“So many perfumes, so little time,” we perfume fanatics think. I not only ponder the scents I’m missing today, but all the perfumes from long ago I never got the chance to smell. I like to peruse glossy perfume books but often feel “bitter” as I admire beautiful illustrations and photographs in old perfume advertisements. Many famous perfume houses, and their creations, disappeared long before I was born — companies like L T Piver, Gilot, Corday, Dorin, Delettrez, Rimmel's Perfumery. Whenever I see certain famous perfume bottles, I get greedy and regretful: Molinard’s “1811” in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, with a bicorn hat stopper; Schiaparelli’s Snuff (a pipe-shaped bottle housed in a cigar box!); or, perhaps my most coveted bottle, D’Orsay’s Toujours fidèle from 1909, topped with a crystal bulldog.
What’s a man to do?
Five years ago, Robin compiled a list of 100 fragrances every perfumista should try; most of those fragrances were for women (with some unisex perfumes and four masculines included too). Today, I’m presenting a list of 50* perfumes geared towards men, especially newcomers to perfume adoration.
Why only 50 perfumes? I started with 75 fragrances on my list but over time, 25 fragrances were ‘sacrificed.’ There are fewer men’s perfumes on the market than women’s; and as I’ve prepared this list and re-tested masculine fragrance candidates for it, I’ve not been able to justify including more than 50 masculine fragrances on my must-sniff compilation. (This made me feel better about all the perfumes I’ve missed out on in this life.)
The ranks of classic men's fragrances have been decimated by IFRA restrictions,1 the rising costs and scarcity of certain raw materials, and inept reformulations. Great perfumes for men have been reformulated beyond recognition or discontinued; many fragrance lines are now more concerned with the bottom line than with “heritage” or quality. Among the casualties of IFRA et al are Rochas Moustache, Monsieur Rochas, Alain Delon Iquitos, Krizia Moods, Lagerfeld Pour Homme, Pierre Balmain Ébène, Patou Pour Homme, Ricci Signoricci, Houbigant Fougère Royale (modernized)…on and on.
Of course, the list below is personal. There are perfumes on the list I love…and some I hate (but still feel you should smell to add to your perfumista cred). I’ve also limited myself to perfumes that are readily available in the U.S. and that were not on Robin’s “100” list (some of which were contenders for my list too — Guerlain Jicky, L’Artisan Parfumeur Bois Farine, Calvin Klein ck one, Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan). Perfumes that once seemed de rigueur for masculine perfume lovers to sniff are no longer interesting to my nose: Pino Silvestre, Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel, Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir, Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, Old Spice, Brut and New West for Him by Aramis — to name a tiny sampling.
*Author’s Prerogative (i.e. ‘exceptions to the rules’): two of Robin’s “100” picks HAD to be on my list too: Dior Eau Sauvage and Guerlain Vetiver. These two venerable fragrances are on my list but don’t “count”…thus the numbers 51 and 52 you’ll notice below. I know my “50” list will seem incomplete to, well, everyone, including myself. Do comment and tell me an important masculine fragrance that I left off (chances are good I’ve tried it).
Colonia is on my list not because I adore it (I like it), but because every man should smell its clean, floral talcum powder aroma. When one hears “cologne” one thinks simple mixes of citrus and light woods. Colonia Eau de Cologne is a gateway-scent for men who want to explore flowers, but in a “conservative” (not conservatory) way. Colonia is fast approaching its 100-year anniversary; it’s nice to smell a “survivor,” and a perfume that’s not been ruined by reformulations.
2. AESOP MYSTRA
Mystra shows how just a few ingredients can make a big impression. In this pungent mix, there’s frankincense, labdanum and mastic — notes that every perfume lover should recognize.
XXV presents an original take on incense. XXV’s incense is brightened with fruit: citrus and sweet berry skins (with a ratafia-like character). Incense need not be “serious” and “religious,” you can almost imagine adding XXV to a cocktail. (Honorable Mentions in the fruit-incense genre are Memo Luxor Oud and Erik Kormann Eau de Fröhliche.)
