5/14/22

Fresh (Dunhill)



Can you believe I've been writing this blog for ten years now and have yet to review a single Dunhill fragrance? That review happens today, with Dunhill's Fresh. For whoever was waiting for it all this time, here it is. Be glad, because this is an interesting fragrance. 

There are many reviews written for Dunhill Fresh. Many of them address the same points, from various angles. This is Fahrenheit's kissing cousin, this is a "fresh" fragrance (truly shocking), this is a "green" fragrance (also shocking), this is an aquatic (not really), this is dull, safe, synthetic, etc. I agree there is a bit of Fahrenheit here - a good bit, actually. I like it a little more than Fahrenheit because there's a much lighter gasoline note, and it's less dense than Dior's composition. Yes, it's fresh. Yes, it's grassy-green with all that mint, sage, lavender, and coumarin. Yes, it's a bit familiar, and it's synthetic, because really, let's get crucial here, this is a derivative masculine.

To quibble a bit with the average assessment, I'd point out that Fahrenheit has a tightly-knit accord of honeysuckle and hawthorn, both of which add to the high-pitched petrol note that made it famous. Fresh shares only the honeysuckle, and eases out on the throttle, leaving no exhaust behind. It also shares something in common with Creed's original Silver Mountain Water. While one can wax poetic for hours on the myriad possible notes in the base of Dunhill's scent, I think it prudent to note that the woody violets that own the dry-down are the same or similar to the aroma chemical that smells of printer ink in SMW. Kinda has a glossy magazine paper vibe. Its far dry-down yields something akin to a blend of Cashmeran and Iso E Super, with maybe a hint of Ambroxan in there as well. A smooth and slightly buzzy woody smell that is far nicer than I expected in a cheapie like this.

But the review that I agree with most is by basenotes member chet31:
"I get a bit of a barbershop vibe from this, this scent would not have been out of place with one of my Dad's old aftershaves. There is a bit of Bengay to it on dry-down, but I don't find it objectionable. I don't hate it, don't love it, a sideways thumb seems fair. 

I agree with this assessment almost to the letter, although I admit I haven't used Bengay in years and wouldn't know its smell if it slapped me. Despite the similarity to Fahrenheit, Dunhill Fresh smells like a very good minty-green aftershave with an intensely watery violet leaf base. It's like a failed flanker of Fahrenheit, like if Dior had reinterpreted the acetylenic esters aspect into an Aqua Velva top, upheld by an oddly murky green-woody foundation. This inhabits an alternate universe in which Fahrenheit is what men splash on after morning sessions with their Gillette Techs. 

Still, it leaves me wondering what they were aiming for, because obviously it wasn't the barbers chair. When you name a scent "Fresh," it leaves little to the imagination, except the word on the box seems tinged with irony. Actually, I'm wondering what the brand is aiming for in general. The main reason I haven't gotten into Dunhill is that its eclectic selection and spotty reputation make it difficult to know which fragrance represents the house. Is it the retro-mod ambery 51.3N? Is it the apple cognac of Custom? The more obviously barbershop Dunhill 2003? The dusky woods of Dunhill Pursuit? The fruited tobacco-vanilla of Desire? 

These fragrances have ambition, but never quite reach any of their goals due to Dunhill's tight-fisted accountants. I like to joke that a Dunhill frag costs the same as a pack of Dunhills. There are tons of favorable reviews for their masculines, but I've done enough reading to notice that a sizable percentage of reviewers find ample use for adjectives like "cheap" and "safe." Dunhill Fresh does little to cut against that, but hey, it smells good enough for regular wear, isn't unforgivably cheap (quality of materials is fair), and is modeled after an institutional masterpiece by an upscale designer. Maybe I should leave the hypotheticals for another day, and just stick to this one: got a light? 

5/8/22

Black Pepper & Lime (St James of London)

I guess I haven't learned my lesson, because I'm back to review another British fragrance. For those of you who are new here, I wear it pretty visibly on my sleeve: I generally dislike English perfumery. Their stuffy and excessively dandified style is anticlimactic. There's no passion, no romance, no danger. They like their starched citrus and spice colognes, those Brits, and God Save the Queen. Their dull-as-dishwater citrus and spice goes well with their bubble and squeak, and it's gone by the last bite.  

