Guerlain Tonka Imperiale

There is a house in the suburbs, virtually indistinguishable from its neighbors, and merely one more in a line of perfectly square, pretty boxes with perfectly trimmed lawns on a perfectly pleasant, quiet street. It’s not large enough to be a true McMansion, but it certainly bears all the characteristics of that generic sameness. If you look closely, you can see that it’s made of the very finest building blocks, the very best that money can buy. Inside and out, however, it’s a sea of bland beigeness with interiors that are awash with taupe, egg-shell, and cream as far as the eye can see. There is nary a whiff of anything strong in contrast; no pops of colour, no thick veins of black. The lack of edge or individual character carries through even to the house’s carpeting: thick, plush shag rugs in which you can sink your bare feet. It’s easy comfort without particular style, and always in unremarkable, unrelieved, suburban taupe.



Tonka Imperiale from Guerlain is a beige house in the suburbs for me. It’s well-appointed and well-made, but a sea of bland, characterless, generic taupe as far as the eye can see. And I despise taupe with a violent passion. I’m sure it’s a colour that can be elegant in some interior decorating, and there are probably people on whom the colour looks good in clothing, but, personally, I would like to stab taupe in the eye with a large chef’s knife. And, for me, when I wear Tonka Imperiale, all I see is that bland colour. I know a lot of my friends will undoubtedly be upset with this review as they love the fragrance. To them, I can only apologise. I know Tonka Imperiale is a luxuriously made creation that probably encapsulates elegant comfort. I’m sure it’s wonderful on all of you. Unfortunately, it’s not something that I think is particularly special for its high price.   

Guerlain Tonka ImperialeTonka Imperiale is part of Guerlain’s exclusive L’Art et La Matière collection which was launched in 2005 to celebrate the opening of Guerlain’s renovated headquarters in Paris. The collection’s name means Art and (raw) Materials, and represents Guerlain’s goal of creating olfactory Art through the use of the finest raw materials in perfumery. As Fragrantica further explains, “L’Art et la Matière” is also “a pun after the French expression L’Art et la Manière – the art and manners.”

Tonka Imperiale is the seventh fragrance in the collection, and was released in 2010. Like all its siblings, it was created by Guerlain’s in-house perfumery, Thierry Wasser. On its website, Guerlain describes the scent as a “woody oriental” and write:


With Tonka Impériale, Thierry Wasser has created a woody oriental composed around one of Guerlain’s star ingredients,the tonka bean. It has to be said that this precious seed, one of the cult components of the Guerlinade, is particularly dear to the House.

Tonka Impériale is well-named: a subtle blend of balmy scents, rich in contrasting facets, with accents of honey, gingerbread, almond, hay and tobacco. The fragrance comes in a spray bottle with sleek, contemporary lines. One side is ornamented with a gold plate like a talisman.

Tonka Beans

Tonka Beans

The notes for the perfume, as compiled from Guerlain and Fragrantica, are:

Top notes: bergamot, butter almond, white honey, and rosemary.

Heart notes: jasmine, tonka beans and light tobacco. Bottom notes: incense, cedar wood, pine.

Depending on treatment, tonka beans can smell of vanilla, hay (coumarin), or even bittersweet almonds. And it is the latter which dominates the opening of Tonka Imperiale on my skin, thanks to the supplemental effects of the almond butter. The perfume begins with a burst of the white nuts, first bitter and raw, then quickly infused with sweetness. There is a honeyed quality underlying the note, but it’s light, not thick, yellow, or molten. It suits the description of “white honey” given by Fragrantica, because this feels quite translucent. Quickly, a subtle herbal element breezes through, followed by an amorphous woody note that isn’t immediately distinguishable. Tobacco lurks underneath, feeling pale, blonde and sweet, like leaves sitting in the sun. Traces of sweetened hay and the faintest speck of bergamot are the final touches that dot the landscape.

