Discount Diamonds: John Varvatos Cologne- Best in Class

Designer fragrances are a dime a dozen; most ending up not being worth a dime. It is why when there is a designer collection which stands out it really stands out. That is the case with the fragrance side of John Varvatos.

John Varvatos is an American fashion designer known for his rock and roll aesthetic. In 2004 he wanted to branch out into fragrance. From here the story usually goes this way; brand name turns over creative control to big cosmetics brand who produce an insipid fragrance. When there are successes within the designer area of perfume it almost always comes because the name on the bottle gets involved in the creative process. Mr. Varvatos was one of those. That would lead to some other anomalies to the way John Varvatos developed as a brand. The most important is he worked with the same perfumer, Rodrigo Flores-Roux, exclusively for the first fifteen perfumes. This kind of partnership is common in the niche community; much rarer in mainstream. Over the years they have developed one of the very best fragrance collections you can find at the department store. They have been at it so long that the early releases are now easily found in the discount bins. While I whole heartedly recommend almost everything released by Mr. Varvatos and Sr. Flores-Roux for this month’s Discount Diamonds I’m going to start at the beginning with John Varvatos Cologne.

John Varvatos

At that time for men’s fragrance they made a couple of interesting choices. One to eschew all the fresh and clean competition. Second to work with some unusual ingredients. In that first press release they would tout four ingredients being used for the first time.

Rodrigo Flores-Roux

John Varvatos Cologne opens with the sweet dried fruitiness of medjool dates. This provides a unique kind of sweetness which is kept from getting to be too much by using rosemary and tamarind leaves to wrap it up in notes of herb and vegetal forms of green. The herbs continue into the heart with clary sage, coriander, and thyme. At this point there is a lot of similarity to the stewed fruit accord which would become popular in niche perfumery. In the base they use a couple of woody synthetics, Eaglewood and Auramber. This gives an intensely woody accord with an amber finish.

John Varvatos Cologne has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

What you see above would be repeated time and again as Mr. Varvatos and Sr. Flores-Roux seemingly improved release after release. It has been one of the most remarkable collaborations in all mainstream perfume.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Liz Claiborne Curve for Men- Perfume in a Can

When I first started diving into perfume I wanted to know as much as I could. I was also willing to ask someone what they were wearing if I thought it smelled good. This opened so many interesting doors for me. I was at a professional conference taking a short course and the man next to me smelled fantastic. I was well-acquainted with the more popular perfumes at the mall and this wasn’t one of those. Towards the end of the day I inquired what he was wearing. He told me, “Curve”. I filed it away for my next shopping trip to the mall. Except I encountered it much sooner when I was filling a prescription at the drugstore. Killing time while waiting I was browsing the locked fragrance cabinet. My eyes landed on this lime green colored can. I focused on the name and there it was Liz Claiborne Curve for Men. It was really well-priced; I summoned the keymaster to unlock the case and pull out a can for me. That was twenty years ago. Curve has been one of my favorite warm-weather perfumes since then.

Liz Claiborne was a perfume brand which existed primarily in drugstore fragrance cases. In 1996 they released a pair of new perfumes, Curve for Men and Curve for Women. In that time period the desired consumer was a young person who wanted to smell good. If you need a current equivalent it would be the person who buys Axe body spray. What sets Curve for Men apart is there are the earliest examples of ideas which would be improved upon in some of the best niche perfumes years later. Perfume Jean-Claude Delville put together a classic fougere with little touches here and there which make it more than the sum of its parts.

Jean-Claude Delville

M. Delville opens with a set of green grassy notes and fir. This is a refreshing cool opening. The coolness is added to as cardamom breezes across the top accord. There is a sharpening of the green as it becomes more crystalline. Lavender arrives to provide the floral heart. It becomes a traditional fougere at this point tinted a bit greener. Sandalwood provides the keynote in the base around which a pinch of black pepper and vetiver swirl.

Curve for Men has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

Curve for Men is one of the perfumes I wear which almost always does for me what it did for my colleague at the short course; garners a compliment. There is an easy-going quality to Curve for Men which seems to draw people in; even if it is a perfume bottle in a can.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Givenchy Pi- A Different Tack

I remark often on how the gourmand style of perfume is one of the most exciting to me. One reason is it isn’t even thirty years old. It means unlike every other perfume genre it carries around much less history. I have found recent versions of gourmands very interesting because they are not following an existing set of rules. As it is in the third decade of the style the same was true of the very earliest entries, they were defining the boundaries. This month’s Discount Diamonds choice, Givenchy Pi, was one of those.

