Friday, May 17, 2013

Perceptions of Freshness in Perfumes

No term is more brandished in perfume ad copy than "fresh", with the possible exception of "sexy". Quite often the two are intertwined in such memorable pop culture images as the "just out of the shower sexiness" in the advertorials for JLo's Glow. But fresh can mean a lot of things, when talking about fragrances, and not everyone agrees on quite what makes something smell "fresh". What IS fresh anyway?

via reinkingprojekte

One could argue that like other, more objective and qualitative perfumery terms, such as agrestic, aromatic, resinous or powdery, fresh denotes specific qualities, immediately recognizable, effortlessly translated into multiple cultures. Take dry citrus or mint, with its mental association of toothpaste and chewing gum. A fragrance like Eau d'Hadrien with its lemony tang or the minty coolness of Herba Fresca by Guerlain are undeniable "fresh" as opposed to "ripe", an adjective we'd reserve for things like Femme or Feminite du Bois with their prune and plum notes that evoke harvest, autumnal maturity, a delicious decline. But from then on freshness as related to smell descriptors takes on odd, unforeseen nuances.

Fresh is sometimes confused with "light", as in lacking heft, since freshness is so often related to the uplifting feeling of a spring renewal, when green and tangy scents fill the air with the promise of resurgence. Fresh can also sometimes mean "contemporary" and "modern", the opposite of old-fashioned, therefore gaining a cultural and time-sensitive connotation which is more complex than anticipated at first; this is where it gets really interesting. Cast your mind back to Chanel No.5. Coco Chanel -and perfumer Ernest Beaux for her- created it as a "fresh" scent, something totally modern, to break with the tradition of the Belle Epoque and its contemplative, demure and prim fragrances.

The link with modernity also hides another thought: apart from "fresh new", it can also mean "fresh" as opposed to "stale" or "musty". Since many of the classic chypres and grand florals are worn by older women because of the fond association they have with them from the time of their prime, the perception of staleness in regards to perfume gains a perverse but powerful mental image, that of the decay of old age associated with the decay of flowers, of leaves, of animal matter. No, eschew these depressing connotations in favor of an eternal spring, of budding rather than maturing, of awakening rather than somnambulant, bring on the "freshness", is what the industry is telling us to. And we heed to it, because we're defenseless before its guiles, as they're never consciously registered.

Chanel No.5 is also fresh in another sense: it smells of cleanliness, as Chanel wanted it to, appalled as she was of the ladies of high society who "smelled" of impropriety; well, at least it smells of cleanliness on the marquee, as the sexy with its musky and civet-rich backstage is another matter...And here to come to that other tangent on which freshness in fragrances works: the "clean", just out the shower, attribute.

After Chanel No.5 many aldehydic florals gained a fresh connotation, aided by the wide use of the main components in soap formulae, a connotation however that was sure to lose ground with younger generations as perfume fashion changed and aldehydics became the scent of a past generation. As one of my readers, Noetic Owl, put it in regards to Calandre by Paco Rabanne: "I kept sniffing my wrist all day-loving it, but also acknowledging that were my teenage daughters to sniff it on me they would probably say I smell like an 'old lady'. Funny how certain scents become dated -yet in my mother's mind (and mine as well) Calandre was a fresh and green scent."

Even incense can be related to freshness if you think about it. Frankincense in particular, a resin used for its meditative and cleansing properties since antiquity, has a dry, citric, refreshing smoky quality about it, which transports the spirit and creates the feeling of renewal, spiritual this time around.

During the decade of scent absolution, of olfactory catharsis from the heavy load of the carnality of the 1980s and its bombastic perfume powerhouses such as Giogio, Obsession and Opium, the 1990s saw fresh fragrances come to mean laundry detergent reminiscent scents, heavy on clean musks, and/or ozonic fragrances (with their Calone molecule, reminiscent of melon), often screechy and sharp. We're talking about fragrances such as L'Eau d'Issey, Light Blue, Aqua di Gio, Kenzo pour Homme...
Such is the cultural integration of the idea that if you ask people in their 40s today they still equate these scents with freshness; it's simply how they were brought up! You see, our olfactory imprint may be created during our childhood when our perception and emotional state is still virgin territory (and this is why the smells we came to love or despise at that period will remain with us), but it is our formative teenager and early 20s which cement our conscious associations with perfumes. This impressionable period accounts for a memorable data bank onto which we form ties and associations that will forever have a strong pull on us. Even if later on, with the vagaries of life and the wisdom of maturity we come to designate them to what is essentially true, peer pressure, the desire to fit in (or conversely for the rebels to stand out), the need to map out our olfactory identity. The 1990s perfumes were fresh all right; they turned a new page in perfumery's book, as the broke new ground and presented something -at the time- innovative and revolutionary

