How to find your signature scent

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Looking for a new perfume to put on your Christmas wish list? Lizzie Ostrom has some tips on finding your next forever scent and suggests a few to try

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By Lizzie Ostrom on

One of my most vivid memories from junior school – and I’m sure many of us share this – is the time we all came up with our signature. Coincidentally, it was also around this time that I became obsessed with sending letters sealed with wax to my sister – and yearned for a signet ring I could use as my privy seal. I spent many a Saturday in Past Times around then.

For some reason – perhaps the chance to have a cup of tea in peace – our teacher decided it was about time all the 10-year-olds got it sorted. For a 15-minute period, everyone in that room furiously practised – with an attention never before seen – till we had it down pat. We were all desperate for the flamboyant. Mine remains the same to this day. I can’t say it’s a classic, but I’m stuck with it now, and there’s something reassuring about the constancy of my mark, unchanged for 26 years. In rare opportunities to use it, like signing for a Yodel delivery, I almost feel my body at that very desk and being part of the year’s endless, obsessive conversations about Gladiators on TV.

I’d argue that this constancy of identity is one of the temptations in finding a signature perfume. The steadfastness in staying true to one olfactory guise reaps rewards in the long-term. It might take upwards of 10 years to appreciate that a scent can connect the me of then with the me of now. Not only for ourselves, but for our friends and family and, naturally, the Yodel delivery person.

In the past 15 years, the main narrative in scent has been that of the fragrance wardrobe and discovery. But prices are going up, and quickly, making one perfume much more pragmatic. Many friends at this stage in their life feel it’s time to stop dilly-dallying and to find something that is theirs – realising we’re never going to wake up one day and feel grown-up. Instead, the props of maturity – a signature scent, a loyally repurchased lipstick colour – might be enough, even if we still feel 10 much of the time.

The good news: there are loads of amazing perfumes out there to try. The bad news: there are loads of perfumes to try. So, before you go shopping, here are some thoughts:

  • This is a long-term game. Like a committed relationship, you’ve got to compromise. And, like a pension fund, you’ve got to manage your risk/reward. Anything that seems incredibly zany to you? Veto. I recently came across a perfume inspired by Hannibal Lecter. Would I wear it at a Halloween party? Yes. Actually no, no, I wouldn’t wear it, ever. And certainly not in a decade’s time.

  • I am not advocating conservatism here, and if you smell the cannibal scent and think it is incredible, make it yours forever. BUT, while very directional scents might suit a particular mood, a signature perfume needs to be versatile and accommodating of every way we dress, every state we might be in, good and bad. So, when you are smelling scents, imagine having them on not only while at a cocktail party/the opera/a masked ball, but in less-obvious scenarios, like the post-office queue, in a boring relative’s house for a family reunion or standing in the middle of a field with a cow looking at you.

  • I think this ultimately leads to a question about how we connect our scent with the wider texture of our lives. For some of us, there is very little disconnect between our day-to-day existence and the inner world of our imagination. Or at least, there might be a difference, but we let our perfume move freely between the two. I met a woman who works as a carer in a nursing home, and she wore a sensational tuberose perfume. And why not? But others would only feel able to wear that perfume on high days and holidays, because tuberose is “special” by association. We all have our own notions. The only thing to get right is to find a scent we’re at home with as much of the time as possible, and being honest about what we like and why.

  • Hedge a bet on what is likely to be available in five, 10, 15 years’ time. Perfume-discontinuation heartbreak is very real. We need to orientate away from flankers, summer editions, anything really bonkers that will be bought by 10 people before quietly vanishing. Otherwise, you’ll be on eBay one night finding yourself bidding five times the RRP. In my suggestions below, therefore, I’ve avoided any offshoot perfumes that present themselves as special versions of an original, whether the more intense “absolue” or the more translucent “legère” label.

  • Conversely, if you do want something unusual and distinctive, scents that are too ubiquitous won’t necessarily tag themselves to you in the minds of others. Le Labo’s Santal 33 is the scent of the times, popular with good reason, so it could also be the signature scent of everyone else you know. Of course, it is very difficult to predict what’s going to be the smash hit, so if your favourite becomes au courant, go with it.

  • I would never presume to limit a signature scent to a particular olfactive style, set of notes or type of brand. But I am going to present some starting recommendations. These perfumes are nearly all readily available without being too obvious. No guarantees, but they are likely to be on sale for a while. Many of them come from houses that I’d call grown-up, though I promise you won’t smell like you’re about to get a Knightsbridge blow-dry. Yet they do have a maturity about them, nothing girlish here. And there is something in all of them that twists your expectations to keep you interested for a few years.


Real ladylike, this one. I’ve been wearing it on and off for half a decade and am still interested by it. Lasts all day and smells expensive. I get a definite vibe of strawberry compote, which sounds utterly bizarre, but it gives a twist to the uptown leather. And actually makes sense, as it is slightly evocative of a classic vintage scent, Givenchy’s L’Interdit, made for Audrey Hepburn. Bottega Veneta reminds me of the costume design in the Cate Blanchett film Carol.


This is radiant in the manner of an unassuming piece of jewellery that keeps attracting the eye by its gleam, not its size. An abstract, sculptural experience, technically woody in a marine way with its ambergris simulation. It’s all lines rather than pattern – think Arket over LK Bennett.


Another one with a strange element. This time, it’s a gardenia note that comes off like the hit of a marker pen (don’t sniff, kids), and is oft talked of as even gluey. I’ve been wearing this for most of 2018. It’s luxuriant yet understated. Cartier’s perfumer, Mathilde Laurent, really did capture the experience of stroking a short-haired feline, rather than shaggy, thick-piled fur.


A ravishing classic from 1984, evoking the twilight hour. Begins as dusty cocoa rose then melds to your skin as a squidgy praline. Don’t worry, you won’t resemble a chocolate seashell. It’s arguably the most Phantom Of The Opera of all the scents, but it’ll still work in aforementioned field with cow.


Has a kicking-up-dry-earth opening that’s herbal, midnight green and almost primordial, a little evocative of the beast that is Aromatics Elixir by Clinique. But under all that, it’s civilised, really. Would be amazing worn with a dress in the style of Ossie Clark or similarly glamorous 1970s fashions. Though Ylang 49 is expensive, you could get away with one spray of this, as it’s potent stuff, so it should last you for a long time.


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