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Choosing a perfume for a woman you love, if done right, is a surprisingly intimate act. In order to choose a scent she’ll adore, (and, frankly, you’ll adore - if you’re going to be spending anytime in a clinch with this lady, you’ll want to enjoy her aroma) you need to know a reasonable about her (this is not for early courting, we’d advise) or have rather impressive instincts. It’s worth it though - a well-selected perfume is a thoughtful gift, useful and decadent, intimate and social.
How to choose a perfume for a lady in your life
Firstly, check - does she ever wear fragrance? Some women eschew it altogether, preferring their own musk or staying soapy fresh. It’s possible they don’t like perfume - we’ve encountered a few people who have a negative visceral reaction to it - in which case consider a different gift. Jewellery, vinyl, a food hamper are excellent if you’re hoping to seem appropriately lavish.
Once you’re aware of whether or not she likes a drop of perfume, discern what kind of scents she leans towards. There are four fragrance families: woody, floral, amber, and fresh. These break down into sub-categories, scents and strains, as illustrated below.
Woody fragrances are warm and heady - we love wearing them in winter. They are often led by incense-like scents, such as sandalwood or patchouli, but these can be tempered with drier notes, like cedar, or by incorporating fresh scents. This helps woody perfumes to smell more layered and sophisticated, and helps the wearer avoid reeking of joss-sticks.
Amber scents are great for night-time - they’re blousy, sexy, and often bold. They can be redolent of spices, herbs, or resin. They’re opulent and heady, but can be softened with sweeter notes. You’ll often find amber scents described as seductive or exotic - the type of thing you’d spritz on if you’re looking to get lucky. An amber scent makes an ideal accompaniment to a killer outfit and a slick of red lippy.
It’s worth noting that amber perfume used to be referred to as Oriental before the beauty industry caught on that that was a somewhat racist epithet, so you may hear people still discussing scents thus.
Floral scents are - well, floral - they can smell like fresh cut flowers, or have a powdery quality. Depending on the ingredients they are blended with, though, they can be light and fresh, or bold and blousy. Cheap floral scents are fairly sickly, but a sophisticated perfumier will build out the scent to make it layered and sophisticated.
Fresh perfumes are the fragrance equivalent of a freshly laundered cotton shirt, or a crisp cool winter morning. We adore them for their clean, bright qualities - they’ll often be led by citrus, oceanic (think salty sea spray), or herby scents - freshly cut grass or fallen leaves.
Trying to find a scent that falls into the fragrance family your paramour wears is a good way of hitting upon one she’ll like. It may be she’s promiscuous in her perfume predilections - if so, you’re grand, just don’t buy anything cheap and nasty (mass produced perfumes aren’t as well layered, and many don’t use essential oils, so they generally have a nasty, synthetic quality.). But if, for example, you never think “oo, she smells like a bouquet today” act accordingly and stay away from the florals.
Ignore ad campaigns. Charlize Theron mincing around sexily in liquid gold is enticing, naturally, but offers no insight into what a perfume will smell like.
Distinctions between “feminine” and “masculine” scents are arbitrary. There are women who smell drop-dead delicious in leather and oud, men who are perfectly delectable in grapefruit or blackberry.
If you’re still unsure, picking something you love is a good shout. It’s rather sexy to hear that someone thinks something will smell delicious on you.
What is the difference between an eau de toilette and eau de parfum?
It’s a question of intensity. In brief, eau de toilette is less heady than an eau de parfum. A toilette has a concentration of scented oils around 4-15% - this should last on the skin comfortably for 3-4 hours. An eau du toilette is better for light, unobtrusive daytime wear.
By comparison, an eau de parfum has a higher concentration of perfumed oil, around 15-20%, which usually lasts around 8-10 hours on the skin. An eau du parfum will unfurl gradually over the day - and last into the night. If you’ve been wearing a toilette during the day, a well-selected parfum layers with it beautifully for the evening.
Fragrance family: Floral. Key notes: jasmine, saffron, amberwood, fir resin, cedar.
The most googled perfume in the UK for 2022 - and we can see why.
Eye-wateringly expensive, yes. Cost of living crisis, yes. Chances of you buying? We’re guessing slim to none. Nevertheless, we persist, because - this is our favourite scent of all time.
Imagine the perfectly crystalised burnished caramel atop a creme brulee - that’s your first inhalation. It’s seductively creamy and sweet, but not sickly. It’s heady and sexy but not in a blousy, obvious way. There’s nothing else we’ve smelt quite like it, and we will be bereft when our ludicrously expensive bottle runs out.
If you want to buy a perfume to truly wow the love of your life - this is it.
Fragrance family: Amber. Key notes: musk, jasmine, moss and ambrette seeds absolute.
Santal 33 is Le Labo’s cult perfume (a woody aroma), but our heart belongs to Another 13, a frankly intoxicating, long-wearing scent inspired by the aroma of magazine pages.
We were wearing this in a humid New Orleans bar when a passerby was so taken with it they offered us $100 for our 15ml bottle. We can see why.
Although it leads with a (synthetic) animal musk, it’s not over-powering - it’s bright, and clean, but slightly mucky and dirty in a hot way. It lingers on jackets or scarves for days after a spritz, and is compulsively sniffable - intriguing, understated, yet distinct. While it’s bold and long-lasting, it isn’t overpoweirng - it pairs as well with a t-shirt and jeans as it does a cocktail dress.
It also smells different - but amazing - on everyone. As close to a ‘sure thing’ perfume purchase as you can get.
Fragrance family: Floral. Key Notes: green iris root, pink pepper
At £45, this tiny triumph from Glossier is redolent of perfumes triple the price - it’s a proper bargain. We love how deceptive this perfume is - at first sniff, you’ll think of baby powder on warm skin - fresh, clean, skin-like.
But although it is elegant and soft, it has a certain delightful filthiness to it, thanks to the spicy pepper notes - like briefly catching a knowing look from someone you fancy. Nothing forward, but enticing all the same.
A subtly seductive smell. We admit the bottle is a bit prosaic, but the contents are par excellance.
Fragrance family: Fresh. Key Notes: Finger lime, black lemon, black tea, smoke.
Cor, swoon. If you eschew citrus scents for being too reminiscent of toilet cleaner, this gorgeous scent from Hermès could well convert you. While it has the sharp, refreshing tang you’d expect from a citrus fragrance, it’s tempered beautifully with smoky black tea and black lemon, which adds depth, elegance, mystery. As good in the day time as at night - and it lingers seductively.
Fragrance family: Woody. Key Notes: fig leaf, figs, coconut, cedar.
Greek for ‘lover of figs’, Diptyque’s most popular perfume is a woody delight. Bright, refreshing and a touch sweet, this subtle fragrance leads with milky fig, then trails with fresh cedar. It won’t over-power.
Fragrance family: Amber. Key Notes: Sicilian Mandarin, Jasmine Absolute, Ylang-Ylang, Patchouli, Tonka
We openly acknowledge Chanel No. 5’s place as the most famous perfume on the planet - and yet, legendary though it is, it isn’t for us. It has a distinctly ‘nana’ quality which can feel sophisticated on the right person, but feels musty on our pulse points.
We infinitely prefer the altogether more spritely Coco. An amber scent, it has a frisky spiciness to it. On warm skin it plays out with glimpses of peach and mandarin. Classy and long-wearing, it pairs well with stilettos and a sharp attitude.