“Genderbender”

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Unisex perfumes are having a moment. They may never catch on in mainstream fragrance, but over in the niche market (i.e. generally more adventurous perfume with limited distribution) unisex is the de facto marketing strategy. It may have started with Serge Lutens, who, possibly for artistic reasons, doesn’t distinguish between perfume for men or women*. The rest of niche perfumery followed suit. You’ll hardly ever see any reference to gender on a bottle of niche perfume.

Unisex is fine, but I’m more fascinated by the rare beast that alternates between masculine and feminine. I was reading an article about Chanel‘s new release Boy, composed by Olivier Polge. The author stated that Polge had once again turned out a “genderbender,” the others being Florabotanica and Dior Homme. It caught my attention because I’ve always considered Dior Homme feminine, even though it obviously smells like a dude’s perfume. Dior Homme partakes in a fascinating push and pull of opposites and paradoxes. It smells like a barbershop, yet it’s both powdery and luxurious. It is undoubtedly sweet, but never dopey. It smells great on a woman (I gave some to a friend of mine and she loved it) but it perfectly captures that slinky, fashion wraith that Dior Homme’s then creative director Hedi Slimane loved so well.

At this point you’re probably sick of hearing me drone on about Lyric Man. It’s a rose for men, but there’s nothing terribly new or daring about that; men in the Arabian peninsula adore rose. Lyric Man takes it a step further: it smells like a feminine but behaves like a masculine. That brain breaking sentence aside, while it may seem a little odd at first, wearing it is effortlessly pleasurable. Where most masculines shout, Lyric Man radiates and shimmers. Even the most “masculine” bits (e.g. the woodiness and humid quality) are rendered tenderly. Every time you reach a conclusion on Lyric Man, it changes.

Ultimately, how a perfume behaves is more important than the notes it contains. I have a hard time imagining Montale’s Black Aoud as anything but a masculine. And yet it contains enough rose to make an Estee Lauder diehard recoil. Amouage’s Gold Man is an abstract floral of the old style with cool sheets of clean incense and the volume turned up to 11. A woman could certainly wear it, but its carriage and tone make it a great choice for the guy with a fat wallet and nothing to prove. How something cozies up (or doesn’t) with your own funk is all you need worry about when picking a fragrance, perfume “gender” be damned.

Imagine a power-suited hedge-funder wearing Apres les Ondee. Or your fancy aunt wearing Azzaro Pour Homme. The surprise is half the fun. Perfume has always been a place where people play with gender and expectations. In the 1980s, the gentleman’s foghorn Drakkar Noir was adopted by lesbian culture. One sales associate confessed to me that he has a sizable male clientele who surreptitiously buy a bottle of Montale’s Roses Elixir every year without fail. Wild juxtapositions done right make the component parts seem more interesting. Splash on some No. 5 under your grandpa flannel. Coco would have approved.

*What constitutes feminine or masculine in a fragrance is a massive, and often problematic discussion. I’ll leave the meaning of those descriptors up to the reader. However, you can read a snippet of my take on the conversation here. 

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Regarding your terrible perfume

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It’s really not your fault. The choice was made for you by cynical marketers and money grubbing brand magnates. You can’t know better because they don’t want you to smell the good stuff. When you pump out that Flowerbomb from its weapon-fetishizing bottle, it feels like a cloud of childlike joy compared to the stuffy juice your mom used to wear. Never mind the fact that tens of millions of other people wear it. Forget that it’s basically Angel without the wit or charm or originality. For you, it does everything a perfume should do. It makes you feel young and fancy. It is pure, decadent pleasure.

The thing is…I kinda like it. Let me be clearer. I don’t like it, the it being the perfume itself, although technically it’s reasonably well-executed. I like that you’re wearing it. That I get to smell this stupid, ludicrous thing. That it makes me think and critique and question my assumptions and my prejudices. Then there’s the pure sensation of it. Because, like it or not, it does work. It’s like being in a club, and it’s late, and you’re loose and sweaty, and some dopey Katy Perry song comes on, and it’s PERFECT. 

Sometimes, just sometimes, any music is better than no music at all. To paraphrase the tremendous Simon Doonan, bad taste is like a dash of paprika. Every needs at least a little. And who knows, maybe some day you’ll graduate to something really great. You might stumble upon a bottle of 100% Love or even a classic something from Chanel. I’m a firm believer in gateway drugs.

Here’s my only piece of advice: buck the dang system. Don’t just shop at Sephora or Nordstrom or Macys. Give my friends a call at Scent Bar at let them send you a few samples of something truly surprising and beautiful. You’re not going to find unless you dig. Patience is key. Wear it a few times. Be critical. Don’t listen to anyone’s advice. Trust your gut. Put the stuff through its paces. Make sure it holds up and smells good right up to the dry down. Make those perfumers and sales associates work for your business. After all, you’re going to live in this stuff. Settle for nothing less than swoony.

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Am I crazy?

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Whether you know it or not, you probably already have an opinion of Edouard Flechier‘s godzillian Poison for Dior (1985). I smelled it on plenty of people growing up. I even remember waiting for my mother in the back of a yoga class while at least one attendee radiated Poison’s plummy tuberose right up to the ceiling. Not so long ago, it was so popular and so reviled that it was banned from restaurants. But thirty years later, amid louder, loucher faire, I was almost tempted to dismiss it as quaint.

The opening is furious and huge, like a jolly purple explosion. And yet, no one tells you that Poison is also intensely tart and woody. I once smelled a freshly cut eucalyptus tree, and it was so sharp and insistent that it smelled sad, like a single note in a minor key sustained on a violin. Poison carries some of that woody lament, employed to offset both the tone and the density of the fruity florals. That juxtaposition rang a bell somewhere deep in my associative memory: I had smelled something very like it before.

The connection struck me from the most unlikely of places: Serge Lutens. While not known for his quiet perfumes, Lutens seems demure and taciturn next to Poison’s day-glo Fran Drescher swagger. Still, there’s no denying the parallels between Poison and the candied woody florals that put the Lutens line on the map. Start by featuring a prominent tangy cedar, sometimes dry, sometimes syrupy sweet and add in a dose of rich florals, amber, fruit, or vanilla as the case may be. That fabulous cycle of fragrances that began with Femininité du Bois (Shiseido, 1992) and included Bois de Violette, Un Bois Vanille, Bois et Musc, Bois Oriental, and Bois et Fruit all spring from that same theme.

In particular, I’m thinking of our old friend Sarrasins, Queen of Moonlight. I’d even wager that Poison directly inspired Sarrasins, with its potent clash of sweet florals (especially the osmanthus core) and balsamic woodiness. It’s as if Sheldrake and Lutens transcribed that unforgettable melody of Poison into a new key and time signature, thereby rendering it practically unrecognizable. Of course, Sarrasins rounds off the composition with that impeccably swoony leather base. It’s also refined, elegant, and mysterious, where Poison has all the subtlety of a Gallagher act. Imagine if Björk admitted Cyndi Lauper taught her everything she knows. Or if Hillary Clinton took public speaking cues from W. Bush.

In the end, the association comes to benefit both Lutens and Flechier. Lutens because he sussed out a brilliantly portable idea in such a distinctive composition, and Flechier because that distinctive (and great) composition has proven to be more influential than we thought. Not just because it paved the way for so many other lovely loudmouths like Angel (also 1992). Unfortunately, Poison is so laden with memories and associations that it’s harder to pull of these days, especially on a man. Still, what’s the point of playing the game if you can’t break a few rules? I wear the Poison eau de toilette from time to time, until I can find an affordable bottle of the pure parfum. If you’re ever in San Francisco, visit Tigerlily in the Mission. They have a wall of vintage formulas, including Poison parfum. For a smell nerd like me, it’s practically worth the whole trip.

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How to (not) smell like a dude

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The first perfume I wore was my dad’s bay rum. Like every other boy, I put on way too much. People near me must have perceived a brownish aromatic cloud with a tall mop-haired boy at the center, gleefully unaware of the smell-carnage in his wake. Some years later, at a department store perfume counter, I picked out my very first fragrance: Versace Dreamer (1996). By then, I already knew how I wanted to smell, and it was nothing like those droning, barbershop perfumes with a horn section that I can only describe as Wagnerian.

If the idea of a Wagnerian perfume conjures up the image of a florid, puffy-chested man with small eyes and a big, fancy watch, you’re not alone. These were not the men I wanted to emulate. When I bought my first perfume, I wasn’t looking for something for the boardroom or the bedroom. I was looking for something that felt luxurious and sophisticated. Something just for me.

Revisiting Dreamer (or at least a version of Dreamer; it may or may not have been reformulated), it doesn’t exactly hold up. But it does take me right back to college, when a little puff from that bottle with the frosted medusa head was all it took to make me feel like the proverbial million bucks. While it doesn’t smell especially classy or romantic to me now, it is miles away from the sporty dreck you might smell in a locker room. Dreamer is a smell to curl up to, its sweet muskiness neither bracing or boastful. It is a perfume for pleasure.

