Hearts & Daggers for Men (Ed Hardy)

Ed Hardy fragrances are weird. I get the whole tattoo artist brand legacy, and thus the godawful packaging and "edgy" names, but the question remains as to who they're for. Love & Luck comes sheathed in a canister that looks like it was designed by a seventh grader, yet under the cheese is an unadorned column of glass containing a very good woody-floral musk, the sort of thing that appeals to adults with excellent taste. 

Hearts & Daggers holds similar intrigue as something by the same perfumer, Oliver Gillotin, and of course the packaging is bilious. What I've read online has me believing that even the best fragrance writers are overthinking this scent. Many say it's a bizarre aquatic with cocktail accords of martini and olives alongside a pear-flavored umbrella drink, but I don't think it's quite that complicated. H&D was released in 2010, only a few years after 2007's Chrome Legend, in which Chrisophe Raynaud and Olivier Pescheux famously veiled a jasmine bouquet under a bevy of aldehydes and salinated musks. They used congeners of Muscenone and Habanolide to abstract its feminine core, and it smells like the same trick is used in H&D, except here the chemicals overlay a pear note. While pear isn't quite as compelling as jasmine, it's still interesting to smell an inexpensive salty musk accord that can elucidate on the various facets of something ostensibly familiar and simple. Sometimes I get whiffs of the juicy sweetness of the fruit, while in others I get drier and woodier nuances. Why Gillotin stopped at pear and didn't include a few other fruits is beyond me, but I imagine the budget was his main constraint. 

I do think he misjudged the degree to which Raynaud and Pescheux imbued Legend with its sea-spray effect, because it feels like H&D is the 8-bit version of Azzaro's 64-bit display. But when the prickly saltiness recedes, the story of Hearts & Daggers rests on one clear little thing: pear. It's $12 for a large bottle of this, but for a similar frag done much better, you might as well pay a few bucks more and get Legend. 


Gravitas (Naughton & Wilson)

Dan Naughton is a YouTuber and fragrance enthusiast, and I've been watching his videos since 2018. He shares my love of old-school masculines, the fragrances of the seventies, eighties, and early nineties that are rife with rich woody and musky notes. It shouldn't be a surprise then that his first collaboration with Scottish fragrance entrepreneur Scott Wilson and Master Perfumer John Stephen (of Czech & Speake fame) yielded something that smells like it was formulated in 1980. That it hit shelves in 2020 is, in a word, amazing. 

Gravitas Pour Homme (no women's version, btw) isn't a complex fragrance, but what it does, it does well. The first hour of wear is strongly reminiscent of Le 3e Homme (1985), only it smells more natural than Caron's current fragrance. In lieu of jasmine, John Stephen paired a very heady lavender with a fruity-musky accord, and the spring-like bracken effect is sweet, powdery, wet-shavery. When the sunny opening subsides, the lavender grows sturdier and woodier, and a patchouli and sandalwood duo imbue it with a familiar cigar-box feel. It sort of veers into Ungaro Pour L'Homme II territory by this point, as it hums along for another five or six hours before fading into a mildly animalic musk. It feels a bit hum-drum at times, but the quality of materials is high enough for me to bear some admiration here. Gravitas smells good, like a square-jawed and reliable man. 

I find it positively bewildering that they aren't shouting from the rooftops about it on Basenotes. This is exactly what the riff-raff there have been wishing would return to the world: an old-school masculine made of quality materials. Here it is boys, in its unadorned glory, IFRA be damned. I'm also more than a little confused by the reviews. Way Off-Scenter calls it "a minor variation on the familiar post-Cool Water/Green Irish Tweed ambroxan-flavored fougere genre," which Gravitas is the antithesis of. StylinLA says "it just died" on him - I get seven hours. But whatever. This is a good fragrance, it isn't over-priced, and I'm glad that Naughton, Wilson, and Stephen made it so. 


Guess Man (Guess)

Guess is one of those generic discount designer brands that is easy for enthusiasts to ignore, simply by virtue of its commercialized ubiquity. A day doesn't go by that I don't see at least a handful of Guess fragrances marked for clearance somewhere. But it raises the question, do they deserve to be overlooked? Or are they diamonds in the rough? 

