Dior vs. Chanel: Which Brand I Prefer, and Why

I think of Dior and Chanel the way I think of Toyota and Honda: they are competitors, and one is a better deal than the other. Whenever I meet someone who is considering buying a new car, I usually tell them to look at Toyota and skip Honda. This raises the ire of my fellow car enthusiasts, who insist on the superior engine builds of Hondas, but I have reasons. Without getting too crazily in-depth about cars here, yes, Honda does make the best engines in the world. However, Toyota makes the best transmissions money can buy in the average-Joe car market, and their engines are only negligibly inferior to Honda's. 

Meanwhile, Honda's transmissions are markedly inferior, and while their engines are indeed a bit sounder and speedier, they require valve adjustments every 150K miles, while Toyota's require no such onerous (and pricy) maintenance. Also, Toyota isn't tempting fate by jamming turbos onto every tiny engine they make, which speaks better of their long-term potential compared to Honda's penchant for spooling speed. Lastly, Honda has always been the more expensive brand, and for what you get over Toyota (better "styling"), I think saving a few thousand and buying a Corolla is smarter all around. Sure, Toyotas are frumpy looking, but if getting you from points A to B is the priority, it shouldn't matter. 

Dior and Chanel are both luxury designer brands, meaning that while their popular ranges are firmly at mid-tier designer, they also offer ancillary top-tier "niche quality" perfumes that will set you back a few hundred a bottle. Both are old brands, with fashion labels driving their businesses, and both enjoy long legacies of commercial success. Both are historical game-changers in the perfume realm, both are excellent in terms of quality and variety, and both are wins, so regardless of which you prefer, if you own a bottle of something from either house, you've got something worth wearing. 

With that said, I do view them very differently on a subjective level. My perceptions of these brands are mine alone, so I encourage you to come away from this article with only a superficial interest in how my opinion tracks with your own. I have relatively limited exposure to both brands, so I don't claim to be an expert on either one. I simply have my thoughts on them, and what I think are some interesting reasons why I prefer one brand over the other. It bears mentioning that I'm 42 years old, so I'm of a generation of borderline Gen-X/Millennials that tends to view anything from the eighties and nineties through rose-colored glasses, so take that for what it's worth. 

I'm judging these brands using three metrics: Quality, Wearability, and Innovation. In terms of quality, I'm referring to the quality of materials, design aesthetic, and the overall conception of fragrances. With wearability I'm strictly considering which fragrances are "friendlier" or "easier" to just pick up and wear without having to worry about pissing anyone off. With innovation, I'm considering which brand is more forward-footed in style. There are some crossover winners in each category, but ultimately one brand of the two is a bit ahead of the game, and it might not be so obvious which it is, just from guessing. 

Let's start with quality, and Dior. Lately Christian Dior's marketing has been hyperfocused on Sauvage, their new flagship masculine. I say "new" advisedly; Sauvage is nine years old. For almost a full decade now, this fragrance has been the sun around which their other perfumed planets orbit. It is in their mid-tier line, priced at $120 for 100 ml, which is reasonable. What do you get for your money? I've never been all that enamored with Sauvage's aesthetic. The faded black-to-blue glass, the simple no-frills bottle, the black magnetic cap, all seem drab and uninviting. I don't see Sauvage on the counter and think, "I want to smell that." I think it's as dull and neutral as a brand can get, shy of putting out an unmarked tin. It's as anticlimactic as Clinique's Happy. was back in the nineties. "Savage" stuff, with all the savagery bled out of it. 

Sauvage is a blatantly synthetic fragrance, but that isn't surprising. Most of Dior's frags are blatantly synthetic. LVMH has access to the most expensive materials in the world, yet Sauvage smells like anybody could have cobbled it together. When it was released in 2015, the talk was about its intensive Ambroxan base, which was considerably louder and brasher than most of what came before. In Dior's case, the Ambroxan was clearly meant to be a "trendsetter" material, and indeed it was: after its release, Sauvage wound up spawning dozens of imitators, be they competitors (Luna Rossa Carbon), clones (Ventana), or just frags that wanted to cash in on what had become an Ambrox Craze (Office One). I found Sauvage to be a surprisingly unorthodox designer masculine, simply because the intensity of its accords and perversely traditional note structure (bergamot, pepper, lavender, cedar) seemed weirdly novel. 