St James of London is a midcentury barbershop house that was recently revived when someone bought it and retooled its range for twenty-first century sensibilities. There's the requisite nod to environmentalism; every fragrance is alcohol-free. There's the spiffy packaging, all blocky color fields and clean lines, with regal fonts on embossed boxes, as safe and "classy" as it gets. And there's the fragrance names, which simply tell the buyer what they will smell like. St James has opted for the "natural" approach, boasting of aromatic oils and earthy blends. So Black Pepper & Lime should be, by their metrics, a simple pairing of the two notes, with both smelling as realistic as possible. 

I expected the composition to be pepper-forward in the top notes, with the spice easing back after a few minutes to reveal a woody lime. I hoped the lime would hum along for an hour or two before fading into a woody (zesty?) musk. Maybe it would get powdery, or maybe it would just disappear completely. To my surprise, the polarities are reversed; BP&L begins with a blast of lime, very bright and acidic, and that lime note is all there is for a while. Great, except it doesn't really smell like lime. It smells lime-like, yet there's an unnecessary and nondescript sweetness undergirding it. This scent is supposed to be barbershop, yet manages a very non-barbershop lime. Strange choice.  

Just when I'm beginning to think the carrier oils are the source of the sweetness, the fragrance reveals its true nature to be that of a generic woody amber. The citrus fades off and the black pepper appears, smelling better than the first act did. Fair enough, but the amber gets stronger when the pepper fades, and after an hour I'm left with a very cologney-baloney and contemptible blah. The smell of Mr. Blue Jeans. Of a mall island with a half-asleep Pakistani guy reading a newspaper. Of a fraternity open house at three in the afternoon. I can achieve this effect by blindly grabbing any random discount masculine off one of the lower shelves. I don't need to spend forty dollars on it. 

5/4/22

Elie Tahari Eau de Parfum (Elie Tahari)


Occasionally I happen across an inexpensive fragrance that is as good as any luxury perfume, and it raises the question, how? As in, how can something that costs less than twenty dollars square off with a two hundred dollar scent? What happened in the marketing maelstrom that sent this piece of gold to the bottom? How does a forty-five year-old brand succeed in every way except in capturing the intended audience? Or was the target demographic really everybody and anybody? 

I'll never know. What I smell is a well-conceived tea floral that is better than Creed's Asian Green Tea and a far better bang-for-buck than Tommy Girl, with materials and accords that are on par with Acqua di Biella's Ca' Luna, Goutal's Duel, Lauder's Beyond Paradise, and altogether reminiscent of Biehl Parfumkuntswerke's criminally forgotten pc01. When I think of "tea floral perfumes," I think of the diversity in the world of tea. There are so many different teas that one is hard-pressed to fully understand how much this genre encompasses. It's made a bit easier by the simple fact that market testing has its upsides, and most companies know that people are unlikely to recognize anything that isn't a blatant spice monster chai, a delicate gunpowder green, a citrusy Earl Grey, a smoky oolong, or your run-of-the-mill orange pekoe brown leaf. Fully two-thirds of tea fragrances aim for bagged Lipton, and Elie Tahari opted for 3-5 minute green. No surprises there. 

What is surprising is the synergism the fruity-floral notes share with the tea. Take pear, a note that is a mere click away from apple in most frags, yet in Elie Tahari's scent smells of Doyenné du Comice, that prince of pears. With the delicate papery greenness of tea, the two notes adopt a warmth inherent to neither on their own. Their magic is carried on a saccharine breeze of magnolia blooms, peony blossoms, a whisper of violet (not obvious), and a musk drydown like picnic satin covering green grasses underfoot. Everything is separable, yet when I relax my breathing it all coheres into a lovely bouquet that radiates without feeling loud or synthetic. Reader, you don't know what you're missing.