I still look first for that physical pleasure in perfume. Doubtful though I was at first, I regularly put on No. 5 when I need a little extra comfort. Nothing was ever that lovely and just plain gobsmackingly beautiful. I’m not advocating a splash of that famous lady for everyone out there, least of all the men, but it does make me wonder what other men want from their perfume. It’s fine to want to smell nice. I’d even acknowledge the value of smelling nice to impress someone. But doesn’t it sound much nicer to wear perfume for that moment of eye-rolling, posture-melting pleasure that only the best of them provide? It’s out there, gentleman, and it’s not too late to look for it.

In America, at least, how you smell seems to be an embarrassing topic. No matter what I wear (and I’ve worn Secretions Magnifiques to the office, my friends) no one ever comments on it. It seems most people would rather forget that you smell like anything than face the fact that you may be wearing something strange, interesting or–perish the though–beautiful. Perhaps that’s why so many men opt for the blustery male enhancers, which proclaim virility and no sense of humor. If smell, let alone perfume, is to be an uncomfortably intimate subject, then a man’s perfume must speak loud and succinct enough to end the conversation.

These days, I wear mostly feminine perfumes. I’m not willing to give up their inventiveness and romance just to play it safe. I won’t be shutting up about Sarrasins any time soon. Joy (the pre-2010 version) is probably the most generally satisfying perfume I know. Sofia Grojsman’s 100% Love is a mysteriously wonderful combination of the alien and the familiar. Jasmin et Cigarette (just like the name says) is a brilliant idea executed beautifully. All of them pack a hefty wallop of what I’ll call the swoon factor. But what about masculines? Isn’t there something out there to make all you straight-laced dudes weak in the knees? Of course. The few below are a great place to start.

Patricia de Nicolaï’s New York is probably the warmest and friendliest masculine perfume ever. Even in its current reformulated state it still makes me sigh with pleasure. Like all of de Nicolaï’s finest, New York exudes and generosity and approachability that would be plenty satisfying if it weren’t far surpassed by the inventiveness of her compositions and the richness of her materials. She’s one of the original niche perfumers, and she still does the majority of the composition and production under one roof. If you want class and old world style, look no further.

Chanel was late to the game in releasing a “boutique” range of fragrances in 2007. But no one minded when they trotted out the six original bottles in the Exclusifs range. The first Exclusifs masculine Sycomore contains a serious dose of vetiver, but like nearly everything in the Chanel range, that most distinctive of ingredients is transformed into exquisite abstraction. It smells exceptionally natural, with vetiver and sandalwood running the show, but there are far more pleasures under the hood. Then again, you’ll probably just want to kick back and let it wash over you. Let no one say that pleasure is hard work.

Amouage aren’t known for their masculines but Lyric Man is among the best out there. Composer Daniel Visentin cooked up a curious mix of opposites and contradictions. Lyric Man is at once bracing and quiet, spacious and intimate, fresh and humid; and that wondrous central accord of rose, sandalwood, and frankincense is both comforting and odd. Like its sister Lyric Woman, Lyric Man turns the unsettling into the radiant. You may not fall in love with it as quickly as Sycomore or New York–creative director Christopher Chong famously said that his perfumes don’t reveal themselves on the first wearing–but once it gets under your skin it’s there for good.

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Arabia Felix

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Of all the classic perfume genres orientals are probably the most flexible. Most chypres have that instantly recognizable bitter tang. Fougères smell more or less like something your dad would wear. Florals pile on the requisite flowers and woods the requisite woods. But orientals are a dizzyingly diverse crowd, from spicy/sweet earthbound ambers (e.g Ambre Sultan) to boisterous oddballs like Thierry Mugler’s Angel. Many of them are painfully boring: you smell one, you’ve smelled them all. Orientals are the dance music of the perfume world. Among the bubble-headed dreck and perfunctory crowd pleasers you’ll find a growing list of innovative fragrances using the basic oriental blueprint to achieve wonderfully strange results.

Cartier’s L’Heure Perdue by Matilde Laurent may open with sweet, powdery loveliness, but things get weird quickly. The main accord smells like some combination of balloon rubber and gluey, pulpy paper. In other words, like no natural material I know. And yet the fidelity suggests a top-quality natural material. You’ll also find an overripe fruit smell (à la Amouage’s Lyric Woman) adding a spooky dimension to an already odd fragrance. But while Laurent’s brilliant composition strikes out for brave new territory, it is always comforting. The plush sweetness helps the strangeness go down easily and provides a sturdy backbone on which to hang the more peculiar flourishes.

