The 4 Essential Things You Need To Know About Scents

Not all perfumes are created equal.
IMAGE Paul Del Rosario

While the word “perfume” may be a catch-all in everyday parlance, that's not actually the case.

1| Concentration Means Longevity
Perfume refers to a specific concentration of the fragrance oils in a scent. So does eau fraiche, a fancier way of saying "body mist" and similarly termed euphemisms that denote one to three percent fragrance oils; eau de cologne (two to five percent), eau de toilette (five to 15 percent), eau de parfum (10 to 20 percent), and finally parfum (the highest at 15 to 40 percent). The higher the concentration, the longer the scent is supposed to last.  

Naturally, the less oil in the formulation, the more solvent there is. Alcohol, usually ethanol, is used to diffuse perfume oils because it is volatile. That means it's going to evaporate off your skin and waft into the air for your olfactory senses to detect. Occasionally, plant-derived oils are also used as a carrier or base as they require much less stabilizers.  

2| They're Made From Oils
Now you may ask, where do these fragrance oils come from? Most of them come from nature. Chanel boasts of being one of the few luxury houses that produce their scents in-house. In order to secure the quality and supply, it has partnered with a jasmine and rose farm by the Mul family in Grasse, France since 1987. 

One way to extract the oil from the flowers is to crush and heat them; the steam is cooled; and the essential oil is collected. To give you an impression of the scale of the operation, it takes approximately three pounds of lavender flowers to produce just 15 ml of oil.


Other substances may be obtained from animal fat or, uh, other substances. Remember Moby-Dick? There once was a time when you could make a lot of money if you sold ambergris from a single whale—and you probably still could. Ambergris is a waxy, flammable substance found in the digestic tracts of sperm whales, that is used as a fixative for the most expensive perfumes. Thankfully, it can more or less be recreated in a lab and mass produced.

3| It Takes 'a Nose' to Build Them
Now these oils don't magically mix themselves. Behind every scent is a perfumer, fondly called a “nose.” Take Sophia Grojsman, for example. Not only did she create Calvin Klein Eternity and Frederic Malle Outrageous, but also a scent for—get this!—Downy. What a nose does is make sense of each scent to create a palatable blend of them, because—let's face it—deciphering the top, heart, and bottom notes of one's go-to scent is hard enough! Imagine having to come up with a fragrance. 

Some noses go to school; others are able to find their own paths to refine their raw talent. Either way, this is where it gets a bit mystifying. In some cases, the noses have entire teams that wear all-white lab gowns with matching goggles. Other times, it's much more casual and intimate, but the process remains the same: Each scent is tested until the desired combination emerges. 

Third-generation perfumer Celine Ellena describes her process for Smithsonian: “When I think of a fragrance, it is like an image that I have in my mind. I have the image of the smell of the fragrance. And then writing the formula is like drawing the image. It’s like I’m trying to build a puzzle.... Sometimes I have to take my time, close my door, and think about it. I write my formula on the computer, and my assistant mixes it for me in the lab.”

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Local vegan brand and one-woman operation Radioactive Mushrooms in the Forest's Wiji Lacsama shares this of her inspirations: “The first scent I ever made was an ode to a childhood memory of hanging out on our rooftop, the smell of my lola's dama de noche plant wafting in the air while I watched the moon. Sometimes I dream of the formula and wake up in the middle of the night just to list it down before I forget, and make it the next morning.”

4| They Have Stories
Once the scents are made and focus groups are run and bosses have signed off on everything, the formulations are sent for bottling and the business begins. Here the brands differentiate themselves with their stories.

Simoy ng Haraya puts an emphasis on its Filipino roots. Jo Malone is meant to be layered in a trademarked process called Fragrance Combining. And Le Labo compounds the scent and personalizes the label as you wait, but you'll have to fly to Hong Kong, Korea, or Japan for this. 

But if you want a taste of personalized perfumery in Manila, you can set an appointment with BC Fragrance or Oscar Mejia Artisan Fragrances.

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Vincent Ong
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