Azzaro PH: The Finest Aromatic Fougère?

Recently there was a thread posted on basenotes, entitled "Your All-Time Favorite Fougère?", where the OP asked which fougère you would opt to wear, if you could only wear one. There was a very broad range of fougères listed in the responses, with Azzaro Pour Homme cropping up here and there. It certainly was not the most popular answer, and it didn't seem that there was a "most popular" answer, but several felt that the basic aromatics - Paco, Azzaro, Drakkar, Jules, Kouros, Lauder for Men, Rive Gauche - all fit the bill of being very desirable ferns. At some point in fragrance history Azzaro Pour Homme became legendary, and whenever there are discussions specifically about aromatic fougères, its name is uttered more than most. When put up against the first contemporary aromatic fougère, Paco Rabanne PH, Azzaro wins the popularity contest hands-down. Views on this fragrance trend toward unanimous love, with dissenters complaining that it's your garden variety "old man fragrance," and some just feeling that it's overrated. This one is highly regarded by us fragrance fanatics.

I happen to like Azzaro PH. I've always liked it, although earlier incarnations of it were too strong for me. The current formula has a smoother balance to my nose (although it does lack moss), and the anisic lavender smells wonderful against Gerard Anthony's arrangement of citrus, woods, and musks. Azzaro PH is also one of the few fougères that uses cardamom in a way that I don't mind. Jazz also uses cardamom, and I don't mind it in there either, but YSL's approach treats the cardamom with a spicy-fresh focus, whereas Azzaro's treatment is subtler, better integrated, and is actually used to enhance the lavender note. Despite the purported notes lists for this fragrance, it comes across as fairly simple, and therefore deserves its fougère status, perhaps more so than flashier fragrances like Cacharel PH, Safari for Men, and Tuscany Per Uomo. I tend to think of fougères as being successful by taking a broad palette of notes, and using them to simple effect. Pour un Homme de Caron is the best example of this, which is why I always come back to it as a favorite. It smells simple, with just lavender, vanilla, and the smallest dab of musk. In truth, it is a complex creation, with several musks, a very carefully balanced herbal coumarin, and the finest lavender grade you'll find in a fragrance south of $50.

Luca Turin wrote in The Guide:
"Some, I among them, believe that the finest aromatic ever was Azzaro Pour Homme (1978). This fragrance is so good and historically so important that I have met to date six perfumers who claim to have composed it . . . "
That was published in the first edition, which goes back five years already. How time flies when you're having fun. After those words hit the fragrance community, Azzaro PH returned from the dead, and was suddenly on every guy's radar screen. It went from being forgotten and quietly admired by a select few, to being an "important" and "faultless" fougère that every connoisseur should own, or at least experience. I think that's a good thing, because there aren't many great aromatic fougères still in existence, and Azzaro's entry is definitely a masterful piece of design work.

It does beg the question, though: Is Azzaro PH really that great? To say that it's "the finest aromatic ever" is pretty deep. That means it's better than all the others. Paco, Drakkar, Jules, Kouros, Francesco Smalto, Boss No.1, Third Man, Lauder, Xeryus, GIT, Zino, Lapidus, Salvador Dali PH, Cool Water, Jazz, Tsar, Eternity, Polo Sport, Tommy, and the list goes on and on. Is it really possible to seriously consider the individual merits of all of those fougères, and still conclude that Azzaro PH is the finest of their ilk? In broad strokes, I'd have to say that Azzaro PH fares well, but loses market share to real stunners like Kouros and Third Man. Whenever I wear Kouros, I experience moments of wondering how on earth something so nice is still being sold. Ditto for Third Man. I break things down by notes, and it gets equally contentious. Azzaro's treatment of citrus in the top notes is very interesting, because the fruity bite of bergamot and lemon is totally dried-out, yet also very loud. Instead of popping and fizzing and then disappearing, it acts as an olfactory cleansing agent, clearing the sinuses of contaminants to allow a startling accord of lavender and anise to step forward and stake its territory.

If you compare that to the citrus notes in Paco Rabanne PH, you find that Jean Martel's fruitier, more-traditional approach is arguably not as effective at framing the fougère accord, especially after the first five minutes have passed. However, Paco's citrus top accord is so strikingly beautiful that it exists as a mini-fragrance of its own, and is just as satisfying as all that comes after. I can say with unwavering certainty that anyone who dismisses the importance of top notes in a fragrance has either forgotten Paco Rabanne PH altogether, or made the grim mistake of intentionally avoiding Paco's top notes while waiting for its drydown. If you close your eyes and picture an elevated plain of wild lavender and weedy flowers, with their sod perched on a cold and wet shelf of stone in the Himalaya mountains, you have visualized the olfactory sensations of Paco Rabanne's citrus notes. It's much harder to generate that sort of wild and free (and earthy) visualization while smelling Azzaro's citrus notes, because they're much more muted and functional, serving mostly to support the lavender. Indeed, supporting the lavender is what Azzaro is all about. The anise supports the lavender. The spices support the lavender. It's one hell of a lavender.

What about the lavender in some of these other fougères? Is Azzaro's lavender the best there is? Is it even the most interesting? It's a traditional lavender note, probably English, although its sharpness sometimes makes me wonder if it isn't Spanish. Pairing a conventional lavender with then-unconventional anise was a good idea in '78. Yet Drakkar Noir had a more novel approach to this aromatic, minty herb. Instead of using highland English, Wargnye opted for lowland spike lavender, and emphasized its eucalyptic/camphoraceous characteristics for maximal "fresh" effect. I find that to be far more interesting than the straight-up lavender of Azzaro. It's a lavender curve-ball, and it's pretty ingenious. Even the lavender of Kouros (particularly the most recent, chrome-less formula) feels lustier and more dynamic than Azzaro's (it's paired with citrus, clove, and musk, which outnumber Azzaro's lone anise note). It's all about lavender in Azzaro PH, and it's a very, very good lavender, with all notes working in unison to emphasize its crispness and overall quality, but perhaps in the end it's . . . cruder than the others. Not by much, mind you, but just enough to raise eyebrows at the suggestion of its being "the finest aromatic." Crudeness and fineness are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

The woodsy notes in Azzaro PH - vetiver, birch tar (undoubtedly replaced by synthetics in the current formula), patchouli (very subtle), fennel, sage, juniper - all work together to form a coherent, cohesive bond of crisp, manly freshness. How do they rate against other "woodsy" fougères? They're fine, but the lack of artemisia in Azzaro is one strike against it. Wormwood just smells amazing in these kinds of older, busier compositions, and its absence is noted here. Not so in Jazz, Tsar, and Salvador Dali PH. The artemisia is integral to the aromatic effects of those ferns, and it's hard to imagine them without it. Azzaro was made with a steady hand, and none of its notes try to steal the show, so I have to believe that Gerard Anthony could have found a place for some wormwood, without upsetting the balance. This is not a case of smelling an inferior rendition of something, or comparing something in another fragrance, but simply wishing a note were there. Unfortunately it isn't, and that's frustrating to me.

Azzaro rates very highly with me, but I can't say it's the finest aromatic fougère I've ever smelled. It's a good one, and it's something I will always have a bottle of, but there are too many other fougères that give me just a little more pleasure. I think it's strange that Azzaro PH became a sensation among lovers of the old-school, because it has been around since the Carter administration, and from that time to at least 2008, it wasn't really a name that people were shouting from the rooftops. It's always been a seller and it's always been somewhat popular, but I can't help but wonder if the enthusiasm for it would be different if it were 1995, and Luca Turin had quit biophysics to become second violin in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.