I often get the question on how to sample perfume, especially from people new to niche perfumes. This question perplexes me only because how you sample depends on what kind of Perfumista you are. Which leads me to the point of this post: What Kind of Sniffer Are You?
For All samplers — when you get a load of perfume samples in, you will be tempted to just dive in, and you can do that to some extent, but use that as a preliminary sorting thing – like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter series – open the cap and sniff, then put them into a pile of Love the Top Notes or Don’t Love the Top Notes. Remember that this pile means absolutely nothing, but by all means, smell those first where you love the top notes.
Sample no more than 2 perfumes a day. You can go up to 4 a day if you spread them out by a half day. Doing multiples up and down your arms and on your knees is for later. Now, take notes, and you will find a couple of things: One, the perfume very often does not smell like just the top notes, and those notes are quickly gone, replaced by something else… something you may love, hate, or be indifferent to.
Now, organize your thoughts on this somehow – notebook, spreadsheet, post-it notes, something – jot down the notes of the perfume, what you thought about each one in each stage – top, middle and drydown. Don’t note just yet on whether it is worth buying because you should test each one 2-3 times. The nose can be fickle on the wrong day, and you don’t want to toss, give away or swap away that perfume sample, only to find out three years later that you swapped away the perfume you love. Sample each one a few days or weeks apart. If you need to be more organized in knowledge since you’re having trouble figuring out which notes are doing it for you, spring for the Le Labo Olfactionary – it’s expensive, but worth it.
Part of your perfume sampling is dependent on your purpose, and the purpose can change, though people do fall into some main categories:
- Sniffing With a Purpose – you are looking for something specific and don’t won’t to be sidetracked with other pretty things.
- Sniffing Randomly — You like to sniff a wide variety before narrowing in your search
- Sniffing Wildly — You just like to sniff everything. You may or may not bother to buy bottles. For you, the main advernture is in finding and cataloguing all those smells out there so you know them.
Now, while you may not stay in one of those groups all the time, there are some major types of Sniffer:
Gimme My Holy Grail… Now!
There’s a couple of botles of perfume on my dresser, one from 10 years ago that I can’t bear to wear anymore. There’s probably a couple more in the closet packed away from college or high school. I’ve gotten down to not wearing perfume anymore because everything in the drugstore and/or department stores smells alike, and I don’t want to smell like everyone else. I’d really like to find my Holy Grail and have done with this hunt – I have zero time to go hunting for perfumes, but I’d like to smell good and unique. There’s been articles I’ve read recently about niche perfumes, and from what I’m reading, I’m thinking my Holy Grail will be in that genre, but I am not spending wicked much money on this like some of those Perfume Kooks.
You have a very focused sampling viewpoint. You want to get in, find something to love and get out. You may get distracted if you’re not careful, which could be a good thing for you, you Little No Frills, All Business, Type A Perfumista. Here’s how you want to sample. Get something from all the major note/type families that you know you don’t hate, even those you aren’t sure about. Try and get the best or most classic examples of the type. Sort them carefully in a spreadsheet with the notes in each, comments about what you thought of each of them and what seemed to be lacking. Then you can try and find others of the same type that have that something else you’re looking for or a note that you do like but wasn’t in there but is in another. Sort them by favorite to least favorite. There, that will satisify your organizational abilities.
Now go out and sniff something crazeeee niche and expensive where you don’t know the notes. See? That was fun, wasn’t it, smelling in a void just for the pure pleasure of it. You may now resume your orderly search for your Holy Grail, but don’t remain so closed minded that if you don’t find it quickly, you quit looking. You may find out that just as you are not the exact same person every day, one perfume just won’t fit you every day of the year. There’s no need to think you have to be one of the crazees that has 100+ bottles of perfume, but having a wardrobe of 5-10 scents won’t kill ya.
Hey, I’m on a Budget!!
Listen, I’m in college or have six kids to raise or whatever, but there’s only about $50 a year to toss out on a perfume… but I still love them so… and so many of them. How can I satisfy my great love of perfume without breaking the bank?
Swapping. Spring for one bottle, a really good one that’s in high, high demand (do two years of your budget, if you must, for a bell jar from a friend going to or in Europe), try and get something on eBay for less than retail (NOT Chanel or Creed, they are too often fakes), and then start swapping away perfume samples and perfume decants for the things you really want to try. Keep the swapped samples to swap for other things you want to try. Don’t be above begging here. It‘s worked used to work on me when I was MUA swapping. This is the harder, more painful, slower road, but many perfumistas can attest that they have been able to sample a lot of wonderful things using this method, it just can take longer. You probably won’t have to worry about how to go through a bunch of perfume samples at a time, though, since you’ll likely have time to savor the ones you get when you get them!
For Pete’s sake.. it’s Just Perfume
Look, it’s just perfume. I want to smell good, but it’s not solving world peace. Last time I bought perfume, I liked it fine in the store, got home, and wore it twice, it was horrible. I know perfume has to be better than this, doesn’t it? How do I get the most bang for my buck so I can accumulate 5-10 scents to wear that will take me through the next decade, and then I’ll worry about new things then.
JUST PERFUME?!?!? Okay, deep breaths. Yes, you’re right, it’s not solving the world’s ills, but it’s making it a nicer, more beautiful place on the way through. Scent is the Sense with Memory, and it remembers everything. Okay, Miss Neanderthal, your sampling should be geared to trying those things that you’ll love or are fairly certain to love, playing it safe. If you already know types you hate, cross those off, and go after ones that have the best likelihood of making it work for you. As you find one that’s a keeper, make a note of it. Once you get to your magic number, just stop… or don’t. Oh, unexpected fun? Now you can either buy the bottles to last you that 5-10 years, if it’s in your budget. If not, it’s a really high-priced scent, just get a decant and wear it for your more special occasions. Perfume decants won’t last as long, but at least if it’s an expensive mistake, a decant won’t be as expensive as a full bottle.
I WANT IT ALL!! (Perfumed Piggy)
Yeah, yeah, responsible sampling, orderly, taking notes. Right. I really want to smell everything and have been slowly going through everything, including my budget and credit cards and home equity line of credit. How do I keep sampling but do it somewhat financially responsibly?
This is a really hard one, truly. The Advanced Stages of the Perfume Smelling Illness. First, take your time with your perfume samples. I know how easy it is to just flit off to the next new things, but there’s a treasure trove in all those samples and decants you have laying around. Take time to truly appreciate them. Use a combination of approaches to stretch your perfume dollar. Swap the ones you don’t care for or just aren’t you for other things, and you’ve just doubled that sample dollar right there! Take more time in smelling. Yes, I know this is similar to the slow down when you eat your dessert advice, but try it anyway. You may find a new love by re-sampling. You also know you’ve become one of those Perfume Phreaks people whisper about? I know this because I am one, too.
So remember — sample slowly, sample sober, and stay safe out there.
Which kind of sniffer are you, and should there be more categories?