A Matter of Concentration
Understanding fragrance concentrations—sometimes referred to as “strength”, though that’s not exactly the same thing—can be daunting, even for those in the business of making perfume, let alone anyone new to the world of fragrance.
Sadly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all explanation. Unlike units for distance, weight or time, there isn't any single international body that defines precisely what concentration i.e. what percentage of pure perfume oil should be in a cologne, eau de toilette, eau de parfum or extrait. The meaning of these terms have come about through an organic process of tradition and loose conventions rather than being set in stone by international law or treaty.
"...for many connoisseurs, high concentrations also offer a deeper olfactory experience..."
So, rather than just repeat what you can read on the sites of specialist perfume titles or organisations, we think it’s probably more useful if we launch straight into a primer, starting with what it means for the fragrances our house produces.
Our house produces only three concentrations of fragrances.
Our flagship SARAH BAKER Collection are all extraits de parfum. These are 20 - 25% pure perfume oil, higher than the eau de parfum concentration of the majority of luxury fragrances on the market.
Our S.BAKER Collection juices are all eau de parfum. In our house, these are all 15-18% concentration. Please note that even though this collection is partly inspired by the traditions of cologne, they are not actually colognes. Rather they are in the same, far higher, concentration as the luxury fragrances you will find on the shelves of upmarket stores.
Finally, with certain special products, we produce them in an extremely high concentration of 30+% of pure perfume. We refer to this as an extrait absolue, but you will also occasionally see it called parfum absolue.
We don’t produce any eau de cologne or eau de toilette, both of which are in notably lower concentrations than all of the above.
Well, that all seems pretty straightforward. So where’s the confusion?
In the case of our house, we hope there isn’t any. We will always try to be as clear and succinct as possible regarding the strength of our juices.
A perfume’s "strength" and its concentration are not entirely linked. Most enthusiasts know that the higher the concentration, the longer the scent is likely to last and/or project. And, for many connoisseurs, high concentrations also offer a deeper olfactory experience through the way individual notes in a juice unfold compared with lower concentrations.
But, ingredients also play a vital role, making strength vary from fragrance to fragrance. For example, an eau de parfum that uses ingredients noted for their projection and staying power may be experienced as “stronger” than an extrait de parfum deploying delicate, ethereal notes that don’t project as far or linger as long.
It also comes down to personal preference and taste. Some fragrance fans love “beast mode” while others prefer juices that stay close to the skin and don’t last too long or project too far.
The noses themselves play a part. Always keen to find the optimal concentration for their creations, noses will sometimes decide that a particular fragrance shouldn’t be worn as an extrait de parfum but only as an eau de parfum because they feel this is the concentration spectrum that best showcases the composition.
Another major confusion comes from all those fancy words used in perfumery. Again, there is no simple yardstick because in different countries and even in different houses, sometimes the same words are used to describe different concentrations and other times different words are used to describe the same concentration.
To at least try to make it easy to learn what you want to know as quickly as possible, we've produced this table.
A potted history
For those who like a little intriguing background information, here’s our stab at trying to explain it in simple, easy-to-understand terms.
Up until a couple of centuries ago, at a time when French perfumery dominated, There were effectively only really two words used to describe perfume: parfum and eau de toilette.
Using old recipes and even analysing the contents of found bottles and jars, fragrance historians confer that parfum referred to what is now generally known as extrait, extrait de parfum, extrait absolue, parfum absolue or even pure perfume oils. Parfum was a high concentration substance. The earliest English use (16th century) of the world "perfume" originally meant the pleasant smell of something burning, such as incense of aromatic fumigation to clear houses of odours, before it also became aligned with the French meaning.
Eau de toilette (typically 5 - 15% concentration) has its origins shrouded in mystery. Some histories say that it was invented in 14th-century for Elisabeth, Queen of Hungary. Whatever its actual origins, by the 17th century, it was widely used by the aristocratic and wealthy for a broad range of purpose; as a fabric freshener, as a health tonic in the Italian tradition and as a lighter type of fragrance that could be replenished over the course of the day, often dabbed onto handkerchiefs to be sniffed, masking the foul smells of overcrowded cities and palaces where sanitation was absent or, at best, primitive.
Both parfum and eau de toilette were exorbitantly expensive, the exclusive domain of the very rich. It's exclusivity was greedily guarded by an arrogant aristocracy: there are examples of snobby nobles removing their patronage from a perfumery simply because it had started to sell to the nouveau riche merchant classes.
A key shift in fragrance becoming more accessible, complete with a new word, was cologne. In 1709, Italian perfumer Giovanni Maria Farina invented a new form of alcohol-based citrus perfume. He named it eau de cologne (Kölnisch Wasser in German) in honour of the city of Cologne, to which he had immigrated some years earlier. Typically low in concentration (2 - 8%), this more affordable format was a great hit with the affluent middle classes and the seeds for a mass perfume market were sown.
But, it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that the confusion about perfume words truly became a thing. As late as the 1920s, the biggest consumers of luxury perfume were still wealthy, privileged women—historic unisex use of perfume became more gender-divided following the arrival of formats such as cologne—who still only talked of parfum and eau de toilette, each with its occasion-appropriate use. They didn't even conceive of anything else.
However, with the advent of the grands magasins, the department stores, in19th century Paris, retailers and manufacturers saw the opportunity of a graduated buy-in point for fragrance for the clientele of these new all-classes-welcome retail palaces. Over time, eau de toilette was repositioned, changing from a product used by the wealthy in specific ways or at particular times of day, to an entry-level product for the luxurious world of perfume. And, a clever, new middle bracket was rapidly nurtured—eau de parfum—for the aspirant with enough disposable income to afford it.
"Every GI learned from his buddies that what his girl back home really wanted was No. 5..."
In the 1920s with its more open views on gender roles, eau de cologne saw a massive growth as manufacturers repositioned it to have more appeal to women, bringing out cologne concentrations of juices without the emphasis on citrus traditionally associated with it. Targeting younger women with tighter budgets, eau de cologne was exceedingly fashionable with the new, modern woman.
To some extent, today’s value judgments about fragrance concentrations are still informed by the clever marketing strategies—and later aficionados' rebellion against them—that played out in Belle Époque and 1920s France.
Ironically the next stage in the convolution and confusion about perfume language was a result of WWII. Unapproving as the privileged wearers of high-concentration parfum might be, the Francophone and multilingual Europeans managed to muddle their way through understanding the differences between parfum and eau de parfum in the interbellum years. Even when Chanel, backed by cosmetics giant Bourjois, broke down the traditional barriers between the luxury that only the rich could afford and luxury accessible to more and more ordinary working people with the legendary No. 5, the snobby elite understood the nuances of the French language; that parfum was stronger and better than eau de parfum.
Then the American perfume market boomed. During WWII, Chanel No.5 was manufactured in Hoboken, New Jersey, by Chanel’s Jewish former business partners who had fled to the USA to escape the Nazis and a bitter dispute with Gabrielle Chanel over ownership of the perfume brand. While Europe suffered shortages and the appropriation of non-essential manufacturing facilities for military use, Chanel No. 5 took America by storm. Every GI learned from his buddies that what his girl back home really wanted was No. 5, and seemingly most of them did. Luxury perfume mainstreamed across in America in an unprecedented manner.
One of the particular benefits of fancy French perfume and its terms finding a new market in a largely Anglophone culture, was that perfume manufacturers and marketers were offered carte blanche. Unlike snobby Parisiennes, save for Diana Vreeland and a few stuck-up Mayflower Marys on NYC's Upper East Side, Americans didn’t really grasp, or care about, the difference between parfum and eau de parfum. Both were good; desirable luxuries.
The continued commercial success of formats success as eau de parfum, cheaper to make and with a bigger profit margin, on the mass US market set the scene for the 1960s and 1970s, when every vaunted European fashion house licensed out its name for mass produced fragrances (or sometimes launched their own). As perfume markets snowballed in other regions that also didn’t traditionally speak French, the specifics of parfum were almost entirely subsumed into eau de parfum, the global term signifying fragrance luxury by the late 20th century. One could even look at it as a seamless transposition: by the late 80s, wearers of eau de toilette aspired to wear eau de parfum in much the same way that wearers of eau de parfum in the 1920s aspired to wear parfum.
Yet, there were pockets of resistance. A handful of luxury fashion brands carefully maintained the exclusivity of what they offered. There was also a revival of traditional artisan luxury fragrance houses and a growing wave of new indie brands seeking to put the craft and special experience back into the ancient art of perfume. One of the tools they had available was language.
Previously unnecessary terms like extrait, extrait de parfum. parfum extrait or extrait absolue and parfum absolue returned, primarily to differentiate their high concentration from the lower concentration of eau de parfum. Furthermore, a new generation of luxury perfumers from English-speaking countries opted for translations of the traditional French terms, finding them confusing for their markets, perhaps even pretentious. Terms like “perfume concentrate” or the linguistically messy “parfum concentrate” also now appear, denoting the same thing. And, to make it even more confusing, some diehard houses insist on calling their high concentration juices simply “parfum” in the historic manner.
In fact, it's come almost full circle as the empire strikes back. The fragrance giants that created the commercially convenient blurring of terms are now seeking to take back from the independent sector: today even mainstream corporations are releasing extraits and extraits de parfum in a largely successful upsell seeking to attract back a clientele questioning notions of "exclusivity" in the age of mass produced perfume.
So, dear reader, no, we cannot offer you a one-shot solution for negotiating the murky world of perfume concentration and all the words used to denote it, though we do promise you clarity with our own juices. See above.