What IS a fougère? Pteridomania & the frenzy for fern fragrances

When describing types of fragrance, the term fougère can seem bewildering – both the meaning and how on earth to pronounce it.

French for ‘fern-like’, you say it ‘foo-jair’ (with the ‘j’ a little soft – almost ‘foo-shair’), when you think of a fern’s smell, what comes to mind? Whatever you think of, that smell memory is quite likely to have been influenced by Houbigant’s Fougère Royale – created in 1882 by Paul Parquet, and much copied by those who clamoured to achieve a measure of its success.

While we might imagine a shady-forest smell emanating from a fern, the majority aren’t fragrant to any great extent. And although the ingredients so key to Parquet’s original accord – oak moss, geranium, bergamot and (most notably) coumarin – are now collectively referred to as ‘fougère’ (often with lavender or other aromatic herbs thrown in for good effect), it’s the alchemy of the perfumer recreating that ‘natural’ smell memory: the whole woodland seemingly wafting from the bottle.

“Gathering Ferns” (Helen Allingham) from The Illustrated London News, July 1871.

Some time before Parquet’s fragrant foragings, ‘fern mania’ was sweeping the nation, and it caused an amount of worry when women began wandering, sometimes alone or – worse! – gambolling with groups of young man in the woodlands, in search of their charms… What business had women convening with nature outside of their perfectly manicured cottage gardens? Well, ‘Pteridomania’, meaning Fern Madness or Fern Craze was the term for this frenzy, coined in 1855 by Charles Kingsley in his book Glaucus, or the ‘Wonders of the Shore’. In it he sought to reassure anxious parents:

Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania‘ … and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy) … and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool.

So – society’s nerves soothed and the morals of females intact – the time was ripe for fern fragrances to unfurl; but it took a unique olfactory discovery to kickstart that particular perfume craze.

It was the extraction of coumarin ­– one of the first synthetics to appear in perfumery – which made the fougère such a landmark scent. But how many people outside the industry would be able to describe coumarin’s smell? Not many, I’m guessing.

A plate from The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, a book from the era of Pteridomania.

Coumarin is found in tonka beans and cinnamon, but also occurs naturally in bison grass and green tea. It’s classed as a ‘lactone’ – (milky, skin-like) – a complex molecule that’s the scent of sweet hay drying in the sunshine with a slight waft of warm horse; a cold glass of fizz sipped on newly-mown grass, a fine cigar fresh from the humidor, a warm cookie dunked in cold milk. All of these things and not one in particular: the scientist’s hand working in harmony with the artful perfumer to create a magical realism. Because the true skill of a perfumer is to take ingredients and transform them into something we think we already recognise, sparking those scent memories and creating new ones to fill the gaps.

In fact, Parquet was called the ‘greatest perfumer of his time’ by no less than Ernest Beaux, the creator of Chanel No. 5, and was the first to truly understand and appreciate the use of synthetic aroma materials in fragrance composition. Previously used as mere substitutes for naturally derived raw materials, Parquet saw a chance to deploy them as unique smells in their own right – adding structure, poetry and space within perfumes that sought not to mimic the natural world but to add to it, to improve on perfection. And so the fougère fragrance family was born.

Traditionally seen as a scent for the chaps – possibly sporting tweed and a monocle – in fact Guerlain’s masterpiece of Jicky, launched in 1889, is a more ‘feminine’ fougère (the first unisex scent, too) which ramped up the crackle of dry lavender, adding sweetly mown hay and toasted almond-like flourishes of coumarin. More recently, we’ve seen an increasing number of gender-fluid fougères striding forth – perhaps chiming with our collective urge to ‘return to nature’ during the pandemic; or simply an urge that preceded Covid-19, a perfumed riposte to political unease?

