Men’s fragrances are their own special science. One of the rare occasions when chemistry and artistry not only collide but are treated with equivalent levels of respect and appreciation.
However, as with any mega-bucks profit-generating global industry, it does have a bad habit of talking in its own ‘insider’ lingo. This jargon barrier, along with the infinite choice in a very saturated market, does not make the journey of discovering a new signature scent any easier.
We can’t do much about holding-back the selection that’s out there, which incidentally isn’t waning any time soon. Still, we can go some way to making you perfumery-lingual, demystifying the smoke and mirrors, and armed to make a better informed, tailored to your individual taste, and more clear-sighted selection.
Types Of Men’s Fragrances
Finding the correct concentration of fragrance is essential. Too light, and it can fade without a trace; too intense, and it can have a longer life than a Duracell bunny leading to a cracking headache. To better understand which is the right formulation for you, we have to first consider how a fragrance is made; A blend of oils (known as the formula) is diluted into a ‘carrier’, usually alcohol, which helps stabilise the scent, controlling how long it lasts on the skin. The greater the ratio of oil to alcohol content, the stronger, more persistent, and as a general rule, more expensive the fragrance is.
Considered to be a bit of a lightweight by true perfume-heads, eau fraiche (literally translated as fresh water) is the lager-shandy in the perfumery pecking order. Containing the lowest concentration of oils (usually 1-3 per cent), and diluted with mostly water as opposed to alcohol, they only stay on the skin for around 1-2 hours, making them better suited to an uplifting but temporary post-shower spritz.
Eau de Cologne
Like eau fraiche, there is a level of snobbery that surrounds eau de cologne due to its low oil concentration (2-4 per cent) and its fleeting activity (usually 2-4 hours before evaporation). It is, however, diluted predominantly with alcohol, so is more three-dimensional. The perfect balance of understated but present, this is a solid choice for a summer fragrance. Don’t mistake the umbrella term ‘cologne’ with eau de cologne, as cologne is just slang often used to describe any masculine scent.
Eau de Toilette
Fragrance credibility dramatically shifts up a gear when it enters the realms of eau de toilette (also known as EDT). With 5-15 per cent oil concentration, these scents are capable of seeing you through the day, but not into evening. As such it’s the ideal type of to wear to the office, particularly as fresh top notes such as citrus are given centre stage, with richer ingredients in the cocktail only employed to offer support.
Eau de Parfum
Historically more popular in feminine fragrance, eau de parfum formulas are now becoming widespread in masculine perfumery. With an oil concentration of 15-20 per cent (lasting 4-5 hours), fuller-bodied ingredients such as leather or woods are usually tasked to do most of the hard work, giving them their innate sophistication. Don’t get caught out though, you should expect to pay double the price you would typically pay for a comparable eau de toilette.
Parfum/Extrait de Parfum
With a whopping 20-30 per cent oil to mixer ratio, parfum has the highest concentration and is therefore considered the purest option by fragrance aficionados. Like a fine cognac or a Cuban cigar, they hang in the air long after you have left a room and typically linger on the skin until you wash them off. Make this your choice when you need their bold presence to be known from morning through till midnight, such as at a wedding.
All fragrances can be identified as belonging to a ‘family’ of likeminded scents that share some of the same DNA, and in many cases can evoke the same emotional reactions from their possessors. Similar to different categories of wine, these fragrance families are usually led by their headlining ingredients and the regions that they are indigenous to. It may sounds like pretentious scent chat but they’re worth learning, as if you are fond of a particular fragrance there’s a chance you will also appreciate other scents from the same family, making shopping easier.
Calming and uplifting in equal parts, aromatic fragrances are primarily plant-based and have a mystical ‘woodland’ quality about them. Comprising herbal notes like rosemary, thyme, lavender, cumin and clary sage that are often paired with richer, musky notes, they are almost exclusively restricted traditionally to masculine perfumery.
