8/23/13

Dihydromyrcenol: Understanding The Evolution Of Contemporary Aromatic Fougères




It bothers me a little when people don't know history. The old adage, "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it" rings true. Because this is a blog that focuses on masculine fragrance a bit more than feminine fragrance, I think it's a good idea to give a brief rundown on the history of what Luca Turin loosely refers to as our "monotheism." For us guys, this theistic deity is the fresh aromatic fougère.

In all actuality, our olfactory god isn't so much a form of perfumery, but a single molecule, the "god molecule," dihydromyrcenol. Without dihydromyrcenol, I'm not sure where contemporary perfumery would be. Possibly a better place. Or perhaps nowhere at all. Many have lamented the discovery of synthetic "fresh" molecules, because they are considered the harbingers of modern aquatics and sport scents, things fragrance connoisseurs largely frown upon for lacking creativity. Sport fragrances are usually just continuations of soap by other means. Aquatics tend to be overly-complicated sport fragrances. And dihydromyrcenol is not to blame for any of them - Calone is.

Dihydromyrcenol is a fresh-woody aroma chemical that has a metallic quality to it, and a slight edging of sweetness. A relatively unembellished form of it can be found in Geoffrey Beene's Eau de Grey Flannel, which costs about three dollars an ounce, so if you're curious about dihydromyrcenol, I recommend stopping at your local discount merchant or jumping onto Amazon. I think of dihydromyrcenol as being similar to extra-fine wood shavings with a metal razor - you get the crisp freshness of the wood, tainted by the lingering smell of metal. Dihydromyrcenol is to blame (or credit) for recent developments in masculine perfumery, and also feminine perfumery for that matter. Without its discovery and integration into fragrance formulas, we would still be reliant on Hedione for freshness.

The first notable application of dihydromyrcenol was in 1973, the year Paco Rabanne Pour Homme hit the fragrance market and became a bestseller. Chandler Burr talks about it in his book, The Perfect Scent:
"Jean-Claude Ellena identifies [dihydromyrcenol] (not enthusiastically) as opening what he calls 'perfume's phase hygienique.' To Ellena, you could pinpoint the beginning of the hygienic trend as Paco Rabanne Pour Homme (1973), which was leading away from leathers and ferns and spices and straight into the fluorescent-lit drugstore detergent aisle . . . " (p. 218)
PRPH contains noticeable traces of dihydromyrcenol, anywhere from 2% to 5% of the formula (depending on who you ask). In this context it was used mainly as a booster note for the lavender, fortifying the herbal freshness to give the fragrance an aromatic edge. As PRPH is one of the first aromatic fougères, it stands to reason that something must have been new about it, and in this case the newness is attributable to dihydromyrcenol. Jean Martel must not have known what he was starting.

Five years later, Azzaro Pour Homme was released, and dihydromyrcenol was detectable in slightly higher dosages, this time anywhere from 5% to 8% of the formula, again depending on who you ask. I personally do not smell the chemical as strongly in APH as in Paco Rabanne, and I wonder if it has been replaced or reduced in recent formulations. Its lavender note is definitely similar to Paco's, so that might be it. Many so-called fragrance experts feel that Azzaro Pour Homme is the greatest of the aromatic fougères, and I think that's possible, but debatable. There's a whole contingency of men out there who aren't convinced, and have said so in basenotes and fragrantica discussions. With APH it might be a case of the ivory tower noses saying one thing, and the unwashed masses saying another. Whether or not it deserves its "classic" status is entirely up to the wearer. In terms of how dihydromyrcenol evolved in mainstream masculine fougères, I find Azzaro to be a bit of a non-entity.

The next fougère is much more important, however. Four years after APH, Pierre Wargnye finished working on Drakkar Noir for Guy Laroche, and seriously upped the ante on dihydromyrcenol. It comprises 10% of Drakkar's formula, and you can really smell it. Burr continues in The Perfect Scent:
"The dihydromyrcenol revolution was formally launched in 1982 by Pierre Wargnye, who exploded it onto the scene by - ingeniously at the time - making it a jaw-dropping 10 percent of the formula of Drakkar Noir. There had never been anything like it, and frankly it was kind of sexy to smell like your shirts just out of the dryer." (P. 218)
Although Drakkar uses spike lavender instead of a regular lavender note, the fragrance's aromatic breeziness is not attributable to spike lavender's eucalyptus-on-steroids effect. It is fueled by a concentrated burst of dihydromyrcenol. This gives the scent its trademark eighties "fresh" feel.

Why did Wargnye decide to use so much "freshness?" Hard to say, but there are some factors to consider. Drakkar was released in 1982, not long after the end of the earthy, patchouli-heavy seventies, and it's no surprise that cultural players like to shake things up whenever a new decade is coming into swing. You can hear distinct changes in eighties rock compared to seventies rock, and likewise for the movies, and clothing fashions, makeup trends, etc. So I think Wargnye was just adding his New Wave touch to perfume by going heavy on the soapy-fresh vibe. I also think he was cognizant of the success of things like Azzaro Pour Homme and Grey Flannel (the original), and it is possible that he admired the dry-citrus freshness of Beene's chypre and the bright anisic lavender of Azzaro's fougère. Would his admiration for those two vastly different fragrances lead to something like Drakkar? Doubtful but possible. I think it's more likely he admired the usage of dihydromyrcenol in Paco and Azzaro, and simply wanted to try adding more of a good thing.