Whatever the reason, the resurgence of the fougère is to be celebrated. Cooling on steamy days, comforing in more inclement weather, these are the type of scent to boost your spirits while patting your hand and telling you everything’s going to be okay. Wander into the woodland yourself, awhile, and try these fougères – from classical forest to contemporary fairytale…

Houbigant Fougère Royale A sprig of herbs carefully tucked into the lapel of a herringbone jacket, the olive from a dry Martini sucked in a slightly lascivious manner while they’re looking the other way. £130 for 100ml eau de parfum libertylondon.com

Guerlain Jicky Somewhere between breakfast and midnight, fog-shrouded moorland; pale wool blanket clutched close, bare feet on flagstones, forbidden hipflask swigged reading Wuthering Heights. £96 for 100ml eau de toilette houseoffraser.co.uk

Yves Saint Laurent Kouros Freshly-scrubbed and shining with smooth words and practiced simplicity, but clean sheets cannot hide the indiscretion and animal instincts of the night before. £50 for 50ml eau de toilette theperfumeshop.com

Creed Viking Cologne A bountiful burst of freshness leads to explorations of verdant landscapes re-awakening; geranium, herbs, lavender and nutmeg atop glacial lakes reflecting shinshine. £175for 50ml eau de parfum  creedfragrances.co.uk

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Milano Cento HIM A woodland wander with someone dashingly Italian (who knows not to wear sandals with socks), the citrus breeze segues to an herbaceously dappled grove and aromatic amour. £49 for 100ml eau de toilette roullierwhite.com

4160 Tuesdays The Lion Cupboard Ferns pressed between pages of a diary, love letters tied in faded ribbons, a lipstick kiss on a foxed mirror, silk scarves with the faint tang of a gentleman’s Cologne. £55 for 30ml eau de parfum 4160tuesdays.com

Partere Run of the River A bare-foot meander through clover-strewn lawns, budding freshness in the air, lemon-thyme and clary sage encricled by a languorous caress of incense and oakmoss. £95 for 50ml eau de parfum parterrefragrances.com

By Suzy Nightingale

Fragrance Family Friday: Fougère

As part of our continuing feature, Fragrance Family Friday, today we’re burrowing knee-deep in shady ferns for Fougère

For anyone who’s wondering, you say it ‘foo-jair’ (with the ‘j’ a little soft – almost ‘foo-shair’…) – we thought we’d start with that, because not only can some of the fragrance families be a bit confusing, even pronouncing them can get the better of us at times!

Now that’s out the way, let’s go deep into the shady undergrowth of this fabulous – and still-evolving – fragrance category.

Although there are many modern variations cropping up, a fougère will invariably feature lavender, geranium, vetiver, bergamot, oakmoss and coumarin in the blend. Fougère Royale as the first of them, from Houbigant in 1882. Fougère takes its name from the French for ‘fern’ – and to understand what these ferny, green fragrances smell like, here is an absolute classic, now thankfully revived in a heart-warming way, by Milano Centro

Milano Centro HIM was showcased first at the Beauty International show at Olympia in June 1989, by business partners and interior designers Dean Tatum and the late Matthew Bright. Inspired by ‘the classic sophistication of all things Italian’, they launched with just one fragrance – Milano Cento HIM – a fabulous evocation of a fougère that smells like a cool, shady walk through a forest.

What does it smell like? Imagine citrus luminescence sparkling in the tops notes with bergamot and peititgrain, giving way to a herbaceously dappled breeze of rosemary, lavender and basil. As it warms, you’re swathed in the musky warmth of smooth sandalwood and suavely sprinkled spicy notes of clove, cinnamon and amber atop a darkly glimmering patchouli base.

When Milano Cento – the perfect, drop-dead sexy man smell – later disappeared from the shelves (as many fragrances do, alas…) it could have been a mere scent memory, if it wasn’t for Dean Tatum’s wife Valissa and son, Jasper. They had the idea to recreate a single bottle for Dean’s 50th birthday: the ultimate journey back in time. As any perfume world insider knows, however: it’s not that simple. ‘Trying to find someone to produce for us, in the small quantities we were after, was quite a challenge. It was only after we called a few stockists, who said they remembered the brand and asked when it was coming back, that we had the idea to relaunch it.’

We’re so glad they did. This is a fougère fragrance that smells classic in a timeless way, rather than simply reminiscent of the era it originates from – it’s grown-up, insouciant, perfect for any occasion.

Want to try it for yourself? Find Milano Centro HIM in our Explorer Men’s Discovery Box – along with SIXTEEN other fragrances to explore!

