Vetiver, 2015 (Guerlain)

I reviewed this fragrance years ago in the "ribbed bottle" formula, which came in the post-2007 green box design with the tiny Guerlain G's in that itty-bitty circle (called the "plain box" style on the superlative blog Raiders of the Lost Scent). At the time I thought it was very French and well made, sturdy in summer heat, yet only slightly marred by an unpleasant "bug-spray" quality to the bergamot top note, a demerit heavily commented on at the time. I thought it was quite good, albeit a bit shy of "great." 

According to Andre, Vetiver was reformulated in 2015. According to basenoter "Andy the Frenchy," it was repackaged in its current green-cap bottle in 2016, sans reformulation. The code on my bottle/box is 7Q01, dating it to March of 2017, and thus I consider my bottle to be the 2015 formula. With that said, Guerlain fragrances are notoriously difficult to keep straight. The house has issued countless perfumes in as many different creative packagings bearing endlessly complicated batch codes. Accurately chronicling them is a Herculean task. Such is the way with older French perfumery firms.

I should mention that the "ribbed bottle" version is a unicorn among vintage enthusiasts, although you can buy it on eBay for an average price of $175. That's no bueno for me. If you want the truth, I wore about two ounces of that formula, and wantonly sprayed the other two on my old leather jacket. I enjoyed how rain resurrected it from the cow hide weeks after application, and preferred to smell it that way. I just wasn't "wowed" by the fragrance on my skin. There's something I can't pinpoint in the ribbed version (I suspect the synthetic citrus) that feels off-kilter and a little wrong. 

Personal quibble aside, Vetiver is still an enduringly popular fragrance. In his interesting 2008 book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris & New York, journalist and art museum curator Chandler Burr famously extracted from actress Sarah Jessica Parker the confession that she regularly wears the Parisian trademark vetiver. Eighties supermodel Elle Macpherson stated in her 2018 New York Magazine article that she has worn it for over thirty years, and considers it her signature. Eddie Roschi, co-founder of Le Labo, said in a 2011 NY Times article by Michael Walker that "In some countries you can smell it in the subways because everyone wears it." In a pithy 2013 New York Post article, Kelly Killoran Bensimon, American celebrity real estate agent and television personality, described her Vetiver-wearing hubby as the antithesis of a "loser"- an indirect plug for the fragrance. This year marks its 60th anniversary, and it would be a mistake to say that this iconic cologne has missed its twenty-first century target buyer: the woman who prizes strength and individualism in herself and others. 

Released in 1961, Vetiver showcases a note that was ahead of its time in masculine perfumery. It had been framed previously in floral bouquets and the rich, vanilla-laden orientalism of midcentury feminines. But according to Perfume author Lizzie Ostrom, it was "Newly appropriated as a masculine." In her 2016 book she wrote:
"It is as though, in trying to fence off some territory for the guys, anything remotely woody was grabbed and de-feminised. There is nothing particularly manly about vetiver, aside from being told it is so, to which end all female readers are encouraged to have a go with Guerlain's Vetiver. Since its release, the Guerlain version has become the most famous of the three main vetivers, designed, according to the house, with reference to the smell of a gardener, complete with soil under his fingernails . . . Vetiver has a really chewy smell. It is often described using terms like wood, liquorice, smoke and amber. In this scent its greenness is brought out with bergamot, its aromatic qualities with nutmeg and coriander, and its sweet smokiness from tobacco."

What a good description of the current formula, which has seen some improvement on the fidelity of its citrus notes, and a re-pouching of the extra pinches of snuff found in the 2000s version. I'd add freshly-squeezed lime as another prominent "green" catalyst in the scent, its crisp (and woody) essence enduring until the far dry-down. An almost animalistic coriander/black pepper accord, with emphasis on the sweaty-lemon facet of pulverized coriander seed, is balanced on the relaxed interplay of tobacco, vetiver root, and cedar, which rounds everything off. It's linear on my skin, with the morning sunlight of its fizzy top drifting slowly under a cool vetiver horizon by day's end. 

I'll end with this: to wear a vetiver fragrance of any kind is an exercise in sophistication. Despite its ubiquity in the tropics, most North Americans have no idea what vetiver is. Everyone's eyes glaze over when I tell them what I'm wearing. Guerlain's latest Vetiver is a frag I can get into. It's interesting to trial it in the winter, and I'll likely repurchase a bottle for the summer to see how it does in high heat. Good on Guerlain for keeping it going! On to Habit Rouge . . . 