5/1/22

3 AM (Sean John)


There are some notes in perfumery that are inextricably associated with specific time periods, and fig is forever linked to the nineties. It's difficult for me to smell fig in fragrance without thinking of Tyra Banks, Honda Preludes, Jewel songs, and late night reruns of The X-Files. The familiar smell of woody sweetness just takes me there. 

Ilias Ermenidis, the nose for Givenchy's long-discontinued Greenergy, Halston Catalyst, and Tommy Bahama Very Cool for Men, was tasked with a fig brief that would consciously sidestep the nineties and embrace the current age, and in this regard I think he succeeded. Where something like Ferragamo pour Homme laces a sweet fig note into burled woods, the same accord in 3 AM is treated with the deft light-handedness of an effervescent classical citrus cologne. Where Dune pour Homme aimed for the artistry of Postmodern installation, 3 AM aims for the spartan architecture of Greek revivalism. Where Good Life strove for cushy clouds of sweetness, 3 AM aims for minimalist spice. Any recollection of the pre-9/11 world has been carefully sanded down and interrupted by a newer 2015 angle that is itself rather retro and pre-Covid at this point. 

3 AM's reputation precedes it; I've been reading that this is a surprisingly good fragrance, and was inclined to find a smaller bottle for a blind-buy. I concur with the accolades - this is a good fragrance. Its fizzy top accord of synthetic petitgrain, geranium, bergamot zest, fig leaf, coriander, and pink pepper is green and kinetic and pleasing to wear. An interesting feature of this fragrance is that it doesn't really change, but rather it transitions in intensity and segues into a more relaxed chord of cardamom, fig leaf, fig fruit, geranium, petitgrain, and soft woody musk. The only "top note" is the pink pepper, which scales back drastically after the first few minutes, leaving all the other players intact and fairly linear. Two hours in, and the echo of fig, petitgrain, geranium, and musk remain, humming softly (i.e., weakly) from skin, and perhaps a bit more noticeably from fabric. It behaves like an after-shower summer scent, a "modern" cologne composition that isn't meant to extend through a workday or compete in a nightclub. Its gentle unisex nature is welcoming and cheerful. There's nothing to hate here. Its light earthiness even makes it a worthy alternative to your typical minty aftershave, and lends it a barbershop quality. 

Don't expect 3 AM to be a longevity monster or sillage beast, as it would take half the bottle to wring any more than four hours out of it, but if you're fine with a sheer reinterpretation of 18th century woody-citrus splashes, it fits the bill. Also, don't expect a blatant citrus "freshie" here. The bergamot is dry, pithy, and outweighed by other green notes, so the tedious convention of the usual citrus is absent. In fact, I find the pink pepper is "juicier" in nature than the actual fruits. The whole thing smells reasonably natural, doesn't "fuzz out" and lose balance, and is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Women love stuff like this, for better or worse. Last point: 3 AM has the best atomizer in the business, one that behaves like the gas cans of the fifties. A little weird, but I'm not complaining!

4/23/22

My Thoughts on Scent Beauty's Purchase of Preferred Stock & Stetson



At some point last year (or was it the year before?) Coty sold two of its legacy brands to a relatively unknown Firmenich affiliate company called Scent Beauty. Interestingly, it was the Preferred Stock and Stetson portfolios that transitioned, and are now available on Scent Beauty's web site at newly-elevated price points. 

From what I've been reading online, it appears Firmenich was tasked with reformulating both fragrances, and also creating a new Stetson cologne called Stetson Spirit, which is apparently some sort of citrus-woody scent. The whole lot has been issued at prices that reach about ten dollars above what they were when they were made by Coty, so still quite affordable, but no longer "budget." A 2.5 oz Preferred Stock is now $35. That's quite a hike. I bought the same size for about $25 back in 2013, and that was when it was still offered at Walmart - on the shelf, not behind glass. 

But let's revisit Preferred Stock. This is a fragrance I don't wear very often. In fact, I haven't worn it in at least five years. I'm leery of using it up because I've viewed it as a fragrance that could go extinct and vanish altogether. I never trusted Coty with it. And now my suspicions have been realized! The Scent Beauty reformulation has changed the scent into a more citrus-forward woody variant of its former self. I haven't smelled it yet, but believe what I read in this regard. It's likely the heads at SB wanted an "updated" version that would appeal to younger buyers without putting off veteran buyers, and wound up with something similar but different.

Naturally this will send the price of Coty's formula to the unicorn stables on eBay, which means even my partially-used old bottle will increase in value. I gave it a sniff this morning, and can still smell it on me this afternoon as I write this. When I sprayed it I knew immediately that it had macerated in the bottle since the last time I smelled it, roughly 2016 or 2017. The wormwood top note was arresting in its depth and clarity, the lavender had grown dark and "dusty" in feel, and this dry woodiness extended into the heart, where notes of sage, cypress, patchouli, oakmoss, and vetiver combine to form a sort of "autumn leaf pile" smell with just a hint of green sweetness thanks to a soft brushing of chamomile in with the patchouli. The whole affair is surprisingly crisp, loud, complex, with very good note separation, and a discreet woody drydown that lingers for five or six hours after the opening act. Very impressive for a drugstore fragrance, and even more so after nearly ten years of sparse usage. I wish I could wear this all the time!

But what does it mean when a brand that also owns Amouage and Montale buys Preferred Stock and Stetson? It's strange, but smelling my bottles today, I realized it makes sense. These two drugstore classics have spent decades suffering from being grossly mis-marketed by their parent company. Coty never knew how to pitch them, with their upper-tier designer quality belied by their lowbrow commercial image. Preferred Stock was given a flimsy colorless box and an equally dull looking bottle, and Stetson was forever tied to its schlocky cowboy schtick with only slightly better packaging. When you look at them on a shelf together, it's almost impossible to get a "feel" for what kind of fragrances you're looking at. One is dyed grey and the other is a plain amber, and they both have cheap plastic caps. Preferred Stock is especially nondescript, to the point where any attempt to describe it to someone unfamiliar with it is impossible. "It's the one that looks like isopropyl alcohol, only it smells way better." 

Inexplicably, Coty chose to use good materials for both fragrances. My splash bottle of Stetson cologne is a bit older and has been growing noticeably darker in color year after year, with the powdery woods and bright jasmine note increasing in richness. It smells like an old-fashioned Parisian feminine with an Art Deco flair to its orientalism. The intriguing thing about my bottle is how the jasmine and white floral notes "bloom" in the drydown, becoming more sheer and expansive with time. Coty didn't cheap out with this stuff, yet they were insanely miserly with how they positioned the fragrance, opting to give it a blue collar pickup truck driver image, which is forever puzzling. I almost wish Scent Beauty would discontinue the Stetson brand and revive the formula as a completely new luxury feminine. And side note: I still have a nearly-full bottle of Stetson Sierra, which is just as well made and closer in character to Preferred Stock than its namesake is. 

Hopefully Scent Beauty is able to keep these fragrances alive and well as we head into the twenties. I plan on holding on to my bottles of PS and Stetson, though my break from wearing the latter this past winter means I'll likely use it more next season. I also have a bottle of Red for Men, which is similar in overall feel to PS, and also macerating in the bottle, so I expect to enjoy that one from October onward as well. 

4/14/22

Old Spice Cologne (Shulton, 1950-1955 Vintage), & Some Incorrect Notions About Old Spice That I've Been Reading For Years


I'm glad I could get to this cologne, because I've been wanting to write about it for a few weeks. I used a long wood nail to push the fragment of stopper all the way into the bottle, and rescued the goods. I finally freed the liquid from my Korean War-era bottle, and decanted it into my 1955-1963 bottle with pipettes I found at Michaels. The whole thing took ten minutes to accomplish, from start to finish. 

I was grateful that the contents were genuine, and not generic label Old Spice and/or colored water. My fear upon receiving the eBay purchase was that the seller had scammed me by breaking the stopper in its neck to discourage any attempt to recover its counterfeit contents. Fortunately this was not the case, and I'm happy to report that the cologne is real, and it's shockingly fresh. This bottle was barely used, and smells newer than the "newer" vintage formula I just finished. Pretty astonishing. 