In 1998 the early gourmands had all gone with deep dense aesthetics. As Givenchy thought to enter the fray Creative Director Francoise Donche decided a different tack would be taken. Their gourmand would focus on one sweet note with less of a heavy presence. Perfumer Alberto Morillas would be given the job of creating Pi.

Francoise Donche

The idea was to make a gourmand focused on vanilla. The easy way would have been to use the synthetic source of vanilla, vanillin. One of the reasons to decide against it is vanillin is one of the most common ingredients in all of perfumery. It also can become overwhelming as the concentration gets to higher levels. M. Morillas made an intelligent choice to go with a vanilla accord made up primarily of tonka bean and benzoin. It turned out to be brilliant.

Alberto Morillas

Pi opens with a green prologue of rosemary, pine, and mandarin. It carries a freshness which will eventually be overwhelmed by the vanilla. That vanilla shows up subtly at first as tonka bean is the keynote in the heart. Tonka is a natural source of coumarin which has a kind of vanillic scent profile along with a sweeter hay-like component. By itself it would never become vanilla. M. Morillas uses benzoin to combine with the coumarin to form the sweet vanilla accord. What makes this so different from just using straight vanillin is it is a crisper form of vanilla. Most often vanillin diffuses until it becomes powdery. By using tonka bean and bezoin this doesn’t happen. Which means the vanilla lasts and lasts. The light woodiness of guaiac is the final piece of Pi.

Pi has 14-16 hour longevity and average sillage.

If I were to ever write a column on the perfumes I wear which never fail to generate a compliment Pi would be one of the two no-brainers on that list. It is one of those perfumes which breaks through because of the way it is constructed. The advantage of being over twenty years old is it is easy to find bottles for less than $30. Because the ingredient list is so small it has easily weathered any reformulations. Gourmands might be all the rage currently, but Givenchy Pi was one of the first to try something new in the genre.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I own.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Van Cleef & Arpels Tsar- Last of the Powerhouse Fougeres

My favorite fougeres get most of their wears in the shoulder seasons of winter/spring and summer/fall. I like them because they project some power in the cool mornings before transitioning to something lighter as the day warms up. During the 1980’s the powerhouse fougere was a staple of masculine marketed perfumes. As perfume moved into the 90’s a wave of fresh and clean aquatics would wash them out to sea. One of the last of the great men’s fougeres is this month’s Discount Diamonds Choice; Van Cleef & Arpels Tsar.

Van Cleef & Arpels is one of those quietly successful perfume brands with a surprising number of excellent perfumes. They started in 1976 with one of Jean-Claude Ellena’s earliest perfumes; the aptly named First. Ever since they have continued to work with some of the best perfumers. They have become one of the most reliable brands I know. This was evident even in those early days.

Philippe Bousseton

Tsar was the fourth perfume released by the brand. Perfumer Philippe Bousseton was given a brief to create the “fragrance of a naturally elegant man.” What he did was to take a little of the power out of the powerhouse. It comes through a clever use of herbs and spices before a chypre-like base.

M. Bousseton opens with a rich lavender twisted with rosemary. This is a typical fougere top accord. What happens next was not typical. M. Bousseton sweeps that trite accord away with one of caraway and cinnamon. This is the perfume which put caraway on my internal map of favorite ingredients. Matched with cinnamon it creates that elegance the perfume was going for. Sandalwood comes forth to set up a chypre-ish base with oakmoss and vetiver.

Tsar has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

Tsar has been through a couple reformulations with the oakmoss being the most prominent change. While my original bottle benefits from the bite of full-spectrum oakmoss. In the most current version I found the low-atranol version, minus the bite, gives the sandalwood and vetiver some lightness and space. I thought that the current version is probably more fitting for the perfume consumer today. I’ve seen it online for $20-40 a bottle.

It is funny that the perfumer who was responsible for one of the last powerhouse fougeres would make multiple flankers of Cool Water. M. Bousseton knew when to change lanes. If you want one of the best of the last powerhouse fougeres this current shoulder season give Tsar a try.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Calvin Klein Obsession for Men- Where It Began

Everyone has their first. Like all firsts you never forget. It was fall of 1986 and I was in my local Macy’s men’s department shopping for work clothes. I had been in my first adult job for a couple years. I was shopping for new clothes because I felt I needed to find something more professional. I was in this mindset when I kept getting the hint of this wonderful smell. As I was flipping hangers on the rack there was a spicy scent in the air. On my way to the dressing room I noticed it was coming from a woman spraying a perfume on paper strips followed by spraying the air. As I was on my way to the register to pay, I detoured towards her. This was what I had been smelling. She offered me one of the strips. I fell down the rabbit hole. On my way to paying a bottle ended up with my new wardrobe. That perfume was what I consider to be my first “grown-up” perfume; Calvin Klein Obsession for Men.