Source: donnamarie113 on

Source: donnamarie113 on

The primary bouquet, however, is of almonds and vanilla. The almond note is so concentrated, it’s more akin to the distilled essence that one uses in baking. The vanilla is rich and sweet, but it’s airy instead of custardy, more pale and white in visual hue. It’s also subtly backed by sweetened vanillic powder. It’s the famous Guerlainade, Guerlain’s signature note, which is placed front and center, right at the top, rather than appearing, as it traditionally does, at the very end in the perfume’s drydown. Tonka Imperiale is a very simple fragrance at its core: bitter, honeyed, sweet almonds with vanilla. It feels a lot like crème anglaise, only this one includes almond concentrate.    

Eventually, other notes appear to dance at the edges. In the first hour, there are minute, minuscule traces of woodiness. It’s generic, beige and abstract in large part, though if you really, really focus, you can perhaps persuade yourself that you can detect the hazy, faint edges of cedar. The real dryness in the scent comes from the tobacco which has quietly filled the base, seeping up to subtly impact the vanilla-almond combination at the top. Slowly, the bergamot becomes a little more noticeable, but like a number of things in this scent, it is restrained, and muted. By the end of the second hour, jasmine and incense suddenly pop up on the periphery. Both are flickers that are barely imperceptible initially. In fact, on my skin, it takes almost six hours for the incense to be noticeable in any substantial way.

Until that point, Tonka Imperiale is primarily an almond-vanilla scent atop an abstract, amorphous woody base that is lightly infused with tobacco and smoke. The Guerlainade powder, the jasmine and the other notes register in pale, light, subtle hues. It’s all effortless, easy, extremely well-blended, and swirls around you like a very expensive, soft, airy cloud. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s perfectly pleasant. To me, it seems simplistic and dull, but I can see how it might be a comfortable, easy, cozy scent for some, especially those who love a gourmand sweetnes in their fragrances.



Still, I can’t help but visual a house in the suburbs, though not one excessive or large enough to be a true McMansion. Tonka Imperiale is not chic, cool, or hip enough to be an apartment in the city; it’s certainly not a loft in Soho or a penthouse decorated in sleek black, silver, and modern edges. It’s also not large, opulent, or over-the-top enough like an Amouage Ubar to be a massive estate with a palatial mansion out in the country. It’s merely a comfortable, unremarkable, pretty, well-built house in the suburbs awash in taupe and beige.

The unrelieved blandness never changes. At the 4.5 hour mark, the sillage drops, and Tonka Imperiale is now a skin scent. The almond has now fallen behind the honey, jasmine and vanilla, though it still precedes the woody notes that are in the base. It’s the same story with the tobacco. As a whole, and if I’m being charitable, Tonka Imperiale is an interesting mix of sweetness with dryness, I suppose. By the start of the seventh hour, the fragrance is Guerlainade vanillic powder with a faint whisper of almonds and honey, and sits atop with some smoky incense, though the latter is so sheer, gauzy, and thin, it’s hardly a robust foundation. In its final hours, Tonka Imperiale is merely Guerlainade with some dryness. All in all, the fragrance lasted just short of 11 hours, with moderate to soft sillage throughout.

Taupe shag carpeting. Source:

Taupe shag carpeting. Source:

Tonka Imperiale is intentionally meant to pay homage to a particular note, so I can’t fault it for focusing so heavily on the tonka, right down to its occasional almond-like facets. The fragrance does what it sets out to do, and does so in the typical Guerlain way. I’m not blaming it for that. I do blame it, however, for being such unrelieved blandness for $250. For that amount, it would be nice to have some character, some contrasting edge to counter the dull monotony of a sea of taupe and beige. Supposedly, the incense is meant to be that edge. If they say so. Perhaps I’m merely unlucky with my skin.

Or, perhaps, Tonka Imperiale is exactly the way it’s supposed to be: a plush, simple, comforting, gourmand scent dominated by vanillic tonka, almonds and Guerlainade, with an incredibly restrained dose of tobacco and incense. So restrained, in fact, that neither of those minor supporting players can possibly counter the two main, gourmand players on center stage. Fine. But Guerlain’s headlong descent into simplistic and/or gourmand scents at an extremely high price tag continues to alienate me. Tonka Imperiale would be a great comfort scent at about $100, though I personally still wouldn’t go near it due to all that taupe beigeness. But $250? For a plush, beige shag rug? No, thank you. Not for me.

