Guerlain Tonka Imperiale : Fragrance Review



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



  • Olfactoria: This sounds absolutely delightful. March 11, 2011 at 4:13am Reply

  • Suzanna: What a wonderful review! You have described it perfectly, which is no small feat. I can smell TI now from reading your vivid description.

    I had passed this one by for the reason you note; it seemed like a one-trick coumarin pony. Then colder weather allowed it to go through its paces in a dazzling effect and it quickly became a favorite. The rosemary note kicks things off for me as an herbal sprig in the middle of the cherry note. It’s devastatingly beautiful and, I think, more interesting than Bois d’Armenie, with which it shares a kinship.

    Glad you are writing again on a regular schedule. Bois de Jasmin has always been the go-to fragrance resource. March 11, 2011 at 9:16am Reply

  • Maria: Thank you so much for this review. I’m going to Paris next week and I was already making the list with what shall I try. I was already thinking of this one, I failed to try it last time I visited a Guerlain counter which carried it. I’m in a obsesive continous search for something to change sometimes from my beloved L’Heure Bleue. I love it totaly but I would like to find something new to wear with such a pleasure. I’m so curious now. March 11, 2011 at 4:30am Reply

  • Amy: Love the multi-volume novel–short story analogy. Guerlain’s library has generated quite a few short stories! I think of Ylang & Vanille as a bit out of Samsara. Serge Lutens Clair de Musc smells like a bit out of L’Heure Bleue.
    Tonka Imperiale sounds wonderfully, subtly delicious. March 11, 2011 at 9:40am Reply

  • Irina: Thanks for the review!
    How unfortunate are people who doesn’t live in Paris or Manhattan, because in regular places in US there’s no chance to try it. I don’t know if you notice, but in dept stores such as Neiman Marcus or Saks they took out most perfumes. There’s no more L’Artisan or Lutens in those stores, no more Goutals in Bloomingdales, etc. They sell mass market only. March 11, 2011 at 9:53am Reply

  • Victoria: It is quite delightful. Leather, tobacco, tonka bean… March 11, 2011 at 8:55am Reply

  • Victoria: Tonka Imperiale may not be an alternative to L’Heure Bleue, but if you like those plush, baroque notes, you will enjoy it also.
    If you want to try something in L’Heure Bleue family, maybe Iris Ganache or Insolence (especially the parfum version!) from Guerlain are good choices. March 11, 2011 at 8:57am Reply

  • Victoria: Suzanna, thank you, I am glad to be back to writing. I so enjoy the process of writing itself and then our discussions here.
    Bois d’Armenie and Tonka Imperiale are my favorites from L’Art et la Matiere collection. March 11, 2011 at 10:20am Reply

  • Victoria: I really enjoy Ylang et Vanille. You are right, Guerlinade accord can be pulled and twisted in all sorts of directions. March 11, 2011 at 10:21am Reply

  • Victoria: Even in NY, you would be surprised how difficult it can be to find certain fragrances. The retail stores are just not keeping a lot of stock these days, and whatever does not sell within a short period of time is returned to the manufacturer. That is the real problem, because it all becomes interconnected, and in the end, we end up with bland and derivative fragrances meant to generate a quick buck and wilt away. March 11, 2011 at 10:23am Reply

  • Marina: I love when perfumes behave like that, like auras or veils. I need to try this! March 11, 2011 at 10:44am Reply

  • Victoria: You know, I find that lately I think more and more of perfumes in terms of what kind of auras they create. Plus, Tonka Imperiale radiates so beautifully! March 11, 2011 at 11:01am Reply

  • violetnoir: This is a wonderful addition to the L’Art et la Matiere collection.

    Thank you for the review!

    Hugs March 12, 2011 at 1:18am Reply

  • Zazie: In an imaginary Luca Turin review of Tonka Impériale, the incipit could be something like:”the only imperial thing about this fragrance is the attribute in the name…”
    I would then delect in one of those cruelly smart reviews that make me feel I’m not left alone in a Tonka-Imperial loving world.
    Like a Kim kardashian of the fragrance world, in my opinion this fragrance desperately wants some refinement, features a gigantic derrière without anything balancing on top… Oh, and those disturbing and queer fake eyelashes destroy all possible bovine/maternal/comforting affect.
    TI to me is overly sweet, dense, rough, and overweight.
    Well, it’s not Ava Gardner who wants… And apparently is not Jicky who tries.
    Sorry if I sound too definitive… But, well, I find this thingy an overpriced imperial mess. March 12, 2011 at 5:00am Reply

  • Victoria: That's totally your prerogative, cheap it ain't! 🙂 March 12, 2011 at 11:00am Reply

  • Victoria: You are welcome! I'm enjoying it today. March 12, 2011 at 11:00am Reply

  • Uella: I smelled it again this week and I still fail to see any complexity in it given the fact it’s a pricey exclusive Guerlain. Thierry Wasser also created Idylle which is such a dull, unimaginative and boring fragrance which unlike L’Instant and Insolence hasn’t even made it to the Sephora shelves in the US, and after a relatively good start eventually flopped in France. March 18, 2011 at 1:17pm Reply

  • Victoria: I agree, it is not particularly complex or original. I simply like it for what it is.
    Idylle, yes, not Guerlain at its best! March 18, 2011 at 2:28pm Reply

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