Yes, I know some will be irritated by the title, but after subjecting myself once again to this scent in order to decide if I should in fact write up such a post, I feel I owe it to my readers to be entirely honest and “tell it like it is,” from my perspective, of course. Obviously, if you like it that’s fine, and I can certainly understand the same kind of criticism of scents that I like (namely that there is an irritating note clash rather than pleasant note contrast), but here I want to explore why some scents are enjoyable (at least to the aficionado) whereas others are not, as well as what perfumers may be thinking. Note that I am referring to an older, Lancaster formulation of Cool Water, and not the Coty one, which I view as a pleasant muddle but otherwise not worthy of much attention (but again, some people may be seeking just such a scent!).
One thing that many people don’t consider is “where things were at” when something occurred. When Pierre Bourdon created CW, there was no Acqua di Gio, no major “niche” market where some companies came and went frequently, no real “community” of aficionados online, etc. What was there that perfumers were likely thinking about in the late 1980s? Presumably scents that were popular within their lifetimes, such as Grey Flannel, which was released in 1975. Let’s first take a look at the note pyramids for these two, beginning with CW:
Top notes include mint and green nuances, lavender, coriander and rosemary. The heart notes include geranium, neroli, jasmine and sandalwood. The base is composed of cedarwood, musk, amber and tobacco
Top notes are galbanum, neroli, petitgrain, bergamot and lemon; middle notes are mimose, iris, violet, sage, rose, geranium and narcissus; base notes are tonka bean, almond, oakmoss, vetiver and cedar.
Since Davidoff began with a cigar business, one could imagine the brief for CW containing a required tobacco note, so there’s no need to ponder too much about that one (however, I don’t remember detecting any tobacco note in the Coty CW). Otherwise, though not listed as such, we have a “woody/amber” molecule used in CW that wasn’t being used in 1975, to my knowledge, as well as lavender and jasmine replacing the florals in GF (violet is especially prominent). My guess here is that Bourdon was trying to “update” or “modernize” GF, just as Alberto Morillas may have been trying to update Eau Sauvage with his Acqua di Gio (I’m not even suggesting this was done consciously, so keep that in mind).
For me the major “problem” with CW is that it has no theme, whereas the crisp green/floral of GF clearly is evocative of natural landscapes under certain conditions as well as social formality. By contrast, CW feels like it was composed by a perfumer who was “experimenting” (while complying with a brief), especially with the new materials (“woody/amber” and dihydromyrcenol, from what I understand). In a sense, Bourdon perfected the use of dihyrdromyrcenol in a green context with Green Irish Tweed (if he in fact composed that one, as most aficionados apparently think), and so there was “nowhere to go” when he came to composing CW other than to create a very similar scent (such as we find with Original Santal and Individuel or Orange Spice and Kouros). And he had to stick a clear tobacco note in there !
Older tobacco scents were not “fresh,” yet that seems to have been one of the major ideas inspiring CW. I wonder whether Bourdon thought he could integrate a tobacco note into a scent with strong dihydromyrcenol by including some other strong notes (neroli, rosemary, and jasmine in particular here), sort of like creating a gradual descent into the tobacco, so to speak. Most likely, there were several variations presented, and someone else decided to choose what was then marketed as CW. Boy I’d like to smell those other ones, if they still exist (I have a variation on Lagerfeld’s KL for Men, for example)! In any case, this is a complex blend, but by the late 1980s this kind of “masculine” had been perfected (for instance, in Joint for Men), though clearly these had a “heavier” feel to them than CW. Thus, we have another possible idea being tinkered with by Bourdon (that is, lightening/freshening up the typical masculine scent of the day), though these notions would not have been mutually exclusive.
Now, on to my latest experience with CW (two sprays to the chest with a Lancaster formulation). I tried to get at least enough of the top notes to be able to speak to them here, and recently my overall sensitivity seems to be lower than usual. After a few minutes (as most of you probably know by now, I have little interest in that initial period), there are clearly strong sweet and fruity aspects (at least borderline candy-like), along with noticeable dihydromyrcenol (I’m assuming that’s what the not entirely natural “freshness” is), lavender, and a “sour” quality (presumably mostly due to the neroli note but perhaps tobacco is playing a role here as well). It doesn’t take long for a “velvety” (for those who like it) or a “blob”-like quality to emerge, and this may be what has led me to dislike CW so much, and beyond that, there is that synthetic “fresh” buzz that never lets up. That is, while I can smell many of the notes up close on the skin, from a distance (as is the case with a “normal” wearing), a slight creamy quality blurs everything, becoming the olfactory equivalent of a near-sighted person looking at a distant landscape (without corrective lenses). This does not happen with scents that possess similar note pyramids (which I discuss below), leading me to think that Bourdon used more of certain synthetics for wood and amber notes. Was this to keep things within a certain budget or because he liked this new quality (or some other reason)?