Like it or hate it, the original Sauvage EDT of 2015 was well made, but not a standout in terms of material quality. It has that decidedly "designer" feel to it, of brash synthetic peppers comingling with equally loud woody ambers and fakey-fake ambergris/Ambrox, and at no point does wearing the original fragrance (the only version I mean to comment on here) make me want more. This isn't something I need to own. I'm not impressed with the "feel" of Sauvage. Yes, it's good. I get why guys love it. And yes, it works. This is a solid clubber scent, classier than most per its avoidance of trite caramel cliches. But Sauvage is something that endures in spite of itself, a fragrance that survives on the unlimited incomes of greaseball playboys who think every Thursday night is college night for the rest of their lives. This isn't a fragrance that serious fragrance connoisseurs think deep thoughts about. 

If the bergamot were a little less piercing, if the herbal/floral notes were a bit softer, if whatever chem is responsible for all that peppery "fizziness" were dialed back, and if the Ambroxan weren't so keyed up at the end, I think Sauvage would feel like something I could own. This gets us to wearability: Sauvage EDT is loud (the EDP is apparently not much better). Go easy on the trigger with this stuff. It fills rooms. It precedes its wearer. It's one of those things that sticks around long after you've left the building. Sauvage is wearable in that it's not a bad composition, but it's a bit tricky in the sense that you have to gauge how much is too much, and base that in part on weather conditions, temperature, and whatever activity you intend to partake in (indoor/outdoor). You can wear one spray with confidence, but two sprays might be too much. 

Is it innovative? Here's where Dior excels: Sauvage joins the esteemed ranks of older titles like Poison, Fahrenheit, Dune, and J'Adore as a marquee name that invented a new approach to synthetics. Here, the approach was simply to overload on Amroxan until your nosehairs hurt. But it worked, and it influenced literally every brand from here to Qatar in the years since. Here I am, nine years later, still writing about Sauvage. That says something. But like I said, Dior has always been avant-garde. Poison was terrifying in its intensity in the eighties, a floral nightmare in a black bottle that lasted for eons and boasted sillage that traversed city blocks. Fahrenheit was a novel accord of mown grass mixed with petrol and a hint of sweet florals. Dune was dry and fresh and weird. J'Adore was sweet and dusky and sultry, and all of these Dior fragrances are of a kind that are never forgotten once they've been smelled. Try them once, and you've irrevocably advanced your understanding of modern perfumery. 

This means Dior is the more stylish brand, the "edgier," faster label. If you want to play it safe, you don't look to Dior. Even Dior Homme, which is ostensibly their signature masculine, is a metrosexual homage to iris, a powdery lipstick kiss branded as a masculine. It doesn't get any more subversive than that. Yet Dior Homme's material quality isn't a heck of a lot higher than something like Michel Germaine's Deauville, which was a trailblazer in 1999 for having an intense iris note front and center in a mainstream masculine. Don't get me wrong, Dior is using better materials, but they're not so much better that spending the extra hundred dollars for a bottle of Dior Homme is a slam-dunk. I could just as easily spring for a ten dollar bottle of Deauville and get a satisfying iris fix, even if the material quality might be noticeably inferior. 

This brings me to Chanel. If we take a look at Chanel's flagship masculine, Bleu de Chanel, we find ourselves with something comparable to Sauvage in both presentation and scope. While it is just as muted in packaging style, a simple dark grey-blue glass square with a black magnetic cap, Bleu has something that Sauvage lacks: it is a true "remake" of a classic Chanel fragrance. The original Bleu de Chanel was released in 1931 alongside the accompanying "Rouge de Chanel" and "Beige de Chanel," and was a product of Gabrielle Chanel's salad days.

This fragrance smelled nothing like the current version, which is merely a revival of the name and not the fragrance, but it ties into a full-circle evolution of Chanel's branding, which by 1940 was largely limited to Chanel N° 5. Here we see that Bleu was indeed a smaller fragrance that was probably limited in release, and sat untouched in the archives at 31 Rue Cambon for decades before a brief ever crossed Jacques Polge's desk. Polge has divulged that his inspiration for his revival of Bleu was gleaned from years of shaving in airport lavatories, surrounded by men and their aftershaves, with a distinctly herbal-fresh glow following him all the way to the little square blue bottle we now know to be Chanel's modern masterpiece. 

The quality of Bleu de Chanel eau de toilette is leagues above that of Sauvage. This is inarguable. Where Sauvage's bergamot bites like a hungry wolf, Bleu's silvery lemon caresses the air in an aldehydic fizz, smelling life-like and rounded. Where Sauvage's peppery ambers ensconce the wearer, Bleu's minty ginger and vetiver ensemble settles into a refined hum. Where Sauvage's scratchy Ambroxan base bellows from the rooftops, Bleu's iso E Super and incense/patchouli base accord simply states that it is present, smelling crisp and civilized. Every note is accounted for, every element is crystalline, clear, and yet integral to the whole experience, the mark of a truly beautiful perfume. It may not win awards for being the world's most natural fragrance, but Bleu de Chanel EDT smells significantly better and more natural than Sauvage. 