The Explorer Men’s Discovery Box £19 (£15 for VIP Club members)

By Suzy Nightingale

Girls Just Wanna Have Fern: 5 modern fougères forging the way

When science meets art, fireworks happen, and so it is in fragrance, with the question of ‘what should a man smell like?’ seemingly answered by perfumer Paul Parquet for Houbigant in 1882. The conclusion? A fern. Now, this once traditionally masculine smell is a hot topic in fragrances marketed to women or perceived as ‘gender fluid’, for those leafy ferns have come a long way…

The problem for Parquet was, ferns don’t exactly smell of anything much. His technological developments created a whole new fragrance family – fougère roughly translates to ‘fern-like’ – say it ‘foo-jair’, with the ‘j’ a little soft, almost ‘foo-shair’.

When you think of a fern, what smell comes to mind? Misty woodlands, verdant undergrowth still wet with morning dew, a sense of stillness and contemplation, leafy green shoots pushing their way through a forest floor? Whatever you imagine, that smell memory was originally encapsulated by Houbigant’s Fougère Royale – created in 1882 and much copied by those who clamoured to achieve a measure of its success.

Called the ‘greatest perfumer of his time’ by no less than Ernest Beaux, the creator of Chanel No. 5, Parquet can be said to have been the first perfumer to truly understand and appreciate the use of synthetic aroma materials in fragrance composition. First used as mere substitutes for naturally derived raw materials, Parquet saw a chance to use them as unique smells in their own right – alchemically poetic creations that sought not to mimic the natural world but to add to it – to improve on perfection. He was a fragrant revolutionary, and that revolution continues to this day.

So what did the traditional fougère consist of? Oak moss, geranium, bergamot, sometimes lavender and amber, and (most notably) synthetic coumarin form the main structure. But how many outside the industry would be able to describe coumarin’s smell?

Found in natural sources such as the toasted almond-esque tonka beans, the essential oils derived from cinnamon bark and the spicy cassia plant; coumarin cannot really said to be a sum of those parts. So what does it smell like?

Complexly layered, imagine the scent of sweet hay drying in the sunshine with a slight waft of warm horse; a cold glass of fizz sipped on newly mown grass, a fine cigar fresh from the humidor, even an unadulterated cookie dunked in warm milk – all of these things and not one in particular, truly something ‘other’ – the scientist’s hand working in harmony with the artful perfumer to amplify the magical realism in its synthetic form. The skill of the perfumer is to take these ingredients and transform them into something we think we already recognise – a swathe of leafy green ferns in a woodland setting, in this case – sparking scent memories and creating new ones to fill the gaps.

If you haven’t yet explored this fragrance family, now is the perfect time to begin. This in-between time of seasons, when we crave some freshness but still require depth and interest to the scents we choose, is ideal for seeking out something new to try, and that traditional structure has some interesting notes added for contemporary interest.

Here’s a selection of some more modern fougères – regardless of gender – to get your noses in touch with. Let your fragrant fougère journey begin…

Although classified as a leather (the clue’s in the name) MEMO actually describe this as ‘a frozen fougère’, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s minus the oak moss (many moderns are) but features a whole host of frosted herbaceous greeness, with basil, rosemary, clary sage and mint amidst snow-covered drifts of ferns, pine needles, tonka bean and a deliciously dry, woody-leathered base.

Memo Paris Russian Leather £205 for 75ml eau de parfum
harveynichols.com

In this 100% natural perfume, Simone de Beauvoir’s novel is brought to life; the lingering scent of a questioning glance that shakes your soul, warm as a cat curling bare legs, shivering as the fur tickles. A composition of contrasts, we have geranium, basil and lemon rubbing up against Indonesian clove and nutmeg; a sticky patchouli slinking into the cool dryness of vetiver, with a lick of amber rich labdanum nuzzling oak moss and cedar to finish

Timothy Han Edition Perfumes She Came to Stay £120 for 60ml eau de parfum
timothyhanedition.com

Reminiscent of rifling through a forgotten cove of personal treasures, leather-bound diaries reveal sketches of ferns and dried flowers pressed between the pages, bundles of love letters are tied in faded silk ribbons, a lipstick kiss on a foxed mirror, silk scarves with a mingled scent of powder and the faint tang of a gentleman’s Cologne. Mint, lavender, juniper berries and black pepper are swathed in layers of rose and ylang ylang; curls of tobacco expiring into vanilla and cocoa.