Similarly the strong pull of the fougere genre in regards to masculine fragrances, thanks to its inedible association with soap and grooming (think of Green Irish Tweed, Cool Water, Azarro Man, Paco Rabanne pour Homme or Drakkar Noir), has come to stand as fresh, further enhanced by its advertising. One look at the Cool Water glossy with the guy washed over by the splash of the ocean and you're sold.

Yet today freshness took a new spin, a yarn previously unthreaded. Nowadays "fresh" is often uttered in the same breath as fruity & sweet, often reminiscent of an odd combination between shampoo and candy. This is how ad copy has presented their case: Miss Dior (the revamped, contemporary version) is touted as the debutante scent that smells like a young girl discovering love and the pleasures of the flesh. Daisy Eau so Fresh (Marc Jacobs) even says so in the title!
It is funny indeed to contemplate how sweet by its very nature predisposes for an artificiality that requires some elaboration. After all we need to break some eggs, dust some sugar and whisk them together to come up with a dessert, needn't we? But the arbitrary, yet deliberate on the part of the industry, connection between contemporaneity and freshness means that fashion and vogues will dictate our perception of the latter in the passage of time.

Which are YOUR "fresh fragrances"? What do you consider "fresh"?

other pics,


  1. Interesting thoughts as usual. Among many perfume descriptors, I actually think that "fresh", in its non-metaphorical use, is one of the better characterized (compare it to "powdery" for instance) - but still, even there, plenty of differences.

    I have noticed that there are some substances that seem to elicit different reactions. For instance, most vetivers smells primarily fresh to me. Sycomore is the ultimate hot humid summer scent for me. And yet, many people think of it as dark and autumnal.

    Of calone, the least said the better. It does recall cold water to me as well, but the type of cold water where oysters have been decaying.


  2. Right now I have a major crush on Nicolai L'eau Chic, which is minty and maybe the freshest perfume I've ever had. Thought provoking article! Upon some reflection I'm afraid I might be part of the "lemon fresh" group, popular in the 70s. I'll have to take notice of fresh and update my thinking.

  3. annemariec22:14

    This is a wonderful analysis of the many nuances of the concept of 'fresh' - a key concept in perfumery for decades, as you demonstrate.

    I started buying perfumes seriously in the 1980s so my tastes are influenced by the perfumes of that era. So for me, Estee Lauder's Pleasures is the epitome of fresh. I bought it as soon as it came out and wore it to death.

    But as a 1980s gal I can recall when 'fresh' meant outdoorsy, meaning that mossy/grassy fragrances like Eau de Givenchy and Cristalle and Chanel No 19 counted as fresh. It is revealing that when Chanel updated No 19 and Cristalle (Poudre and Verte) they removed that grassy/earthy element and made them 'clean' in the indoor sense, not the outdoor sense. Fresh these days is all about bathrooms and laundries; it means sealing ourselves from the outdoors and keeping the environment at bay. Even the garden-y perfumes put out by Jo Malone are scrubbed of the earth that nurtured the flowers and herbs on which the perfumes are based.

    Still, there is a lot to be said for 'fresh' in the sense of renewal, or for feeling carefree. I still reach for Pleasures to evoke that. Un Jardin sur le Nil is another favourite.

  4. Olivia00:45

    I always enjoy your thoughtful discussions of the metaphors inherent in perfumery. The concept of "fresh" raises such interesting cultural ideals - what does it mean to be clean? or what does it mean to be young? Here in the USA, it seems as though all of our cleaning products are MUSK. Even if you have a choice in scent, it is really just "lemon and MUSK" or "lavender and MUSK". And so I think the idea of musk = clean = "fresh" is ingrained in American culture. And it becomes even more nuanced when the concepts of "fresh" and "young" become conflated. It speaks to a particular cultural concept of the ideal woman. If fresh and young and clean are all somehow mixed together, than what room does that leave for maturity or complexity?