Chanels are, in general, very conservative fragrances. Where Dior pushes the envelope, Chanel pushes the past. Traditionalism, civility, and maturity are all inherent to the Chanel brief. Look at what they offer: Antaeus is the most daunting of the line, and it is simply an animalic woody-floral chypre with an abundance of castoreum, which at this point has been neutered down to being barely there anyway. Beyond this one aberration, Chanel's range is unremittingly "safe," with things like Allure, L'Égoïste, Cristalle, and Chanel Pour Monsieur filling out their catalog. At no point in the Chanel lexicon does anyone think, "This shit is crazy." You might think that if you're not used to smelling gasoline in your grassy masculines and you've just sprayed Fahrenheit for the first time. Not so much after a spritz of liquid kitchen spice-and-sandalwood L'Égoïste. Even Platinum L'Égoïste is simply a familiar Cool Water-inspired freshie with your expected lavender and garrigue motif. 

Thus Chanels are intrinsically more wearable than your average Dior fragrance. When you really think about it, Diors aren't typically the safest perfumes out there. Conceptually speaking, their edginess is pretty established. If you're someone who wishes to smell unique, you wear Dior. If you're someone who wishes to smell unmistakably good, you turn to Chanel. This isn't to say that Dior's offerings smell less than good -- many Diors smell incredible -- it simply says that smelling incredible is a "maybe" with Dior, while it's virtually a guarantee with Chanel. I can't think of a single Chanel fragrance that doesn't smell indulgently beautiful. Sure, they may not be "exiting" per say, but if you appreciate beauty, you might find your heart flutters a bit faster upon smelling a Chanel. 

Pour Monsieur in its EDP form is yet another starched and buttoned-up offering, and I think it's a very good, albeit somewhat secondary fragrance. I was never one to jump on the Pour Monsieur bandwagon, as I consider it little more than a landmark masculine from an age when most houses did not offer masculines (but were starting to, 1955). Here is where Dior may have an advantage. Eau Sauvage, released eleven years after Pour Monsieur, took the fresh citrus chypre idea and one-upped it with Edmond Roudnitska's genius insertion of Hedione, which smells like liquid sex. Give me a bottle of the original Eau Sauvage over Pour Monsieur any day of the week. Eau Sauvage is simply the better fragrance, and it stands the test of time, smelling just as elegant and alluring as ever. 

Pour Monsieur, in contrast, smells dated and a bit stodgy, simply because Henri Robert had modeled it on classical eau de colognes without looking to modern tech, which was more Roudnitska's bag. Edmond Roudnitska's name is inextricably tied to Dior, as he was the author of the famous "Dior Twins," starting with Diorama in 1949 and ending with Diorissimo in 1956. Roudnitska wasn't wedded to "naturals" and standard synthetics. He was pioneering in his embrace of novel synthetic molecules, famously adding Calone 1951 to Diorissimo, in perhaps its very first mainstream application in perfumery. If we look at Dior through the Roudnitska lens, we see a brand that achieved greatness. 

But while I appreciate the past foibles of its pioneering nose, I view the Dior of today as the Honda of perfumery, i.e., more style than substance. Yeah, Dior is stylish and edgy and "fast" and fun. You can better handle sharp turns wearing Fahrenheit or Dior Homme than you can in the languorous Allure Homme or L'Égoïste. But the truth is, Fahrenheit and Dior Homme (and Sauvage) will wear out faster. You don't see many guys who wear Fahrenheit as their "signature" fragrance, their daily driver. There's a reason for that. You don't see a lot of guys in the real world (outside our fragcom bubble) who actually wear Dior Homme to work every day. There's a reason for that. Even Eau Sauvage, as lovely as it is, isn't really in the rotation on the regular anymore. There's a reason for that. Dior is the brand you take for a test drive when you want excitement, but you don't take it home. 

Chanel is the take-home house. Chanel is the Toyota of perfumery. Rounded edges, no sharp curves, all fuzzy and soft and comfortable, but nothing so amazingly sexy or seductive as J'Adore will ever grace Channel's range. The Chanel girl is classic. She fashions herself after Marilyn Monroe. She wears pearls and N° 5, and it's the "nothing else" part that makes you perk up and notice. The Chanel guy is dependable, sturdy, the rock you lean on in hard times. He wears Bleu, or if he's really testosterone-laden, Antaeus. He rolls up in Allure Homme or Allure Homme Blanche, and he smiles, and he waves, and his teeth gleam, and you feel better knowing he's in the neighborhood, because there are still American men living here. You know you'll get there with Chanel. You're pretty sure you'll get there with Dior. It's not a fair trade, if you actually sit down and look at the specs of these two brands. One gives you excitement, but some of that excitement might be being stuck in the driveway at six a.m. with a dead battery. You thought you wanted to wear Sauvage, but the Ambroxan is already givin you a headache, and it's almost not too late to head back inside for Tylenol. 

