DKNY Be Delicious Men (Donna Karan)

We live in an age of hybrid perfume. There are many examples of formulas that incorporate multiple structural forms into one fragrance. Halston Z-14 is my favorite in this category, a classic oriental/chypre in which a cinnamon-spiced floral amber is conjoined with a simple bergamot, rock-rose, and moss accord. Creed's Orange Spice is often labeled an oriental, but in truth it reads as more of a barbershop "fougeriental," with brisk citrus, clean clove, animalic musk, and a highly-blended and dry-powdery amber, which one could liken to the coumarin in Brut and Canoe. I had a chance to wear DKNY Be Delicious Men recently, and was a little surprised to find that it's a three-way hybrid, to my nose a cross between a fruity-floral, an aromatic fougère, and a gourmand oriental. Because of its complexity, you would think Be Delicious Men would smell positively fascinating. In truth, it smells pretty blah.

Some concepts don't even look good on paper. I have to think that Be Delicious Men was an experiment that went awry in practice, but ended up coasting on a brand name (long enough to ensure continued production, apparently). Its note pyramid has me scratching my head. There's a big apple note, yes. Then coffee, oceanic notes, grapefruit, juniper, patchouli, jasmine, and "wood notes" according to Fragrantica. Coffee? Sea notes? There's normalcy in seeing most of the woody notes together, but coffee and marine notes seems like an adventurous bid for what perfumers must call "the new unified odor impression," that virgin, Z14-esque accord demarcating an undiscovered territory, never before visited by professional and amateur noses alike. Since Be Delicious Men's release, Thierry Mugler has taken this gourmand-aquatic idea and pulled it in a dozen different directions, but perhaps in 2004 it was still relatively new. It's only new if it's a novelty that works, and here it doesn't. The apple is reddish and smells like someone bit into it and left it in the sun for a few days, turning its sweetness into vinegar. The coffee is stale and damp (must be all those water notes), like a cold, forgotten-in-the-car cup of McCafé. The aquatic notes are gingery, damp, bitter, unpleasant. There's some cardamom crispness in the woody drydown, but I lost interest by then.

Apple and fresh, minty herbs (lavender, juniper) are a great combo: cool and clean, the stuff of shampoo dreams. Here, grapefruit offsets the pleasantness of the apple aromatic accord, resulting in a sour dissonance not too far removed from windshield-washer fluid. Perhaps the use of lime, with its woody dryness, would have infused into the form a deeper, more resonant woods effect (and might have purified the fragrance into a stronger aromatic fougère), but combined with the aquatic notes, the choice to use grapefruit feels wrong. Also, I'm all for coffee in perfume, but not if it smells cheap. Maybe I just don't "get" this fragrance though, so a second opinion (namely yours) is recommended. Try Be Delicious Men after the feminine Be Delicious, and see what you think - the complexity of the masculine, which is certainly a departure from the feminine, may or may not be a plus. For me, it's a big minus. If you're going to do an apple floral, give me apples and floral notes, and hold the salty coffee for another day.


Lyric Man (Amouage)

Lyric Man is a testament to the greatness of modern perfumery. It is inventive, culturally invaluable, and endlessly interesting. The world of rose soliflores and chypres abounds with examples of what I call "obvious flowers," fragrances that exhibit analogs of true rose via rose materials, usually damascenone and real rose oil. My reference for true rose is Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop, and I challenge anyone to name a better soliflore. There are rose soliflores that are as true as Tea Rose, like Red Roses by Jo Malone, and Guerlain's Rose Barbare, but thus far I have not encountered a scent that surpasses Tea Rose. Doesn't mean a truer rose doesn't exist - it just means I haven't encountered it yet.

I apply the same open-mindedness to my experience with the other category of rose, i.e., rose compositions. These are usually chypres, but sometimes take the form of orientals and fougères. Scents like Pinaud's Clubman, Azzaro's Acteur, and Lauder's Knowing inhabit a space different from the soliflore, taking facets of rose and utilizing them as accents to broader flourishes. Clubman's rose illuminates the powdery, mossy-woodiness of the fougère. Acteur's is aromatic, and bridges cardamom and fruity notes to darker patchouli, oakmoss, and woods. Knowing lets its rose peer gently through a classical chypre structure of labdanum and moss, with just enough body to filter its ruby rays past the green. In each case the flower is noticeable, but not overwhelming. Lyric Man uses rose in an oriental manner, letting its velvety texture waft through a two-tiered structure of citrusy green notes and a dry, resinous woody amber, mostly incense, vanilla, wormwood, and Australian sandalwood.

The trick with Lyric is to recognize that it is a composition with a soliflore development (from a distance of six to ten feet - that's right, six to TEN feet), which resembles an old and bitter flower, aged to the point of being dry, and a bit stinky. I wore Lyric to work today. I was in the office for five minutes, when a female co-worker walked in and said, "Oh, god! What's causing that stench?" I grinned. "Uh-oh, it could be me." She walked over, sniffed me, and said, "Yeah, it's a sweet smell, but underneath is this burning thing. You don't usually smell that loud!" Lyric had been on my skin and shirt for an hour. My colleague likes perfume, and is usually complimentary, but Lyric was definitely not working for her.

