Le Labo Tonka 25

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.

Le Labo Tonka 25. Photo and source: Luckyscent.

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.

Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, “Darkhejoin,” 2015, at the ARNDT Museum, Berlin.

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.

“Terre de contraste” by Davidian Gottis on Art Majeur. (Direct website link embedded within.)

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.

Source: liveinternet.ru

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.

“Rorschach Bean” by Alex L’aventurier on Flickerhivemind.com

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).

Source: freepik.com

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.

Cost & Availability: Le Labo Tonka 25 is an eau de parfum which comes in many sizes, the most common of which are: 1.7 oz/50 ml for $184 or £125; a travel set for $158 or £110; and a 3.4 oz/100 ml for $270 or £180. There are solo samples, 15 ml decants, body products, and more. Le Labo Website Options: Tonka 25 is available directly from Le Labo but the company has a variety of different country options for its website, from North America to UK to France to International. The website asks you to choose the language and region of your choice, so there really isn’t a universal link to share. I’ll let you use the link I’ve provided above and then let you navigate your way to the site best suited for your location. As a general matter, Le Labo has shops in the US, Canada, UK, EU, Asia, Australia, Korea, Tokyo, and beyond, and you can search for the one closest to you hereIn the U.S.: you can find Tonka 25 at LuckyscentNordstrom’s, Saks, and BarneysOutside the US: In Canada, Le Labo is carried by Toronto’s 6 by Gee Beauty. In the UK, Le Labo is carried at Harrods’s Designer Department on the First Floor, and at Liberty. In the Netherlands, you can find Le Labo products at Skins Cosmetics. In Australia, Le Labo is carried at Mecca CosmeticaSamples: I bought my sample from Surrender to Chance which sells Tonka 25 starting at $5.49  for a 1 ml vial.

31 thoughts on “Le Labo Tonka 25

  1. Very honest review, dear Kafka, I decided to get out of my long time lukewarm territory and say thank you for putting this together (no easy task of reviewing such a ghastly boring thing I suppose). Having been enjoying your reviews for more than a year now and still gets my anticipation high whenever I receive an email alert.

    • Welcome, welcome!! I’m delighted you decided to stop lurking and I look forward to learning a little about you and your perfume tastes in the months to come. In the meantime, have a great week. (And thank you for the kind words on the reviews.)

  2. I was excited when I first saw a picture of Le Labo Tonka 25 in the Fall SFA catalogue( however, it was not available at the time when the city exclusives came to visit. I love Tonka in perfumes but it looks like I need not bother sniffing this!

    (P.S. I still owe you that Sandalwood Snob T-Shirt! BTW, any chance of you reviewing Mona di Orio Santal Nabataea?)

  3. You’ve summed it up perfectly, by my estimation. It has its moments where it seems like it’s about to get interesting, but never materializes into anything more than a thin, flat, fragrance would probably be a wonderful home fragrance, but not personal fragrance. Let’s hope this isn’t wholly indicative of what we can expect from Le Labo for the future.

    • I’ve seen quite a few people make the room fragrance/home fragrance remark and I think they (and you) have a point. It would be a decent change from the plethora of cookie, fruity, or spiced potpourri room sprays on the market. LOL. 😀

  4. „A basic nonentity scent of very little character“ – why would anybody create such a parfum ?! I‘m so longing for a very good tonka scent – I love the complex aroma of freshly grated tonka beans when making my tonka panna cotta. How come nobody can properly transfer it into parfum ?…

      • Thank you, my dear Franz, I‘m off now to read the article
        And I‘d love to get a tonka suggestion from you !
        I hope your magnificent hairy German is well !

  5. ”Olfactory lint”-hee hee! You have a way with words that I thoroughly enjoy. Tonka 25 I will pass on. In the meantime, it’s Ambre Loup weather. Winter is here. Comfort and coziness to your Hairy German.

