AD – I received a Perfume Experience Box from Pairfum London free of charge for the purposes of writing this review. The Perfume Experience Box allows you to sample 12 options at home and choose a perfume that suits you.

Think of your favourite perfume. Do you have one or two that you absolutely love to wear, and maybe one or two that make you nostalgically think of other people? Do your friends and family know which scent to buy you if they run out of ideas at Christmas and birthday time?

Now here’s a big question – can you remember why you chose the scents that you did?

The perfume industry nowadays tends to be about so much more than just scent. In the UK, you can tell it’s the start of the run-up to Christmas when Strictly and Bake Off start on the telly, and then shortly afterwards you see the new perfume ads starting to arrive – each one a little bit more weird and wonderful than the last. It seems that when you choose a perfume, you are buying into a lifestyle – often the images are of richness and opulence, of adventure with maybe a little hint of danger, of scarcity and exclusivity, and maybe hints of the celebrity lifestyle. So much of this marketing and hype is not about the scent at all.

I know for a fact that the first branded perfume I chose to wear, I simply copied from a friend of mine whose taste I admired. Another one of my favourites came from an advertising placement on a film I watched and liked – a third one was a lucky guess by a friend gifting to me – but then I started watching adverts for that brand and definitely fell in with the vibe of it. And I occasionally buy small bottles of my mother’s favourite scent and use it as a room fragrance, as the scent reminds me so much of her and has become a big part of how I remember her.

Once we choose our perfumes, many women (and quite a few men) become creatures of habit and wear the same fragrances for life.

When I look at my collection of perfumes though (which isn’t huge and has changed very little over the last 20 or so years) there is a bit of a pattern. I seem to like fresh citrussy scents, and a couple of the perfumes I like also contain green tea. I’m not generally a heavy floral person, nor do I often go for the more musky scents, and I don’t have any bottles which are named for a particular celebrity – as I really don’t follow celebrity culture. It makes me chuckle that I have often bought my mother-in-law a bottle of Poison for her birthday or for Christmas – but that is one scent as an example, that I really can’t stand the smell of.

The Pairfum Perfume Experience box

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I have recently had the opportunity to try out a new way of choosing perfume, which has really got me thinking about perfume in general and all the meanings we attach to it.

The Perfume Experience Box from Pairfum London gives you sample spritz bottles of 12 different perfumes. Apparently, you get 100 little sprays of each of the perfumes – so there is more than enough to try them all over a period of days or weeks. If you find one you like and buy it, you get a discount on your purchase equivalent to the cost of the sample box.

I think this is a genius idea – and would make a really lovely birthday or Christmas present for somebody. For me, it was a very interesting and enlightening experience.

So I ordered my box, and it arrived by courier less than 48 hours later. The wrapping was lovely – a beautiful gift bag with tissue paper and a lovely solid box, and there in front of me were my samples.

And here’s the thing – there is no branding, no celebrity, no fancy ad, no extravagant lifestyle aspirations being sold with any of these perfumes. The sample bottles are all identical (bottle shape and size is another way in which commercial perfumes often distinguish themselves) and all you have on each bottle is a list of three or four of the most prominent ingredients (although if you look at the website you can find a more detailed list of perfume notes and a description for each blend).

But I decided to have a go at choosing, using only my nose and the names of the ingredients listed on each bottle. Facing up to this task is what made me start thinking about all the other ways in which we choose perfume – surely it should be about what you think smells nice, and not about what some segment of society or cultural group thinks you should be wearing?

So I’ve been testing the perfumes out 1-2 a day over the last couple of weeks – it’s been a fascinating experience if I’m honest. I know from my time working with essential oils that the sense of smell has a strong connection to the limbic region of the brain – scent is strongly linked to emotion and to memory, more so than any of the other senses. But I’ve also become aware that I don’t really have a vocabulary or even a frame of reference to decide exactly what I like and don’t like and why.

I’m not going to go through all of the 12 scents in the box – if you read this and fancy trying this experience (which I heartily recommend) I want to leave you with some surprises! But here are just some of the notes that I wrote for some of the scents, based solely on the ingredients and my first impressions of the smell.

1: Mandarin Blossom and Sandalwood

I think this combination sounds nice. I don’t really have any idea of what Mandarin Blossom would look or smell like but I like the idea of it. I checked my friendly stock images site and got this for orange blossom so I imagine it looks something similar.

