Close your eyes and imagine you are in the heart of a forest at Yosemite National Park.
Cypress trees and evergreens intermingle and stretch far before you. The dark, dry earth is sprinkled with pine needles, and a wild boar is rooting at the tall grasses at the base of a tree, his endeavors lifting the smell of the earthy, chocolate-y roots into the air. Icicles hang from the branches where, nestled deep within, are purple juniper berries. In the heart of the forest, campfires burn thick logs of pine and cypress, and there is a smell of peppery smoke intermingling with the burning woods. Someone is cooking caramel, and burning it. You huddle deeper into your coat as the hint of frost brings a chill, but you can’t help but take a deeper breath of the vetiver surrounding you.
Green and brown, smoky and earthy, with a heart of cypress and wood — that is Chanel‘s Sycomore. It is an incredibly elegant smell, luxurious and leaving a smooth, trail of pure class oozing in its green-brown trail. It is richly masculine, with not a hint of florals, but this is silken masculinity in the most sophisticated, elegant of packages.
Sycomore was first introduced to the world in 1930, the creation of Chanel’s very famous, original perfumer, Ernst Beaux. From what I’ve read, it was all violet and tobacco with some support from soft aldehydes and balsamic wood. The original Sycomore vanished in the perfume mists, but it was re-envisioned and re-introduced in 2008 as an eau de toilette and as part of Chanel’s prestige collection called “Les Exclusifs.” It was created by Chanel’s house perfumer, Jacques Polge, along with an equally famous “nose” in the industry, Christopher Sheldrake.
On its website, Chanel describes the new Sycomore as follows:
A rich-wood fragrance with a noble character — like the Sycomore tree that inspired it — created by CHANEL Master Perfumer Jacques Polge in 2008. At the heart of the scent: Vetiver, with an elegant Sandalwood note and dashes of Cypress, Juniper and Pink Pepper, for an earthy, warm and enveloping, yet subtle presence.
I think Chanel’s description nails it, unlike the Fragrantica‘s entry for Sycomore which seems completely incorrect in my opinion. Fragrantica puts Sycomore in the “Woody Floral Musk” category, and lists its notes as “vetiver, sandalwood, aldehydes, tobacco and violet.” I suspect both the categorization and the notes apply only to the 1930s version of Sycomore.
No, Chanel’s notes for Sycomore are the ones to follow and they are clearly listed by the Perfume Shrine as follows:
Vetiver, cypress, juniper, pink pepper, smoke, burning woods.
To get a true understanding of Sycomore, I think it’s important to elaborate a bit on the notes. For example, vetiver which not everyone is familiar with as an ingredient or as a smell, and which is the main part of Sycomore. Chandler Burr, the former New York Times perfume critic, gave this extremely useful explanation to GQ:
In the most basic sense, [vetiver is] a grass native to India that grows in bushes up to 4’x4′. It’s also related to lemon grass, as you can tell when you smell it. The stuff—it’s the grass’s long, thin roots that they distill—is infinitely more interesting though: deep, shadowed, astringent, earthy like newly tilled soil, and balsam-woody. It can be warm like tobacco leaves, it can have a crushed-green leaves freshness, or it can be cool like lemon verbena.
Haiti produces about 80% of the vetiver oil in the world, although sometimes you’ll be putting a bit of Indonesia or Brazil on your arm as well (Haiti’s is more floral, Java’s is smokier). There are folks producing it responsibly, too. When you buy a bottle of Terre d’Hermès, which is loaded with the stuff, you’re supporting around 2,000 Haitian farmers and distillers. […]
Like wine, the scent of vetiver oil improves as it ages: the best of it is made with roots that have been aged somewhere between 18-24 months; the oil costs around $200/kg when it hits the market. American scent maker IFF makes it three ways: with steam (resulting in vetiver essence, which is dryer and lighter), solvent (which produces an absolute and is darker, with the scent of rich dirt), and a new technology called “Molecular Distillation” that uses carbon dioxide to yield a scent that’s extraordinary—strongly grapefruit, fresher, zestier.
The Perfume Shrine says that the vetiver in Sycomore is said to be of the Haitian variety so, under Mr. Burr’s explanation, the more floral kind. I’m not an expert on any of the varieties, so I will take their word for it. All I know is that this vetiver smells exactly as Mr. Burr described: “deep, shadowed, astringent, earthy like newly tilled soil, and balsam-woody.”
Do you know how perfume can sometimes take on a colour aura before your eyes? Sycomore opens on me all brown and green. Not khaki but some interwoven panel of dark green and green-brown. It calls to mind green roots and brown earth. Sycomore starts exactly like that, alongside pink peppercorns and an unexpected but definite note of chocolate. It’s almost like chocolate patchouli with vetiver. It’s so confusing that I go over the notes again and, still, I’m at a loss. So, I look up cypress wood which I’m not very familiar with, and that must be the explanation.
