Olfactive Families

Creation of Fragrance “Families” in Perfumery

Most perfume wearers are familiar with the term “family” in regards to identifying fragrance aroma categories. But are you aware of how this term came about?  What does it really entail?  And how has it evolved over the last 40 years?   

Originally the industry was looking for a way to classify and/or identify a descriptive method to place each custom perfume into an olfactory “group” based on their primary characteristics.  Sort of a perfumery language that might simplify the description for the customer.  This fragrance classification system was first developed in 1949 and further defined by fragrance expert Michael Edwards in 1984 in order to help retailers suggest perfumes to consumers who could identify with a simplified aromatic description. His fragrance classification book, The Fragrance Manual, proved a huge success.

When we think of the word “family”, we automatically think of close relationships and connections. Crossovers in genetic traits and personalities.  Even if not related by blood, a family member may share mutual characteristics due to upbringing.  This all plays into why the term “family” was established early on when describing olfactory scent categories.  Each may have its own essence and nuances, and the terms to define each category, like human personalities and can certainly be said to relate.

  • Fresh…airy and refreshing…sparkling and smiling

  • Floral…botanical and herbaceous….emotional and romantic

  • Ambery…exotic and spicy….sensual and mysterious

  • Woody…soft and inviting….warm and comforting

Descriptions that provoke a fragrance “personality” can also help the wearer associate a perfume with a particular event, location, person, etc.  

There are inconsistencies on the number of fragrance families and the breakdowns.  We currently focus on the four main olfactory descriptive “family” categories on what is referred to as the modern day “Fragrance Wheel of the World”.   This wheel itself was developed to incorporate the subtle cross over of aromas and capture the transition from one description to the next.  As an example, the chypre fragrances fit into the crossover of the Woody and Ambery categories. There have been revisions across the years to encompass an evolution of new aromatic combinations and complexities. 

All perfumes found in the market today, or created in the past, can be classified into these families or subgroups.  By classifying a fragrance into a certain category, it can help define a customer preference for a fragrance across any and all brands. 

Today, most fragrance houses that develop custom oils for a client work within these main overreaching fragrance families as a starting point.


Within these categories are more descriptive blended “sub-categories”:

Fresh Family

Commonly associated with light, sparkling, fresh and clean aromas.


Fresh Family Subfamilies:

Citrus: Zesty or tangy notes like lemon, grapefruit or bergamot.

Water: Aquatic scents like sea salt, rain and ocean breezes.

Green: Scents of freshly mowed grass and crushed leaves.

Fruity: Bright sweet and tropical aromas like apple, peach, kiwi and pineapple.

Floral Family

Classified as the broadest and potentially most popular family with all levels of flower, powder and sweet spice notes.

Floral Family Subfamilies:

Floral: Blooming scents of rose, lilies, jasmine and peonies

Soft Floral: Powdery, delicate florals with creamier undertones

Floral Amber: Floral scents with a hint of spice

Ambery (Amber) Family

Typically described as rich, sensual, warm and exotic.  This family was once referred to by the outdated term “oriental”.  

Amber Family Subfamilies:

Soft Amber: Delicate floral notes along with warm spices and heady incense

Amber: Cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla and musk are common aromas

Woody Amber: Intense, earthy and spicy sensual notes like agarwood and oud

Woody Family

Commonly used as base notes to represent dry, warm and mossy wood scents as well as aromatic aromas.

Woody Family Subfamilies:

Woods: Warm scents like sandalwood, vetiver and cedar

Mossy Woods: Earthy, sweet notes like oakmoss and amber

Dry Woods: Deep and smoky aromas with added leather

Aromatic Fougere: Fresh, clean herbal and evergreen aromas

* This olfactive family of fragrances can be associated with many different facets.  The above are just a few scent descriptions and examples of the many aromatic impressions that make up the process of fragrance development.


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