So as Parts One and Two of this series have theorized, men’s shaving soaps tend to be very divergent from the classical evolution of men’s fragrances in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Some may not care of course, and may be happy to smell lime or bananas as they lather on their cream in the AM. But what if you do want to try to merge the artistic achievements of a century’s worth of olfactory art and science with your stubble removal ritual? What should and shouldn’t you do?
Beware the False Fougeres
The Nissan Altima is a pretty nice car. Gets you from one point to another pretty swiftly, comfortably, and reliably. Critics like it well enough, but do not exactly rave about it.
But what if Nissan started advertising the Altima as “The Spirit of the Muscle Car. Evolved.” Or worse yet “Muscle Car Tradition, 21st Century Technology”. The sophisticated car buyer might well think “Muscle car? With a 0 to 60 of seven seconds? Where’s the rear wheel drive, the V8, the two doors, the manual tranny option?”. The next thought the sophisticated automotive consumer might well have might be a perception that either Nissan doesn’t know what a muscle car is historically, or worse yet, that they hope their potential buyers have no idea what a muscle car is supposed to be like.
So with that example in mind, let’s read some shave soap and cream descriptions:
A fresh masculine fougere opening with bergamot and mandarin intertwined with citrus ozone notes supported by a fruity floral heart resting on a woody amber base. Contains Coriander oil, Geranium oil, Lavandin Grosso, Lemon oil, Patchouli oil, Pine oil and Spearmint oil.
Huh, that sounds pretty great, eh? But… umm, where’s the coumarin and the oakmoss? Can something be a fougere with only lavender and a “woody amber base”? Well, can we have a four door front wheel drive muscle car? In this relativistic age, the answers are murky. But clearly, if you want a historically patterned template for either a muscle car or a fougere, the Altima and Mystery Shave Cream X will not do.
Based off of Drakkar Noir, this is an aromatic fougere with top notes of bergamot, rosemary, lavender, middle notes of cardamom & geranium, and a dry down of vetiver, cedar, and fir balsam.
Huh, lavender again, a reference to a notable historic fougere example… but no oakmoss or coumarin. If we look at the fragrance note pyramid for the famous Drakkar Noir we see the actual “Dragon Boat” designers cheated a bit in the formula and did not include coumarin, but tried to substitute a blend of fir and amber in the base notes to try and replace that grassy, bitter yet sweet scent of coumarin.
The Drakkar designers did however stick a ton of oakmoss in there, while Mystery Soap Y just sticks in some lavender and fir in the hopes that they’ll end up with something that resembles the stated model. It’s like if Nissan referenced the ’67 Camaro in their Altima muscle car ads…”Just like the famous 1967 Camaro SS, the Altima V6 also comes in Matador Red!!” Is that any more convincing to the buyer?
Why do companies do this? As hinted above, they hope unsophisticated shave product buyers neither know nor care what a fougere is. They hope you are vaguely aware that a fougere is Sumptin Fancy (it is a French word after all…), and that it has some sort of history, and they hope you will buy their product based on this vague knowledge.
And you might indeed do this, and you might love the product’s smell, use it exclusively for many months, and get great shaves out of it. Any harm done? Not really. Clearly, fragrances that are not based on lavender, oakmoss, and coumarin can smell just fine. But if you bought Cream X or Soap Y hoping to familiarize yourself with a chapter of the historical art of fragrance design, you will have been disserved.
Are there real fougeres in shaving? Of course.
Barrister & Mann is a smallish artisanal producer located in Cooperstown NY, which is run by a man who knows and cares deeply about the history and design philosophy of fragrances. Unsurprisingly, his fougeres are top notch; made from entirely essential oils (and some very expensive ones at that), possessing all the traditional elements of the fougere “pyramid” and coming in two varieties: the Aromatique, which is spicier and more sharp, and the Imperiale, which is dryer, smoother, and more traditional. These are both extremely true to form, and smell very woodsy and complex… (and they deliver an awesome shave as well!)
Besides the appeal of the great and complex scents offered, the B&M company has also put these fougeres on sale, and is planning on discontinuing making fougeres altogether when the current limited supply of remaining product is gone.
Here is another great fougere option, from newcomer vegan artisan Wholly Kaw, also fully authentic in its composition of scent elements, but one that is a bit cheaper due to use of a mix of fragrance and essential oils.
This fougere is a bit muskier and more floral, hence smelling sweeter than the B&M fougeres above, but it is still a great scent, good for those who want a lighter Spring / Summer fougere scent.
Finally, here is a fougere by Los Angeles Shaving Soap Company that “cheats”, by not using oakmoss or coumarin, but the maker explains why he does not do so in a link I gave in the last article and the fragrance elements the artisan used as substitutes are not at all cheap and are also very convincing replacement for the missing traditional components.
I would call this an honorable and well-informed dissent from the fougere tradition that offers an excellent and sophisticated scent profile that keeps with the “de facto” tradition of fougeres if not “de jure”. Give this soap a try if you like simpler Martin DeCandre style soaps, as it is a relatively simple formula and one that uses only essential oils.
Oh, wait, Martin De Candre makes a fougere too don’t they?
They claim to, but do not list scent elements anywhere on their site and I cannot find any independent web site that has taken a crack at qualifying their ingredients. So they may well be a false fougere, though at that price point, one would hope not! The MdC Fougere might be marvelous and authentic, but I have no idea if it is or not, and given the elevated price of the product, I don’t feel like experimenting, but you might!