Pronounced ‘shee-pra’ (derived from the French translation for Cyprus), this is considered by perfumers to be the most sophisticated and rounded of all the families. Dating back to Roman times and characterised by a woody-mossy base, these fragrances are a precise science of combined notes (known as an accord) including a citrus (usually bergamot), patchouli, cistus labdanum, and animalistic oakmoss.
Also known as the ‘Hesperide’ family of fragrances, as its name would suggest this category is a celebration of energetic and zesty citrus fruits. Expect orange, bergamot, lemon, mandarin, yuzu and grapefruit, usually combined with the blossoms and leaves of citrus fruit trees, such as neroli, petitgrain and orange blossom, to take the edge off and achieve delicacy in their dry-down. Citrus scents usually go in hard but settle to be one of the most understated and easy-to-wear of all the scent categories.
For obvious reasons, the floral group of fragrances is considered the most feminine of them all (although there are many great masculine scents that feature iris or geranium). However, it’s also the largest and most diverse, probably due to the vast selection of flower-based oils at every perfumer’s disposal. Jasmine and rose are the leading actors in this play, with support from an endless supply of fragrant blooms, including gardenia, tuberose and magnolia.
The fougère family has a retro appeal, having had a bit of a moment in the 1970s. The greenest of all the fragrance categories (meaning it smells like a punch of crushed grass and leaves), it is almost exclusively reserved to male fragrances. Meaning “fern-like” in French, fougère is bit like an aromatic on steroids, and traditionally contains lavender, oakmoss and cumarin (which smells like freshly harvested hay).
Characterised by its powdery, mature, smoky and deep qualities, the leather family of fragrances, with origins can be traced back to a time when tanneries would use smoke, wood, resins, tobacco and even honey to disguise the foul smells of the tanning process. Another group that is predominantly masculine, today a lot of leather notes are created from synthetic compounds, but ones that are still good enough to create instant classics.
Conjuring up memories of old books, pencil shavings and campfires, the woody category is one of the most emotive and nostalgic of all fragrance families. Dry, warm and rich woods such as sandalwood, cedarwood, patchouli, oak, sandalwood and vetiver tend to steer this group towards the macho side of things, so it’s little wonder you’ll find more than a few scent icons here.
Full of Eastern promise, the Oriental category is opulent, hedonistic and sensual. Spices and resins, like frankincense, oud and myrrh from East India, Turkey, and the Middle East give these scents an almost hypnotic appeal, and are among (due to their rare ingredients) among some of the most expensive. Often worn as evening fragrances, they usually pack quite a punch and can be a little overwhelming.
All scents have a lifecycle, with most traditional men’s fragrances built in a pyramid-like structure; divided into three layers (top, middle, base) with notes that evaporate in a considered sequence. Creating fragrances isn’t just about combining the right essential oils, it’s as much about the order they appear in and how long they last. Much like music, without order it would be just a random bunch of notes without any structure or harmony.
The spike of the aforementioned pyramid holds the top notes (also known as head notes). These are the ingredients that jump to the foreground and give the first impression of a fragrance. Evaporating after half an hour or so from the skin, they are usually citrus, fruity or herbaceous in origin, such as mint, lemon, grapefruit, bergamot, basil or ginger, and serve as an uplifting rush of short-lived, foot-on-the-accelerator energy. While many top note ingredients are inexpensive to produce (presumably because they don’t hang around too long), their importance is paramount as they’re often the make or break for over the counter perfume sales.
‘Dry down’ is the perfumery term for evaporation (essentially what’s left on your skin after the notes have gone). After the zing of the top notes, the middle notes become more identifiable, as these usually last 3-4 hours before going through the same process. They are the heart (but not the soul, that comes from the base) of any scent, and are therefore usually soft, familiar and comforting. Floral-based oils, such as jasmine, neroli, rose, lavender and geranium and colder spices such as cumin and coriander are all reliable and continuously used examples of middle notes.
