Welcome to Part 4 (Japanese Haiku ) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is an American indie perfumer based in Colorado, much loved among American perfumistas for her warm, engaging personality and prodigious talent. Her perfumes have long been a point of curiosity (and even obsession) for perfume fans outside of America, but as with indie houses like Sonoma Scent Studio and Parfums DelRae, distribution outside of the States has been an issue. Thankfully, Dawn now sells her perfumes in an optional Voile de Parfum format, which is IPM (Isopropyl Myrastate)-based and can thus be safely shipped internationally without, you know, blowing up the plane and stuff.
Antonio Gardoni’s style is so distinctive that his work can almost be graded in Gardoni-ness, with Noun being a 9/10 (i.e., immediately identifiable as an Antonio Gardoni creation) and Aeon 001 being a 3 or a 4 (identifiable as a Gardoni only if you think hard about it). I’ve never had the chance to smell Gardelia, but from all accounts, its honeyed white floral softness places it slightly outside Gardoni canon, so perhaps a 1 on the Gardoni scale.
For those unfamiliar with the Gardoni style, the recurring motifs might be loosely defined as (a) a lean and elegantly bitter mélange of apothecary herbs and spices, tending towards medicinal, (b) a butch, non-traditional treatment of white florals, especially tuberose, and (c) a complex, brocaded drydown that mixes resins with musks, castoreum, ambergris and/or other animalics. More prosaically, I always think of Gardoni’s creations as possessing an authentic ‘golden’ vigor that’s masculine in an old school manner.
Zoologist, as a brand, could also be said to have a distinctive house style. Of course, since each perfume has a different creator, it’s more difficult to pin down the specifics beyond the fact that all seem to be built on an exaggerated scale, with one chosen element (woods, smoke, leaves, fruit) blown up until it towers comically over the composition like King Kong. They are all exciting, vivid fragrances, but often quite rough, probably because they aren’t put through the glossing filter that most other niche scents go through to reach market these days. As an example, Hyrax would be a 10 on the Zoologist scale, because its filth-and-dried-urine-inside-burning-tires aroma makes it one of those hardcore ‘I dare you’ scents that only the nichiest of niche-heads would wear, whereas something like Hummingbird is a solid 2: a frothy whirl of fruit and flowers that won’t scare the horses.
Apologies for the lengthy preamble, but anyone dithering over a blind purchase of either a sample or a full bottle of Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex will want to know how Gardoni it is, and also possibly, how Zoologist it is, on a scale of 1 to 10. My short answer is that Tyrannosaurus Rex is a 4 on the Gardoni scale, and a 8 on the Zoologist scale. In other words, I don’t know that I’d guess it’s a Gardoni creation from smelling it blind (although digging in, there are a few clues), but I’d confidently peg it as a Zoologist release.
Tyrannosaurus Rex opens with a furnace blast of burning tree sap and smoke, featuring both the rubbery green soot of cade and the piney sharpness of frankincense. This sounds rather par for the course for anyone who’s ever collected or smelled the most popular scents in the phenolic category, like Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal), A City on Fire (Imaginary Authors), or Revolution (Cire Trudon), but Tyrannosaurus Rex immediately distinguishes itself from this company by layering a core of buttery floral notes through the rough-grained miasma of smoke.
In particular, a thickly oily champaca stands out, smelling not of the its usual fruity-musky cleanliness but of the almost rancid, stale ‘Irish butter’ gardenia undertones of Indian champaca, the red ‘joy oil’ stuff that gives Strangelove NYC’s lostinflowers its pungency. Picture the greasy saltiness of gardenia, rose, and ylang butters thrown onto a burning fire with some laurel leaves and fir, and you’ll get a sense of the opening here. It smells like something charred to purge the air of impurities and sickness; the smoke element more medicinal than holy. This facet, plus the fact that it smells the way frankincense gum tastes, identifies it as being Gardoni-esque.
