Friday, February 3, 2012

Definition: Terpenic, Phenolic & Camphoraceous in Fragrances

Perfume vocabulary is diverse and often confusing. Therefore we have compiled an extensive reference on Perfume Shrine, analysing the various perfume terms applied by perfumers with examples of actual perfumes. Today's terms comprise some of the more "acquired taste" definitions on fragrant materials &finished compositions. More perfume jargon than marketing copy, the sheer force and almost visceral effect they have leaves no one indifferent.
copal with trapped insects (wikimedia commons)
If you haven't caught on the Perfumery Definitions series till now, please visit:

Terpenic, Phenolic and Camphorous are not terms you'd see brandished in a general discussion about fragrance or in the promotional material handed out by perfume companies. More smell-specific and objective definitions than subjective terms ~relating to appreciation rather than factual knowledge, such as sharp, soft, ambrosial, tart, pungent or zesty~ they form a cluster of nuances within a more general smell group, namely citrus, leather and green respectively. Let's see them one by one.

Terpenic: Perversely Fresh, Rosy Citrus with Hints of Turpentine
Terpenic comes from terpenes, a large and diverse class of organic compounds (ten carbon alcohols), produced by conifers (and a few insects) for protective reasons, as they are strong-smelling, reminiscent of turpentine. You're more familiar with terpenes than you think: The aroma and flavor of hops, a prime constituent in select beers, comes from terpenes. Vitamin A and squalene are also terpenes and so are their derivative.
In fragrances, however, the term is associated with conifer-deriving essences, particularly pine (which contains a-pinene and b-pinene alonside the combined molecule terpineol) and fir. Copal, a tree resin that is particularly identified with the aromatic resins used by the cultures of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica as ceremonially burned incense and other purposes, is also rather more acrid than most other resins (though resins can have terpenic facets, especially frankincense/olibanum) and therefore requires its own little footnote.

Various terpenes are present in a variety of plants emitting fresh scent: farnesol is present in many essential oils such as citronella, neroli, lemon grass, tuberose, rose, and tolu balsam; geraniol (which smells rosy in isolation) is the primary part of rose oil, palmarosa oil, and Javanese citronella oil; limonene is the dominant terpene in lemon peel. Citing these examples it's easy to see how terpenic stands for fresh & dry, bitter citrusy with a background of a petrol and winery note. Serge Lutens Fille en Aiguilles is a beautiful exaple that combines the terpenic facets of pine into a smooth base with sweeter elements. Caron's Alpona is a "dry as a bone", clean, refreshing and bitter rendition of the citrus peel note.

pine resin (wikimedia commons)
Phenolic: Tar-Like and Acrid
Phenolic comes from phenol (carbolic acid and phenic acid), an organic compound in white crystal form which possesses a very pungent, acrid, smoky scent that is very dry and can veer into tarry-smelling, even like bitumen and hot tarmac. Fitting considering that -like many perfumery ingredients- phenol was first isolated from coal tar. Tar came from the pyrolysation of pine trees and from peat. The latter is often used as a term to describe certain whiskeys (peaty tasting) and it's incomphrehensible to most who wouldn't dream how peat tastes like. But think of it as tarry and you're there!
Natural sources include tea, coffee and chocolate and yerba maté, but even fruits such as pomegranates and blackcurrant can be refered to as having phenolic facets (in the case of the fruits behind the tangy top notes); phenol is leaning into acidic rather than alcaline. In perfumery castoreum, birch tar and narcissus all exhibit their barnyard and smoky black tea tar-like facets in various fragrances.

Usually phenolic is a term we use to describe leathery fragrances, such as Chanel Cuir de Russie, Etro Gomma, Knize Ten, Bvlgari Black. The Chanel fragrance is an interesting example as it combines a de iuro resinous note (birch tar) with phenolic facets. Birch tar is poised to me between resinous and phenolic: rather think of phenolic as a sub-dividion of a more generalised resin group, much like terpenic is a more nuanced division under the citrus & resin groups.
A beautiful, truly "phenolic fragrance" that sets the example for this kind of thing is the scarce & super exclusive Eau de Fier by Annick Goutal. Another interpretation comes in leathery fragrances, especially hard-core ones, such as Lonestar Memories by Tauer Perfumes. Gaucho by Ayala Moriel takes the more yerba maté like note as its departure point in a fougère fragrance composition full of coumarin.
L'Artisan Parfumeur explores the leathery, phenolic facets of narcissus in their harvest fragrance Fleur de Narcisse. 

