The art of perfumery is a lot like composing a piece of music: chords of three different but harmonious pitches are continuously played to yield a pleasing sound, while a good perfume is constructed of a series of base, middle and top “notes” to produce a balanced and captivating fragrance. High-end perfume formulas are closely guarded secrets, but most are made from pure essential oils and extracts obtained from certain flowers blended in different combinations and concentrations. While there are many flowers that lend their scents to the perfume industry, no two scents are alike.

Lavender essential oil in the amber bottle, with fresh lavender flower heads.

Play a Single Note

Making a single note perfume makes sense if your nose favors a particular flower. Technically called a soliflore, this type of perfume might feature the damask rose, the essential oil of which is commonly known as rose otto. Lavender is also a traditional favorite. Another popular choice for a soliflore is gardenia, the signature scent of Natalie Wood and Billie Holiday.

Pick a Bunch

Top notes, also called head notes, introduce the perfume and, because they usually evaporate first, their scent is somewhat fleeting. When a perfume combines multiple floral scents using flowers that provide top notes, the fragrance is referred to as perfume bouquet. Popular top-note florals include rose, lavender and sweet basil, which has a mildly peppery and balsamic quality. The leaves, as well as the flowers of this plant, are used in perfumery, and the scent blends well with verbena, hyssop, ylang-ylang and the flower of the bitter orange, or neroli.

Put Heart in the Middle

The middle floral notes in a perfume are the statement-makers of the total composition. In fact, middle notes are often referred to as heart notes because they become the heart of the perfume. Because they set the theme of the fragrance, they should make up 30 to 60 percent of the blend. Flowers used to provide lingering scent in a perfume include honeysuckle, carnation, jasmine, linden and lavender. In terms of the latter, the species preferred to make natural perfumes is Lavandula angustifolia, the “true” lavender. Aside from providing stress-relieving qualities, the fragrance profile of lavender is flowery and fresh with slightly camphorous undertones.

Go for the Finish

Most base notes in natural perfumes are provided by rich, earthy-scented materials, such as barks and resins like sandalwood and frankincense. However, there are a few flowers that perform this function. Helichrysum, for instance, has a sweet, earthy aroma that pairs well with chamomile, lavender, ylang-ylang, neroli and rose. Note, too, that some florals are crossovers in terms of note value. In other words, floral scents like rose and lavender, as well as Helichrysum, contribute to a formula as a top to middle note, or a middle to base note.

Strive for Balance

For the perfumer, as well as for the person wearing the perfume, the question is, “What is the desired lasting impression?” As a general rule of thumb, the basic perfume is constructed in a 3-2-1 ratio, meaning three parts top note to two parts middle note and one part base note. The note value of a floral fragrance is classified according to its rate of evaporation on the skin. It’s tempting to think that the top floral notes in a perfume must provide the lasting fragrance, but, because the top notes evaporate first, it’s actually the middle notes that persist. Base notes bridge the top and middle notes and “fix” the signature scent of the blend.