Choosing a Signature Fragrance: Your Olfactory Impression


Ever notice how catching a certain scent in the air will take you back to a certain moment in time? For me, the smell of honeysuckle always transports me to those childhood summers I would spend with friends exploring the woods behind our neighborhood. Indeed, our olfactory sense is the strongest tie we have to memory. Because of this phenomenon, choosing a signature fragrance can seem daunting; how can you possibly encapsulate your personality in a bottle?


Where to Start

The phrase “signature fragrance” can be misleading, as it suggests that a woman should wear a single fragrance everyday, for every occasion, and in every season throughout her life. In truth, most women who have a signature fragrance cycle through different scents over periods of their lives. For instance, when I was in college, I wore “Heaven” from The Gap almost exclusively; my husband even equates that scent with the early parts of our courtship during our freshman year.

And who said your signature has to be worn every day of the year? As a more modern approach, you could choose to acquire a modest fragrance wardrobe for the changing of seasons. Spring and summer typically inspire lighter scents, while fall and winter beckon something cozy and warm. Likewise, you could choose two scents and designate one for daytime wear, and one for evenings of dancing and parties.

No matter the method, choosing a signature fragrance involves editing. For it to be your signature, it must become part of your image– it is how people will recognize you and remember you. In order to leave that sort of impression, your collection needs to be small and definitive. The key is to pick only one, two, or three scents to rotate until you feel the need for something new, organically.


Eau de What?

Before we get to the really good stuff, here are some basic bits of info that will help you make an informed decision. All fragrances are labeled based on the percentage of pure scent they contain. Naturally, the higher the perfume percentage, the longer the scent will linger and the less product you’ll use on a single wear. Here’s the translation:

  •           *   perfume oil – the straight up stuff; only a tiny dot on pressure points will do
  •           *  Parfum – 20% pure perfume oil, 80% alcohol
  •           *  Eau de Parfum (EDP) – 10-15% perfume oil, 85-90% alcohol
  •           *  Eau de Toilette (EDT) – 5-12% perfume oil, 88-95% alcohol
  •           *  Eau Fraiche – 3% perfume oil, 97% alcohol


Bottles typically come in two sizes: 1.7oz (50mL) and 3.4oz (100mL). However, there are companies who choose to forgo this sizing standard. Rollerball-style travel sizes have also become increasingly popular. Bottom line: the more you buy, the less it costs. I know that sounds backwards, but consider this: Estee Lauder’s “Beautiful,” one of the best-selling fragrances of all time, sells for $30 at the 0.5oz size and $85 for the 3.4oz size. A smidge of math reveals that, to get the smaller bottle, you’d be paying $60 an ounce. Thus, if you paid that same price per ounce for the larger bottle, it would cost $204. Lesson learned: if you aren’t buying your bottle for travel or for an extended trial to see if you love it, always get the largest bottle you can afford.

And last, a note on application: for pete’s sake, don’t spray your fragrance onto your wrists and rub them together hastily. In fact, don’t rub at all. The best way to get the truest scent from your fragrance is, for lighter wear, to mist it into the air and walk through it, and, for a heavier application, to spray it directly onto various pulse points a few inches from the skin. Say it with me, now: no rubbing!


Navigating the Fragrance Counters

So you’re ready to shop. Be forewarned: the ladies and gents who work at fragrance counters in department stores most likely work for commission, and there are incentives from companies to sell certain fragrances every month. For instance, when I worked a brief stint at a counter, I would read the incentive bulletin everyday before my shift to know where to steer browsing customers: to the bottle that would put an extra $10 in my pocket, of course. Incentives for them can mean incentives for you, too, though: if you like little extras, such as bags and mini lotions, with your fragrance, counter associates will likely have more flexibility for loading you up if you choose the scent that’s on their list.

Another warning: representatives from different fragrance companies often shark the counters to coax buyers toward their products. They can be pushy, but, again, you can make this work in your favor: these representatives show up to their shifts loaded with freebies to sweeten the deal. They can also provide a wealth of information about their company’s scents, such as perfume oil content, which can really help you narrow down your choices. Use them as a resource, but don’t be afraid to say no.


Describe Yourself

It’s time. This step will help you focus on that impression, that lingering image you want for yourself. You’ll be making a list of adjectives. Oddly enough, fragrance companies always include a list of adjectives on their product fact sheets as a means to give a more concrete definition to the fragrance than just notes. Right now you’re going to focus on creating that definition of yourself. Consider these two categories:

  •           *  Dominant emotions/traits
  •           *  Who do you want to be?


Start by picking three adjectives that fit into each category. For example, I am loving, romantic, and lighthearted. I want to be sophisticated, classic, and modern. And there’s my list. I could take that to any fragrance counter and ask the associate to find some matches for me. Granted, your body chemistry will also dictate what will work for you. And here’s a fun, but odd, trick: when you spray the fragrance on the tester strip, briefly touch your tongue to it after it dries. If it tastes bitter, it won’t work well with your body (yes, I’m telling you to be that crazy person who licks paper in public).


Notes about notes

There’s even more to add to the equation: fragrance notes. Most people tend to favor certain note families, while others reserve particular note constructions for different seasons or occasions. There is no wrong way, and the best mode of choosing is trial and error. Smell many, many fragrances. But not at once! By the fourth or fifth scent, even if you smell some coffee beans, you will not accurately distinguish good from bad. Take a few trips to the counter and smell around before you decide.

Here are the most common note families, along with some popular fragrances that fit. 


  •            *  Woody / Spicy -


  •           *  Citrus / Fresh -
    •           *  The classics: “Chanel No5” by Chanel, “Light Blue” by Dolce & Gabbana, “CK One” by Calvin Klein
    •           *  The modern take: “Chloe” by Chloe, “See” by Chloe, “Brit Sheer” by Burberry


Indie Perfumes / Lesser Knowns

If you’re like me, unless that famous fragrance is irresistible, I’d rather find a unique, off-the-beaten-path scent that few people will recognize. Brands like Fresh, Diptyque, and TokyoMilk make more boutique-minded perfumes, yet are still readily available.  And, with the rise of indie e-commerce, more small-batch perfumers are joining the game. One of my favorite shops, Sweet Anthem, even offers custom samplers so you can try scents on before you make your decision. Want to go for something a little unexpected? Pick a slightly dated fragrance, like Hanae Mori’s “Butterfly.” Since its popularity has declined, it will seem new and unique while maintaining a classic feel.

I hope this guide will help you in choosing your new signature fragrance. If you already have one you love, leave me a comment letting me know what it is and why you love it.


Image sources: Fantastic Fox necklace in top picture (taken by me) / Bottles / Fragrance Counter / Notes / Sweet Anthem bottles


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