4160 Tuesdays The Lion Cupboard from £50 for 30ml eau de parfum
4160tuesdays.com

Inspired by the river that runs through the heart of Keyneston Mill, where this UK house uniquely grow and distil many of the ingredients they use; this is a bare-foot meander through clover-strewn lawns, a budding freshness in the air signifying Spring. Squeezes of lemon and lime shot through with bergamot, mint and lemon-thyme are layered on herbaceously dry clary sage and soft orange flower, as an aromatically dreamy wisp of incense encircles oak moss in the langourous base.

Partere Run of the River £95 for 50ml eau de parfum
parterreatkeynestonmill.com

A bright young thing, in a gown too sheer to be decent, dances the night away at a discreetly riotous nightclub. Surrounded by velvet ropes, garlanded by blossoms, she sleeps until noon. Based on the traditional composition, it’s far from historic smelling – the geranium, oak moss, coumarin and bergamot are naughtily nudged in the ribs by a rather wanton orange blossom, given a shot of luminescent freshness with neroli and snuggled in a bosomy amber.

Mugler Fougère Furieuse £140 for 80ml eau de parfum
harrods.com

By Suzy Nightingale

Fragrance families: do you know your 'chypre' from your 'fougere'?

What the giddy aunt is a ‘chypre‘?
Not exactly the most immediately evocative word to get your head around when describing a type of fragrance, but that’s what we’ve been landed with and so that’s what we continue to say. But how many people outside the world of perfumery could tell you what it actually means?
When touring the country talking to perfume lovers across the UK, our co-founders Jo Fairley and Lorna McKay asked this very question just to see, and out of the many hundreds who came to see them, only a couple of people put their hand up to venture an answer. Explains Jo, ‘…chypre is widely acknowledged as the most sophisticated (and beautiful) of fragrance families – and it’s a term the perfume world certainly believes is understood by all and sundry.’
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In fact, we dedicated an entire feature in our magazine, The Scented Letter, just to explaining the mysteries surrounding this scent category – so clearly something is amiss and requires further explanation. Indeed, there are all sorts of terms bandied about in perfumery that baffle the best of us at times. And what’s more – nobody entirely agrees on the ‘rules’ of which perfumes belong in which fragrance family at all.
What about Fougere, Oriental or Gourmand, Woody and Floriental – where to begin…?
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Well, we’ve put together a handy guide to some of the most frequently used fragrance families, with a brief history of their evolution and some iconic examples of perfumes to try in those categories, to see which family you are most frequently drawn to and perhaps discover some new ones to try. So why not get your nose stuck in and give it a go?
Written by Suzy Nightingale
 

Abercrombie & Fitch break the mould with new men’s launch First Instinct

Abercrombie and Fitch have been a brand synonymous with gorgeous boys, polo shirts, muscly abs and horse riding, but not any more. To go with a brand new look they have in store, all slick shirts and modern cuts, they’ve released a new fougère fragrance for men, First Instinct.

Inspired by the fearless male, perfumer Phillipe Romano created First Instinct with the hopes of blending a contemporary fragrance that took the fresh facets of fougère scents and combined them with the warmth of orientals. And what he produced does just that.

First off, it breaks the mould with an unusual top note of melon; fruity notes are uncommon in male fragrances, and with good reason, but this melon blends beautifully with a gin and tonic accord to make for a sparkling and refreshing opening. Clean and crisp on the nose.

Moving on to an inviting heart of green and slightly aqueous violet leaves, there’s a touch of citrus that adds evermore to the freshness of the whole affair, it later trails off with a spicy but soft black pepper. The base is rounded off sweetly with cashmere woods, warm and rich amber, and sueded musk.

Housed in a sleek textured glass bottle that gives the affect of rippling water, we can picture it perfectly on the neck of a sea swept and sun-kissed man. We urge you to have a sniff.

Abercrombie and Fitch First Instinct £30 for 30ml eau de toilette
At Selfridges

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