Luca Turin once commented that Opium by YSL smelled "green" to him, like "jade" or something (I'm too lazy to get up and look at the review in The Guide). I remember reading this and thinking it was interesting because I rarely associate the color green with oriental fragrances. My thoughts always sway to amber, that abstract golden color of resins and precious woods. The late Dan Mickers seemed to connect with Turin's color-coding when he remarked that Old Spice's current P&G formula has a green "pine needle" note, which seemed strange when I heard him say it, but makes sense now that I'm smelling this seventy year-old version. It's not pine needles. It's resins blended with nitromusks, and P&G's attempt to replicate this effect with cheaper chems translates to a sharp and borderline terpenic effect. 

But it gets weirder. Shulton apparently had two formulas in the fifties. From 1956 onward, the nitromusks were amped up, along with the vanilla and powder. Pre-1956? The fresh citrus sparkle and sweeter spiced carnation midsection of P&G's current formula, and the dusky eugenol-fueled transition to a subtle musky powder base are all revealed to have been exactly the same, using slightly better synthetics. This early fifties formula is so similar in overall effect to the current American "Classic" formula that if I hadn't seen the orange color of the juice, I'd wonder. I decanted some into an atomizer (also Michaels) and let it "breathe," like whiskey in a snifter, and the biggest giveaway that this is truly deep vintage is the base. I can smell the nitromusk notes, and there's this interesting woody-resinous element that weaves through the powder, although everything smells lighter and more balanced than the late fifties/early sixties formula. 

What I'm trying to say is that the formula from 1950 to 1955 smells very similar to P&G's current formula. How is this possible? I have a theory. First, let me address the differences. The citrus in vintage is muted. I attribute this to the typical time-erosion effect on top notes, which happens to nearly all citrus tops within ten years. Mind you, the citrus note in current OS isn't exactly in your face. This isn't a citrus cologne, it's an oriental, and the notes are sweet (orange/mandarin) and brief. In the current stuff you can sense a hint of orange citrus hanging in the periphery of the other notes during the drydown, the mark of well-blended synthetics. The same is true for vintage, although again it's to a lesser degree.

Another difference is the sweetness and "natural" feel of vintage vs. current. This old blend is definitely sweeter, with a bit of cinnamon-sugar fizz and sweeter musk in the drydown. Contrary to sentiments online, P&G's blend isn't particularly sweet at any stage. It's overtly "masculine," with emphasis on burly clove and peppery carnation, and with a dusky dryness that bullhorns to wearers that flowers and sweets are for little girls. While I appreciate that aspect of the new stuff, the more affable saccharine element in vintage is easy to like and wears very nicely. With wet shaving in mind, it's not hard to see why Old Spice was popular in the forties into the fifties. Women would appreciate this on their husbands' faces. 

One of the biggest differences is in which notes are employed, and how they shape the overall scent profile. Let's talk about what kind of oriental P&G's formula is. When Proctor & Gamble bought the brand, they streamlined the formula into an inoffensive spiced carnation powder. You had the bright pop of cinnamon and clove, the vaguely rosy-spicy carnation element, a hint of vanilla, and a big dusting of talc powder in the base, which is what men were left with ninety minutes after application. Their 2000s reformulation was a reimagining of that carnation midsection, with carnation's eugenol properties accentuated and the powder infused with a bit of citrus freshness. But this early fifties vintage employs a clear note of allspice, which is the dried and crushed berries of the Pimenta dioica plant. 

Allspice is a wonderful note to employ in an oriental composition because it encompasses analog smells for four other spices (hence its inclusive name): cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and clove. You can tell the difference between allspice and an ordinary melange of those four notes by the quietly sweet woodiness that accompanies it. With straightforward spice notes, you get a spice rack. With the singular allspice note, you get the same rack but with the feeling that it's "fused" by that distinct sweetness. I get this in spades in this vintage, and it's a dimensional, lucid note. 

