Autumn is the time of year when I reach for woods fragrances from my collection, hoping to recall memories of crisp leaves, curls of wood smoke, and the bracing green of pine. Woods fragrances may include sandalwood, cedar, oak, pine, and cypress (plus more), and also include for classification’s sake patchouli and vetiver. Some woods fragrances smell like the outdoors, while others smell like an antique treasure chest and still more use wood as a basenote, skipping the ambient quality and using wood as a background support.
Wood notes are used in both male and female fragrances and may be interpreted differently. In male fragrances, woods can suggest rugged masculinity (Coty Wild Woods) or they can be smoothed over with elegance (Chanel Égoïste). A large amount of sandalwood in Samsara enhances the seductive nature of this Guerlain classic. I enjoy the dryness and sharpness that wood notes can bring to fragrances, and their combination of elegance and sensuality.
Perhaps the most-talked-about woods scent is 1992’s Féminité du Bois, done by Serge Lutens for Shiseido. It was a stew of purple plums and cedar. Discontinued and re-released under the Serge Lutens label, the fragrance is a great jumping-off point for an exploration of the woods category. Its note of Atlas cedar is pungent and rich while its fruits simmer and release their pulpy aromas. Féminité du Bois kicked off the variations of “Les Eaux Boisées” from the formerly non-exported Lutens line (Bois Oriental, Bois de Violette, Un Bois Sépia, Chêne, Bois et Fruits, Bois et Musc, and Santal de Mysore) and also Santal Blanc, Santal Majuscule, Cèdre, and Fille en Aiguilles.
Comme des Garçons is another house that has made an investigation of woods. From its “Red” series comes Sequoia, a pitch-perfect rendition of the forest floor of the Pacific Northwest; and Palisander, an incense-y rosewood and cedar. There’s also Hinoki, a drily medicinal cypress scent, and the range of Incense series scents (Zagorsk, Avignon, Jaisalmer, Kyoto, and Ouarzazate, all of which have ambient-wood bases).
Woods fragrances appear frequently in niche lines. Ormonde Jayne Woman (and Man) is a darkly tangled medieval forest; Tauer’s L’Air du Desert Marocain is a hot breath of woods across a Moroccan desert; Sonoma Scent Studio takes on seasonal environments with Winter Woods and Forest Walk (meant to evoke summer in the redwoods). Tan Rokka Aki transports you to a store full of wooden carvings from China.
Vetiver is a chameleon of a note that is exercised through in myriad ways, from citrus (Guerlain Vétiver) to berries (Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Route du Vétiver) to chocolate (Serge Lutens Vétiver Oriental) to ozone (Frédéric Malle Vétiver Extraordinaire). Vetiver can be clean or dirty or sweet or bitter, depending on what additional notes are used.
Patchouli comes from the leaves of a plant native to India, but its aroma is classified as woody. It is so deeply embedded into the hippie ethos—the single green note of cheap headshop oil—that some people won’t go near the stuff. But in the modern era, Thierry Mugler’s Angel wrapped patchouli in cotton candy, fruit, and caramel to begin the “fruit-chouli” trend that is still going strong 20 years later. But herbal, woody patchouli can also be animalic and hot (Ramon Monegal Mon Patchouly) or dark and liqueur-like (Montale Patchouli Leaves) or blended with other major woods notes (Nobile 1942 Patchouli Nobile).
Wood notes can support a complex fragrance like Amouage Jubilation XXV and Bond No. 9 Chinatown (both with lavish top and heart notes) or they can be as austere as Diptyque’s Tam Dao (rosewood married with sandalwood).
Below is a reference to woods fragrances that are masters in their class.
Must know cedarwood classic: Shiseido/Serge Lutens Féminité du Bois
Must know sandalwood classic: Guerlain Samsara
Must know vetiver classic: Guerlain Vétiver
Must know patchouli classic: Thierry Mugler Angel
Must know pine classic: Pino Silvestre
What are your favorite woods fragrances?
Photography by Bois de Jasmin