Les Exclusifs de Chanel Sycomore: Fragrance Review

Chanel has got this one right.

Chanel has got this one right.

Sycomore is a collaborative effort between Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake in their attempt to recreate a formula that was handed down from Ernest Beaux from the 1930s. Polge surely needs no introduction. With close to 30 years of experience as Chanel’s in-house perfumer, he has orchestrated classics such as Anateus, Egoiste, Coco, Allure, and modern bestsellers like Coco Mademoiselle and Bleu de Chanel. Sheldrake is a perfume legend in his own right. Responsible for creating most of the Serge Lutens fragrances, his collaboration with the eccentric French creative director has yielded the core of the Serge Lutens lineup, including Feminite du Bois, Sa Majeste la Rose, Chergui, Ambre Sultan, Borneo 1834, Santal de Mysore, and others.

What happens when these two master perfumers combine their genius? The result is nothing short of magic. Dark yet radiant. Heavy yet light. Smoky yet refreshing. Dry yet sweet. Elegant yetustere. Sycomore achieves what I believe top-notch perfumery should achieve: balance.

Vetiver grass grown in Ethiopia. From Wiki Commons.

Vetiver grass grown in Ethiopia. Looks boring, but the treasure is in the roots… From Wiki Commons.

And this balance is so difficult to achieve because Sycomore is a vetiver-centred fragrance. What is vetiver, you ask? It’s a kind of grass native to India. The roots are what are used in perfumery as they yield a fragrant, woody smelling oil. Its cool, grassy, smoky, earthy, astringent, and even herbals aspects reminiscent of lemongrass provide a great deal of complexity for a perfumer to work with. It is also used as a fixative, as its large molecular weight gives it tenacity. For that reason, vetiver is a must-have in a perfumer’s palette. That said, as it is a fixative, when a composition is centered around vetiver, it can easily dominate the entire fragrance.

Perfume critic Chandler Burr does a better job than me describing vetiver on GQ:

If there’s a more perfect natural raw material for a masculine scent than vetiver, I’ve never smelled it. But, wait—what the hell is vetiver, you might ask? Well, let’s geek out for a second. In the most basic sense, it’s 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’Hermes, which is loaded with the stuff, you’re supporting around 2,000 Haitian farmers and distillers. Meanwhile, the French scent company Mane has adopted an eco-friendly, residue-free method that emits zero carbon. They reuse and recycle 100% of the industrial waste from the process as organic manure and fertilizer. Seriously smart.

Vetiver roots

Vetiver roots are the part of the grass used for perfumery. From Wiki Commons.

In Sycomore, grassy and smoky vetiver does take centre stage, tempered by a spicy (pepper?) opening. Within 20 minutes, the fragrance has blossomed into a melange of what seems like cypress, smoke, and the famed “burning leaves accord.” It is at this stage when it feels like the best fragrance to wear for autumn.  and a more oriental sandalwood base which lends it a soft and creamy texture. As the perfume plays on, the more volatile molecules evaporate one at one, until all that is left is a very pronounced vetiver and sandalwood accord, calm, meditative and stoic. At no point does the fragrance become overwhelmingly dark and heavy, as clever technical tricks give lift and radiance to the entire composition. It is as though under all the smoke and darkness, a white beam of light is shining through, lending a profoundly transparent clarity to the perfume.

Sycomore smells like autumn

Sycomore smells like this scene. Autumn in Paris, from http://hipparis.com/2013/10/22/paris-in-the-fall-a-few-of-our-favorite-things/

As Chandler Burr tells us, the austerity, dryness, darkenss, and strength of vetiver smells thoroughly masculine. For an Eau de Toilette, this lasted a surprisingly long time – eight hours on my skin – although the projection weakens considerably after the first few hours.A bold move Chanel – a brand that targets bourgeois ladies rather than men – for launching this masterpiece. This was a risky move, and I’m glad they did it. Would I recommend that women wear it? If you’re adventurous and enjoy perfumery as an art form, try it out, and you might be surprised.