The sheer brute force of the opening, however, is more Zoologist in style. The marriage of smoke and oily floral takes some getting used to. It smells rich and addictive, but also a little too much of a good thing, like staying too long at the fuel pump to breathe in the gasoline fumes, or walking through a rubber plantation on fire fully aware that you should run before the toxic fumes get you but also weirdly narcotized into a trance-like state.
The smoke, in particular, is what pushes this one up on the Zoologist scale. It’s an element I associate with, in particular, Hyrax, a 2018 Zoologist release, which smells like a well-used rubber incontinence sheet set on fire. While Tyrannosaurus Rex is far more accomplished and not provocative for the sake of being provocative, there’s no denying that the shock factor of the opening is high. Unless, unlike me, you’re one of those people who absolutely live for the most challenging parts of a perfume, like the Listerine mouthwash of Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle’s topnotes or the putrid cherry cough syrup first half of Diptyque’s Kimonanthe, in which case, the ‘burning rubber plantation’ portion of Tyrannosaurus Rex will be the highlight.
For me, though, the latter parts of the scent are the most enjoyable because that’s when everything relaxes and the warning system in my solar plexus stops ringing. This is where things get seriously sensual. Only two components of the drydown are identifiable to me, or at least familiar. First, a minty-camphoraceous balsam note, like a solid cube of Carmex set to melt gently on a hot plate, mixed with the gritty brown sugar crystals of benzoin or some other ambery material. At times, it smells like fir balsam and old leather mixed with vanilla ice-cream (soft and almost creamy), and at others, it is bitter and metallic, thanks to rose oxide, a material that smells like nail polish mixed with mint leaves and rose.
The second component in the drydown, for me, is the sandalwood. Although I don’t know whether sandalwood synthetics or natural sandalwood oil was used, the note reminds me very much of Dabur Chandan Ka Tail (Oil of Sandalwood), a santalum album from India that’s sold as an ayurvedic medicine rather than as something to be used as perfume. Dabur comes in a small glass container with a rubber cap to allow penetration by a syringe, which you’re supposed to remove, but that I (not being a meticulous person in general) do not. Accordingly, the topnotes carry a bitter, smoky rubber and fuel exhaust overtone that’s curiously addictive. Tyrannosaurus Rex’s sandalwood component is roughly similar: it is creamy and aromatic, but tainted by all these weird little wafts of rubber and car exhaust that add character to the usual pale milk of sandalwood. It’s sexy as hell. Damn, give me a big, rich sandalwood base any day and you’ve got me. It’s like nuzzling into the chest of a biker who’s ridden through 50 miles of Mysore forest.
A friend (and fellow blogger) often teases me for not being clear in my review about whether I like the scent or not, and that’s fair: I tend to get bogged down in analysis and forget to tell you whether or not a scent connected with me at a personal level. So, let me be clear – I absolutely loved Tyrannosaurus Rex. The opening is too powerful for my taste, but for the most part, I loved the warmth and ‘bigness’ of this perfume. It’s smoky, it’s complex, and it keeps you guessing without taxing your brain cells to oblivion. In other words, although there’s a certain amount of head-scratching and puzzling over notes to be done here (which will please bored fragheads), it’s also very easy to step away from the analysis and simply enjoy wearing the thing itself. And you know, apart from the over-fueled opening, I do.
Jovoy Remember Me is one of, if not the best chai scents I’ve ever smelled. I think it works because its perfumer, Cécile Zarokian, has attained a perfect balance between lush, spiced milkiness and bitter, inedible things like citrus rind, rubber, and suede.
When I make chai, which is similar to Karak, the popular drink in Qatar that directly inspired Cécile to make this scent, minus the condensed milk, I sometimes chop small mint leaves to go into the pan with the ginger, black pepper, and cardamom – the premise being that if the pepper burns my tongue, the mint will put out the fire. A filament of something similarly fresh in Remember Me holds the steamy milkiness of the chai in check. In Remember Me, this tart greenery comes from the peppery-lemony cardamom and bergamot rind. The total effect is of something hot meeting something cooling, like when you first stir the milk into the pan of boiling tea, cloves, and ginger.
