Fragrance Families

The perfume universe is divided into ‘families’.  In reality, very few of us have a jumbled wardrobe of scents from lots of different families:  often without even realizing, we tend to fall for one family time and again. Instinctively, we prefer scents from some fragrance families and dislike others – although we may tend towards one particular family for colder weather, another for sunny times.

Technically, ‘fragrance families’ are a classification system the perfume industry has used for years, to place individual perfumes into olfactory ‘groups’, based on their dominant characteristics. It’s part of the language of scent. Below are the main families identified.


  • Fresh

Uplifting, zesty, cooling:  most eau de Colognes fall into this family.  They feature a whoosh of notes like lemon,bergamotorangegrapefruitmandarin.  (These notes are also slightly randomly referred to as being ‘hesperidic’ – after the Hesperides, the nymphs from Greek mythology!)  Fresh fragrances smell clean, and usually come in theeau de toilette and Cologne versions – we can’t think of a single ‘fresh’ scent in perfume concentration.  Ideal for splashing, and probably more suited to summer:  some conjure up a sea breeze, while others smell like bottled sunshine.  There are lots of ‘near-relations’ within the fresh category, so if you like your scents bright, uplifting, sunny and airy, spend some time exploring those.

  • Floral

This is the most popular of all families (with lots of ‘relations’ within the family). It’s ultra-feminine (you won’t find many ‘shared’ floral fragrances), and of all the families, it’s probably the one you’ll most easily recognise at first sniff, from its bouquet of cut flowers – conjuring up June weddings, garden parties, spring blossoms… Floral fragrances tend to be garlanded with notes like jasmine, peony, gardenia, tuberose, lily of the valley, magnolia, mimosa etc.

Interestingly, two of the most famous (and most-loved) floral notes – jasmine and rose – have traditionally been found at the heart of almost every fragrance creation: they’re the perfume world’s foundation stones. In true florals, those notes are played up – but shimmering beneath the surface of other families, rose and jasmine are often there, too, holding the creation together, even when you can’t spot them.

Florals can be warmed with a touch of spice or given the juiciness of fruits – and there are quite a few ‘sub-families’ in the floral family. (And the ‘Floriental’ family is a close cousin, too.) If you like a fragrance in any of these families, you can get great pleasure exploring its relations…

  • Floriental

The name says it all: the florientals are a sophisticated fusion of floral and oriental notes and so many fragrances now fall into this category that it’s a real family in its own right. Florientals blend flowers – including gardenia, jasmine, freesia, orange flower – with spices, warm woods and resins. The result? Fragrances that are sensual and often sweetly seductive, but generally airier and lighter than true orientals.

This family’s growing incredibly fast. Pretty soon, we expect to be able to add new family members within it, with fragrances that beef up the spiciness, the woodiness, or the fruits. For now, though, lots to explore.

  • Oriental

With their spices, musks, incense and resins, the orientals are rooted in perfume’s own history, using many of the same ingredients today that were first enjoyed in the orient – India and Arabia – at the dawn of fragrance creation.

Ingredients like heliotrope, sandalwood, coumarin, orris, vanilla and gum resins are classically used within an oriental fragrance structure – though these can be tweaked, for men, women (and fragrances designed to be ‘shared’).

Seductive, voluptuous and with a va-va-voom, orientals tend to feel ‘grown-up’ – and many have a warm, heavy, diffusive richness that’s more suited to after-dark wearing.  They linger sensually on the skin:  they’re heavy on the base notes, which tend to last longer.  (However, there is a new ‘mini-family’ of fresher orientals, with a lighter touch, and a more ‘daytime’ feel – which you’ll discover when you explore the other categories within this beautiful, exotic family…)

  • Gourmand

This is the newest family in the fragrance universe:  the first blockbuster example was Thierry Mugler’s Angel, and since then ‘edible’ notes have become super-popular.  Think:  caramel, chocolate, milk, candy floss, coffee, Cognac,toffee, almonds, even bubblegum – and almost always, a generous helping of vanilla.  There may be spices in there, too, or amber:  in general, gourmand fragrances are warm and most wearable in the cooler seasons, when we want a fragrance to snuggle up to.

  • Chypre

First, how to say it: ‘sheep-ra’. (From the French for Cyprus – not, as is often suggested, the cypress tree.) There are suggestions that chypre fragrance construction dates back to Roman times, and ‘chypre’ as the name for an accord is often mentioned in 18th Century perfume manuals. (This family was named after the island of Cyprus – birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love – hence the slightly baffling category name; a lot of the aromatic plants which feature in chypre scents flourish on that island.)

Guerlain had two chypre fragrances in their range, early on: Chypre de Paris and Chypre. But this mossy, animalic type of fragrance was certainly popularised by pioneering perfumer François Coty, who launched a hugely successful scent (also called ‘Chypre’), in 1917, setting feminine perfumery on a whole new, sophisticated course.

Chypre fragrances are warm and dry and almost all built round a woody, mossy accord of bergamot, oakmoss, patchouli and labdanum (from the cistus, or ‘rock rose’, plant). Elements of flowers, fruits or woodiness are sometimes played up in chypre fragrances – so this family has a few ‘relations’, within it.


  • Woody

The clue, quite simply, is in the name – although some of these fragrances do smell like they’re closely related to thechyprefamily.  It’s true:  they share some characteristics, but generally without the floral flourishes of the chypres.

Perfumers have so a fabulous palette of woody elements to weave into their creations:  sandalwood, cedar,agarwood (a.k.a. oud), guiaiacwood, as well as patchouli and vetiver.  (These last two aren’t woods:  they’re roots and leaves, respectively – but you’d never guess, from their intensely earthy, woody character.)

Woody fragrances can be given a spin by adding spices/fruity notes, or herbs – so if you like woods (or you’re simply interested in learning what they smell like), do explore the other members of this family, too… Many masculine, quie a few shared and a few women’s fragrances belong to the woody family.


  • Fougere

Nowadays, it’s mostly fragrances for men you’ll find in the fougère category, which almost invariably featurelavender, geranium, vetiver, bergamot, oakmoss and coumarin in the blend. It’s a bit ironic, though, as this fragrance family was originally created for women, kicking off with Fougère Royale, from Houbigant, in 1882. Fougère takes its name from the French for ‘fern’ – and for anyone who’s wondering, you say it ‘foo-jair’ (with the ‘j’ a little soft – almost ‘foo-shair’…) We aren’t yet turning our thoughts to masculine perfumery – but watch this space. For now, though, if you’d like to start to understand what these ferny, green fragrances smell like, here are some classic examples to ‘sniff out’.

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