Your Guide to the Fragrance Wheel and Scent Families

By Leanna Serras June 26, 2019
image of Your Guide to the Fragrance Wheel and Scent Families

When searching for the perfect fragrance, it can be challenging deciding where to start. After all, there are hundreds of scents. If you’re not familiar with the different notes, the process of finding out what scents you like can feel daunting.

That’s why it’s helpful to know the fragrance wheel and scent families before you start. It’s likely you have smelled each of the scent families at some point in your life, whether it be out in nature, the kitchen or otherwise!

Here we’ll cover what the fragrance wheel and scent families are as well as delve into the main families and subfamilies. We’ll also touch on how to combine scents so that you’ll be prepared to walk up to the perfume counter with confidence.

What Is the Fragrance Wheel?

The fragrance wheel is a round diagram that displays the different scent families and subfamilies. The scents are grouped based on their similarities and differences to show their relationship to one another. The scent groups that border each other share common olfactory characteristics, while those that are further away from one another are less related.

This fragrance classification system was developed by fragrance expert Michael Edwards in order to help retailers suggest perfumes to consumers more efficiently. Each family consists of a prominent scent, while the subfamilies are blended versions of these fragrances.

The entire fragrance wheel

What Are Scent Families?

Scent families are broken up into four main groups: Floral, Oriental, Woody and Fresh. These represent the four main olfactory groups with each having distinct characteristics. More often than not, a person will gravitate toward one scent family over another and look for this collection of scents in their fragrances.

For this reason, it can be helpful to know which family you are attracted to before you go shopping for a new scent. While most products aren’t labeled with the scent family, you should be able to find out which components make up the fragrance.

Experts who have been working with perfumes for years can tell which family or sub-family a fragrance belongs to with one sniff. While there is some discourse in the fragrance community over the organization and description of each family, most agree to the following families and subfamilies.

The floral portion of the fragrance wheel and three fragrances

Floral

The floral scent family is one of the most common families and are used in many well-known perfumes. Floral scents are most often used in women’s fragrances, although they are occasionally used in men’s as well. They usually smell like fresh-cut flowers or have a powdery note to them.

Subfamilies:

  • Fruity: Sweet, edible and tropical like peach, pear and apple.
  • Floral: Smells like fresh-cut flowers — imagine rose and lily.
  • Soft floral: Soft, powdery and sweet with a hint of creamy.
  • Floral oriental: Florals with subtle spice notes.

Common Floral Family Notes:

  • Rose
  • Jasmine
  • Orange blossom

Fragrance Examples:

The oriental portion of the fragrance wheel and three oriental fragrances

Oriental

The oriental fragrance family consists of rich exotic scents. When you think of oriental scents think herbs and spices or dry, powdery, resin notes. Opulent and heady, these notes are often times softened with amber or sweet notes. It’s common to describe this family as exotic and seductive.

Subfamilies:

  • Soft oriental: Soft, floral notes mix with incense and warm spices.
  • Oriental: Sweet, warm notes like cinnamon, vanilla and musk.
  • Woody oriental: Earthy notes like patchouli and sandalwood mixed with spicy and sweet notes.

Common Oriental Family Notes:

  • Vanilla
  • Myrrh
  • Anise

Fragrance Examples:

The woody portion of the fragrance wheel and three fragrances

Woods

Woody perfumes are usually warm and opulent, mixing incense-like fragrances like sandalwood and patchouli with drier notes like cedar. To tone down the warmth of these notes, fragrances will sometimes incorporate some fresh notes like citrus or floral. Notes in this family can be described as coniferous or woody and bitter.

Subfamilies:

  • Woods: Aromatic scents like cedarwood, sandalwood and vetiver.
  • Mossy woods: Sweet, smooth and earthy scents like oakmoss and amber.
  • Dry woods: Smouldering and smoky mixed with leather aromas.

Common Woody Family Notes:

  • Patchouli
  • Vetiver
  • Sandalwood

Fragrance Examples:

The fresh portion of the fragrance wheel and three fragrances

Fresh

The fresh scent family encompasses clean bright scents. Herby, citrusy and oceanic scents all fall into this category. More often used in men’s fragrances than women’s fragrances, fresh scents are paired with spicy notes to create a more robust fragrance. Aromatic, tart notes can also be found mixed with zesty or fruity scents.

Subfamilies:

  • Aromatic: Clean and fresh herbs mixed with lavender or woody scents.
  • Citrus: Zesty or tangy notes like mandarins or bergamot.
  • Water: Aquatic scents that smell of sea spray or rain mixed with or oceanic notes.
  • Green: Smells of freshly mowed lawns and crushed green leaves.

Common Fresh Family Notes:

  • Sage
  • Bergamot
  • Grapefruit

Fragrance Examples:

Complementing scents highlighted on the fragrance wheel in the shape of a triangle

How to Combine Scents

Much like color, certain fragrance families go together well. The scent wheel makes it easy to see this. Fragrance sub-families that are side by side on the fragrance wheel will almost always blend well.

You can also pick a sub-family to start with and see which note appears across from it on the fragrance wheel. This means that those notes are complementary to one another. For example, soft oriental will complement citrus, and oriental will complement water.

the fragrance wheel with opposite sides highlighted

Finally, you can select three fragrance sub-families that create a triangle on the fragrance wheel. You’ll find that these will complement each other nicely. For example, if you know you like floral oriental notes, look for a scent that contains mossy and water notes as well.

After you’ve decided which families you like best and what secondary notes you’ll be looking for, it’s time to start researching the perfect perfume for you. You can either head down to the beauty counter at your local department store or order fragrance samples online. Be sure to test them on your skin so that you know you enjoy the scent once it’s mixed with your skin.

If you’re still not sure where to start, try taking our perfume quiz or browsing our women’s perfume and men’s fragrance sections of the website. You can filter by scent family to figure out your perfect signature scent!

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