Others, however, don’t share my issues. As noted earlier, I have a number of friends who love Tonka Imperiale so much, they’ve bought full bottles of it. On Fragrantica, there are raves about how wonderful the fragrance is, and how it is a luxurious “masterpiece.” To wit, one comment calling it “[F]rench romantic ART,” and saying: “Oh my god …..what is this scent…luxury…elegant…charismatic…sweet…sensual…very sexy for me.” Others, however, think Tonka Imperiale is vastly over-priced, with a number finding the fragrance’s opening to be extremely similar to Mugler‘s Pure Havane. One person had an issue with Tonka Imperiale’s drydown, comparing it to Calvin Klein‘s Obsession, her “worst nightmare.” On my skin, Tonka Imperiale’s drydown wasn’t similar to Obsession at all, and I can’t compare it to Pure Havane’s opening, as I’ve never tried it. All I can say is that those of you who have problems with Guerlainade, and who continuously have it turn into sour baby powder on your skin may want to stay away from a fragrance that showcases the brand’s tonka signature.

The bottom line is this: if you love modern Guerlain fragrances — with all that that entails, for good or for bad — and if you adore cozy gourmands, then you may want to give Tonka Imperiale a sniff. You will have plenty of company in Tonka Imperiale’s vast fan club. If, however, you’re looking for a fragrance with some edge, character, or distinctive flair for your $250, you may want to look elsewhere. It’s an unrelieved sea of beige and taupe in the suburbs. 

Cost & Availability: Tonka Imperiale is an eau de parfum that costs $250 for 2.5 fl. oz/75 ml. It is available at Guerlain boutiques, and is listed on its website, but Guerlain doesn’t seem to sell the fragrance via an e-shop of sorts. (There is no shopping cart, for example, in which to put the fragrance for purchase.)In the U.S.: Tonka Imperiale is available on the NordstromSaks Fifth AvenueNeiman Marcus, and Bergdorf Goodman websites. (With the exception of Bergdorf Goodman which definitely carries the more exclusive line of Guerlain fragrances in-store, I don’t know if it is available within the other shops themselves.) Outside the U.S.: In the U.K, you can find Tonka Imperiale at Harrods and, apparently, London’s Selfridges, but neither store offers the fragrance online. As for price, I read that, back in 2011, Tonka Imperiale retailed for £175. I don’t know how much it is now. In France, the fragrance is obviously available at Guerlain stores. For all other countries, you can use Guerlain’s Store Locator on its website. Samples: If you’d like to give Tonka Imperiale a test sniff, you can get a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $4.99 for half of a 1/2 ml vial.

35 thoughts on “Guerlain Tonka Imperiale

  1. Great review! As always…your details really stand out. I wasn’t sold on the scent…but love the honesty of that. Well done! I can almost smell it!

    • Thank you, Megan. 🙂 I’m glad you appreciated the honesty. I’m afraid my opinion will be an unpopular one, however, as Guerlain fragrances are quite adored — and this one in particular. I have a few friends whose reactions I’m rather worried about, in fact…. lol

  2. I think Tonka Imperiale is perfectly adequate, but I’m afraid I feel similarly. I think, if it were available at Macy’s for $60 for 100ml, I’d be slightly more enthusiastic about it. The scent, like many of Guerlain’s current offerings, simply doesn’t justify the price. I think it’s also something I’d like more on someone else, compared to on me. I did like it more the second wear, but it’s simply not something I’d ever pay $100 for, let alone $250. There’s nothing about it that feels particularly “special” to me. Guerlain truly feels like a shadow of its former self to me. The more I smell some of their old classics, the more disappointing the new ones feel.

    • Edit: I ended up splashing on the rest of my sample after this review went up. So, I’m drenched in it. I maintain it’s pretty – and I really see how others could love this, but it’s so not me. It’s so sweet, and so dull to me. Perfectly inoffensive, perfectly boring. It really *is* the color beige turned into perfume.

      • I’m telling you, it’s a plush shag rug from a house decorated in a sea of bland taupe sameness. So, so, SOOOOOOOOOOOOO much taupe (which I find far worse than mere beige)! I fear both you and I are not Guerlain’s intended target audience with this one. It’s hugely adored, though, so clearly we’re missing something….