Prior to that I mainly wore Ralph Lauren Polo but I had become tired of it; rarely reaching for the bottle on my dresser. That was a Christmas gift that even when I wasn’t tired of it, I wore mostly when going out, not daily. When I got Obsession for Men home it was what transformed me into a daily perfume wearer. It also transformed my shower as I bought the soap, too. I have worn Obsession for Men for over thirty years and I never have tired of it. Even today when I wear it, I feel as if I’ve come home.

When Obsession for Men was releases in 1986 it was meant to be the masculine counterpart to the very successful Obsession released a year earlier. The same perfumer for Obsession, Robert Slattery, worked on Obsession for Men. Both perfumes were riding the prevailing trend of Oriental perfumes prevalent at the time. What allowed Obsession for Men to stand out was Mr. Slattery used a lighter hand. Obsession for Men was never going to be described as a powerhouse masculine. This was a more refined take on what a man should smell like.

In the mid 1980’s there was a fear of making a male-marketed perfume too femme-y. That translated to floral ingredients being very limited. Lavender was one of the acceptable ones. Mr. Slattery would use the slightly herbal nature of lavender to construct a spicy heart accord around. The keynote was nutmeg which was the leader of the spice squad which consisted of clove, sage, and coriander. This was what caught my attention from across a sales floor. It is what makes me happy every time I wear it. Mr. Slattery forms a traditional Oriental base of amber, patchouli, myrrh, vetiver, and sandalwood.

Obsession for Men has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

I am on the final sprays of my third bottle of Obsession for Men. I have found reformulation has not exacted a toll on it. With all classic perfumes which have lasted this long it is a Discount Diamond. I’ve picked up new bottles for less than $25. That’s a good price for one of the best masculine perfumes ever made. Of course that’s what I would say about my first.

Disclosure: this review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Paul Sebastian PS For Men- A Couple Guys From Jersey Make A Perfume

I’m used to people asking me what perfume I’m wearing. I very rarely ask the same question in return. While I was at a local Holiday party, I was making small talk with a new acquaintance. As he kept moving around, I was catching the scent of a really nice cologne. For a while I tried to see if I could place it as one of the current department store offerings. It had more of a throwback vibe to it for me to think it was that. It was made up of so many of the usual perfume suspects I was pretty sure it wasn’t a niche perfume. He didn’t seem like a guy who would be looking for indie fragrances. He definitely didn’t seem like a DIY fragrance person. I finally had to ask. He told me it was Paul Sebastian PS For Men.

Paul Sebastian is not an actual person. The brand name was created by using the middle names of two guys from New Jersey; Leonard Paul Cuozzo and Alan Sebastian Greco. Mr. Cuozzo lived near the plant of one of the major perfume oil producers. He would find the smaller perfume oil house of Fritzsche, Dodge, & Olcott in an adjacent Jersey town. Over a few years he worked with perfumers there to arrive at a formula which could be produced. This is where Mr. Greco enters the story. He was the business guy. A sales manager for a large national firm he had some ideas on a business plan. With a perfume formula, a business plan, and some seed money they produced their first bottles. Selling them at three local New Jersey men’s stores in 1979. Proximity to New York City must have had other men asking the same question I did. When they got the answer Messrs. Cuozzo and Greco began to expand their production and distribution. One of their early innovations was the “gift with purchase” first with teddy bears then small figurines. It all started with PS For Men.

It is easy to see that Mr. Cuozzo’s creative direction was to oversee a softer Oriental than the other masculine fragrance offerings in the mid-1970’s. As he worked through iterations with the perfumers at Fritzsche, Dodge, & Olcott I can imagine him asking for a lightening up of the style. It is what ends up in the bottle.

It opens with spice swathed lavender; nutmeg and clove predominantly. Those spices help keep the rose from getting too out of control. It is here where PS For Men finds its balancing point as spices and florals swirl around each other. A classic amber, patchouli, and musk base provides the finish.

