How To Find The Perfect Perfume

When you find a fragrance that feels truly you, it’s a soul-satisfying experience. Seriously. Here, a how-to for finding your new signature perfume

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How To Find The Perfect Perfume: Hands with pink nails sprays perfume on wrist, palm branch and irises on white background.

Photo, iStock/iprogressman

Years ago, when I was laid off from a job I loved and decided to launch my own company, it was an scary and destabilizing time. Could I run my own business? Was I smart enough? Tough enough? Good enough? It was a lot. But the first thing I did when I said goodbye to that crazy workplace might surprise you. I bought a $240 bottle of perfume—Chanel Coromandel from the brand’s Les Exclusifs fragrance line, to be precise.

Practical when one has left full-time employment? No, not really. Essential? Absolutely.

You see, spritzing on that Coromandel was a panacea to my soul. Its gorgeously rich mix of amber, patchouli, resin and frankincense made me feel creative and beautiful again, energic and inspired. That is what a signature fragrance can do. It can make you feel quintessentially more like yourself. And for that, a couple hundred bucks seemed well worth it.

It’s fascinating how in today’s fast-paced, visually chaotic world this intentional act of slowing down to apply perfume resonates so deeply. The act alone is good for the self. Add the smell of your chosen fragrance to that, and you can instantly be transported to another time and place, or even just a little closer to your happy place.

So how do you find a perfume that’s right for you?

To find your own signature scent, close your eyes and imagine your own happy place—whether real or imaginary. What does it smell like? Are you in the garden by the blossoming lilacs? Or sitting on a castaway piece of driftwood at the beach with the sea breeze in your hair and the sun on your shoulders? Or maybe you’re nestled in front of a crackling bonfire in the woods?

The exercise is a great place to begin if you feel like you’re in a fragrance rut and have been wearing your old standbys for far too long.

How to Find The Perfect Perfume—Chanel Paris Coromandel bottle on white background
Photo, chanel.com

Also, think about a few scents you’ve truly loved over the years. Jot their names down and consider what they have in common. For instance, my three favourites—Coromandel, Voyage d’Hermès and Fico d’Amalfi from Acqua di Parma—are all, at first sniff, quite different. But there are similarities. The Chanel perfume mixes patchouli wood with spices; Voyage is all about sandalwood with fresh juniper and warm amber; and Fico combines fig and cedarwood notes with citrus, fruit and floral notes. See what I mean? Clearly, I have a thing for wood.

More broadly speaking, what fragrance family do your personal fragrances belong to? Not sure? There is a recognized group of fragrance families which includes: citrus, aromatic, floral, fresh, gourmand (think dessert here with maybe some liqueur too!), green, woody, fruity and oriental (or spicy) scents. It’s quite likely that your favourites fall into a couple of consistent categories or overlap between a few, ie. Fresh Woody, Woody-Oriental, Citrus-Woody. Look for fragrances that belong in these families.

There will be tons of variation for you to find something truly new. For instance, right now I’m intrigued by the new Narciso Rodriguez Pure Musc. The eau de parfum is the latest in Rodriguez’s Musc For Her lineup, but it walks a darker line. There’s the portfolio’s signature white floral and musc at play, but then a lovely dose of cashmeran—that’s “blond woods” in perfumery speak—warms up the experience. And to keep my inner perfume geek intrigued, I sense a quiet but intriguing herbal top note that’s slightly minty, slightly eucalyptus-like. Woods, flowers, musk and a dash of the unexpected = very cool.

Tap digital fragrance-finding tools

To ID your next signature scent, you can also take advantage of some digital tools. Frederic Malle’s perfume selection tool is rather old-school, but I like its simplicity. It aims to adapt its one-on-one boutique service to the online shopping experience, but it’s really just an online questionnaire. You answer eight questions and then submit the form. A few days later, a Frederic Malle associate sends you a personal note with a select number of Frederic Malle perfume recommendations.

How To Find The Perfect Perfume—Maurice Roucel Musc Ravageur bottle on white background
Photo, fredericmalle.com

For the record, the recommendations—Musc Ravageur, Eau de Magnolia and Portrait of a Lady—were right on the money. The Musc Ravageur is a wicked rich and spicy perfume full of dark woods, fruit and flowers. It is not for the faint of heart but it is truly gorgeous. And I should add, the other two scents have woods in their base notes, too. I’m definintely heading to the store for some investigating.

Sephora also has a scent-selection tool, but with one you get an immediate-gratification response of many products from many brands to consider. Write those down as part of your research before heading out to shop.

Seek out samples

Now that you’re armed with some guidance for finding a new signature scent, or some scent parameters, head to the perfume counter.

At the bricks-and-mortar stores, let the sales associates know what family or families of fragrance you are typically attracted to. Better yet, Google the top 10 fragrances that belong in your preferred fragrance family, and start sniffing there. And ask for samples. You want to take those little vials home and wear a scent throughout a day to see how it makes you feel.

How To Find The Perfect Perfume—Voyage d'Hermès bottle on white background
Photo, holtrenfrew.com

If no samples are available at the counter, try spritzing the scent on one wrist and then go shopping or walking around for an hour or two. That way, you’ll be able to experience the scent after the volatile top notes fade and the character-defining heart and base notes take centre stage. You see, a fragrance does change as you wear it. Those first top notes you smell when you first spray—typically lighter or brighter notes of citrus or flowers or greenery—will disappear after about 15 minutes and evolve to the heart notes. The heart notes really define the perfume’s intended character: Think roses or peonies or aromatic spices. Then after a few hours, you’ll be left with the drydown, the base notes of the scent that linger; these are typically heavier notes of wood, amber and musc.

And yes, your Chanel No.5 L’Eau will smell a bit different on you than your BFF. After all, your chemistry is different, your skin is different, your shampoo is different, what you eat is different. I’m of the firm belief that all of these factors influence how a particular scent lives on you—and why perfume is so inherently unique to the individual.

And don’t try more than two scents in one shopping outing. One for each wrist. You want to be able to distinguish how each changes distinctly over time.

Take advantage, too, of various sites where you can purchase perfume samples, thereby allowing you to try before you buy. Browse L.A.-based Lucky Scent. It offers an extensive range of fragrance samples, with some complimentary if you spend a certain dollar amount. Montreal’s Etiket also offers a fragrance sampling program where you can receive freebie 0.7 mL testers with certain purchases.

For guaranteed success, it will take a bit of research, yes, but the good-in-your-skin mood that a fragrance can deliver when it truly matches your soul and psyche is well worth the investment.

Deborah Fulsang is the founder of the fragrance-themed website, www.thewhaleandtherose.com, which features perfume news, reviews, tips, trends, gift ideas and the latest fragrance celebrity buzz.