The arrival of warm, cocooning scents in the perfume hall heralds the shift in seasons as reliably as acorns and conkers on the forest floor. But this autumn, there’s something else in the air. Woods – the fresh, natural, sensual sort, not the synthetic bully-boy ouds that have hijacked the scene of late – are staging a Birnam-esque resurgence that sees incense notes of cedarwood, sandalwood and cypress flourishing alongside resinous newcomers, not only as perfume’s foundations but as pillars of the industry’s back‑to-nature movement. “There’s growing evidence of a turn away from powerful, oriental amber accords in favour of fresher, more natural ingredients,” says Beverley Bayne, director of perfumery at CPL Aromas, the British fragrance manufacturer that counts Jo Malone and Agent Provocateur among its clients. Bayne credits the increasing influence of the niche sector with this pendulum swing, which has echoes of 25 years ago, when an invariably woody signature defined independent “rebel” scents as those that dared to buck the fruity-floral hegemony.
Seminal to that movement was Féminité du Bois (£150 for 100ml EDP). Initially launched in 1992 by Shiseido, where Serge Lutens was creative director, it is now the lynchpin of Serge Lutens’ own, newly steamlined Collection Noire. Lutens viewed its pared-back formula, composed around Moroccan Atlas cedarwood, orange blossom and rose, as “a return to purity”: using fewer, more identifiable ingredients gave both the fragrance and its wearer a distinctive personality. Both the strategy and the scent have proved an influential success. Take the latest Comme des Garçons fragrance, Concrete (£115 for 80ml EDP): despite its studiously urbane concrete-dipped, bubble-wrapped bottle and metallic rose-oxide impact, a substantial dose of cosy cedarwood gives it the unmistakable whiff of a Féminité tribute.
There’s an emotional subtext to today’s olfactory tree-hugging, of course: a growing number of fragrances hint at a cleaner, greener refuge from a world in political and economic upheaval. In such circumstances, what could be more rooted than a tree? “Wood represents stability and permanence; when we feel uncertain, it gives us a sense of security,” says Roja Dove, who chose a trio of sandalwood, cypress and cedarwood (alongside spiced lavender) to evoke both the polished woods of the House of Commons and the peaceful stoicism of urban parks in his patriotic tribute, Roja Parfums London (£225 for 50ml EDP).
Strong and stable woody scents were once deemed exclusively masculine, yet according to industry feedback, women increasingly prefer them to traditional florals. The seductive gender-fluidity of woods is cleverly exploited in Guerlain’s Lui (£145 for 50ml EDP). In its art deco bottle, this playful anagram of Liu – Jacques Guerlain’s aldehydic floral from 1929, when bobbed, besuited androgyny was the rage – has seductive, smoky, leathery woods spiced with clove and carnation. Different skins will encourage either the floral or the woody aspect, but ultimately the woods smoulder through. “People don’t realise how wonderfully warming woods can be,” says Michael Donovan, perfume expert and owner of Roullier White. “Soft, round and enveloping, they are less an armour, more a cocoon.”
For Nick Steward, founder of the travel-inspired Gallivant fragrance collection, they conjure home comforts, wherever the wearer may be. Amsterdam (£65 for 30ml EDP), with its base of cedarwood, sandalwood, amber and musk, is an olfactory portrait of a Vermeer interior: dark polished furniture, tulips in the window and the contented hum of gezelligheid – cosiness. But for others, wood’s connotations are more intense. Cedarwood abetted by lavender and sage provides Hervé Gambs’ Infusion Noire (€145 for 100ml EDP) with a backbone of extreme refinement, while the deep, dense, resinous cedarwood in the subconscious of Bella Freud’s Psychoanalysis (£165 for 100ml EDP) was designed to be comforting, like memories, yet hint at romantic obsession.
As ingredients, woods are as nuanced as the emotions they arouse, Bayne explains. “Virginia cedarwood is dry and almost powdery, like pencil shavings – people often associate it with primary school; Moroccan Atlas cedarwood has a sweet, almost milky, sometimes gingery character; and sandalwood, often associated with spirituality, is smooth and creamy, and has a cumin-like spiciness that is incredibly long-lasting.”
For Lyn Harris, aka Perfumer H – who has spiked her uplifting white floral Snowdrop (£220 for 100ml EDP) with vibrantly aromatic Spanish juniper – the sheer diversity of woody ingredients that add intensity and texture to her work has become a passion in itself. Harris has created a new collection of fragrances for candlemaker Cire Trudon where this plays out to full effect. In Révolution (€180 for 100ml EDP) she captures the tension between change and new beginnings by offsetting cedarwood with burnt cade (birch tar) and the sweet, incense depth of papyrus. Since sedges and grasses are considered partners in the eclectic woody palette, the earthy sweetness of vetiver, grown for its roots in Haiti, is also enjoying its moment in the winter sun in Diptyque’s Vetyverio (£88 for 100ml EDT). In Root of all Goodness (£160 for 100ml EDP), Dorset perfumery Parterre is literally breaking new ground with its venturesome homegrown vetiver – a first from British soil.