"It's Not Plastic, It's Petroleum."

I recently responded to an incredibly interesting thread on Badger & Blade (my handle there is "Featherweight") in which the OP wanted to find fragrances similar to Old Spice. Among the list of options I offered was Vi-Jon's generic drugstore version:
"Vi-Jon Spice always came across as a creamier, brighter version of OS, with an unfortunate washed-out quality in the drydown that whiffs of plastic."

To be clear, I think Vi-Jon "Spice Scent" aftershave is a suitable replacement for regular OS if you're looking for something that is decently made and captures the overall vibe. In fact, I'd say it's fairly close to Rubicon's Indian Old Spice. It has that creamy, bright, smooth quality. But my take on the performance of Vi-Jon is that it hints of plastic after five or ten minutes on skin, and given that many inexpensive aftershaves suffer from this, it's not a big deal. I do not think Vi-Jon smells much like vintage Shulton or even the current P&G formula, but a casual nose would not be picking it apart.

My comment received a response from member "OkieStubble":

"That's not plastic you're smelling, it's petroleum. Many cheap dollar store based aftershaves, and fragrances' synthetic-based scents, are produced from petrochemicals. The smell in the drydown is petroleum, not plastic."

To which I responded (making friends as usual):

"Well, that may be, but the drydown doesn't smell like petrochemicals. It smells like plastic."

Unfortunately it's difficult to debate these things on the internet. There are so many ways my points can be misconstrued just by misinterpreting the tone of my statements, and thus I keep them short and sweet. But I'd like to explore the topic of petrochemicals, and why "OkieStubble" is correct about fragrances containing them, yet wrong about me smelling them.

The simple definition of the term "petrochemical" is any chemical obtained from refining petroleum. Aromatics are one of the two most common chemical types derived this way, though I should point out that "aromatics" in this context doesn't directly relate to chemicals that produce a smell. This is just the name of the chemical classification. They're defined as "BTX," i.e., benzene, toluene, and any of the three isomers of dimethylbenzene, known as xylene isomers, which are aromatic hydrocarbons. Put simply, the most common petrochemicals in perfumery are the solvents and bases used to dissolve aroma chemical compounds. In other words, things like ethanol (alcohol) and musk ketone (used in nitro musks). 

Petrochemicals have invaded our aftershaves, but it's inaccurate to say that they're responsible for off-notes and plasticky smells. This is a simplistic view of what they are, and what they do. Just because something is made from a petroleum-refined chemical doesn't mean it smells of plastic. Alcohol smells like alcohol, and nitro musks have been globally banned from most applications in perfume. Faberge's Brut hasn't used it since the 1980s. I recall smelling vintage Brut 33 from that era, and found its musk had a hint of plastic in it. But its bottle was cheap plastic, and that's obviously where the smell came from. The absolutes used in more expensive perfumes are extracted with hexane, a petrochemical, but this is part of an extraction process, not the formulation process.

The journal Scientific American published a rather weak article on this subject in 2012. It begins with this misleading paragraph:

"Ahhh . . . the sweet smell of petrochemicals! The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that, while many popular perfumes, colognes and body sprays contain trace amounts of natural essences, they also typically contain a dozen or more potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals, some of which are derived from petroleum. To protect trade secrets, makers are allowed to withhold fragrance ingredients, so consumers can't rely on labels to know what hazards may lurk inside that new bottle of perfume."

While it is true that perfumes contain "potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals," it only takes a cursory glance at the context of this assertion to know that it says nothing. My shirt contains potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals. My shampoo does, too. So does my toothpaste, my deodorant, my sneakers, my comb. Welcome to the modern world, reader. It's full of stuff you don't want to eat or set on fire. But that doesn't mean the "potential" for "hazard" is ever realized in any of these items. You know what else is derived from petroleum? Petroleum jelly, otherwise known as Vaseline, the stuff people use as lube for all sorts of unmentionable things. 

The article in Scientific American gets only vaguer and less accurate from there:

"'The average fragrance tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label,' reports EWG . . . 'Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.'"

Here they depart from their claim that petrochemicals are polluting perfume. The subject has inexplicably shifted to "secret chemicals" which are not-so-secretly associated with "hormone disruption" (whatever that may be) and "allergic reaction" (just like virtually everything else on earth). They go on to claim that the FDA in America has allowed these chemicals to go unchecked due to a legal loophole in cosmetics regulations that requires chemical identification in all cosmetic products except fragrances. 

In no part of the article are any specific petrochemicals dissected, or even mentioned. Their piece begins with the aggressive claim that petrochemicals are everywhere, and goes on to mention none of them. The implication of the piece is that the IFRA is Europe's brilliant answer to the life-threatening dangers of perfumery, while the FDA is America's idiotic and incompetent regulatory burden putting millions of lives in jeopardy through willful neglect. Europe = Smart. America = Dumb. What a surprise. 

So what is the truth here? It would be foolish for me to suggest that perfumes lack danger. Perfumes are mixtures of hundreds of synthetic chemicals that are sprayed through air onto skin. They are poisonous enough that no one should ingest them, or directly inhale them. They are certainly flammable due to their high percentage of alcohol and other low flashpoint chemicals. 

They can indeed elicit mild allergic reactions in people, and in very rare cases, very unpleasant reactions. Perfume use over a lifetime very likely contributes in at least a small degree to cumulative stresses on the body, leading to illness later in life, but I emphasize the word contributes. On its own, using perfume likely does little to no harm. Together with a dozen other habitual behaviors we engage in on a daily basis, it probably does its small part in aging us.

Are we smelling petrochemicals as plastics? No. This is a misunderstanding of the role petrochemicals play in perfumes. Are petrochemicals dangerous? Any good chemist will tell you they can be, but one must consider this important question first: are perfumers, the people who formulate commercial fine fragrances, people like Mark Buxton, Alberto Morillas, Dominique Ropion, Annie Buzantian, and hundreds of others, knowingly putting us in danger? It's one thing to say perfumes are dangerous, but saying so is an indirect indictment of the people making them. Perfumers are chemists. Are they killing us for money? Or are they aware of the dangers of unchecked chemical use, and preparing formulas that adhere to legal industry safety guidelines? 

I think it's likely the latter scenario. When discussing the dangers of petrochemicals, the conversation should be had with perfumers themselves, and not with people who lack basic knowledge of how and why things smell the way they do. 


Williams Mug Soap (Combe Inc.)

If we must continue to live under pandemic conditions, I am officially switching from shaving with pedestrian "canned goo," like Barbasol and Gillette, to a synthetic brush and shave soap. One can offset life's big impositions by embracing its small luxuries. There is no better way to do that than by dropping a puck of Williams shave soap into a shave mug and whipping up a stiff lather. 

Except, as gentlemen on B&B point out, lathering is tricky with Williams. Considered to be one of the cheapest standard no-frills soaps a bloke can buy, Williams is notorious for being difficult to whip, even with rigorous brushwork. To succeed you must (a) Use soft water, and (b) "Bloom" the puck before attempting use. I do the following: buy Poland Spring water, and boil some in a kettle. Then I pour it over the puck and wait about twenty minutes. By that point it has absorbed all the water and created a layer of solid fattiness over it, which then needs only a bit of brushwork to resurrect. 

It takes serious motion in my Fendrihan mug to get something like the consistency of whipped cream, but it gets there. I can brush it on my face, and it holds long enough for my razor to do its magic. I have oily skin, so the drying nature of Williams is a plus for me (and a significant minus for anyone with naturally dry skin). The scent? It is identical to the original Ivory bar soap, the one which famously floats. This makes sense, as Williams is the creator of Ivory soap.

At a buck per puck, this is a true bargain. There are pricier soaps that I'm sure I'll try, but for a guy like me who just wants a quick scratch, Williams is fine, and for the price it's impossible to beat. 


Evergreen Forest (Stirling Soap Company)

Photograph Courtesy Creative Commons by M, 7/19/12

I promised to explore this brand further, so here we are. It is with some trepidation that I review their relatively new Evergreen Forest EDT. It makes me a bit nervous, because this is a difficult fragrance to review fairly. I feel I was a bit too hard on Stirling Spice, a pretty good oriental that awkwardly compares to vintage Old Spice (and stands better on its own), and I don't want to make the same mistake twice, but I'm afraid this post will leave Stirling fans disappointed (no backsies this time).

The standard test of a label's chops is to see how it handles a "green" fragrance. If a company can render botanical notes well, it can do anything. Pine notes are among the most difficult to create for a few reasons: the inevitable comparisons to floor cleaner, the tendency to resemble car air fresheners, and the scent of fresh conifers gets tiresome fast, even if conveyed accurately. Pino Silvestre succeeds as a fougère by using basil as a dupe for pine, and it ends up smelling warm and expansive. Acqua di Selva blends mint with its pine notes to freshen things without straying into air-care territory. It takes a degree of cleverness to pull off a good evergreen frag. The perfumer must understand that less is more, and focus on compositional balance above all else.

