In perfume we arrange scents into categories called top notes, middle notes and base notes. When I work from my studio at home I sit in front of what is called a perfumer's organ, and I group the scents on the organ by how long they remain perceivable. This of course pertains specifically to natural perfume, because in the synthetic world they can manipulate things to last so they do not necessarily follow this arc.
Top notes are usually pretty inexpensive, they last about half an hour to an hour, and they are often familiar from things like gardening. Mints, citruses, tarragon, things like that, which are often yellowish or clear in color if they are distilled.
The middle notes last from two to about four hours, and they have a different texture. Where the top notes are more pointed and sharp, coming out to greet you as the opening note, the middle notes are warmer and rounder. Their smell has more layers, and if you put them on a piece of paper and smell it over time, things will lift off and reveal themselves. Common middle notes are rose and jasmine and nutmeg, and types of spices and florals.
Base notes are the dark colored and heavy notes, essences that have been in man’s spiritual life since the beginning of time. They are things like frankincense and myrrh, oak moss, and the animal ingredients, very historical ones that speak to us on a deep instinctual level.
So when you make a perfume, it unfolds over time, like music. Although the notes are not organized in a very structured way, when they lift off, the tops go first, then the middles, and so on. And they mingle with each other too, so in that way their unfoldment on your skin is a little bit like music.
Mandy Aftel has been at the heart of the natural fragrance movement for nearly twenty years. After a brief period of creating natural perfumes for luxury giants Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, she released her book Essence and Alchemy, which officially launched the movement, revealing the creative and aesthetic possibilities of working with natural essences in perfumery. She owns and operates Aftelier Perfumes, one of the most sought after natural perfume ateliers in the industry, and recently released her latest book, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent.