De-Classifying Fragrance Families

Declassifiying FamiliesChypre, Fougère, Oriental… Recognize these categories? These are just a few of the infamous fragrance families: the basic structural taxonomies in perfumery. Families are a generally accepted way of mapping olfactive genealogies, born in the perfume houses, and popularized by the likes of Michael Edwards (Fragrances of the World’s Fragrance Wheel). The family classification system relies solely on the commonality of materials as a means of grouping fragrances into sets (i.e. lavender or geranium + musk + coumarin = fougère). Classification by family is arguably the closest we have come to applying a form of universal language to scent, but like all taxonomies, the system has its known limitations.

Families Are Not Genres

Contrary to what you might have read, families are not genres. Implying that they are is simply false. Genres, like those popularized by film and music, describe an emotional arc to be referenced in composition… a rhythm. Fragrance families do not. Families are devoid of emotional markers. Belonging to a particular family says nothing of style, nothing of subject matter… Rather families hone in on a specific of form, the base ingredients, turning an intentional blind eye to other factors at play. Perhaps the confusion surrounding families is bred by their deceptive naming (i.e. fougère translates as “fern-like” yet has absolutely nothing to do with ferns).

The family system downplays emotional significance when classifying, justifying the oversight as necessary to avoid pitfalls associated with fragrance’s more subjective nature. In other words, things like creator’s intent or your response to the composition do not factor in. Family classification is all about what goes into the bottle (physically speaking) and nothing about what comes out. As a scent descriptor, being of a certain family tells very little about a fragrance other than to look out for certain accords in the end formulation. It is a very flat classification system organized around basic structural olfactive symmetry. So families are nothing like genres. To claim that they are is to promote the dangerous rationale that like means like in olfaction… that all noses are wired the same. They are not. (For more on why, check out this article from Perfumer and Flavorist.)

A Different Perspective

Instead of genres, think of fragrance families as being more like settings: vast open domains where olfactive stories and characters can cross-pollinate, blossom, and grow. Aromatic, Floral, Marine… these are continents of scent calling out for exploration. This adjusted understanding is more mindful of the rich diversity that exists within each family. It then goes a step further, encouraging us to actively seek out that diversity as we craft and smell. One viewpoint on families is limiting. The other is infinite. I prefer the latter.

Take for instance how New York City is featured in film and television. For screwball comedies, NYC is the proverbial setting for “Happily Ever After,” a symbolic oasis where you can  “get it all” and “find true love.” Capra’s It Happened One Night is a perfect example. Now compare that to Scorsese’s NYC, the viscerally raw backdrop for Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.  The same location is referenced, but with a very different tone, and set towards a very different purpose (not to mention shot for a very different audience). While NYC may be a popular setting for screwball comedies, not all movies set in NYC are screwball comedies AND not all screwball comedies are set in NYC. NYC is simply shorthand dialed up to help emphasize an overall mood.

Setting helps sell the myth. It is there to help trigger our suspension of disbelief, heightening the intensity of the story. Setting is important, but not necessarily central to the action. The same can be said of fragrance families.

Location, Location, Location

Unlike the constraints of genres, settings are much more flexible as analogies for families. Woody, Green, Amber… these are just stereotypical olfactive locations. And like all stereotypes, they run the risk of perpetuating gross generalizations. Unmasked as stereotypes, the question of fragrance creators becomes whether to play up to that stereotype or to rebel against it? How prominently will this location feature and towards what purpose is it being used? Is the setting a character unto itself? What does it say?

Consider Shalimar and the Oriental fragrance family. Shalimar was created by Guerlain in 1925, inspired by the Shalimar Gardens of present day Pakistan. The scent is regarded as the standard bearer for all other Oriental fragrances that followed. It is also very of its time. At the core of Shalimar’s formulation is a beautiful synergy of bergamot, vanilla, patchouli, incense, and spice: the so-called Oriental family DNA that first made Shalimar so distinctive. The perfume is this unapologetic ode to the Western World’s then-obsession with Orientalism. “The chic, the verve that is Paris… the mysterious compelling allure that is the Orient…” It screams the 1920’s.

Post-Shalimar’s launch, Oriental was used more and more frequently in fragrance ad copy: a “just add water” means of invoking the “other-ness” of the East. In other words, usage of the term was a mindless action meant to help push product via faux authenticity. Cue the yellow-face, chopsticks, and gong music. Like all earlier iterations of exoticism, the naive innocence of early Orientalism quickly devolved into some unfortunately racist territory. The rich diversity of one third of the world’s population was reduced to just five notes. A vibrant history was made into a caricature. It boggles the mind how one today might consider treading into those known troubled waters without the sole intent of  transgressing them, and yet a quick flip through some current beauty books is evidence to a host of examples to the contrary.

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Cracking the Walls of Fragrance

This means that for decades now, we have been relying too heavily on setting alone to convey meaning. Fragrance has been a world of too much foreground and not enough background. Fragrance families’ importance has been severely overinflated.

This family membership comes with no unique rewards. It was never designed to. It’s unfortunate how this one concept seems to have flummoxed an entire industry, (and frightening how easily it has been allowed to happen). Families have become prison cells for perfumes and perfumers alike. We need to set fragrance free… to break it out of these restrictive olfactory silos. It’s time to imagine life outside the walls (or at least disrupt things inside them). If we don’t flip the switch on families, we can expect nothing but more of the same… ad infinitum.

Don’t get me wrong, family classifications are not all bad. It’s not the system itself that is problematic, but rather it’s (mis)use. It can be helpful to sort by family, especially when tracing a fragrance’s structural or historical significance. Patterns of certain materials can and do say something about the time and place a fragrance was made: a kind of snapshot of what was once available and fashionable. Families are just far less (as in practically not at all) useful as indicators of a scent’s emotional tone or impact. They are not that complex. Be careful not to read too much into their meanings.

Remember, three different chypres can tell three very different stories and stir three very different reactions in you… and that’s a beautiful thing. Sometimes it’s okay for family to just be a name and nothing else. There’s always more to a fragrance’s story. Family is not identity.

More Decoding Fragrance Posts You Might Like

The Rules of Olfaction
5 Faces of Fragrance
What’s a Fragrance Brief?
Fragrance From The Top
Comparative Smell Vocabularies (Sensory Maps)

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