I want to think Guess Man went straight to discounters upon its release in 2006, but technically I'd be wrong. It spent at least a couple of years on tester counters at Macy's, priced at $65 a bottle, but probably sold poorly. Then Guess opened the distribution channels to places like Ross and Burlington Coat Factory, and wham! Well, maybe not, but it sold much better at twenty bucks. People are eager for the next big thing, but don't want to be culpable for financing it. Guess Man smells of the 2000s zeitgeist of woody-fresh synthetic masculines, in the most timely of windowed, silver-plastic packages, but also harkens back to the eighties and nineties with its aggressively woody intro and nitrile-driven dry-down. The fragrance packs a little punch at the start, with bright orange zest and herbal aromatics closely mated to a decently sturdy artemisia, which aligns it more with things like Caron Yatagan (1978), AD Classic (1980), and Smalto (1998) than with the gym-bro aquatics and ozonics of its time. Quite the welcome surprise. 

It takes about an hour for its big top to settle down, and for a standard-issue lavender, violet leaf, and cedar accord to step in and carry the next few hours into oblivion, but this green-woody affair is just cool and smooth enough to remind me of Dunhill Fresh, and (by proxy) Fahrenheit. This cheapy isn't bad at all, and is worth a sniff for lovers of transitional 2000s classics. Who would've Guessed? 


Cologne de Feu (Bortnikoff)

Bortnikoff calls this an "Extrait de Cologne," which suggests a high concentration, but to my nose it simply reads as an eau de toilette, so let's go with that instead. On its website, the brand lists this fragrance alongside Cologne de la Terre, and both share similar labeling and packaging, so I think they're meant to go together. I'll have to try Cologne de la Terre another time, because I really enjoyed Cologne de Feu. 

It's difficult to find a citrus fragrance that lasts. For that, you need to hit up something by Thierry Wasser or Calice Becker, perfumers who understand that the freshness of citrus can be extended indefinitely using the right blend of synthetics. Cologne de Feu smells like something by Wasser, in that it draws out a spritely grapefruit and blood orange accord, which would typically be gone after fifteen minutes, and gets it to last several hours. Intermingled with the citruses are soft florals, mostly a burnished rose, some raspberry tartness, and a bit of woody musk. It's simple, but plays out as a congruent accord that smells clear and fresh and performs with alacrity. 

Is it worth $230? People get annoyed by how often I bring up price. Well, perfume is a game of cards, and you lose money if your hand is short. Bortnikoff asks a lot, but gives you a lot. This is an elegant fragrance in a beautiful bottle, so it's competent. Still, this sort of dusky-sweet citrus can be had in something like L'Homme Idéal Cologne by Guerlain ($100, Wasser) or Borsari's Acqua Classica ($35). But for a quality grapefruit at a luxe level, Cologne de Feu is certainly something to consider. 


Casamorati 1888 Mefisto (Xerjoff)

I've spent the last five years reading about Mefisto by Xerjoff, but only recently got around to wearing it. The Italian niche house of Xerjoff is the brainchild of Sergio Momo, and his fragrances are stratospherically priced, which had me expecting something of consummate European quality. After all, if I'm spending three hundred dollars on a perfume, it should smell amazing. This should be the Silver Mountain Water clone to end all clones. 

Mefisto is a disappointment. Its plaudits online must be by people who look down on the "bargain" Arabian clones for SMW, because if they'd tried things like Al Wisam Day by Rasasi, Silver Shade by Ajmal, or Club de Nuit Sillage by Armaf, they wouldn't care about Mefisto. You can buy six bottles of AW Day for the price of one Mefisto, and the differences between them are negligible. Mefisto opens with citrus notes that don't really read as citrus, but rather like a metallic-fruity musk. (Silver Shade's bergamot and lime notes smell way more natural.) A floral ensemble of lavender, iris, and rose develops, and carries the scent for a good seven or eight hours, before it fades into a white musk. Again, this is done elsewhere for much less, and Xerjoff's scent is surprisingly loud and synthetic. 

The most glaring issue with Mefisto is the red-berry "froot" note in its heart, which all the aforementioned clones share. It's forgivable in something that costs ten bucks an ounce, but raises eyebrows at Xerjoff prices. SMW's blackcurrant note isn't a neon sweetness, but an inky bitterness, and it plays off the sour Creed ambergris base. It's SMW's main appeal. Sadly, Xerjoff's version doesn't even attempt to replicate it, and instead resorts to the same cheap berry chem found in all the other clones. Just another reason to avoid spending Creed money on anything other than a Creed. 


