“It was among ferns I learned about eternity.”

No, not the scent, Eternity for Men (or women). Rather this is a line from a poem (by Robert Bly) that I heard while a long time ago on a PBS TV show. I thought it would be an excellent title for a post on the subject of the fougere (the context is very different, to be sure), which undeniably plays a major role in “men’s fragrances” (though plenty of “women’s” scents feature a strong lavender note). Indeed, on a recent thread on this subject over at Basenotes.net, I pointed out that if one used a loose definition of fougere, perhaps more than half of all “men’s” scents released over the last forty years or so could be described as such!

Here are some other things I had to say on that thread:

I think the difference is that if you open up the fougere category and include Yohji Homme, Polo Double Black, etc. you just end up with so many scents that it’s like saying “popular music.” Perhaps the best non-olfactory example is “magical realism.” Plenty of novels and movies/TV shows contain elements of it, but to call something magical realist means that is has to have that as an integral element, without which it could not exist. The TV show “Pushing Daisies” (2007-2009) is an example of magical realism, whereas in “Six Feet Under” the magical realist elements could be removed and the show would still work. Yet even here, you can’t take the comparison too far, because if you remove the mild fougere accord from PDB (which some don’t even detect, and I couldn’t at first because I had strong sensitivity to some of the other notes/aroma chemicals) you will change it into something else. Again, for me the main issue is that there are just too many scents with at least a mild fougere accord, as well as what we see here, which are people who don’t even either understand the fougere accord or think it’s fine to call a scent a fougere despite its lack of coumarin.


In this post I’ll add some additional points. The first is that if everyone is walking around with different notions about what a fougere is, then it’s not really possible to discuss it (whatever it is) intelligently. Some intelligent points might be made, but not only will some people always disagree with those points, but most others might think they agree but they really are coming away with different interpretations of what was said (due to the ambiguity that exists in human languages, unless perhaps one considers mathematics a human language). One problem is that fougere is based upon an imaginary smell, that of a fern. Thus, if one has walked around woodlands that contained ferns, the overall scent is what one might expect, objectively, though of course not all woodlands that contain ferns smell the same, and in fact the smell can change during the course of a year.

In terms of perfumery, a fougere must contain the signature accord of lavender and coumarin. There must be enough of each to create the accord, just as if you want to create a fifth in music, you need to have both notes at a certain volume. Fougeres often contain oakmoss (some claim that these scents must contain oakmoss), or at least they used to until the latest round of IFRA guidelines, and geranium and/or herbal notes have also been common. However, while a spcie note is not uncommon, too much may generate a very different quality, taking it in an oriental direction (or a fougeriental one, as some say; Jacomo de Jacomo is an example). Since the 1970s there have been many such variations on the fougere theme, the first major one being the “aromatic fougere,” which can include strong notes that one won’t encounter on a woodland walk (such as the anise in Azzaro Pour Homme).

Here, I’m certainly not going to try and change anyone’s mind on this subject, as that seems impossible to do. Aficionados seem more wedded to their notions of what a fougere is than they are to their politics or religion! I’m also not going to disparage anyone who thinks that the “official” fougere notion is too rigid. For example, I don’t get any coumarin in Green Irish Tweed, nor does it seem to have oakmoss, yet I can certainly understand the idea that it leads one to think that this is what a fern would smell like if it in fact had a scent to shed. Perhaps it would be best to call it a “green woodlands” scent (green meaning late spring to early autumn), but apparently fougere sounds very “classy” to a lot of people. In fact, GIT has its share of musk (which could be consistent with natural phenomena in a forest), certainly more so than many if not most recent “men’s” designer scents, yet hardly anyone has noted this feature! What we would have to abandon here is the “biscuit-like” fougere accord, as Luca Turin calls it (which is in a mild form in Polo Double Black, for example); it seems like “something’s got to give” here or else the terms becomes too all-encompassing (and then we could just use “popular men’s scent” rather than the word fougere).

Another point is that some “traditional”/”official” fougeres feature a rather searing fougere accord while others are more balanced. Thus, a person might try a fougere with that searing accord and think he doesn’t like the genre, when in fact he would appreciate the more balanced variety. Because of this, along with the obvious variety mentioned above, it may be best to avoid using the term fougere in reviews/descriptions, and just talk about the scent in as much detail as possible. For example, Lomani (1987) features a searing fougere accord at first, which then loosens up to a grassy vetiver scent. For me the opening is a bit too harsh, while the more balanced drydown isn’t special enough to justify enduring an unpleasant hour or so. If people wrote reviews like that I think it would be a lot easier to figure out if a scent if right for you or not, at least in terms of obtaining a sample. Waxing poetic about imaginary ferns probably has its place, but I don’t think that place is in reviews of scents!

1 Comment

Filed under The basics.

One response to ““It was among ferns I learned about eternity.”

  1. Great read. I enjoyed soaking in all of that good information. I look forward to reading more in the future!

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