In the same way every story needs a beginning, middle and end, the base notes take responsibility for the closing act. Present to both ground and add strength to the middle notes, they usually only appear further into the drying-down process, when the top notes have disappeared and the middle notes are halfway through their lifecycle. Base notes are usually more luxurious and precious and, as a result, the most expensive in the lab – oud, sandalwood, cedarwood, patchouli, leather, amber and musk – and will ‘play’ with the middle notes, complementing and interacting with them before lingering on.
Key Fragrances Notes
With a couple of hundred natural (at the very least) and more than 1,500 synthetic materials at perfumers’ disposal, the infinite combination of notes and the percentages used of each leaves the door wide open to an endless supply of new to market fragrances. Some notes are easier to identify than others (if you don’t know what lavender, pepper or lemon smell like, you need to get out more), whereas some, such as frankincense, galbanum, orris or ambroxan, you will probably have never encountered. Despite the fact all notes are actually gender-neutral, there is still a stable of ingredients that are considered by traditionalists to be more masculine than feminine. Of the most commonly used in men’s fragrance, these are the ones you may not be so familiar with.
Elegant, sweet and delicate, neroli is an essential oil distilled from the blossoms of the Seville (sometimes known as ‘bitter’) orange tree. Often used in eau de cologne, which brings out its citrus edge, it is sometimes confused with orange blossom (slightly more floral), which is understandable as both oils are derived from the same plant but go through a different distillation process. Neroli is distilled using steam, giving it a fresher, punchier facet. Mainly farmed in Tunisia and Morocco, the twigs and leaves of the same tree are used for another fragrance favourite, petitgrain.
More than three-quarters of the entire perfume industry’s bergamot crop is grown in Southern Italy, in Calabria to be more precise. A citrus fruit (something between a lemon and a grapefruit) from the citrus bergamia tree, it is actually too bitter to eat, but the perfect bolt to pep up any scent. Common in men’s fragrances and always used as a top note, it is the most ‘grown-up’ of all the citrus notes thanks to its added richness.
A dry grass native to India, vetiver essential oil (which can’t be replicated synthetically) is actually distilled from the plant’s roots and not its fauna. With a woody, smoky, almost dusty aroma, it is one of the backbones of men’s fragrances, used in both the heart and base. The finest qualities of vetiver are recognised as coming out of Haiti, but wherever it comes from, it’s arguably the king of all man-friendly notes.
One of the most polarising notes in perfumery, you are either a lover of oud or a despiser. Among the most expensive raw ingredients in the world, expect to see a hefty hike in price for fragrances that feature it in their base. Better adopted by evening scents, it has an almost regal or biblical quality, not surprising given the oil (which is derived from the resin of the agarwood tree) has been used for centuries in incense and on the skin for religious and ceremonial purposes. Because of its history, oud was always favoured by Middle Eastern men, but thanks to designers like Tom Ford giving it a contemporary makeover, it is now just as accepted and appreciated in the West.
In spite of its hippy reputation, patchouli is one of the most majestic in the armoury of men’s fragrance notes. Harvested from a bushy plant that is actually part of the mint family and indigenous to East Asia (Indonesia is where the really good stuff originates from), the oil is distilled by putting the dried out leaves of the plant through a steam process, giving it a smoky, almost animalistic quality. Heady and hypnotic, velvety and pungent, it is also celebrated for its therapeutic benefits and is therefore used in alternative medicine.
Top Men’s Fragrance Tips
Change With The Season
Certain scents and notes suit specific times of the year better. Colognes, citrus-based and floral juices work better from spring through to summer, while orientals and leather or woody-based fragrances are more at home in an autumn or winter fragrance. Although this is not necessary, it is true that heat breaks down the chemical bonds that gives a perfume its subtle scent, which can make the latter overpowering under the blistering sun.