Milkiness is a risky thing in perfumery. Too much and it teeters precariously on the edge between creamy and stale, like butter left out on the counter overnight. To date, the only milky scents I’ve liked are ones where (i) the milkiness is a by-product of another material like sandalwood, fig, or rice, or (ii) the milky note has been countered by something bitter or brusque, like smoke, wood, or rubber. Fragrances belonging to the first group would include Amaranthine (Penhaligon’s), Sandalo (Etro), and Philosykos (Diptyque), and fragrances belonging to the second would include Palo Santo (Carner Barcelona) and Leder 6 (J.F. Schwarzlose).
Remember Me belongs to the second group, in that its milk note is deliberately placed there (rather than a by-product of another material) and is effectively counterparted by a rubber-suede note and a leisurely woody drydown. This peach eraser note is actually frangipani, recognizable to anyone who owns or wears Ormonde Jayne’s wonderful Frangipani, which uses a similar, if not identical, frangipani material. The frangipani is refreshingly un-sweet and un-floral, in other words. Picture the rubbery peach tea of Frangipani by Ormonde Jayne morphing slowly into the rich condensed milk leather of Leder 6, and that’s Remember Me.
The tug between milky and spicy-hot in Remember Me eventually reminds me of another delightful scent, and one that’s widely available in department stores: Noir Extreme by Tom Ford. Although Remember Me is far more tightly focused, both scents share a ‘scoop of vanilla ice-cream in Mexican Coca-Cola’ vibe (similar to Chanel Egoiste and Roja Dove Enigma, where the combination of tobacco, spices, and a boozy, creamy element like sandalwood or vanilla creates a Coca Cola note). There’s a point in Noir Extreme where the kulfi note runs too close to the sickliness of condensed milk for comfort, so it’s something I could get tired of very easily. But Remember Me steers clear of this pitfall, its rubbery suede and woody notes working overtime to course-correct the milkiness.
Remember Me is a mostly linear affair, which is great if you like the central accord (as I do) and probably torture if you don’t. In other words, test first. It is also incredibly rich and potent, lasting a good 10 hours before showing signs of fading, so it would work superbly as a scent for when you know you are going to be out all day, in crisp, cold weather, and you’re the type of person who loves burying their nose in a scarf or jumper to get a sustaining whiff every now and then.
I can see Remember Me working well for anyone, including men, who like those big, complicated semi-gourmand fragrances that are popular these days, like El Born by Carner Barcelona. But if you’re like me and have a special fetish for chai, then you need to seek this out pronto. It is richer and stronger than Omnia (Bvlgari), more natural-smelling than Paithani (Penhaligon’s), and not as challenging as Chai (Baruti).
Tom Ford Fougère d’Argent will prove popular with younger male consumers, because for many, it may be their first exposure to a proper fougere, i.e., one that hasn’t been tonkified or fatted up with sweeteners in the modern manner (see: Tom Ford Fucking Fabulous, Chanel Boy, and Serge Lutens Fourreau Noir). If they’re not familiar with stuff like Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Pour Homme or Azzaro Pour Homme, the bitter freshness of the Tom Ford might smell like a new shape in the air.
Only….it’s not. Fougère d’Argent is simply a re-packaging of an old idea for a new audience. The fougere has been around since 1882, which is when Houbigant launched Fougère Royale, a ‘fern-like’ fragrance for (ironically) women. In overall concept, the fougere is analogous to the chypre, in that they are both abstract, perfumery renderings of an idea rather than a smell. Fougeres aren’t rigidly configured to smell like ferns, which don’t have a scent of their own anyway, but to capture a broad range of foresty nuances from trampled herbs to bitter earth. Traditionally, they revolve around coumarin, lavender, and oakmoss, but often feature geranium, vetiver, patchouli, and often, spicy materials like clove or carnation (eugenol).
