Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.
One of my best olfactory memories this winter has been catching a whiff of Tonka Impériale on a scarf as I walked through the snowy streets of the city. Leathery and sweet, it was like a soft, tender veil against the cold, making me feel warm and comforted. Originally, I did not find this addition to Guerlain’s L’Art et la Matiere collection particularly interesting. It struck me as a sketch of Shalimar, essentially just an accord, rather than a complete perfume. Yet, I found that on skin Tonka Impériale is an absolute delight—it forms a beautiful, intimate aura of leather, almond praline and tobacco.
Created by Thierry Wasser in 2010, Tonka Impériale is a classical oriental composition rendered in a modern manner. Tonka in the name refers to tonka bean, scented seeds of Dipteryx odorata, a flowering tree native South America. Coumarin, an aroma-material naturally occurring in tonka beans, has a fantastic profile of candied cherries, almonds, vanilla, clove and cinnamon. Guerlain fragrances simply cannot be envisioned without this luscious note; it gives the classical Guerlinade accord its warm, velvety character.
If Shalimar is the perfume equivalent of a multi-volume novel, Tonka Impériale is a short story. What makes this simple composition interesting to wear are the bold strokes in which it is constructed. It opens up on a warm almond and hay note of coumarin, with an aromatic, green note giving the fragrance a pine resin brightness. The smoky, leathery tobacco note lends a suave richness, while a transparent floral note that oscillates between rose and rosewood cuts through the ganache heft of the main accord.
Tonka Impériale has an impressive tenacity and a very alluring sillage. Although I do not find it particularly original–Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur already did a splendid modern Shalimar version, it is the kind of oriental fragrance I find irresistible. It is indulgent and luscious, yet without the expected creamy sweetness of vanilla. The tobacco and leather dryness of Tonka Impériale would also make it suitable to those men who prefer sweet oriental compositions like Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille and Le Labo Labdanum 18.
Guerlain Tonka Impériale includes notes of rosemary, gingerbread, honey, hay, tobacco, cedarwood and tonka bean. It is available from 68, Champs Elysées Guerlain flagship store in Paris as well as Bergdorf Goodman in New York.
Sample: my own acquisition