PS For Men has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

If you’re looking for a lighter Oriental style perfume for the office PS For Men is a great choice. This is not a perfume where you will leave a vapor trail. As I’ve re-introduced myself to my well-hidden bottle, I am impressed at how timeless this feels. It doesn’t have a dated quality to it. This can be found for under $25 in multiple places. Not bad for a couple of guys from Jersey.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Zirh Ikon- Soft Incense

I go to my local discount stores to get ideas for this column. As I dig through the bins, I am looking for something which wasn’t there before. Which means I miss the forest for the trees. In the search for buried treasure I fail to notice the silver coins on the beach. On my last visit I was digging while another shopper was next to me going through the testers. With my head down, a nice scent drifted down upon me. I looked up and asked what he had just sprayed. He held out a bottle with big blocky letters which read: Zirh Ikon.

Zirh is a men’s full-service skincare brand including perfume. It is particularly prevalent during the holiday shopping season because they sell gift sets where they mix and match many of their products, including fragrance. When it comes to the very modestly priced fragrance out there all the Zirh perfumes are great bang for the buck. I own Zirh Corduroy and Zirh Perfume as well as Ikon. For someone who wants an economical choice of perfumes for all seasons there are many worse options.

Frank Voelkl

What the spritz of Ikon at the discount store reminded me of is that it is a simple triad of spices, incense, and woods. Perfumer Frank Voelkl works with an efficient style in Ikon to create something better than it should be for the price.

The opening is a mix of lemon and cardamom which primarily hold the foreground. There are hints of clove and cinnamon, but they are there to shade the top accord towards the cardamom. The incense steps forward with a sharpness to it. This is further refined as labdanum softens it. Cedar and vetiver provide a green woody base accord.

Ikon has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

You can find 4oz. bottles of Ikon for around $10. They are $9.99 at the discount stores I shop at. I also mention the gift sets which will be popping up because you will find some of them also contain Ikon along with some skincare products.

One thing about Ikon which I should mention is when you read spice, incense, and woods you think of something with a large presence. One reason I like Ikon is M. Voelkl softens the overall effect to make it much more approachable. It is at its best in the cold weather. When I smelled it at the store the other day it was that which drew my attention the most. Reminding me to appreciate what was right in front of me.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Lalique Encre Noire- Masterpiece Vetiver

With so much perfume released every year it becomes easy to forget about those which were released a short while ago. One of the goals of this column is to take advantage of that as the discounting cycle is also accelerated. Throughout the nearly five years of writing Discount Diamonds this is the first entry which I think is a modern masterpiece; Lalique Encre Noire.

Vetiver has become a staple ingredient of perfumery in the 21st century. Prior to that it was two perfumes which were the standard bearers for the ingredient; Guerlain Vetiver and Givenchy Vetyver. They were the perfumes which introduced my generation to vetiver. As we crossed into the new century the independent perfume market began to expand rapidly. That meant there were new perspectives provided on previous keynotes. Vetiver started off with a pair of perfumes, once again, leading the modern interpretation. One of those is Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Vetiver Extraordinaire. I don’t think that one is ever going to be a Discount Diamond. Lalique Encre Noire is the other one and it has become a fit subject for this column.

Nathalie Lorson

Encre Noire was released in 2006. Lalique’s fragrance business was looking for a way to join in on this new way of making perfume. Perfumer Nathalie Lorson would help as she composed three perfumes for the brand from 2006-2007; Perles de Lalique, Amethyst, and Encre Noire. It was a statement of intent to try for something different.

The original vetivers were citrus affairs with the vetiver providing an acerbic green contrast. More interested in the higher register effects. Encre Noire was going to go for a different style; plumbing the woody depths underneath the green. What was also so interesting about doing that was there was a smoky quality just waiting to be separated and amplified. Mme Lorson finds that.

The opening of Encre Noire is the classic grassy green of old-style vetiver. Mme Lorson uses cedar to find the woods inherent within vetiver. She uses two sources of vetiver in Encre Noire, Haitian and Bourbon. The Haitian vetiver I have come to know has a quite prominent smoky character. By blending the two versions Mme Lorson tunes the smoke to a soft level. I used to burn pine needles as a boy and whenever I wear Encre Noire the smoky nature reminds me of this. The Bourbon vetiver brings a spicy complement to the Haitian smoky version. The base is a cocktail of sensual musks which really represent the “noire” in the name.