Gold Pour Homme is the male equivalent of a knock-out, va-va-va-voom perfume; the rich, almost-overpowering, notes revolve around jasmine and musk. I’ve had people tell me I smell sensational when I wear this fragrance, and others pinch their nostrils, letting their fingers act as a 'clothespin' to block out the scent. Good luck, folks! Nothing blocks out this one, and it’s a great intro to Middle Eastern masculine perfumery; in the Middle East, men are NOT afraid of flowers or desert-encompassing sillage.
At least one Annick Goutal fragrance had to be on my list. I love many of the fragrances in the AG line-up and still mourn the discontinued Monsieur. Ambre Fétiche almost beat out Sables for my list because it’s one sensational amber fragrance. But Sables is like nothing else here: a mix of rich, slightly smoky, dark, salty aromas, an elixir with everlasting flower at its heart.
6. BARNEYS ROUTE DU THÉ
Route du Thé was one of the earliest fresh fragrances to showcase "tea" — in this case a sharp, tea-tonic. Route du Thé was released near the time New West and calone made their dramatic entrance; tea hasn’t stopped “brewing” since….
Bijan for Men debuted in 1987, and to my nose, the years have been kind to Bijan for Men. (Is there a “plastic surgeon” equivalent for scents hidden somewhere near the Beverly Hills Bijan store?) Bijan’s herbal, wood-y, nutmeg-tinged formula is conservative, but with a soft edge (it’s not too serious). This is a grown-up perfume for sure, but many men need to grow up when it comes to perfume and nix the 24/7 use of sports (crap) fragrances. There’s one big change to Bijan for Men though — it can now be had for $20 (qualifying it as a “cheap thrill”…Bijan is rolling in his grave).
8. BOIS 1920 CLASSIC 1920
Continuing the “grown-up” discussion, nothing could be simpler and more gorgeous, and gracious, than the combination of high-quality citrus, amber, vetiver and sandalwood. This smooth formula is one of my favorites on days when I want to present a calm, poised and “in charge” image.
Men are no longer subjected to derision for wearing an Eau de Parfum (well, not as often as back in the 1990s when Boucheron Pour Homme released its perfume for men). Twenty years later, Boucheron’s mix of citrus, herbs and flowers still smells good…and on the cusp of feminine perfume territory.
Ever heard of santolina or posidonia? As you navigate the perfume world, get used to “eccentric” ingredients lists that try to appeal to perfume lovers’ exotic longings — and assume the majority of these ingredients are made in a lab. Whether harvested or created in a “test tube,” the briny, “seaside-industrial" odors of Bvlgari Aqva Pour Homme make it a mainstream, designer fragrance with character.
Caron has seen better days. The inept reformulations of classic women's perfumes has left the house with a magical past and a wan present. (Time for re-reformulations!) Thankfully, for now, two of Caron’s most striking men’s perfumes remain to remind us of Caron’s daring days of yore: inscrutable, whimsical Le Toisième Homme and forceful, manly Yatagan.
Déclaration presents a ”masculine sweat” accord; its powerful cedar-cumin-bigarade notes will either attract or repel. Here’s to “dirty” in this too-fresh, calone-infused world.
Chanel garners four entries on my list. Chanel Pour Monsieur Eau de Toilette (NOT “Concentrée”) is the only scent on my list that you can’t buy in the United States; to not include it would be a sin and make me feel stupid. Take a trip or have a friend overseas get you a bottle. Antaeus (a gender-bender these days), Égoïste (spicy!) and Cuir de Russie (deluxe leather) are required sniffing for perfume people.
Comme des Garçons does not shy away from “kooky” or difficult fragrances (or at least they didn’t in the past). Sniff this one for odors that conjure everything from overheated machinery to factory chemicals.
19. CREED SILVER MOUNTAIN WATER
Commercially successful and strangely distressful for many perfumistas, Silver Mountain Water gets adoration and hatred. I have a complex relationship with Silver Mountain Water; it’s like a (semi)boyfriend one only meets in secluded places...for fear he will embarrass you. For me, Silver Mountain Water smells like the male equivalent of a women’s “pop” scent — super-TEA and fruits substituting for women’s fruity florals. I find Silver Mountain Water’s hyper, ozonic tea-musk and rich, clearly artificial, fruit accord, gulp, appealing, and I’ve owned two 100 ml bottles in my life and used every drop in each (unusual for me). Every time I’ve worn Silver Mountain Water in public, I’m abashed, even as the compliments stack up.
20. DAVIDOFF COOL WATER
Iconic or moronic…you decide.