    Personally, the idea of "fresh" is brought to mind by Lyric for women by Amouage. I also find Romance by Ralph Lauren to be "fresh", although it was also my first "adult" perfume, so I might be injecting memories of my own youth into my interpretation of the scent.

  5. Some of my favorite fresh fragrances are Hermes Eau d'Orange Verte, Hierbas de Ibiza, Acqua di Parma Colonia, and Nanadebary Green. I really go for old-school dry citrus/herbal fragrances. French lavender as a soloflore is another favorite fresh scent--I also like English Lavender, but it reads as more floral than fresh; it has less "bite."

    Some of the notes that are meant to evoke freshness often come across as sharp or acrid to me; hedione, dihydromyrcenol, hairsprayish white musks--instead of "sparkle," I get a poke in the nose!

  6. Anonymous04:23

    I love you analysis of trend in freshness. It never occurred to me that Chanel No. 5 was intended to smell fresh!

    My current favorite fresh scent is Ys Uzac Pohadka, and unusual fragrance of tobacco, mint and narcissus. To me it smells like a cool, clear summer evening with dewy grass and wildflowers. I would never have predicted that tobacco could seem fresh, but it does in this combination. ~~nozknoz

  7. What an interesting post! I would say one of the perfumes that smell truly fresh to me is Herba Fresca of Guerlain's Aqua Allegoria line. Again, a perfume with fresh in its name :)

  8. solanace12:47

    Lovely article, as you usually write them, thank's! I hate calone with all my heart. I'm more into citrus or old style green for fresh, such as Orange Sanguine, Eau d'Hadrien, No 19 or Le Temps d'une Fete. Actually, I'm more into warm fragrances, maybe because I'm a rebel in the tropics, maybe because I'm a bit melancholic and want my perfume to warm my soul up a bit, or maybe I just have a sweet tooth.

  9. For me, Goutal's Eau d Camille is "fresh" - its like opening a window on the cool shady side of the house on a hot day .

    I know is a "green" scent but they are "fresh" to me too! :)

  10. Merlin00:13

    Lots of food for thought! During the wilting summer, battling lethargy and with flagging energy levels, 'fresh' is definitely something I would aspire to! Christalle Eau Vert, here I come!

    But then I do sometimes want worn-in and comfy (Bal a Versailles), sultry, or sophisticated...

  11. like others, i tend to think of green/herbal scents as fresh...the fresh moniker has meant very little to me as a perfume or scent descriptor outside of that realm. musk scents to me aren't fresh, nor are sweet scents. citrus scents can b, especially the light, bright lemony ones like the lemon waters sold in big---like cleaning product size---bottles in turkey, greece, and other mediterranean places. those are truly refreshing, especially on a hot summer day. my grandmother used to make a sort of mint infusion---very strong, lots of mint leaves---in summer, which she used to dribble along window edges to discourage ants; to dip cotton-wool into it and wipe my face when i came in from playing outside, all hot and grubby; and to drink, iced and sweetened, when the weather was just too hot to bear moving. that mint smell is the essence of freshness to me!

  12. Miss Heliotrope02:13

    I do like this sort of discussion, thank you.

    My first thought with fresh isnt perfume, but more that rush you get when a window or door is opened & cooler, less fuggy air comes in.

    This would explain my leaning towards the greens - Chanel 19 & Sycamore (I tried it in cool weather first & found it nice but a bit sticky, like a syrup, but then in very hot weather loved it), 4711 kept in the fridge over summer, and so on.

    That clean can be equated with fresh puzzles me - for me too many house or person cleaning products smell heavy & hang around almost solidly. There can be, especially with home products, an overscent of This Is A Clean Home With Cleaning Products that feels like it's been sprayed or painted on. Sweet things as fresh? Ick - But so much is cultural. When living in the US, we found lemon as a scent/flavour more sticky sweet and clingy than we find it here in Australia, where I do associate it with fresh. Mint also has that connotation, although whether learned through association with toothpaste or not I'm not sure - the Dr Bronner's peppermint soap for summer showers suggested on here was brilliantly fresh - and refreshing, but that's a different discussion.

  13. M,

    thanks! Glad it was a thought-provoking post.