Encre Noire has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

I consider Encre Noire to be one of the best perfumes of this century. That you can buy a bottle for under $30 makes it a steal. There is no other Discount Diamond which will shine brighter.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Estee Lauder Cinnabar- From the Ashes

I devote one column a month to perfumes which have crashed and burned to end up in the Dead Letter Office. When I started Colognoisseur this month’s Discount Diamonds entry was scheduled to be part of that series. Then like a phoenix, Estee Lauder Cinnabar, rose from the ashes three years ago. It sits right on the edge of my $50 limit for this column. It is such a great fall perfume I’ve decided to fudge my criteria just a tiny bit.

Cinnabar was born to three influential perfume personalities. Estee Lauder was hands on, as creative director, in 1978. She asked perfumers Josephine Catapano and Bernard Chant to design an answer to the blockbuster Opium. Ms. Lauder wanted her own Oriental at a lower price point. They would form a softer Oriental which still retained a decent kick. Seems like a recipe for success. Except it failed. There are times when something permeates pop culture so thoroughly it removes all opportunity for competition. This is what caused Cinnabar to find its way to the discontinued shelf in the late 1990’s.

Then for some reason Estee Lauder, the brand, re-launched it in 2015. It is somewhat different than the original because of formulation restrictions. I’d really like to know who did the reformulation because I like it very much. It retains all of what I enjoy from the original. Just to be clear this column is describing the new 2015 version and not the original 1978 version.

Cinnabar is a simple construction of spices florals on top of a classic Oriental base. The modern version is the same with a lighter touch here and there which I only noticed when I had them on side-by-side. To my nose the differences are negligible.

It opens with what almost became a Lauder trademark of the time aldehydes and bergamot. There is a fizz across the early moments before the real business of Cinnabar appears. That is the heart accord of clove and rose. This is a big obstreperous accord full of 70’s attitude. It is balanced without going over the edge. It also really accentuates the spicy core of the rose. The currently available version of Cinnabar had to reduce the percentage of clove oil. The reformulator has found some neat tricks to get the volume back up where it was. The base is patchouli, sandalwood, and incense. It is the classic Oriental base, only thing missing is a touch of amber.

Cinnabar has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

Cinnabar can be found right around the $50 a bottle limit. It is an excellent choice for fall if you want to add a new spicy Oriental to your rotation.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds Moschino Cheap and Chic- But Not Easy

There is something about understated elegance. Or to put it another way, to be chic while also being cheap. This is a concept much easier to say than to accomplish. It is also an unspoken goal of a lot of mainstream perfumes. It is also easier attempted than produced. I am always reminded of it when I try Moschino Cheap and Chic. Not only do they put it on the label, but they also live up to it.

It is a story I’ve told many times especially in the 1990’s as fashion brands added fragrance to their offerings. Moschino was no different. They started with Moschino and Moschino pour Homme in 1987 and 1990, respectively. Moschino pour Homme was one of those underrated men’s colognes which got washed away by the tidal surge of the fresh and clean trend. Neither were particularly popular and Moschino retrenched as they decided what was next.

The choice was to make a perfume which dovetailed with their women’s fun line “Cheap and Chic”. This clothing collection was always about youthful exuberance. When this collection was on the runway you might see the models wearing crowns and miniskirts or vibrant prints and lei. It was decided a perfume to match that irreverence was going to be the third try at fragrance for the brand. Perfumer Nathalie Lorson made Cheap and Chic perfume all of that.

Nathalie Lorson

When you go to a Cheap and Chic fashion show you feel like you’re at a party. The perfume feels like the fragrance you should wear to that party. Mme Lorson goes for a traditional citrus floral. She changes it by using some different versions which makes it feel unique without feeling odd. When it is all put together it lives up to its name.

Cheap and Chic opens with the greener lemon of yuzu. Petitgrain is used to push the lemony part a bit more to the forefront. It all leads to a floral heart which I enjoy every time I wear this as violet and peony form the perfect sunny floral duet. Mme Lorson deftly titrates in some of the bigger florals of jasmine and rose but they are there to provide some longevity and depth not to be the focus. It ends on a sweet woody base accord of sandalwood, vanilla, and tonka bean.

Cheap and Chic has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

Besides living up to its name Cheap and Chic was the first fragrance success for Moschino. It has become a legacy brand for many young perfume lovers who discover it in their teens and early 20’s. The brand has produced a consistent output over the past twenty-plus years but Cheap and Chic has survived because it does exactly what it promises. Just don’t think it comes easily.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke