Let’s begin by summoning the courage to face an embarrassing truth. How many of us Indians can honestly claim to know how to shop for the perfect perfume? Do we understand the French gibberish written on a bottle of perfume? Can we distinguish between a Cologne, Eau de toilette and Eau de parfum? Can we decode whether the perfume is for males, females or unisex?

Nope. Most of us just buy some cheap deo spray / body spray whose advertisement we happened to see on our tv and buy it from the local store. The text on most perfume bottles simply baffles us.  

Through this blog, let’s aim to eliminate our illiteracy with respect to perfumes by deconstructing the vocabulary of perfumes and learning how to interpret text written on a perfume bottle. And yes, general fun trivia and facts regarding perfumes as kosher for your brain cells!

 

What are Perfumes made of?

Perfumes are essentially mixtures of different aromatic extracts and essential oils mixed in alcohol and water.

 

Why is the information on most perfume bottles written in French?

Which is the country that comes first to an individual’s mind when he thinks spices? Of course, India. Our climate and soil clearly give us the advantage to be the undisputed king of spice exports. It’s same correlation between perfumes and the French. For centuries, the plants and herbs required to produce the essential oils used in perfumes were grown in the region of Grasse in France. The perfume industry of this region catered to entire Europe aristocracy. (In fact, Grasse is known as the world’s perfume capital). It therefore makes complete logical sense that these undisputed masters of perfumery who have been in this business for centuries get to decide the vocabulary.

And how can we forget that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery as well as business opportunity? Even if a perfume is manufactured in any part of world other than the French speaking regions, French is deliberately used to make the product sound classy and elegant. 

How to decipher whether the perfume is for men or women OR UNISEX?

  • If a perfume is intended for men, the bottle will have the text Pour Homme mentioned prominently on the bottle (Pour= For ; Homme = Men).
  • If a perfume is intended for women, the bottle will bear the text Pour Femme mentioned prominently on the bottle (Pour= For ; Femme = Women).
  • If neither Pour Homme nor Pour Femme is mentioned, it’s unisex.

Remember that these are French words. Though French and English share the same set of letters of the alphabet, the pronunciation of the letters is as different as chalk and cheese. A helpful index is provided below.

French Word

How to pronounce (in English)

How to Pronounce (in Hindi)

Pour Homme

Poo Ho-muh

पू हो-म

Pour Femme

Poo Fem

पू फम

Perfume Categories:

The category a bottled fragrance belongs to is usually mentioned clearly on the bottle label. The difference between these perfume categories essentially boils down to the concentration of the aromatic essences added to the alcohol-based solvent. Greater the concentration, the longer the scent lasts on one’s body. Also, greater the concentration, higher the price!

Once again, all these perfume categories are French in origin. ‘Eau’ (pronounced ‘oo’) in French means water; ‘de’ means of.

Parfum

Vintage Parfum bottle with stoppe
Empty Parfum Glass Bottles with Stopper

Concentration of Essence: 20%- 40%

Perfume Category: Parfum
How to pronounce:                          

  • purr- faam
  • पर-फाम

How long the fragrance lasts once applied:
Up to 8 hours to 24 hours

Facts and Features:

  • Sold in small stopper bottles as only a very limited quantity needs to be applied
  • Very expensive
  • Has a thick, oily consistency

History Trivia:
In the days of yore, when plumbing didn’t exist, most Europeans didn’t bathe daily. (Most bathed only once a week or less frequently). Hence, perfumes were used (by those who could afford it) to mask unpleasant body odours.
Thanks to technology for big mercies like plumbing and running water that we can bath comfortably daily!

de Parfum

‘Chanel No. 5’, one of the most popular perfumes in the world

Concentration of Essence: 15% – 20%

Perfume Category: Eau de Parfum
How to pronounce:

  • oo-day-purr-faam
  • उ डे पर-फाम

How long the fragrance lasts once applied:
Up to 5 to 9 hours

Facts and Features:

  • Sold in spray bottles
  • Sometime, instead of the term ‘Eau de Parfum’, the alternative term ‘Parfum de Toilette’ is used.
  • Eau de Parfums must ideally be used for special occasions. For regular use, go for an Eau de Toilette.
  • A perfume manufactured in France will in all probability carry the sub-label ‘Paris’ on the bottle. This is intended with sole purpose of increasing the snob value of the perfumes French perfumes are considered the best in the world.