    Vetiver is fresh to me too (and Sycomore among my most beloved renditions!), but then this is something I overdo in the summer (where it fits like a glove and cools me down) so maybe that has something to do with it? It might be cultural also: I recall plenty of men in vetivers over the years in my corner of the world; it's considered a "groomed" note. Maybe for you too?

    Funny you should say that about the oysters, LOL. You won't believe it but last summer I was swimming (where I always swim, nothing fancy) and I had the most completely out of the blue epiphany: the sea sorta smelled like watermelon at spots. And no, people didn't bring their watermelon slices for a snack. It was deserted and it was early enough in the morning. It was uncanny and eye-opening experience. Calone does have a marine element to it, after all, despite the general reviled status it "enjoys".

  14. R,

    L'eau chic gets on my resniff list! :-)

    And oh, by all means, stick to your original interpretation of it. I think the latest (sweet & fruity) is truly stretching it to the maximum point of elasticity. ;-)

  15. AMC,

    thanks for filling in the blanks, very insightful comment.

    Yeah, greens translate as outdoorsy (well before they became "old lady", argh) and therefore count as "fresh". Indeed, No.19 is among my hot weather standbys (love to wear it with white things and silver, seems even more cooling) and it is a propotype green woody floral.
    It's very true what you say that the modern revamping of the Chanel flankers tilts more to the "musky clean" rather than the herbal/mossy "cool".

    I suppose Nil is the perfect middle ground for green, citrus and clean musk/wood. It hits all three notes just right for me as well ;-)

  16. Olivia,

    thank you for the lovely compliment and by all means, thank you for your insightful comment as well!

    Very interesting idea and one which I find corresponds well to what I have read and been told by professionals. The US formulae and perfumes are overdosed in tenacious ingredients (usually musks) because Americans want their perfume to stick around and project; I think this falls under the "bang for your buck" logic (which makes perfect sense from a cultural point of view) more than an aesthetic choice per se (I never subscribed to the mentality that Americans are uncouth en masse).

    As a young nation, the US naturally extolls youth as a value too IMHO: you can't imagine rock n'roll being born anywhere else! There is a freshness to those images, a point that cinema, pop vulture and advertising have long utilized and it clicks to the perception of wholesomeness as depicted in the 1950s USA (though we know that the times were much darker than depicted!). You also feel a sense of new things coming out of the US. Old European nations have seen it all (tell me about it), but americans have a fresh outlook which is conductive to CHANGE!

    This deliberate meshing of wholesomeness, novelty, youth and freshness has become so potent that it has become a cliche and at the same time a gauge into the present. It doesn't surprise me that "young, clean and fresh" is all mixed together; it was in the works for more than half a century, at the very least. Do you agree?

  17. amy,

    Good old-fashioned choices, the way fresh was used to be done. Lavender is barber shop to me (and usually more vanilla than herbal in most popular renditions), but I hear you.

    Right on on the sharpness of sone fresh notes! (can't stand dihydromyrcenol)

  18. anon,

    happy you find the analysis fun and intriguing.

    I suppose Coco Chanel as with everything was ahead of her times: she wanted to highlight the sexiness of a washed body, as readily approachable thanks to advances in plumbing as ever, not the antiquated "floral water on top of grime" that people used to do back then. She did like cleanliness in general (her aesthetic is so "clean" too, clean lines, no unnecessary decoration, deduction instead of addition), so why not? It's not ironic that No.5 has influenced bath bars for so long! There's poetic justice in it. (IMO at least)

    Noting down to try Pohadka on your recommendation. :-)

  19. F,

    exactly. One of the very best ones, in my opinion. It also elicits compliments from others, to that regard, so it can't be we're all delusional. :-D

  20. M,


    yes, good suggestion, Eau de Camille! The ivy greenness is what makes it fresh. Your description is so apt.

    Hope you're having a good time! :-)

  21. NFS,

    very interesting comment and thank you for it!

    I do perceive myself a difference in perceptions of citrus among people, very true. In the Med indeed lemony smells are truly refreshing, very alive, very tangy, non sweetened. The cologne types you speak of are ever popular for splashing on on kids, granparents, on temples during a hot spell, on tabletops, you name it! (a final rinse in the wash gives linens such a fresh nuance!) But in the US many people have damaged their association with lemon due to the house-cleaning products which have "typified" the lemon scent into something else. Not their fault at all, but it has happened.
    I also think it's a bit perverse to smell lemons in Northern countries and expect them to smell right; like lapis lazuli it's something that rings true only under the brightest of suns.