Two hours later another co-worker walked by and said, "Oh, what smells so good?" I raised my hand, and she added, "That's nice. It's really pleasant, really soft." I took this to mean that Lyric had progressed enough to soften its blow, and its drydown was offering up some pleasant vibes. What surprised me is that she was about ten feet away when she commented, and Lyric had been on me long enough to be a skin scent. Apparently Lyric Man does not do "skin scent." Lyric Man can kiss a woman's nose from ten paces, and without the advantage of a moving host - I was standing still when she noticed me. Reviews for Lyric are mixed, and my experience with it has been mixed, but I still like it quite a bit. It starts with a nice burst of dry lime and galbanum, followed after twenty minutes by a rich fir note. The fir is woody, with the requisite dry-fresh appeal of your average pine note. Ninety minutes in, the incense reveals itself, flanked by saffron and nutmeg (I get nutmeg, mostly). Through every stage of development gleams a bitter, flinty, almost herbal rose note.

Longevity for Lyric is good. It remains noticeable for a solid twelve hours with moderate application. However, it quiets down at the six-hour mark. Comments ceased, the potential for compliments diminished, and I had a little difficulty finding it on my shirt, although it was still radiating softly from skin. As it ages, the rose becomes more prominent, and gives me a feeling of papery crispness, a dry, sour, almost unfriendly aroma. It's almost mean, but not quite. Despite its aridity, its quietness is so measured and well-judged that Lyric never loses its balance. Amouage's scent exhibits an Eastern rendition of rose, which isn't the sweet, fruity Western idea, but a dark, dry oil. It blends nicely with fresh incense and a spiced nuance of sandalwood. Because the note separation in Lyric is so good, exploring each note is not only possible, but necessary for full enjoyment. I spent a solid two hours marveling at the distinctions between fir, vanilla, incense, rose, spices, musk, and woods.

I've decided not to purchase a full bottle of Lyric Man, but if I come across another sample or a decant, I will spring for it. My co-workers' assessments seemed both damning and apt: Lyric is sweet and sour, with a strident bitterness that makes it stinky to some, and approachable to others. I think Lyric is Daniel Visentin's poetic take on rose, with the flower's musty, peppery, and musky facets brilliantly combined to form something old and new. It's the long way around to rose (Western iterations mark the shortcut). If any criticism should stick, it's that Lyric is needlessly stern (why not bend a little, and dribble some raspberry sweetness into the rose oil?), but it smells great from beginning to end, and warrants unlimited admiration and the utmost respect. I have not encountered a better rose composition, but I've hardly reached the end of the road. My journey continues.


Lucky You For Women (Liz Claiborne)

Although I am not a big fan of Liz Claiborne's fragrances (or any of her company's products), I think I understand what is happening with Lucky You. The masculine was a pert little shampoo-green thing, completely lacking in complexity and sophistication, and given that masculines are cheap to begin with, this blatant devaluation of the most banal discount-downmarket structure seems lazy and pointless. Why make a soapy floral for men on a budget barely adequate enough to make a bar of floral soap? Better label it "deodorant" and stick to functionality. Any adult guy who wears Lucky You is both clueless and careless - you can get a quality violet leaf in Grey Flannel for the same price, and for ten dollars more you can get Cool Water and surpass everything. Being in the market for a fresh-green masculine means studying the basics of fresh-green masculines - I suggest a brief perusal of the Leffingwell chart. Guys, just use the general cheapness and durability of men's frags to your advantage by getting one of the classics. The older the fragrance, the better its chance of smelling good: genuinely crappy scents rarely survive beyond a few years because people don't want them. Makes sense, doesn't it?

Lucky You for women is a different story. While men need their fragrances to enhance their masculinity, women need fragrance to enhance their personas. Your average lady actually doesn't need fragrance at all, because a pretty woman in a smart outfit already has all her bases covered, merely by existing and having the sense to dress well. Perfume is superfluous. Yet many women have distinct personalities, with noticeable complexities, and even streaks of darkness that beg for accessorizing. Enter feminine fragrances, with all their floral-musky sweetness and brightly-colored bottles. Unlike the basic mantra of "I Am Man," feminine fragrances aim for specifics: "I Am Easy To Spend Time With Once You Get To Know Me," "I Can Build A Basement More Efficiently Than You," "I'm Not Interested In Sleeping With My Boyfriend," "Work Is My Life," etc. For a girl, choosing a fragrance means choosing a character identity within a gender identity.

When a woman chooses something like Lucky You, it suggests that she's in touch with the more casual and breezy aspects of her femininity, and doesn't mind putting it out there. This fragrance says something like, "I'm approachable, but so is the next girl." It smells friendly in a blank-smiley way, a facelessly-bright aldehydic fizz of grapefruit, peony, and creamy synthetic woods, with an almost dandified drydown to white musk. It's inoffensive and perfect for office use. The fresh-floral characteristics of Lucky You's formula are balanced by solid synthetic sandalwood, and an admirably dense, musky base. If I'm not mistaken, a female co-worker of mine wears this. There are literally five hundred thousand feminines out there that smell like Lucky You. I think that's just fine.

Still, given that Lucky You is a cheap thrill that broadcasts its sunny cheer via short-wave, I find myself wondering why the world's female twenty and thirty-somethings don't pass it by, and just wear Canoe instead. Maybe I'm old-fashioned or something. I'd be keen on anyone wearing an old-school floral-fougère in lieu of a traditional fruity-floral. But hey, that's just me.