Uncertain harvests apart, sustainability has long been an issue with natural perfume ingredients – and woods are no exception. But thanks to responsible cultivation and harvesting initiatives – notably in India and Australia – natural sandalwood, which was critically endangered a quarter of a century ago, is enjoying a renaissance in all‑natural Amsterdam-based company Abel’s sublimely peppery Red Santal (£98 for 50ml EDP). It is paired with classically uplifting jasmine in Creed’s White Amber (£320 for 75ml EDP), from the brand’s Les Royales Exclusives collection, while airy citrus notes and “soft skin” white musks justify Van Cleef & Arpels’ warm Rêve de Cashmere (£252 for 75ml EDP).
However, scarcity is opportunity in the perfume world these days and invariably triggers a proliferation of synthetic alternatives to replace or amplify natural ingredients. Norlimbanol, with its powerful dry, amberish note, is like “woods on steroids”, according to Romano Ricci, founder of niche perfumery Juliette has a Gun, and gives his resonant Metal Chypré (£220 for 75ml EDP) a “long, strong, daring trail”. The ingredient Iso E Super, once described as a “hug in a bottle”, has such a nuzzly incense-tinged compulsion that Geza Schoen famously lionised it solo in hipsterish Escentric Molecule 01 (£72 for 100ml EDT); it’s also there in armfuls – along with smoky birch tar and cashmeran – in Ruth Mastenbroek’s magnificent celebration of life, Firedance (£90 for 50ml EDP). And in CPL’s AromaFusion range, newly created molecule Orris Fusion is set to bring a soft powdery dimension to the woodland family of fragrances.
Meanwhile, oak is the natural newcomer on the block – and it strikes a quintessentially English note. Boozy, fruity oakwood absolute, distilled from casks used to mature wines and spirits, is at the heart of Tom Daxon’s Riven Oak (£105 for 50ml EDP), which sounds like Tolkien had a hand in it. “Oak trees are loaded with wholesome connotations – sturdy, dependable and earnest – but the ingredient is altogether more rakish,” says Daxon.
Jo Malone’s new woody colognes (£88 for 100ml EDP) – the spicy English Oak & Hazelnut and its fruitier twin, English Oak & Redcurrant – have their roots in ancient Sherwood. Céline Roux, the brand’s head of global fragrance, known for her immensely creative approach, was so enchanted by Sherwood’s 1,000-year-old Major Oak that she spirited perfumer Yann Vasnier into the forest to breathe in the atmosphere of the dense and twisting groves. A collaboration with the scent lab Givaudan resulted in Roasted Oak Absolute, a moreishly smoky extraction exclusive to these new scents. “The process is very similar to that of roasting coffee,” Roux explains. “We tried different temperatures and in doing so, an addictive, almost caramelised woody note appeared.” Vasnier aims to evoke “the cool sensation as you walk through a forest; the fresh, bright light angled through the trees”.
This return to nature is also intrinsic to a new branch of introspective scents with Australian roots. Behind the Rain (£135 for 50ml EDP) by Melbourne-born film composer and installation artist Paul Schütze is his lingering memory of mossy wet bark and rocks in a storm-drenched Cycladean pine forest. “The storm finished as abruptly as it started, and as the blazing sun emerged, resinous aromas from the bruised bark and foliage rained down onto the surrounding rocks and beach. The storm had unleashed every scent that those trees could produce,” Schütze recalls. Meanwhile, humming with Australian cypress and poetically imagined as “a haze of blue-light incense fused with morning dew, evaporating from a deep, blue-green forest” is Goldfield & Banks’ cool Blue Cypress (£123 for 100ml EDP).
Also with its backpack on: Aesop’s new fragrance, Hwyl (£83 for 50ml EDP). Perfumer Barnabé Fillion combined damp, green, aromatic moss and thyme with cool cypress and vetiver bourbon – grown in vanilla fields for a softer touch – to evoke the soaring majesty of pines in Japan’s hiba forests and capture the feeling of solitude in nature. He took inspiration from the words of mystic poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them…” The quality of space between us and nature and our fellow beings is, of course, the very point of wearing perfume. “Creating a space around you should be a shelter, a precious experience where emotions can flourish,” says Fillion.
His mindful approach is redolent of shinrin-yoku, the wellbeing “sensual awareness” nature walks also known as “forest bathing”. He cites studies that show how breathing in aromatic terpenes – compounds emitted from certain plants, including pine trees – oxygenates the body for longer, producing a calming and energising effect.
Can a scent induce meditation? According to Aesop, the mantra’s in the name. In Welsh, hwyl means “a stirring emotion”; pronounced softly, it’s the wind through the trees… And exhale.