    I find your recipe with the mint to sound absolutely amazing. Wiping your face with it as a child must have been a formative experience, I should gather; no wonder! (and such a good idea too, copying...)
    Mint IS fresh and I think it goes beyond just toothpaste (I prefer cinnamon myself, though I very rarely find it); some herbs had a kitchen life before the industry...

  22. MH,

    there's nothing better than opening a window and having cool, fresh air come in. Or being in the countryside driving and rolling the windows to let the herbal waft come inside. *sigh*

    As I mentioned above the greens do speak of the outdoors and in those eras when there was a spot of countryside to be left unspoiled *double sigh* I suppose the association was tremendously potent. I agree with your fresh green suggestions, they smell very fresh to me too (adding Silences by Jacomo, reviewed in these pages).

    It's funny you should mention cleaning products sticking around, because I think it's an ever increasing trend. I was reading the other day how people in Asia like to use fabric softener instead of personal fragrance and how the former are getting more and more tenacious and potent to accommodate this need. Lenor fabric softeners for instance have very sophisticated and complex scents which do stick on fabric long. They even have offshoots of famous fragrances I think (I can smell a similarity to Coco Mlle in one of them). Of course, if you're going to have something smell from 10 paces, why not indulge in perfume instead? Funny, but there you have it.

    On the whole I find Australia (with its large Med-originating population and its sunny weather and "open", life-affirming mentality) fits those criteria mentioned better than most. We just haven't seen it exploit this olfactorily. But we will. ;-)

  23. Solanace,

    "rebel in the tropics" -sounds like the perfect name for an LP by an alternative rock band! (love it)
    And when oh when will I ever buy a whole bottle of Le Temps d'Une Fete?? I like it so much!

    I'm a bit melancholic too, but I haven't seen it influence my perfume choices into the warm or sweet. Maybe I'm not trying to get out of my melancholia, I suppose.

  24. Merlin,

    argh, wilting is my least liked state. I can't stand the thought, even. (And it looks like we'll be having heatwaves again this summer, I mean over 40C for days on end....*gasp*)

    Bal a Versailles is the antithesis of fresh, but it's so very beautiful, isn't it? Just love it to bits!

  25. Anonymous11:32

    Agapiti mou Elena, good morning. Born in the early '70s in Constantinople-Bosphorus and grown up in the '80s in the southern suburbs of Athens, I have a kaleidoscope of scents saved in my mind: First is the water -the eastern/Mediterranean sea. “Watery” scents represent "freshness" to me. However, I believe that "water" needs some seasoning to become more interesting. Additions such as salt, pepper and citrus fruit makes Eau des Merveilles my top current favorite. Furthermore, sour fruit along with incense - reminiscent of the incense in the Greek Orthodox church especially during Easter - is another “fresh” favorite. I am currently in the middle of my 3rd bottle of Un Jardin sur le Nil. Also, I much appreciate the "sparkling fresh" side of the matter. I enjoy a lot L' Eau de Chloe with its lemony-minty effervescence. Last but not least I love neroli as a “fresh” scent (I sent you an email some time ago and we had some chat over it  . As a matter of fact, I just tried the long-expected AA Nerolia Bianca; such a marvelous “fresh” scent on a piece of paper, such a disaster on my skin. It smelled like a cheap mainstream deo that has nothing to do with my beloved scent...Still looking for the Goutal Neroli EDT. The new cologne that I found somewhere in Kolonaki is exactly what I'm looking for, as far as it concerns the fidelity of the scent, but it lasts for only 30' on my skin. I suppose I’ll have to buy the EDT online from the official site). To conclude, if one compares what I considered “fresh” during my teens, that was Anais Anais and Loulou (Oui, c’ etait moi!), will realize there has been quite an evolution! -Sophia

  26. Anonymous11:36

    I wish you the best of health, happiness and success for your namesday tomorrow! - Sophia

  27. Sophia,

    καλή μου! Φυσικά και θυμάμαι το μήνυμά σου!