In any event, the success of Drakkar Noir was overwhelming, and by the mid eighties it was everywhere. I grew up smelling it on my father's friends, on teachers, in cars, malls, and restaurants. That juniper-heavy aromatic scent practically owned the air. It's hard to believe that Pierre Bourdon was not intrigued by it when he sat down with Olivier Creed to work on the greatest niche masculine of the decade. Indeed, by 1985 the application of dihydromyrcenol had been perfected in Creed's Green Irish Tweed, a loud, heavy, fresh aromatic fougère with tons of woody-sweetness, and a pervasive freshness that echos Drakkar. I don't know exactly how much dihydromyrcenol comprises the formula, but my educated guess would be anywhere from 12% to 15%.

It's important to note that unlike Drakkar Noir, GIT really does have a stylistic link to Grey Flannel, and to suppose that Bourdon was inspired by Beene's chypre is not as wild as wondering if Wargnye referred to it. GIT is the perfect marriage of Grey Flannel's woody-sweet violet notes, and Drakkar's brusque woody-freshness, with some citric flourishes of its own. It lacks the profound lavender of prior fougères, but it capitalizes on dihydromyrcenol's crisp, slightly-metallic freshness, which up until 1985 was still not fully exploited in a commercial fragrance. By letting Andre Fromentin and Pierre Wargnye lead the way, Pierre Bourdon added the "missing link" to the evolutionary puzzle of contemporary fresh fougères.

From there came the inevitable last stop on dihydromyrcenol's commercial journey, when Davidoff hired Bourdon to self-clone his Creed creation for the high school kids who couldn't afford to drop ninety dollars on a cologne. The result was Davidoff's Cool Water, which we have all come to know and love in the intervening decades. Burr writes in The Perfect Scent:
"[Dihydromyrcenol] reached its apotheosis in 1988's Cool Water, a dihydromyrcenol orgy made by Pierre Bourdon, who dumped in 20 percent." (P. 218 - 219)
Of particular note is how Bourdon used Cool Water to bring lavender back into prominence as a traditional part of the aromatic fougère accord, and also how his use of dihydromyrcenol complements the lavender to make it smell a little salty and ozonic.

From 1988 onward, aromatic fougères relied on variations of Cool Water's structure, without successfully copying the scent itself. We can see how this led to the frustrating creation of awkward, Hedione-based fragrances like Acqua di Gio, and overly-sweet barbershop orientals like Le Male. The nineties belonged not to dihydromyrcenol or aromatic ferns, but to gourmands and aquatics, with the return of Calone, Hedione, and Ethyl Maltol.









12 comments:

  1. Wonderful article! Captures the trend exactly. Thanks! jtd

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  2. Today, the most embarrassing thing is that there are many Cool Water "dupes" or "clones", at 5 euros/7 dollars, sold in drugstores, and... really *really* similar to the original. Prices and quality don't match each other, it seems.
    Or it's only a mere fact of "Marketing" ?

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    1. Hi Andre, I know about the clones, and yeah a lot of them are very similar to Cool Water (Brut Blue is a super-cheap example, right off the top of my head), but ultimately CW bears the design sensibilities of Pierre Bourdon (and Olivier Creed by one degree of separation), and there really is no other fragrance that matches it imo.

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  3. Very much appreciate this article. I've found I'm quite sensitive to dihydromyrcenol (as in highly-tuned to it, rather than that it gives me any sort of allergic reaction), and, largely from being surrounded by Cool Water in high school, it's not a chemical I get on well with. I was actually surprised to find its distinct presence in Creed's Jardin d'Amalfi, which from its description on paper certainly didn't seem the sort of composition that would involve dihydromyrcenol. I was disappointed, alas, as the note can really ruin things for me. I'm looking forward to similar articles on other pervasive aroma chemicals -- it's fascinating stuff.

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    1. Look for a few new posts on this blog about ISO E Super and Ambrocenide, and possibly Ambroxan also.

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  4. Enlightening- and such a joy to read! I now have a sudden urge to procure a sample of dihydromyrcenol...

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    1. Thank you! If you want a relatively unembellished dihydromyrcenol experience, I recommend buying a small bottle (or large bottle, it's just as cheap) of Eau de Grey Flannel. Be sure to get the "Eau" and not the regular Grey Flannel.

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  5. Awesome read Bryan. I have been using the term "fresh" way too loose in my writing. How do you tell the difference between dihydromyrcenol and the new age of freshness such as calone hedione ethyl maltol?

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    1. Reading, mainly. Luca Turin goes into these materials in some depth, and various perfumers have identified what it is we smell when we nose onto something.

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