Know The Occasion
Just as you dress for the occasion, you should spray for it too. To avoid giving your co-workers a headache, the boardroom calls for something light – anything vetiver or neroli-based will do the job – whereas for date night you can afford to go slightly heavier and seductive with tonka bean, Turkish rose and amber. Worth also remembering is how long you need a fragrance to last, this will help you decide the best concentration for your budget.
Try Before You Buy
When shopping for a new scent, use blotter cards instead of spraying directly on yourself. You will realistically only be able to spray three on your own skin before they start to layer and give a false impression. Spray all the fragrances you like onto blotters, then go away and have a coffee (coffee beans help neutralise your sense of smell) and review them. When you have narrowed them down to your favourites, try those on your skin before making your final decision.
Learn Where To Spray
While most men spray fragrances on their wrists (a strange choice, given nobody smells your cuffs), the ideal place to spritz is on your neck and behind your ears – the perfect location if somebody leans in to speak to you. Be cautious and don’t overdo the dosage, many men reapply their scent throughout the day, which isn’t necessary as most fragrances are made up of molecules that reactivate and are reborn when moisture comes into contact with them. Stick to three sprays before heading out the door.
Play With Gender
Fundamentally, as they don’t have genitalia, all fragrances are gender-neutral; its only conditioning and marketing that pigeonholes certain scents into a male or female genre. It will all depend on your own tastes, and you should never feel limited to bottles that say ‘for him’ but instead experiment with not only the unisex scents that are available but even some of the resolutely feminine ones. Frederic Malle’s ‘A Portrait of a Lady’, for example, with an abundance of patchouli and rose, smells great even on alpha males.
Know Your Notes
There are thousands of ingredients available to perfume creators (also known as ‘noses), but there are a few commonly used staples in men’s fragrance such as bergamot, lavender, sandalwood, vetiver and cedarwood. As well as working within the families, if you understand which notes crop up in the handful of fragrances you enjoy most, the search for new ones will be narrowed down and much easier.
Store Scents Smartly
It’s a bit of a myth that all fragrances go off after only six months. Their true best-before depends very much on the quality of ingredients and the perfume’s structure; meaning some can last several years. As soon as you spritz your first spray, oxygen enters the bottle and the degeneration process begins. However, you can help keep them fresh by storing them out of light and away from heat.
A Brief History Of Men’s Fragrances
Humans have been using scented oils made from woods, resins, botanical plants, spices and animal musks for a myriad of purposes including ceremonial, mystical, religious and medicinal for at least 4,000 years (or since anything was ever recorded, in fact). During this time, fragrances have evolved dramatically, as they moved from Mesopotamia, through Arabia (still known as Land of Perfumes), Egypt and Persia before (thanks to the boujis Romans) finally reaching Europe.
The story, for men’s fragrances anyway, really begins in 1709. It was then that chemist Giovanni Marina Farina created a lighter, more joyful version of the heavy scents that were popular in their day. Bursting with citrus fruits, flowers and herbs, his invention, which he named in honour of the city in which he blended it, Cologne, went on to be recognised as the first recognisably masculine fragrance.
Skipping past Napoleon’s obsession for rosemary-infused scents, which he would dab behind the ear before he went into battle, the first fragrance that was labelled as “for men” was created in Paris, in 1934 by Caron, called ‘Pour un Homme’, which was by all accounts a hypnotic blend of lavender, vanilla, amber and cedarwood.
In more modern times, the 1950s gave us our first Chanel fragrance for men ‘Pour Monsieur, the ’60s were more risqué with launches like Eau Sauvage by Dior. The ’70s were all about chest-beating Alpha-masculinity (think Polo by Ralph Lauren), the ’80s, hedonistic power fragrances like Calvin Klein Obsession, through to the times in which we now live, where non-gender-specific aromas have gone full-circle and have again become the order of the day.
Photographer: Mitch Payne
Still life stylist: Maya Linhares-Marx
Words: Adrian Clark