Jōvan Ginseng NRG (Coty)

I'll be blunt - this scent smells like a woman's floral-perfumed skin after a dip in a heavily chlorinated swimming pool. It's basically muguet soap and musk oil diluted in pool water. Ginseng NRG was released in the late nineties, around the time I graduated from high school, and at that time it was something I seriously considered wearing. I considered it, and passed. Why, you ask? Hard to say. For one thing, it's not particularly exciting, or groundbreaking. It smells "fresh," and "clean," and "soapy." Typical nineties fare, especially with its hint of sweetness, thanks to all that musk. I guess I liked its perkiness, that hit of natural ginseng blended in with bitter citrus and soft amber. It's nice.

It's also a "sporty" frag (hence the "NRG"), the sort of thing that lasts three hours max, maybe a little longer after a rigorous, sweaty workout. At that time, I wasn't a "sporty" guy. I'm actually a hell of a lot sportier now, in my thirties, than I was in my late teens, and given my penchant for couch-potatoing with popcorn and movies, that's saying a lot. But no, in the late nineties I was not a "sporty" dude. I was naturally stick thin and led a fairly (moderately) active lifestyle, just doing day-to-day chores, so working out and then dousing myself in transparent, citrusy colognes wasn't on the schedule.

This is a youthful scent, and as Tania Sanchez says, it smells very soapy, and perhaps a little generic (she made a good GNR joke in The Guide), but it's altogether a solid offering from Jōvan that I'll continue sampling every time I pass it at Walmart - nobody buys this stuff. If you intend on buying it, get it while supplies last - rumor has it Coty discontinued NRG, and I expect to see inane price increases in the near future.


Stetson Sierra (Coty)

The subtlest victories of masculine perfumery come as nods to femininity. The violet prettiness of Cool Water and Green Irish Tweed. The sugary toffee rush of A*Men. The candied yuzu of Caron's Third Man. Each masterpiece contains an element of bisexual appeal. Most American guys don't wear any fragrance at all, but those who do generally approach them with subliminal consciousness, choosing what "smells good," without realizing their choice may very well smell surprisingly close to a girly-girl's perfume. Those who recognize these contradictions wear such scents as code.

Stetson Sierra is a frag that I've passed a million times at Walgreens and Walmart, and the former always has a tester out, alongside the original Stetson and Stetson Black. Every time I spray Sierra, I recognize a classical twentieth century masculine structure, ubiquitous, unadventurous, yet brilliantly subtle in its message. Released in 1993, it was a departure from its namesake, which is an unglamorously feminine oriental (not so subtle, that one), the "outdoorsy" Stetson, at long last. Rugged men, pine needles, herbs, woods, mosses, musks. Five o'clock shadows, leather boots, blue jeans, pick-up trucks, Winchester repeaters, buxom girlfriends named Dawn who cashier at the supermarket. Real men don't wear cologne, so this one has to be a real cologne - light, transparent for most of its duration, and rather aftershavey, that hint of "clean" and "musky" that classier guys don't mind spending a few dollars on.

That's exactly what Sierra delivers, until you get to the base accord, the very thing that is supposed to cement its direct masculinity into the workday and be forgotten by lunch. It starts off very directly, and very much an early nineties scent, bright and fizzy bursts of fresh bergamot, pine needles, lavender, and near-odorless aldehydes, morning in a Maine forest. The piney hi-fidelity aftershave effect segues into a mélange of herbal notes, mainly wormwood, caraway, rosemary, juniper, black pepper, basil, and geranium. I'm reminded of the long discontinued Polo Crest, and for about ten minutes Sierra smells like a somewhat cheaper copy of Crest, a good thing, given that Crest is a beautiful scent. Then the manliness gets patchouli heavy, and an accord similar to Preferred Stock creeps in and hangs around for about five minutes, before introducing the main attraction.

