(Revised 2020) Once upon a time Patty and March were perfume virgins. We just didn’t know how to do it. Where to start, you know? The ladies tried to fix us up with mainstream perfumes like Lancome, and they tried to set us up with Estee, but it didn’t work out. March’s best friend loved Cristalle, but Cristalle hated her, so that never went anywhere. We made some mistakes. Flirted with Paris and Giorgio, but nothing much happened. You get the picture. We needed Perfume Education 101 – Niche Perfume and Classic Perfume for Beginners.
It’s funny looking back on those days and realizing how naive we were. Now we’ve turned pro. We’ve been caressed by niche perfume like Guerlain, wooed by Frederic Malle Malle, bitch-slapped several times by Caron. Serge Lutens has suggested things that would have disgusted us not so long ago, and now we just sigh and say, oooooooooooohhhh. That’s a new one.
Niche Perfume and Classic Perfume for Beginners – Perfume Education 101
We’ll leave this one up with a permanent link, and dump in here the relevant section from a previous post on where to get samples, so if you read this intro before, just skip ahead to the new stuff, here goes:
Unless you’re richer than God, the easiest way to sample a lot of fragrances is to buy or swap perfume samples, not full bottles. But where?
You can buy them outright from perfume/sample decant stores – your truly (Patty) and a partner went together and have a perfume sample/decant store Surrender to Chance, featuring tons of niche and classice, vintage, retro and men’s fragrance and cologne samples.
Department stores and getting samples there can be difficult, but usually if you buy something or cultivate one of the SAs, it works best.
Basenotes has a section for swapping and active perfume talk forums. If you have have a bottle or two of something decent and don’t mind the details associated with swapping — decanting and wrapping and mailing and keeping track — that is an excellent way to sample many scents for just the cost of postage and some decanting supplies. You’ll also learn a lot by reading and interacting in any one or more of those forums.
Where to start? Just start anywhere. Pick something you’ve read about. Or sample your way through a particular line, if you’ve found one scent there that really appeals. Or pick a note you like (rose, incense, tobacco, whatever.). We have a great guide going on individual notes, guiding you through them. So if you know absolutely you are a gardenia lover, just go there and start plowing the gardenia perfumes.
This is where we think you should start in your Niche Perfume Education sniffage to decide what you like and what direction you might like to explore further. With a couple of noted exceptions, we find these fragrances worthwhile without being scarily challenging to the nosebuds. Is this a biased list, weighted toward niche product and reflecting scents we like and neglecting things we don’t? Well, sure. So what?
You Should Smell:
- Classics you might not have smelled before, because this is what 100% high-octane gorgeousness smells like – Chanel Bois de Iles, Caron Parfum Sacre or Nuit de Noel, Patou Joy.
- Leather, because leather is such a great non-sweet note that adds depth to fragrance – Chanel Cuir de Russie, Serge Lutens Daim Blond, Caron Tabac Blond, CB I Hate Perfumes Russian Leather.
- Incense, for the same reason as leather – Unum Lavs or Comme des Garcons Avignon (niche perfume)
- Citrus — Guerlain Fleurs de Cedrat or Vitalisant (mainstream). Carthusia Mediterraneo, Santa Maria Novella Eva (niche perfume)
- Musk — Serge Lutens Clair de Musc (niche perfume). Narciso Rodriguez for Her, Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely are great mainstream perfumes
- Tea — one of the Bvlgaris (Verte — the one that launched a thousand imitations, Blanc, Rouge) L’Artisan The Pour Une Ete (niche perfume)
- Amber — Hermes Hermessences Ambre Narguile (niche perfume) and Youth Dew Amber Nude (mainstream)
Florals with an emphasis on a single note, to see if that is a flower you’re digging:
- Orange Blossom – Serge Lutens Fleurs d’Oranger (advanced beginner, due to cumin) both niche perfume (orange blossom guide).
- Iris — tricky for beginners due to metallic strangeness. Less challenging scents: Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile, Hermes Hiris (see iris guide)
- Rose – any of the Rosines, Creed Fleur de The Rose Bulgare for niche perfume. Yves Saint Laurent Paris for mainstream perfume (see rose guide)
- Violet — Guerlain Meteorites (dirt cheap and cheerful!), Annick Goutal Violette, or Molinard Violette if you have a high sugar tolerance (also see the comprehensive Violet guide)
- White florals — Serge Lutens Un Lys or Datura Noir, Frederic Malle Lys Mediterranee (niche perfume). Piguet Fracas, Marc Jacobs (very accessible, inexpensive and beautiful)
- Chypre, for that weird, mossy groove with its iterations – Guerlain Mitsouko (warning — advanced beginner, try hard, it’s like your first bite of asparagus), Hermes 24, Faubourg or Patou 1000.
- “Virtual Reality” frags that take you on a journey through a series of notes – Malle En Passant, L’Artisan Tea for Two, many of CB I Hate Perfumes (Russian Caravan Tea, Black March, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Burning Leaves, In The Library… check their website and salivate). Maison Martin Margiela has a Replica series that is great, as well.
Smell Because We Said So — they’re beautiful, unusual, and your life will be richer: Annick Goutal (Hadrien, Passion, Petite Cherie, Mandragore, knock yourself out), Guerlain Apres L’Ondee, Ormonde Jayne Woman (that OJ base! sigh), Gucci by Gucci EDP
- A Masculine, because we don’t believe in “men’s scents” – L’Instant Pour Homme, Arpege Pour Homme, Hermes Bel Ami, Dior Homme, Issey Miyake Pour Homme.
- If You Like Things Really Sweet: Flowerbomb, Guerlain Mon Guerlain, Guerlain L’Heure Bleue. (vanilla perfume guide)
But mostly, remember that, like Barbies, There are No Rules in Perfume. You like what you like, you don’t have to explain it by dissecting the notes and comparing and contrasting the composition, or you can do that if that puts bubbles in your bathtub. Perfume is personal and for fun. It makes us remember and sigh and swoon and turn up our nose. How we react to a perfume is unique, individual and unpredictable. So if you don’t love that 50-year-old classic and think it smells like the backside of a frog, please don’t be shy saying so. If you adore Brittney’s or Paris’ newest creation, don’t hide it! Stress is for work, tests and teenager raising, not for perfume. And that’s your Perfume Education.
Niche and Classic Perfume for Beginners Perfume Education 101 Sampler packs with some of the perfumes are available at Surrender to Chance.