“Why does every perfume turn so sweet on me?” complained a friend, sparking a mission to find her a fragrance that didn’t have caramel, chocolate or other patisserie notes. With the success of Thierry Mugler’s Angel and other popular gourmands, perfumes have been growing sweeter and more edible over the years. While only recently a cotton candy accord of Lancôme’s La Vie est Belle would have been considered more suitable for pudding than perfume, today it’s a new benchmark. Our appetite for sugar seems to have found a parallel in the olfactory realm, and every season there are more perfumes promising to replicate famous desserts from crème brûlée to apple pie.
For my unsweetened perfume selection, I started with the chypre family. Generally, this style of fragrance composition relies on the interaction of woods, moss and citrus, and avoids obvious sweetness because the main components temper it down. A classic such as Guerlain’s Mitsouko (£93 for 75ml EDP), for instance, includes a generous dose of vanilla and creamy peach, yet it doesn’t smell dessert-like because of the balance of the accords and the presence of moss and patchouli. The former has an inky, marine scent, while the latter, a leaf from a plant grown in Indonesia, smells spicy, dark and dry.
A similar dry, woody accent erases any trace of sugar in a new generation chypre like Chanel 31, Rue Cambon (£155 for 75ml EDP). The fragrance doesn’t have the heavy mossy layer of a classical chypre like Mitsouko, but it retains the “dry martini” effect that makes this family so distinctive. The bitter citrus peel and patchouli are paired with iris for an elegant finish.
Cedarwood is one of the driest woods in a perfumer’s palette, and while it can be given different interpretations, the least sweetened blends are the ones intended for men. One should keep in mind that For Him and For Her are merely conventions, and those women who wish to avoid sweet perfumes shouldn’t hesitate to explore the men’s side of the fragrance aisle. For instance, Cartier Déclaration (£88 for 100ml EDT) is a great choice for a dry blend rich in woods, pepper and bitter orange. Marc Jacobs Men (£70 for 125ml EDT) is a bright, green fig that has a sophisticated twist of woods and musk.
Other fig-focused blends, such as Diptyque Philosykos (£92 for 100ml EDT) and L’Artisan Parfumeur Premier Figuier (£105 for 100ml EDT), can also satisfy those who lack a sweet tooth. The classical fig accord doesn’t mimic the honeyed sweetness of ripe figs but rather the tangy scent of green fruit, along with the sticky sap of its leaves. This vibrant, verdant note is uplifting and refreshing. Both Philosykos and Premier Figuier were created by perfumer Olivia Giacobetti, but while the former composition is airy and green, the latter has a creamy finish. Both are irresistible. Neither is sweet.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch on all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.