I had a couple of interesting e-mail conversations about that question this week, one with my friend Barney Bishop, whose blog Fragrant Moments I occasionally write for, and another with Sebastián Alvarez Murena, one of the founders of the exquisite Italian niche fragrance brand Eau d’Italie.
“It’s hard for me to describe the concept of masculine,” Barney wrote. “I would say there is nothing floral or green in the top notes. That’s where we normally make our summary judgments. If anything floral is in there, it would have to be masked by spice or wood notes.”
He mentioned the now discontinued Sandalwood Vert by Fresh, Comme des Garçons 2 Man, and Penhaligon’s LP No. 9 as his favorite masculine scents.
Sebastián pointed out that what’s called masculine now would not be the same as a masculine fragrance from, say, the 19th century (which brings to mind Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, a powdery/musky floral from 1872, still in production). Many niche brands like Sebastián’s are old-fashioned in the sense that they do not have rigid gender categories.
Still, there’s something to the idea that some scents are just more manly. I asked Sebastián which of Eau d’Italie’s range of seven fragrances was the most masculine. “I think the answer would be Bois d’Ombrie, which is a blend of woods, roots and leathers. This, we thought, is really a man’s fragrance, and it is by all meanings, it smells masculine, it’s deep, it oozes manliness. And yet…the year of the launch we noticed it had turned into our second best seller to women…”
I thought he’d say that, so I asked him about Baume du Doge, a deeply spicy oriental with top notes of cinnamon and cardamon (my favorite of the collection) that seems powerfully masculine to me. “I agree with you, it is a super masculine,” he said. “The reason I didn’t mention it is only because for some men who are ‘afraid’ of fragrance, it would be too bold.”
And by that he means American men, who aren’t as adventurous as their Italian and Spanish counterparts. But how funny that in a conversation about what makes a fragrance manly, one might be overlooked because it’s too manly. Baume du Doge is the sort of scent that makes you want to resort to aural analogies to describe it: resonant, deep. It’s for this that I would call it masculine. Too masculine? Maybe it’s because an American man might hesitate to call attention to himself with a fragrance that wasn’t mainstream. But I say, worn in moderation, it’s perfect.