    • It would be perfect for $60! I might even wear it then, as something utterly innocuous that would send me to sleep. Like you, I wouldn’t pay $100 for it, and the $250 leaves me rather staggered, I’m afraid.

      I think you better join me in the woodshed, Kevin…. 😉

  3. I totally agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments about Tonka Imperiale. It is a bland and boring scent, although it is good for what it is if you like that type of thing. However I expected more backup support from resins, amber, ambergris/ambroxan, woods, incense and a small smiget of rose or another florals to beef it up. Some people praise this scent to the highest, but I just dont get it or should I say it wears so plainly on me. My skin needs spice or strong/creamy wood to do well on me, so with that element missing, its not going to work. Unfortunately, Tonka Imperiale was a total bleh for me. My sample is still tucked away in my dresser drawer almost firgotten. Alas, I won’t be vying for a full bottle. Great review!

    • I think you nailed it. If it had something to beef it up, some contrasting element, a larger dose of amber, woods or smoke, it would have the edge necessary to counter all that vanillic, Tonka-almond sameness. Unfortunately, as it is, it is largely unremarkable. Pretty and with high-quality ingredients, but ultimately too plain for the price. $250??! It seems a little high, to put it mildly.

  4. When I and my little sister went to Epcot, all I could think of was the Guerlain store halfway around “the world of Epcot”. Back story….. After reading the A-Z guide, and ordering a sample of all of Luca’s 5 star rated perfumes, I was so horrified by Mitsouko in particular. I went to Nieman’s and tried L’Heure Blue and ton’s of others. I kind of hated them all. But you know, after reading hundreds of blogs touting the Sheer Gorgeousness of Guerlain Fragrances, I felt that somehow, I had to step up and find some G that I liked. At the gorgeous Guerlain shop with tous le monde parlezing francais, I just got swept in the undertow. I bought a bottle of Tonka Imperiale, Spiritueuse Double Vanille, and Angelique Noir. I know. I know. I got carried away on the what I “should like” train. A few weeks an Much buyers remorse later, I feel like an idiot. I gave the Angelique to my sister, the Tonka is my new Gym scent, and I pretty much like the Spiritueuse. Here is a lesson learned in Lemming Blind Idolatry worship, that I got ‘expensively’ sucked in to. I wish I had bought instead a much cheaper bottle of Nobile 1942 Ambra Nobile, or Bois 1920 Real Patchouli, or Parfumerie Generale Intigrant Patchouli, all perfumes I REALLY LOVE. Hell, I could have bought all three and still had money to go buy dinner. That is all.

    • My dear, you have no idea how much I dreaded and feared your response to this review. Yours and another person’s. I knew that you’d bought and seemed to adore Tonka Imperiale. I actually tested it, by complete coincidence, the day that you subsequently ended up buying this fragrance and I held off on writing this review, in part, as a result. I’ve already covered Angelique Noire, with a similar sort of conclusion, but this one…. I was sure I would hurt some dear friends. You cannot imagine my huge relief at reading your comment tonight. Tonka Imperiale is hardly a bad scent — not at all. But I think there are much better scents for less. And yes, you probably could have bought all three fragrances that you genuinely DO love, while still having money left for an extremely expensive dinner out. Out of the three you bought, I like Spiritueuse Double Vanille the best, think it has great richness, and it is certainly a scent that I would enjoy wearing on occasion, but the Tonka Imperiale….

      Thank you for not being upset with me.

      • It would take a hell of a lot more than a bad review of anything, to make me mad at you, sweetie!! Now just don’t mess with my Les Nerides Patchouli Antique!! Just kidding. We all rely on you you speak honestly. Carry on friend and have a blast in France!!! Allez-Vous!!!!

  5. Hello dearest Kafka, Great review! Despite our difference in opinion regarding Tonka Imperiale, we will remain friends. I don’t ever get angry or annoyed or [fill in the blanks] if a blogger hates / mocks / trashes a perfume I like because everyone is entitled to their opinion. If everyone agreed on everything, we would be living in :::: shudder ::::: a Taupe World!