You can’t talk about orientals without mentioning Serge Lutens. There’s the landmark Ambre Sultan, my favorite straight-up “amber.” And Borneo 1834 which does magical, evocative things with patchouli. The real heart of the collection, however, lies in the mystical and semi-mystical compositions, including La Myrhhe and El Attarine, which practically vibrate with mystery and suggestion. (More on El Attarine in a future post.) The melodies may be simple, but they cast a big shadow.

And then there’s Amouage, purveyors of some of the biggest, loudest and most complex perfumes I know. The majority of the collection falls firmly in oriental territory, but the best examples are so big and ambitious that they transcend the genre entirely. Take the inimitable Ubar. Calling it a floral oriental (which is not inaccurate) is like calling Kanye West a rapper. Like Mr. West, Ubar is decadent, complicated, and loud. But precious few perfumes holding forth at this volume have something so enchanting to say. It’s the smell equivalent of  a shimmering golden sandcrawler, blasting Mahler from top-range speakers. It’s also packing a glorious dose of ambergris: salty, musty, and deliciously skanky. If you’re looking for grand splendor look no further. The prices are steep, but rest assured, there’s nothing else like Amouage on earth.

Test Drive: Secretions Magnifiques

Not everyone cares to try out Etat Libre d’Orange’s Lars-von-Trier-in-a-bottle Secretions Magnifiques. And for good reason: people hate this stuff. For some it’s a slightly odd, metallic/salty/creamy floral. For others it smells like blood, semen, and breast milk. Very few people dare to smell it and far fewer can do so without recoiling. (Yes, there are even horror stories of Secretions-induced vomiting.) Fortunately, the team here at SMELL DORADO is brave enough and foolish enough to give it a shot. For an entire day. Watch below to see what happens…

The Golden Goddess

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I’ve never known anyone who wore Chanel No. 5. My mom wore L’air du Temps. My grandmother wore Opium. Plenty of my mom’s friends wore Poison. I grew up mostly unmarked by probably the most famous fragrance of all time. That’s probably why I have no trouble wearing it. Sure, the smell of aldehydes (those soapy sparkles in the top notes) and jasmine on a 6’2″ bearded dude is a bit of a stretch. But with something this good, it’s definitely worth the gamble.

No. 5 now comes in four different concentrations: eau de toilette, eau de parfum, eau premiere, and parfum; the parfum being the closest to Ernst Beaux‘s original formula. I recently scooped a vintage bottle of Jean Patou’s Joy, which I like to think of as The Rolling Stones to No. 5’s Beatles. Both Joy and No. 5 are quite abstract, although No. 5 probably more so. But while Joy has a notable dose of civet and a crisp tang that promises danger, No. 5 is serene, demure, and utterly pleasurable.

In the past, I’ve had little use in my collection for “comforting” perfumes. Jean Claude Ellena’s Osmanthe Yunnan kicked that door open for me and it wasn’t long until I was completely under its spell.  No. 5 offers a similar sense of uplift, both heartening and optimistic. It’s also devoid of the funk and filth that I usually seek out in florals (see Joy, Sarrasins, you name it). And I wasn’t sure how well that creamy pillar of refined femininity would jive with my Lebanese man funk.

Surprisingly, I found No. 5 completely wearable. Daubing a few drops on my arm from that exquisite glass stopper I fell prey to complete bliss. Never have I smelled anything so heartbreakingly beautiful. Familiarity with the excellent eau de parfum and even the peerless eau de toilette concentrations had failed to prepare me for the dizzying loveliness of the parfum. Luxury never felt this good.

The No. 5 parfum feels more complex than its siblings, the similarly luscious Bois de Iles and the strapping Cuir de Russie, all of which were composed by Ernst Beaux and debuted in the 1920s. The aldehydes in No. 5’s opening are undeniably lovely, but in the parfum they are rendered smoother and more seamless than in either the eau de toilette or eau de parfum, adding sparkle to the rest of the composition’s golden form. No. 5 is a real presence in the room, never overbearing or distracting, but fully real. I recently smelled it in passing and felt that familiar sense of comfort and delight. Some things are so beautiful that they make you feel more alive. No. 5 is one of them.

Cleanliness and Fraudliness

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Recently, a friend sheepishly asked if I would give her a fragrance consultation. (She had no idea how thrilled I was to do it, or how many unsolicited rantings and musings she was about to get.) Although she ended up settling on a bottle of Le Labo’s Oud 27 (which Luca Turin rightly describes as “properly pornographic”), she initially described her ideal scent as “clean and fresh.” I had to check myself before diving into a nerd/snob eyeroll. In most cases, clean and fresh simply means safe and dull.

