Sleight of Fern (Masque Milano)

Stéphanie Bakouche is a marquee name in the fragrance industry, having worked for Givaudan and Takasago, as well as Parfums MDCI. In 2006, she established herself with Invasion Barbare, a postmodern relativist fougère that is as sleek and powerful as a small block aluminum engine. Its Germanic lines of unswerving aldehydes, bergamot, lavender, violet leaf, cardamom, thyme, cedar, vanilla, and white musk are anything but barbaric - they're really rather conventional and boring. That said, the fragrance is technically quite good, with each note and accord neatly arranged to convey a sense of sanguine masculinity. Brut for the rich. 

Stéphanie must have taken the criticisms of her work to heart, because her 2022 release for Masque Milano makes a statement that Invasion Barbare did not. Sleight of Fern opens with a barrage of medicinal anisic and green-geranium notes, carried along sinus-piercing bergamot, all lending the accord the desiccated effect of garrigue, with nuances of rosemary, juniper, and thyme bleeding through. This all gives way to a surprisingly burly lavender, with robust accents of patchouli, rosewood, a super-piquant coriander, ambergris, cedar, and civet, along with several other Kouros-like musks. Virile and a touch old-school, Masque Milano's fougère smells at various points like Davidoff's Zino (1986), Trumper's Wild Fern (1877), and, quite amusingly, Invasion Barbare. 

This presents a quandary for me, the humble reviewer. I enjoy Sleight of Fern, and I think it smells the way a fougère should: properly animalic, yet also herbal and soapy. But looking at my collection, I find I have fougères from yesteryear that satisfy this itch for far less money. Red for Men (1991, $14), Vermeil for Men (1995, $17), Wild Fern ($60), Lapidus Pour Homme (1987, $15), all accomplish in degrees the same result as this expensive niche offering. Kouros achieves the woody-musky effect better than all of them. But if you enjoy the subtle nuances of this sort of thing, and don't mind the price, Sleight of Fern is a pleasant option that is, quite frankly, a damn sight better than Invasion Barbare. 


Curve for Men (Liz Claiborne)

I attended high school from the fall of 1996 to the spring of 2000, so I managed to graduate in the final year of the twentieth century. I would have tossed my cap in 1999, but my folks held me back a year. This made me a little older than everyone in my class, from first grade onward. It also led to an odd bifurcation of my teenage experience; my personal sensibilities were sometimes aligned with those of my peers, and other times not so much. My taste in perfume was unoriginal (i.e., aspirational), and I gravitated to my French teacher's Chanel, but many of my friends liked Claiborne - and I understand why.

Curve for Men was released in 1996, freshman year, and contrary to what some of the talk on the interwebs suggests, it wasn't exactly "cheap" that year. I recall seeing it exclusively at Macy's and J.C. Penney: $45 for a 2.5 oz bottle, $65 for a 4.2 oz. These were standard Connecticut prices, but if you toured the malls of the Eastern Seaboard in the late nineties, you would be hard-pressed to find Curve for much less. Liz Claiborne was still very much alive and in the game, and although she had adopted the same mass-market strategy as brands like Pierre Cardin and Michel Germain, the newness and cultural success of fruit-fueled Curve kept it on the pricier side until the early 2000s. 

I mention this because the quality of the original Curve and its first unofficial flanker, Claiborne Sport (1997), is strikingly good. Jean-Claude Delville borrowed some of CK Eternity's pyramid and used the same heart accord of lavender, citrus, and sandalwood, but filtered it through Lisa Frank-like tones of neon greens, a drop of sweet pineapple, and dewy ginger. Accompanying the requisite dihydromyrcenol and violet leaf in the mid are very nineties notes of ginseng and soapy black pepper. Is it cheap in 2023? Yes. Does it smell good? Yep, and like its sport variant, it's still worth every penny. To wear the true nineties formula, look for Claiborne Sport on eBay. My vintage bottle is verrry potent. 


Greenley (Parfums de Marly)

This perfume went through some name changes before Parfums de Marly settled on Greenley. Its original title was "Sutton," and you can still find pictures of boxes with that label from late 2019 and early 2020. The story goes that another company had something that went by "Sutton" (gee, wonder which one it could be?), and it politely asked PdM to reconsider. Then they road-tested "Epsom," which is an odd one, although there's virtually no evidence of this to be found online, so I don't know how true it is. Eventually they went with the color of the packaging, the safest (and lamest) choice. 

My take on Greenley is that it faces a few insurmountable challenges. Its main problem is that it inhabits the Creed price bracket at $355 for 75 ml, and Creed does green better than every other niche brand in existence. Want something fresh, green, clean? Original Vetiver. Want something manly with a perfect grassy/green apple accord? Green Irish Tweed. Looking for an edgier fruity-green? Silver Mountain Water. These frags are expensive, but they're expensive for a reason: they smell miles better than anything in the designer realm, and they're made with top-tier synthetics. For Greenley to stack up, it needs to match or surpass the Creed standard by using equivalently good materials in an equally-great composition. Unfortunately, it falls short. Like, $300 short.

Greenley smells remarkably close to Banana Republic's Grassland, and I suspect the latter is a straight-up clone. Both fragrances are directly predicated on a familiar cast of sweet-green violet-leaf-and-ginger things popularized by Green Valley (1999, another Creed). Both open with a translucent mélange of green apple and citrus, both pop and fizz their way into serene grassy-woody handsoap hearts, and both end up on simple bases of Cashmeran and white musk. Greenley's apple is perkier and its heart is pinier, but it's undeniably a waste of cash. For soapy-green, get Grassland instead. 


Valaya (Parfums de Marly)

Photo by Don Graham 

Having taken up the pursuit of fragrance writing in the early twenty-tens, I was privy to veritable oceans of shit-talk about the house of Creed. The brand was lambasted for its purportedly false historical references and claims of clientele pedigree, and for generating legions of "swivel-eyed" chads who swore by their "panty-droppers." 

Yet, to me, Parfums de Marly is a far more chad-centric niche brand than Creed ever was. I can't even get to my subscriptions page on YouTube without encountering a half-dozen videos of men touting the latest PdM scent. It even generates quite a bit of female-driven content, to the point where if another woman tells me how sexy Layton is, I'm buying a one-way ticket to Međugorje and taking a vow of chastity. 

