Perfumery is well and truly an art form, and as such, the stricter and more detailed the rating system, the poorer the job the system will likely do to give justice to the fragrance at hand. When I read other people’s ratings of fragrances, certainly, I may glance at the number of stars allotted, but am more interested in the words raters use to describe the fragrances as well as their experiences with them. As a result, this is what I also try to focus on when reviewing.
Although I generally choose to avoid giving stars, I aim to mention what facets of the fragrance are particularly incredible, sub-standard or mediocre if I deem it helpful to my readers, whether from the perspective of perfume as an art, or from a more utilitarian standpoint. At the end of the day, one’s preferences are highly personal, so it likely does not matter what I or perhaps anyone else thinks.
Nonetheless, here I’d like to share with you a list of criteria that are typically used by perfume reviewers, which include 1) general smell & quality, 2) originality, 3) projection & sillage, 4) longevity, 5) versatility, 6) value, 7) like-ability (complement frequency), 8) packaging, as well as an 9) overall rating and 10) recommendations. I mostly stress the first four in addition to an overall grade when deciding whether to add a full bottle to my own personal collection. But first of all, a word about rating scales is in order.
When it comes to art, entertainment, and academics in Western culture, the 10 point scale is common, and in this scale any number below 7 points is considered a poor score. However, I think the 5 star system is more appropriate for perfumery, even though 0.5 stars are commonly given, simply because it looks cleaner, simpler, and is commonly used; 10 stars would complicate things, and 4 or less would oversimplify. In addition, the midway score of 3 stars is considered a positive, whereas 6 or 6.5 on the 10 point scale system is thought of as negative. As a side note, although I expect most of my readers are familiar with Western logic in ranking, many may not know that other cultures rate very differently. In Japan, for example, scales are often in reverse order; on a 4 point scale, 1 is the highest and 4 is the lowest.
- 2.5 and 3.5 stars is probably the average rating for the majority of scents out there. Scores of 4 aren’t common and 5s are rare.
- Two fragrances with the same overall rating aren’t equal. Two perfumes may warrant a score of 3 for completely different reasons. One might be pleasant but has no stand out quality, and the other might do one or more things extremely well, but one or more flaws, such as a dreadful projection.
- It’s hard not to be biased in reviews, as everyone is swayed toward one thing or another. I tend to prefer woody orientals and gourmands overall, so it’s hard to be fair to florals. I think most reviewers try to be somewhat objective, and I think good ones will be transparent about their preferences.
The quality of a fragrance is the most important but subjective of all criteria. Ingredient quality is often considered when judging, but a “natural” perfume or one with expensive/rare materials may not smell better. Perhaps the main question to be asked is how the smell of the fragrance makes you feel. What mood does it convey and what memories, if any, does it cause to surface? When one speaks of a fragrance’s quality, the concept of complexity is usually factored in. Complexity refers not only to how well the different notes and accords combine, but also how the scent develops as it evolves on your person. This perhaps most importantly includes the drydown, which is the final and longest lasting stage of a perfume. A scent may be magical at opening, but the top notes are almost always short-lived, and if the scent becomes average in an hour, its rating will suffer. A scent could also start out average, but develop into some kind of wonderful. This is of course why it’s best to try a perfume on for a few hours before committing to a bottle. Some scents are criticized for being linear (smelling the same from start to finish), but this might not be a bad thing – again, it’s all subjective!
- 1 out of 5 – Get this off my skin! It’s a scrubber.
- 2 out of 5 – The scent is OK; generic and may be off-putting to many.
- 3 out of 5 – It’s smells good, but doesn’t make a lasting impression.
- 4 out of 5 – It’s a beautiful, high quality scent.
- 5 out of 5 – It’s a rare masterpiece – LOVE!
Does this fragrance smell like the plethora of average fragrances available on the market or does it stand out and surprise you in its uniqueness? Does it push the envelope, setting new standards, or is it super safe and uninspiring? Just because the fragrance breaks new ground, however, does not mean it smells like heaven on steroids, however, but in a world where hundreds of fragrances come onto the market every year, originality has to factor in. The flip side to all this is that incredible fragrances of times past tend to generate flattering flankers and imitations, and although not original, the newer fragrances might improve on the more classic version. Personally, however, I have rarely liked a flanker more than the original, and I feel that fragrances that imitate others do not deserve the credit.
- 1 out of 5 – There’s absolutely nothing original about this scent.
- 2 out of 5 – You should easily be able to find a scent that could replace this.
- 3 out of 5 – This is different, but with some effort you could find something similar.