That main attraction is jasmine. Hello, sweetheart. How'd you get here? I thought this was an inexpensive testosterone fest? But is it really that inexpensive? Twenty bucks for 1.5 ounces? Almost thirty for two ounces? This is pricier than the original Stetson, and frankly the quality of its craftsmanship is on par with the dollar increase. The far drydown yields an understated musky, piney jasmine note, delicate, sweet, sheer, still quite "fresh," but now interminably "floral." Incredibly, Sierra's jasmine note is of better quality than things more famously floral, like Tea Rose Jasmin, for instance, which has a very literal rendition of jasmine, (perhaps too literal), Tommy Girl, with an overly luminescent synthetic jasmine accord, or even Anaïs Anaïs by Cacharel, a sublimely dry white floral blend.

How to account for this? I couldn't tell you. Forget the fake male swagger. There's plenty of that in the first twenty minutes of this scent. Embrace the crystalline beauty of the simple jasmine accord that follows, and recognize why you like it, wear it, and observe. The men and women in your world will pass by en masse, but every so often, one will read your code, and remind you that the phrase "it's a man's world" has several subtextual connotations. From that power flows the beauty of this little scent from Coty.


Boss N° 6 (Hugo Boss)

Fancy package, working class contents.

It seems fitting that Ryan Reynolds is the recent face of Hugo Boss' sixth masculine release. The actor is a middle class success story, a man who made his way to the top without the help of wealthy parents and trust funds. Likewise, Boss N°6, also known as Boss Bottled, is a modest fragrance that has become a sleeper classic, something of an olfactory signature for the late nineties, and arguably the first in a short but prestigious line of sweet, semi-gourmand fougères of that time period.

But is it a fougère, really? It contains two simple accords, the first being spiced apple, and the second a vanillic woody amber. Bear the lineage in mind; Cool Water's main accord is crisp lavender and crab apple, followed by tobacco-tinged woody amber and musk. Ten years later, Boss N°6 arrives with an even bigger apple note, this time very red and edible, followed by a saccharine bouquet of muted florals and synthetic woods, punctuated by hints of cinnamon and vanilla. Perhaps one could say it's an oriental, but good ferns have a way of hiding lavender and coumarin in plain sight. In Moustache, the lime and green notes disguise the lavender, with an oakmoss note serving as a bittering agent for the hefty slug of hay-like coumarin that follows.

In N°6, the lavender is mated to spiced apple, preventing it from smelling feminine, while the coumarinic effect of a true fern is evident in the drydown's powdery aura of almost-edible warmth. I think N°6 was the inspiration for Chanel's original Allure Homme, which came a year later. However, I don't find Annick Menardo's fragrance to be as compelling as Jacques Polge's. Allure presents a fascinatingly complex structure as a suave blend, with few notes outright discernible, yet all somehow very detectable. Fragrantica has recently lost credibility with me in the note pyramid department, as much of their pyramids have suddenly changed to exclude notes that are present in various compositions, and include notes that have nothing to do with them at all. Allure is a victim of this development, as its Fragrantica pyramid now lists silly things like coconut and peach (neither note exists in Chanel's scent).

However, once upon a time, Allure's pyramid accurately included rosewood, which is conspicuously absent from Boss N°6. Also missing is Allure's stunning synthetic labdanum, and the deep sandalwood impression I get about five hours into wearing it. Boss is all about soft, smooth notes, with a creamy take on woody amber, which is why I consider it a "warm" scent. It also plays a bit safe and bland. The word "innocuous" comes to mind. Many guys refer to apple pie in their reviews of N°6, and while I don't get that impression from it, I can certainly understand it, given the combination of gourmandish cinnamon and herbalized red apple.

If you're looking for a more convincing apple pie effect, I recommend trying Aubusson Pour Homme, or Witness by Jacques Bogart. With Boss N°6, you're better off expecting a very soft, sweet teddy bear of a fragrance, the sort of thing American males used to wear, back when Bill Clinton was President and Britney Spears still topped the charts.


