Quite simply, I am an advertiser's wet dream! "Marketing 101" explains that the whole goal of marketing and promotion is to put a crowbar into the space between a consumer's self-image and their ideal image and pry and pry until their wallet flies open.
While tidying up my bedroom this past weekend, I bumped into my dresser and nearly caused an olfactory Armageddon. Resting on top of my cheap, hand-me-down storage chest are 19 ... yes, 19 ... bottles of cologne. And not the cheap stuff either. At some point in my life, some media campaign convinced me that the secret to wealth and health and romance and success is to splash myself with rare botanicals and unusual oils. I have become one smelly cog in the multi-billion dollar fragrance industry.
Cologne is the manly cousin of perfume since it most commonly denotes a fragrance applied to the male body. There really isn't that much difference between perfumes and colognes. Both are blends of essential oils, aroma compounds (mostly botanical in nature), fixatives, and solvents (for dilution) in an ethanol base. The difference lies in the concentration of ingredients. A perfume typically contains about 20 percent essential oils; formulations can range as high as 40 percent. A cologne is blended with a range of 3 percent to five percent essential oils, with 5 percent being the industry standard. And as with most things in life that smell, the higher the concentration of aromatics the more intense and longlasting the scent.
The practice of using fragrances for cosmetic purposes has existed for more than 4,000 years in places such as India, Egypt, Cyprus, and Persia. The term "cologne" was coined in Cologne, Germany, when an Italian perfume maker relocated there in 1709 and created a popular fragrance which he named "Eau de Cologne" to honor his new hometown.
Modern perfumery became a serious business in Europe sometime in the late 19th century.
Fragrances (like cologne) are often described in musical terms, with "notes" mixing into a "medley" of harmonious scents with varying intensities and evaporation rates. Most fragrances possess three levels of notes or accents: top, middle, and base.
Top notes (sometimes called "head notes") are the first impressions you get when smelling a cologne. They have small, light molecular compositions and are the most volatile part of the cologne mixture, meaning they are the quickest to evaporate as the solvent (alcohol) portion of the fragrance drys on a man's skin. They often form the basis for categorizing the fragrance or even provide a focus for how the scent is marketed. In musical terms, top notes are the overture that attracts a potential wearer. Men's colognes are commonly divided into the following groups based on the overall "tempo" of the top notes:
- Citrus: aggressive but pleasant formulations using lemon, grapefruit, lime, orange, apricot, etc.
- Aromatics: think floral, but with a light and masculine twist created with jasmine, geranium, lavender, lotus flower, peach blossom, etc.
- Musk: a heavier, more sensual fragrance derived from musk oils and distilled botanicals
- Spice: imagine the earthy smells that kick up your cuisine ... clove, nutmeg, sage, basil, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, pepper, and more
- Oriental: an unusual blending of exotic spices (like saffron, ginger, and mint) with intriguing sweet notes (vanilla, amber, and tonka beans) and heavier botanicals and resins (myrrh, tobacco, etc.)
- Woodsy: combinations of grasses (like vetiver), clovers, mosses, leaves (birch, juniper, etc.), and woods like sandalwood, cedar, agarwood, and patchouli, that create outdoorsy aromas
- Fresh: blends of woody and light citrus elements with strong marine notes
Base notes are the finale ... the fully-developed scent. Typically, the properties of a base note cannot be perceived until 30 minutes or longer after initial application. Many base notes are formulated to produce a residual scent that may last for hours.
I first embraced cologne about the same time I realized ... hey, if I don't shower enough I really smell. Like most young men of my generation, we wore Brut "gifted" to us by our fathers and heavily-marketed "he-man" scents like Stetson. I also have unfortunate memories of wearing something called "Vanilla Musk" ... it smelled like a sweaty pig that knocked over a bottle of cheap vanilla extract while escaping from a restaurant kitchen. Go figure!
In college, everything scent-centric came from Polo or Nautica. Once … in grad school … I remember paying an unholy price for a new cologne called Joop that I saw in a sexy magazine ad. I bought it at Macy’s and wore it constantly and without restraint. I don’t know how its cloying combination of cinnamon, jasmine, honey, tobacco, and vetiver didn’t set of some type of biohazard alarm system at the university. Or the poor souls who sat near me in lectures.