    How much I agree with your assessments, but then we share this common heritage. I agree with every little bit you write there. Eau de Merveilles is a great example and it does capture the "watery" impression (rather than literal "water note") but also the "skin" like properties very very well; an ambience and humanity scent.

    Ιt's disappointing to hear the new AG colognes are so little tenacious. That's a shame...I find the old scent formula at least truly beautiful (and from what you say I gather it still is, only watered down?) You found them at Bodyworks/Body & Soul/Natura? (This is off the top of my head). I know Attica used to stock Goutal too.
    I think the EDT is being phased out, so better grab some soon rather than later. The big etailers (Ausliebezumduft etc. might still have bottles of it. It's worth searching a bit.

    As to Anais and Loulou, didn't we all?? ;-) I still find them quite worthwhile, our youth could have been spent much worse, I suppose!

  28. S,

    σ'ευχαριστώ από καρδιάς για τα καλά σου λόγια και τις ευχές σου!! :-)

  29. Anonymous09:44

    ΧΡΟΝΙΑ ΠΟΛΛΑ για άλλη μια φορά Έλενά μου! Να προσθέσω στις χθεσινές και ευχές για ψυχική ηρεμία! - Sophia

  30. Anonymous11:28

    My dearest Elena,
    I am still a “dummy” concerning perfumes, but I am surprised to realize that my nose makes always the right choices for me. It’s my mind that is afraid to trust my nose! (This was the case with Aromatics Elixir. It took me 15 years to decide and buy a bottle haha! As a matter of fact I layered it with NR’s For Her, – it was a suggestion in one of your posts- and it is lovely. The outcome is still Elixir but in a less “sweet” version). However, in the case of Eau des Merveilles it took me only a couple of hours to fall in love with it. I had many years to feel captivated by a (“female”) scent at no time! (I am attracted to “male” ones more easily).

    Concerning the Neroli cologne, maybe it had to do with my skin, as it did with Nerolia Bianca. I hope you have a better luck with them both. I haven’t tried the old scent formula, only the cologne, so I can’t say. I only hope that the old one is equally beautiful but with a better longevity on me. Yes, I found them in Natura. It was last month and the ladies there told me that the company “is ceasing the production of the old bottle and they will have the new one next month”. They suggested however that the change would only refer to the bottle. I also went to Attica only to realize that they had extremely few AGs and not Neroli. At Body & Soul they didn’t have any AG. I didn’t go to Beautyworks because the impression I got from the website was that it is just a hair and nail salon. There was no mention to AG… There is also Heaven on Earth in Kifissia that I haven’t tried yet…Do you believe I have a chance there? I only know Ausliebezumduft from the big entailers and they only had the cologne. I am constantly searching in ebay though… I was thinking to buy it online from the official AG site in which I see it available…What do you think about that..?

    I also find Anais and Loulou worthwhile! Especially Anais is a time machine for me!! It takes me back to school!!! And yes, your youth could have been spent much worse! :-)Sophia

  31. Mary P.18:43

    Mmm, freshness, a wonderful essay! Slicing lemons, crushing peppermint, cucumbers, watermelon, what it smells like after a thunderstorm, sun dried linens, freshly mown grass, standing next to a waterfall, toes in cool running water, surf, cool breezes on a hot, humid day..... one of the nicest fragrance rituals I have that invoke 'freshness' is a few drops of good lavender essential oil on a cool, damp washrag. I roll it up, put it in a baggie and tuck it into the fridge or cooler. There is nothing that feels better on hot, sweaty skin than those cool lavender compresses - it's like heaven.

  32. Anonymous08:46

    ΕΥΡΗΚΑ 2Χ200ml at Heaven on Earth!!!:-) Sophia

  33. Nice topic! Fresh is a feeling that has no smell or colour. Many times we give it a smell and a colour and we do so in an abstract way.
    Where I believe we'll all agree, is that by terms of "heavy-light" or "dark-light", "fresh" is always on the "light" side.
    For me "fresh" is when I am among the trees (usually at night) with the air not too humid nor too dry. An invigorating sensation that words can't describe, or, to put it differently, when words like lemony, ozonic, marine, soapy come to mind, but feel inadequate to express the situation, then you know it's fresh.
    Great you find No 5 a clean fresh!
    Finally, someone who "smells" like me. I'd take it one step further and say that it smells very "American clean".
    Don't ask me why...


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