The inexact science of finding the perfect fragrance for yourself (or someone else)

When it comes to scent, I don’t know which of my friends to envy more: Carol-Ann, whose choice of fragrance becomes more complex and adventurous every six months or Gillian, who has worn the same perfume, carelessly and flawlessly, for years.

As for me, most fragrances smell better on cardboard strips than my wrists. The nuances that entice me always fade away. And just when I think I’ve found The One, the composition changes before my very nose and gets overbearing and cloying. Investing in a scent for myself – never mind a loved one – seems impossibly risky.

In the hopes of avoiding yet another season of rookie mistakes and buyer’s remorse, I sought out expert advice on sniffing with authority and splurging without regret. Here are a few points to ponder in your pursuit of the perfect scent for yourself – or someone else.

The scent that attracts is different from the perfume that lingers

Fabrice Penot, the nose behind Le Labo, the cult fragrance line recently acquired by Estée Lauder, tells me that the typical department store delivers an assault of fragrances, each one competing for your attention. Mass market perfumers try to cut through the olfactory clutter by emphasizing their scent’s top notes. Often a citrus or spice, the top note is what hits the nostril first. As well as being the most seductive note, it is also the lightest and first to evaporate. Left behind, are the heavier base notes, which evolve, over a span of hours, for better or for worse. For this reason, one must resist the urge (or sales pressure) to buy a new fragrance on the spot. Instead, spritz it on your forearm and be on your way. If you still like what you smell three hours later, go back and make it yours.

Scent smells the same no matter who is wearing it

The idea that a scent ‘reacts’ with the wearer’s body chemistry and smells different on different people is an absolute myth, says Fabrice. The real reason your fragrance may smell different on you and your sister is because it is at different points in the ‘scent cycle’ described above. So even if you are supremely confident in your knowledge of your sib’s ‘taste’, it still pays to live with the scent and monitor how it unfolds before you surprise her with it.

Still unsure? Consider a ‘personality-based’ custom fragrance

Delivering the thrill and intimacy of a scent made just for you, custom blends tap into the scientific link between smell and behaviour to create a fragrance based on the wearer’s tastes and personality. While pricier bespoke options like Miller Harris or CB I Hate Perfume involve jetting to a fashion capital for private sessions with a master perfumer, Toronto-based Aromachology offers a modified, more economical approach. The process begins with a questionnaire (completed in-store or online) that assesses the wearer’s style, exercise and travel preferences and matches her responses with a corresponding base note from one of 5 olfactory categories. To determine the fragrance’s top notes, the wearer’s strongest character traits (i.e adventurous, romantic) are matched with the essential oil blends that best represent them. The resulting signature formula (which you can name yourself!) is composed by hand and decanted into an elegant glass cube, lovely for gift giving. The cost: $90 – $160.

While sympathetic to my Jekyll and Hyde perfume issues and past mistakes, Aromachology’s Kirsten Menkes insists people’s interests and characteristics dictate the scent they will like: the bolder their fashion and lifestyle choices, the more kick they’ll seek in a fragrance. She swears the questionnaire is accurate 98% of the time.

For the first time in years, I like my odds.