But back to my current obsession … and not Obsession. Along the front edge of my dresser top sit seven distinct bottles. They comprise my five “everyday” options and two “special occasion” selections of cologne. The "Fab Five" are Cool Water (Davidoff) with its refreshing lavender, menthe, iris, and musk; Prada Amber Pour Homme with a potent interplay of orange blossom, saffron oil, sandalwood, leather, myrrh, and vetiver; Lacoste … my freshest, cleanest scent … with notes of soft citrus, clover, and sandalwood; Slate (Banana Republic) boasting standout accents of sage and ginger; and Burberry Brit with an ethereal manliness created by combining bergamot, ginger, green mandarin, tonka bean, nutmeg, and tobacco.
My two special occasion scents are heavier and very expensive. But to be honest, they are worth every penny because when I wear them I truly have a stronger sense of confidence and purpose. It may be all in my head, but who cares. For day time events, it’s Angel for Men (Thierry Mugler) with a powdery scent that weaves together crazy notes like dark chocolate, coffee, and caramel with the earthiness of mint, coriander, lavender, and natural tars and resins. For dinner parties and date nights, my go-to spritz is Unforgivable (Sean John) … with dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle ingredients like Sicilian lemon, bergamot, Moroccan tangerine, grapefruit, iris, amber, sandalwood, Tuscan basil, and even the essences of cashmere, champagne, and rum.
But like any good strategist, I have several back-up “plans” to provide the perfect scented counterpoint to my many moods. These include: Very Irresistible (Givency) with robust Virginia cedar, mint, and grapefruit; the lemony and lavender sparkle of Good Life (Davidoff); the patchouli, green apple, and watermelon mixture of Kenneth Cole; Antidote (Viktor & Rolf), my one “oriental” option that starts with the zing of grapefruit and pepper and finishes with vanilla and soft musk; the brisk aromatics of Zegna; the cardamom-inspired simplicity of Echo (Davidoff); the floral beauty of Chrome (Loris Azzaro) with jasmine, ylang-ylang, light fruits, and gardenias; the original John Varvatos scent with the complexity of dates, tamarind leaves, sage, vanilla, and leather; Gucci Pour Homme II with an initial strike of bergamot and violet leaves followed by a dark fade into black tea, cinnamon, and tobacco; Contradiction (Calvin Klein) with its hints of lavender and amber dueling with a spicy blend of lime, sage, and nutmeg; and two light fragrances … Sake and Sugar Lemon … from Fresh that employ unusual notes such as langsat fruit, yuzu, ginger, lotus and lychee flowers, and oak moss.
As I mentioned, at one time I wore cologne with the subtlety and excitement of a blind man driving a car down a busy street. I think every man has that phase. But over time, I have picked up a few tricks and tips and toned down my aromatic misbehavior.
- TIP 1: Less is more! Cologne should be applied sparingly. If someone you interact with can identify the brand of scent you are wearing, then you’re wearing too much!
- TIP 2: Think strategically! Heat activates many of the notes in cologne, so cologne is best applied where the underlying blood vessels are closest to the skin: wrists, neck, behind the ears, and chest. These locations are often called “pulse points.” And because heat is a factor, consider that the scent you wear changes with the seasons and the time of day … even in situations like a naturally-ventilated room vs. an air-conditioned office, cologne can smell quite differently.
- TIP 3: Application is key! If you are using a spray-nozzle type of cologne, three quick sprays are the maximum. If your brand of cologne comes in a more traditional bottle without a spray nozzle, cover the opening and tip the bottle to lightly wet your fingertip. Do not exceed more than two finger applications. Some grooming specialists suggest that, regardless of the dispersal system, the cologne should be tipped or sprayed onto the fingertips and lightly patted onto the skin. Rubbing the cologne will cause the natural oils of your skin to mask the notes within the fragrance.
- TIP 4: Don’t douse the duds. Avoid spraying cologne directly on your clothing. Fabrics can affect the scent negatively, and the oils in most fragrances can produce stains.
- TIP 5: Be aware of your total “scent profile.” If you use after shave or shampoos with strong scent components, they will affect how you and others perceive your fragrance of choice.
- TIP 6: Cologne is NOT fine wine. The typical shelf life of a quality cologne is 3-5 years. Botanicals and other components deteriorate over time. Try not to use it past that timeframe.
- TIP 7: Test-drive your aroma!! NEVER purchase a new fragrance the day you encounter it. Because of dozens of factors including mood, climate, marketing efforts, etc., you can easily be swayed into dropping $60 or $70 dollars on something that really isn’t you. When shopping, try out a few scents. But please … ask for samples to try at home away from all the competing bottles, flasks, and decanters. Or wait a week and return for another “spritz.” Maybe even try the same product at a different store.