    • Oh, yes, winter is definitely here! It was like 28 degrees last night where I live, which is quite surprising for November. But it’s perfect weather for Ambre Loup. And also for snuggling with warm furry ones. Give a kiss to your fur babies from me.

  6. Why, oh why, has perfume construction and production gone this way?? Why would one want to make a non-perfume scent? It seems slightly perverse. Like making a coq-au-vin, and trying very strongly to cut out the cooked red wine, onion and chicken taste. Perhaps it’s like twelve-tone technique à la Alban Berg (though, truth be told, I love his Lulu!!). Is it I not getting it? Or is it the Emperor‘ New Clothes?

    • I posted this New York Times newspaper link upthread in response to another reader, but I thought you might find it interesting too. It’s about perfumes intended to smell like nothing and their growing popularity:

      Don’t ask me to explain it. I don’t get it. At all. But I think your coq-au-vin analogy is a great one, although it might actually be more akin to just serving straight up boiled tofu. 😀 😉

  7. I got a few very nice samples , packaging wise, but a number of them left me with shrugged shoulders and that question mark above my head.
    You summed up my final thoughts, after enough better sampling wise, with what you so aptly stated here in your review of Tonka 25 Kafkaesque ;
    ” 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 “.
    I haven’t sampled Tonka 25, nor do I wish too.
    best wishes , eddie

    • Do you remember which ones you tried, Eddie? Some are better than others. Rose 31 and Santal 33 are the super, super popular ones. The former never did anything for me because I’m not into rose, cedar, and ISO E, while the latter didn’t woo me because I’m a sandalwood snob. But I’ll be honest, from what I know of your tastes, I can’t see either one particularly bowling you over. You, like me, prefer much richer, more opulent fragrances. 😀 Cheers!

      • Bergamote 22 . It was sharp . Kinda Like a Durga might do , or Olfactif Studio. When I find the discovery set I got from them I’ll tell you the rest. Oh , the one I didn’t care for was Patchouli 24 . Head shop opening ? Didn’t expect that for that price.
        Oh, Love Diptyque’s Tempo .

        ANNNNDDDDDDDD !! Guess whose going to see Elton on 11/11/2019 ? THAT’s Rigghhht .
        I’m so happy.

        Kafkaesque. Everything goes in cycles.
        I went to see Alan Parsons Project on 11/11/2018 . Oh, it will be a year apart exactly between Alan and Elton.
        Anyways,a women started a conversation with us signers after the show.
        I’m a signer .I wait after the shows outside near the tour buses to get the musicians to sign their concert tickets and albums .
        One thing she said in passing was,” I am into experiences “. That’s a keyword for the minimalist millennial, experiences.

        Why is every living room of their’s always grey and white ?
        The perfect cookie cutter Ikea disposable press board, in two years, throw away sofa and stand . How bloody boring.
        Oh, oh oh oh , Have you ever gone into any or many of their bathrooms ? HOLY Tchotchke haven .
        I guess all those minimalists ideas farted and blew out the bathroom window.
        I’m transgressing here .
        Sorry, not much sleep.

        My point is that the women who mentioned about experiences was around 45 to 50.
        When the last is in, the first have already set new sails.
        Things swing back and forth .
        Be true to thine own self.

        Oh , Alan Parsons is hilarious .
        He’s tall .
        He also looks 55 , but he’s 69.
        Amazing show Kafkaesque .
        Yup, he signed my i Robot album and concert ticket.
        He was impressed with the album.
        He said that it was rare, and now he was going to make it even more rare by signing it.
        A minimalists might find that who album signing trite.
        You want to shut a minimalist up !
        Tell them that Jesus was a minimalists .

        I love the song Time by APP .
        hope you enjoy

        If we don’t get the chance to speak again before the holidays,
        I wish only the very best to all whom you desire to share fond tidings with.

  8. So enjoyed this review! The funniest thing I’ve read since your reviews of TF fucking fabulous (which I haven’t sniffed) and Oud Minerale (which I have, and which you characterized super-accurately imo). So comforting to read your drily hilarious writing and bask in the knowledge that I’m not the only perfume consumer here who’s impervious to marketing and just wants the goods.