Of the two, I prefer Chanel. Let's face it, people: Chanel manages acre after acre of its own fields of flowers, just so it can get natural yield of distillates and butters to use in their products. This is a brand that, despite the knocks it takes for being unadventurous and "safe," takes perfumery seriously. It continues in that direction, despite the more recent anodyne approach of aftershave-inspired Bleu. At least Chanel sticks to what it does best, and keeps its aesthetic timeless and "chic." Not once has the house jumped the shark. 

Dior is a little less dependable, a little more synthetic and abrasive, and perhaps even a bit less serious in overall scope. While I don't think the perfumers at Dior are phoning it in, I do think its LVMH corporate overlord is more interested in plastering Johnny Depp's face everywhere than it is in releasing a truly great perfume. Chanel remains privately owned by the Wertheimer family, and is thus not beholden to a larger conglomerate with all the potential conflicts of interest that can arise when a parent company has "visions" for brands in its portfolio. That's a better baseline, and helps me sleep better. 


I Bought Another Bottle of 'The Veg'

Someday someone will
figure out how to precisely date Pinaud products, sort of like that anonymous guy did with his exhaustively compiled Old Spice site. The bottle shown here was purchased by me on eBay last week, and as you can see, it is almost identical to the one that was shattered a month ago. 

I won't wax on about Lilac Vegetal, or how gorgeous its vintage bottles are, especially its drugstore "coffin" styled bottles, as I've already done that ad nauseam in a few prior posts. I'll merely point out several differences between this "new" bottle and the one I used to reach for when I wanted to smile. First, another look at the deceased bottle, which was several years older in vintage, shown below.

Note the paper band around the neck, and the 1.19 "plus tax" on the sale ribbon. Also note that it says Ed. Pinaud, and does not state the "alcohol contents" percentage. My newest bottle up top lacks the paper neck band, says 1.29 (and doesn't mention tax), says Pinaud instead of Ed. Pinaud, and states the alcohol percentage above the bottle size.

I would have saved the cream bakelite cap from the deceased bottle, except it also broke! Chipped a good chunk right off it, rendering it useless. Had it survived, I would've swapped it onto my new bottle and gotten rid of the bright green plastic cap that Pinaud switched to in later packaging. But the plastic caps have one feature that I do like, which is the "P" embossed on top. My other bottle cap lacked this feature.

Unfortunately my "new" vintage drugstore bottle is inferior to the other bottle in a couple of notable ways. Although still beautiful and in very good condition, the bottle's sides are embossed in a crumbier fashion, lacking the definition and beauty of the former design. You can still read "Insist on the genuine Pinaud," but it's a little more work to make it out. 

"New" Bottle

"Old" Bottle

The same problem applies to the "A La Corbeille Fleurie" logo, which on the "new" bottle is so pathetically vague that they should have just let the glass be. 



With that said, one thing I like better on my latest bottle is the back label, which just looks cleaner and better designed than the older one did. It's so pretty that it could act as the front label without anyone thinking anything of it. 

I'm not sure, but I feel like the older bottle was physically larger than this one. But as always, I lucked out with the actual product inside the bottle, which smells fantastic, actually brighter, fresher, and more lucid than the other bottle, and perhaps even the barbershop bottle, although I wouldn't swear on that. My guess is this bottle dates to the late sixties, early seventies. My previous bottle was fifties/early sixties. No barcode, and no plastic other than the cap, so the one pictured directly above is definitely pre-eighties. 

I keep the barbershop bottle at my girlfriend's place (where it can't be broken) and the drugstore bottle at my house (also where it's unlikely to break). If anyone knows the age of this bottle, or any of my bottles, please hit me up on Fragrantica. 


Bird of Paradise (Avon)

Avon is sort 
of a mind-warping brand for fragrance enthusiasts. On the one hand, it's a cheap and somewhat gimmicky mail-order concern that is representative of every twentieth century archetypical "consumerism" paradigm imaginable. You want a fragrance? Don't have a lot of cash to spend? Here's the Avon catalog. It has two hundred items for quick order this season, and another two hundred available at the end of the year. Next year another few hundred will roll out, and none of them cost more than eight bucks. Pick a title and it'll show up at your door in a week. That was how Avon worked from 1940 to 2016, which was when Cerberus Capital Management inked an acquisition deal and sent the brand to Latin American countries, where it continues to enjoy success.