One of my greatest pleasures is crawling into clean sheets after a shower. But this fetishism of a very specific kind of clean smell seems almost moralistic, like it’s posed in opposition to funkier, more bodily “foreign” smells. The idea of “clean” is unsurprisingly culturally constructed. And it changes not only between cultures but across time, too. The smell of carbolic soap, which you can smell today in Neutrogena’s T-Gel shampoo, used to be the olfactory gold standard of clean before it was supplanted by crisp citrus smells in the 1960s. These days, all our soaps, laundry detergents, and fabric softeners are infused with potent dose of buzzy white musks. Why? Probably, depressingly, simply because it’s cheap.

I once read a snippet of something arguing that leathery fragrances gained popularity in the 1920s when more and more women started smoking. The smell of rectified birch tar, then widely used to mimic the smell of tanning chemicals in leather perfumes, blends nicely with cigarette smoke. Moreover, there was a time when perfume was meant to blend with bodily smells. So many of those pre-50s classics (Bandit, Joy, and Shalimar, to name just three) have a strong dose of funk. They don’t beg to be worn on unwashed flesh, but they do mingle nicely with the actual smell of a human body.

Not all “clean” perfumes are a cheap joke. Sophia Grojsman‘s classic White Linen (1978) makes clean feel properly salubrious and invigorating. Frederic Malle’s Outrageous (also by the inimitable Grojsman) takes the smell of laundry musk and turns it into a proper fragranceThe great Jean Claude Ellena has composed some top-notched well-scrubbed fragrances, including Osmanthe Yunnan and L’eau d’Iver. And it’s hard to go wrong with Chanel No. 18. More daring readers can try Mark Buxton’s Comme des Garcons 3 or Odeur 71, both of which play cleverly with the idea of cleanliness.

Those looking for good sweaty fun are in luck. Recent years have seen the niche market flooded with extreme animalics, inspired possibly by Serge Lutens’s loved and feared Muscs Koublai Khan. For a while there it seemed like everyone was out to win the funky arms race, piling on the (synthetic) civet, castoreum and oud. These smells certainly evoke old-world glamour (like the tremendous Maai by Bogue and the aforementioned classic bombshells), but they also create a cozy intimacy. And it’s not just a matter of smelling like you’ve just been riding horseback all day: Lutens and so many others have found a way to make stinky smell beautiful. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. But, tell the truth, aren’t you just a little curious?

 

Don’t Forget to Save the World

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Without realizing it, I got stuck in the deep end of “serious art.” In a rush to fill in the gaps in my perfume knowledge–and collection–I focused on the essentials, the masterpieces, and the great works. It led me to the door of some amazing places. I recently rediscovered Ubar, and the bigness and strangeness of that rare beast reminded me in seconds why perfume is so great.

But sometimes, you need to lighten up. Amouage and Lutens may make you swoon, but you might feel silly wearing them to a comedy show. Or to a cookout. Then I remembered Etat Libre d’Orange, that defiantly idiosyncratic, occasionally bawdy, usually provocative french line with over 30 bottles in their range. They lay claim to probably the most reviled fragrance on the market with Secretions Magnifiques, but also put out one of the most comforting (Like This). On the surface they may seem irreverent and campy, but below the ludicrous ad copy and the goofy drawings of ejaculating penises, you’ll find brilliant artists and top-drawer perfumes.

The best stuff in the line can be thrown on as easily as a t-shirt. Plus, it’s got the complexity and quality (owner and mastermind Etienne de Swardt swears that they spend more than $300 a kilo on their juice, more than 10x what the stuff at Sephora usually costs) to last you through the day. Somehow they’ve managed to include all the fun of the low brow with all the satisfying richness of lofty, haute parfumerie. Certainly, they have their high-concept works (e.g. the aforementioned Secretions Magnifiques), but generally they manage to be both strange and wonderful. That balancing act alone is no small feat. Their great successes–Jasmin et Cigarette, for example–make it seem natural and effortless.

Most of all, the whole line exudes a spirit of discovery and delight, as if they can’t quite believe they are getting away with it. Which makes sense, since Etienne de Swardt seems to be simultaneously daring, reckless, and rigorous. I include Etat Libre d’Orange in a short list of perfume companies (see also Knize and Parfums de Nicolai) which ask so little and work so hard to please. Add to that fresh lashings of gleeful adventure and you’ve got one of the most charming, satisfying, and accessible niche lines out there.

Etienne de Swardt is fond of saying “frivolity will save the world.” Ironic or not, tongue in cheek or not, the poetry of that statement hits home. De Swardt is the odd bird with a host of big ideas and a light touch. Sure, he can talk like a philosophy major, but clearly he’d rather let his hair down at the concert. For those about to rock, I salute you.

 

Where there’s smoke…

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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.