The Rise and Fall of the Great Herbal/Aromatics.


I guess most of those who consider themselves well-informed would agree that one of the earliest (if not the earliest) “modern” scent, the fougere, can be considered an herbal aromatic scent. Lavender is a flowering plant, of course, but certainly can come across as herbal in these olfactory concoctions (and I find that coriander seems more herbal than spicy sometimes; once can find an interesting “feminine” and “green” scent in vintage Coriandre). These kinds of scents were never popular in the “feminine” context (if one was ever marketed as such) but instead seem to have reached their zenith of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, and on the “masculine” side of the aisle. Today, one doesn’t even come across many examples or herbal/aromatics among niche companies, with or without lavender. Ambre Sultan, for example, has some nice herbal notes, but the amber prevents it from being especially aromatic.

Sure, fashions change, but even so, we can choose among plenty of leathers, woods, animalics, orientals, and less aromatic fougeres, etc., offered by designer and niche companies alike. Yet, I can’t think of any highly herbal/aromatic scents in niche-land (though I’m certainly not a huge sampler of niche). Blenheim Bouquet is at least as much about pine and wood more generally, though the herbal note is obvious there (as is citrus), and it is aromatic. Basil is still used quite a bit, but most seem to perceive it as “old man,” “barbershop,” etc., though that is likely due to the other notes used, and the nature of the composition. While coumarin does a good job softening up herbal notes, as in the traditional fougere, lavender was used so much (and in large amounts) in these kinds of compositions that a cliche was created, and you certainly won’t have any difficulty finding a scent of this kind, if that’s what you seek.

There was a time, however, when another idea was fully “fleshed out” and was quite an accomplishment. Examples include the first Davidoff scent and Programme Homme. In the former, there is no obvious fougere accord (if there is one at all) and in the latter the fougere accord is obvious for a couple of hours or so but then dissipates to hardly anything, allowing a base dominated by herbs and castoreum (along with some amber, coumarin, etc. to soften things up). At this point, there is richness, depth, and dynamism. Then there is the highly-prized Patou Pour Homme, which features a more subtle herbal quality, which is common in other scents of this type. However, to me the key is that there is an herbal element that keeps things at least noticeably aromatic.

On the other end of the spectrum is Krizia Uomo, in that it’s anything but subtle. It’s often compared to One Man Show, which is a complex scent that features noticeable spice, incense, amber, etc., but with a green/herbal quality that lasts a long time. I believe it has been reformulated in a way that may reduce its appeal greatly, at least among some people, and after a while the amber becomes much more obvious, as well as suppressive of the herbal quality. To be sure, these are complex scents that offen feature other clear elements, such as floral notes, but for me it’s not about wanting to smell like oregano or thyme, but rather wanting those kinds of notes featured fairly prominently in a complex composition.

Interestingly, vintage Lauder for men (1985) may be the closest “masculine” to vintage Coriandre. The last time I wore it the patchouli bothered me, coming across as a bit too camphorous, but this is another one I’d call a classic (and complex) herbal/aromatic that I haven’t seen much of in recent releases, for whatever reason. A “late comer,” Green Jeans (1996), is a unique scent in this context, as there is no discernible fougere accord, and citrus is obvious up top, with pine being obvious at some point (depending upon the person), but it’s also got a fair share of herbs, though with a generic “woody/amber” base. Fortunately, the woody/amber acts as just another element rather than as a dominant accord, generating very good dynamism, though for those who hate that woody/amber quality, this may be a scent to avoid.

It may be that I enjoy these so much because herbal notes can generate quite of bit of contrast when used with the “usual suspects.” Ambre Sultan is a good example of how something that has come to bore many of us (that is, the “amber scent”) can be made into something very pleasant with the addition of noticeable herbal notes. Tattoo for Men by Michel Germain does something similar, but not as deep, rich, or natural-smelling (though I wouldn’t call it a “synthetic nightmare” either). By contrast, the obvious fougeres of the 70s and 80s often featured an herbal note (basil was quite common) but it can’t be appreciated in the same way because the fougere accord is so strong (at least to me). Perhaps this older aromatic/herbal (without a strong fougere accord) will never be possible again because most people have become used to much sweeter scents, and so Ambre Sultan type compositions may be the most they can bear. However, I suggest that anyone who considers himself/herself an aficionado try to obtain a sample of some of these wonderful constructions!

NOTE: Some of these scents I consider “castoreum monsters” as well, and it seems that herbal notes work well with castoreum.

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