My theory on how the old and new formulas smell so alike is simply that P&G drew from this formula to make their own. It makes sense when you think about it; nitromusks were a bit pricy and they've been banned for forty years, and rich vanilla notes were deemed feminine at some point in the late seventies. The heads at Proctor & Gamble would have been reluctant to use the formula from 1956 to 1970 because that would require some heavy synthesis of nitromusks, and an uncomfortable degree of vanilla in a 2000s men's fragrance. So they opted instead to mimic the less musk-heavy, less vanillic pre-1956 formula. It was probably easier, significantly cheaper, and more in line with Old Spice than American Cyanamid's formulas were. 

I haven't smelled Creed's original Viking, but I've read endless articles about how people suspect it was inspired by Old Spice. This is likely the case; Olivier is quoted in an interview in 2013 as stating that midcentury colognes like Old Spice and Agua Brava are very good fragrances. Creed is known to take familiar fragrance ideas and reinterpret them in its own house style (usually padded with small quantities of natural essences on the front end and a shave of real ambergris on the back end). If we referred solely to the current P&G formula, I'd have difficulty seeing how Creed could have worked it, but wearing this deep vintage formula gives me a clearer idea of how rich and comparatively luxurious Old Spice was. There are articles out there that suggest real ambergris was used in Shulton's earlier formulas, and I swear I get a tickle of it in the heart of this stuff. Heck, it's not far-fetched. One lump of ambergris, used correctly, could last a brand like Shulton thirty years if used simply for enhancing effect. 

My phrase "slightly better synthetics" refers to the fact that today's synthetics are fortified by years of R&D, but they're usually 100% chemical, with no direct connection to naturals other than whatever molecular synthesis was developed to make them in a lab. Yesterday's synthetics had much of the same kind of R&D, but the idea was to use them to fill out whatever naturally-derived chemicals were also in the mix. These were materials that had facets to them, things like nitromusks and fruity esters. You could tease out floral and spicy elements when integrating them correctly, and the animalic-woody element of nitromusks adds complexity to the overall feel of what would otherwise be a fairly simple structure. Ambergris added in a tiny amount would create a dimensionality of weirdly salty-sweet earthiness in the periphery, and the fact that this exists in this formula has me suspecting it was used throughout the forties as well. It smells fine-tuned. 

The allspice note is the biggest draw, however. This leads me to address one of the things I've been reading through the years about Old Spice. There is no "pimento pepper" note in this composition. It's not a "hot pepper" or "red pepper" element. It's not "pimento." It's pimenta. It's allspice. 

Another thing that irks me is that there are people out there who insist on saying that Old Spice is just a bay rum by another name. This is a slow-drip problem. Every few months (and years) you get someone who calls Old Spice "bay rum" like established fact. It isn't. Old Spice is not, and has never been a bay rum. Examples of this offense culled from basenotes read as follows:

"Grottola" in 2010:
"The best take on bay rum ever - my favorite bay rum. Well, that's what it is!"

"bokaba" in 2008:

"The new version by Proctor and Gamble is garbage and nothing more than an overly synthetic bay rum." 

"tvlampboy" in 2006:

"Bay rum with little to no lasting power. Big whoop. Burt's bees bay rum and Royall bay rum are SO much better."  

There are a few other instances on basenotes and Badger&Blade, but I won't bother to post them here. Old Spice is an oriental fragrance from top to bottom, with no bay oil, no bay note, no rum note, and no bay rum accord at any stage of its development. Many bay rums employ a distinct clove note, and this is the only note OS shares with any them. That's certainly not enough to call it bay rum. How and why people insist on claiming it's a bay rum is beyond me, and I wish they would stop.

The last thing I want to mention concerns the incorrect notion that Shulton produced Old Spice until 1990, when Proctor & Gamble finally bought the brand. People gloss over the fact that American Cyanamid bought Shulton in December of 1970, and owned the brand for twenty years prior to selling it to P&G. From 1970 onward, Old Spice wasn't really being made by Shulton. This is evidenced by the fact that 1970s Old Spice is markedly different from the versions that preceded it. 

