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Making Sense of Scents: My Take on Fragrances

Up until about 20 years ago, I chose my fragrances by what was “hot” at the time, usually based on what was promoted in magazines or in department stores. Being from the suburbs of Cleveland, then moving to Boston to be a student, I had limited exposure to what was out there and was only aware of the most aggressively advertised colognes.

From my late teens into my early twenties, I experimented with the mass-marketed colognes I knew about, like Polo by Ralph Lauren, Obsession and Eternity by Calvin Klein, Cool Water by Davidoff, and Joop! by Joop. I think I even went through an Old Spice phase. During and shortly after college, I was introduced to essential oils like Patchouli and Egyptian Musk, which were basically the Gucci Envy and Drakkar Noir of alternative people.

While some of these are, at their essense, very nice fragrances, the selections from this highly commercial potpourri had me smelling like everybody else, or at least like the first floor at Saks Fifth Avenue or a flip through the latest issue of GQ.

Sienna - Crabtree & EvelynThen, sometime in early 1994 while I was still living in Boston, I was killing time in Copley Square Mall and wandered into Crabtree & Evelyn. I had heard of the British company before, and I was always under the impression it was a real fluffy, flowery, girly brand. My eye must have been caught by a shelf labeled “Men’s Fragrances” or something. I don’t remember what other fragrances were on the men’s shelf, but I remember picking up a tester bottle of a cologne called Sienna. I unscrewed the cap and took a drag. It was love at first whiff.

At once masculine and clean, Sienna is a rich blend of leather, citrus and spice, with “a hint of fire and herbs,” as described by Crabtree & Evelyn. I had always heard that you should put a dab on your skin to see how the scent changes as it mixes with your body chemistry (that wrist-rubbing we see all the time). I walked around for a bit and it seemed to just get fuller and warmer. I decided I couldn’t live without it, and I’ve been wearing it ever since.

I remember being thrilled about finding a scent that felt truly my own. Sienna was (and remains) something with a very low likelihood of recurrence around me, i.e. a scent you wouldn’t smell six times on six different men as you breezed through a party. It’s low on the radar, unpopular and unidentifiable. Special and unique. I pray Crabtree & Evelyn doesn’t put a full-page ad for Sienna on the inside or back cover of Vanity Fair, causing a spike in popularity, in which case I’d need a Plan B until the dust settled.

Over the years, many men have asked my suggestion about a good scent for them. Fragrances are very tricky to suggest, and not something I would ever give as a gift, unless I new the recipient wore it and loved it. When worn appropriately, i.e. with restraint, they smell different on different people, a fact that prevents me from making any specific suggestions. A friend who worked for Hermès once gave me a bottle of Terre d’Hermès, which I really hated when I first spritzed it on. But twenty or thirty minutes later, it had turned into something very different on my skin, something I really liked. But I always recommend avoiding anything with a sample in a magazine ad or anything getting a big push at Sephora. (And certainly nothing from the Axe family, which should be repurposed as a possible source for alternative fuel.) I suggest, as I said, looking low on the radar for something that is unrecognizable and not at the tip of anyone’s immediate consciousness. My favorite fragrances, on both men and women, are ones that I cannot identify, like a signature scent that is unique to the wearer.

Pierre Cardin, Giorgio Armani and Guerlain Vetiver.
Pierre Cardin, Giorgio Armani and Guerlain Vetiver.

In the unlikely event that Crabtree & Evelyn ever discontinued my precious Sienna, there are three quiet and unpopular men’s fragrances for which I have a particular weakness. One – and perhaps my favorite behind Sienna – is the original Pierre Cardin cologne, which was introduced in 1972. It has a classic and distinctly masculine smell, with a blend of bergamot, lavender, orange, sandalwood, oak and something called geranium moss. It’s a tad leathery, too. It still comes in the original, extremely phallic bottle that sort-of resembles a joystick. It’s way off the “hot” radar and has been banished to availability only at places like Ride Aid, Duane Reade and other pharmacies on the same locked-up shelf with Preferred Stock, Jovan Musk and Paris Hilton’s Heiress. You’ll need to dig up a store manager to unlock it, but it’s awesome.