On the other hand, Avon is a serious historical oddity of a brand that has released more perfumes than virtually any other company. The casual observer may think it's a cheapo throwaway name, but those who are in-the-know view it as a playground for big-name perfumers, including Olivier Cresp, Harry Frémont, Laurent Le Guernec, Rodrigo Flores-Roux, and Sonia Constant, among others. People of their pedigree consider Avon to be a safe testing ground for unusual ideas, a place where experimentation and freedom of expression can occur without much risk of their careers going up in flames. If you try out a new girly-floral idea that incorporates durian fruit and the result sends people running for the exits, you'll be given a good brief for Dior the next day, because nobody minds if an Avon perfume doesn't sell. Avon has something like three thousand perfumes under its belt. A failure could live in their range for years before they even notice it. 

Things get even more interesting when you look at what was released in the sixties and seventies. Take Bird of Paradise, for instance. Released in 1969, this stuff was a bridge between the patchouli head-shop vibe of the hippy free-love era and the open-collared Stepford/Nixonian decade that followed. It came in a variety of bottles, but its earlier incarnations were clear glass with gold caps that were shaped to fit whatever sculpted image Avon was having fun with that day. The original was a rather pretty peacock, but it also came in a fairly uninteresting rectangular bottle and a smaller "golden thimble" bottle, which is the one I own. How does it smell? It's formal but affecting, a Schiff base derived from methyl anthranilate and an aldehyde, upon which one of history's more opulent drugstore orientals was built. Bergamot, lavender, a hint of pineapple for fruitiness, honey for sweetness, florals and greens, sandalwood (a surprisingly high quality synthetic but not Mysore, contrary to popular belief), and incense. No masterpiece, but nice. You get more than you paid for here, which is how Avon has persevered for over a century. 


Lilac Toilette Water (1812 Apothecary), and the Problem With 'Natural' Lilac Scents

Lately I've been
studying William Poucher's approach to reconstructing the living essence of lilac. His formula, "Lilac Bouquet, No. 1194" is a list of twenty-two materials in parts per thousand, and nearly all of them are still available to perfumers today. Terpineol is the key material, noted as "extra rectified" and generously dosed at 120 ppt, yet eclipsed in weight by hydroxy-citronellol (165 ppt), cinnamic alcohol (175 ppt), and phenylethyl alcohol (155 ppt). Hydroxy-citronellol smells of muguet/soapy white floral, cinnamic alcohol of ambery florals, and phyenylethyl alcohol of roses. Terpineol, at any but the most dilute amount, smells piney, bordering on woody-citrus. But in high dilution, terpineol smells of lilac flowers, live on the tree, and works wonders. 

When I consider what a true "lilac water" is, I'm conflicted. Poucher's legendary formula dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, and is considered by many to be a marvel of modern chemistry. His late eighteenth century creation reconstructs the headspace essence of lilac flower using a clever workaround to the age-old problem of attempting to create lilac perfumes, namely that lilacs have no yield. Try gathering bundles of lilac flowers for distillation, and what you'll end up with, after agonizing your way through literally hundreds of pounds of flowers, will be a pocket flask full of something that smells very little like the actual bud. This elusive flower doesn't even afford our noses the luxury of enjoying it cut from the tree; wait an hour after snipping and you'll find that its sweetness has dulled, as if the blooms know they've been killed. 

This makes synthesis an inevitability. Perfumers have little choice but to reconstruct the smell by cobbling various disparate elements into something that closely approximates the living flower. But what did all of those early-to-mid eighteenth century barbers use? What were the cowboys in the 1850s and '60s being offered after a close shave? Lilac waters were in use back then but they predated the clever chemistry experiments of Pinaud and Poucher's era. The average barber wasn't going to pay a fortune for some enfleurage-made lilac perfume, which would only come in sub-fifty milliliter sizes anyway. We know that perfumery advanced when synthetics were discovered and employed, and by the 1870s that process was underway, but the midcentury toilette waters predated much of the scientific molecular revolution. How then did people make do?

It turns out they didn't. In Ashby, Massachusetts, there is a company called 1812 Apothecary, which is a subsidiary concern of the Second Chance Farm Sanctuary, an animal sanctuary that moonlights as a natural perfumery. I happened across their lilac toilette water on Etsy and bought a large bottle. According to their shop, their lilac water is seasonal, and is only available for brief periods in spring. It isn't entirely clear how they make it, but they claim it is "aged six months and of course made with our own farm-grown lilacs." The ingredients list is very short: spirits, lilac, lilac essential oil. It's that last part that raises my eyebrow, because lilac essential oil is very expensive and doesn't really smell like lilacs. And if there's actual lilac flowers in the brew, how were they "aged" to create this product? Steeped in spirits? Or were they actually given an enfleurage treatment? If the latter, this stuff would be a hell of a lot more expensive than it is. 

