How to Start Your Own Perfume Collection - Steve Johnson

Our fortuitous meeting with Steve Johnson at  Pickwicks Mercantile  in Portsmouth, NH

Our fortuitous meeting with Steve Johnson at Pickwicks Mercantile in Portsmouth, NH

Perfume is the most intimate art form there is – a great scent is like a wearable song, or a portable self-portrait painted on your skin.  But starting a perfume collection can be as mystifying as wanting to start a top-flight wine cellar. It can be intimidating to walk up to a perfume counter at a local department store, or converse with a boutique shop owner just to find a fragrance you can call your own.   And it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Creating your own perfume stash can be a fun and enjoyable hobby if you know a little before venturing out to the mall or the fancy shops.   Below are a few tips to get you started: 

Tip No. 1 – Start Small and Work Your Way Up!

Perfumes are expensive.  Your average scent at a department store starts around $70.00 for a full bottle, and if you get into the niche perfume world, that price doubles or even triples.  But you can still train your palate and build up a sophisticated and personal perfume collection from what are called decants, or samples taken from the bottle.   And the Internet is your friend when it comes to finding samples.  

Sites like,, and all have extensive catalogs, including everything from 100-year old classic perfumes to the latest celebrity fragrance.   They also have their stock arranged by scent note, so you can tailor your choices, and most offer recommendations based on the samples you choose.   You can buy enough to last you at least five applications from these sites for less money than you’d pay for coffee at Starbucks.   Buying small amounts and learning to appreciate individual notes over time is an inexpensive way to discover your perfume profile, without being stuck with an entire bottle of something you’ll outgrow over time.  One of my best friends has an entire tackle box filled with samples and we like to get together and trade. 

Tip No. 2 – Read Up! 

The Internet is also a great source for getting information about perfumes before you try them.  Sites likes,,, and frequently review the latest fragrances, do interviews with perfumers and often have enormous followings of perfume geeks who love to share information.   

Whether you are a casual fragrance fan or a slavering ‘fumehead, sites like these are invaluable if you want to keep up with perfume trends and compare scents.    They also can hook you up with perfume swaps, other collectors, and usually have great advice about how to find discontinued favorites.  

Tip No. 3 – Learn Your Vocabulary! 

Perfumes are usually arranged into families - or groups of scent.  There are Orientals (spicy scents that may feature clove and cinnamon backed by sweet, resinous notes ), Citrus (fragrances that are tart and bright with scents of orange, grapefruit and lemon), Gourmands (perfumes that are foody in nature, and dessert-like, often with a heavy vanilla backbone) and on and on.  You can even group perfumes into Tobacco and Leather categories as well.   Knowing what style of scent you like most is enormously helpful when going into a boutique environment, and will help ease the awkwardness about asking for something new to try.  Most online sites will use these terms and it’s helpful to know them. 

Tip No. 4 - Try EVERYTHING!

Many people new to perfumery get nervous about whether a fragrance is “masculine” or “feminine”.  The greatest advice I ever received when I got into being a full-on ‘fumehead was to disregard these categories.  Masculine/Feminine divides in scent are more for marketers than for serious aficionados, and when you’re building your stash, you’ll quickly find that there’s a lot of cool stink to be had on the opposite side of the gender fence.   

Ladies – don’t get too caught up in always having to smell “pretty” – sometimes roughing up your image with a great leather scent can be fun, and macho guys can rock a white floral as well as anyone.  I personally wear jasmine-based scents a lot of the time and my fiancée loves them on me.  

A Starter Collection (Some Purely Subjective Suggestions) 

Jo Malone - Lime, Basil, Mandarin:  For my money, the most wearable fragrance ever made.  Perfect for all seasons, with an energetic shot of citrus thats anchored by the savory basil.   

Andy Tauer - Incense Rose:  Any great perfume collection should have two key players in it - namely a rose-based scent, and an incense-based one.  Here, wonderfully iconoclastic  Swedish chemist and perfumer Andy Tauer fuses both antique roses and cathedral-sized incense into a perfume  that will buoy your spirits during the frigid depths of winter.  His Incense Extreme is also a powerhouse.  It's a mesmerizing scent I like to wear while watching huge, fat flakes of snow drift slowly down the street.  

Guerlain - Apres L'Ondee:   One of the oldest and most classic perfumes still available.  Apres L'Ondee means "after the rain" in French, and this scent is all about rain-soaked greenery and damp earth.  It's electrifying and somber in the same moment, and an excellent choice for Winter/Spring.   

CB I Hate Perfume - 7 Billion Hearts:   If you find yourself drawn to sweet, vanillic notes, this one will blow your mind.  Made from the finest vanilla available to perfumery, this is an infinitely warm, sweet and sensual tsunami.   

Etat Libre D'Orange - Jasmin et Cigarette:  A scent for the truly adventurous. Etat Libre D'Orange (The Free State of Orange) is to perfume what the Surrealists were to painting.   If you enjoy white florals, but wish they were a little rougher and ready to party, this is your perfume.  A go-to choice for those nights when it's 3am and you're just beginning to think of going home.   

Steve Johnson is a freelance writer and a serious 'fumehead who lives in Salem, MA.   One day he hopes to live in an enormous, 3-story museum silo of mystical stink.