- 4 out of 5 – It’s very original OR (ironically) It smells just like —, and wow, isn’t that amazing?
- 5 out of 5 – There’s absolutely nothing else like it.
3) Projection & Sillage
A scent needs to be able to project for more than just an hour. Generally you want other people to smell you. Everyone’s skin is different, though. I try it on different parts of my skin and it projects differently depending on where I spray, but I’m looking at the overall picture. While projection refers to the minimum distance needed to perceive the fragrance, sillage refers the scent trail that is a result of movement. For simplicity, I group them together. More projection and/or sillage isn’t always better. One thing is certain, however – if people can barely smell the fragrance, no matter how wonderful it is, what is the point? It’s rather like having a fascinating idea at a conference, but having horrendous presentation skills and slides. The audience will likely fall asleep because they aren’t compelled to listen enough.
- 1 out of 5 – faint; Someone would have to put their nose right up to your skin to perceive your scent.
- 2 out of 5 – soft; Only people intimately close to you can smell your scent.
- 3 out of 5 – moderate; Only people in your immediate vicinity can smell your scent.
- 4 out of 5 – heavy; People can smell you coming or leaving.
- 5 out of 5 – enormous; People smell you from afar, or even quite some time after you’re no longer around.
This is a straightforward criterion. How long does the scent last on skin (or hair or clothing)? The good news is that if a scent performs poorly in terms of longevity, you can always spray on some more!
- 1 out of 5 – poor; 2 hours or less
- 2 out of 5 – weak; 3~4 hours
- 3 out of 5 – moderate; 5~6 hours
- 4 out of 5 – long-lasting; 7~8 hours
- 5 out of 5 – very long-lasting; sometimes 12 hours or more
Summer, winter, fall or spring? Day or night? Formal or informal? Mature or youthful? Safe or avant-garde? Versatility in perfumery is a word that is generally used in the context of being safe (not too offensive). This often conflicts with originality, but fragrances that are both unique and safe are gems. A versatile fragrance is one that you can wear to work, to a classy event, out on the town clubbing, and for casual occasions (practically anywhere). It won’t offend too many people and that different ages and genders call pull it off in any season. Good luck finding just one that will do all that. Just call to mind your wardrobe and you’ll easily see what I mean. Highly versatile scents do exist, however, but that may ultimately not be what you are looking for, and in that case a lower score on the scale below would be much more appropriate. This is what I mean when I wrote above that rating in detail impedes one’s ability to properly evaluate.
- 1 out of 5 – It is very difficult to name times where this would be appropriate to wear.
- 2 out of 5 – You can only wear this on specific occasions, and particular times of the day and year. Perhaps it’s perceived as being more appropriate for one age group or gender.
- 3 out of 5 – This scent works well for either day or night OR multiple seasons OR multiple occasions OR both genders and many age groups.
- 4 out of 5 – This scent is very versatile; it works well for either day or night AND/OR multiple seasons AND/OR multiple occasions, AND/OR works for both men and woman of many ages.
- 5 out of 5 – This scent can work perfectly for pretty much anyone, anywhere, anytime.
This criterion, like longevity, projection and versatility, is more utilitarian. Yes, the price tag on the perfume box will ultimately determine whether or not I personally buy a particular scent, but it doesn’t determine if I enjoy how it smells or how it wears, or even necessarily my overall rating of the scent, but I concede that it is a factor that easily constitutes an important criterion for many people, so when I feel a scent is “too expensive” or a “real steal”, I say so. I deliberately avoid the words price or cost in the name of this criterion, as if I am in love with a gorgeous, expensive perfume that has amazing sillage and longevity, I’ll be more likely to invest in it than perhaps an even better one that only I can smell and is thrown off my skin in just a couple of hours.
If minimalism in possessions is not your thing and a thin wallet is rarely your issue, then this factor will never be a criterion. But for most of us it must be admitted that collecting fragrances is not a cheap hobby and getting the biggest bang for our buck is important. This is where the above factors come together. Niche fragrances may be graded more harshly than cheaper designer fragrances for this reason, as they may be absofrickin’lutely divine, but not worth the price to some. It’s worth stressing that, on the other side of the coin, if a fragrance costs very little, but the quality is not incredibly inspiring, I personally do not feel the great price should boost the overall rating.
- 1 out of 5 – OMG, my car cost more than this!
- 2 out of 5 – This is a HUGE splurge for me.
- 3 out of 5 – standard perfume price of less than 100 USD for 100 ml
- 4 out of 5 – less than 50 USD for a 100 ml bottle OR Oh, it’s on sale? Great!