A Rose Is Not A Rose . . .

I don't consider myself a fragrance expert by any means, but I have considerable experience with rose perfumes, compositional and soliflore. Let me get this out of the way first: Lyric Man is, in my opinion, the finest rose composition on the current fragrance market - and it reads as a gentle rose soliflore for most of its time on skin. 

That said, rose soliflores are of particular interest to me, because finding the finest example of a true rose soliflore has not been as easy as I thought it would be. Three years ago I set about to find the ultimate rose perfume, a fragrance so photo-realistically convincing that it makes redundant everything else in its class. I expected to have to crawl through sewer after sewer of plasticky, synthetic rosewaters to find it. I wondered if I would have to traverse by camel the myriad of Middle-Eastern offerings in the Montale range, the Lutens line, and by Opeer. If you figure that the best rose soliflore is always the best encountered to date, with the next one always a potential game-changer, the entire notion of finding a true masterpiece becomes a death wish, a desire to embrace quicksand. Nevertheless, I dove in headfirst, and sampled quite a few prominent rose fragrances, most by niche brands. I went through about a dozen variations on the theme before finding a fragrance so unspeakably wonderful, so gorgeously simple and natural, that I wondered why I'd not read more about it before embarking on the journey. I believe that accepting a masterpiece as being a masterpiece in its genre requires objectivity. So with a nose untainted by preconceived ideas about price being correlative to quality, I sprayed each rose sample blind, only looking at its name after it had unfolded on my wrist.

Among the first were Malle's Une Rose and Jo Malone's Red Roses. Malle is widely considered today's premiere Parisian niche house, and his line is lauded by the likes of Turin, Burr, even Catherine Deneuve. When the first fragrance hit skin, it smelled dense and dark, almost cherry-like, with an off-putting earthy note that I can only describe as the odor of wet mushrooms. While lucid, the composition smelled synthetic, bordering on obnoxious. It was quite a surprise to find it was Une Rose, the famous "Angry Rose" by Édouard Fléchier. I expected it to be a cheaper product, like True Rose or Paris. But no, I was experiencing the super-luxe EDP by Malle. And it was just so-so, in both quality and overall effect. Disappointing really, because I had hoped Une Rose would knock my socks off. As I sat there sniffing my wrist, inhaling its fungus-like crimson fumes, one word kept popping into my head: overpriced . . .

Red Roses was better. I enjoyed its literalism, its citrusy-green zing, and its transparency in the drydown. My mind's eye could not conjure a purer rose. Yet something unfortunate happened the first, second, and third time I wore Red Roses - I got a headache. Something in the chemical composition was not right. I sensed that perhaps it was the interplay of rose materials with woody-citrus notes, but none of that really mattered, because the end result was always the same - Tylenol. I moved on.

I wore Czech & Speake's Rose and Dark Rose. The first was fine, but a bit too soapy, to the point where I pictured snow-skinned blondes in bubble baths whenever I wore it. Its smooth sweetness was pleasant but not worth the sticker shock. Dark Rose was a vast improvement, with lush spices and synthetic oud framing a darker, subtler rose. It was also a bit soapy, but smelled richer and less gender-specific. That's a big issue with rose soliflores, by the way - too many of them are deliberately feminine, incorporating violets, sweet berries, and soapy aroma chemicals, all in an effort to appeal to women who paint their toenails chartreuse and speak syncopated cockney American (read: fake Orange County accents). I don't mind that, but it's not really what rose soliflores should be doing. They ought to focus less on sex appeal and more on depth and realism. Violet ionones and Glade plug-in froot flavors aren't a death knell, but they certainly do not add depth, and unless they're culled from top-shelf synthetics, rarely add realism. Dark Rose had amiability and competence in spades, but ultimately I appreciated it for not giving me headaches more than for its quality.

Speaking of quality, my next stop was admittedly only half-blind. I knew I would apply Creed's Fleur de The Rose Bulgare, but had blindly squirted Annick Goutal's Rose Absolue on another wrist, and wondered if Creed could jump past the then-unnamed rose composition. I applied the Creed, sniffed, and waited five minutes. I then returned to the other wrist, sniffed Rose Absolue, and looked at its vial to identify it. Rose Absolue smelled of several natural rose oils mixed together. It was rich, smooth, but got rubbery in the drydown, a trait shared by perfumes that eschew headspace technology. It was definitely real rose oil, and smelled similar to headspace rose, but its raw characteristics eclipsed whatever romantic effect it might have achieved.

Creed FdTRB (long discontinued) was a bright, citrusy-green rose. This was a tea rose composition, intended to read as a composition, and not the literal scent of headspace tea rose. Why Creed opted to incorporate tea notes with ordinary Bulgarian rose oil is beyond me. They could have incorporated tea rose essences and been truer to the name. At any rate, it smelled really good, for about two hours. Then the lemon-tea note outpaced the rose, and the fragrance grew sour and a little unbalanced. It never devolved into dreck, but it did little to elevate itself to its pricepoint.

I gave Hammam Bouquet a try, just to sidetrack. Hammam is not a rose soliflore, but at least its rose note is universally loved by dandies the world over. Sadly, I couldn't figure out why. Hammam Bouquet, while pleasant and well crafted, is made of materials far too cheap to warrant paying anything past twenty bucks an ounce. I moved on.