Nevertheless, Valaya is a beautiful name on a beautiful bottle for a perfume crafted by a handsome and accomplished perfumer named Quentin Bisch, and with ample evidence that PdM isn't going anywhere anytime soon, it's time for a review. The PdM site gushes, "Fresh top notes as bergamot, mandarin, and sweet white peach, lead to a blend of white flowers, settling on musk and ambrofix sensual base notes." Reading that, I'm lead to believe that Valaya is a standard woody-floral musk. Priced at $177 per ounce, I want the floral elements to really shine. And they do, kind of. 

The copy is fairly accurate in regards to the top: noticeable for several minutes are juicy essences of warm citrus, followed by a lick of peach, and they're soft, transparent, and well done. In our post-Covid world, in which every other nose is virus-compromised, perfumers have resorted to diabolically powerful ambers and musks, things that even the most war-torn snout can detect. I've never had Covid, so mine is still keen. It embraces the top notes of Valaya, only to sense their swift transition to a massively radiant and intensely powdery white musk, which emanates facets of the fruity opening fusillade, while also enveloping them in a gauzy haze of arid, nondescript freshness. Must be the Ambrofix, which Givaudan cites as "the most suitable material to deliver an authentic Ambergris note." 

This cacophonous muskiness also possesses ambery, vanillic, and white-floral dimensions, including a truly diaphanous accord of a dry orange blossom melody uplifted by a silvery, muguet-like harmony. There is subtle beauty to be found in Valaya, but I feel that it "flattens" around ninety minutes after application, and becomes a nebulous and linear dryer-sheet amber for the remainder of wear time, which stretches on for no less than ten hours. In the end it reminds me, stylistically at least, of CK One, that landmark abstract citrus-floral, which can still be had for around eight bucks an ounce. 


Treacle (Pineward)

Nicotiana, Photo by Markus Hagenlocher

I'm under the impression that Nicholas Nilsson released Treacle and Steading together, like Hayride and Hayloft, and Christmas Wine and Glühwein. Of the two, I consider Treacle the far better fragrance, and I think it's one of the finest tobacco perfumes in existence.

Like Steading, Treacle is a bit sweet, but it's not sugary-sweet, not gourmand. Steading is loaded with intense notes of graham cracker, gingerbread, molasses, honey, and maple syrup, but Treacle has only a beautifully balanced interplay of fermented tobacco leaves and raisins, with the gentlest hints of molasses and honey tying them together. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the breathtaking smoke-dried camellia sinensis top note, which, while fleeting, ushers everything in with decadent aplomb. The fruity-caramellic side of honey swirls in the air with the caliginous savour of molasses, until the duo succumbs to a stunning burnished tobacco, which smells simultaneously rich and expansive. When it comes to notes, tobacco leaf is one that I want rendered as clearly and simply as possible, with precious few complementary embellishments. Treacle delivers. 

The mark of a great perfumer is his or her ability to render subjective interpretations of the world around them in olfactory terms. When I smell Treacle, I know what Nilsson thinks of tobacco: he adores it, and he wants me to enjoy it with him. Invitation accepted, good sir. Invitation accepted. 


Autumnal (Pineward)

Photo by An Basova, color & contrast adjusted by B. Ross, Creative Commons Attribution

One of the knocks against all-natural perfumery is that it tends to yield things that resemble herbal teas. I don't know if Autumnal is all-natural or not, but it smells like I'm wearing an herbal teabag. It's like I stuck my head in a barrel of herbs, mostly peppermint. In fact, all I smell with any clarity is peppermint. It's rich and spicy and not unlike Twinnings peppermint tea, or perhaps a peppermint-herbal potpourri. You get the idea. 

I've never associated autumn with peppermint. I can barely detect other notes in the composition, and they're crushed by its Manhattan-sized menthol monster. There's a whisper of chamomile, a dusting of cinnamon, and terpenic fir needles tucked under all the menthol. After a few hours, the chamomile asserts itself more, and its gentle sweetness pairs well with the sharpness of mint. By day's end of wearing Autumnal, all I smell on myself is a quality chamomile-mint tea, the kind that costs $10 a box. 

Autumnal smells good, but I should be drinking these aromatics, not wearing them. I close my eyes, and I'm in the spices-and-herbs aisle of my local health food store. 


Velvetine (Pineward)

I happen to
like "trashy" ambers, those cheap kitchen-sink amalgams of resinous materials, softened with vanilla and given lift and sparkle with aldehydes. A good example is Tabu by Jean Carles, an intense oriental with zillions of abstract notes, all sandwiched between a metric fuck-ton of aldehydes on top and a massive sassafras/patchouli/benzoin accord below. Spraying it on is like attempting to time travel back to 1932, with an exponential increase in mass accompanying the lightning speed of your migraine setting in. It turns out that perfumery, like all forces, is subject to the laws of gravitational physics. You really can have too much of a good thing. 

Pineward's Velvetine is one such amber, of the trashiest variety. It presents as the brand's real "core expression" to me, more so than Fanghorn II, in that it embodies the pedestrian "candle amber" that imbues more than half of the range's offerings with its pervasive and amorphous sweetness. It's as if Nicholas Nilsson took a pair of tweezers to the line, extracted that essence, and called it a perfume. If you're into that sort of thing, Velvetine is for you. I'm aware of two elements when smelling it: a beautiful ambergris accord in the top that lasts about ten minutes, reminiscent of a similar handling of ambergris in YSL's original Kouros, followed by a perpetually incipient amber of vanilla, clove, cinnamon, incense, and labdanum, with a hint of the ambergris sweetness adding some dimension to the vanilla. Compact, dusky, semisweet, rather warm and fuzzy. Not bad, except it doesn't develop much, and you can get this kind of thing from classics like vintage Cinnabar, and the aforementioned Tabu. (These vintages are available in abundance on eBay.)

Perfumers usually fail not from a lack of talent, but from a lack of vision. Velvetine is a work of great talent, but a failure because it courses haplessly after an ideal fragrance "type," the classical oriental, without ever gaining purchase. Wearing it feels like an exercise in nostalgia that doesn't build on itself, but instead collapses under its own weight. It is as if Nilsson saw vintage Cinnabar and Tabu, but not his own versions of them. He used no brighter notes of citrus or white florals to balance the resins. There are no aldehydes, which keeps everything earthbound. And the dry-down remains linear for hours, reminding the wearer of what could have been. 