Ride The Oriental Express
The much beloved and historic ancestor of the Oriental line, Old Spice has been slowly cheapened and dumbed down as a cologne over various reformulations by its numerous owners over the years. The original was something special though, a mix of powdery and spicy, pungent and sweet, with s complex mix of ingredients and a scent evolution that was a mix of comforting sweetness and odd whiffs of unfamiliar spices. Achieving something close to this historic and sorely missed mixture has become a goal for many shave soap and cream makers, and a few have made really interesting products in the search.
Here’s one from Stirling Soap, an artisan offering a vast array of scents, good, bad, and weird (Ben Franklin’s underwear?). Their vigorous and powerful take on Old Spice is one of their best soaps.
Soap Commander is an up and coming artisan run by a Navy vet and his family, and their Old Spice take is a bit more subtle though still fascinating to smell:
Soap Commander also makes a great Oriental type formula that uses a blend of teakwood cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon over a base of amber, cedar, sandalwood, and patchouli that is a great experience, and that base of sandalwood and patchouli is one of the classis utility infielder blends of male fragrances.
(I have no idea where the “Passion” comes in on this one, or where the “Endurance” in the Old Spice inspiration factors in. It’s their company calling card, so who am I to question?)
Barrister & Mann has worked a neat trick here, taking a spicy Oriental base and adding a powerful grapefruit scent as a top / heart note for their “Forex” (meaning “fierce” in Latin) shave soap. The overall effect is a nice blend of the familiar (many have used grapefruit scented shaving products) and the more unusual sage, thyme, tea tree, and vetiver. This is a lively warm weather scent, not too sweet not too sour.
Final suggestion: “Olibanum” by German artisanal coalition Tabula Rasa is a strange and wonderful scent, mostly incense, but a soothing complex formula that feels a bit otherworldly and mystical. Exactly the best way to start a dull morning off?
Stop and Smell the Oakmoss
First, if you get a chance to do a sniff test before buying a soap or cream, remember that the smell on your face will often be different than what it was in the tub. B&M “Latha Original” scent smells like spoiled mayo in the tub, but somehow when lathered up, it smells floral , sweet, and mossy all at once.
The net is full of bad reviews of Latha and other products reviewed by some dude who sniffed them in the tub, hated the scent, and wrote a “review” without ever using the product as it was intended.
Whatever scent you end up with in your soap or cream, you can take a few simple steps to enjoy it. First, give yourself enough time to shave. If you have a half hour to get out of the house, a 15 minute wet shave with multiple passes will be an urgent, rapidly paced event with no time to enjoy any aspect of the process. One of the reasons guys wet shave is to pamper themselves and give themselves some quiet personal time.
If you set this up properly, in a peaceful domestic setting with no urgent rush, you will have more time to enjoy the whole act of shaving, including the interesting and complex smells that have led you to spend more than $4 on a can of Edge HydroBlast gel. So on those mornings when you oversleep and need to get out of the house in a mad rush, dig out the Fusion and the Cremo, shave in the shower, and save your $20 tub of fancy shaving stuff for a time when you can savor the smell to your nose’s content.
Speaking of shaving in the shower, don’t, at least not if you want to enjoy the smell of whatever shaving soap you’re using, Steamy shower stalls, smelling of body wash and shampoo, with water splashing everywhere do not give your nose much of a chance to pick out distinct subtle odors from the lather and brush. Shave at the sink, again aiming to set up a tranquil setting where you can enjoy whatever smell you are using in your shaving soap or cream.
Next, try blooming the soap if you use one. A few drops of water in the tub 2 minutes before you shave will give you a chance to smell the odor of the soap as it wafts up, and also enables you to load the brush more easily when you prepare lather.
Don’t worry about running out of soap; a few drops of water will not diminish the life span of the tub by much at all, and if you’re like most of us, you have far more product than you can use before its shelf life ends anyway! (Don’t try blooming with creams though; the water content in creams is already pretty high, so you can over-saturate easily, and creams also spoil more quickly than soaps when stored for long periods, so don’t put stray moisture in the cream tub if you can avoid it.)
Besides the initial bloom, one of the best chances to enjoy the smell of your soap is when you are rinsing it off your face with your hands between passes and at the end of the shave. This slow process, when you don’t have a brush or razor ready for use, is a great time to smell what the lather is like in it’s “end state” after it’s sat on your face for a few minutes. If there is any truth to the base and heart notes developing over time, this is the chance to do your test and see if you notice any new or different scents than you did when you first applied the cream or soap.
OK, so now we’ve given you a rough education in the complex traditional world of male fragrance design and history. We’ve given you a few suggestions as to soaps that recreate these fragrances to significant degrees. We’ve given you pointers on how to enjoy the olfactory experience of using your shaving products. What next? Maybe you should take the next step and buy a good aftershave or even… a real Eau De Toilette! First, though, you need a good reference guide, and this is one of the best.
Luca Turin’s guide is a bit out of date, and like any critic, he may have some opinions that you find disagreeable, but this is a good point of departure. Turin has a great nose, is an excellent writer, and has a sense of humor. One could do worse!
Of course, you can also turn to Sharpologist for guidance.
I have a few suggestions myself about how to gradually ease yourself into the wonderful pastime of spending moderate sums of money on expensive grooming luxuries. Of course, this will be a novelty for wet shavers, who of course are very parsimonious and austere in their pursuit of their hobby! ☺ More later on this, but in the meantime, remember: there’s more to the smells of shaving than citrus and mint!!