Next was something that smelled a lot like hairspray at first, and then powdered into a violet, tuberose, and rose bouquet that smelled unapologetically synthetic. I glanced at the vial: Paris by YSL. Big, sexy, eighties. It made sense, but not on me. And also, isn't Paris cloned to death already? Whenever I walk through Sephora I smell at least five or ten new perfumes that resemble Paris' overripe bellow.

My girlfriend at the time owned a fugly little bottle of something called Harajuku Lovers Baby, which she blithely mentioned smelled "kinda like roses." She was half right. The stuff smelled like baby powder. And oh yeah, it was rose-flavored baby powder. Disturbing that anyone should own it, and perhaps fitting that she did.

I gave Guerlain's Rose Barbare a few days of my time. It was truly surreal, a rich, honeyed rose with all its crisp greens smoothed over by a resinous amber. As with all the Guerlains I've tried, I kept waiting for the moment of enlightenment, of total understanding, the exact second when all the blogosphere love for Guerlain makes complete and total sense to me. Every Guerlain I've tried thus far has been really good but relatively staid, with only moderately high-quality synthetics, and Rose Barbare was no exception, although it certainly is an excellent soliflore, and far better than Une Rose. If given a choice between Red Roses and Rose Barbare, I'd opt for the latter and wouldn't look back. But in this instance, given that it wasn't bending spoons, I continued to look forward.

The next sample opened with a harsh blast of naked alcohol. Fifteen seconds into it, a thin and blatantly synthetic rose note appeared. It smelled affably fresh and soapy for the remainder of its two-hour lifespan. It was True Rose by Woods of Windsor, and while nice, was utterly forgettable. I recall thinking that I'd sooner splurge on the Creed than drop a few dollars on True Rose, and that was after twelve hours of wishing Fleur de The Rose Bulgare smelled like tea roses instead of synthetic green tea and liquer-like rose oil.

L'Artisan Parfumeur's Drole de Rose was the second-to-last blind test. Keep in mind that most of these samples were sent to me by a generous basenoter who recommended that I give them due process without focusing on branding. Drole de Rose was unexpectedly sweet and prim, like an olfactory elucidation of schoolgirl crush. It had blush in its cheeks, looked outrageously pink in tonality, and felt harangued by the same ionone issue of its congeners. Why the need to make everything so over-the-top girly? Why not let the fresh rose note step out of the fray and dominate the arrangement? 

"Why not try this last one," I told myself, feeling a little glad that I'd forgotten which sample was which. This was the largest one, which suggested it was one of the cheapest in the bag. Its frosted canister was capped in blue, and was hard to open. I yanked the cap off and it flew across the room, never to be found. I spritzed. I waited a few seconds. I inhaled. And I smiled.

This was good. I mean, really, really good. There was a hint of bergamot, and the lightest touch of green (galbanum, perhaps). Then came a rich, full-throated blood rose, headspace-style. It was an accord so deep and multifaceted that at various times it smelled vaguely of cut stems, baby rose buds, lemons, raspberries, strawberry jam, and green tea. It was a rose reconstruction of the grandest variety, a tea rose. It was indeed none other than Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop.

I re-applied Tea Rose. At times it gave me a headache. Sometimes there were no ill effects at all. Every time I tried it, I was astonished by its richness, and how deftly it avoided smelling synthetic, makeup-powdery, and crass. Googling Tea Rose lead to a shock - this stuff is dirt-cheap. It's often available at two dollars an ounce, and sometimes less. I figured Tea Rose was inexpensive, but hadn't banked on it being THAT cheap! How is this possible? What gives?

What gives is that a rose is not a rose after all. Not all roses are created equal. Some are better than others. But this one is so good that it defies words. Its quality is breathtaking. Its materials are inexpensive, but dead-on. Damascenones and Damascones, or perhaps just the weaving of various inones with muguet aldehydes and subtle green-tea analogs form a structure so concise and beautiful, so direct and realistic, that I couldn't believe the sample-giver had not mislabeled the vial. Surely this was Creed's tea rose? I got itchy about it, and bought a bottle of tea rose. I kept in mind that the slight rubberiness in Tea Rose's drydown might be a leading indicator that its quality is genuinely lower than the Creed's, but I purchased anyway.

Days later I got my bottle. I sprayed. I smiled and chuckled - Tea Rose it was, and this time without the rubbery drydown! Turns out the rubber was from the plastic sample vial adversely reacting to the aroma chemicals. Housed in glass, Tea Rose stays fresh and crisp to the end. It really is a dry, green, straightfoward soliflore. It's a knockout.

There are still other roses to pick. I have yet to try Rose Opulente, Sa Majeste La Rose, Lipstick Rose (not looking forward to that one, but I must maintain neutrality), Black Oud, and Knowing. Until then, I maintain that Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop is the most convincing rose soliflore (proper) that I've encountered.


Emeraude Cologne Spray (Coty)

As far as I know, Emeraude is a baby name, with some gobbledy-gook about being in harmony with nature as its meaning. It's really a French expression for "green," or "emerald." I imagine the name came after the French definition, and was likely popular in early twentieth-century France. I won't go into the long story behind Emeraude because that's been done to death elsewhere, and to be honest it doesn't interest me. What does grab me is how old it is: 1921 is its birth date! With that many circles in its bark, you'd think Coty would put some effort into preserving whatever majesty earlier incarnations possessed, and keep the drugstore brand smelling at least competent enough to match their finer drugstore masculines, like Aspen and Sex Appeal for Men. But no dice - the current cologne spray smells awful.

