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When it comes to meaningful gifts, a carefully chosen fragrance is up there. But how do you ensure you hit the right note(s)? We’ve got the experts’ guide
ith bottles in all shapes, sizes and colours glinting at you as they catch the store lights, a walk down any perfume aisle can be a visual disco. Add sampling the scents to the mix, and it becomes a full-on sensorial rave. Fun, yes, but it can also be overwhelming, especially when you’re shopping for someone else. You want to pick a scent that says all the right things, but it can be hard to know where to start.
So why are fragrance preferences so unpredictable? ‘We have 400 different types of olfactory receptor,’ reveals Dr Ioannis Kontaris, Head of Neuroscience Research at scent developers Givaudan. ‘That makes smell the most subjective sense we have.’ It means that a fragrance you might love could give your mum a headache, while an aroma you’re not too sure about may be a huge success with her.
However, a well-chosen perfume is possibly one of the most thoughtful gifts you can buy, and one that 68% of us like to select for a loved one. That’s why we’ve gathered top fragrance experts to offer their insider insights, tips and advice to help you triumph in the gift-buying battle of the bottles.
Firstly, even if the person you’re buying for has been in your life for decades and you know their favourite track on every Kylie album, there’s still some fragrance-specific intel you need to gather before you start. Our Fragrance Finder tool at boots.com/fragrance/fragrancefinder is a useful place to start.
To delve even deeper, we grilled industry experts Lisa Hipgrave, Director of the International Fragrance Association UK, and Judith Gross, Vice President of Creation & Design, Branding and Marketing Fragrances at fragrance developers IFF, on the key questions to ask before hitting the aisles.
WHO ARE YOU SHOPPING FOR?
‘It sounds obvious, but it’s really important to understand the personality of the person: do they like to try new things, or are they not a fan of change? Then apply the answers to your perfume search,’ says Judith. ‘For example, if they like to keep up with the latest launches, ask the sales assistants what’s trending in perfume.’
DO THEY HAVE A FAVOURITE BRAND?
‘Make sure you know if the recipient of the gift likes a specific brand,’ suggests Lisa. Don’t know? And don’t trust yourself to bring it up casually in a conversation? ‘Take a surreptitious look at their dressing table or in their bathroom. Then you can quiz the sales assistants — who’ve been carefully trained — to find out if the brand has a new perfume launching that your loved one hasn’t tried yet.’
WHAT REAL-LIFE SMELLS DO THEY LOVE?
‘If it’s flowers, which ones? White blooms such as jasmine? Or perhaps they always have roses in their living room?’ says Judith. ‘Even the scent of a certain type of food could sway their fragrance preferences.’ For instance, do they like comforting vanilla puddings and warm cinnamon buns, or do they lean towards a spicy, peppery scent?
‘Finally, how about ambient smells? Fresh mountain air? Or the aroma of clean fabric?’ adds Judith. Start trying to take notice of this when you spend time with them. Or, if you’re not intending the gift to be a surprise or you think they won’t cotton on, quiz them outright.
You can then use this information to guide you to find fragrances that contain these scents or ‘notes’. Jargon buster: most perfumes contain top notes (you smell these first); heart or mid-notes (that include floral ingredients); and base notes (which comprise woods, amber, musks or vanilla, and last longest on your skin). The mix of these notes and their various concentrations create a perfume’s overall scent.
Once you know the fragrances your gift recipient likes, ask the sales assistants to help you find a perfume with a large quantity of that note, so it will pack a hit of their favourite aroma.
ARE THERE ANY FRAGRANCES THEY’VE STOPPED WEARING?
‘It’s important to know what they don’t like as much as what they do. It could even be that a scent now reminds them of someone and that’s why they don’t wear it any more,’ explains Judith. This is something to watch out for, especially if they’ve gone through a big change recently, such as a break-up, losing someone, or changing jobs.
WHEN DO THEY WEAR THEIR SCENTS?
Is it going to be worn during the day – at work – or only on a night out? ‘This will dictate the strength of perfume you opt for. An eau de toilette (edt), which typically contains around 4-8% perfume oil and lasts, on average, two to four hours, is lighter and better suited to being worn during the day. Whereas an eau de parfum (edp), which contains 8-15% perfume oil and usually lasts up to six hours, will work better for someone looking for fragrance longevity, or who wants a more powerful scent to wear in the evening,’ explains Lisa.
ARE THEY KEEN TRAVELLERS?
…or do they always carry fragrance in their handbag? ‘Taking this into account will also help direct you towards which size you should buy,’ says Lisa. ‘It could be that a 30ml or 50ml bottle might suit them better than anything larger.’ With many brands offering fragrance gift sets for Christmas, one that contains a full-size as well as a handbag-friendly mini could also be perfect.
Ready to hit the shops? The fragrance-buying team at Boots reveals the dos and don’ts of trying out scents
Do use this new knowledge. You’ll have learned a lot by asking the questions above, so arm yourself with a list of scent keywords (fruity, light, woody, etc.), as it will make it easier for the in-store team to help.
Do smell fragrances in the morning, and avoid eating spicy or heavily flavoured foods beforehand. As the senses of taste and smell are so closely connected, it will affect how you interpret the scent; and your nasal membrane will still have heavy, strong flavours lingering for a while after you’ve eaten.
Don’t test too many fragrances in one go, as your senses will become confused and you won’t be able to differentiate one smell from another. Stop after testing three or four (maximum five), and take a break.
Don’t believe the myth about smelling coffee beans to cleanse your nasal palate between fragrances. In fact, it just masks other scents with a coffee aroma. The best way to do this is to cup your (clean) hands over your nose and mouth, then breathe in three times. This means you breathe in your own neutral scent, which refreshes your nasal palate.
Do remember that fragrances smell different from person to person, partly because of the skin’s individual makeup and also due to hormones. So when buying for someone else, try each scent on a clean paper blotter or smelling strip. Bring a pen to note down which blotter has which scent, then take them away and return to them an hour or two later when the aroma’s heart is fully developed.
They might also like New Paco Rabanne Pure XS Her, £62.50/6,250 points (50ml, edp). It has a floral opening and heart, centred on ylang ylang and offset by salty-sweet popcorn and musk notes.
They might also like New Prada La Femme, £72.50/7,250 points (50ml, edp), for its frangipani top note and warming beeswax heart.
They might also like Michael Kors Wonderlust Eau Fresh, £60/6,000 points (50ml, edt), a sparkly, bright and breezy fragrance that also features apple and citrus top notes.
They might also like New CK One Platinum Edition, £40/4,000 points (100ml, edt). It has the same fresh, gender-neutral profile, but with added sophisticated notes such as aldehydes (think Chanel No 5), lavender and vetiver.
They might also like New Guerlain Mon Guerlain, £62/6,200 points (50ml, edt), which also has ‘sweetie’ base notes, mixing liquorice and vanilla for something unexpected.
After a male fragrance for your favourite frequent-flyer? Check out the new Ted Baker Travel Tonics in Ag (Silver), Au (Gold) and Cu (Copper), £28 each (25ml). That neat millage means they pass the carry-on test, plus they’re refillable and come in sleek hand-brushed metal flasks. Style and substance in one… winner!
Words Fleur Fruzza Photography Alamy, Getty Images, Shutterstock