Smell for yourself.
There’s a tendency among perfume obsessives to rank the ‘best’ fragrances according to their specific olfactory family. Fougères, chypres, gourmands and orientals — needless to say, the terminology can be a bit esoteric (and border on unrelatable at the worst of times). That’s why in this guide, to outline the must-have men’s fragrances released over the past century, we’ve opted for a simpler chronological methodology: selecting concoctions from the 1910s, noughties and several decades in-between.
After all, the act of enjoying a fragrance transcends mere nasal stimulation; and the best scents often capture the essence of a particular era, and all the new ideas, ingredients and know-how that go along with it. And so it is with these five men’s fragrances below.
[Hero image credit: Jan de Keijzer/Unsplash]
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong.
Since its invention at the beginning of the 20th century, Acqua di Parma’s Colonia has become one of the most recognisable men’s fragrances in history. That is in no small part due to the simple yet eye-catching black and yellow bottle — which just so happens to function as a handy metaphor for Colonia itself. No matter the alcohol content, all permutations of this Italian recipe unfurl in more or less the same way. First, there’s an effervescent spray of citrus (the most commonly cited trio is lemon, sweet orange and Calabrian bergamot) that soars for a brief moment before settling into the coddling embrace of vetiver and sandalwood. On paper, these notes suggest a fairly generic EDT, but the experience of wearing Colonia is infinitely more pleasurable: a refreshing, down-to-earth spritzer of a fragrance that was light years ahead of its time.
For much of the early 20th century, the men’s fragrance industry as we now know it simply didn’t exist (most products which could pass as dude-friendly were supported by non-gendered advertising). Then came the Swinging 60s, and with the hypermasculinity of that era the arrival of formulations like Dior’s Eau Sauvage. Conceived by master perfumer Edmond Roudnitska as the first exclusively male fragrance for the brand, Eau Sauvage was as much a stroke of marketing genius as a breakthrough in modern science. It was the first men’s fragrance to incorporate Hedione, a synthetic compound that was synonymous with sex appeal, made to drive women wild — it’s all but ubiquitous nowadays.
The Pierre Dinand-designed bottle — all hard angles and sinuous curves clad in metal — was a departure from the bulbous flacons common at the time; while Roudnitska’s formula continues to win fresh devotees in 2020, particularly with its latest EDP iteration. Unlike typical citruses, Eau Sauvage is distinguished by the inclusion of a well-incorporated lavender accord, which helps to bridge the gap between fruity head notes and a foundation loaded with spicy amber. Daily wearer, nocturnal animal: this here’s a bottle that can do both.
Since the very beginning, Creed has been a house that has weathered — some might even say courted — more than its fair share of controversy. But if you look beyond the tenuous connections to European royalty (or for that matter the sometimes laughably pompous marketing) and focus simply, solely, on perfumery, certain truths emerge that explain the brand’s popularity over the last few decades. One such case study is Green Irish Tweed, which was among the first examples of the now-infamous ‘aquatic citrus’ style (think Davidoff Cool Water), made in concert with legendary perfumer Pierre Bourdon.
Because of Creed’s tendency to tweak individual ingredient ratios by the batch, Green Irish Tweed continues to be the subject of intense debate amongst fragrance nuts — all of whom insist on a different best ‘vintage’. Regardless of whether you’re buying a bottle produced in 1999, or have simply opted to pop down to your local department store, the fundamentals are as follows: a burst of lemon and verbena, weaving quickly into green vegetal notes which assume a supportive role even as fresh flavours give way to a murky undercurrent of ambergris. One of those textbook examples of a fragrance that varies dramatically with each individual.
In the notoriously capricious world of high fashion, few fragrances are able to harness the twin energies of critical acclaim and mass appeal with equal efficacy. And yet, Terre d’Hermès (a seasonal men’s fragrance, first unveiled in 2006) did just that, going on to become one of the best-selling scents of the Noughties whilst paving the way for a new stylistic class that hybridised wearability and complex, layered composition.
All credit must go to master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, whose signature is the creation of scents which are elemental and offer plenty of abstraction. In the case of Terre d’Hermès, the familiar gaiety of bitter orange slowly yields to a push-pull of vetiver and black peppercorns, conveying the sensation of changing seasons or of a sky dark with the promise of rain. Comfortably sensual and yet full of fine-grained detail for those who care to breathe deeply, there’s little mystery why many scent hounds consider this to be one of the greatest fragrances of all time.
When New York apothecary Le Labo first released Santal 33 nearly a decade ago, the woody aromatic was supposed to be a huge middle finger to the celebrity-marketed fodder that was de rigeur in the perfume industry. Ironically, it wound up becoming one of the most pervasive scents in Christendom, turning Le Labo into a global force of niche perfumery along the way. It is — for want of a better word — the ‘Soho House’ membership of fragrances, at once aspirational and yet utterly commonplace.
Fragrance snobs vehemently deny that anything this popular — worn by hip, young creative types from Mongkok to Miami Beach — could possibly possess substance, but 9 years on, the fact remains that Santal 33 is a pleasant bouquet by any stretch of the imagination (and a damn good way to introduce neophytes to olfactory families that go beyond ‘citrus’). Much like Eau Sauvage, it’s also a masterful exercise in branding (albeit accidentally). The minimal, liner note-esque labels have become something of a signature for Le Labo — but for bonus points, we recommend you have yours customised at their brick-and-mortar stores. “Oh my gawd, sew indie”.