Despite received knowledge claiming fragrance concentration to be synonymous with lasting power and "strength" of the scent, largely influencing selling price as well, the truth is a little more complicated, with obscure terms like Parfum de Toilette, Eau Parfumée, Mist, Esprit de Parfum, etc. confusing even some of the more knowledgeable perfume lovers! In no way a conclusive guide to perfume shopping, but more a historical layout of how some of the more common odd concentrations evolved, I set out to relay some of the details which surround notable examples of fragrance so-called "concentration" that mean something more than just percent inclusion of oils in the formula.
To begin with, the following photo, courtesy of whatsthatsmell205, shows an example of a Chanel No.5 fragrance which circulated in the USA in the 1950s and which provokes a smile. The factory location is identified on the bottle as in New York, which corresponds with the data we have from Chanel post-WWII, when the Wertheimers, owners of Parfums Chanel, following a systematic pogrom of Jewish people, and Coco Chanel's own open hostility, opened an American branch in New Jersey, still in production today. For those interested, Chanel's tangled wartime adventures can be read in my article. It's not a happy story, but it's absolutely true.
Aside from any ruminations on how this came to be, the label tells us one thing, loud and clear. American audiences needed a clear reminder of what this was meant to be. Nevertheless, the term "toilet water" is, shall we say, rather funny. Technically correct in being a literal translation from the French "eau de toilette", it foregoes the included knowledge that toilette, and the ensuing phrase faire sa toilette, derive from the cloth, toile in French, on which cosmetics were laid for grooming the aristocracy in the 18th century. Therefore, it has nothing to do with the water closet, and everything to do with the boudoir. But that's another French word, often mistaken, as well.
Initially, there was extrait de parfum, the so-called pure perfume, the most concentrated version and the costliest. For ease of marketing to the masses when designer perfumes became a commodity for the bourgeoisie after WWI, designer fragrances were also available in either Eau de Toilette or Eau de Cologne version, the latter much more effervescent to inspire a sense of well-being, following the long-held tradition of centuries past since Jean Marie Farina brought his Italian recipe to the German city of Cologne. When the decade of the yuppies came 'round after the sexual revolution, being smelled coming from across the corporate floor was seen as a motion of marking one's territory; the same with huge quarterback shoulder pads, seemingly making enough personal space to dominate the conference tables on which all the important decisions were being made.
In the 21st century when fragrances are suffering from a policy of political correct watering down, and an over-vigilance of regulatory bodies such as IFRA, who oversee formulae for maximum inclusion of potent ingredients that might cause skin sensitization, the current Eaux de Parfum are surprisingly weak, even compared to previous Eaux de Toilette. Guerlain is a good case study for that, with many fans and collectors still owning bottles from the 1980s noting this phenomenon.
The term parfum de toilette
is another interesting curio. Originating in the 1980s before the term eau de parfum became prevalent, but after a need for strong and determined concentration was declared, it is for all purposes the equivalent of an eau de parfum
. In fact, some of the best Guerlain editions come under this parfum de toilette
guise, of which I'm the proud owner of a few bottles, notably Shalimar
and L'Heure Bleue
, which shine with their rich depth and nuanced textures, close to the opulence of the glorious extraits, really, but with more legible projection onto the receiving nostrils which quiver upon their intriguing waft.
photo by Elena Vosnaki
One of the most prevalent contemporary tendencies in fragrance concentration being presented to the public is the absolu. The so-called absolute version, first popularized with J'Adore L'Absolu by Dior in 2007, where it was a limited edition denoting a peculiar inclusion of nectarous tuberose absolute, has taken the world by storm. We have specimens from all sides of the perfumery world, mainstream and niche, as well as drugstore.
Above there is a splendid exhibit from Chloe, the Nomade Absolu de Parfum. Although the term absolu would lead one to believe we're dealing with a stronger, more concentrated version of the original Eau de Parfum, this is not the case. On the contrary, the original Nomade Eau de Parfum, overall fresher and more acidic in comparison, remains the one which projects more and lasts more on the skin, no doubt thanks to its inclusion of state of the art contemporary ingredients and its distinctive oakmoss note. For those interested in a comparison between Nomade EDP and EDT, please consult my review.
Even brands known more for their adherence to a lighter approach to fragrance, more of an afterthought than the main course, such as Nuxe's famous Huile Prodigieux, which became a fragrance for wearing that addictive summer smell all year round, have succumbed to the trend. Prodigieux Absolu de Parfum is the case in point. What is historically interesting here is that the ritual of perfume is re-imagined anew, since an oil format is the time honored way of scenting the skin from the time of the ancient Egyptians onwards.
Another major contemporary tendency follows in the opposite direction. Instead of fantasies of thick concentrates dripping drop by drop, in the old school way, we're borne along the wayside of the Eau Fraîche. It literally means "fresh water" and harkens back to the days when scent was more aromatherapeutical. It used to denote a lower concentration of essence oils in the compound, up to 3%, contrasted to between 11-18% of other common concentrations, nowadays it's nevertheless mostly used in lieu of common eau de toilette, with therefore increased concentration. The most famous paradigm of such in historical context, where it stood as a proper lasting fragrance for scenting one's self indulgently is Dior's Eau Fraîche, a stand-alone cologne from the 1950s by Edmond Roudnitska, 1953 to be specific. The citrusy chypre formula serves the concept of fraîcheur perfectly. It's also great for both sexes, since freshness is considered a prized commodity for either. The legacy lives on with the reissue in the collection Les Creations de Monsieur Dior Eau Fraîche, from 2009, this time presented dedicatedly to women.
