A signature scent is an extension of your brand. Pardon the terrible millennial reference to personal brands, but that’s exactly what a fragrance is: It’s a reflection of your tastes and leaves a lasting impression on others. It sticks with them, especially if it’s particularly good or bad. And it especially sticks with them if it’s a signature scent and something you wear on the daily. They associate that scent with you, for better or for worse.
As for that “for better or for worse”: We can’t tell you how to make people like you, but we can tell you how to pick a good signature scent that others will enjoy. So, in that sense, the odds are in your favor. Just follow the tips below, and you should find a new, lasting signature scent — and moreover, a universally loved scent that plays favorably into the impression you make on others.
Familiarize yourself with fragrance families.
Just as you know what kinds of foods and drinks you enjoy, you should take note of the notes you like, too — those strongest ingredients in each fragrance that determine its essence.
You need not memorize all 14 official “Fragrance Families” as outlined by the noses at Fragrances of the World, but you can take something from their classification system: some scents are spicy, some are woody; many are citrusy, others floral, others aromatic, fruity or fresh. That’s easy enough, right? Start paying close attention to the notes that stand out strongest whenever you smell a good scent: Is it peppery, or is it crisp like lemon? Is it powdery, or does it smell mossy and earthy? You can separate these primary notes from one another, and then determine which “family” of scents suits you best. If you like the woody notes, then shop for a woody scent—something with lots of cedar, oud or sandalwood notes.
Typically, these scents won’t overlap. It would be hard to have a fresh, spicy scent, even if the cologne itself has notes from both categories. Typically, one of those notes will overpower and linger longer than the others, and that’s often what determines the scent’s classification. And, typically, a well-rounded scent will open with something crisp like bergamot and round out into floral, then woody or spicy notes. It’s common to have a diverse scent like this, but you wouldn’t call said scent a citrus-floral-oriental fragrance. Usually, if you react positively to someone else’s scent, it’s the base notes you’re picking up, and thus the official “classification.”
Inquire when you like someone’s scent.
Don’t be shy—it’s totally ok to ask someone what scent they’re wearing. In fact, it’s a high compliment, and people will be flattered that their scent turned your head. (Isn’t that why you want to find a signature scent, anyway? So that other people notice?) Take note of the responses you get, then use a site like Fragrances of the World or Fragrantica (a database created by fragrance lovers) to compare notes against other potential candidates. You can also see what other people say about these scents — particularly on Fragrantica — to see if it’s universally loved. Not that you should second guess your own judgment, but it is helpful to see if a scent is polarizing or particularly weak in terms of staying power.
Also, if you like a friend or colleague’s scent, you may want to pick something similar to it, instead of stealing it outright — especially if it’s their signature scent. (We all love Chanel Bleu, for example, but no office needs two Bleu wearers, ever.) If he or she is a stranger, though, then steal away.
Ignore seasonality and play a long game.
When we discuss fragrance seasonality, it’s usually a way to complement the weather. When it’s colder, we want warmer notes, like woods and spices. When it’s summer, the season is emboldened by citrusy, floral, or fresh notes. It’s a safe way to build a small collection of scents, especially for special occasions. But in terms of a signature scent, you’ve got to ignore seasonality and pick something that you simply want to wear year-round. Maybe it’s woody or smoky. Maybe it’s fruity or aromatic. So be it. Just pick whatever you love best, and commit to it. You’re playing a long game here, so you’ve got to pick something you’ll remain loyal to — it’s your new signature!
The one note to add to that: Perhaps it’s best to avoid anything too strongly spicy or smoky or fruity, and so forth. Anything on the far end of either “warm” or “cool” spectrum might be best kept for beach days or roasting chestnuts on an open fire. Stick with something in the middle 80 percent of that spectrum, and you should be safe, no matter the season.
Pick one scent, then try five more just like it.
Right as you think you’ve found the scent, go to a department store and try five more scents in the same family, with similar notes. It’s like dating: You need to try a few options (or a few hundred) before you can confirm your undying affection for the one. Some stores will sell you a small sample vial that you can take for a day- or week-long test run. Or you can sneakily spray one per day on your pulse points and see what kinds of feedback you get, as well as how you yourself react to each scent. It’s not the worst research to do, and in the end, you have all the confidence you need in the winning scent.
And just like that, you’ve got a signature scent.
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