Perfumes Pure and Simple

Perfume built around a singular fragrance note. Liana Schaffner, contributing editor at Allure serves up her favorites.

Excerpts from a fragrance editorial, Singular Sensations - Pure and Simple, in Allure Magazine, December 2016 issue.

Liana Schaffner - Allure Contributing Editor

Singular Sensation

"Our favorite new scents are built around a single note. If perfumes are cocktails, the best ones right now are served straight up: Intoxicating celebrations of a single note. Pick your poison."
-- Liana Schaffner, Contributing Editor Allure | Read more @

Perfumes are some of the world's most sentimental people. If you ask (and we have), you'll find that their favorite scents remind them of their mothers. Their proudest creations recall fond childhood memories, typically spent in the south of France (did we mention perfumers are also some of the world's luckiest people?). Using highly technical methods, they manage to preserve those ephemeral moments and fleeting impressions that most of us eventually lose hold of: the silver glow of a Parisian afternoon, the metallic chill of a lonely coastline, the powdery softness of tangled sheets, the dewy romance of a bridal bouquet.

It may sound hyperbolic, but all of this imagery and emotion helps give fragrance its heady appeal and even affects the way we apply it. Think about it. We mist on perfume behind closed doors and dab it on hidden areas (our chest, wrists, neck, knees) as if we're guarding a secret. And in a way, we are. But the latest trend in fragrance is changing all that, turning scent into an open and startlingly honest affair. Overt, uncluttered, and free of innuendo, these new perfumes have nothing to hide. And the result is pure magic.

Rag and Bone fragrances
Marcus Wainwright - Rag and Bone CEO, creative director

Our favorite new fragrances emphasize one thing. And it's not one emotion or one aspiration or one vacation destination - it's one ingredient. They come with straightforward names: Sage, Rose, Blackpepper. What you see on the label is what you get in the bottle, which may not sound radical but borders on revolutionary for an industry that glories in the abstract and draws on our willing suspension of disbelief (very willing, if names like Alien and Beyond Paradise are any indication). "We wanted to see how pure we could get," says creative director Marcus Wainwright of his mission in creating Rag & Bone's first fragrances, an octet that includes Amber, Cypress, and Bergamot. "We started each one from a single note and built around it to get something that's beautifully made but clean and uncomplicated."

The lack of florid names or narratives doesn't mean these types of scents are without imagination, but it does require us to approach each one with a fresh and unbiased perspective. "It's like being handed a piece of a puzzle rather than the complete picture," says Mark Behnke, the founder of the fragrance blog Colognoisseur. "Single-note scents allow freedom of interpretation, which is a very modern concept. People aren't looking for a be-all, end-all fragrance. What they want is a scent, or several scents, to heighten their mood and represent an experience of their own."

Singular Appeal

Focus everyone: Spotlighting the nuances of one note can have sublime results.

Ralph Laurent Collection Fragrances
Carlos Benaim, perfumer

That's not to say perfumers have less freedom with these fragrances. If anything, the formulas test their artistry and involve them in and even more profound way. "When you work around a single note, you must find inspiration in one ingredient and focus all your creativity on it," says perfumers Carlos Benaim, who cocreated Ralph Lauren's new line of ten perfumes, each named for one scent - White Tea, Magnolia, Orange Flower, and so on. "Your message has to be very clear and unobstructed." In addition to a strong message, these scents require perfumers to break out some pretty advanced methods. Unlike multifaceted blends with built-in complexity, these spare constructions achieve depth in ingenious ways. New isolation precesses and extraction techniques coax every color and variation out of the primary note so that one accord can produce many different effects. Take, for exmple, the groundbreaking (and Best of Beauty-winning) Ralph Lauren Collection Lime. To create what Behnke describes as an "effervescent, photo-realistic" portrait of a lime, perfumer Calice Becker used a technique involving a proprietary technology called FreezeFrame. With liquid nitrogen, she deep-froze the fruit to lock in its bright, green, and juicy facets, then placed a glass bulb over it (a method known as headspacing) to capture the scent molecules that emanated from the lime as it thawed.

If this sounds like a lot of effort to produce one accord, it is. But perfumers spend just as much time fine-tuning the notes that support the central ingredient. "We extract them in very specific ways so that they bring out the complexities of the primary note," says Benaim. Several methods, such as molecular distillation and carbon dioxide extraction, go into creating one of these perfumes. And it's easy to understand why. "If you're going to present a scent centered on one note, that note had better be pretty astounding," says Behnke. All of this suggests an inverse formula somewhat new to perfumery: The fewer the ingredients, the greater the skill and expense involved.

Prada Les Infusions
Daniela Andrier, perfumer

Also turned on its head is the notion that fragrances built around one note are inherently simple. In fact, these scents are so rounded and nuanced that they appear multidimensional. "It's like a white, empty room in which you place a vase filled with one kind of flower," says perfumer Daniela Andrier, who created Prada's Les Infusions collection. "You experience the beauty, color, and smell of that flower in a very generous way." To grasp just how dynamic a solitary note can be, consider Lancome's new fragrance collection, Maison Lancôme Grand Crus. Three of the line's scents are different versions of the exact same note: oud.

And still, single-note fragrances have a stripped-down quality that's impossible to ignore. Like Andrier's example of a stark white room, they're bright, wide awake, drenched in natural light. No memories, no secrecy: You'll want to apply them out in the open - right where they belong.

Les Infusions de Prada Mimosa

Les Infusions de Prada

Eau de Parfum, $160
Mandarin oil enhances mimosa's airy, delicate quality, and rose absolute adds a full blossom effect.
NOTES: Star anise oil, mandarin essense; mimosa, rose absolute; woods
Malin + Goetz Vetiver

Malin + Goetz

Eau de Parfum, $165
Grapefruit peel and white iris give the spiky, leafy quality of vetiver a snapped-stem lightness.
NOTES: Bergamot, grapefruit peel, cardamom; bigarade, celery seed, white iris; vetiver, amber, guaiac wood
Maison Lancome Jasmin Marzipane

Maison Lancome
Jasmin Marzipane

Eau de Parfum, $185
Combining two forms of handpicked jasmine (sambac and grandiflorum), this scent has all the flowers' creamy petal-y softness.
NOTES: Jasmine, almond wood, bourbon vanilla, sandalwood, cashmeran, musks
Comme des Garcons Blackpepper

Comme des Garcons

Eau de Parfum, $131
Single-note scents don't start out as one thing and develop into another, says Behnke. This smooth and spicy fragrance retains its heat throughout the day.
NOTES: Black pepper, cedar, patchouli, agarwood (oud), tonka bean, musk
Rag and Bone Oud

Rag & Bone

Eau de Parfum, $140
Oud sparkles in this brilliant interpretation. Hints of bergamot and guaiac wood temper the moody, pulpy aspect of the note while heightening its clean, resinous quality.
NOTES: Incense, guaiac wood, bergamot, elemi, myrrh, ambergris, agar oud

(Schaffner, Liana. "Singular Sensation: Pure and Simple." Allure Dec. 2016: 132-137)

Photo of Liana Schaffner © LinkedIn

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