One of the perfume adverts of my youth had a tagline that – appropriately enough – has stuck in my head through the decades: “I can’t seem to forget her, her Wind Song stays on my mind.”
It played on the fact that everyone wants to make – and leave – a favourable impression. But there’s a gulf between being remembered because you always smell amazing and being remembered as someone who smells.
Sillage is the term referring to the scent trail left by a fragrance and its wearer. Whether it lingers or not is a factor of the ingredients used and the zeal with which you apply it to your body. For example, when I wear Woman by Ormond Jayne, I feel enveloped in sensual warmth, but it doesn’t project very far. In order for others to appreciate its devastating sexiness they need to get in close – which is no bad thing.
Another of my personal favourites, Bulgari’s Black, resonates so strongly I can smell it days later on my scarf – and that’s one of the reasons I love it to distraction. If I want to make sure I’m noticed, I spritz on Timbuktu from L’Artisan Parfumeur, a bold bouquet that trumpets its arrival but thankfully, never fails to generate compliments.
Perfume blogger Thomas Dunckley, aka The Candy Perfume Boy (@Candyperfumeb0y; thecandyperfumeboy.com), tells me: “I like my sillage big and bold and often reach for those attention-seeking perfumes that stand out from the crowds. My favourite big-volume heavy hitters are Angel, Alien and Womanity by Thierry Mugler – three perfumes that need to be, nay, demand to be, over-sprayed. They do turn one into a fragrant force to be reckoned with, it has to be said.
“But as much as I like my sillage on the hefty side, I can’t say that it’s always pleasing to smell the scented trail of others, especially when that trail is something obnoxious or cheap-smelling. My advice: If the scent isn’t good, be gentle with the trigger finger.”
Still curious, I turned to Roja Dove, one of the world’s leading authorities on fragrance and the author of The Essence of Perfume (Black Dog Publishing). He opened Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie in 2004, which can be found at Harrods, in London. It is an opulent, elegant space – a Mecca for Fumeheads, where you can test and buy his scents along with many other classics. Roja generously agreed to share his wisdom when I posed a few questions.
Why do some perfumes have sillage while others do not?
Most modern scents are incapable of giving a ‘sillage’. The classical perfumes are fantastic for it as they have more complex bases. Eau du toilette and eau du parfum are less likely to produce a sillage as neither last long on the skin: 80 per cent of an eau de toilette will disappear within four hours.
Smell, unlike sound and light, does not act at a distance. Of all the human senses, smell is the most intimate, even from a structural perspective. The strength of this effect relies on the fragrance itself, and its receptor. The fragrance may be more resonant by nature, whereas the receptor may be more in tune to certain notes imprinted on their memory. The sequence of chemical reactions present in the process of smell takes place only after the deepest parts of the unconscious have been activated. As a result, even without conscious recognition, smell can be the most evocative of our senses. The lasting effect of a perfume is somewhat subjective to the receptor; the strength of the perfume itself is not.
A fragrance is split into five sections, three primary ones. When a fragrance is first sprayed or applied it is the section at the top (head note) that is the most dominant. As time passes the top notes evaporate and the heart notes become prominent and so on. Each section is characterised by the type of ingredients that are found there. Hence each section has a different characteristic odour. This is why fragrances change and develop over time.
Base notes describe the last phase in the process of a perfume’s evaporation, when the most lasting ingredients, such as woody or animalic scents, become most discernible. Ingredients such as cardamon, cypnnum, celery seed oil and absolute oil of mignonette are long-lasting. True musk is so potent it can only be used in extremely diluted form, while lemon, for example, doesn’t last long, so will only be found in the top of a fragrance. Sillage is particularly noticeable with perfumes rich in balsamic, woody or animal notes. All perfumes, by nature, have sillage – the resonant after-effects of a perfume – as they are the last remaining notes on the skin; its strength depends on the ingredients used in the fragrance and the amount of fragrance applied to the skin.
When might a person want – or not want – to wear a high-sillage scent?
A good opportunity for wearing a stronger scent is when you want to make an impression. Wearing a strong scent indoctrinates an imprint of your presence onto another’s subconscious; sillage establishes that this resonates. When you breathe in someone’s scent they give you one of the most beautiful of all gifts, the gift of their memory. You may not have smelt someone for years but with one whiff of their odour the memories come flooding back, dreams are revived, love is rekindled. Opting for a strong scent does, of course, require a tentative pursuit. One would never desire to make a lasting impression that is negative. It is important to choose the fragrance with the utmost delicacy and to ensure that it is memorable yet not overpowering.
Odours are linked to our memory of emotions and emotionally-coloured experiences, which are stored in the limbic system. Scent has a more powerful ability to leave behind the legacy of its wearer. A photograph is cold, two dimensional and in time will fade; a perfume brings back moments in our lives in vivid technicolour. Nothing but perfume is able to transport us this way.
When you are building a new scent, how do you factor in sillage?
I create with a purpose. I always start with a name and expand from there to reflect the premise, perhaps developing from a story or a quote. With Reckless, I was reading a book in which a woman said: “Reckless maybe, foolish never.” What a fabulous statement. I thought of a woman who still has the passion to follow her heart, but over the years she has learned never to allow herself to get hurt. I imagine a woman who spends the evening at the theatre or opera. You can see her in the half-light. She’s wearing a beautiful evening dress with a low décolleté, revealing a big diamond necklace. She’s a woman who knows what she wants – and often takes risks to get it. It’s a perfume for women, not girls.
I then build the fragrance to translate that story from my imagination to the liquid in the bottle. Ingredients used at the base are what allow the story to resonate the longest. The perfumer will always start from the base notes, modifying with the heart notes and finally adding the top notes. Each perfumer has his own personal fragrance library from which he works. Take, for example, the names of my Pour Femme fragrances: Reckless and Mischief (which I created as a nostalgic recreation of my childhood romps in springtime foliage) make a statement and are rich in base notes. My fragrances Unspoken, “when no words are needed”, and Innuendo, which is “as soft as a whisper”, are also composed of more base than top or heart notes – they are suggestive, connoting secrecy, and are thus intended to leave a lasting effect that is more of an intimate than a bold statement.
What are some of your favourite high/low sillage fragrances?
I love working with aoud (also known as oud), which is hugely popular in the Middle East due to its extraordinary ability to hold scent. Aoud is a relative of sandalwood which has been used for longer than any other material we know of. It has the ability to hold other materials in place and make them last and so it’s an excellent fixative. Aoud from Malaysia and Thailand has a heady aroma with sweet undertones and earthy overtones, however the lingering scent can be funky and off-putting, with sour overtones. Malaysian agarwood produces a deep woody and satisfying smoke, but it is generally very weak and does not last a long time. Aoud from Borneo Island (Indonesia) comes from the highest quality, oldest and most resinous agarwood trees that, when placed on a hot coal, produce the densest smoke and the longest burn. The scent that lingers after the smokiness goes away has a clean, sweet woody smell. It is also excellent for scenting one’s clothes, because it is very rich, spicy and woody. Aoud from Sumatra Island (Indonesia) produces smoke that is sweet, salty and slightly bitter. Some might find its smoke strange due to the saltiness, however it’s very good for scenting clothes.