Le Labo recently released its first new fragrance in three years, Tonka 25. It’s an eau de parfum that was created by Daphne Bugey and it’s available worldwide (as opposed to being part of the city-exclusives line of fragrances).
Though I had high hopes for Tonka 25, I found it as dull as dishwater. There are certain aspects which I could see appealing to fans of a particular, specific genre of perfumery but, for me, it was about as memorable, distinctive, robust, flavorful, and interesting as Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti.
If you’re new to Le Labo, it is a niche brand which hand-blends your fragrance for you at the time of purchase and which uses numbers in the title of their scents to reference the amount of ingredients in that composition. So, an eau de parfum like Vetiver 46 purportedly has 46 notes and Lys 41 has 41 notes, while Tonka 25 has 25. However, and this is important to know, the name or the material highlighted in the title frequently does not correlate to what the perfume actually smells like. In the case of Tonka 25, Le Labo officially describes the scent as a dark and largely woody one:
An addictive, dark fragrance with woody notes and a subtle hint of sweetness. It evokes the smell of warm skin and resinous wood.
This one is dark. A good, addictive, warm dark, as if the humid summer underwoods, their seeds and resins, were sprinkled with layers of musks and sweetened with drops of vanilla. The perfumer’s notes say orange flower absolute, the unique cedar atlas, styrax resins, absolute tonka, and musks… We say Tonka 25.
The succinct nutshell synopsis of official notes is therefore the following, listing only 5 of the full 25 elements:
Atlas cedar, orange flower absolute, tonka bean absolute, styrax, musks.
In early reviews for Tonka 25, people alternatively reported experiencing: a floral woody scent initially dominated by loads of orange blossom; a dry, dark woody cedar scent; a woody musk; and a basic nonentity scent of very little character. I agree with everything but the heavy orange blossom description.
Tonka 25 opens on my skin with a cloud of dry, dusty cedar which is imbued with a positive deluge of ISO E-like rubbing alcohol. The cloud is diffusive but it is also thin and oddly flat. On the heels of the cedar/ISO E note is a gauzy, crisp, and antiseptically clean faux “floralcy” which, I suppose, if you put a gun to my head, I might say smelled like “neroli” (theoretically), but boy, is it abstract, bloodless, and generic! After that, there is a slug of an equally abstract, amorphous spiciness, then a pinch of a woody-amber synthetic which smells somewhere between Cedarmax and Ambroxan in olfactory character.
Tonka 25 adds a few more elements to its anodyne cocktail of inconsequentiality as it develops. A few minutes in, there is a big blast of sugared white musk, then a wisp of some sort of sweet, nutty nothingness which I assume is the tonka beginning to rear its head. After 15 minutes, the nondescript sweet, nutty nothingness develops somewhat further on the periphery, smelling like a flotsam bit of beige fluff and olfactory lint. It’s the nicest part of the fragrance, in my opinion, but it’s also the quietest and smallest part. As usual, the signature note in a Le Labo title is not the main focus. Rather than being tonka driven, the fragrance is primarily centered on a dry, dusty cedar chest left in an old attic amidst a cloud of clean white musk (and ISO E-like tonalities). It’s simply that a few elements appear in the meantime to take some of the edge off the primary bouquet.
Tonka 25 shifts in small degrees as it evolves. About 30 minutes in, the fragrance turns more “floral” and fractionally “creamier.” About 45 minutes in, a quiet smoky element appears when I sniff my arm up close and it smells vaguely like smoky black “tea.” Vaguely. It’s nice, whatever it is supposed to be.
I’m putting many of these words into quotation marks because they are not actually “floral” or “creamy” by normal criteria, nor are they easily discernible in the middle of all the whitewashing. Sniffing Tonka 25 is like trying to discern distant shapes and faces in heavy fog. Outside of the whopping degree of entirely synthetic, rubbing-alcohol-laced cedar, so much of this scent is amorphous, thin, innocuous, and impressionistically abstract in character that it’s difficult to identify the details with certainty or precision. Notes like, for example, the orange blossom are certainly not as olfactorily clear or as luxuriously abundant as compared to genuinely good fragrances with real raw materials. They feel instead like whitewashed renditions of “orange blossom,” “tonka,” or “tea,” which is why I find the end result similar to a can of Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti in terms of its level of quality and verisimilitude.
To be perfectly clear, even if many of the notes smell nothing like the real thing on my skin, I would still be perfectly happy with their synthetic counterparts if the “orange blossoms” (or tonka, synthetic “tea,” and cedar) smelled solid, good, authentic, and high quality. It can be done, you know, if people are willing to spend a bit of money on high-end aromachemicals. But here, I’m faced with a completely androgynous note which is so wan, so bloodless, so clean, so spineless, and so impersonal that it is an “orange blossom” in the same way that tofu is a luxurious banquet of epicurean delights. The same holds true for the titular “tonka” note.
