Many wet shavers start out liking the scents of shave soaps and then move on into fragrance. This can be a challenge on a variety of levels; “Why doesn’t anything smell only like limes?,” “Wait, sandalwood is supposed to smell like that?,” “That 3 ounce bottle of stuff costs how much?”
It’s not always easy to translate one’s expertise and knowledge from one field over into another. CEO’s can tell us this as they move from, say, running a financial firm to running a tech company. Formula One drivers attempting to compete in NASCAR can share their own tales of surprise and woe. As can governors and Senators who become President. As can Michael Jordan….
As mentioned above, shaving guys moving over into the world of male fragrances have some challenges and confusion to confront. But a far more difficult odyssey awaits those who move in the opposite direction, starting out as fragrance fans / collectors (“fragheads”) and trying to duplicate that experience in shave soaps and creams. The price is right certainly, but it soon becomes obvious that the smells are…well, “dull” and “simple” are the words that come to mind.
Where is the clever mix of dirty and clean seen in Guerlain’s Vetiver, the completely odd blending of gasoline and violets from Dior’s Fahrenheit, the mysterious combination of tea, vanilla, and rubber tire from Bvlgari’s Black?
Instead, shavers get citrus, citrus, and more citrus scents, along with lavender, “woods”, rose of one questionable variety or another, and mint, and even this limited palette is cast generally in simple soliflore compositions (that is, where one note is dominant.)
Why are soaps and creams so comparatively dull and what can be done about it on the part of the more olfactory-adventurous shaver? This article series will focus on the first of these questions: why do shave soaps and creams smell so differently from what’s available in the world of male fragrances?
A Lack Of Chemistry
Or actually too much of it, to be precise. Most fragrances meant for perfume usage are suspended in alcohol. This is for a reason. The alcohol preserves the mix in a relatively inert suspension that is meant to do nothing else other than sit there and last for a while. A shave cream or soap by comparison needs to contain many other chemical elements by necessity. See The Anatomy Of A Shaving Cream for more information.
The surfactants, emulsifiers, cleansing agents, humectants, lather stabilizers, epidermal soothers and moisturizers, etc. all have a job to do, and the interaction of all these agents with scent bearing molecules means that not every possible blend of scent emitting oils can be recreated in a cream or soap. Compromises have to be made:; no one wants a great smelling soap that shaves dreadfully or a fascinatingly complex cream that dries on the face in a minute.
Complexity Takes Time To Develop
Related to our first point, most fragrances in traditional perfumery have a scent pyramid, with three layers. First come the top notes, small light molecules of scent perceived in the first few seconds of exposure, as they rise quickly out of the mixture. Next come heart notes, the mid weights of the molecule mix, that develop after a few minutes and last for a half hour to several hours. Finally, the heavy hitters, the base notes, the heaviest molecules that anchor the scent and last for many hours after application.
How long does it take you to shave? It takes me roughly 20 minutes. That means assuming everything was structured as per the conventional scent pyramid given above, I would barely get to the heart notes of the pyramid, and the odds are good the top notes would be barely noticed by me as I focused on developing lather on my face. The perceived complexity of most perfumes comes from their development over time, and the contrasts between the layers of the pyramid. With only a very brief time to experience the scent of the soap or cream, the ability to work in transitions and contrasts is beyond the ability of many, if not all, formulas and their makers.
And the above assumes that one even perceived scents in a way similar to how we smell a cologne or eau de toilette (EDT). The compression of molecules alluded to in our first point hints that this may be hard to do, as there is no inert suspension of alcohol doing nothing but releasing the scent agents over time, but instead a whole bundle of other chemical agents interacting with the intended scent agents. Building a pyramid amidst such chemical chaos may be tough or even impossible.
Most soap and fancier cream makers do claim this traditional layered pyramid is how their soaps work.
Other makers think this triple sequence is impossible to recreate in a soap and instead call the release of scent from a soap or cream a two part process; how it smells in the tub and how it smells upon application, the so-called “presentation” and “bloom” theory.
And other manufacturers tell you “nope, you get all the smells at once and there they are, There may be a bunch of them, and they may be complex, and everyone may smell something different at a different point in the shave, but all the smells are there from the first moment of application.” The “unified field theory” of shave scenting if you like…
Building With Logs Versus Bricks
Some discussion needs to be had about the major schools and designs of male fragrances before we continue: that is, fougeres, chypres, and orientals. Why is this needed? Well, at a fairly early stage in masculine perfume design, it was decided that men should not smell like flowers. This was a combination of outmoded gender mores (“only the wimmen folk should smell like those purty flowers”) and brutal economics. The cultural aspect I will leave to academics to discuss, but the economic part is of interest to us.