Stirling's scent screams "PINE-SOL!!!" for an hour, then morphs into a neon Christmas tree: loud, unpleasant. It lacks dimensionality, and resembles True North by Little Trees. Perhaps some lavender or spice would've helped. Instead the perfumer misused a cheap frankincense note, and I find myself marginally appreciating the heart more than the top. The base just fades everything out. Does it conjure up a mystical emerald forest of wolves and witches and gorgeous lake sirens? I wish, but no. Avoid this one.


Proraso Green Aftershave Lotion & Balm (Ludovico Martelli)

Here's an aftershave that has developed over many years into quite the impressive little machine. It's essentially the same kind of thing as Thayer's facial toner (it contains witch hazel), but dispenses with bold witch hazel assertions and lists the ingredient on its box without fanfare. I feel this is a wise move. While it certainly works therapeutically on newly-shorn skin, it shouldn't be considered a "witch hazel" product. It's simply a straightforward aftershave, and it works beautifully. Proraso Green is a classic. 

In addition to witch hazel and glycerin, Proraso contains eucalyptus leaf oil, and I can smell it in there. The fragrance is best described as a simple "green" essence. It pops with minty menthol on top, and within twenty seconds the eucalyptus comes forward. I find it similar to Osage Rub, but gentler. There's a bit of a powdery feel to the drydown, but the whole affair is very simple, zingy, and old-school barbershop. What I like most is the way it snaps me awake without making my eyes water. With Osage Rub it feels like the menthol is beating me over the head; Proraso is just a quick slap. 

I'm surprised that its scent profile eschews the familiar herbal-pine approach of older Italian barbershop fragrances, favoring an uncomplicated medicinal scent instead. But maybe this tonic-like aspect is true to a tradition of older continental lotions. My vintage Lilac Vegetal smells quite medicinal. Ditto my Colgate talc. My suggestion for newbies is to get the hard stuff out of the way first: buy a bottle of Osage Rub, use it for a week or two, and then spring for Proraso. If you can survive the Rub, you'll appreciate this stuff that much more. It's a rite of passage to manhood that every young wetshaver should experience, and a worthy addition to any shave den. Side note - the teeny-tiny splash spout is precious. 

The Proraso Green Aftershave Balm comes in a square glass bottle, and frankly it smells a lot like Vicks VapoRub to me. The bottle is heavy square glass and the balm is a smooth semi-fluid white substance that pours easily and rubs in even easier. I can tell this stuff is quality because it feels soothing as I work it into my skin, and it doesn't leave any stickiness (just a bit of a gloss). Very nice.

I have some experience with Trumper's aftershave balms, which they call "Skin Food," and I think I prefer them over Proraso's, but Proraso beats Nivea in this department. Nivea's balm is also good, but feels less healing on skin, and leaves some tack behind (it smells better, though). When it comes to balms, I'm not quite sure where to turn. I find them to be an extraneous shave ablution, and often skip them, favoring a simple splash with a bit of styptic. Lately my skin has been protesting my shaves, so Proraso's balm comes in handy, and I suspect I'll use it frequently this winter.

I understand that in addition to their basic shaving products, Proraso makes what they call their "Single Blade" line of post-shave balms, and also colognes. I'm interested in trying at least one of their colognes, to see how they handle the perfumery angle. I don't consider the scent of their green shave lotion anything special, but perhaps the Single Blade colognes are a step up. Stay tuned.


Bay Rum (Geo. F. Trumper)

People get hung up on the massive and very natural clove note in this one. Take, for example, Fragrantica member Planet_X's hilarious review: 
"See and hear me crying with laughter. Bay Rum smells like. . . I thought for ages it smells like Bicardi or Havana Club or Captain Morgan, funny, I know . . . But . . . quoting Justice Glaster its 'clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove clove . . . that's all you get!' Take it or leave it, just do not call it Rum and Bay, please!"

Humor aside, what Planet_X has forgotten is there's more to bay rum than just rum. The bay and spice are gigantic components that offset the liquor-like sweetness found in literally 99% of designer masculines these days. And Trumper's carefully composed Bay Rum cologne contains a green monster bay note (pimenta racemosa) that overtakes the composition only a few seconds after application. While the bright clove top note is impossible to miss, the bay steals the show. Thirty minutes later the drydown arc arrives at a soft rum that smells sweet (but not overly so) and unnecessarily expensive. 