Some of you may think I’m being too negative because I’m too much of a snob about ingredients. Let’s say that were true and let us put every technical or ingredient-based factor to the side; I would still think that Tonka 25 is about as interesting as dishwater with a few remnants of leftovers floating about. The ISO E-laden cedar is the dishwater, while the clean musk, the wisps of soft “tonka” fluff, “spice,” and the impressionistic, witness-protection-program “orange blossom” are the flotsam leftovers floating at the edges. There really isn’t much else going on. Except for the dark cedar, everything has been stripped of its character, substance, clarity, and prominence, and the end-result is consequently both boring and one-dimensional in my eyes.
There was a short period of time when Tonka 25 was moderately enjoyable in a non-perfume perfume sort of way. About 1.75 hours in, it’s a fairly decent mix of smoky woodiness, a nutmeg-ish sort of spiciness, generic floralcy, clean musk, dryness, darkness, and sweetness, all woven together in an androgynous, impressionistic blur with a vaguely creamy softness underpinning it. That last part, which I assume stems from the tonka, is the most appealing individual element, so it’s a pity there isn’t more of it to counterbalance the cedar.
Tonka 25 continues to change at a glacial pace. About 2.5 hours in, there is a vague, ghostly suggestion of something which, if you strain yourself and your nose, might possibly point to being something civet-y. The amorphous spice cloud continued to occasionally hint at being nutmeg. The “floralcy” is now even more muted and minor. Trying to single out notes continues to be like trying to find shapes in the fog, with one exception: the cedar. There is a lot of cedar on my skin — all dry, dusty, and smelling like something found in an attic after a few decades. Towards the end of the third hour, the last remaining vestiges of androgynous floralcy fade away. Not long after, the “tonka” creamy fluff also disappears, leaving behind a simple, completely clean, quietly sweetened, lightly powdered, and lightly spiced cedar bouquet (still laden with ISO E like tonalities).
Once the drydown begins around the 7th hour, there is nothing but cedar, clean musk, lightly powdered woody sweetness, and ISO E Supercrappy. In the final hours, all that’s left is dark, dry, ISO E-scented woodiness infused with clean white musk and a touch of powder.
Tonka 25’s performance is okay, although I suspect it probably works better on me than on others because my skin holds onto aromachemicals to a crazy degree. I applied several large swipes of a dab vial, amounting to 2 big sprays from an actual bottle, and Tonka 25 opened with about 1.5 to 2 inches of projection and about 4 inches of sillage. The scent shrank and became quieter after 2.25 hours, but it took roughly 6 hours for Tonka 25 to become a skin scent. In total, the fragrance lasted just a bit over 13 hours. On Fragrantica, other people have reported a low-performing fragrance which had poor or weak longevity and which required a large scent application in order to be noticeable.
Wearing Tonka 25, I was reminded of what Andy Tauer once said about the big perfume houses, the gist of which was how they used something like 0.00001% natural or high-end materials while spending the majority of their fragrance budget on marketing. Le Labo skewed towards modern, synthetic abstraction long before it was taken over by Estée Lauder, but I thought they made more interesting and better quality perfumes in years past. No, I haven’t always liked their stuff, but some were enjoyable while others were expertly done and abounded with character. So I expected more from Tonka 25 than this overly synthetic, overly minimalist oatmeal blandness. There is a place in the market for this sort of I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-this-generic-woody-floral-spiced-musk-thing-is, but it’s in a corner of Sephora, Dillards, or TJ Maxx where the prices are low. Le Labo’s prices are not low, and I expect better from them.
You should really read other perspectives on the scent before making up your mind, so here is a link to Tonka 25’s Fragrantica page. Reviews are highly mixed. I honestly can’t be bothered to even summarize them. If you’re a Le Labo fan or if you like the modern, clean, minimalist style of perfumery, you will smell Tonka 25 anyway. If you like it, good for you. Rock on. I’m happy you’ve found something you love. (Really.) But me? I doubt I’ll remember anything other than the rubbing alcohol cedar a mere week from now. This is simply not an interesting, complex, well-delineated, and memorable fragrance, in my opinion, and I don’t think it stands out even amongst comparable quasi-niche woody-clean-musk compositions.
Having said that, I can see Tonka 25 being a hit with a few segments of the perfume world: people who like non-perfume perfumes; people who love cedar fragrances of any kind; and fans of the ultra-modern minimalist style of perfumery embodied by the Geza Schoen Escentuals brand, particularly the 01 focused solely on ISO E Super. If you’re a man or woman who hates white flowers, loves super clean, dry, dark woody fragrances with white musk, and has no issues with ISO E-like aromas, then this might be the “white floral woody musk” for you, especially during the first phase which is basically 75% ISO E-scented cedar. But for people hoping for an actual tonka fragrance (or a tonka orange blossom one which some people thought this might be), then I think you need to re-calibrate your expectations.