Apart from historical houses, however, the term is embraced by contemporaries, such as the example from By Kilian below.
Good Girl Gone Bad in an Eau Fraîche edition (since there is the plain Good Girl Gone Bad too) is a bit of any oxymoron in my opinion. The fragrance here is an aquatic floral with a core of white flowers, and lots and lots of musk, which kinda defeats the purpose of the name. The original isn't particularly naughty either, though, to be honest, with its fruity-figgy-milky-floralcy with only a hint of weirdo tuberose in the mix.
Therefore, the freshness is more of a variation of perception of cleanliness and coolness than either concentration or purpose. These are fragrances that open up in warmer climates, please note.
The upbeat and cheerful Y by Yves Saint Laurent also gets a rejogging of its spirit in an Y Eau Fraîche edition, just launched this year. These blue fragrances with their intensely aromatic core are already fresh, so I'm led to believe that the supplementation of the line with a "fresh" version is more of a completist nature than any other significant concept behind it. Nevertheless, the frosted glass bottle is precious, leading you to imagine a cut glacier floating on the Arctic circle. Oh wait, that's actually a disturbing image. Oh well...
But not all is fun and games in this trajectory through funny scent concentrations. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason, and companies launch oddly named fragrances with peculiar tags attached. Case in point: Narciso Rodriguez's Essence Eau de Musc. Yes, I know. Essence Water of Musk... What the heck? But that's not all. If you notice on the very packaging there is the added information of "fresh iridescent fragrance, eau fraiche irisée" (the latter being French for the former). What a mouthful! The scent is faithfully following the tagging though, which is a nice touch on the part of Narciso Rodriguez's very confusingly named line. Metallic iris underimposes the clean soap, very starched and crisp, almost sterilized like a cool iron over cotton. It's one time when we're given exactly what's said on the tin.
And what can one say about Jo Malone London? Their Blossoms Cologne 2020 collection depicted above visually reflects the ethereal character of the scents held inside. Cologne is a common denomination in the Jo Malone London brand, and people always complain about the pure lasting power of those. Is it perhaps a fault of the name itself? I found some of them not too fleeting, more like a regular Eau de Toilette. Some nevertheless are indeed a bit more ephemeral than anticipated. The evolution of the term Cologne in what concerns Jo Malone in particular has to do with the origins of the brand, really, and not with concentration itself. The initial concept, devised by the woman herself, back when Lime Basil & Mandarin Cologne came out in 1999, was to layer the fragrances, one above the other, to come up with something uniquely yours. It followed that too complex and baroque compositions would clash, so the choice of putting "cologne" on the actual packaging helped the concept along. There were easy, breezy scents to suit minimalist fashions and the overwhelmingly diaphanous tendency of 1990s scents. Nowadays Jo Malone London is busy bringing forth more "robust" concentrations, like all the rest of the brands, as well. To wit, the Cologne Absolu collection (see the above rumination on Absolu), the Cologne Intense collection (self explained) and the Rich Extraits Collection. The pendulum has swung again and we're all after a richer, denser experience, especially if we're shopping for a less designer brand.
Last but not least, we come upon the term esprit de parfum, i.e. perfume's spirit. This is arguably the most poetic of them all, denoting a spiritual experience contained in the jus inside, and hinting at the very core of perfumery itself: Essence denoting the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character, therefore its spirit.
With Miss Dior, considering the original 1947 fragrance's loving history, the name Esprit de Parfum evokes a touching token of a loving brother to his formidable sister. It feels like a little bit of herself lives in the bottle still, even though you can only find it now in the Miss Dior Eau de Toilette Originale, and the Miss Dior Original Extrait de Parfum.
The esprit de parfum denomination is not exclusive to the first fragrance under the Dior auspices, though. This vintage exhibit of Poison from the 1980s is a proto-example of using the term in tandem with a mystical allusion to a magical elixir. The classic Edouard Flechier composition for the 1985 Dior Poison is totally in accordance with the naming. This forbidden apple of a fragrance, with its grape-juice drenched tuberose, swathed into copious amounts of musk, is synonymous with primal sin, spiritual dilemmas, and contemplation of the demonic. It's a formidable fragrance, not intended to be liked by the masses necessarily, but marking its territory like a tiger's spraying, and therefore one could not improve on a concentration that names itself esprit de parfum.
Dune by Dior, in a rare esprit de parfum concentration, close to extrait really, is another great fit, because the original concept of the fragrance was meant to recreate the ambience of a parish church's garden. Aromatic, woody, with the distant air shore of the ocean preceding the bitterness of broom, it's a marvel on which esprit de parfum reveals the denser, woodier elements to perfection.
In the grander scheme of things, the denomination of fragrance is a non sequitur. The only thing that matters really is trying them out yourself and assessing whether a scent fulfills your own objectives of it; pleasure being the most important, I should think.
Read the author's collected historical articles on 1001 Past Tales HERE.