    • LOL! You’re more than welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it. You know, in all honesty, I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was merely trying to tone down my initial draft which was bitchy as hell. (I mean, incredibly bitchy!) I kept trying and trying to sound less waspish and, six drafts later, I eventually managed to get down to a tone of minimally caustic dryness. Ha! 😀 😉

  9. I am actually surprised that you’ve had high hopes for a Le Labo. Which ones do you like from them?
    I like Vetyver 46 (think it’s sort of a CDG 2 Man), Lys 41, Oud 27 (skankier than I’ve expected), but the one I would buy is Bergamote 22 (love the first hour); but it’s very low on my long to buy list (I haven’t bought a perfume for over 2 years…yes, it’s hard) so I am sure I won’t buy it too soon.

    • Oh, the Lys 41 is good!!!!!!!! I had high hopes for this one in part because of the “Tonka” (I know, I know, Le Labo always frustrates one with its naming protocols and I should have known better), the note list combination of tonka with orange blossom, styrax, resins and cedar, and the simple fact that it’s been three years since the last release.

      In my head, foolishly, I was thinking that they may have spent a lot of time on the fragrance, even if it wasn’t the entirety of the three years. And, generally, when people spend time perfecting a scent, there is a much higher probability that it will be a good one than some quickly finished thing which was rushed to completion just to hit a certain annual quota.

  10. I got to try this just a few days ago and I was surprised for a few reasons. I was expecting it to be another, boring over-the-top tonka as has been happening a lot in the niche/designer exclusive world, but it was very far from that. I did get the Le-Labo-esque cedar, supporting notes and dry down, but the opening was very heavy with orange blossom and minimal. Le Labo seem to be either explosive and assaulting, or minimal and ghostly. This definitely the latter. I’m a huge fan of avant garde and minimal or ghostly scents, especially those from CdG, but this stuff is just bland and boring. I’ll give it credit for not cashing in on the over-the-top sweet tonka fad though.

    • First, welcome to the blog. Second, I very much enjoyed reading about your experience with Tonka 25 and, in particular, how you think it compares to other sorts of avant garde or minimalist fragrances, both within the Le Labo family and otherwise. I think that perspective will also prove to be helpful to other readers who share tastes similar to yours. Thank you for sharing.

  11. You did an amazing job of reviewing something which sounds really bland. I’ve tried two Le Labo fragrances and I wasn’t impressed. They struck me as very plain and nondescript, kind of like the labels on the bottles. Not my style.

    • This one is most definitely not your style, Ed. There are a few which you might find interesting or okay. But, as a general rule and given how well I know your tastes, I don’t think the brand aesthetic is one which is likely to make you swoon or salivate.

  12. I’m so glad I didn’t waste any money sampling this one. Sounds rather dreadful, which is a shame, considering that LeLabo has put out some good scents in the past like Iris 39 and Rose 31. Thanks for a great review.

  13. I actually loved this scent when I sampled it, and your prediction was spot on. I’m not a fan of wearing white florals, and I’ve always gravitated towards musks and woody fragrances for autumn/winter. Can I justify such a high price tag when I can definitely find something similar from a less “niche” brand, though, is a different question. Maybe for a very very special occasion.

  14. Hi:) as far as i know le labo do not blend their perfume for you, they just dilute the perfume concentrate with ethanol, am i correct ?best regards 🙂

  15. I am happy I have found your blog as I like Tonka 25 but something in the smell was bothering me. Your article helped me take the decision not to purchase that perfume because why would I buy such an expensive smell if I found it flat, doesn’t last on me, very chemically at first to the point where it makes me cough, etc. Could you perhaps recommend a scent that is in the same vibe (ie woody, vanilla, styrax, but not over musky and over smoky)? For now I’ll just stick to L’Heure Bleue.

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