- 5 out of 5 – Instead of grabbing a fast food meal, I’ll get me a bottle of this stuff!
7) Like-ability (Compliment Frequency)
For many people, fragrance is worn more to impress others than delight themselves. Not that receiving complements is unpleasant, but I personally admit to wearing a fragrance for myself more than for others (and I suppose at the end of the day, when I purchase scent for my significant other, it’s more for myself than for him – haha!). For those who want to smell good for others, however, note that a high amount of compliments may indicate a fragrance is just safe and perhaps even mediocre. Very generally speaking, I rate more unique and complex niche fragrances higher than designer fragrances, but the latter tend to generate more compliments because they are simply pleasant and not “strange” in any way.
- 1 out of 5 – People move away from you.
- 2 out of 5 – You never get compliments on the scent you’re wearing.
- 3 out of 5 – Compliments on the scent you’re wearing are rare, but you have received them.
- 4 out of 5 – You often get complements on the scent you’re wearing.
- 5 out of 5 – You get compliments all the time, often with people dying to know what you are wearing.
8) Packaging (Bottling)
Although the look of the bottle should not be a factor in evaluation of the scent it contains, it is, and probably more than many hardcore perfumistas would care to admit. If it weren’t, less money would be spent on the bottle and more on its contents. The fact is that just like with sex, image and appearance sell products (as do branding, labeling, positioning, naming, and all those other marketing concepts we often love to hate). Really, I confess to taking pleasure at simply looking at the perfume bottles in my collection as well as handling them.
To be sure, whether or not one likes the bottle is completely subjective. I much prefer the modern Gucci Rush plastic container to the old-fashioned bottles from Annick Goutal (though they have now been refashioned). I also think many exquisite Middle Eastern bottles are hideously gaudy, but many of those designs will delight others. My 2 out of 5 may be a 5 for someone else. In packaging, however, there are utilitarian factors to consider as well. Does the spray atomizer work well? Is the bottle so delicate it breaks easily when you accidentally drop it? Does it leak? Does the heavy weight convey luxury to you? It is light enough to pack for travel should you decide to take the whole thing? No, packaging is not the top factor when choosing a fragrance, but it cannot be ignored.
- 1 out of 5 – The bottle looks cheap, trashy, doesn’t spray well, and leaks (and possibly more).
- 2 out of 5 – The bottle has just 1 or 2 of the above attributes.
- 3 out of 5 – The bottle and sprayer are functional, but nothing special, aesthetically.
- 4 out of 5 – Much thought seems to have gone into the packaging; it’s attractive and highly functional.
- 5 out of 5 – The bottle is a work of art that likely may costs more than the juice it contains, and it sprays well, too.
9) Overall Rating
After considering all the above criteria, a fragrance can be given an overall score. This is usually NOT a mathematical average of all the factors at hand, however; it’s more of a general, overall impression, where certain criteria may be downplayed or ignored. It it logical that fragrance quality and originality would weigh the heaviest for most raters.
- 1 out of 5 – Terrible – Most fragrances actually aren’t this bad, and as any fragrance will have a few fans, this is an extremely uncommon score.
- 2 out of 5 – Mediocre – Fragrance receiving this score aren’t bad, but are not inspiring. It is more likely receiving a bad score due to a combination of being overpriced and unoriginal, and lacking in versatility, projection, and longevity. Fragrances with this score can easily be worn by people without discriminating tastes, but fragrance collectors will likely avoid them.
- 3 out of 5 – Good – The positives outweigh the negatives, but there are still better fragrances out there. This fragrance will appeal to people who like a certain scent enough to tolerate its flaws. A lack of originality, projection, or longevity are some possible reasons perfumes with this rating don’t warrant a score of 4.
- 4 out of 5 – Great – This fragrance does just about everything you could ever want from a fragrance of its type (meaning it’s good enough for a lack of versatility to ignore). There aren’t any significant problems with the fragrance, and you definitely like it a lot, but you are not left in complete awe, either.
- 5 out of 5 – Amazing – This fragrance is not only flaw free, but is a true masterpiece, either a classic from ages past that has lasted through the years or a groundbreaking scent that will shape the industry. It surpasses expectations and can be considered a staple for many collectors. Note, however, that you might be able to acknowledge that a fragrance is a masterpiece without being in love with it! (you can’t be everything to everyone!)
This is not set on a scale, but perfume reviewers will often suggest actions at the end of their reviews as a summary, examples being:
- Don’t buy!
- Sample this because —, but otherwise I don’t recommend it.
- Try before you buy.
- Excellent value for money.
- A top crowd-pleaser.
- So good it’s worth blind buying!