If the flowers were simply dropped in a vat of spirits and left to sit for months, then the result wouldn't smell anything like lilacs. This is a conundrum, because 1812 Apothecary's lilac water does smell like lilacs. Well, it dries down to the smell of purple lilac, that sweet and unforgettable aroma. But it starts out smelling like a failed natural perfumery experiment, a weirdly dissonant accord of flattened and condensed floral materials that seem to veer slightly into a bizarre zone of cinnamon and tree bark. What I've gleaned from the wearing experience is that the farm-grown lilacs were indeed steeped in spirits for half a year, then filtered into this perfume, and their yield is evocative of being surrounded by flowers that were felled and left in a wet field for a few weeks. Kinda-sorta lilac-floral, but hampered by a borderline-rotten vegetal scent tinged by a lick of geosmin.  

Just when I thought the whole thing was botched, the all-natural lilac burned off and transitioned to what must be the "lilac essential oil." Saying that your fragrance contains the essential oil of something that isn't represented by its EO is strange. It also gives the perfumer plenty of latitude to use a professionally-compounded concentration oil of the sort used by any mainstream or niche perfumery, and simply call it an EO because it sounds more "natural." Whatever the case may be, 1812 Apothecary's Lilac Toilette Water dries down to a truly gorgeous powdery-fresh purple lilac, and is probably the best lilac fragrance I've ever encountered. Whatever they're using, whatever their ace of spades secret formula happens to be, it works. I'm here to tell you, I'm pleased with it. If you're like me, and you're obsessed with lilac, this stuff smells absolutely beautiful. Does it smell exactly like living flower? No, but it clearly isn't trying to, and I like that it doesn't. It smells close, and puts its own spin on the idea by imbuing the floral sweetness with a dry and almost chalky quality. It's like Mary Cassatt's Lilacs in a Window interpreted as perfume. 

My guess is that the people at Second Chance Farm Sanctuary use some sort of IFF-derived (or similar) compounded concentrate, not a million miles away from Poucher's, and they simply dole it out across a limited number of bottles each year. It wouldn't be insanely expensive to buy a convincing semi-synthetic lilac base that also plays well with a quirky all-natural lilac brew, and it would be a smart approach for anyone trying to revive this genre. If they only used the natural stuff, it would be a complete failure, and would smell for hours like the first eight minutes of this product, i.e., nothing like actual lilac. My guess is this part of the fragrance is what those cowboy toilette waters smelled like back in the gunslinger days. Inject a little modern medicine into things, and suddenly you have a minor miracle. If I were them, I would scale back on the naturals and bump up the "essential oil" component. The result would be worth far more than four bucks an ounce. 


Moss  (Commodity)

Minimalism is something I've been thinking about for most of my life. The idea of abandoning the complex modern world and living on a desert island in a spartan hut with no extraneous belongings was a childhood fantasy. Just me, a pen full of chickens, a small vegetable garden, a fishing pole, and the open ocean. No concern about a job, or money, or social pressures. Just make my own food and live. Pretty appealing. 

So I understand the philosophical ethic behind a fragrance like Moss  (dubbed "Personal" by the brand), a bleached white bottle containing a scent so simple and spare that Millburn, Coleman, and Nicodemus would surely endorse it. It opens with a faint whiff of citrus, juniper, and some green spice, and rapidly the citrus and juniper coalesce around a piercingly sharp petitgrain that focuses like an arrow on conveying a brisk freshness with just enough oomph! to travel two inches off my body. We're talking barely there, folks. Sneeze and you miss it. Within three hours it's gone. 

Commodity was a little too successful here. While Moss  does smell good, and I enjoy the crisp green notes on offer, everything is a little too wan and washed out to warrant further wears. Why apply something that will be gone before lunch? Heck, before breakfast, even? I'm all for minimalism, but there's a difference between that and scraping by, and with its razor-thin drydown, this one leaves me hanging. 


Hot Water (Davidoff)

Some fragrances are
created with a specific purpose in mind, rather like cars. An econobox isn't made to be a race car, but it is made to get you anywhere reliably. I thought of a car when I first tried Davidoff's Hot Water, the long-awaited yang to Cool Water's yin. While the 1988 Bourdon fougère is most certainly a macaw blue BMW M3 (e30) Evolution 2, replete with rear spoiler, sunroof delete, and 11.0:1 compression ratio, the 2009 Hot Water is a relatively meek tenth generation wide-body E140 Corolla sedan in Barcelona red. Sure, it boasts a hip image with its ribbed bottle and ominous blackout badging, but this stuff gets the shakes when you try to push it past 95. Its performance is the opposite of sexy. But it doesn't need to seduce you, it just needs to get you through the workday, and Hot Water performs handily in the carpool lane. 

