What do Chanel’s Sycomore, Lalique’s Encre Noire and Le Labo’s Santal 33 have in common? They’re all dry, woody, extremely unisex fragrances that don’t scream for attention, but rather calmly and elegantly command your respect. But which is better?
Sycomore from Chanel was created by Jacgues Polge and I think Christopher Sheldrake may have had a hand. Sheldrake is the Director of Research & Development for fragrance at Chanel, unless he’s retired now, but as a perfumer he’s more known as the nose behind much of Serge Lutens perfumery….
Jacgue Polge’s son Olivier is now the key perfumer at Chanel, but I believe Jacque is actually responsible for every Chanel fragrance produced from 1978 to 2013, including the likes of Coco, Coco Mademoiselle, Allure, Chance, Chanel de Bleu and Chanel No.5 Eau Premiere.
Sycomore was launched in 2008 as part of Chanel’s Les Exclusifs collection and is classed as a woody floral musk or a woody chypre fragrance. Now, a perfume called Sycomore from Chanel did exist is the 1940s, but apparently that one was a completely different fragrance. Just the name was revived in the 2000s.
And I am referring the eau de toilet version here, not the EDP. I don’t think the eau de parfum version dries down as well and it’s a lot more expensive, so I’d stick with the EDT. Sycomore appears to be targeted at women, but we (the royal we) do not believe in gendering fragrances. Honestly, florals are not just for females, and vetiver speaks volumes not only to men.
So get a whiff of this:
It’s a wet, slightly misty and cool late summer afternoon, your heart is still broken from a lover who passed away, but you’re deplete of all tears and sorrow now. The wound is no longer fresh, but the air is, and your soul feels lighter than it has in many months. You meander aimlessly through a grove of trees. Even though the ground’s been dampened by earlier rain, the branches beneath your feet still crunch and crackle. You come across a giant overturned tree and wonder what forces brought it down. The earth is rich and inviting, so you lie down on your back next to the tree. The wind brushes the branches of surrounding fir trees out of its way so it can dapple its light onto your on to your face and into your eyes. You swint and turn you head to the side, pushing your palms into the ground, and breath in the rich smell of damp earth and wood and conifer cones. You smile at the procumbent tree. It understands. Maybe you’ll stay there for a while.
Sycamore is very dark. I don’t mean evil, I mean somber, staid, and yeah – kind of funEreal. And melancholy, but I’m not at all sad about it. Rather than the actual sycamore tree it’s named for, I think the vibe here pertains more to the earth and roots beneath the tree, with a few fir cones tossed in along with a waft of smoke and a sprinkle of spices. It’s moist, fresh, earthly, autumn-y, and simply…. Wonderful.
Here are the notes:
- vetiver, sandalwood, aldehydes, tobacco, violet
- cypress, juniper, pink pepper, spicy notes
The bottles come in 75 and 200 ml sizes and are indeed pricy. It’s got low to moderate projection and longevity at best, which is a real shame. As a skin scent, it does hover around for a while, but your nose needs to be right on it, and by that time, it mostly sandalwood. Sandalwood’s never a bad thing, mind.
Now, Encre Noire (meaning black ink) from Lalique was launched earlier, in 2006. The nose behind this fragrance is Nathalie Lorson, and it’s classed as a woody aromatic. But there is musk in this one, and the notes are pretty simple:
- cypress, vetiver
- musk, cashmere wood
Believe it or not, I get more compliments with this fragrance than I do from Sycomore, but that could be because I wear it more often. I have a bigger bottle and I didn’t pay much for it. This one is similar enough to the Chanel that I feel it’s a bit redundant talking about it. Some people think of Encre Noire as a clone of Sycomore, but that’s not fair, since Encre Noire came out first.
I do prefer Sycomore. It’s brighter, crisper, and vibrates at a much higher level. I’m sure the aldehydes play a part there, but they probably do. It also lasts a wee bit longer, probably due to the sandalwood. Encre noire is more subdued, simpler, more monotone. BUT they are most definitely same-ish. The same DNA is there. AND gram for gram (or ounce for ounce), Encre Noire is a fraction of the price. So if brand name and a perfect symphony of notes are your jam, go with Chanel, and if price is a deciding factor, you can’t go wrong with Lalique. But Sycomore shines. Not like a diamond. More like The Shining (movie).
OK, let’s branch out (haha).
Santal 33 by Le Labo is also a woody aromatic fragrance. It was launched in 2011 and the perfumer is Franch Voelki. Here are the notes:
- sandalwood, virginia cedar, cardamom, violet, papyrus,
- leather, amber iris
Wikipediea tells me that the note of Papyrus in here is also called papyrus sedge, paper reed, Indian matting plant, Nile grass, or …. Wait for it…. Cyperus papyrus. Cyperus! Yes, must be a related not to the cypress in the other two, right? Well, actually no, it is a different plant altogether, but Cypress & Papyrus are both coniferous or evergreen trees, meaning they have needles, not leaves, and have seed-producing cones, and usually stay green in winter. And I in my opinion, there seems to be a similarity between the two with regard to scent profile.
This fragrance is also woody and smoky dry, and to me smells of thick pencil shavings and cedar dust mixed with a tiny dose of spices. It’s very papery, and to me a little bit sharper and sour compared to Sycomore, especially on the opening. I get a very faint cucumber and almost citrus vibe here. The sandalwood crackles in this, and maybe there’s some fig tree bark. It’s like the wood is on a fire but not burning at all. There is no creaminess that you might associate with sandalwood in other fragrances. It’s raspy, choppy minimalism.
To me Santal 33 is a grittier, down to earth, unfinished cousin of the more upscale, well-blended Sycamore. Yet it’s still elegant, refined, and stately. Extremely unisex. I remember wearing this to a conference a few years ago in Kumamoto and got sooo many compliments, so it must have have-decent sillage. Better than the other two.
I was originally only going to talk about just 3 fragrances in this video, but I want to mention a budget fragrance as an alternative to Santal 33. In 2018 Zara launched a leather fragrance called Scent #1, targeted at men. The notes are simple, but I don’t see any wood here:
- cardamom, leather, violet
It would seem a lot of people in the fragrance forums have touted this as a Santal 33 dupe, definitely a way cheaper alternative. But sadly, even without trying this, I admit to a bias is against the Zara frag. Not because it’s from a fast fashion house or because I’m a snob (although, yes, when it comes to fragrance I admit I am こだわっている as they say in Japanese), but rather I it’s because I have had experience with Zara fragrances. I’m not unimpressed with the smells of the perfumes they’ve been producing. Rather, it’s the flops in technical merit I’ve experiences with the few perfumes I’ve tried. They didn’t last more than an hour and didn’t project.
And the perfumes I’ve talked about in this video are far from beast mode fragrances to begin with (although Santal 33 isn’t too bad), so I really don’t expect much from Zara. But, if you know of a Zara fragrance that performs well, please enlighten me, because I do like their prices. Anyway, I believe this particular fragrance is out of production, but if you can find it cheap, it might be worth trying.