Coty is capable of rendering cheap green notes very well, so I'm disappointed in the chemical veil of galbanum-esque noise that precedes the fragrance. The haze settles into a powdery abomination of crude white flowers and peach, with the suntanned-creamy vibe of Vanilla Fields wedded to a dry, woody-resinous base. Every note is spare and unbalanced, every accord is piercing and shrill, and a preponderance of aldehydes threatens to destroy all olfactory perception before dissection can even begin.

Coty can do much better, and should reformulate this screeching mess up to a remote semblance of what it was in the seventies and eighties (at least). Whatever it may have been, Emeraude is no more.


I Am King (Sean John / M.A.C.)

In approaching I Am King, it is perfectly understandable to expect something grand, larger-than-life, and unquestionably regal. It is, after all, touting itself as a product of royalty. It bears the name of one of the most ego-maniacal recording artists in the long lineage of that breed, someone with an endless supply of money to burn, and very lofty tastes in fragrance (it seems he is a Creed fan). 

I expected this EDT to be a pleasantly aspirational little thing, full of the usual gingery, woodsy-musks, similar to Sean John's first masculine. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a perky green apple accord instead. I Am King is 80% green apple aromatics, a dash of red apple, some cassis, a touch of sandalwood and white musk, and that's it. If you like apple in fragrance, you'll probably like this stuff. As far as pomaceous notes go, it's a winner. I even prefer it to the Tommy Girl-styled Be Delicious.

There's only one problem. Apple lovers are likely to seek out that note in locales more exotic than anything with the Sean John moniker. There are taller mountains for us to climb, after all. That works against Sean John, and against us. For one thing, we might overlook I Am King, and write it off as just another cheesy big box clone. That would be a mistake - we'd miss out. But our legitimate quest for the perfect pomme inevitably leads to things like Sofron by Farmacia SS. Annunziata, Outrageous! by Malle, Grenats by Keiko Mecheri, and even Creed's Spring Flower. Cool Water is, for me, the standard in designer-grade apple notes, as its fruitiness is perfectly housed in a woody-amber setting that illuminates and complements it.

I Am King is at least as good as Cool Water (its ingredients are no better or worse than Davidoff's), and definitely deserves a fair chance with enthusiasts. I would gladly sit its surprisingly handsome bottle on my shelf. No, it isn't something Louis XVI would wear, but that's nothing to lose your head over.


The Polyphonic Oriental

Today I was musing on the strangeness of twentieth century masculine orientals, particularly the cheaper ones like Old Spice, Sex Appeal, and Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur cologne. Creed's Bois du Portugal, Avon's Mesmerize, and Joop! Homme came to mind as well. Orientals have always been a tricky group for me because they eschew traditional notions of "fresh" and "clean," which are better embodied in fougères and citrus chypres, and opt for earthiness and byzantine radiance instead. Sometimes I feel dirty in fragrances like Lagerfeld Classic and The Dreamer, because their muskiness or resinous notes combine with my skin chemistry to form an animalistic funkiness that rests on the line between sexy and repulsive. I wouldn't be surprised if classic compositions in the French traditions of Pierre Cardin and Bois du Portugal are essentially every woman's idea of men's aftershave, that generic, citrusy-alcoholic aroma wafting from under male collars in church. Pierre Cardin definitely feels like a classic aftershave, with its warm orange notes playing off cool lavender and precious woods. It's timeless, chic, familiar, comforting.

Last week I wore Joop! Homme for a few days. I used to think Joop! was a sandalwood and white-floral affair, cheaply executed in the Keith Haring-esque, sentimentally abstracted style of the nineteen eighties. Tania Sanchez's little two-word summarization of it, " violet soapy," had me thinking that I was over-thinking it. Maybe this is a type of obnoxious violet-sandalwood bar soap in liquid form. Perhaps its purplish-pink color is Joop!'s way of stating the obvious. Indeed, the more I wear it, the more Joop! becomes a vague, violet-orange blossom-sandalwood accord, brimming with violet's sweetness and woody notes, minus the overtly green and organic (leafy) stray notes that usually accompany violets in perfume. Joop! is terrific stuff but it's notoriously difficult to use, one of the few fragrances out there that require an owner's manual. Close-range application is not recommended. I tend to hold my bottle at arm's length, spray quickly, and gently wave the mist toward myself. The animalic musky element, which complements orange blossom's indolic stray note, seems to greet me first, followed by the throat-tickling sweetness of synthetic florals and spicy Australian sandalwood. Hours later, as in twelve or thirteen hours later, the entire fragrance has settled into a simple sandalwood and musk, with the ghost of heliotrope floating by.