Its top is a sweet melange of herbal and woody notes, mostly light artemisia and basil, with hints of pink and black pepper to liven things, but honestly it's the tamest intro to any fragrance in my collection. You could hate this stuff and still be tempted to wear it, just to see what kind of mileage you get. It's that innocuous. Get over the first ten minutes, and Hot Water settles into a droning hum of synthetic styrax, benzoin resin, basil, more basil, and clean musk. This endures for roughly seven hours, after which the whole thing chugs down to a thin whisper of mostly semisweet musk. I find the basil note to be interesting: when I sniff where I sprayed, exhale on it a few times, then inhale deeply, I get a very realistic and natural-smelling basil note. Pull back and breathe normal, and it's simply a dull sweetness, reminiscent of Joop! Homme with none of the power. 

So do I recommend Hot Water? Yes, I do. I do if you're looking for a work scent that will offend nobody and still smell better than whatever anyone else is wearing. It's light, but it's balanced. It's uninteresting, but it's solid. It's not too spicy, not too sweet, not too woody, not too green. It's not too much of anything, yet it captures the feeling of a professional middle-management dad with three kids at home and a wife with frosted hair who spends her days grocery shopping and lunching with girlfriends. Hot Water isn't exciting, but it's dependable, and on the days when you're not sure which way is up, sometimes you need the little things to fly straight. Hot Water flies straight. If you're looking for something that will get you there with zero drama, and you're not an obsessed fraghead who needs a different fragrance for every mood and whim, I would give you this. You won't regift it, and by Labor Day you'll be on your third bottle. 


Hyrax (Zoologist)

African stone is also known as hyraceum, the petrified excrement of the hyrax, which is native to sub-Saharan Africa and some regions of the Middle East. It is harvested in the same way geologists sample any stone, with careful tool extraction from massive stratified and fossilized excrement beds called middens, and thus gathering it does not harm the animal. There are some climate freaks who wail about how chipping out the stuff hurts climate science, but this is the most humanely-acquired animalic material in perfumery, bar none. Zoologist's Hyrax contains real hyraceum, and I think I can smell it. (It also contains synthetic civet, which confuses my hyraceum detector.) 

I love this fragrance. From first sniff, I loved it. It hits me with a peppery/rosey opening, accompanied by saffron aldehyde (2,4 Dimethyl-3-cyclohexen-1-carboxaldehyde), which rapidly segues into a gloriously dusky heart accord of rich resins and animalics, including synthetic castoreum and a variety of florals that coalesce into a Laos oud-like base structure of benzoin and styrax. Adjectives to describe it: Golden, Swirling, Epic. It smells like an eighties masculine "powerhouse" fragrance aping Kouros with extremely high quality materials, and manages to emit at long-range for fully fifteen hours with moderate application, dwarfing even its YSL predecessor in strength. Its florals are blended closely with the fetid aspects of the urinous dungs compiled here, and perfumer Sven Pritzkoleit mentions that he incorporated lilac and hyacinth notes to soften the blow. Wow. 

My only critique would be that I would have adjusted the overall balance only slightly to push out more rose and lilac, to make their dance with the musks even more obvious to the nose, but otherwise Hyrax accomplishes the same burnished glow of its designer Reagan-era progenitors. The hyacinth does endure rather prominently and provides a sweet contrast to the umbers, adding a dimensionality that this sort of composition needs to succeed. These days I tend to lean away from wearing things that are this musky, and I'm sure that contemporary society recoils in horror from this sort of thing (only fragheads understand), so Hyrax wouldn't be a full-bottle purchase. But I'm tempted. 


Squid (Zoologist)

Céline Barel
Maybe I'm getting old and cranky, but niche perfumers are starting to annoy me. Céline Barel is, by all metrics, a beautiful woman. She's pictured above, a slender brunette with classically beautiful features, the kind of gal that could give men heart palpitations while serving them diner coffee. She can't help being classy, wears haute couture everywhere all the time, and has probably never set foot in a fast food restaurant. What then is she doing belching out something as diabolically morose as Squid by Zoologist?

