Tsar (Van Cleef & Arpels)

It pays to have an understanding of the essentials in masculine perfumery, in order to better understand the multitudinous non-essentials that plague the category. If a male college student, say around 19 or 20 years old, were to ask my advice on which masculine fragrance could serve as a perfect everyday and all-weather standby, I would immediately direct his attention to Tsar by Van Cleef & Arpels. In doing so I'd also make him aware of the modern fougère, of which there are many. The two that bear the most discussion in my mind are Tsar and Azzaro Pour Homme, but Tsar is arguably the finest fougère of the last 25 years, and continues to be a contender for the label of Best Masculine Perfume Ever. With the Ever underlined at least twice.

The problem with fougères, as I see it, is their susceptibility to error. Orientals are largely warm, spice-laden fragrances with no fewer than thirty notes vying for attention at once, and therefore are more forgiving of blemishes - an overdose of cumin here, or a misplaced nutmeg there, do little to detract from their ambiance. Chypres, now generally a defunct category, are naturally unfriendly fragrances that rely on naturally unfriendly ingredients to make a statement. Olfactory grinches like lemon, oakmoss, and costus root lend chypres their bitter green and earthy qualities, and without them you have either a bland fougère, a citrus musk, or a simple oriental. Grey Flannel without its oakmoss is just a bitter lemon and violet leaf fougère, Z-14 without its vetiver is an oriental; displacing a chypre's core ingredients changes it into something else entirely. Fougères, on the other hand, are naked canvases. The entire concept of the "fern" fragrance is open to interpretation, as ferns have no natural scent. The formula is basically bergamot and lavender up front, followed by oakmoss and coumarin in the heart, and a dry, woody base of sandal or cedarwood (or both) to finish it off. But every designer and niche company must tweak the formula to make a fougère their own, and herein lies the rub.
Tsar, fortunately, had a terrific nose behind it: Philippe Bousseton. The puzzling thing about Bousseton is his apparently flimsy output - basenotes lists a meager four fragrances, and fragrantica only seven. Several of these are Adidas scents, and having recently opined on the lovely Sport Field, I don't see this as damaging to Bousseton's reputation. Perhaps if I sniff Ice Dive I'll feel a little differently, but Tsar more than makes up for anything inferior. Its brilliant opening of bergamot and lavender is pure pleasure. Bergamot is emphasized, and the citrus is neither synthetic smelling, nor bland. This intro is so bright, clean, and realistic that I'm transported to a verdant garden somewhere east of wherever I'm located whenever I smell it. Well-blended notes of oakmoss (in a subdued amount), pine, coriander, juniper, cedar, coumarin, sandalwood, and tarragon create a green, soapy aura that stays fairly close to its source, projecting politely and for several hours. There are none of the dark, earthy anchors of near contemporaries like Polo or Drakkar Noir. Everything is conservative, fresh, and elegantly arrayed.

What lends Tsar distinction is its drydown. Where other fougères smell a bit clunky and overtly soapy (see Sung Homme), Tsar is just smooth. The soapiness is predicated on freshness, not a simulated lye effect. It's the very definition of "gentleman's scent," in a traditional manner closely wedded to the British style of ferns. Everything is conservative and green, with a freshness inseparably tied in. Unlike musky fougères like Kouros and Paco Rabanne, Tsar is borderline "fresh" without crossing into Cool Water territory. It shares space with contemporaries like Jazz by YSL and Photo by Lagerfeld. Unlike many fresh fougères, Tsar is out of fashion nowadays, and that's a plus. Anyone curious enough to try it will find something forgotten since the early '90s - a tidy green aromatic made of high quality materials. Rain or shine, summer heat or winter snow, Tsar is never out of place, and always cool.

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