Revelries (Pineward)

Evening Revelry by Benjamin Vautier

Revelries should be, at least judging from its notes list, an easy thumbs-up from me. Stewed fruity notes blended with spiced rum? Hazelnuts, raisins, and a bit of oud? Sign me up! If there's anything I've learned from wearing this range, it's that Pineward's nose shows immense talent with fruity-woody compositions. Yet Revelries perplexes me. 

It opens with a sharp barrage of spicy-fruity things, very clovey, cinnamony, appley, but after a few seconds of legibility, these notes blur together to form something olfactorily analogous to bitter-green angelica, with all of its celery off-notes. Eventually this effect gives way to an oddly dank amber, a phase I struggle with the most. Everything in it feels ponderous and affectless, with only the twang of cinnamon rum lending texture to an egregiously flat synthetic oud. Occasionally throughout the day, I catch pleasant whiffs of a familiar Pineward apple note, but the accord is like cider that's half-turned to vinegar. 

With time and tears, this tightly-clenched arrangement loosens up enough to allow the mellow sweetness of raisins and the sugary afterglow of apples and rum to shine through. Sadly, this is not until its murky oud heart has burned off, by which point I've asked myself a hundred times why I didn't just wear Apple Tabac or Pastoral instead. 


Christmas Wine & Glühwein (Pineward)

Detail of Saint Nicholas by Robert Walter Weir, c. 1838

Nicholas Nilsson opted to give his customers the full concept behind Glühwein ("Mulled Wine") by releasing its base as another perfume, Christmas Wine. Glühwein smells rich and robust, while Christmas Wine is dry and pallid, and I think they're terrific fragrances. Both are gorgeous; both are contemporary masterworks. 

First, the base: Christmas Wine is to be lauded for having a rare cranberry note that permeates its entire structure and remains legible (and beautiful) for hours. It is predictably brumal and bitter, and is closely mated to an equally brusque blood orange, which imbues its heart with an arresting shimmer of warmth, a flame flickering in the snow. Touches of nutmeg and balsamic notes round things off and provide balance. The fragrance dwindles down to little more than sour cranberry with the ghost of woody-citrus parsing its glittering edges. It's the clearest and perhaps the most unisex fragrance in the line, with a rimy concision that is eminently modern, fresh, and original.

Glühwein is obviously related, and has the same fruity underpinnings, but with sturdier notes of chocolate and honeyed champaca in its heart. Not nearly as fresh as its template, but perhaps all the better for it, this evolved variation isn't particularly complex, but at least feels like a festive affair. I waffle on whether I like the chocolate note. There are times when it feels right, but also moments where it's a bit too gastronome for my style. Then there are times still when Glühwein's darker notes coalesce into a velvety dessert wine, which is when it makes me smile. I'd say Glühwein is the friendlier fragrance.

Both compositions are reminders that the most engaging innovations in niche perfumery are spurred by uncomplicated ideas. Unlike many of Nilsson's other creations, these two elucidate a simple pleasure, the smell of holiday cheer. While they may occasionally feel a bit raw, I find them endlessly interesting, and well worth a year-round sniff. 


Cotswold (Pineward)

When I approach
a niche fragrance, the first thing I consider is cost. Why am I spending in excess of one hundred dollars on a perfume? What is it offering me that I can't get from something for half the price? I expect to experience heightened legibility (discernible notes that coalesce into a distinct structure), superlative materials (sturdy synthetics that include captive molecules), and efficient design (structurally beautiful at all stages). 

Pineward perfumes are relatively expensive. Seventeen milliliters will set you back eighty dollars. For that kind of money, I want all of the above. Cotswold doesn't give me any of it. Aside from a fleeting phantom of woody pine in the top accord, it smells entirely of some banal dessert-flavor Yankee Candle. It's a sweet, foody, ignoble, and overtly synthetic fragrance, overwhelmingly driven by vanilla and stale buttery notes, evocative of those Royal Dansk cookies that come in a fancy blue tin. 


Eldritch (Pineward)

Photo by Hypnotica Studios Infinite

Patchouli is commonly associated with hippies, and for good reason: its potent aroma is ideal for camouflaging body odors, sex smells, and marijuana vapors. This made it pretty handy in the years between 1963 and 1975. In 2023 it is still kindred to its free-love roots, but now belongs to a sort of postmodernistically open interpretation of human experience, where its facets can be tweaked and comported to fit an individualistic fracturing of society. Think Urs Fischer, not Yayoi Kusama. Enter Eldritch.

"Eldritch" is an adjective for "weird and sinister or ghostly." As a fragrance, it is definitely weird; those unwashed naked bodies on Hawaiian beaches in black-and-white photos are now thrown into a digitally color-corrected American inner city, given pink hair, and plopped amidst a field of NPCs on their smart phones. Eldritch adopts a viciously aggressive profile, throwing the crispness of a properly dusky oolong tea, a leathery opoponax, a super-dry oakmoss, and a camphor-heavy patchouli into a designer woody-amber that smells intentionally 2020s ("THIS IS A CHALLENGING PERFUME") and serious. 

There are things I like and don't like about Eldritch. I like its conifer top accord. I also like its base of artfully minty aromatics, all moored to a woody dock. And I enjoy how the camphor-like aspects of the patchouli wed themselves to the mineralic elements of smoky tea to create a biting, marine-like ambergris effect. I find it unbearable as an extrait, but it would open up in an EDT concentration and allow itself (and its wearer) to breathe. 


Murkwood (Pineward)

An AI-Generated Image

When I want clear, concise evergreen notes, I reach for inexpensive colognes. Things like Acqua di Selva, Pino Silvestre, Agua Brava, Yatagan, Quorum, One Man Show. Most of these can be had in the 100 ml size for well under $100. I don't expect to smell anything hugely dynamic or beautiful, other than a brisk, earthy greenness supported by some tangible structure of either fougère or chypre origin. 

Pineward's Murkwood is supposed to be a straightforward Christmas tree pine (fir balsam is the first note, black hemlock the second), with supporting notes of lapsang suchong tea, incense, and myrrh. It opens with a bright burst of minty pine, very literal and with a slightly pissy off-note, and eventually it adopts a sweet "candle amber" quality, akin to that nondescript sugariness of Yankee Candles. The far drydown reveals incense, but I get absolutely no lapsang suchong or myrrh. It's all quite literal and one-dimensional.