This fragrance is absolutely disgusting. It opens with a mix of "marine" salty notes laced with pink pepper and something indescribably sweet. Within five minutes it morphs into more salty notes and a distinct odor of burning hair. The burning hair bit proceeds to be the central player, lasting in all its awful glory for no less than four hours, by which point I'm ready to set my own head on fire. Eventually the wretchedness loosens up and separates into its constituents of incense and sweet amber, still with that evil salinity fouling everything, like low tide at a hair salon in Blackpool. 

By the nine hour mark, I've had it. There was little evolution to this terrible fragrance, and all it did was make me wonder why it was made. I guess what bugs me is that it's obvious Céline Barel wouldn't wear it, not even for five minutes. She wouldn't want her significant other to wear it, either. So why the fuck would she think anyone else would want to wear it? I understand how briefs work. I get that Mr. Wong had his reasons for why Squid should smell bad. All she had to do was smile at him a few times and tell him she liked his tie, and this could have all gone another way. 


Royal Violets (Agustín Reyes)

Think Stuart Davis Paintings, bottled.
Agustín W. Reyes III has quite a story. His grandfather started a perfume company on December 6th, 1927, with the launch of Agua de Colonia de Agustín Reyes, followed by Loción Violetas Rusas (Russian Violets). The latter was renamed to Royal Violets after the Reyes family emigrated from Cuba to the United States and reopened the perfumery in Miami. Royal Violets remains the family company's sole survivor, and is currently the only fragrance available. (Reyes told me that he uses the same fragrance formula for every cologne, and simply adds aloe and chamomile to distinguish between formulas.) 

I bought a five-ounce glass bottle of the basic "adult" (non-chamomile) splash cologne, and was pleasantly surprised by how attractive it is. I find the box, bottle label, and textured glass to be very well designed and eye-catching. The product looks and feels like twentieth century iconography, and it's small wonder that it's Cuba's pride and joy. Apparently it is widely used in Cuban culture, often on babies, which I find humorous (baby colognes are inherently hilarious), and a stroll down any street in Miami will yield at least a few whiffs of this stuff. I find it so interesting that Agustín Reyes has not branched out, as many brands are wont to do these days, but they openly admit in their company story that limited resources necessitated the family's laser-like focus on one cologne. 

The ingredients list cites ylang oil as one of the main components, and I can smell it right out of the gate. Ylang smells bright, almost citrusy, very sweet, and quite heady, a rather narcotic floral material usually favored in tropical bouquets. Here it merely introduces a coumarinic amber that segues into a low concentration violet leaf accord. It provides the perfect base for stuff like Geoffrey Beene's Grey Flannel and Jacomo's Silences. To me, Royal Violets smells like the sweet coumarin heart of Grey Flannel without the green embellishments, like someone extracted Beene's floral sweetness and made it its own scent. I suggest pairing this with violet-themed stuff like the aforementioned, as it lacks the longevity to serve on its own, but I appreciate it as a simple after-shower splash as well. Nice stuff, and shocking that it isn't more widely known outside of Miami.  


Tobacco Vanille (Tom Ford)

Photo by Makia Minich
I've always struggled to understand the appeal of sweetly-flavored tobacco (super cheap "pipe tobacco") fragrances. My brain interprets the cloying sweetness of gas station tobacco as a crassly cheap, artificial construct, a difficult association to erase. It's no different for a downmarket cologne like Pinaud's Citrus Musk, which ostensibly smells of lemongrass but is also reminiscent of a citrus-flavored soda, like 7 Up or Sprite. When a fragrance smells like a flavor, it usually doesn't bode well. 

Tobacco Vanille (2007) is a luxury remake of L'Occitane's Eau des Baux (2006). Tom Ford opted to simplify the composition by clipping the number of notes down to three and calibrating them into smelling as divine as possible, which I think was at least a good try. Where Eau des Baux attempts complexity with cypress and pink pepper, Tobacco Vanille opts for the stark beauty of Dutch pipe tobacco with a silvery edge of cool musk, which strangely lifts the dankness of fire cured leaf into a sharper, greener place. This musk note eventually segues into vanilla and wraps itself around the tobacco like a mother swaddling her young. Its increasingly vanillic sweetness stops just shy of being overbearing by virtue of balance; TV is nothing if not fine-tuned. 

It's also Mephistophelian in strength: a few sprays and I can still smell it on my shirt a week later. This is where it succumbs to the same fate as EdB; a fragrance this powerfully aromtic doesn't really feel like it should be on my body. It feels like a room spray, or perhaps a candle. Yes, it uses good materials, and it's absolutely an appealing option for anyone who enjoys a good flavored tobacco scent, but I need something with a little more complexity and contrast if I'm going to have it on my person for the whole day. Tobacco Vanille would work fine in the morning, but by lunch I'd be ready for something else.