Where There's Smoke, There's Fire - Part II

What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

Contrary to the belief held by some that perfumes cannot grow stronger with age, current opinions about Kouros suggest that things do change. In this thread, we see some supportive anecdotes about the thirty-five year-old masterpiece:
"I sprayed one spray, and there was just the tiniest hint of Kouros to my nose, and then minutes later I couldn't smell anything. I put on another [spray]. I got up to four sprays, and for a short time I would get the faintest nod of Kouros, but then a talc or body powder scent would dominate . . . I was very disappointed. Over the next couple wearings, the fragrance seemed to be stronger, and resemble [vintage] Kouros more. It also lasted longer. I have worn the fragrance four or five times now this summer, and this scent has done a 180. Yesterday I did yard work, and before I started, I sprayed one spray to the center of my chest from a couple inches away. My skin was clean, and I had not put any fragrance on. I mowed and edged the lawn, trimmed and pruned trees, and the scent was going strong the whole time while perspiring, over the smell of the mower and trimmer. Later, after showering, I could still smell the scent. I just wanted to let people know if they purchased the white bottle like myself, and feel let down by the smell, to give it some time. The top didn't change much, but the mid and base notes are Kouros."
For those who don't know, the "white bottle" that the author refers to is the latest formula, which is packaged in a bottle that lacks the chrome trim. This account mirrors my experience with YSL scents, which funnily enough was one of the brands I mentioned in Part I of this post. It's been happening a bit with Jazz (clear glass bottle version), and it has happened time and again with Kouros. There were two responses to the comment quoted above, with the interesting reply (it also compares Kouros to Terre d'Hermes):
"Tried and worn the first time, I recalled it being a Terre d'Hermes smell alike; nowadays the juice in the bottle I have smells different. The 'aged' one in my wardrobe improved significantly, the citric notes are more prominent, and the metallic / woody notes (synthetic feeling) became more subdued, almost imperceptible. It is a gentler TdH, far less complex, but more enjoyable. As to others, I noticed they acquire something in common with vintage scents, a character that could be described as dense. I wonder if, in their efforts to improve rotation, companies are not giving blends any time for settling."
It's possible. Also possible is that the synthetics and naturals are separating at a higher rate in current formulas. My theory has always been that when air gets into a bottle, the alcohol and some of the synthetics evaporate very slowly out, leaving behind a richer concentration of both quality synthetics and natural ingredients, in turn making the remaining liquid more potent. This is not "alchemy," it's just a simple theory based on what little I know about chemistry.

My theory was confirmed the other day by a commenter responding to Part I of this post:
"My 1st degree is in organic chemistry . . . Musks, resins (myrrh, frankincense, labdanum etc.), & most essential oils can deepen & intensify over time - which may or may not be good. If you have a leak in your bottle, the perfume will evaporate naturally & of course the scent (oils) will become more concentrated & thus 'potent' in smell."

And there it is, folks. An organic chemistry major confirms my suspicions. But why is this not enough for some people to accept? I suspect that any resistance to this idea is founded more on discrediting me than anything else (I have some enemies in the perfume world, unfortunately), but their contrarian stance does them little good, because logic and chemistry are not on their side here. Fragrances that are highly synthetic change very little. Ocean Rain is a good example of this. My bottle is at least twenty-five years old. It had been used two or three times prior to my purchasing it, because I could see it wasn't 100% full when I took it out of the box. The tiniest amount of air had gotten in there and was left to mix with the chemicals of Ocean Rain's formula for up to two and a half decades. Potentially a very long time.

Yet Ocean Rain smells fresh, well balanced, and complete. Its citric fruit notes are luminescent, its musky florals are coherent, and its beachy driftwood drydown is clear. Ocean Rain was a relatively cheap fragrance when it was released, and it is likely a very, very cheap formula. My guess is that there were little to no natural materials used in it. Therefore, the likelihood that natural oils could separate from the synthetics and become concentrated with time are virtually nonexistent. The result is a synthetic mix of low-volatility chemicals that smell the same today as they did when they were bottled.

Kouros is a perfume that makes good use of synthetics, but I've always detected a considerable degree of natural materials in its formula. There are some natural floral and wood oils that seem to react with oxygen. I'm not saying these are "high quality" naturals, as there are certainly no Grade-A sandalwood or rose oils in the mix. I'm simply saying that inexpensive naturals are used to bolster the effect of the synthetics, but these naturals react to air, and grow stronger, making the heart and base notes of the fragrance stronger with time.