To my nose – and in fact, to most noses – there is something about classic fougeres that smells incontrovertibly masculine. Fougère d’Argent is no exception. It opens with the soapy, metallic sheen of lavender and ginger stretched over a bitter, mossy backdrop. In most modern-day versions of the fougere, like Chanel Boy, Chypre Palatin, or Fourreau Noir, this stinging ‘aftershavey’ quality that women associate with fougeres is muffled by swathes of creamy materials like sandalwood, vanilla, or tonka bean. Fougère d’Argent simply shears off these accoutrements and allows the basic bones of the fougere structure to stand proud.
Tom Ford’s approach here shows confidence. He’s a guy with his finger on the pulse of what (many) men want, so he must have picked up on the fact that the pendulum is swinging from the modern taste for sweetness back to a more old school taste for bitterness. Maybe it was the commercial success of his laudably sugar-free Vert series that convinced him the time was right for this.
Fougère d’Argent doesn’t smell at all original or exciting, but it does smell good. It’s basically a re-upholstering of Serge Lutens’ Gris Clair, the same central axis of lavender and electrical-socket-haze tonka bean dressed up a bit with the shimmering, aldehydic bitterness of Rive Gauche Pour Homme. It is not as warm or as spicy as, say, the re-issue of Houbigant’s Fougère Royale, which I greatly prefer, nor is it as creamily animalic as Chypre Palatin. Compared to other classic fougeres such as Azzaro Pour Homme, it is slightly sweeter and more synthetically radiant. But it is also nowhere near as sweet as modern fougeres (‘nugères’). In general, it reminds me of the kind of crisp, freshly-applied aftershaves I would smell on the neck of my father before he left for work each day.
But, you know, meh. This kind of fresh, clean manliness in fragrance form used to be de rigueur. Men expected it and they got it. It’s only now, in this glut of bloated niche and masstige fragrances, that they’re forced to shell out $250+ per 50ml bottle for the pleasure. I think that men deserve better than a classic idea upcycled. Fougère d’Argent is too cynical for me. It is clearly designed to catch the guy who’s either unfamiliar with sugar-free fougeres or who has been raised on Tom Ford and (rightly) sees this scent as something completely different from its stable mates. My one hope is that men smell this scent and get interested enough to use it as a jumping off point to explore the fougere category in general. At which point, they’ll inevitably come across something more interesting.
Lovers of the sweet, creamy, and foodie representations of sandalwood, I’m sorry but Santal Nabataea by Fredrik Dalman for Mona di Orio (2018) is not for you. If you love the fake milky sweetness of stuff like Memo’s Quartier Latin, Miller et Bertoux’s Indian Study/ Santal +++, or Perris Monte Carlo’s Santal du Pacifique, and your general expectations of how sandalwood should smell are set in that direction, then take a pass on this.
Santal Nabataea smells very much like real santalum album oil and very little like the usual representation in commercial perfumery. When I first smelled it, I was first astonished, and then a little teary at the thought that something like this can still exist in modern perfumery. The best way to prepare you for something like Santal Nabataea would be to tell you to beg, steal, or borrow a drop of real santalum album oil and see for yourself how different it is from the creamy, sugary loudness of sandalwood in commercial perfumery.
I’ve written a bit about how real santalum album smells like here and here, but to recap, the essential oil itself is quiet, with curiously sharp high notes that can remind one alternately of peanut husks, solvent, glue, and even yoghurt. Australian native sandalwood (s. spicatum) is very sour, with strident green pine notes, but santalum album, used here and also the species from which Mysore sandalwood is derived, is softer, with a dusty incense-and-buttered-toast depth that’s rightly the object of obsession for many.
But no matter what type of sandalwood used, it seems that it’s the perfumer who decides whether to push it in a sweet-creamy or arid-aromatic direction. Natural sandalwood features both aspects simultaneously, but sandalwood synths all seem to focus on the sweet, ambery creaminess to the exclusion of the aromatic.