From my reading, it seems that cypress wood has a pungent, woody, spicy aroma that can also be sometimes resinous, coniferous, or cedar-like. Here, the combination of the cypress wood with the earthiness of the vetiver seems to have transformed the sum total into chocolate patchouli. You can smell each individual note, but you also have that strong overall impression.
It’s so striking that I looked to see if others had felt the same way. On Basenotes, one commentator also thought there was patchouli in Sycomore, though she concludes the cause was the combination of juniper and cypress. The Scent Critic blog and some on MakeupAlley also picked up on the chocolate edge. And finally, Victoria from Bois de Jasmin summed it up in her usual elegant succinctness: “The chocolate richness of the root is accented by the peppery and smoky notes. The composition possesses an alluring dark character, which in sensation alternates between the tannic dryness of red wine and the softly worn polish of aged woods.”
The chocolate and patchouli impression in Sycomore is so strong for the first hour that it evokes Serge Lutens‘ Borneo 1834 in its opening stages. So much so that I’m utterly bewildered by why people compare Chanel’s Coromandel (also from Les Exclusifs) with Borneo 1834, instead of Sycomore. Adding to the similarities between Borneo 1834 and Sycomore is the latter’s strong opening notes of tobacco and smoke. The tobacco note here is faintly bitter, and it is accompanied by a peppery, biting smoky note that is definitely woody.
I wonder about the “burning woods” note listed on many perfume reviews as an element (though not on Chanel’s website), and I keep thinking of guaiac wood. You can read the Glossary for more details but, in a nutshell, guaiac wood has an aroma that is earthy, smoky, tarry, peppery and similar to burning leaves. Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute is also said to have guaiac wood in it, though its official notes are equally vague and merely reference “rich woods” instead of “burning woods.” Both perfumes share a similarly woody, peppery, smoke note, so I have to wonder.
I do smell some sandalwood in Sycomore but, on me, it’s not strong at any point in the perfume’s development. Others have found it, but it’s just a whisper on me. I have to say, I doubt it is real Mysore sandalwood anyway. Anyone who has read Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s book, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, will be struck by their repeated, insistent comments on just how few sandalwood fragrances actually have sandalwood in them at all these days. According to them, true sandalwood from Mysore, India is so scarce and so prohibitively expensive that most perfumers use Australian sandalwood which is an entirely different species of plant and with an entirely different scent. To the extent that Sycomore has sandalwood in it (of any kind), I think it is completely overshadowed and overpowered in the initial stages by the patchouli impression from the cypress and vetiver.
As Sycomore continues to unfurl, there is an impression of burnt caramel, black cocoa powder, incense and dry earth. This is like the black version of Coromandel, without the latter’s vanilla, benzoin and powder heart. The increasingly peppery and smoky nature of the perfume makes me wonder again if they used guaiac wood to fortify any “smoke” accord, not to mention the weak sandalwood. There are also flickering hints of evergreen from the juniper which add a coolness or chill that counters the smoky earthiness. It’s an incredibly sexy, darkly mysterious perfume.
There is a dryness to the rich, earthy smell that really calls to mind dirt — not rich, dank or loamy, but sweetly dry. I realise that non-perfumistas will recoil at the thought of smelling faintly like dirt, but there is really no other way to truly describe the undertones to the very smoked, rich, woody notes. The comparison to dirt also explains Luca Turin’s comments in his five-star review of Sycomore in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. There, he wrote:
The dream team at Chanel seem to delight in applying superior skills to existing ideas they deem worthy of perfecting: Coromandel was a reorchestration of Lutens’s Borneo 1834…. Sycomore is, in my view, a magisterial gloss on Bertrand Duchaufour’s Timbuktu [for L’Artisan Parfumeur]. The later introduced an Altoids-like idea to perfumery, consisting of a minty-licorice coolness combined with a radiant crackling-wood-fire note. […] Vetiver has both an anisic aspect and a smoky one. Cleverly flank it with Timbuktu’s two companions, add a big slug of sandalwood, and vetiver finds itself in worthy company at last. […] Sycomore [is] … the freshest, most salubrious, yet most satisfyingly rich masculine in years. If putting it on does not make you shiver with pleasure, see a doctor.
I’m surprised that Mr. Turin deems Sycomore one of the few sandalwood fragrance reviews not to warrant his usual comments about how perfumes don’t have real sandalwood in them any more, and I certainly don’t find the same “big slug” as he does, but I agree with the rest of his review. (Minus, his choice of which Chanel perfume to compare to Borneo 1834). I particularly understand his reference to Timbuktu which has often been described as having a dry dirt foundation. Sycomore has both the dirt aspects of Timbuktu and that slightly chilled licorice note underlying the earthiness of the
dark patchouli…. er.. vetiver and cypress.
Perhaps it’s all that dry dirt and rich green which make me constantly imagine those old movies that explored the heart of an African forest — everything is slightly dark and smoky, mysterious and shadowy, all amidst lush greenness and dry red-brown dirt. I keep thinking of Clark Gable with Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner in Mogambo, or Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in African Queen. I could see either man wearing Sycomore, and Katherine Hepburn too (though never ever Grace Kelly or Ava Gardner).
