Sillage by Lalique, 2012 edition - a representation of the olfactory pyramid and trail left behind by Lalique extrait.
"Sillage" is the French term for "trail". It designates the olfactory impression left behind one's person who is wearing a fragrance thanks to the lastingness of the scent, or even better, when a sillage was explicitly designed to leave its signature as the extension of a person, weaving its seductive, serpentine path. If today, eclectism in fragrance wearing is encouraged, for persons who wear a "signature fragrance" as it is called, a sillage becomes the memory and personality of that person.
If many words in perfumery are borrowed from music, sillage comes from maritime terminology designating the wake of a ship. It is pronounced see-ya-j (as in Nicki Minaj). In French "sillage" can be used metaphorically not just for a scent, but also for auditive and visual impressions. It is the trace of something which is perceived in an impressionistic way...
A sillage is distinct from a "drydown" which refers to the way a perfume was constructed to include lasting fragrance notes meant to last for hours - and in the past, days - which evaporate progressively or "dry down", instead of being more fleeting as in the opening of the perfume. The drydown however plays a major role in creating a sillage since persistence is key but it is not enough as, to me at least, a sillage in its purest form ought to not just be perceived as a cloud stagnating mid-air in a room but offer a dynamic and vivid physicality.
Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska underlined in L'esthétique en question the complexity of what makes a sillage distinct from a drydown. If in the latter there is the notion that notes progressively evaporates - and also anchor a perfume - in the sillage there are also technical aspects like "phenomena of exaltation or on the contrary of withholding, even sometimes of anesthesia."
A sillage, as you can see, is a complex part of the olfactory architecture of a fragrance, and while seemingly situated in the tail-end of a perfume construction, it contains the whole main impression or personality of the perfume but under the specific sensation of wafting away from the perfume wearer towards others. It is a very social part of perfume-wearing, a language spoken to others. It is paradoxically more intimate for others and their memories of you, than for yourself. Sometimes it is the others who smell your sillage best and you may catch a whiff of what they smell only when the wind blows back towards you.
A sillage normally is envisioned as the olfactory signature and trace left by a perfume-wearer but in reality, it can precede the arrival of a person.
Fashion designer Christian Dior considered the latter aspect to be a defect, thinking it should follow rather than precede the arrival of a woman. Other people think that a sillage can be plain inelegant and showy. Like a dress with a train or without a train, a perfume can have a sillage or not. What matters most I think is that it fits your personality or mood. It is true that a sillage makes you more of a dandy, coquette or peacock. It is unabashed about its own beautifying and charming effect.
A 1948 advert for Emir by Dana reveals the emotions that a perfume trail or sillage can awaken in a person
One of my most memorable impressions of a sillage I encountered in real life was that of a woman on a street in Paris near the church of Saint Germain des Prés whose silhouette came pre-announced by what smelled like a path strewn by a thousand petals, and after she had passed by, the flowers continued to bloom behind her inside each of the steps she had taken on that street. It was incredible. This was sillage at its most dramatic and enchanting. It simply made you pay attention, conjured up an ideal spring in the middle of urban stone architecture, and had the capacity to make you stop and turn your head around.
Fashion designer Christian Dior famously said regarding Miss Dior, the original, "J'ai créé ce parfum pour habiller chaque femme d'un sillage de désir, et voir de son flacon surgir toutes mes robes," I've created this perfume to dress each woman with a sillage of desire and to see from its flacon swirl out all of my dresses."
This quote underlines a function of the sillage which is to be a support for longing, desire and lasting seduction. It can express better the warmth of a body, the natural scent of a person's skin and keep you in the minds of the persons who have inhaled your sillage since at some point in time, it is expressed in the absence of the person. It is you, after you left.
It is not easy to achieve a great sillage and requires technical maestria, research, coupled with the unavoidable fact that perfumery is an empirical art and therefore even with experience, you never can be quite sure how raw materials are going to interact with each others and for how long.
In Le parfum des origines à nos jours, author Annick Le Guérer reports how it took perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena three years to create Déclaration by Cartier because among other things, he had a problem with designing its sillage. My personal take on this issue is that there remains a problem with the sillage of that perfume in the very last phases. Ellena can be seen sometimes to eschew sillage issues preferring to concentrate on interesting accords although First by Van Cleef is a perfume with a memorable sillage. Perfumer Alberto Morillas is very good at creating great sillages (Daisy; Versense). Ellena however stresses in his book The Diary of a Nose that "sillage" is one of the main qualities he works upon, which he distinguishes from "longevity, presence, diffusion, vigour and clarity."
A fragrance composition might be worked upon to include a sillage. This is a choice. A "skin scent" for instance eschews the sensation of a sillage. At best it might leave an "aura". So, you have to envision sillage or trail literally as that form of perfume which physically dissipates in a sinuous fashion to ensnare others. There was once an advert featuring a perfume with a lasso; this is what a sillage can be, a tool of powerful seduction either attracting people towards you or towards your perfume. You can literally follow the sillage of a perfume worn by a stranger, or think you could follow the perfume-wearing person to the ends of the earth. A sillage can create the most mesmerizing and emotional part of the experience of wearing and smelling perfume.