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Ask The Expert: How to choose a fragrance

From fresh citrus tones to seductive musky notes, a trial-and-error session at the beauty counter can be a dizzying experience. With that in mind, beauty expert Katy Young heads to Paris to talk to two Guerlain specialists, perfumer Thierry Wasser and fragrance expert Richard Hawkins, about what to look for in selecting the ideal scent.

Katy Young portrait
Katy Young,

Do the ground work
Your environment is important in choosing a scent, says Hawkins. ‘When you are perfume shopping, go easy on the beauty products, which are often perfumed themselves. Make sure the shop is well air conditioned and don’t shop for a scent in high summer or late at night when your senses won’t be at their optimum.’ Make sure you head for an esteemed brand because, Wasser points out, ‘the classic houses are more likely to have the highest quality ingredients.’

A house as revered as Guerlain, says Wasser, has built up its olfactory expertise over decades and does extensive research on ingredients. ‘Most people envision perfumers living in their labs, in the clouds somewhere, but in reality I can usually be found in a field wearing wellington boots.’ Guerlain also focuses on social responsibility, instituting things such as a sustainable sandalwood programme to ensure that for every tree cut down for the ingredient another three are planted in its place. 

If the sales person isn’t asking the right questions, be wary, says Hawkins. ‘If they’re not asking you about your tastes, move on. It’s not about telling you about the latest perfume to sell it; it’s about matching you to your perfect scent. And don’t pay too much attention to perfume ads or model images. You have to breathe it in to really know what a fragrance is about.’

Know the different groups
‘A good place to start is to take time thinking about which of the four main types of fragrance appeals most,’ says Hawkins. ‘They can be broken down into fresh, floral, warm or earthy. This should act as a starting point. Fragrance names can indicate their smell: aqua and l’eau will suggest something fresh.’ Hawkins recommends spraying scents on to your skin before leaving it to settle.

Give it time
Once you’ve sampled a fragrance, walk away. Time is the best indicator of whether a fragrance will work in your daily life. ‘Perfume is unique to the wearer,’ says Hawkins. ‘Each perfume reacts to skin.’ Sample the scent and see how it changes on your skin throughout the day.

Suit your changing moods
‘Today, we wear scents like a wardrobe and ideally should have scents that are casual and others that are more formal,’ says Hawkins. A fresh, citrusy fragrance might work for morning, but slipping into an evening gown at cocktail hour might require something a little more nuanced and evocative. ‘A fragrance can reflect a mood but also create one,’ as Hawkins points out.

Don’t be afraid to be unfaithful
Just because Marilyn Monroe pledged allegiance to Chanel No 5 doesn’t mean you have to remain faithful to one signature fragrance throughout your life. On the contrary, it’s expected that our sensory tastes will develop. ‘Fragrances are highly emotive of our tastes, be it food, scent or touch, which are formed from the experiences that we have had.

The more we travel and experience, the more our tastes change and the more tastes we appreciate,’ says Hawkins. Cuisine is a part of this, too. As we get older, our taste in food develops, which is why as we age we appreciate more complex fragrances. Wasser expands on this: ‘Tastes evolve. For example, most children don’t like mushrooms but feel differently about them when they grow up. As you get older you can lose your vision or hearing, but not your sense of smell. Jacques Guerlain created Ode when he was 87 years old.’

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