As time passes, there is even greater depth to the impressions of burnt umber, burnt caramel, resins, saltiness, and earthiness — all under the forest’s canopy of green-brown vetiver and wood. The patchouli impression ceased being dominant a while ago; now it is the turn of the juniper. In general, juniper has an aroma that is fresh, sweet, and like pine trees, with a slightly balsam-like, resinous undertone. Here, they make I feel as though I’m walking through an icy forest at wintertime, my feet crunching on evergreen needles, the chilled smoke of winter in the air, as I walk towards campfires of burning pine logs where someone is cooking with dark chocolate and another person is accidentally burning the caramel. There is still the chocolate note, you see, though it is overshadowed by a more resinous, caramel element. There is also an undertone of anise and licorice.
In its drydown and final hours, all those things vanish, leaving mostly sweet, faintly lemony, grass. It is vaguely reminiscent of the lemongrass that Chandler Burr referenced. The sweetness of the grass may be one reason why a number of people smell marijuana or cannabis a few hours into Sycomore. I do not, but the occasional “ganja” comment is something worth noting if you’re tempted to try Sycomore. What I do smell, in addition to the sweet grass, is a sort of creaminess that I think comes from the sandalwood. As always, however, it is faint; even more of a shadow now than before.
There are two things which confused me about Sycomore. One, which I’ve already mentioned, is that it is Coromandel which is compared to Borneo 1834, when I think it should be this Polge and Sheldrake collaboration instead. (At least, for the opening hour. I don’t think Coromandel is remotely like Borneo 1834.) The second is a far more important issue: Chanel’s gender classification for this scent. Chanel has labeled Sycomore as a woman’s perfume and, to me, that is akin to saying M&Ms are only for women. It makes absolutely no sense at all.
Not only is Sycomore unisex, not only is it the furthest thing possible from “girly,” and not only do men adore this, but it is — I would argue — actually a masculine scent first and foremost. It may be a somewhat feminine masculine fragrance, but it is a masculine fragrance at its heart. In fact, women who have not explored niche scents and who are used to the more traditional, conventional or mass-market feminine fragrances — whether of the floral, “girly,” clean, sugary or gourmand variety — may find Sycomore to be overwhelmingly masculine and an utter shock if purchased blind. This is no Marc Jacob Lola, Guerlain Shalimar or Dior J’adore.
No, Sycomore has consistently been compared to men’s colognes. In fact, commentators on both Basenotes and Fragrantica find it to be an exact duplicate of Lalique‘s L’Encre Noire for Men (2006). A few people even bring up Hermès‘ men’s cologne, Terre d’Hermès — though most people on Basenotes find that much more citrus based and without anything close to the same degree of vetiver in it (no matter what Chandler Burr may think). I agree with that. I’ve got Terre d’Hermès and like it. But, like many on Basenotes, I find them to be very different perfumes and don’t think Terre d’Hermès is a predominantly vetiver scent. As a point of interest, in a Basenotes thread asking for people’s preference as between Sycomore and Terre d’Hermes, a monumental majority chose Sycomore as the better, more elegant, and truer vetiver fragrance.
All in all, Sycomore is an incredibly lovely fragrance and as smooth as silk. It is magnificently blended, such that everything folds into one rich layer upon another. There is a paradoxical coolness to its warmth, but it is never a chilly or aloof scent. It has too much earthiness in its beating heart, radiating its fire with every thump, thump, thump. It is never cloying, and there is not a single, synthetic, cheap note anywhere to be seen. It is truly as masterful and brilliant as so many thing. It is also a very approachable fragrance; it is not one of those edgy, discordant scents that can be worn only infrequently and are to be admired mostly on an intellectual basis as works of olfactory art. I can see men wearing this almost daily and some women frequently.
And, yet, it is not a fragrance for me. For the longest time, I could not pinpoint why. I like vetiver, I wear men’s cologne, and I like smoke and resinous scents. I find it an extremely elegant perfume and, really, it should push all my buttons. In fact, its opening led me to say “Wow” and I couldn’t stop sniffing my wrists for the first ten minutes. But, at the end of the day, it was simply too much vetiver and its dryness could well be described as bone-dry. Sahara dry. For my personal tastes, Sycomore simply veers too much into the masculine without any real sweetness to accompany it.
Nonetheless, if you are a fan of vetiver, woody and/or dry scents, I highly encourage you to test out Sycomore. If you’re not a fan of either of those three categories, then you may like the sweeter, softer Coromandel. (It is my favorite of the 3 Exclusifs that I’ve tried thus far). But if you’re not a fan of patchouli, benzoin or frankincense, then I fear you should skip that one too.
Have you tried Sycomore? If so, was it love at first sniff or simply not your cup of tea?