At least on me, the scent doesn’t change much for the first few hours (beyond the top notes), and so that allows me to come to conclusions about it (because I won’t wait 3-4 hours to get to “the good stuff,” not that there’s anything I consider special here in any case). It’s dominated by a slightly sour, candyish accord (with mild lavender), though the candy seems more like candy that is going bad and should be thrown in the garbage. For me, it leads nowhere, and it not pleasant, though as I’ve said to many people, you can take just about any scent and if you dilute it enough and add enough sweetness (such as with ethyl maltol) most people would probably say, “it smells nice.” Yes, it’s a bit musky and it’s not especially “synthetic” smelling, and for it’s time I can imagine it seemed like a “breath of fresh air to a lot of people,” despite the somewhat sour quality, particularly in a “casual” social context. So, I’m not suggesting that it smells “awful,” but rather that in terms of where perfumery is at now, it has no “redeeming value,” other than as an olfactory historical artifact or if the person thinks it has some value in terms of “impressing” another person.
For example, why wear this oddball clash of notes that makes you smell like weird, expired candy when you could wear GIT instead? If you want strong tobacco, there are many options. If you like neroli notes, again, there are many better options. Etc. Now you may say that you just happen to like this oddball collection of notes, and that’s fine, but even in that case they are not rendered well. Instead, it is unbalanced, and the notes that “spike out” are not especially compelling on any level. Luca Turin has stated that CW has a “lethally effective formula of crab apple, woody citrus, amber, and musk.” I don’t want to “call him out” here, because it’s often the case that one would like to say more on a subject but one’s life is finite and decisions have to be made about the use of one’s time. However, CW is not an amber-dominant scent, nor a wood-dominant one, nor a musk-dominant one, and the citrus is certainly nothing special (at least not in a rich or “natural smelling” context). If there is crab apple here it’s likely prominent in the top notes only.
There were plenty of “men’s” scents marketed before CW that features natural-smelling wood, amber, musk, and citrus, a good example being Xeryus, from two years earlier (which also has jasmine and lavender, like CW). To this aficionado, Xeryus (vintage) “blows the doors off” CW, which comes across as a failed attempt at doing a Xeryus type of scent “on the cheap.” Like CW, however, there is an attempt to do something a little different in Xeryus, and one reviewer described it as containing a wonderful note, something like a tree with the smells of China adorning it. There is excellent dynamism and note contrast here, along with this unique quality. Why would anyone who understands the difference in ingredient quality mention these notes in the CW context when a scent that was released at about the same time had those same notes, but was clearly superior in terms of quality? The only reasonable explanation is that this person does not value ingredient quality very highly, and that brings me back to what I said about people who appear to be “super smellers” and cannot tolerate many aroma chemicals or the use of these substances in large amounts.
If you like the “fresh” idea behind CW but not the powdery or violet aspects of GIT, I suggest seeking out vintage scents like Z by Halston, or even better, Paco Rabanne’s Eau de Sport (which is likely more difficult to find). The way naturals and synthetics are integrated to produce a “fresh’ effect is just as good as the way it’s done in CW or GIT, IMO. Even Baryshnikov Sport, which has been selling for next to nothing lately, has a more consistent and interesting “fresh” idea, IMO. Z and PR’s Eau de Sport are simpler than CW but smell more natural to me and don’t feature a note clash. And if you like the idea of CW type “freshness” along with tobacco, there is Vintage by Varvatos, where that freshness doesn’t last too long (which allows me to wear it), and then you get a tobacco scent with notes that work well together. It may be that the top notes of CW were largely responsible for its popularity, but as I’ve said before, if it were only about top notes, I’m not sure I would have any scents right now! I’d probably just smell my jars of various herbs, seeds, spices, etc. instead.