off the price of the individual items and assure you it's the deal of the season.
Don't laugh, it is. Rule Number Three is to have an idea of what you're going to buy before you go in. Perfume is an amazing industry, and if you don't know anything about it, you will be amazed to the point of asphyxia to learn that there are literally of hundreds, if not thousands, of fragrance products in even an ordinary shopping mall. Rule Number Four is not to smell the perfume out of the bottle.
Of course, you can't help that. You will break this rule. But please do not think that the way a perfume smells straight out of the bottle is anything like the way it will smell after a while on your skin. Here's why: perfume manufacturers work hard at creating what perfume insiders call the "top notes." These are the first few molecules that come buzzing out of the bottle whenever a human approaches and they practically scream, "Smell me! Smell me!" They can be zippy, flowery, enchanting, dreamy, light, or all of those other things, but one thing is certain. They are short-lived.
Top notes die out in about one to four minutes, which, coincidentally is about the time you can survive cardiac arrest. The real body of the fragrance emerges after the period known as the "dry down." The dry down is the time the perfume spends on your skin while the perfume dries and the top notes disappear. Now you've got "heart notes" and that is much more like what the perfume is going to smell like. So how do you manage testing perfume? If you really want to smell a bunch of perfume (it will get very confusing; the phenomenon is called nose fatigue) you can get the salesperson to spray it on little slips of paper.
Don't be a novice and just smell the paper. Fan it in the air while you look about the store with a bored, yet superior look on your face. If the salesperson tries to hurry you along, just shrug and say, "Dry down." At this point, the salesperson will realize you are not to be trifled with. This will not change anything, but it's nice to get unmerited respect. Rule Five is smell the coffee.
Most perfume counters have little net bags of coffee beans hidden away. Ask for one if you want. It's to clear the nostrils during episodes of nose fatigue.
The idea is that you take a whiff of coffee and you can go on to the next scent. This really does work, plus it shows you know what you're doing. But see Rule Six. Rule Six is that you don't have to smell everything. Most perfumes have been practically studied by lots of people who have way better noses than you do.
Smelling a lot of perfumes not only creates a huge olfactory blur, you're not even smelling perfumes as they really are. Perfumes will interact with a person's individual skin chemicals plus the top notes fade. Why not avoid most of the torture and find out the general type of fragrance you are shopping for. If you know the brand perfume, skip this step. But if you don't, think of whether the person would want a floral scent (or something very modern right now, the fruity floral, which are for the trendy, the young, and those burdened by their own tragic hipness), a fresh scent (which is kind of like soap, very mild, and popular with people who are or imagine they are under 18), an Oriental or spicy scent (these are heavier and for mature women; I would even say they are old lady scents except I wear them. Let's just say they are much more complicated, denser perfumes that are very sophisticated.
Here's a way to look at it. I am certain that Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton wear fruity florals and fresh scents exclusively. Meryl Streep probably wears Orientals.) There are also green fragrances (woodsy, fresh, plant-like) and chypres, which nobody can pronounce, and is generally marketed here as woodsy or green.
Florals are the easiest and hardest to buy. Most of the world's great scents are florals. That is a historical fact and is likely to continue.
However, many people find florals a bit ordinary. That is to say, if you're buying for a perfume snob, shy away from florals because she probably knows the terrain better than you do. In fact, don't buy perfume for a perfume snob, just give her money. Rule Seven is that the number one best-selling perfume in France is Angel. This is an out-of-the-ordinary fragrance by a French designer named Thierry Mugler, which is very popular in the U.S.
This is one of the great "secrets" of the perfume industry, known by perfumistas and men and women of fragrance, but not widely known to newcomers to the fragrance department. If you're buying perfume for somebody only marginally more knowledgeable than you are (or less knowledgeable), go for Angel and tell that person that this perfume is the best-seller in the country that is most famous for savvy perfume consumption. Rule Eight is that fragrance products differ. Perfume is the strongest stuff and not that commonly sold.
You are likely to be offered eau-de-parfum or eau-de-toilet (which also goes by the unfortunate name of toilet water), of which eau-de-parfum is the stronger and the more suitable for gifting. Sprays, colognes, and eau-de-toilet are lighter fare, best for people who don't mind touching up their fragrance often and also suitable for younger people. People who know perfume want eau-de-parfum or perfume. Rule Nine is don't be impressed when your sales person speaks French. It's the language of perfume.
Eau-de-parfum is pronounced oh-duh-par-fahm where the m sound on the last syllable is only suggested. Perfume is actually correctly called both parfum and perfume in America, so your salesperson may say par-fahm. Many scents have French names.
Givenchy (which by the way makes an extraordinary floral scent that just about everybody likes called Very Iressistable) is pronounced jhee-vun-shee. Say it, it's fun. Rule Ten is that everybody can survive a bad perfume.
Let's say you pick the world's worst scent on earth or the one fragrance your recipient loathes. It's unlikely to kill her. She won't have to check into rehab, see a therapist, or be hauled off in an ambulance. She may grow to like it, she may give it away, or she may take you off her holiday gift list altogether.
Where's the down side? Rule Number Eleven is the big finale. There are some great scents. Besides Very Irresistable, consider these classics: Chanel No. 5 (perfume lovers and novices all adore this scent), Tresor by Lancome, and Beautiful by Estee Lauder. If you want something hipper and newer, try Stella by Stella McCartney, Incanto Charms by Ferragamo, Angel by Thierry Mugler, or anything by Philosophy (the fresh scent people).
Oh, and another "little known" delight—Groove by Carol's Daughter. You may have to go to their website to get this stuff, but it's not that expensive and it's very wonderful (fruity floral stuff). One more rarity you can't lose with: Chinatown by Bond No. 9. Get the fancy bottle.
Want to stare down a snooty perfume counter denizen? Want to dominate the perfume department with your expertise? Well, it's nice to have a dream. But you can learn more about perfume at http://www.theperfume-reporter.com and even get a free Perfume Profile. This article is by Joanna McLaughlin, a frequent denizen of perfume counters and regular contributor to The Perfume Reporter. Her favorite scent today is Kors by Michael Kors.