21. DIOR EAU SAUVAGE
22. DIOR FAHRENHEIT
Eau Sauvage and Fahrenheit have changed over the years but still possess enough of their zest and odd accords to qualify as must-sniffs for men (vibrating-fizzy jasmine in Eau Sauvage and “honeysuckle & tar” in Fahrenheit).
23. DIPTYQUE EAU LENTE
24. DIPTYQUE L’EAU
Diptyque used to formulate some of the most original, interesting perfumes in the niche market; sadly, it’s been aiming for mainstream cred for years now…and boring me as a result. Eau Lente and L’Eau are from Diptyque’s glory years; their “ancient” and “antique” characters make bold statements.
If you DON’T want to stand out in any way, wear Light Blue Pour Homme: a splendid example of a “modern” designer/department store man’s fragrance — light (indeed!), predictable (with the same ingredients you'll find in a hundred other men's fragrances) and BLUE! (bottle and juice…the color blue is often a “warning” sign in men’s fragrances — Banality Ahead). Light Blue Pour Homme is the nadir of male perfumery.
26. EAU D’ITALIE BOIS D’OMBRIE
27. EAU D’ITALIE SIENNE D’HIVER
Eau d’Italie, like Diptyque, started off producing off-center works — interesting, “peculiar” fragrances that smelled like nothing else on the market. Slowly they moved, just like Diptyque, into well-made mainstream fare (nice, but not enticing to me). These two fragrances are stand-outs from the early days of the line: "quiet" Sienne d’Hiver is cold, damp winter in a bottle; when you start feeling numb with cold, wear boozy, leather-tinged Bois d’Ombrie to warm things up.
Often, perfume PR copy uses words like "shocking" and "unusual" to describe fragrances...but rarely do those words apply to the perfume being promoted. In the case of Sécrétions Magnifiques, shocking and unusual apply! This fragrance shows how far a perfume house will go to attract attention; Sécrétions Magnifiques is gross, unwearable, and, yes, “shocking.” Smell it to experience the outer limits of modern perfumery.
29. GIORGIO ARMANI ACQUA DI GIO
30. GIORGIO ARMANI BOIS D’ENCENS
This is a low-end/high-end pairing: a popular, ditzy, all-time best seller and its more reserved, more profound sibling (not so intent on pleasing everyone). These both smell good, but there’s good and then there’s good in perfumery. Your nose will tell the difference.
These renowned/“vintage” Guerlains are some of the greatest hits of a great perfume house. These are must-smells for perfume lovers.
34. HERMÈS BEL AMI
35. HERMÈS EAU D’HERMES
36. HERMÈS EQUIPAGE
Hermès makes some great fragrances; choosing just three was hard. All these are “old fashioned” even if reformulated. Having survived their re-do’s, Bel Ami, Eau d’Hermès, and Equipage compare favorably to my three Guerlain picks above; they showcase the creativity of the past…matched by few new perfumes, even in the niche category.
37. ISSEY MIYAKE L’EAU D’ISSEY POUR HOMME
The high-toned ‘ozone’ lover got lucky when L’Eau D’Issey Pour Homme came out in 1994; this perfume lists a zillion interesting ingredients, but smells of only one accord that seems more ordinary with every passing year (its scent is now prevalent in detergent, household cleaners, and the like).
Le Mâle is a modern take on an old-time barbershop perfume: when I smell it, I imagine clouds of talcum, buckets of suds, showers of Eaux de Cologne. This, along with Joop! below, was a gay sensation — every gay man I knew seemed to own a bottle. Funny how these two powerhouse perfumes have hung around and been co-opted by straight guys who boast of their “babe-attracting” qualities. Pending IFRA standards, due to go into effect in the summer of 2013, could deprive Le Mâle of its heavy dosage of coumarin...so try it NOW.
This modern orange blossom fragrance adds musk, herbs and fresh fruit aromas to flowers to create a masculine floral fragrance; Artisan is a good choice for men wanting to escape sport-ozonic fragrances without going too far into left field.
