4711: Still Better Than Farina, Still the Best

Gorgeous Bottle, Gorgeous Contents

I just bought my second 27 oz bottle of this wonderful elixir, after finishing my first about six years ago. It still possesses an autumnal crispness and summery freshness that surpasses anything else I've ever smelled, including many niche "freshies." Its simplicity and timelessness prevail when I'm in need of olfactory air-conditioning, and the beautiful blue and gold label remains a symbol of Old World charm. I consider it a masterpiece of 19th century graphic design.

How many logos have lasted 200 years? Not many. How many products have waded into an ocean of time, survived two Antichrists (Napoleon and Hitler), dozens of wars, numerous pandemics, decades upon decades of economic turbulence, and emerged smelling of fresh fruits and sweet flowers? Well, Jean Marie Farina Cologne by Roger & Gallet did that, too. Except something about Farina's cologne water doesn't quite work, and it's hard to pinpoint what it is. Is it too sharp? Too literal? Not floral enough? Too musky? I don't quite know why I prefer 4711, but if I needed an alibi, I'd say it's the rosemary and neroli in Wilhelm Muelhens' cologne water that wins the day.

Farina's blend doesn't take 4711's "mélange" approach to cologne: bright citrus, woody herbs, and mellow white flowers. Instead, it needlessly dwells on impressing you with an intense blast of natural citrus. It then uses an excessively desiccated orange blossom to segue into a smooth woody amber and white musk base. The amber is attenuated to avoid the "designer cologne" effect of modern fare, and it's well done, but the sharpness of the top, bordering on sourness, and the minimization of herbal notes and cheerful floral chords, makes it an antiseptic and monochrome experience. It's a pointlessly masculine spin on what ought to be an entirely unisex fragrance.

Whenever I bring this up in conversations about cologne, outraged defenders of Farina's version invariably shout, "Muelhens was a huckster who stole Farina's name to sell his inferior plagiarized formula!" To which I say, "That's completely irrelevant." They usually retort with, "4711's citrus smells blatantly synthetic, and its drydown is equally cheap. Farina's citrus is HANDS DOWN the best." To which I say, "Tell that to Tom Ford." This is my roundabout (but unfairly effective) way of telling Farina's defenders that attacking the quality of 4711's citrus notes is the loser's way of telling me 4711 is a failed fragrance. The citrus isn't the point of 4711. Citrus notes, even when done perfectly, are just not that impressive. Sorry, it's the truth. That's why Muelhens' formula pulls my nose past the citrus, and into a handful of rosemary sprigs, which eventually expand into a lovely neroli, and neroli is what makes 4711 the winner.

When Tom Ford farted out Neroli Portofino, he wasn't aping Farina's cologne. Neroli Portofino is by all measures a redux of 4711, down to the color of its bottle. Weirdly enough, after benefitting from far more cash in its formula, Ford's fragrance lacks the gentle charm of 4711, and winds up smelling a bit strident to me. It's still an excellent frag, and likely the only Ford scent I would buy, but with the current Mäurer & Wirtz cologne at around $2 an ounce, it's a little hard to see the point. My point, however, is that Tom Ford recognized that 4711 is about neroli, not citrus.

Besides, the claim that Farina's citrus is better isn't even true. Farina's citrus is excellent, but it focuses on lemon and bergamot, while 4711 uses far more lime. After the explosion of lime-scented drugstore aftershaves of the 1960s and '70s, many of which were surprisingly well made, people unfairly associate even the best of lime notes with "cheap." My guess is 4711's lime was emphasized to lend a better intro to its rosemary middle, as these notes play off their green and woody qualities. 4711 also has a very good bergamot note, and one might argue its lemon is a touch weak, but again I say, who cares? It escapes smelling like lemon Pledge, it's quite a bit better than most of the lemon notes found in your average $50 designer, and it blends very well, so a less-than-photorealistic lemon note doesn't keep me up at night.

There's been no reformulation to 4711, as far as I can tell. If I had to guess at a tweak, I'd posit that the lime note has become a touch more prominent in the last ten years, but that could just be my imagination. Beyond that, I can't smell a lick of difference here. I've owned a few 3 oz spray bottles since 2014, and they all smelled identical. So we should consider Mäurer & Wirtz a very successful purveyor of a fine fragrance. They haven't mucked up a good thing. It smells fresh, natural, and entirely like what a classical eau de cologne should be. My ten year old bottle, empty now for years, smells like I've used it to store rosemary, so that speaks to the quality of the herbal note. It's excellent.

We live in scary, complicated times. It's comforting to know that 4711 has seen much worse. It smells like a guiding light, and in the heat of summer it's the only thing I feel like reaching for. Side note: the "gold" color on the current label is about a full shade paler than the same shade on my older bottle. Whoever makes the label has clearly trimmed some expense there. My message to Mäurer & Wirtz: No biggie, but quit while you're ahead. If you think we don't notice these things, think again.


