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

Aether perfumes – time to stop and smell the molecular roses…

When is a rose not a rose….?

Niche perfumery can sometimes fall in to the very tropes they so desperately try to avoid – highlighting expensive, natural ingredients and hiding, or at least not announcing, the incredible molecular technology (often just as expensive as raw ingredients) at play in the majority of perfumes we have been falling in love with since the early 19th Century. Part of the problem is the language involved – ‘synthetic’ just doesn’t sound sexy. But these clever molecules add depth, space and longevity to fragrance – ultimately, some being as complex and multi-faceted as several hundred ingredients mixed together at once. While of course the perfume industry still celebrates the multitude and quality of naturals, it’s vital – now, more than ever – to educate ourselves on, and stop being squeamish about, the modern methods of extracting and shaping these invisible bubbles of pleasure.

The just-launched Aether perfumes are unique – a wardrobe of fragrances dedicated to paying tribute to synthetic molecules – while showcasing their elegance, diversity and ability to convey distinct and intricate emotional messages through scent. Offering a new way to experience fragrance for we beings who so desperately cling to known and expected smells, the collection is an eye-opening (nostril-widening?) demonstration of how molecules are not something to hitch up your petticoats and stand on a chair (in the manner of a Tom & Jerry cartoon) in fear of. Far from it – these are scents we know somehow, emotionally, if not by name alone – could many people automatically bring to mind the smell of Cetalox or Oxane?

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 13.00.09
©Roberto Greco

Under the creative guidance and artistic direction of Nicolas Chabot – perhaps best known for his rescuing and reinvigorating of the heritage house Le Galion – perfumers Amélie Borgeois and Anne-Sophie Behaghel have created five fragrances that break the boundaries of “known” smells, crafting ‘egoless perfumes, creative atmospheres where everything is delightfully extravagant, whimsical, playful…’

Aether say: ‘If each molecule has a rather distinctive smell, who could guess exactly what the smell of the aldehyde C12 or ISO E Super would be? Sometimes a shimmering bubble and sometimes dazzling beauty, the molecule – this almost nothing in infinity – is the sacred young muse of the collection. At ÆTHER, no flower-show or flight of lyricism around the historically traditional raw material; rather the evocation of metallic vegetation, unknown woods, imperceptible sounds, moments to come … These scents of imperial fancy do not envy the wake of others, but prefer a luminous halo, a magical ring, an aura of humor and mystery…’

Closing your eyes, forgetting what you think you know and allowing the fragrance and sensation to wash over you is the pleasure, here. And what pleasures there are in store…

Muskethanol: ‘A semblance of realism: a handful of golden sand poured in alcohol (damascenone) that starts to glow, as if by magic, a thousands sequins, a silver shimmer similar to the sea. The disturbing impression of sand that has been rendered almost abstract. A sand of steel, futuristic, perhaps from another world (cetalox, muscone).’

Ether Oxide: ‘Far away, very far away, you vaguely smell a beautiful fresh and contemporary wood; closer, there is strange “ether accord” (ethyl acetate), a sort of gentle steam, which approaches the skin like a breath of burning wood (ambroxan, ISO E Super). An emanation of love. “And if peace had a smell?” She asked me, a little worried. “It might be like this” I replied.’

Rose Alcane: ‘One could imagine it so textured, so vivid, so real (Rose Oxyde). Beautiful flower in a cowhide. A rose for girl and boys who do not love roses madly, but who do not hate to be surprised. Through beautiful floral mechanics, the miracle of alchemy transforms, right under your nose, a super fresh rosebud into a metallic flower.’

Aether
©Roberto Greco

Citrus Ester: ‘One of those days that seems to stretch out forever, and you are not quite sure there is going to be a second. The moment quivers with energy. An energy ghost, bright (methyl grapefruit) and caring, tinged with a slight taste of primordial fruit (firascone, rhubafurane). Life, the beginnings of life.’

Carboneum: ‘The dreams of a child: the man in a diving suit resurfacing from the ocean wrung out by the waves, before being propelled into space by a magnetic force. A strange harmony representing neoprene (Benzoate Methyl, Sudéral, Timbérol)! One also smells the texture of foam, a little rough (Globanone). The next night it had the same dream.’

We admit we’re very excited by Aether and their unashamed celebration of molecular fragrance beauty – an art form, yes, but not for art’s sake alone: each of them are totally wearable (and sharable) by even the most molecularly-inexperienced fragrance lover.

Forget what your nose thinks it knows – about rose, or any other scent, and give in to curiosity…

Aether perfumes £140 for 100ml eau de parfum
Buy them at Liberty

Written by Suzy Nightingale