40. JOOP! HOMME
Joop! came “out of the closet” six years before Le Mâle (and in a pink outfit no less!) I remember going into my hair salon on Santa Monica Boulevard after this fragrance hit the stores and being floored by the super-rich, super-diffusive, super sultry Joop! Pour Homme that all the customers and stylists (it seemed anyway) were wearing. Joop! Pour Homme was heavy on spiced orange blossom, with some clove-carnation and jasmine thrown in too. Like many of the men I knew who loved it, Joop! Pour Homme was loud, proud and domineering. Now that I’m not so “demure” …I like it.
41. KNIZE 10
Knize 10 tied with my other favorite leather scent on this list: Chanel Cuir de Russie. Knize 10 is a bit smoother than Cuir de Russie, and without Cuir de Russie's heavy birch/tar accent that “upsets” some people.
Timbuktu has been in my perfume cabinet since it was released; I never tire of it. Its incense-y vetiver with a touch of “sweat” doesn’t conjure “dirty” at all, except in a sexy way.
Route du Vetiver is my all-time favorite vetiver perfume. Thankfully, Maître Parfumeur et Gantier has not neutered this perfume with a major reformulation. Route du Vetiver may start off almost “rotten” and off-putting with compost bin vegetal/fruit notes, but quickly it turns into a deep, smooth, tropical vetiver perfume.
Montale was one of the first perfume companies to jump onto the oud caravan that's still barrelling through all scentdom (surely there'll be an Ivory Soap oud bar out soon?); do smell the Montale “oud” note that helped start the oud/Middle East perfumery revolution in the West. Montale’s oud note is synthetic, and easily recognized these days, but it has its place and Black Aoud is one of the best uses of this note I can think of; it’s medicinal, powerful (without being cloying), floral and it won’t/can’t be ignored by anyone in your vicinity. (Honorable mention in the oud category: Le Labo Oud 27.)
I’m not a big fan of the fougère genre; fougères often make me feel, of all things, claustrophobic: not “free” (as in a fern-filled woodland). This fern perfume is a modern, almost “harm-ful” (as opposed to “charm-ful”) take on fougères. It’s gutsy, not dandified and fussy.
This cologne formula, only one of two on my list, is a winter holiday in a bottle: intense citrus (candy, pomanders) and green and spicy notes conjure a fresh Christmas tree.
Though it’s lost some of its shimmer (gone is the real Indian sandalwood that's been overharvested almost to the point of extinction), Hammam Bouquet still smells lovely, plush, and is a great example of English perfumery at its best. When I wear Hammam Bouquet these days I think of two things: Paris and Dutch still life paintings (harking back to an exhibit I saw at the Petit Palais while wearing Hammam Bouquet) — dimly lit tablescapes with bright spots of light aimed at fruits, polished wood, and flowers.
A sensational “green” perfume for men. An acquaintance who disparaged Polo as being “old man” made me laugh. He was wearing a pork pie hat, bow tie and trying (desperately, but unsuccessfully) to grow a beard. Oh, he had on a tweed vest too. Sadly, he was wearing a Burberry fragrance with this outfit, when Polo would have been so much more appropriate…and fun. Irony is lost on the young.
I’ve owned many Serge Lutens perfumes, but Miel de Bois is the most memorable. ALL my friends say it smells like cat piss but to me it captures the edgy aspect of honey, the twang. Beauty’s in the nose of the sniffer, which leads me to….
This fragrance can compete (almost) with Sécrétions Magnifiques in the “ugly” contest, but its purposeful ugliness attracts many consumers with its bad-boy character. Too bad this bad boy is so uncomfortable to be around, with his stinky, unwashed hair, bad coffee breath, and sticky feet (sock-less) in damp boots. ICK.
The house of Yves Saint Laurent has put out some amazing perfumes for men and women, and these two HAD to make my list. Kouros is a flowers-and-musk bomb…equal parts sweet floral and raunch. People may say it’s “dated” or reminds them of “Marrakech taxi drivers” (so? what’s wrong with Marrakech taxi drivers?) but it’s instantly recognizable and shows just what men were willing to wear before the advent of dull ozone, laundry musk and drab sport fragrances. M7 tried to bring oud to the mainstream; it failed commercially (at first) but is now back in the Saint Laurent fragrance line as M7 Oud Absolu. Though it’s been reformulated, it still smells like M7 to me.
Note: top image from Jean Paul Gaultier perfumes website.
1. You can read more about IFRA in On reformulations, or why your favorite perfume doesn’t smell like it used to.