Chelsea Flowers (Bond no.9)

This is the first Bond fragrance I've ever owned a full bottle of. I bought it blind, on the premise that it gets compared to Creed Spring Flower, and it generally gets positive reviews. It's also one of Bond's "foundational" offerings, released as part of their original lineup in 2003. I bought the 3.3 oz bottle for a little less than half of what Bond wants for it, so not a terrible deal. And I needed to know what Bond can do with a fruity-floral. A good brand will take an otherwise staid floral and raise it to new heights, so I was hoping to smell this in CF.

What I got was a gorgeously-packaged perfume that smells 90% like Tommy Girl by Tommy Hilfiger. What happens in the other 10%? Let me start with the notes - there's a fleeting chamomile tea note in the opening, instead of Tommy Girl's green tea, and no blackcurrant note. The lack of blackcurrant is the most obvious difference, as Hilfiger's scent has distinct elements of currant and cassis leaf throughout its evolution. There are fruity notes in CF, but I can't name them. They smell like a berry of some sort, and maybe a peachy-melon thing, as they're quite sweet.

Another difference is the ingredient quality. Tommy Girl's price averages at $50. What you get for that money is a bright and somewhat sweet tea floral that is just dry and dusky enough to be unisex. Its gender barrier is broken by an aquatic overtone, which refocuses the theme on freshness, rather than florals. The drawback is that TG smells pretty synthetic. Chelsea Flowers is also synthetic, but the quality of its synthetics is fully one notch higher than those used in the Hilfiger. Imagine if Chanel did Tommy Girl instead of Estée Lauder, and that's pretty much the quality of Chelsea Flowers. That sounds bad when you first read it, I know. But read on.

Chelsea Flowers smells satisfyingly good. It's a weird good, but good nonetheless. Its chamomile is tart and short-lived, and transitions into a very abstract white floral accord, with all the flowers blended into one living bloom, which occasionally smells greener and a bit more realistic than I thought it could. Its aquatic overlay is virtually identical to Tommy Girl's, but done with an aroma chemical that seems a touch more delicate and "dewy." There's a soapy freshness to it, and I've been told I smell like I just came out of the shower an hour after applying Chelsea Flowers. It oscillates between smelling like shampoo, and a serious study in floral abstraction. Laurent Le Guernec gave Bond its 1990s-style fresh floral, and they ran with it.

Price is an issue here. As good as it smells, it doesn't smell grey market Creed good. Spending what I spent on this is a ripoff, although not by a ton. It would be fairly priced at about $110. Chanel would charge that much, and like I said, this smells like a Chanel. I happen to think Chanel's prices are fair. But $300 from Bond? Well, you decide, folks. It's not 2003 anymore, and the brand has at least 900 floral perfumes out of their 1500 perfume lineup. So it's not like this is the only stop on the ride. But my main takeaway is that the packaging is stunning, the perfume is quite good for what it is, with good longevity and decent throw, and it's just as fresh and unisex as Tommy Girl, if Tommy Girl were taken to the next level. Is it what I hoped it would be? No, I wanted a variation of Creed's Spring Flower. But if you like this kind of thing, it's worth a sniff.


Derby Clubhouse Blanche (Armaf)

Silver Mountain Water clones are weird. Two years ago, I bought Rasasi's Al Wisam Day, expecting it to be a dead ringer based on everything I was reading, and at best it approximates its template by maybe 60% (or less). So I had to stow expectations for Armaf's Derby Clubhouse Blanche, given its cheaper price point, and less than stellar reputation. I have never received a compliment on AW Day, and figured DCB would also be underwhelming.

Armaf's interpretation is fresher, lighter, and subtler than Rasasi's, and these differences are immediately obvious at first spray. It's also a much simpler composition. Al-Wisam Day is full of sparkling herbal notes, supported in the base by tea rose and synthetic sandalwood. Armaf eschews complexity and employs a quartet pyrmaid: fleeting citrus, green tea, sweet berry, and aqueous musk (presumably a stand-in for ambergris). Though somewhat basic, I think the nose for DCB calibrated its limited palette wisely, choosing a dusky green tea aroma chemical that darkens as it evaporates, respectably mimicking the "ink" in the Creed. The scent's musk was also a good choice, as it radiates an odd, somewhat watery freshness later in the dry down.

I'm not sure what the point of the citrus is, as it lasts twenty seconds off the top, and the "berry" note, which is meant to be blackcurrant, just smells vague and sweet (this is probably one of Creed's captive molecules, which no clone can imitate), but everything feels decently balanced, performance is reasonable, and I think I got a bit more than I paid for here. It's good to note that these kinds of scents are very high-pitched, making olfactory fatigue common, so longevity can be difficult to gauge.

Rasasi's fragrance is more complex, far richer, and probably a better scent all around, but I did receive two compliments from a woman who said she wanted to wear the Armaf herself, and after a week of unbroken wear, I've yet to tire of it. If you're on the fence here, all I can say is, try it. Given its $20 price tag, you can't go wrong. I'm looking forward to smelling how Franck Olivier's Sun Java White compares.