Smoky, woody fragrances have been a part of the masculine* fragrance landscape for ages. Knize Ten (1925), perhaps the first fragrance marketed to men, is above all else smoky. Guerlain’s Derby has a green smoky, woodiness, punched up with tremendous richness and complexity. Caron’s Yatagan takes a slightly different tack, exposing the animality in this fragrance palette. More recently Chanel’s Sycomore and Frederic Malle’s French Lover (sold as Bois d’Orage stateside) offer modern takes on the theme, the former resolutely sunny and the latter humid and overtly vegetal.
Mark Buxton‘s blockbuster 2 Man (2004) for Comme des Garçons continued a string of excellent avant garde compositions which ultimately changed the landscape of perfume. It may recall other members of its smoky-woody brethren, and these days you can’t swing a cat without hitting an incensey perfume with plenty of woody amber aromachemicals. But even a casual sniff reveals a fragrance that is odd, illuminating, and deceptively abstract.
It might be tempting to consider 2 Man the arty inverse of Chanel No. 5. Both make crucial use of aldehydes to create a warm, waxy effect. Both are considerably abstract, No. 5 more obviously so. But while No. 5 is bright and dense, 2 Man is airy, transparent, and chiaroscuro dark.
2 Man contains a number of materials that all suggest ceremonial smoke. Frankincense is the most obvious association, with its sharp citric bite. But something about the composition draws attention to the way the individual parts are put together. The trick is difficult to describe but the effect is delightful. It’s as if Buxton found a way to make all the ingredients hang suspended in the air together, with plenty of space in between, before gradually coalescing into a shiny whole. It’s like looking at an exploded view of a moving car engine, where the parts slowly interlock and move into an assembled machine.
Other perfumes have handled the woody-smoky theme better. And if you want a straight-no-chaser frankincense perfume you’ll want to look elsewhere. Still, there is a mystery and a simple pleasure to this fragrance that is all but gone from mass market perfume these days, especially masculines. It may no longer be on the cutting edge, but it’s still a magnificent creation, and one that smells great on the skin.
*I did a post on “masculine” perfumery, and it may have been a little misleading. There are certainly acknowledged masculine forms or genres of perfumery. The fougere is the only genre intended first for men, of which Cool Water, Kouros, and Rive Gauche Pour Homme are some of the purest and best examples. The fougere is marked by lavender and other aromatic smells, sweetened on the top by vanillic, nutty smells and rounded out on the bottom by an inky, mossy base.