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The Greatest Hits, Part 2

40. Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier

I have to admit that I find Le Male’s success quite confusing. From a marketing perspective, it’s so gratuitously homoerotic that I’m amazed straight men even consider buying it. From a smell perspective, it’s a sweet, rich, complex scent that’s the exact opposite of the fresh “blue” aquatics that are so popular on the mass market.

So what does it smell like? It’s got a top of bright lavender mixed with a candied artificial grape smell. This is all sweetened with some vanilla underneath it, and it’s all played out in contrast to one of the most over-the-top tonka/coumarin overdoses out there.

This crazy upfront tonka/coumarin gives Le Male most of its character. It’s responsible for that sweet almond-liqueur-meets-marzipan note that combines with the grape in the heart, as well as the tobacco/hay notes that combine with the vanilla in the base. It’s also the source of one of the perfume world’s most fantastic jokes. You see, there’s a rather obvious element to upfront coumarin that smells like dried-up sperm. Given the advertising, the name, and the bottle design, does anyone really not think this was intentional?

41. Chrome by Azzaro

Honestly, I don’t like Chrome. But it’s a perfect, easily available example of a textbook “woody amber” scent, so I think I need to put it on here for historical significance and as a useful reference.

If you think about it, even esoteric groundbreakers like A*Men and Le Male are grounded in traditional perfumery, using age-old notes like patchouli and lavender in interesting new ways. Even Green Irish Tweed, with its game-changing hyper-synthetic Allyl Amyl Glycolate/Dihydromyrcenol/Ambrox aquatic mix, was grounded with traditional chypre ingredients.

What Chrome did was to take Creed’s legendary aquatic chemical mix and take it to its extreme. By topping this mix with a lavender overdose and a bunch of other synthetics, they created a distinct smell, the polar opposite of traditional perfumes. Aside from some lemon in the topnotes, Chrome doesn’t smell like anything classic. Instead, it’s more of a chemical buzz than an identifiable smell. Some compare this smell to ammonia or lemon-scented Windex. To others, it’s the smell of an over-heated swimming pool, its chlorine fumes hanging heavy in the humid air. It’s also known for smelling like super-saturated rubbing alcohol or the smell of hot metal or flint. Many people don’t even think of this mix as an intentional accord, thinking of it simply as “that men’s cologne smell” or “that smell that makes me sneeze”. However you perceive it, this is what’s known as “woody amber.” This, of course, is a terribly misleading term, because it doesn’t smell like wood or amber. It’s also generally not included in note lists (though some scents lately have called it amberwood, which I think is a name they’re trying to call this mixture now), so it’s very rarely discussed, leaving it as a weird elephant in the room of men’s scents.

More than any other mix of notes, this “woody amber” mix has come to define modern mass-market men’s perfumery. Sometimes, it’s an artful metallic buzz (like in Terre d’Hermes), while other times it’s combined with pepper and sweet citrus or fruit to give a masculine hum to otherwise too-sweet topnotes. But, most commonly, it’s a familiar base to hundreds of unremarkable modern men’s scents.

So, in the interest of informed discussion, I urge everyone to go out and spray some Chrome and really get to know its weird smell so you’ll fully know “woody amber.”

42. Aqua Pour Homme by Bulgari

Long before I knew about Basenotes or niche perfumes, Bulgari Aqua was my signature scent. It was very popular and is still widely regarded as one of the best aquatic scents available, which is enough to earn it a spot on my list.

Aqua kicks off with its best feature, a purple-smelling candied bergamot/grape blast paired with a shot of vibrant black pepper and a touch of Chrome's "woody amber" buzz. These peppery shiny grape Kool-Aid topnotes continue to be copied today and largely remain a go-to smell for a top-shelf men’s designer release. To this day, random men in airports or gay clubs usually smell like Aqua’s much-copied aquatic grape Kool-Aid.

Given time, the marine smell comes in, hovering somewhere between Creed’s aquatic mix and Chrome’s “woody amber”, but less nose-tingling and better put together, thanks to the sweet topnotes and salty and woody undertones.