And look at Sex Appeal for Men. Thirteen dollars for four ounces, and it hasn't even updated its packaging. This fragrance is one of those rare masculine anomalies, the high-quality patchouli oriental that goofs on being the gaudy, sneeze-inducing crap advertised on the box. It is truly polyphonic, consisting of separate but related accords that act as disparate weights on an airy lavender note. The richness of lemon, cedar, patchouli, anise, birch, vanilla, and a handful of other kitchen herbs and spices accents that one simple lavender with an ease that beggars belief. You would think that something so inexpensive would devolve into nothingness in minutes, but not so - Sex Appeal gets drier, crisper, and woodier, while maintaining a cheerful freshness and earthiness that smells as clear and complex as the very first minute of application. Like Bois du Portugal and Old Spice, its simplicity is not in its pyramid, but in its vibe. There's actually a ton of ingredients doing a whole lot of things, but all the movements are singing the same tune, like chamber choirs on Christmas Eve, imparting the essences of warmth and well-being across cold spaces.

I encourage readers to act with more bravery than I ever have, and spring for more orientals. In America there is an unspoken and off-the-books law regarding them: wear with caution. We're so afraid of offending each other here that we neglect these complicated, occasionally-loud compositions, and favor fresher, simpler, generically-clean scents instead. The perfume industry is like any other - it responds to buyer trends. If we habitually buy orientals, then corporate strategies will reflect a desire to satisfy that preference, and place a new premium on the complexity, quality, and "wow factors" of their products. Even reformulated classics like Pierre Cardin and Old Spice maintain a level of quality and exoticism that most department store labels only dream of attaining. The niche brands have offered thousands of options, but what would the world be like if we could walk into Macy's and find re-releases of Sex Appeal and Pierre Cardin? 

What would the world's office buildings smell like if Avon's Mesmerize and Lagerfeld Classic filled the halls again? How wonderful would it be if America and the rest of the western world returned to the swagger and confidence of the seventies, when men weren't afraid to smell a little wild, and women wanted them for that? Classic orientals are materially and culturally polyphonic, capable of infusing their appreciators with the kind of mystical song that the ancient Greeks supposedly played. Maybe it's about time we ditch our liquid soap regimens, and turn our attention back to the sooty, woody, ambery, herbal, wonderful earth.


Vera Wang for Men (Vera Wang)

I remember feeling oddly enthused about this fragrance when it was released (broadly in 2005, here in CT), I believe because the notes pyramid, as cited by Wang's P.R., seemed unique, with things like yuzu and anise adding poetry to the proceedings. I cannot remember my first reaction upon smelling it, but in recent days I have tried my best to understand Vera for Men, and still haven't managed it. I just don't like this one. It has me, as Bertie Wooster would say, "mistaking the standing lamp for a burglar." In other words, it's unnecessarily confusing.

Whoever created this scent seemed to want a prominent sandalwood note in its base, perhaps to complement its abstracted accord of tobacco and nutmeg. Yet the fragrance is made of blatantly cheap synthetics, including the wood note. That's not really a problem, because I've experienced dirt-cheap sandalwood notes that work fine, despite their crudeness. Joop! Homme happens to be a brilliant study in synthetic sandalwood. Coupled with a pleasant pinch of real patchouli (is there any other kind of patchouli?), Joop!'s woodiness is so absolute, so unwilling to play third fiddle, that I end up with friendly sandalwood soap whenever I wear it. While I'm writing about Joop!, I'll add that whoever formulated Vera Wang for Men should have studied the pink stuff for pointers - citrus does not have to venture into tropical parrot-land for low-key sweet effects. If you're not into the creaminess of yuzu, and instead are aiming for a "fresh" accord, you're better off with candied orange, which nicely complements the woody violet note in Joop!'s intro, and would go well in any warm-woods structure.

Vera Wang for men is not, as a whole, truly comparable to any particular sandalwood oriental, and smells instead like a sweet, "spicy-woods" thing, riding the waves of Envy for Men and Allure Homme. It unfurls as flat citrus, unbalanced anise (a poor reconstruction), raspy nutmeg (an olfactory impression of sinking in quicksand), followed by an uneven floral arrangement, black pepper, watery notes (violet leaf), and the cheap furniture polish effect of bargain basement woods, ala English Leather. Weird that a bridal fashionista should propose such a thing for her grooms. I can think of a hundred better masculines, all of them oozing more coherence and class (Rive Gauche Pour Homme tops the list), and none of them trying quite so hard to cover every base of commercial appeal in one stroke. This might be the spritz of choice for someone with sensory perceptions so dissonant that his lover's only sane course of action involves writing a "makeover clause" into the prenuptial. Even then, it pains me to think that some women would let it slide that far.


Acqua di Parma Colonia (Acqua di Parma)

It is incomprehensible that people exclude Colonia from conversations about eau de colognes, especially when debating the question of which of Europe's many Eaus is better. Why is this terrific, fougère-like cologne overlooked? Is it for being a latecomer to tradition (it was released in 1916), with its timing forfeiting its place beside classical 18th century concoctions? Or perhaps its Italian lineage separates it from German tradition just enough for connoisseurs to bite their tongues? 

It is actually very popular among fragrance fans, and receives high marks on basenotes and Fragrantica, but I think that when the merest mention of citrus fragrances brings them to mind, Colonia deserves to be alongside Farina Extra Vieille and 4711 (and any other R&G or Mäurer & Wirtz cologne) as an example of true refinement in the genre. This is without a doubt one of the best colognes money can buy, and will likely remain unseated until an even friendlier iteration of astringent herbs and warm woods is found.

