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Perfume Notes: The emotional challenge of talking about perfume

How do you capture the essence of a fragrance and the way wearing it makes you feel? You’ll need to develop your own, unique perfume vocabulary, writes Sue Kim


One of the most challenging aspects about writing about perfumes is finding the common language to describe what your nose is smelling. As with all art, the interpretation will differ depending on the audience (who is doing the smelling) and so finding a unified description that will help convey this scented art into words always seems to be a struggle.  I have often wondered why?

When I first started discussing perfumes with friends, it began simply by talking generally about what category the perfume may have belonged too; such as, “Oh that smells very herbal and fresh or this is very floral”. My descriptive bank of words was not developed in the beginning, but after engaging with others and constantly reading about fragrances, I began to build a better vocabulary making it easier to converse about just what you are smelling.

But is having the right words to describe a smell truly a meaningful discussion about fragrances? Even with this expanded vocabulary, it all still felt very one-dimensional to be limited to simply discussing notes and components when talking about something so emotive. Enjoying perfumery goes beyond being able to pick out different oils; it’s not a tick list to determine if you know what the perfume is comprised of and thus demonstrate you appear knowledgeable about perfumes.

Once my brain had finished analysing what’s in the perfume, the real challenge of describing how it made me feel began. After all, the true beauty of perfumes is to enjoy them in that moment and, for me, in being able to communicate those emotions to others. That is all part of the perfume dialogue that makes perfume an art in its own right.

Perhaps my analytical brain makes it more difficult for me - I realise I should, perhaps, just stop trying to dissect the notes and enjoy the finished creation? I think perhaps a lot of the hiccups when you break down the difficulties of talking about perfume may be mirrored in other interests such as wine tasting. I recently started venturing out into the world of fine wines and it’s very daunting to be honest. I started doing the same thing that I do with perfumes, where I try to pick out the different fruits and nuances on my tastebuds. And just like perfumes, the vast choice of wines now available to consumers creates an obstacle or journey (depending on how you view it) to navigate through.

I like the fact that cost doesn’t determine whether I enjoy the product (wine or perfume) but nonetheless, I find the same challenge of discussing the complexities of the wine as I do with perfumes. So it seems to me that talking about perfumes, just like wine, is not about knowing how it is created but in being able go express its impact on us.  

I wonder how many people feel this way too? Why does the perfume industry demand that we discuss perfumes in such a scientific manner, when one of the greatest allures of perfumes is that it evokes emotions whether we want it to or not?

Why can’t we just bring ourselves to discuss perfumery on the same platform as when we discuss music? I have never dissected a song by what chord was being played or what key range it was in, yet when it comes to perfumes there is this bizarre need to establish your knowledge about the perfume first.  

The best way to discuss perfume is to be open to expressing your emotions and that is what I believe is the true challenge. Can you talk about your first heartbreak openly because a perfume reminds you of that person? Are you able to discuss the perfume that use to sit on your Nan’s vanity table without the pang of losing her surfacing?  

And of course perfumes evoke beautiful memories too, so when that’s your experience of a fragrance try and share that information and give that perfume justice as a medium, in its own right, of expressing what you’re feeling. It’s a dialogue we must have with ourselves first before we can have it with others but once you do, your perfume vocabulary will soon expand and become honest and that will help others understand how a particular fragrance makes you feel.


Sue Kim is a Korean-American perfume enthusiast currently living in the UK.  You will often find her in London, coordinating perfume experience tours and attending perfume events


The best way to discuss perfume is to be open to expressing your emotions and that is the real challenge

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