Fougère Royale, Part Two (Houbigant, 2010)

The wheel shown above is yet another super-subjective classification of fragrances, this time focusing on the specific oils used (in a very broad sense) to comprise them. By focusing on oils, the wheel excludes certain synthetics - coumarin is missing from the fougère category, for example - and there are truly limitations to how a fragrance is defined here. Some "spokes" are better defined than others - the oriental is described as a basic amber for example, with most of the oils and resins used for one type of amber listed. Yet subcategories like "floral oriental" and "woody oriental" aren't given spokes. It really couldn't get any vaguer or broader. I don't consider this wheel to be especially useful, other than in viewing the various classifications, and getting a very general sense of the primary notes used for some of them.

When smelling a fragrance like Fougère Royale, one has to keep a few things about fragrance classifications in mind. The most important thing is to remember that this reissue is a reinterpretation of a traditional woody fern from the nineteenth century that no longer exists. To get anything close to an accurate sense of how the original was supposed to smell, one has to rely on early twentieth century traditional ferns still in production, or still widely available. With Houbigant's fragrance, the best point of reference for me is Edmond and Theresa Roudnitska's Moustache. But there's something else to remember here: Fougère Royale wasn't reissued as a traditional fern - it is now an "aromatic fougère," replete with all the flourishes and extra trimmings that come with a typical aromatic. That means the fragrance can be referenced as a traditional fern, but must also be compared to aromatics. It pulls from both worlds.

Fougères are confusing to people because they're often unclear on the historical divide between the two different types. I can't tell you how many times I read reviewers and bloggers who compare the qualities and drawbacks of an aromatic fern to an old-school classical fern pre-dating WWII. It's a tricky comparison to make. I know of one blogger who consistently references "fougère accords" in fresh aromatic ferns, but almost never takes into account the difference between that accord and the fougère accord of a traditional woody fern. It's frustrating because old-school ferns often render lavender and coumarin very differently from their contemporary counterparts. What I like about Fougère Royale is that I smell a traditional "fougère accord" with a very hay-like, semi-grassy coumarin under a brightly-citric lavender note, but the accord is buttressed by extraneous notes of geranium, cedar, chamomile, labdanum, and musk. Its traditional prose is written not with a quill, but a contemporary Sharpie pen.

Fougère Royale is a triumphant fragrance because there are no corners cut, and the compositional editing was done with an eye on keeping the fragrance rich and beautiful, yet concise. In some ways it reminds me of an inexpensive designer fern, oddly enough Joop! Homme Wild, of all things. The sweetness of JHW is cut by a flurry of herbal lavender notes, filtered through a green gauze of violet ionones, which give it a slightly candy-like effect. I asked someone to give me their first impression of Fougère Royale on my skin, and the first thing she said was, "It's nice, sort of like candy." Now, when you smell traditional ferns like Moustache and Sandalwood by Arden, you don't get "candy" from them at all. This means that Houbigant's integration of floral notes is closer to being in the contemporary aromatic vein than the traditional one. Things like heliotrope, jasmine, and cyclamen are tucked in there, but they're very pert, closely-blended, and form an accord that is actually pretty commonplace in current scents marketed to younger guys.

Just smell how lavender and coumarin are blended in Moustache though, and you get a snapshot of the approach Flores-Roux took. A concise description of the fragrance can be found here, and I'll include a snippet:

"The opening is a gentle splash of citrusy notes and lavender and it takes a long time to evaporate. The dry down shows the musky animalic and fougère notes of this composition slightly sweetened by honey, amber, tonka beans and vanilla."

That's an excellent description of "vintage" Moustache, although the more recent "Concentree" is by many accounts spot on. If you try the reissue of Moustache in the modern rectangular bottle, you'll encounter a different fragrance altogether. I think the key word from the above description is "gentle." Moustache, like Fougère Royale, incorporates lavender in a manner that doesn't bludgeon you across the nose. The use of citrus and geranium in both FR and Moustache are very similar, and Roudnitska's composition showcases the note under a veritable feast of citrus fruits, mostly lemon and lime. Both fragrances eventually transition to a dry-grassy coumarin effect in their heart accords. The design work that was put into these two is flawless, intended to utilize familiar accords without resorting to predictable note placements, which makes for a more interesting wear of fragrances that should be pretty stuffy and boring. Although Flores-Roux used floral notes in a contemporary fashion, his integration of lavender and coumarin is from a traditional template. Arden's Sandalwood gives further insight into how lavender can be front and center, yet not smell isolated.

To understand Fougère Royale is to understand both traditional and aromatic fougères. The world of Atkinson's Lavender, Mennen Skin Bracer, Silvestre, the original Fougère Royale, Moustache, Sandalwood, Caron Pour un Homme, and Dunhill is connected to the separate world of Azzaro PH, Drakkar Noir, Jazz, Eternity, and Cool Water. The connection points are "bridge scents," fragrances like Pino Silvestre, Loewe for Men, Brut, and Paco Rabanne PH. These "bridges" maintain more traditional elements than their offspring, but also show evolutionary signs of breaking from tradition in their compositions. Only when a full understanding of this historical lineage is achieved can something like Fougère Royale be appreciated in its entirety, because it is truly an olfactory homage to the past and the present.


  1. Bryan,

    I know you're not a Penhaligon's fanboy by any stretch, but...how come no mention of English Fern as a yardstick in comparison to any of the countless fougeres you write about?

    1. English Fern has not, in my time at least, presented as a faithful representation of its original formula, and has in many quarters been viewed as another unfortunate casualty of Penhaligon's downscaling approach to perfume, with a cheapening of the formula that few can agree upon. As such I feel it is impossible to truly understand the fragrance in this historical context. However, with more recent fougeres like Sartorial, the dialogue is different. I haven't tried Sartorial yet and am unsure if I ever will. At this stage I'm scaling back on what I sample and own to the point of almost not bothering at all. Thanks for your question.


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