To date, the sandalwood fragrances that I feel have come closest to capturing the complex, unami-rich flavor of natural sandalwood have been Lorenzo Villoresi’s Sandalo, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier’s Santal Noble, and Etro’s Sandalo (vintage eau de cologne). Or more accurately, should I say, they all capture that wondrous push-and-pull between the slightly sour milkiness and the dusty, aromatic aridity of the wood itself.
My personal favorite is Etro Sandalo eau de cologne, for two reasons: first, the topnotes feature the same nail polish, industrial plastics, and burning tire weirdness of some natural santalum album oils (which I love and welcome as a sign of authenticity), and second, as a bit of a cop out, it gives me the creamy, incensey milkiness of fake sandalwood in the drydown, a kind of guilty pleasure I can’t seem to wean myself off of. I used to own Santal Noble but although I admired it, I felt its brusque coffee-ish opening rendered it too masculine for me to enjoy as a personal fragrance.
I got into detail about these fragrances because I am convinced that Santal Nabataea is as close to Santal Noble as is possible to get this side of disastrous Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier reforms. It has the same touch of resinous coffee funk and the same dusty, earthy brusqueness. The use of sweet myrrh (opoponax) in the basenotes is also similar, emphasizing the herbal soapiness inherent to both scents.
I always thought that wearing Santal Noble was akin to stumbling upon the private quarters of a very English gentleman and watch him silently getting dressed in his three-piece tweed hunting suit laid out by his valet, tucking as he did a paisley handkerchief sprinkled with aromatic eau de cologne into his upper suit pocket. I didn’t feel comfortable inhabiting the skin of this gentleman every time I wore Santal Noble, so I swapped it away. However, I found and still find the scent of Santal Noble to be richly evocative in a way that few sandalwood-forward perfumes are. Santal Nabataea is similarly evocative; exotic without being derivative.
But Santal Nabataea also possess something of the odd, solvent-like topnotes of the Etro Sandalo and the dark, saline weave of aromatic fougere-ish notes seen in the Villoresi. It’s arid, earthy, and deeply unami, reaching parts of you that synthetic sandalwood just can’t. The supporting notes in Santal Nabataea are just that, a chorus of backing singers for the sandalwood soloist. The dusty resinousness of coffee is noticeable in that it dims the lights a bit, and underlines the essentially masculine nature of the scent. But unless the fruity nail polish honk in the topnotes is thanks to the oleander or apricot, I can’t really make them out as distinct shapes or forms in the texture of the scent. If anything, they exist simply to emphasize the astringency of the sandalwood core.
That’s not a complaint, by the way. I’m so grateful to smell something that actually smells like real sandalwood for once that I’m glad not to be distracted by a plethora of competing notes and accents. I think the way Fredrik Dalman built Santal Nabataea shows real confidence in his materials and in his own vision. I think he’s also counting on people to notice that the authenticity of the sandalwood heart in Santal Nabataea and read it as the entire point of the exercise. If so, message received. Lovers of real sandalwood and of fragrances such as Villoresi’s Sandalo, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier’s Santal Noble, and even Etro’s Sandalo will definitely want to at least sample Santal Nabataea. For me personally, it joins the pantheon of great sandalwood commercial fragrances.
If you’ve ever been disappointed in a fragrance that’s been advertized as smelling like tea and then goes on to smell nothing like it, then put Carta Moena 12|69 on your to-test list pronto. Utilizing a little-used essential oil called moena alcanfor, which is distilled from the leaves, bark, and branches of the moena tree native to Amazonian Peru, this fragrance smells truly and honestly of tea. Specifically, it knits together the aroma of a really earthy Pu-Erh tea with the tannic, catch-in-your-throat quality of cold, slightly over-brewed black tea.
Picture a delicately carved silver dish piled high with quivering cubes of rose milk lokhoum, barely set and opalescent. This tower of pink jellies, as wobbly-legged as a newborn giraffe, sits perched on a folded suede opera glove. In the background, a complex but translucent inter-knitting of pink pepper, fruits, roses, and white tea recalls the faded-silk grandeur of both Etro’s Etra and Rajasthan, a series of polite, sepia-toned portraits of India as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of imperialists.