    For me, Tonka Imperiale opens with a minty note; I don’t know what it is but it immediately perks me up. The rest is pretty straight up tonkabeanalmondagavevanilla and this is just right up my alley. I have a decant from my favorite basenotes splitter. I am keeping my eyes open for a FB when the time is right (i.e. when there is a gift with purchase somewhere and there’s nothing else that I want).

    As to boring / beige / taupe perfumes, since yours truly is, ahem, an interesting person with a scintillating personality(batting my eyelashes), I more than make up for the linearity.

    • LOL! You’re VERY far from beige, my dear Hajusuuri, let alone the despised taupe! BTW, thank God you agree that a taupe is a vile, vile colour — or so I’m interpreting one of your remarks. 😛 As for Tonka Imperiale, thank you for not minding a difference of opinion, and for being incredibly gracious about it all. I’m so relieved!

      I have to say, though, for a split second, I blinked at your reference to agave. I often mentally associate agave with cactii, tequila and/or rotting fruit. Since I’m pretty sure that is NOT what you meant, I figured pretty quickly that you meant a watery sort of honeyed sweetness. lol. For a few seconds, I really blinked, but I think “agave” is actually a pretty good way to describe that honey note.

      • I’m not anti-taupe but I am anti ALL-Taupe. I think Taupe paired with black is actually quite nice. Before Coach went the Poppy / Legacy / crappy-fabric direction, they used to carry solid colors in black, british tan, and navy…and then they expanded and added red, maroon and taupe!

        As to the agave reference, I probably should have used “blue agave” and you are absolutely correct that it is watery sweetness instead of the thick honey sweetness that I get from Tonka Imperiale…and never the rotting fruit as that would keel me dead LOL

  6. Hi, my name is Dubaiscents and I just bought a full bottle of Tonka Imperial….and I love it! 🙂 But, please do not worry, I completely understand where your review comes from. $250 (or about $275 which, is what it costs here) is a lot to pay for a perfectly lovely almond gourmand scent.
    Somehow I feel like I should explain my story – I recently dropped an almost full bottle of Keiko Mecheri’s Loukoum (yes, my closet smelled sweet and powdery for weeks!) and have been searching for a replacement for months now (I could’ve just bought another bottle of Loukoum but, that felt kind of silly). I loved Loukoum as a bed scent and for when I needed something very cozy and soothing, and wanted to find something similar. Plus, I adore almond scents and really wanted another one. So, for months I have been trying almond scent after almond scent. I found several in the Profumo Roma line that I loved, Rahat Loukoum by SL is a great one, and even Sweet Oriental Dream by Montale was extremely similar to KM Loukoum. And if Profumo Roma or the SL was sold here in Dubai I probably would have been tempted to buy one of theirs instead of Tonka Imperial but, since it was my birthday and I am impulsive like that, I bought the Guerlain. Also, I guess it is my skin but, I get quite a bit of the smokey incense with the almond. And as a real incense lover this makes for a perfect almond scent to my nose.
    So dear, please don’t worry that I would be mad about the review! I don’t feel like you are misrepresenting the scent in any way. And if I wasn’t looking for something to fit this specific niche in my fragrance wardrobe I would probably agree with you.
    BTW, I am really impressed you found time for this review with all you have going on! 🙂

    • Hahahahaha, and the third one on my list appears!! You’ve all been great sports about it! Still, I did have a few mental winces at the thought of your birthday bottle, and how upset you might be. It’s a birthday scent — it’s a damn big deal, in my opinion, so I was truly hesitant to hit the “Publish” button. Honestly, if I’d had more scents that I’d tested with detailed notes on, I would have sat on this one even longer. Again, thank you for being a good sport about it and for being understanding. I can certainly see why you would want Tonka Imperiale, especially in light of the situation you described. For an almond lover who wants something soothing at bedtime, Tonka Imperiale is probably a great fit — though I *still* think Guerlain is asking far too much for it! But, seriously, enjoy! It’s always wonderful to have a scent to commemorate and mark a special day, and the bottle is certainly lovely! 🙂

  7. I haven’t tried this but I know exactly how it smells based on your review. I was testing a floral scent last night to review and it gave me a similar impression. It’s pretty but after the top notes it was just boring. Not bad, not a scrubber, just unremarkable to me yet I could see other people really loving it. It happens.