The history of Colonia is long, and not something I'll get into here, suffice it to say that despite its purported popularity with studio-era Hollywood stars like Cary Grant and Ava Gardner, this little "water of Parma" has been through some tough times, and barely survived the latter half of the twentieth century. A trio of wealthy entrepreneurs funded its return to prominence in the contemporary fragrance market, and I think they did a great job, because its current manufacturer is putting liquid gold on people's shelves. Colonia's citrus, lavender, neroli, rosemary, and oakmoss accord is accented with white flowers and an expensive-smelling musk. 

The ingredient quality is there, the blending is seamless and feels quite rich, with a tiny dab of sandalwood grounding its masculine characteristics in an otherwise weightless femininity. The whole thing plays out on skin in the simplest and prettiest manner imaginable, but the fun is short-lived, so get the big bottle and reapply every few hours to carry that clean-under-the-collar feeling to the end of your long summer days.


Wings for Men (Elizabeth Arden)

I'll get right to the point here. I've worn a lot of fragrances in the past few years, but Wings for Men rates as one of the worst I've ever encountered. This bad news comes in one heavy little bundle, tied with noose-rope: Wings is a reference for "chemical mess" in contemporary perfumery. Its structure, from top to bottom, feels two hundred percent synthetic, and beyond functional - it's industrial. A quick comparison proves that Wings on one wrist and the original Windex on the other leads to instant olfactory fatigue, a sign that there are few divergences in how the two carry themselves. This thing is a mess.

The better news is that Wings is a reference for the value of oakmoss. I've grown weary of reading about how irreplaceable oakmoss is, because I wear fragrances that contain it, and find little to no extra benefit in either the overall quality of their scents, or their compositional strength compared to similar non-oakmoss formulas. Oakmoss is not a magic bullet. Brut aftershave contains none, but smells great, while Pinaud Clubman contains oakmoss and treemoss, and is equally competent but overbearing, sometimes even headache-inducing. The current version of Eau Sauvage contains zero moss, yet elicits positive responses all the time, while Grey Flannel is a virtual Nabokov novel about oakmoss, and barely registers with anyone (although I love it).

Last month I compared two different versions of Halston Z-14, and found that the truth behind oakmoss in a formula is pretty simple - when the composition is conceptually good to begin with, the presence of moss adds freshness and mossiness, which is a good thing if you happen to be someone with an intractable need for mossy effect, but otherwise inconsequential if the perfumer remained true to the fragrance's original concept in the reformulation. Oakmoss is an allergen, and for me the older formula of Grey Flannel (and Halston 1-12, for that matter) causes occasional bouts of labored breathing and raspiness. The quantity of moss in EA's second-to-last Grey Flannel is large enough to sometimes have my lungs tickling all the way to work, a severe, unpleasant side effect, and an unnecessary price to pay for smelling great. The latest Grey Flannel scales back the moss, but holds true to what the moss is a part of, and now I can wear it without any side effects, while enjoying the same design as before.

Because of its allergenic properties, and in light of the fact that many comparisons of moss-laden to IFRA-compliant formulas are usually biased and skirt the points made here, I point to Wings for Men as the golden idol for "oakmoss moderates" like myself. You can smell reformulations and gnash your teeth all you want, but the truth is that it isn't oakmoss that made your love - it was the design of the fragrance as a whole. Wings contains both oakmoss and treemoss, yet smells awful. Why does it smell awful? Because the design is awful. Comparisons to Aqua Quorum and Cool Water are not very apt. Two of the three use Calone to different effect, and woody spices to vaguely similar effect, while one (Cool Water) bears no relation whatsoever, and never needed oakmoss to begin with anyway. If the moss were taken out of the current formula of Wings, it would still smell atrocious. So where does that leave me?

It leaves me with no choice but to declare that oakmoss, as an allergen and a cheap crutch for cheap formulas, needs to be viewed with the rose-colored glasses off for a change. While moss certainly lends depth and longevity to a great many classics, its removal isn't a deal-breaker in reformulations. The deal-breaker is whether or not whatever remains can stand up to scrutiny after the moss is removed. If you think of a great, oakmoss-laden perfume as a beautiful woman in a pretty dress, and she takes that dress off, is she any less beautiful? If it was being used to hide something misshapen and flabby-looking, then yeah, you want that dress back on. But if it was simply accessorizing a gorgeous body, then its removal is not, deep down in your heart, something you're really missing.

We need to love conceptual designs, and not just on a material level. The materials are always changing, but if the concept stays true, then you will not be cheated. If your bias about certain materials gets in the way of recognizing the success of a design, then you are cheating yourself. And nothing about this blog post will make any sense to you if you hold the deeply-seated belief that perfume is a form of art, and therefore majestic and transcendental in some abstract way. 

Fine fragrance is, first and foremost, something that should simply smell good, and is therefore always a part of the functional world, which arguably puts it above art, depending on your orthodoxy (which you need only divulge to yourself).


Caesars Woman (Caesars World)

Ever see that film Casino, Scorcese's full-throttle rehash of Frank Rosenthal's and Anthony Spilotro's tumultuous lives as Vegas mobsters? It's set in the seventies and eighties, which seems like a million years ago. Back then you could smoke indoors, and no one gave a crap what you smoked, as long as it was a legal substance. 

That meant large casino halls were seen through a haze, and the air was rarely pure enough to accurately discern such things as food, floral, and personal odors. Perfume had to be extra strong to cut through the clouds, and whoever licensed Caesars World's fragrances knew this little factoid back to front. Caesars Man and Woman were released together in 1988 (a game-changing year for contemporary perfumery), but their scent profiles are firmly rooted in the past, with little in the way of foresight. Their reputation precedes them: these perfumes are strong.

I haven't tried Caesars Man, although I've had countless opportunities to sample and purchase it. Every time I approach it I remember the reviews that compare it to Drakkar Noir, and lose interest. While by no means a bad fragrance, Drakkar is something I prefer to smell by Guy Laroche and his licensees only. I've encountered several bottom-shelf budget fragrances that have emulated Drakkar with varying degrees of success, but even the better ones yield little satisfaction - Drakkar's original formula was cheap to begin with, so cheapening it further and attempting to put some small "spin" on the pyramid to exonerate it from total plagiarism is pointless.

Caesars Woman is a different story. Formulated for the high-rolling (and apparently undiscerning) female gambler and party animal, CW is a punch in the olfactory gut, a bombardment of cheap white-floral aroma chemicals, smudged together to resemble suntan lotion, or perhaps hand soap. It smells fairly original, although my references for feminine fragrances in this style are limited. The bottom line is that it smells cheap, in a bad way. For an easier and more-convincing composition of balmy, soapy florals, you're better off wearing the even cheaper Vanilla Fields by Coty instead.


L.12.12 Red (Lacoste)

I happen to love Red Rooibos tea, iced. This lovely beverage is an herbal tea made from rooibos harvested along South Africa's Fynbos, a belt of shrubland stretching across the country's Western Cape. Rooibos is only found in South Africa, making it rather valuable among tisane connoisseurs, if such folk actually exist. I'm a fan of tisane teas, and alternate between rooibos, peppermint, chamomile, and lemon-ginger. I also love black teas from Ireland and England, and I prefer them all iced. 

The flavor of rooibos tea stands apart from the rest, a smooth, dry, oddly tannin-like essence (despite its extremely low tannin levels), which always reminds me of unsmoked cigarette tobacco. In fact, if one could bag treated tobacco for steeping, I imagine its flavor would be pretty close to that of rooibos tea.

As a fan of this herb, I expected to be wowed by L.12.12 Red. Its pyramid lists rooibos tea, and quite a few people on Fragrantica smell this note, if the votes for it are to be believed. Alas, upon application I was immediately disappointed. Where's the tea? I waited five minutes, shaking my wrists in the air to move the drydown along. Sweet fruit (mango), woody spice (cardamom), the same pickled ginger that I sniffed in L.12.12 Green, a vague woody amber, and a hint of white musk were all I could smell. I re-applied. Still no rooibos. Two hours later, searching in vain, I finally gave up on the tea note in Red. It seems this entry in the "colors" series by Lacoste is simply about warm spiced-fruit notes, your garden-variety woody amber, and not much else. I can't say I'm surprised, but I'm still disappointed; whenever I smell a new Lacoste, I always think, "This is the one that will win me over," but end up feeling entirely "meh."

One day a Lacoste fragrance will lighten my wallet, but Red's semi-functional air-care approach doesn't make the grade. To think they were so close: just one note would have cinched it. Damn those misleading notes pyramids!


True Rose (Woods of Windsor)

Rose soliflores are rarely daring or exciting in any conventional sense - you're unlikely to wear one that suddenly changes into a tuberose, or a fougère, or a lactonic chypre with dessicated stewed-fruit notes, Rochas Femme-style. They just don't have those kinds of dynamic personalities. Most soliflores don't, actually. They're the most direct form of fragrance: perfume to be taken literally. Some people just like how certain flowers smell, and seek out perfumes that capture that smell as accurately and as pleasantly as possible. Rose happens to be a soliflore variety that I am interested in, because the "headspace" essence of rose often gives me a headache, and yet I truly like how it smells. My life's quest has been to find a rose soliflore that doesn't send me to the Tylenol and satisfies my rose cravings. I've had a little luck with that endeavor. But only a little.

Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop is the finest rose perfume around for under eight quid. It is arguably the finest rose perfume ever made, but that's a discussion for botanists to clamor over. I find that it smells very rich and natural, with only the smallest clue to its budget lurking in its peripheral "rose oil" effect, that strange, plasticky aspect that plagues steam and solvent-extracted attars. Tea Rose has been called "the first niche perfume," likely because The Perfumer's Workshop is an obscure concern that offers quality soliflores in non-commercialized packaging, well outside the usual department store modes of distribution. Jump onto Amazon to grab a four ounce bottle, and see how plain and "niche-like" it looks.

True Rose by Woods of Windsor is a largely successful attempt to follow in Tea Rose's footsteps as a fresher, greener soliflore that also maintains a requisite rubbery twinge. Where it falls short, however, is in its blending: True Rose only partially masks the astringent, bitter odor of perfumer's alcohol, with a top note that veers dangerously close to hairspray. Tea Rose never smells thin enough to make that mistake, which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you take your poison. 

I prefer seamless blending and full-bodied earthiness to the fresh, "sheer" approach, and therefore can't see choosing True Rose over others. I appreciate this fragrance as a decent casual rose scent, but next to Une Rose, Rose Barbare, Rose Absolue, and even Red Roses, True Rose doesn't really compare. Perhaps it'd be better served to break from tradition and offer its wearer . . . a twist.