On the higher end, another forgotten underdog favorite of mine is Giorgio Armani’s original eponymous eau de toilette spray. Not Acqua di Gio, not Code… just “Giorgio Armani.” It’s so far off the hot list that Sephora, Macy’s or Walgreen’s don’t even carry it anymore (at least not online). It’s clean and citrusy at first, then turns into something very warm, with notes of lavender, bergamot, cedar, clove, nutmeg, and patchouli. I love this one.

My third alternate favorite is the classic Vetiver by Guerlain. Originally launched in 1958, this woody olfactive home run has notes of lemon, tobacco, vetiver, cedar, nutmeg and pepper. Perhaps because some ingredients become endangered or unethical to acquire, original formulas are sometimes discontinued, as was the case with the original Vetiver. Reformulated and relaunched in 2000, Vetiver is still a men’s fragrance classic. Like the original Armani, it starts off citrusy, then turns into something rich, warm and woodsy. It is 2.5 ounces of pure sex.

Laugh all you want. I will always have a soft spot for these '70s throwbacks.
Laugh all you want. I will always have a soft spot for these ’70s throwbacks.

And speaking of sharing Rite Aid shelf space under lock and key with White Diamonds by Liz Taylor, Playboy’s Malibu Eau de Toilette and Miami Glow by J-Lo, I must give a slightly embarrassing shout out to some oldies but, in my book, goodies. This is usually the part of the conversation where some people start to laugh at me, immediately followed by the part where I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’m a big fan of a forgotten, kitschy, unexpected throwback… a scent that was once popular but fell off the grid and off the parent company’s priority list. Old Spice was one, until it was aggressively relaunched with that brilliant television ad campaign. I still think it’s a great scent. A few of my other favorite forgotten, manly, lower-end classics are Grey Flannel, English Leather (which my grandfather wore) and, yes, Stetson. Hilarious, unbelievable and so very Ron Burgundy, I know, but great scents in my low-rent opinion. And they would certainly be unidentifiable by a nose younger than 40.

Whatever fragrance one chooses, it’s important to remember to wear it sparingly, literally, so as to spare us your overindulgence. There is nothing worse than a man (or woman) who overdoes it, reeking up an elevator with an eye-watering level of cologne. Your scent shouldn’t enter a room before you do. It should only be detectable by people in your intimate vicinity (two or three feet away max). We should smell it as you breeze by, not ten minutes after you leave.

There are many other unique and special fragrance options, like Tom Ford’s amazing line, which ranges from $90 to $500, or the exquisite selection at Creed, which starts at three figures and goes up to $1,750 for 5 ounces of their limited edition, hand-blended Royal Service. (I’ve given some royal service in my time, but never charged quite that much.) And there will always be many others in what is a multi-billion dollar industry. How I’ve laid it out here just happens to be my experience with scents and the very contented place at which I’ve arrived with them.

I think fragrance is important. It’s an invisible accessory that, if chosen well and worn correctly, becomes an essential complement to one’s style. Like many people have well-honed look, they also have a scent to go with it. It’s a signature with underestimated power. Wear it responsibly.

5 thoughts on “Making Sense of Scents: My Take on Fragrances”

  1. George… I would have to agree with you on most of your choices. Great to find the old faithful of the fragrance world still kicking. And nothing worse than smelling the same scent on all the twenty/thirty-somethings in the room. I have used Kiehl’s Original Musk for a long time. It’s very unique and has a nice deep manly scent.

  2. I have used this Sienna in the past and would agree with you on your assessment. I would like to add that I have found several of the Jo Malone scents agreeable on the ‘man scale’ if you would.
    In particular thee Pomegranate Noir scent. And yes use sparingly. I remember one on the similar low-fi radar you mention, Curve (the one in the orange bottle I believe)…gone but not forgotten….

  3. Great article. Very enjoyable read. I have been wearing Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male for the past 8 or 9 years and have gotten nothing but compliments. Not too mention it drives my wife crazy, in the best possible way. I like that it’s not terribly popular as I’ve only encountered a handful of gentleman sporting it. Like you and yours, I hope it stays that way.

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