Trumper's scent accurately clones Pinaud's cheaper Virgin Island Bay Rum cologne, a favorite among wet shavers. So why all the hate for it in the fragcomm? This will always puzzle me. I suppose the bay note smells similar enough to the clove note that people think Djarum kreteks instead of the beach. It's the simple but sturdy smell of a fragrance that has survived countless world wars, pandemics, and disasters, and it now sits on my bedroom dresser in the early twenty-first century. Geo. F. Trumper's scent is a survivor, so critics should cut it some slack. I don't smell it and think, "Gee, the balance is wrong." I think of wooden ships bouncing across rough seas. I think of cowboys. Women in tight corsets. Queen Victoria. Dracula. The Industrial Revolution. 

My one gripe with this bay rum, as with all bay rums, is it isn't loud enough for how good it smells. It's a skin scent after an hour, which at Trumper prices is not ideal. Regular reapplication isn't cheap at $25 an ounce, for 1.5 ounces. So a little more perfume oil in the blend is called for, although its longevity is acceptable at roughly three hours. It's yet another winner by a brand that knows its oft-overlooked customers better than they know themselves. The wisdom of age, I suppose.


Aqua Velva Ice Sport (Combe Inc.)

Aqua Velva Ice Sport. The aftershave that says,
 "Welcome to the nineties!" 1994, to be exact. Which, if memory serves me, is the year it was released, and two years before my freshman year of private Catholic high school (short skirts, short skirts, short skirts, short skirts, short skirts). Either way, it's been two decades since I smelled it. I was a teenager, secretly lusting after Natalie Merchant, and obsessed with science fiction novels and everything eighties. 

One thing I do remember with utmost clarity is smelling Ice Sport for the first time at the drugstore. Unlike the original, it was in plastic - it always came in 3.5 oz plastic squeeze bottles. I remember thinking, "This will smell like regular Ice Blue, and I'll just buy that instead." Ho boy, was I wrong. My first impression was what impressions are meant to be: lasting. This stuff embedded itself in my memory forever as being the best smelling aftershave of all time. One sniff had me shamelessly smashing my nostril into the little plastic dispenser like I was snorting lines. This was a religious experience.

I promptly bought the bottle, used it, then bought another. And another. And another. For a year or two, this was my aftershave. I used it religiously. I never tired of it. And then, inexplicably, the drugstore in my neighborhood stopped carrying it, as did every other store in the area. It was, what? Discontinued? Sent to a different region of the country? I'll never know. I grieved for a day or two, bought regular Ice Blue, and moved on. The greatest aftershave of all time was no longer available to me. 

By the time I reached my twenties, I was certain that Ice Sport had been discontinued. It was nowhere to be found in Connecticut, and must have been hard to find online, too, or I would've surely bought a bottle. Then, sometime in the last ten years, I noticed it had returned. Not to store shelves, but to internet listings for Aqua Velva, and I realized I could experience this wonderful elixir again. (I didn't until this fall.)

Why's it so special? It's Gillette Cool Wave, with the bitterness replaced by a lick of raspberry sweetness, the novel fruit note dosed so gently into the dihydromyrcenol that it hovers in the outer periphery of detectibility. There isn't much, if any, citrus. There's not even that much dihydromyrcenol. Yet it's so nineties that when I splash it on I see Carson Daly's big blue doe eyes pleading with hordes of post-pubescent bimbos to Total Request Live anything other than Ray of Light (does Charlie Sheen holding a candy bar to Kristy Swanson's back mean something to you).  Even the label, boasting a "vitamin-enriched" formula, hearkens back to the healthnut craze of the Clinton era. I can almost hear the Native American New Age music as I type this.

Ice Sport is potent. Nineties powerhouse potent. It would make a good cologne. This is what I would want an Ice Blue cologne to smell like, if such a thing existed today. It's fresh, but also warm, sweet. But not obnoxiously sweet. It's glacé, playfully saccharine, a lilting song of a smell that carries its CD tune on the air with a lightness that fills the room. It raises the obvious question: Why don't perfumers use raspberry more often? What prevents the judicious use of such a rich, wonderful note? When will someone invent a time machine so I can go back and browbeat my Victoria's Secret catalog-hoarding self into asking Jessica Janus out after study hall?