For many guys, fragrance is undiscovered territory. After all, cologne is something worn mostly by continental types or, if there’s a ship on the bottle, grandfathers. Right? Wrong. Olfaction actually triggers both emotion and memory far more than sight and sound—so any man who eschews wearing a scent misses out on an important tool in his presentational arsenal.
“Scent is extraordinarily important in telling people who you are and what you believe,” says Chandler Burr, former perfume critic for The New York Times and a leading fragrance expert.
Of course, telling the right story is essential. Pay too little attention to what you’re wearing, and your aromatic signature might be “teenager after gym class.” So how do you find that perfect match? Well, by getting yourself to a fragrance counter and patiently sniffing around. Here’s what you’ll encounter.
How a Fragrance Works
Fragrance isn’t just one single smell. “Some scents evolve more than others,” says Burr, “but they all evolve.” This is exactly why you should never just spritz some fragrance onto blotter paper, smell it, and buy. Much like people, you can’t judge a fragrance by your first impression. Here’s what you’ll notice if you give it time:
Top note: This is what you smell upon application. It’ll disappear first, within a couple of hours. The top note comprises lighter ingredients, usually citruses like bergamot, florals like lavender, and aromatics like anise.
Middle note: This hangs around after the top note has cleared, lingering for three to five hours. It’s also called the heart note, because it’s the fragrance’s main theme. Expect heavier floral ingredients like jasmine, fruits like pear, greens like grass, and spices like cinnamon.
Base note: This foundational scent develops last and clings to your skin longest—from five to ten hours. The base note is composed of rich ingredients such as sandalwood, vetiver, tobacco, and musk.
A heady, heavy base scent would be unpleasant if smelled right away, but thanks to the top and middle notes evolving first, the base softens before you notice it. That’s is why the interworking of the three notes is so important. Take, for example, Hugo Boss’s newest men’s fragrance, BOSS The Scent: It starts with notes of ginger, then unfolds into African Maninka fruit and finishes with leather notes. There’s an exotic story there, intrepid and seductive. You’ll know the fragrance works if each note doesn’t just make way for the next, but complements the others to create a cohesive narrative.
How to Shop for a Fragrance
Scents react differently to different body chemistry, so what smells good on someone else won’t smell the same way on you. To properly shop for a fragrance, you’ll actually need to wear it.
“You can wear four,” Burr says, “on the left wrist, right wrist, left elbow, and right elbow.” (Go ahead and spray some on that blotter paper to pick the four you like.) Make note of which is which, and then smell how each scent develops over the course of its lifecycle. Liking the top note doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll dig the middle and base notes as well. “Smell them at one minute, five minutes, 15 minutes, a half hour, hour one, hour two, hour three, and hour five,” Burr says.
To know whether you’ve landed on the right scent, don’t just sit at home sniffing your arms—make it an active day. And smell it accidentally: Suddenly someone brushes by you, you catch a whiff and… it just makes you happy. That’s when you know you’ve found your winner.