If you really focus in on how that formula develops, there's a noticeably musky aspect of the base that amps up the powdery vanilla notes. The sweetness of the spicy top is also amplified, with that sweetness getting slightly animalic in the base, an evolution that makes sense given the musky profile. Then in the 1980s that musky quality receded and was replaced with a fizzier cinnamon-spice quality that to my memory wasn't especially tenacious. This eighties version seemed to cross over into the nineties, growing gradually weaker and less obviously powdery with each passing year.  

When American Cyanamid took over they offered Shulton employees and shareholders $0.96 for every $1 of Shulton stock owned. This helped retain Shulton staff and keep the train running on time. But it's worth noting that this change of share value signifies an indisputable change of hands, with the Shulton brass officially stepping away from the main controls. Yes, subsequent generations of OS bottles bore the "Shulton, Inc." mark on them, but much as Colgate-Palmolive puts "By Mennen" on bottles of Skin Bracer, this was AC's way of keeping brand recognition alive. After all, "American Cyanamid" doesn't have the same ring to it. 

It should also be noted that American Cyanamid operated under slightly different rules that were written in a slightly different world. Back in the 1970s there was value associated with maintaining brand recognition in as many ways as possible. Back then people weren't satisfied with keeping the glass bottle with the logo and typeface on it. They wanted to keep the maker's mark as well. Proctor & Gamble's haste in putting their name on the bottles (and completely discarding Shulton's) was a sign of the times; by 1990 companies as large as P&G wanted consumers to identify old classics with their portfolio alone, and routinely made the cynical calculation that buyers wouldn't care. 

Sadly, they were correct. Today, thirty-two years after the final sale, P&G's products and marketing have all but erased the Shulton legacy. I read all the time about how P&G "saved" Old Spice, and to a certain extent it's all true. But look how they did it. This wasn't a repositioning of the brand in an ever-expanding men's grooming market. This was the total annihilation of the modest small-brand dignity which Shulton had maintained, and which American Cyanamid had preserved. Things called "Bearglove" and "Swagger" aren't manly or tasteful, but hey, teenagers will buy them! Who cares if forty year-olds are turned off? We still make the "Classic" for them! 

4/2/22

Gardenia & Cardamom (Banana Republic)




This is an interesting perfume. Banana Republic's Icon Collection fragrances have so far been total bullseyes in both quality and value, and Gardenia & Cardamom retains their winning streak in my book. At twenty bucks, you really can't beat this. I know I've said this before about their other frags, but I'll repeat myself - this could easily be priced at a hundred dollars, and nobody would complain. If you'd told me ten years ago that Banana Republic would release some of the best fragrances of the late teens and early twenties, I would have laughed in your face. It goes to show that brands can surprise people!

Gardenia is well known for being next to impossible to do perfectly, chiefly because it's a flower from which very little natural essence can be extracted, much like lilac and lily of the valley. Thus all attempts at it are usually reconstructions, i.e., accords built of ten or more chemicals that smell very similar to the gardenia flower when blended in the proper amounts. As a tropical white flower, gardenia notes are popular in feminine perfumes, but are often rendered very loosely, which is the polite way of saying they only smell of gardenia for a few minutes before other similar white floral notes take over. It's a typical bait and switch; inexpensive (non-luxury) brands like Jōvan and Dana have gardenia perfumes that they market as soliflores, but they're actually just tuberose and/or jasmine accords with enough embellishment to briefly push the eponymous note into the buyer's imagination. Chanel's rendition was lambasted by Luca Turin as being a trashy airport toilet floral, and it's an expensive fragrance, so most mainstream brands shy away from showcasing gardenia nowadays. 

That's not to say the note can't be done, because it certainly can! W.A. Poucher's formulas demonstrate that gardenia reconstructions are relatively complex, and include bergamot oil, ylang oil, jasmine and tuberose bases (in hefty amounts), and methyl phenyl carbinyl acetate, for a sturdy "green" quality that is useful in upholding the expansive sweetness of the accord. Things like orange flower, methyl anthranilate (essential in Schiff bases), and indole are necessary also. Headspace analysis of living gardenia would bring a perfumer closer to the biochemical template, and with an unlimited budget and equally unlimited attempts, I would wager that a highly skilled nose could assemble a photorealistic gardenia note that would last a few hours. According to Jarubol Chaichana's 2009 study, Volatile Constituents and Biological Activities of Gardenia Jasminoides, headspace breakdowns revealed the presence of farnesene, cis-ocimene, linalool, cis-3-hexenyl tiglate, methyl tiglate, hexyl tiglate, and methyl benzoate, among several other things. 