What can be said about a fragrance like Murkwood? My girlfriend says, "It's an inoffensive muddle, and I wouldn't want you wearing it." I'm ahead of her there, because I have no desire to. But why not? It smells of naturalistic pine for the first thirty minutes. It's potent as hell at sixteen-hour longevity. It exhibits quality materials. But it's also a bit of a "blah" fragrance. There's no lavender to give it lift, no bergamot or labdanum to cast warmth. Murkwood is the murky silt of a forest floor: lightless and lacking contour. 


Hayride (Pineward)

Haymakers (Detail) by George Stubbs, 1785

Of the two "hay" fragrances from this house, this is the winner. While Hayloft struggles to find its form, Hayride coalesces within seconds and maintains its sturdy and enjoyable profile for hours, signaling good vibes all around. It's an indelible amalgam of coumarin, cocoa, and dried fruits, all brushed with a thin coat of filtered honey and grains, the sort of ambery oriental that doesn't move much, and doesn't need to. It's the olfactory equivalent of a waltz, and remains linear, legible, and genial for ages on skin and fabric. 

Of interest is how Nicholas Nilsson makes his hay (no pun intended). He insists that he labored intensively to distill the rare essences of "10 pounds of hay" and "bison grass concrete" for both, but I smell a marked difference in Hayride, and it's a little too obvious to go unmentioned. Hayloft smells "natural" in that it doesn't work; its jagged angles are an unfortunate byproduct of using purest-of-pure essences with thousands of stray molecules and off-notes, which are collectively impossible for even the best nose to tame. Yet I'm to believe that the same stuff fell neatly in line for handsome Hayride? I'm not buying it. 

The more plausible explanation, and an intriguing one, is A/B testing at work. Well, not true A/B, but a training wheels version of it: Nilsson may have opted to go halfsies on his perfumers organ, and split his "hay" category into one "natural" (A), and one "synthetic" (B). In doing so, he would likely see which one sells better, and eventually discontinue the loser. My guess is there would be multiple data points, with the extra expense of A's tinctures (in both time and money) eclipsing its profits in the long term. 

If I were advising him, I'd tell Nilsson to consider perfumery a design enterprise in the same vein as the automobile industry. When a company produces two different but very similar cars (same wheelbase, drivetrain, dimensional specs), they cannibalize their sales. Cut one, and see the other's bean pile shoot up. And in regards to the whatever-grass-concrete-co-absolute nonsense, I'd recommend he ditch it and use the ready-made stuff that smells good instead. Why try to reinvent the wheel? 


Hayloft (Pineward)

The Hayloft by John William North, 1867

Pineward offers two "hay" themed fragrances, Hayloft and Hayride, and both are interesting. Of Hayloft, the perfumer writes: 
"This summer I co-distilled about 10 pounds of hay, bison grass and sweetgrass to create a rough and gorgeous hay/sweetgrass/bison grass concrete, which was then filtered and evaporated to create a rich co-absolute."

Why he went to all of that trouble instead of just using a high-quality coumarin is beyond me, but the result is an unsettling ambrosial effect of dry-nutty and semisweet essences. There's a skanky bit of honey blended closely to a soft lavender note. Both are intertwined with a sort of amaretto (bitter almond liqueur), and something grassy-vanillic, which is probably saffron, if the notes list is anything to go by. 

Hayloft's opening is garrulous. Hayloft has a lot to say, or at least it seems to, at first. Eventually its barrage of notes coalesce into a linear accord that smells at once edible and earthy, the kind of weirdness I haven't sniffed since Thierry Mugler set A*Men loose on the world. By the middle of the day, the animalic twang of honey amplifies the sweetness of the saffron to form a Franken-hay more evocative of a Yankee Candle from Hell than anything you'd find in a barn. The balance is off; there's the strange liqueur-like thing vying for attention amidst the din of "hay/sweetgrass/ bison grass concrete co-absolute," and a desperate lavender trying to be heard. Save yourself the money and the migraine, and just get Serge Lutens Chergui instead. 


Gristmill (Pineward)

A gristmill grinds grain into flour, which raised the expectation that Pineward's Gristmill would smell grainy and powdery. It is hailed in fragcom forums as the "mainstream" masculine of the line, apparently for smelling conservatively woody. Weirdly, Nicholas Nilsson cites "Edelwood oil" from the fictitious tree in the TV miniseries "Over the Garden Wall"as part of the formula, and I have no idea what it's meant to smell like. 

What Gristmill actually smells like is a brief bust of cinnamon and woody sweetness in the top accord, followed by a restrained assemblage of cedar and oak, with the pertness of natural labdanum welling up between the floorboards. Eventually cedar and labdanum struggle for dominance, and the heart stage is unavoidably good (these materials smell great), but also a bit too simplistic to be taken seriously. By hour three, all I can smell is the ambergris-like twang of brutish labdanum wearing a victory crown of cedar twigs. It's an accord searching for a perfume, and unfortunately there isn't much of one here. 

Despite my reservations about Gristmill, I would still recommend it to anyone who seeks a pleasant woody niche frag for daily wear. I wouldn't buy it myself, but the materials are high quality, the composition is inoffensive, and the end result is a comfortable fragrance that fits most occasions. For once, the cinnamon in the top is well-judged, and despite the cookie-crumble drydown, this stuff always smells pleasant and civilized. It's just too bad its gigantic labdanum wasn't mated to a more sophisticated chypre structure -- Nilsson might have made a good fragrance into something great. 


Brokilän (Pineward)

Some perfumes are designed to misdirect the customer. Consider Irisch Moos, ostensibly a masculine barbershop fragrance. Get to know it and you find that it's Mitsouko done on the cheap, little more than a blaring bergamot resting on a ton of sweetened oak moss, and as manly as Catherine Deneuve in "Belle du Jour." Or lay your schnoz on Chrome Legend: supposedly an XY aquatic, but really an XX tea floral pitched to XY buyers. 

Companies use briefs to meet perceived market demands, and the things they settle on aren't always a true match. Brokilän is Finnish for "Broccoli," which raises questions about what Nicholas Nilsson, Pineward's perfumer, had in mind. The fragrance is marketed as containing exotic materials like "black hemlock" and "Vietnamese oud," none of which correlate with anything in the cabbage family. I think it's all hooey; Brokilän smells only of octin esters and methyl heptin carbonate (violet leaf) mixed with an excess of cheap galbanum resin and a smattering of pine. $80 for 17 ml is a bad joke. 


Fanghorn II (Pineward)

An AI-Generated Image

When I think back on the "green" fragrances I've owned and worn over the past ten years, the greenest of them was probably Tsar by Van Cleef & Arpels. Every spray of Tsar was like a handful of glittering emeralds, the scent of woods and leaves and mosses and pine needles, with an expansive breath of lavender, juniper, and rosemary whistling through the branches. It smelled lush and was almost formless in its abundance, a fragrance of regality and heraldry befitting its name. I rue that I wore every last drop of it and then discarded the empty bottle, for now Tsar is long discontinued and priced at $150 an ounce.

Wearing Fanghorn II reminds me of that intense greenness, although there is something pleasantly "off" about how it smells. It opens with a bitter blast of piney greenness that practically glows in the air, a dense, textured, intensely woody buzz of evergreen needles, sappy woods, and bright terpenes. No wonder it was voted "Best Artisanal Perfume" of 2021 in Basenotes' North American category. It's very hard to ignore something this focused and full-throated. As it dries there are shades of artemisia, juniper, sweet black hemlock, and a mineral stoniness, which is suggestive of a craggy landscape under all the heavy branches. Everything gets dustier and drier with yet more time on skin, and I get a weirdly antiquated vibe of sixteenth century cedar closets and timber cottages nestled in the wilderness of Renaissance Europe. Mysterious stuff.

Nilsson achieves a balance between crisp green needles and sticky woods by using a saccharine hinge of caramellic hemlock to connect them. At times its sweetness threatens to turn Fanghorn II into a candle, but it's complex and dynamic enough to skirt the realm of functional fragrance. This is Pineward's "core expression" and signature accord, and it's great if you want "green," but I still prefer the sunnier elegance of White Fir. 

By the way, what does "Fanghorn" refer to? It sounds like an Old Spice shampoo, not an upscale niche fragrance at two dollars per milliliter. In the age of Proctor & Gamble, let's be a little more careful with our names.  


Funerie (Pineward)

An AI-Generated Image

Funerie is probably Nicholas Nilsson's most artistic composition. It's tempting to give it a bad review; it is so challenging that it is nigh unwearable. Its "morel mushroom" top note is stale and mushroomy and will likely repel people. And even when that burns off, what remains is so unilaterally plangent that only the peppiest optimist could experience it unscathed. Yet despite all of this, it impresses me. I think it achieves everything a good perfume should: it transports the wearer to a different time and place. 

Nilsson suggests on Pineward's site that he intended to impart a gothically funereal vibe here, and one sniff sends my imagination to a foggy graveyard. I'm immersed in mushrooms, followed by the bitterness of synthetic isoquinolines, tinged in the periphery with pinewood and a very remote dried rose. Eventually the terpenes of desiccated pine needles and a weirdly camphorous quality permeates the air, evoking the sense of lying supine in a coffin, which is itself laying in a cracked and craggy mausoleum nestled somewhere in a patch of old pine woods. Cold air drifts through the broken stones, and its icy fingers weave through the coffin's splinters, carrying the essence of its wood and a bouquet of dead flowers on the lid above my chest. 

Longevity here is nuclear: one or two sprays will last well over twelve hours. Funerie is a perfume that will intimidate and irritate most of the noses out there, especially those that are accustomed to "fresh" and "sweet" fragrances. But there is a phalanx of people who are into the whole Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab "Goth" aesthetic who will enjoy it. It's a perfume that reminds the wearer of his mortality, while conjuring a moribund fantasy of the afterlife. The fragrance is also legible and concise, with a technical precision not often found in contemporary perfumery. Very nice work. 


Chandlery (Pineward)

Pineward, an outfit 
that is ostensibly focused on pine fragrances, seems to excel when it avoids pine altogether. While the use of evergreens is commendable, they work better when approached from reflex angles that are wide enough to allow for other modalities to fill out the plane. The hissy terpenes of crushed fir needles smell best when surrounded by diverse notes of varying textures and volatilities. It brings me pleasure to tell you that Nicholas Nilsson's Chandlery embraces this ideal.

Chandlery is only barely dusted with the vaguest hint of pine, a tiny dollop near the edges to lend it a rustic aura. That touch of green rests on a robust aromatic fougère, the kind that hasn't been offered to men in any serious way since the 1970s. But its DNA goes deeper than Paco Rabanne territory; I smell Caron Pour un Homme and even Trumper's Wild Fern in there. It opens with a breathtaking lavender and anise accord that is so focused and easy on the nose that it's all I can smell for fully thirty minutes after application. Its crystalline timbre then mellows into a repose of green champaca, hay-like coumarin, jasmine, sandalwood (Australian), and a mildly animalic musk. Every note fits neatly into the others, and every accord feels sturdy, fresh, natural, and invigorating. On a technical level it's an olfactory expression of F.L. Wright's Fallingwater, and artistically it's akin to wearing a Milton Avery, all languid lines and limitless color fields. 

This is the only true fougère in the range, and it succeeds by offering simple and well-balanced accords comprised of high quality materials. Nilsson meets a very basic luxury standard with a fragrance that is antithetical to tech-hoodie Tesla-driver chic. Chandlery is worn by folks who are reluctant to surrender their flip phones and eager to spend their Sunday afternoons fishing. It is what all fougères should smell like: a summer breeze carrying a whiff of adventure through the open wilderness.  


Katabatic (Pineward)

It turns out that cinnamon is a difficult note for perfumers to work with. The notes list for Katabatic looks like trouble: ruby cypress, camphor, birch leaf, ravintsara, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, bitter almond, red fir, cedarwood, sandalwood, orris root, dragon's blood resin, oakmoss. Cinnamon, cloves, and star anise? Better have some wicked contrast to offset all that fetid spice. My qualm with fragrances like this is that they're usually going for some sort of "hi-fidelity" cinnamon that quaintly skirts the pitfalls of winding up like Red Hots or toothpaste via superior materials and blending. The problem is that pricy chems and a deft touch do precious little when the idea behind them is lacking. 

Nicholas Nilsson's idea for Katabatic may have been to laser-focus on cinnamon, to make an "ode" to cinnamon, to render the spice with mind-numbing woody dimensionality, to be to cinnamon what Nahema is to rose. It's rather unclear, because the cinnamon is certainly intense, but it's a burning ruby nestled in a plastic setting. Right out of the atomizer, the fragrance smells overwhelmingly of Close-Up toothpaste. I let it sit on the strip for an hour, and returned to it expecting to smell a different animal. Nope, it still smelled like Close-Up toothpaste. I walked away and went about my day, and when I returned hours later, I told myself, "Okay, this has surely evolved." It had not. Close-Up. Toothpaste. Like I'd smeared it everywhere but on my teeth. 

It's an unfortunate reminder that indie brands need evaluators and range editors, just like everyone else. Pineward's range is too large. There are simply too many perfumes, and while some of them are clearly inferior, none beg to be rejected the way this one does. There's no room for something like this in a crowded market where thousands of overpriced perfumes are competing for that key moment when a euphoric sniff sends a man's dollars fluttering from his wallet like little green butterflies. I'm embarrassed for Nilsson, and worse, I'm offended that anyone thinks this is worth real money. Perfumery has lost the plot; there's no story here. Cheap toothpaste smells nasty. I don't use it. An ounce of Katabatic is $135. Only an idiot would buy it. 


Ponderosa (Pineward)

Some perfumes succeed by conjoining the known essences of things in nature into new and unforgettable accords. Picture the gaunt lemon aldehyde and intense woody-mossy experience of Halston Z-14. Yes, the notes all jump forward at various stages to announce "I'm cinnamon," or "I'm pine," but the nose can only interpret them by assessing the novel entirety of Z-14. Then there are perfumes that are olfactory advertisements for the bountiful spoils of pulchritudinous lands that aren't found on any map. Their beauty is abstract but familiar, the paradoxical effect of taking known notes and composing them into a hauntingly alien tune.  

Ponderosa is one such fragrance, a strikingly smooth and binate accord of cedar and burnt vanilla that smells expansive and salubrious, yet also feels warm and comfortable in its raw simplicity. Perfumer Nicholas Nilsson attempts to pontificate on its connection to actual ponderosa by claiming it contains the resin absolute, but I'd be more impressed if he said it was a reconstruction, which would at least align him with greatness. It smells like one to me, a robust but unassuming assemblage of woody and sugary notes that coalesce into the general impression of pinus ponderosa. Very good stuff, made all the better by a mystical wisp of fruitiness. A natural beauty that does not occur in nature. 


Icefall (Pineward)

Nootkatone is a
grapefruit ketone, and one of the main components of the smell of grapefruit. It has an acidic, bug-sprayesque vibe, and not accidentally, it's an effective tick and mosquito repellant. One of the dangers for perfumers who work with it is winding up with something that smells more appropriate in a camping bag than in someone's fragrance wardrobe. Nicholas Nilsson manages to avoid this pitfall in Icefall by pairing an intense grapefruit note with a gentle smattering of pine. 

Icefall is Pineward's one and only "fresh" fragrance, and I think it's one of the brand's simplest as well. This all falls in its favor. Unlike others in the range, this one is direct, easy to wear, utterly unisex, and perfect for all seasons. The grapefruit note is crisp, juicy, and a little salty with the pine. The citrus gets woodier and duskier as it dries down, but never collapses into something tritely musky or fetid. The base emerges within four hours, and I think it's a bit bare. Then again, the wearer would likely experience it in warmer weather, and sweat reanimates nootkatone (hence its usefulness against bloodsuckers). 

I get the impression that Nilsson intends for Icefall to be a dumb-reach fragrance, and not a grand statement-maker, and in this respect he succeeds. There are moments in its evolution where it reminds me of vintage Old Spice Fresh, which had a dry grey-marine quality, and was appealing to wet-shavers. There are other moments where I'm reminded of Adam Levine for Men, which stands out in memory as being a great inexpensive grapefruit fragrance. But with its dusting of woody pine, Nilsson managed to inject a bit of soul into what might have otherwise been a soulless exercise. Very nice work, and probably better on a woman than on a guy.


Steading (Pineward)

If I've learned anything about postmodern perfumery, it's that there's a Great Olfactory Divide between the two sexes. Men smell things one way, and women smell them another. A good male perfumer is prone to enjoying animalic and deeply woody (nudging into "urinous") notes of tobacco, unfiltered "raw" honey, maple syrup, stale grains, and decayed woods. His girl, on the other hand, may not share his enthusiasm. 

This poses an existential dilemma: should men wear things that they like, or should their fragrances be unerringly in sync with feminine sensibilities? If they cater to themselves, they risk eternal bachelorhood, but at least they enjoy what they're wearing. If they attend to their partners' tastes, they may eschew the impracticality of owning their favored "challenging" perfumes to better maintain happy relationships. This has never been more true for me than it is with Steading. I can attest to the allure of Steading. It smells intense right out of the atomizer, and remains so for fully seventy-two unwashed hours. And it smells challenging. Oh man, does it smell challenging. One-two punches of maple syrup, gingerbread molasses, waxy honey, and cigar tobacco assaults every nasal orifice within a three-mile radius, and the onslaught doesn't ease up. Eventually the maple, honey, and tobacco form a core accord of sweet and direly woody ("peat smoke," supposedly) machismo. Move over Havana. Step aside, Tobacco Vanille. Outta the way, Molton Brown Tobacco Absolute. Steading is here. You think you're an aggressive, king-making masculine tobacco fragrance? Hold Steading's beer.

I like it. But I'm sure I'd never wear it, because it's a nose-crinkler, even for me. I enjoy smelling it. I just couldn't wear it all day, or even for a couple of hours. Imagine the smell of raw, straight-from-the-hive honey, that intensely sweet, borderline stinky smell of almost-pee bee vomit, mixed with the wax they wiggle in. Now imagine wearing it. Now imagine wearing it in the car. Now imagine wearing it in the car, next to your girlfriend. 
Mine said, "Uh, no." Case closed. 


Alfiryn (Pineward)

The house of Creed is known for taking the commercial perfumes that have found resonance with the public and "upgrading" them using higher quality materials in similar but more elegant compositions. They are not unique in doing this, as Nicholas Nilsson makes clear with Alfiryn, the only blatantly feminine perfume in his line. Pineward's website states, "Deep white florals grounded in creamy massoia and sandalwood, vibrant enfleurage gives this inverted floral perfume a softly textured halo." I find this description strange but rather accurate, although I can't help but smirk at the suggestion that the painstaking and commercially unviable technique of enfleurage (the use of odorless fats to extract floral essences) was used to create Alfiryn. Why? Because it smells like an upscale copy of Wind Song by Prince Matchabelli. 

Wind Song dates to 1953, and it smells like the logical next stop after Chanel No. 5 (1921) and Tabu (1932). It's a smooth, lactonic woody-floral, its scent a mimicry of its bottle in studding a crown of carnation with jewels of Damask rose, jasmine, and lilac. It smells mostly of a clovey carnation brushed with a buttery lactone that is deeper and woodier than the milky peach lactone in Mitsouko, rounded off with the warmth of rose and jasmine, and tinged with cool lilac for a nuanced green finish. This describes Alfiryn to the letter, with the only difference being that Pineward's scent smells a bit richer, stronger, and warmer than its airier drugstore predecessor. Alfiryn's use of massoia lactone is evident in the balmy-coconut smoothness undergirding its florals, and there is perhaps a dollop of peachy Nectaryl in the top notes, lending a bit of sunshine to the duskier affair thereafter. 

Eventually a clovey carnation reconstruction dominates, and I smell the same three florals in the periphery: rose, jasmine, lilac. To my nose, the rose and lilac are noticeably larger in Alfiryn than in Wind Song, ten carats to Matchabelli's two, but they assume the same roles as supporting acts. So, do I like this fragrance? Although Alfiryn lacks originality, it succeeds in taking a classical floral perfume and giving it the "niche treatment" of better materials at higher concentration. I'm inclined to like it, but it gives me pause. Its only faults are that it's a little too dead-on, and I would argue that because it's so strikingly similar, the people who would spend $135 on a one-ounce bottle would do better to spend $10 on twice as much of Wind Song. Nilsson made Alfiryn richer and stronger than its template, but I think he took it in the wrong direction; this stuffy room-filler was begging to be lightened and modernized instead. 


Nocturnis (Pineward)

There are a few woody-green fragrances from the eighties and nineties that I consider memorable. Tsar, Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, Red for Men, Laguna, Aqua Quorum, and Polo Crest are among them. They all toyed with evergreen notes in ways that accentuated a solid structure of some discernible rank, be it fougère or chypre, and their drydowns were remarkably durable and that most important of important things: versatile. 

Tsar was beautiful in a suit or at a backyard barbecue. Its languid fougère greenery elevated notes of lavender and coumarin into a glittering night sky ringed with spires of fir, evocative of a romantic night on the town, or stories by a campfire. Pineward's Nocturnis reminds me of Tsar. According to Nicholas Nilsson, Nocturnis is a stew of accords inspired by RL Polo ("Green"), overlaid with Fanghorn II, which is the house accord. This strikes me as odd, because Nocturnis doesn't resemble either thing. It opens with a buoyantly fizzy juniper-berry-gin-tonic-and-evergreen-sprig top note; a compact arrangement, yet legible. Eventually the juniper burns off, a mild lavender sweetness fades in, and everything steers into a gauzy-green haze of woodsy almost-pine notes. Hard to say what he was actually going for, but the nose wanted something pleasantly masculine, and he got it. 

The far drydown is a bit less successful, but still pleasant, a powdery oakmoss and patchouli, and little else. It's here that I'm wanting the versatility and structure of the aforementioned classics, but instead find that Nilsson reached the limits of his vision for Nocturnis at the halfway point. I missed something, or he did. A piece of melancholy, as found in Paco Rabanne, or the dream-like lilt of Laguna, or even the Calone breeze rustling the tree branches of Aqua Quorum. Nocturnis is nice but a bit bland, and overshadowed by vintages that can still be had for a fraction of its price. 


Boreal (Pineward)

Peppermint is tricky for perfumers to get right. Too much of it in isolation, and you have mouthwash. An overdose of menthol, and it's aftershave. Pair it with spice, especially cinnamon, and it's toothpaste. And accidentally convening all of these unfortunate outcomes results in something that smells like the spit in your morning sink. 

The top accord of Boreal is an unbalanced burst of peppermint, cinnamon, cedar, and pine, with the mint and cinnamon notes battling the woods to see which can smell more like Carly Simon's Converse Oat-Nut Organic Wholefoods Non-GMO toothpaste. This shaky takeoff settles into a turbelent mentholated pine needle heart, which smells okay and achieves its "Manly Man" ambitions, but not without a hint of sweaty curry-and-cumin funk in the background. This would be great if it were intentional, but it clearly isn't. 

Boreal's base is little more than the persistent sharpness of fading terpenes and menthol. It's a reminder that although many independent niche brands have made impressive inroads into the niche market, the noses driving many of them are amateurs, and this truth bomb explodes whenever perennial herbs enter the picture. I'm calling for a moratorium on all mint notes in indie perfumery until its people are given a formal training on how to use the stuff correctly. 


Pastoral (Pineward)

I'm not into "gourmands," which to perfume are compositions featuring predominantly food-like notes, but every so often I'm taken with an accord that is literally mouthwatering. Such is the case with Pastoral, which Nicholas Nilsson describes as "the embodiment of standing on one's porch on a crisp, clear autumn day, nostalgic for the idyllic rural past unexperienced and English countryside escapades." Dodgy grammar aside, I get what he's on about: a romantic picnic in a bucolic setting. His usage of lush fruit notes and a Watteau-sized coumarin leaves little room for a different interpretation. 

Pastoral opens with a beautiful cinnamon-spiced apricot jam top note that rapidly dusks into a blackberry preserve, a very nice opening trajectory that is truly unique for this house. It gets warmer and spicier with time, supposedly with notes of propolis and woods, but the fruits remain for the duration and are upheld by a smooth, hay-like coumarin. This brusque, coumarinic warmth gets sweeter and sturdier as it dries, and marks the heart. Six hours later it gets a little thin, but remains pleasant, with the woody hay effect having taken on a freshly-baked raisin bread characteristic. Sweetness works when it makes sense, and although the base isn't all that complex, its digestible aura is focused and foody enough to avoid smelling overtly of Yankee Candle. Very nice. 

With Pastoral, I find myself wondering about the materials Nilsson uses. Every note in his fragrance is potent enough to emit a vague cloud of saccharine warmth, and they speak to a richness that is suggestive of quality, but in a pushy way. The brightness of apricot and blackberry is dimmed by a strange Rococo effect of every fruity facet feeling honeyed and ambery, and there are moments when the cinnamon note, which was clearly intended to be a bit player, seems to envelope me in its rustic warmth. Pastoral is noteworthy for being the only Pineward perfume that uses intense sweetness to its advantage. 


Caravansary (Pineward)

A Deer Musk Pod

Nicholas Nilsson knows that dedicated fragheads like samples. This fact is one that many niche brands have opted to ignore in recent years, as the economic wisdom of sending samples has been called into question by the millions who scratch and sniff, and then move on without buying. What Nilsson apparently knows better than his competitors is that potential customers who smell and move on are still potential customers, even if they wait a few weeks or months to purchase. So he wisely included in his sample package an upcoming perfume called Caravansary, which according to him is a work in progress, and slated for release this year.

The notes breakdown for Caravansary is as follows: fir balsam, deer musk, vanilla, black tea, lavender, blue spruce, blue chamomile, treemoss, incense, campfire smoke. I mention the list because I can smell most of these notes in play (minus the "blue" descriptors, which sound good but aren't relevant), and Caravansary is a perfume that evolves on skin over time to reveal different facets that are not obvious in the first five minutes, but become very obvious after five hours. It opens with a rather "pissy" terpenic pine accord of fir needles and sappy-resinous greens, with a soft lavender note holding the bitterness in check. Twenty minutes later a smooth vanilla note rises from the forest floor like a cool mist, adding a tempered sweetness to offset the angry woodiness at the start. 

Eventually the fragrance becomes herbal, with hints of a tea note, a few drops of chamomile, and a smoky quality within the vanilla. Caravansary's magic unfolds at the ninety minute mark, when a novel deer musk accord takes shape. It smells like 3-methyl-1-cyclopentadecanone (laveo muscone), aka deer musk, and deer musk, real or synthetic, has more weight to the nose than smell. It is a heavy, acrid, powdery, animalic, and subtly sweet sensation that fills the lungs with every inhalation, and holds them open for an extra few seconds. Caravansary's base is a deer musk note with its hard edges of motor oil and dirty horse stall sanded into an eminently wearable and somewhat animalic sweetness, an extension of the vanilla that preceded it. Note to Nicholas -- don't be so polite! This is his Kouros, and it smells great, but the unrealized promise of its musk has me, pardon the pun, "pining" for more. Luckily, he has time to tinker. 


White Fir (Pineward)

Vidal must not
have known what it was starting when it created Pino Silvestre in 1955. The Venetian firm spent months perfecting their iconic smell of nature, and after World War II it became an ode to Earth and the pastoral pleasures that armies had trampled over and forgotten. The Italian aesthetic of coniferous and herbal-green perfumes was adopted the world over, and Pino Silvestre was a slow-burn hit that found its way into the American lexicon of masculinity and sat among its cultural markers. 

The formula was deceptively complex, and also just plain deceptive: Lino Vidal included no actual pine. Instead, a clever amalgamation of lemon, basil, lavender, and a honeyed woody amber comprised his trademark evergreen accord. The citrus and cheery dry-needle interpretation of coumarin lent the fragrance an eerie freshness that felt akin to walking through a forest on a cool spring morning. It's the sort of smell you can't really imitate, which is probably why Vidal cornered the market. With so few selections available to men anyway, Pino Silvestre was a respectable daily splash, and reflective of the virility of the fifties Mad Man, the sort of scent that filled the morning train. 

Sixty-eight years later, Nicholas Nilsson has recaptured the austere beauty of pine in the Vidal tradition. White Fir is one of Pineward's more recent releases, and is just as crisp and smart as its European predecessor, thanks to its gorgeous pairing of citrus and pine. Nilsson subbed the morning brightness of Vidal's lemons with the sunset glow of oranges, and brushed some icy ginger into the greens to add frost to his landscape. The result smells the way I imagine Pino Silvestre did upon first release, which is to say, astonishingly beautiful. Pineward has in excess of twenty straight pine frags in its line. Frankly, Nilsson could can most of the others and just keep this one. A masterpiece. 


Apple Tabac (Pineward)

Good perfumery transports
me to a different time and place via my nose. It is January 1st, 2023, and I'm in the dullest part of the year. January is a month with few associations other than disappointment that the holidays are over and the chagrined acknowledgement that work must resume. But what if I could turn back the clock to a point where all the holidays are ahead again? Is there a time-travel device that would let me do that?

Turns out there is, and it comes in the form of a fragrance. It's by Nicholas Nilsson, an indie perfumer who heads a brand of woodsy, pine-focused perfumes, only this one isn't about pine. It's called Apple Tabac, and it's about the salubrious smells of apple orchards in October. One spray sends me back to early autumn, before Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. I'm standing in an orchard on a cool day. A breeze sends ripples of fifty-eight degree air through row after row of apple trees, and carries the sublime aroma of fresh red and green fruits, a bouquet of leaves, dried hay bales, and fermented cores nestled in the soil underfoot. It's a dry and semisweet smell, smoother than silicon and as ethereal as choir music drifting past a cathedral gallery to the heavens.  

This is the simplest of Pineward's fragrances, which is what I like most about it. Its easy timbre of tree apples and fresh air is so pure and affecting that any other note would be disruptive. Prior batches had a maple note which has since been removed, and Apple Tabac is all the better for it. Maple would conflict and add unnecessary sweetness, and I hope Nilsson keeps it out of future bottles. There's only the mildest hint of tobacco, which is also a good thing. But would I spend $200 for this? Nicole Miller for Men achieves a similar effect for $10 per bottle, albeit at lower quality. The fact that I'm even considering the price says something. Apple Tabac is a gorgeous perfume, and if you enjoy the smell of orchards in autumn, it might be your last stop.