Eau de Toilette

An Eau de Toilette from the prestigious Cartier Fragrance Collections

Concentration of Essence: 5%-15%

Perfume Category: Eau de Toilette
How to pronounce:                            

  • oo-day-twa-laite
  • उ-डे-ट्वालेट

How long the fragrance lasts once applied:
Up to 2 to 6 hours

Facts and Features:

  • Ideal for warmer climates
  • Sold in spray bottles
  • Occasionally referred to as Eau de Fragrance.
  • Must ideally be applied to the skin directly after bathing or shaving

Fact Check:
‘Toilette’ is the French word for the English term ‘toilet’. For Indians, the toilet is a place where they pee or poop. This leads to the mistaken notion that ‘Eau de Toilette’ means ‘Toilet water’, leading to a lot of gross jokes in this specific cultural context.
However, in French and most European cultures), the toilet is a large space where people groom themselves before stepping out. Hence, the correct translation of ‘Eau de Toilette’ is ‘Grooming water’ (and not ‘Toilet water’).

Eau de Cologne

Premium, a popular brand of Eau de Cologne sold in India

Concentration of Essence: 2%-5%

Perfume Category: Eau de Cologne
How to pronounce:

  • oo-day-kuh-lon
  • उ डे क-लोन

How long the fragrance lasts:
Up to 2 to 3 hours

Facts and Features:

  • Sold in large bottles
  • Ideal for use in hot climates
  • Most colognes are unisex/ gender neutral.
  • This perfume originated in Cologne, Germany. Hence, this name literally means ‘Water of Cologne’.

Body Sprays/ Deodorant Sprays/ Body Mists

What’s the basic difference between perfumes and body sprays/ body mists? Well, all perfumes are liquid in nature while body sprays, deodorant sprays and body mists are gaseous in nature with suspended drops/particles (less than 2% volume-wise). These sprays are sold in aluminum canisters with spray nozzle mechanism that generates a spray/mist. Unlike perfumes which are applied only on specific points of the body, you need to apply copious amounts of body spray all over your torso for the scent to linger. Due to their very nature, body sprays tend to evaporate much faster. You need to reapply it every couple of hours if you want its fragrance to last. Also, they are way cheaper than most perfumes.

Tip:

If you want prefer ‘class’ to ‘crass’, always invest in a good perfume or two rather than a dozen body sprays.

Why are perfumes sold in glass bottles?

For all perfumes, the scented oils and essences are added to an alcohol-based solvent. Alcohol tends to evaporate over time, which can cause the scent of the perfume to change. Glass keeps the perfume relatively stable, except when the bottle is uncorked. Modern spray-top bottles prevent some of that evaporation by providing a tighter seal.

Of Perfumers and Perfumeries

The factory where perfumes are produced is usually known as a perfumery. A business establishment that exclusively sells only perfumes is also known as a perfumery.

A person in the business of making and selling perfumes is a ‘perfumer’. It’s important to get the subtlety of the term ‘perfumer’ right. For example, one of the world’s most popular perfumes Chanel No. 5 was commercially sold by the French fashion industry legend Coco Chanel. Though, she was in the business of making and selling perfumes, she cannot be called a ‘perfumer’ as she didn’t create this fragrance. She hired perfumers to create it for her fashion label. Similarly, a sales executive at a store helping you buy the right perfume is a sales executive, not a perfumer. To be a perfumer, one must know the complicated science cum art of creating fragrances.

The Fragrances of the East: Ittar

Eastern cultures (especially the Hindus and Muslim diaspora) look upon negatively at the use of alcohol. In fact, the tenets of Islam strictly prohibit its followers from consuming alcohol in any form. It’s one of the reasons why Muslims don’t use western perfumes. Does it mean the Eastern world didn’t use perfumes? On the contrary, they invented their own range of fragrances many centuries ago in the form of ‘Ittar’ (also called ‘Attar’ in some regions) and pronounced इत्तर or अत्तर. The main difference between perfumes and Ittars is that most perfumes are alcohol-based while Ittars are oils and essences distilled in water and aged over a period of time. These water-based fragrances have been part of the cultural lifestyle in the Indian sub-continent and Arab world for many centuries.

Western perfumes may have launched a Blitzkrieg on the Indian market, but every city or town has its own Ittar-selling perfumery with lovely fragrances to suit the local climate.

The ‘Ittar’ version of best-selling perfumes from Top Fashion Houses

The Ittar manufacturers of the Indian sub-continent have the canny ability to adapt to market demands and are so enterprising that they have successfully created the Ittar versions of all best-selling perfumes in the western world at a fraction of the cost. It’s just one of the many instances where we Indians exhibit our enterprising nature and propensity for ‘jugaad’ (resourcefulness).

Next time you want to try out the scent of any awesome perfume you have sensed or heard of and don’t have the financial resources to purchase, just head off to your local Ittar store!