    • Oh dear. Did it evoke a sea of endless taupe? If so, please give me the name so that I may avoid it! I’m not kidding. I despise taupe, and anything that is similarly bland, lifeless, limp, and unremarkable is something I’d rather avoid.

  8. Dearest Kafka
    In the words of the great Maggie Prescott, the fictional editor of ‘Funny Face’s Quality Magazine…. “Bury the beige”!!
    I follow your thread exactly here, this is a brilliantly made slice of bourgeois tapioca. Offensive in its tasteful inoffensiveness.
    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, except everything.
    The only problem with your wonderful review is that you actually started to make it sound somewhat alluring in your detailed description.
    The Dandy’s not ready for twinset and pearls just yet… but when he is, he knows which scent he’ll be sure to wear.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • Hahahaha! It’s more flan than twinsets and pearls, but you rather nailed it with your astute observations up above. I would be very interested to see what you made of Tonka Imperiale, my dear Beau. I almost wish you’d go seek it out immediately so that I could see your diplomatic struggles with its tasteful inoffensiveness…. 😉 😀

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  10. I should probably start with saying that I do not dislike taupe. I wouldn’t definitely limit my wardrobe or interior decoration choices by that color but I do not mind it as one of the mix since I like beige-brown palette.

    Having said that, I want to acknowledge that your description for the perfume felt very true. Why “felt”? Because I don’t remember a thing about this scent. I know that I smelled it, probably more than once but I wasn’t compelled even to seek a sample to test it on skin. I will try it – if it ever comes my way but I doubt it’ll ever go any further.

    I think you wrote a very good review which might potentioally make more people to buy this perfume: you lowered the expectations so much that any positive reaction to an actual testing will be a huge improvement 🙂

    • “I don’t remember a thing about this scent” — Haha, that sums up the problem in a nutshell! And I’m sure you probably sniffed Tonka Imperiale at your trip to the Las Vegas boutique, but I know you found other Guerlains to love. Oh, as a comparative side note, I think Angelique Noire is much more distinctive than this one.

      I’m glad you liked the review. I think lowered expectations is a good thing in general, for any hyped perfume, as it will prevent disappointment. So, if I could help someone that way, it makes me happy. 🙂

  11. Long live Guerlain 😛 ! You definitely are a non believer Kafka, however I appreciate that you are always honest with what you think, I am that way also. As for the perfume, I would probably like it, since I do love simplicity and elegance, although if you ask me 250$ is too much, particularly for something that isn´t too unique.

    • Hahaha, you’re in some ways, but I actually love old Guerlain. Classic Guerlains in vintage form are outstanding and often masterpieces! The new Guerlains are very different in style, in my opinion. For their new niche, exclusive lines, many are far too simple and/or generic for their extremely high price. At a lower price, they might be worth it in some cases for a really uncomplicated, conventional scent. But at $250 and up? They’re simply not special, interesting or original enough. And this one in PARTICULAR!!! Old, vintage Guerlain, on the other hand…..

  12. I tested this last week, it was lovely, but lasted about 15 minutes on my skin and there is no way I am paying $270 CDN for a scent that fleeting. Like Dubaiscents, I like to wear sweet comforting things to bed and this would be perfect for that.. if it were $50. So I will stick with my Spiritueuse Double Vanille, Songe d’un Bois d’Ete and Encens Mythique d’Orient, which are more interesting and long-lasting on my skin for my Guerlain loves.

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  14. Amazing how completely different this is from my experience. Yes it’s heavy on tonka/vanilla, but smoky incense is equally heavy when I wear it. That sharpness is made even sharper by the hint of jasmine and is really a very complex, though nearly linear, fragrance. Absolutely beautiful. It sounds like you only smelled the sweet and creamy aspects and none of these sharp and smoky ones which really make the scent in my opinion.

    • It sounds infinitely better on your skin, which clearly brought out sides that my skin chemistry did not. I’m rather envious, but enjoy, I’m sure you smell great!

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