Club de Nuit Intense for Women (Armaf)

Photograph by Muschio Di Quercia

I've reached the point with Arabian perfumery where I'm not sure I should even bother to look into what the fragrances are clones of anymore. There's so much cloning, copying, and stealing going on that I've lost interest in tracing the comparisons and commenting on them. Armaf is notorious for cloning designer fragrances, and Club de Nuit Intense for Women is supposedly a clone of Tom Ford's Noir de Noir, so they went right for the top tier of designer here. It doesn't matter, because CdNI for Women smells pricy, comfortable, and very Arabian, with or without its internet-driven Tom Ford association. 

It opens with a bright rose and hyacinth accord, very floral, but it rapidly darkens from pink, to red, to purple, the petals of a deeply woody and dark rose. Flanking the blossoms are patchouli, cedar, oud, and the patchouli drives the resinous embellishments. This Armaf is initially loud, but it softens in the first hour and wears close thereafter. I'm impressed with the floral element, and I enjoy how it seems to melt into the earthier components of the heart, but what really wins me is how everything gauzes into a discreet vanilla in the base. The notes all harmonize with its radiance, with a rosy sweetness to the end. It's quite civilized for a rose/oud combo, and draws you into its friendly glow. 

CdNI for Women is touted as being a feminine Armaf that men can wear, and I agree. However, it comes in two concentrations, eau de parfum and cologne (as a body spray), and the latter might be more feasible for guys. So if the blast of florals and patchouli feels a little too loud and girly in EDP form, it might be of interest to try the cologne version and see if that wears easier. I find the quality of CdNI for Women to be great for the money, and the sort of Arabian composition that has gone full-circle from Dubai to New York Fashion Week, back to Dubai again. It just feels very modern and Middle Eastern to me. 


Silver Blue (Mancera)

The bitter truth about perfume since 1972 is that there are only a few truly original ideas that have been bottled and sold to men. Everything else is a riff on one or another of that handful of groundbreakers, be it Paco Rabanne Pour Homme (1973), Grey Flannel (1975), Azzaro Pour Homme (1978), Drakkar Noir (1982), Green Irish Tweed (1985), Cool Water (1988), Fahrenheit (1988), Eternity for Men (1989), Acqua di Giò (1996), A*Men (1996), or Aventus (2010). Every masculine of the last decade is at least a vague copy of one of these, and every other one is blatantly so. This makes reviewing masculines an exercise in tedium, only elevated to interest by how utterly shameless its subjects are. 

Released in 2019 as a Selfridges exclusive, Silver Blue is a branch off the A*Men tree of nineties-era subversive masculines. There isn't a "natural" note to be found in its glacé quasi-gourmand composition, although its synthetics are pellucid and seamless, and it took my nose all of three seconds to discern its familiar blend of almost-mint aldehydes, buttery caramel, and earthy patchouli. It smells dissonant yet congruent, the exact thing that made Angel and its flankers so compelling in the age before smart phones. Its mishmash of burnt sugars over indigestible woody resins lifts the banality of perfume candy into a higher realm of contrasts. Successful perfumes harness contrasts: Caron Pour un Homme's strident lavender pulses gorgeously against its cushy vanilla backdrop; peach nectar glistens through an oakmoss gloaming in Mitsouko; Silver Blue's caramel smiles sweetly through a bitter bushel of patchouli and woods. It's a subtle but pleasant way of creating nonchalant freshness, and it's very nice.

I'm 41 years old, and I remember the nineties well. A*Men (the silvery-blue star) was the expensive and very weird sorta-niche gourmand frag with an intense rubbery tar note boldly contrasting with caramel, chocolate, and coffee. Conversely, Silver Blue offers a relatively timid contrast without full commitment, and its constituent parts aren't vibrant enough to make up for the lack of daring necessary to make this sort of thing fly. It did win me a couple of compliments, so it's undeniably persuasive, but I still prefer A*Men. Anything that attempts to emulate the Mugler effect needs to go hard, or go home.