Basically, if you want to make a perfume that smells like roses, and only like roses, the quality of your ingredients will carry the day entirely (or not). So if three perfume houses want to make a rose soliflore (meaning the fragrance has only one dominant note) the one using the highest quality ingredients in the highest concentration will probably produce the most notable scent. Then the competition becomes a race to the bottom, as each maker tries to undercut the others by offering better ingredients in higher concentration at a lower price (at least if the mass market is your target). No one wins in this scenario, except the consumer, and we can’t have that, can we?
So what male fragrance designers did, in the early 20th Century, was to invent the concept of mixed ingredient formulas designed around a fixed base/heart. (The article will refer to a “base formula” from here on in, but the core elements of fougeres and chypres are generally found in some mix of both base and heart notes.) This had been done in women’s perfume for decades earlier, but the core concept was to allow a maker to disguise the use of lower quality ingredients and still end up with something desirable and unique. The development of the mixed ingredient customizable fragrance formula coincided well with the availability of (comparatively) inexpensive synthetic ingredients that could duplicate the smell of far more expensive essential fragrance oils, and this is hardly a coincidence.
Why have a standard base at all if you are then going to customize it? A standard base makes the scent characteristics of a formula more predictable to the chemists and scent designers (or “noses”) and, perhaps more importantly, makes the scent at least somewhat predictable to the usually conservative male purchaser.
A little bit of citrus, a touch of lavender, some earthy woods smell from moss: all of these are like familiar elements in a Mahler symphony, which the composer can then play off of to show his own radical innovation, while remaining within the broad realm of conventional aesthetic design. As compared to something like a Minimalist composition by Steve Reich or John Adams, which makes little or no effort at all to link to past musical tradition, and so is immediately shocking to most listeners. Mahler tends to sell more albums compared to the Minimalists for this very reason; the point of departure is conventional, even if the final destination is someplace more unusual.
The first male fragrance customizable template was the fougere, and the first iteration of this was in 1882, with Houbigant’s “Fougere Royal.” We have oakmoss, to give the scent a rich woodsy smell, lavender to give a subtle yet sweet floral overtone, and coumarin, which has a sort of vanilla scent. This same formula was used for centuries thereafter, and is still in use today. “Fougere” literally means “fern”, and of course, ferns have no odor, so the original intent was meant to suggest a fairly subjective green forest-like smell. The fougere can suggest a swamp, a forest, or a freshly manicured lawn, depending on the exact formula.
Fougeres have proven to be somewhat less popular as a genre than the other two to be discussed, perhaps because it is a relatively constrained formula and less open to radical innovation than either chypres or orientals. Though there are not quite so many original fougeres as there are chypres in male fragrance history, the ones that have been made have been vastly influential, for better or worse (Davidoff’s Cool Water, Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, Brut, Azzarro Pour Homme, Laroche’s Drakkar Noir).
The chypre was designed to simulate the alleged scents of Cyprus, a Mediterranean island known for its agricultural fecundity. The first chypre was designed for women in 1917, and was produced by Coty. The first chypres for men came about much later, in the late 50s / early 60s and there is much boring debate over exactly who was first, but Guerlain’s Vetiver in 1961 and Lauder’s Aramis in 1965 were among the first generation of these. In this formula we have bergamot (an intense citrus), oakmoss (again!), and labdanum, a sweet resinous smell. Sandalwood and / or patchouli are also found in most, though not all chypres. Chypres of varying sorts form the most common group of men’s fragrances, spanning the gamut from very citrusy cologne style chypres (Dior’s Eau Sauvage) to very woodsy chypres (Lauren’s Polo) to fresh chypres (Dior’s Fahrenheit).
This leaves the oriental. What is an oriental? Simply, a complex multi-ingredient fragrance (i.e. not a soliflore) that does not follow either the fougere or chypre template. These fragrances typically are less popular with men because they are relatively hard to place and tend to emphasize smells that are very powdery, spicy, or sweet. Many modern orientals try to smell like sweet foods, the so-called “gourmands.” A lot of men do not want to smell like pepper or waffles. Hence there are far fewer oriental fragrances extant compared to fougeres and chypres.
Examples of interesting though poor selling orientals abound: Boucheron’s Jaipur Homme, Chanel’s Egoiste. But there are some hugely successful examples out there, including the original Old Spice (made by Shulton in 1937, and which survives in a radically simplified and vastly different scent today), Gaultier’s Le Male, and Mugler’s A*Men.
All of this is summarized well in this chart by industry specialist Leffingwell, who subdivides their list of fougeres, chypres, and orientals into subcategories, like “woodsy”, “fresh”, “amber” etc. Take a look and be baffled. I should add there are many other different ways to categorize fragrance families, most of which are more complex than Leffingwell’s system, but I like Leffingwell because it is simple, logical, and also accurately reflects my own perceptions as a fragrance user.
The next part of this article will go into the complexities of scent blending and how it applies to shaving creams and soaps.