the intelligent consumer
EVER WALKED away from a perfume counter trailing a haze of woody, citrusy and floral smells, with mysterious phrases such as "top notes" and "base notes" ringing in your ears? You're not alone, especially this month of the year when more people buy perfume than at any other time.

According to sales figures, we enjoy smelling good. The perfume market is split between "fine" or "prestige" fragrances and "mass" fragrances. Overall, British consumers spent pounds 363.7m on women's fragrances last year. The top five brands were Anais Anais at No 1, followed by Chanel No 5, Opium, Loulou and Dune. Paris, Charlie, Giorgio, Poison and Eternity filled out the top 10. Significantly less, pounds 214.7m, was spent on men's fragrances (including aftershaves, pre-electrics, fine and mass). The bestseller was Jazz, followed by Kouros, Aramis Classic, Lynx and Old Spice. Next in line were Faberge, Eternity, Fahrenheit, Ralph Lauren and Paco Rabanne.

However, the UK market for female and male fragrances is relatively stagnant, causing manufacturers to introduce new products designed to steal rival market share. Body sprays including Impulse and Boots 17 brand are a big hit in Britain, particularly with teenage girls. A recent report from European Cosmetics Markets also highlights a growing trend towards youth fragrances (Tribe, So ... ?, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler's Angel); fragrances for children (Fleur d'Interdit from Givenchy, Petit Guerlain, Miss Arpels); and unisex scents such as CKone. The market is further fragmented by discounting by such groups as Superdrug and Perfume Shop.

Perfumes for women and men are commonly classified in seven olfactory families: Citrus, Floral, Fougere, Chypre, Woody, Amber and Leather. Useful knowledge when selecting a gift in a department store perfume hall five minutes before closing on Christmas Eve: if you know which family of scent your intended enjoys, then choose one from the same family. A new brand will have the "notes" which appeal to the wearer, yet will differ sufficiently to make an impact.

When choosing a new perfume, Elisabeth Barille and Catherine Laroze, authors of The Book of Perfume, suggest trying no more than three different scents at any one time. Morning, when the body is rested and the senses more acute, is the best time. They advise consumers to test fragrances on the pulse point of the wrist ("the veins give off a little heat which improves olfactory sensitivity"), by applying a few drops without rubbing, then wait. Minutes. After all, a fine perfume is like a symphony. We first smell the top notes (light and volatile), then the middle notes develop (more voluptuous with the dominant notes designating the fragrance family), and finally the base notes appear (the underlying, lasting tone).

Perfume follows social trends - light, fresh scents dominate in the post- recession, natural Nineties. The European Cosmetics Markets report observes "a move away from heavier compositions, and towards lighter, fresher fragrances". Vanilla has found its way into recent launches, including Loulou Blue and Chanel's Egoiste for men. Green tea is found in unisex fragrances such as Bulgari Cologne au The Vert. News from America is that mint will be the next trend.

Scent is made by the extraction of the essential oils of petals, leaves and roots, which are then diluted in alcohol. Nowadays, chemical synthesis re-creates the thousands of odours found in raw materials. Perfumers (known as "noses" in the industry) work for large international corporations such as Quest and International Flavours and Fragrances, and are employed exclusively to create perfumes.

Fixatives derived from animal secretions are added to perfume to prevent a too-rapid evaporation of the odour and to provide its aphrodisiac quality. The three varieties - musk, ambergris and civet, have been replaced by artificial fixatives for most mass fragrances and many prestige perfumes. This must come as a relief for those who are put off by the fact that musk is found in a walnut-size pouch near the navel of the musk-deer and appears to be a secretion of waste products; expensive ambergris is an excretory product found in the intestines of the spermaceti whale, and civet is a sex gland secretion of the civet cat.

Scent has been around since prehistoric times. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all used perfume for religious rites, embalming their dead, and aesthetic purposes. Elizabeth I started a trend in Britain for perfume- scented gloves, popular in France and Italy in the 16th century. Perfumes and cosmetics were so popular in the 18th century that an Act of Parliament in 1770 condemned women who seduced men into matrimony with the aid of "scents, paints, cosmetic washes". The Emperor Nero adored the scent of saffron crocus, Louis XIV was known as "the sweetest-smelling monarch that had yet been seen" and Napoleon liked eau de Cologne scented with rosemary reminiscent of his native Corsica.

And here's one to try at home. An early perfume book called Les Secrets de Maistre Alexis de Piedmont suggests feeding a young raven on hardboiled eggs, killing it 40 days later, and distilling it with almond oil and myrtle leaves. The result makes women "beautiful forever".