Vapor Rub via
Camphorous/Camphoraceous: Cool, Sharp Green
Seen with both spellings, the scent of camphor is familiar to us from common "moth balls" which utilize the white crystalls for moth repelling. However the cooling, sharp and pungent scent of camphor which triggers the trigeminal nerve in the nose (hence the intense repulsion it can produce to sensitive individuals) is also a constituent, small but very significant of certain fragrant plants: Eycalyptus and the camphor laurel (from which camphor is often derived, though not exclusively as it can be made synthetically as well) are the obvious suspects, but camphoraceous smells also include one end of the lavender essence spectrum (that medicinal top note, the other end is caramelic), patchouli and the top note of tuberose and gardenia.

This is why often such perfumes are curedly described as "smelling like moth-balls". They can also have positive connotations, memory associations with the smell of Vicks vaporub (or not, depending on how often and how much your parents used to use on you as a kid!).

The beautiful vibrancy that camphor brings to a composition can be seen in intense patchouli fragrances, as Clinique Aromatics Elixir or Voleur de Roses by L'Artisan Parfumeur, as well as some "modern classic" tuberose fragrances, such as Frederic Malle Carnal Flower and Gardenia Passion by Annick Goutal. Ylang ylang flower (cananga odorata) apart from the salicylates facet it has can also take camphorous nuances, as evidenced by another Goutal fragrance, Passion.


  1. I always perceived turpentine as something rather resiny and the smell is a reason why I fully intend to learn painting in oil someday.

    The terpenic things, though, that's citruses on crack. My favourite is Siberian Pine, it could bore holes in concrete yet it is beautiful.

    Thanks for the informative article.

  2. These super dry citrusy things with a hint of wine and rose can lean into resin (they're so dry!).

    I personally find some of the scents of functional things (such as turpentine, petrol, tar, creosote) a bit nausea-inducing in large quantities, yet they're intriguing and nuanced in minute amounts -like in a perfume! Isn't that simply magical...

  3. Thank you so much for working on this series - I have been finding it immensely helpful. This article in particular, along with the article about Resinous & Balsamic have been especially enlightening.

    As a very-much amateur perfume enthusiast, it is so valuable to help expand my vocabulary for talking about scent. Not just my vocabulary, though - because it seems that once you have a *word* for something, the concept becomes more concrete, more definite. So not only do these articles help me understand what I'm smelling, they help me "smell better". It is wonderful to be able to have words other than "weird" or "quasi-medicinal/chemical?" to describe what I experience in a fragrance such as Lonestar Memories (LOVE!), or Tubéreuse Criminelle.

  4. A,

    it's immensely heartening and encouraging to hear you say these things and I thank you most sincerely. This series has been a serious effort on my part (you will judge how successful) to really create a common reference/educational tool for us, perfume lovers, so we can communicate while understanding each other. Very glad that it's proving to be useful so far!

    Isn't it profoundly interesting to see that indeed how we talk influences how we think, as you succinctly say? It's the old "Λόγος" from the Greek standing for both speech and logic. It's a concept that fascinates me!

  5. I wanted to know exactly these fragrance notes, I can't wait to find my favorites more easily especially when the prices are too much or the shop is out of what I want. Dupes will be easier to locate.TYVmuch.

  6. I am exhausted, but wanted to read at least one of your new postings. Immediately I saw Caron's Alpona, I got startled and clicked on that. I have never run into it, but if I had, I know I would have dived into it. And I see you liked it, too. What a fantastic description you gave. So evocative. One of these days I am going to see if you ever reviewed Ma Griffe. I always liked it. I wonder what it is. I am off to find out. And I have the perfume earrings, too!

  7. Kathy,

    I hadn't thought about that particularly, but you're right! One can be directed more effectively to similar things when terminology is clearer.

  8. N,

    Alpona is one of the great Carons worth exploring; hard to locate though. Ma Griffe is in the review index and you can also use the Search function to find it. ;-)
    One small thing to accompany those earrings!

    Thanks for the very kind words!

  9. pragmatic09:32

    The most phenolic smell has to be from my mom's fave cleaner: pine-sol.

    The scent of lemon spiked pine lingers in the bathroom for a time after use. I associats this as a clean, yet potentially toxic smell, as ascertained by warnings on the label

  10. Mothballs actually get their characteristic smell from naphthalene. Camphor is not generally a component.

  11. dz,

    could be a cultural difference, but we do have locally mothballs which do contain camphor. We also have mothballs which contain naphthalene. The names are differentiated by ingredient, the product looks the same and smells quite similar (i.e. "camphorous"). We don't have the equivalent of "mothballs" in our language. Therefore perhaps I should clarify that in the text, so thanks for your comment!

  12. abcde20:37

    great article. I need the bitter smell of pine. there are many fresh and green fragrances, but I cant find bitter aroma in terpentine oil. how can I find this? are there any notes for this? any chemical names?


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