A perfume’s top notes evaporate fast — within 15 minutes or so there’s little left of them. This makes them no less important to the finished creation. They are the first aromas one smells and, in fact, are often experienced by those who wear them and no one else. But this overture to the perfume is often what sells it, such that, in today’s marketing-oriented environment, top notes have become so smooth and suave that they are sometimes more interesting than the heart notes.
But when we go back to the classics—to pick an arbitrary date, say perfumes from before 1970—there are typical ingredients that were (and still are) used to top off a perfume. Bergamot, lavender, and rosewood were almost ubiquitous. Rosewood and bergamot, both used in L’Air du Temps, are sources of linalool and linalool acetate. These were probably reinforced by those two compounds, both of which impart freshness.
Distinguished perfumery authors Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephan Jellinek reiterate that real “richness and quality” come from jasmine and rose absolutes. They emphasize the importance of “trace” amounts of materials that “have a remarkable effect on the performance and aesthetic quality of the fragrance.” They point out that Aldehyde C11 undecylenic adds impact while styrallyl acetate acts as a bridge between the top notes and the rest of the perfume. Tiny quantities of orris, heliotropin, and vanillin give polish and character to the carnation complex.
They go on about how vanillin acts like salt and pepper in that it brings out other components of the perfume. It must be used carefully as a tiny amount can work wonders by “smoothing out the roughness of a composition, and adding a touch of sweetness, without greatly altering the essential character of the perfume.” While they laud its value in perfumery, they warn of its treachery as a trace too much ruins a composition.
Thank you, Misters Calkin and Jellinek.