Master Witch Hazel (Master Well Comb)

The search for a superior witch hazel continues, and I may have found it. It's funny to consider how public opinion changes. When I started reading Badger & Blade's forum posts in 2009, its members were enthusiastic about a polyol compound called glycerin. Men were adding glycerin to their aftershaves and boasting about it. Many were adding glycerin to aftershaves that already had glycerin in them. Glycerin was mentioned all the time. Guys wanted glycerin. Guys sought it out. Guys prized it when they found it, and added it as a magic ingredient, and nary a day passed without someone opining on its wonders. Like menthol crystals, glycerin was a hot wetshaver accessory.

Today, glycerin is the boogeyman. I'm always reading comments: "Too much glycerin," "The glycerin ruined it for me," "I prefer (x) because (y) has glycerin," etc. I suspect it's one of many reasons for why Master Well Comb has been struggling (the brand recently shuttered its website). The company seems fond of glycerin, and adds it to most of its products, including its double-distilled witch hazel. While the tacky drydown is debatably annoying in their other stuff, I find that it provides an ideal balance here: enough alcohol for the plant extract to work as an astringent, and just enough glycerin to prevent it from drying out my skin. Nice work all around, and very hard to find fault with. 

Cut-rate Hamamelis Vernalis beads all across my unprepossessing mug like raindrops on a freshly-waxed Studebaker Dictator, due to my reprehensibly oily and authoritarian epidermis. Pricier witch hazel behaves like aftershave and seeps in. Masters' formula is just witch hazel, water, alcohol, and glycerin, and it feels the nicest out of everything I've tried thus far. One might argue that it's too expensive, but I got 15 ounces for ten bucks even, and I'm lucky to get twelve for eight everywhere else, so this is yet another eBay purchase that I do not regret. Try to find vintage if you can, just for the cool label. 


Candie's Men (Iconix Brand Group)

A Candie's Shoe Ad from the 1990s

This stuff was everywhere when I was a teenager, yet it seemed to vanish with my teenage years, and had become a memory. The Candie's brand was synonymous with the nineties, but proceeded to follow the decade into sweet oblivion, much as the movie careers of stars associated with a certain decade tend to do. It was no coincidence that Jenny McCarthy, nineties bombshell and the then-face of Candie's, would gradually slip into obscurity by the middle aughts, or that sugar-sweet froot-chemical colognes would lose traction with subsequent generations. Its time had come and gone. Candie's was a thing of the past. The brand was losing too much money to recover. Story over.

So it's a little surprising that Iconix Brand Group has resurrected the men's cologne in 2021. What gives? One might well ponder how a forgotten and defunct brand could be viable with the youthfulness of a new audience, and I would argue that the suits at Iconix are targeting these inexperienced kids' noses in the hopes that Gen-Z money will validate their potential moneymaker. But to my experienced eye, they have the math all wrong. In 1999, Candie's Men was a synthetic watermelon/lavender thing that was just sweet and dumb enough on top to appeal to teenage girls (which should be the primary goal of every true masculine fragrance, including those aimed at adults), and just Boys Locker Room enough in the drydown to appeal to the teenage boys wearing it. 

In 2021, Candie's Men smells like a chemical spill, with nearly no discernible element to focus on. It yields a bright, nondescript "fresh" effect on top, which becomes vaguely sweet and froot-like, yet it can't shake the Windex vibe of badly conjoined accords. At times it smells like someone grafted a franken-pineapple to melon, but I'm told by Fragrantica that it's the coriander I'm meant to be smelling there. Then the cheap linalool and white musk base kicks in, and that faint herbal edge is signaling that I'm wearing a cheapo men's cologne. Gen-Z has moved past this already. Gen-Z is into no fragrance, or something with $200 oud and nail varnish in it. On top of that, the Candie's imagery, with its multicolored bottles and Marvel-meets-Vargas adverts, can't compete in today's Woke world. A blond cleaning a toilet? Fashion sin. That kind of fun is so two decades ago. 


Joy (Jean Patou)

The celerity with which a forty year-old vintage of Jean Patou's Joy develops on skin makes a hangry adult Cheetah seem laggard by comparison. Despite this, the fragrance maintains a core fidelity that is, as far as I can tell, unshaken in its years. The sparkling aldehydic peach of what were once luxurious top notes is now simply a candy-pert sweetness, and just seconds after application a true onslaught of jasmine tsunamis the senses. The floral chords are lush, and the beige resinous woods supporting them are representative of a perfume rarity: natural materials. I do not own a bottle of vintage Joy, but was fortunate enough to wear the contents of one, and I have some thoughts.

We should pause to absorb the sad (and frankly avoidable) development that Jean Patou, a brand that tailored clothing and manufactured perfume for a century, no longer exists. It is now just "Patou," and while clothing is still pitched, accessories for olfactory pleasure are not. I don't know who gets the blame for this. Patou's Wikipedia page stops short of painting LVMH as part of the story of their demise, while Fragrantica seems hellbent on blaming the boogeyman. You don't need a boogeyman for this one; if I ask a tenth grader why a ninety-two year-old perfume for wealthy Depression-era women no longer exists, the answer would accurately be something along the lines of, "Because wealthy Depression-era women are pushing up daisies right now." 

But do today's daisies for yesterday's jasmine blossoms sound like a fair trade? The fragrance community is plagued by rumors of countless products being crammed with natural materials, and Joy is no exception, save for the fact that the rumors are mostly true. It really did require the essence of an ungodly number of flowers, reaching well into the thousands, to yield a single ounce. And you can smell it. Henri Almeras, French perfumer for Patou, was trained by the legendary Ernst Beaux of Chanel No.5 fame, and he understood how the interplay of aldehydes and lactonic fruit esters can elevate an otherwise dowdy white floral arrangement into a "modern" sphere. His work in Joy is aggressive. The jasmine is rich, fluorescent; the rose note lends an interesting coolness to balance their tropical balm; the sandalwood and hints of animalic musk are a smooth foundation for such a poised model. 

This sounds textbook by classical French perfumery standards, but I needed all of three minutes to realize that I was wearing the fragrance equivalent of what the Japanese call kanawa tsugi, or the joinery of building materials without the use of nails. Everything in Joy is familiar, everything is conservative and terrestrial by today's standards, yet the entire composition is a pristine example of obsessive fit and finish. Where the majority of feminines, including Joy's contemporaries, rely on heady mosses and musks to make sense of the fruits and flowers, Joy lets the secondary traits of each material match up with the next. Aristocratic names employ little more than pins, while the rest rely on railroad ties. Joy simply allows the overripe edge of peach to introduce the indolic facet of jasmine, which in turn finds the tawdry skank of civet, with the ensemble melting into the dried earthiness of resins and woods. This is as close to art as it gets.

As someone habitually critical of vintage and discontinued fragrances, my grey matter was operating on overdrive throughout the wearing experience. All the usual pitfalls were present - the aforementioned drydown speed, the slight muddling of accords, the unbalanced base - and though they jumped out at me, I didn't care. The sweetness of whatever was left of the top notes was uplifting, and, pardon the pun, "joyful," and the floral notes were so clear and realistic that I couldn't bring myself to feel disadvantaged by my proximity in time to this perfume's original materials. Sure, the petals were plucked decades ago, but they still felt as fresh and dewy and alive as they ever did. This is either the result of finally getting my nose on something good after an eighteen month pandemic, or Édouard Pinaud's words from his memoir are true, "Perfumes are really the most delicate beholders of our past life." 

Or perhaps it's both.