Of interest among those, to me at least, are the cis-3-hexenyl tiglate, and the other tiglates. The profile for cis-3-hexenyl tiglate is fresh, green, sweet-floral, with similarities to the smells of banana and gardenia. Farnesene and its compounds are associate with fruit skins, usually green apples, and methyl benzoate has a fruity/minty aspect. The danger of relying on every headspace element is that many of them are merely extant in organic materials without providing any distinct character to their odor. In other words, you can miss the forest for the trees and get wrapped up in trying to include things that are present in something, but which don't effect its overall scent profile. I imagine that this is the challenge for any perfumer faced with a gardenia brief and a limited budget. He or she is tasked with building a space with perhaps only the most essential materials available, and excluding several dozen materials which might help the outcome to varying degrees. 

This must have been the case for Vincent Kuczinski, who also authored Peony & Peppercorn. In that scent he used whatever fruity-floral material(s) are present in the dozens of Silver Mountain Water clones floating around these days, and merely extended those fresh-sweet qualities in a distinctly floral direction to achieve a typical modern feminine. But with Gardenia & Cardamom the job was a bit more complicated. Based on what I smell, Kuczinski was interested in heeding Poucher's ideas in his reconstruction, because G&C's top note is a bracing orangey-bergamot note, with just enough sweet 'n sour juiciness to catch my attention. It's a surprisingly warm note, lucid and measured, and doesn't come across as overbearing, screechy, or cheap. Simply a wet citrus juice effect, which rapidly (within twenty seconds) morphs into the only stage where I smell what seems like a 70% successful reconstruction of gardenia, a lush, sweet, almost overripe white floral tone, with just the right balance of richness and creaminess. There's even more evidence that Kuczinski has read up on his Poucher when the gardenia begins to resemble ylang in its intense sweetness. 

It doesn't last, however, and by the five minute mark it is clear that he was asked to do a white floral bouquet instead of a gardenia soliflore. The gardenia's delicate balance gives way to a more obviously fleshed-out tuberose and jasmine accord, and then the jasmine gets all creamy and powdery and summery, and suddenly I'm only two clicks away from suntan lotion territory. I'm reminded of Vanilla Fields, although the jasmine here is far better (not quite as woody) and doesn't smell nearly as chemical. But what about the cardamom? It's there, unlike the pepper note in Peony & Peppercorn, but it's very subtly integrated into the bouquet, and it's a bit green, only hinting at woodiness. This greenness seems rather obvious to me, and makes me wonder if methyl phenyl carbinyl acetate was used in a lithe dose to bring out the greener facet of these three white floral notes. Tuberose tends toward rich buttery, jasmine towards coconut creamy, and gardenia toward sweet green. Yet the retrohale on G&C evokes a soft hint of a green grape-like flavor, so methyl anthranilates seem to have been incorporated also. 

How does all of this translate to the nose? After the citrus pop at the start and the initial five minute gardenia effect, the whisk of tuberose and more enduring creamy jasmine, all tied together by a slight green-woody cardamom seed, present as a very modern white floral. It's not going to blow your mind artistically, and it isn't the least bit challenging beyond the usual trappings of gender norms (again, are there any guys wearing this?), but at no stage of its drydown does G&C smell cheap, chemical, overly simplistic (no fuzzing out of notes, no gauzy-sweet musks), or juvenile (it's sugar free!). This presents are simply a basic white floral, with your familiar triad of mainstream players, all touched by a twist of non-spicy, subliminally green cardamom. I think it's a little more unisex that Peony & Peppercorn, and will have no trouble enjoying it this summer.