The scent is very pleasant, but for some reason, the thought or memory that is coming to me is of a bathroom location – it doesn’t smell like bleach or toilet cleaner but more like the smell after someone has had a nice bath. I don’t have any bath products that smell remotely like this nowadays but I think it’s something from my childhood. Does anyone remember the foil-wrapped bath cubes that you used to give and receive at Christmas before bath bombs were invented? I think maybe this smells a bit like those – or that is what my memory is telling me

2: Bergamot Basil and Patchouli

Bergamot was one of the first essential oils that I bought – probably from the Body Shop – many moons ago. I’ve always loved it, especially mixed with Grapefruit, Lemon and/or Rosemary. I’m not so sure about Patchouli, but it doesn’t matter.

My first reaction to this blend, sniffing it off the sample stick was a resounding “Hell Yeah” This one made the shortlist within 10 seconds of smelling it – I can’t explain why but it just made me feel happy and uplifted. I’m not sure whether I would want this as a fragrance for my skin or for my room – but I will be experimenting further with this sample.

3: Cardamom, Tonka and White Oud

I have precisely no idea what any of these things smell like. I’ve used Cardamom in cooking but never even heard of the other two. So I have no preconceptions here at all – this is on smell alone.

It’s a very rich and sweet smell- my first thoughts are of ointments that you might rub on your skin for muscle aches, and a little bit like incense. I reckon that some people would really like this – it’s kind of sensuous and sultry and to me it feels like it would wrap you up in a big warm embrace and care for you. But it’s a little bit too intense for me

4: Black Cherry and Oolong Tea

This is supposed to be a “fruity” fragrance, and I like the idea of the tea in it – as I said above I have been attracted to green tea fragrances before. But although I love fresh cherries, I often have an extreme negative reaction to a processed cherry flavour, especially if it includes the bitter almond/marzipan element. I’ve no idea where this comes from but it’s very strong with me.

This is one fragrance that smells exactly like what it says on the tin. It smells very strongly of cherries. I’m sure some people will love this but it was definitely strong enough to elicit my Instant dislike.

5: Sea Salt, Sage and Amber

I’m definitely predisposed to like this one just looking at the name. One of my favourite scents is the smell of the sea – I grew up 5 minutes’ walk from a beach, and the sea and seaweed smell is one of my strongest childhood memories. I must admit, with this one I did sneak a look at some of the other fragrance notes included in it – when I saw kelp I got really excited.

The scent doesn’t exactly remind me of the sea, and I have to say that I can’t really detect the scent of the sea salt or the kelp. But I do like it – a lot. I realise I’m allowing the name of it to sway my opinions a bit but I can imagine myself by the sea, and maybe deep down my brain knows there’s a little bit of my childhood wrapped up in this package.

6: Ginger, Elemi and Vetiver

On the face of it to me, this is an attractive combination. I love ginger, and I regularly use Vetiver essential oil as part of my sleep routine – I find it a really calming, earthy fragrance. I don’t really know what Elemi is but a quick search on Google tells me it’s another tree resin, so this sounds promising to me.

I really like the smell of this blend – as expected, but I would probably use this as a room fragrance rather than a personal fragrance.

I’m going to stop there, for the purposes of this review, because of course these are just my random musings, and do not in any way constitute an objective review of the blends. But what I do want to say is that the process of looking at, and sampling these fragrances, was really fascinating for me. It’s interesting to see how I reacted to the names of the ingredients, and it was fascinating to observe my automatic reactions to the scents – some hugely positive and others quite negative.

One thing I will add is that I had to do this sampling quite slowly. Each fragrance hung around on my skin for a very long time. It was interesting to see how the fragrance developed over the course of the day. I will very much enjoy wearing the perfume that I will choose at the end of this process, and I will also enjoy using up most of the other samples (although I might use some as room fresheners.

If you know someone who likes perfume, I would really recommend this Perfume Experience box – for me, it’s been fascinating to sample different scents outside of a department store/duty-free lounge, or other ad-laden environment, and it’s really made me think about how and why I choose a perfume. This was an interesting journey down memory lane for me. My brain is a lot more complicated than I thought.

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