Chanel Sycomore (2008) {Perfume Review} {New Fragrance}


Sycomore is the latest composition by perfumers Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake appearing in the collection Les Exclusifs by Chanel, which purports to offer more elaborate works of perfumery utilizing finer ingredients and proposing more delicate art-pieces for the connoisseur.

The fragrance is also a new take on an old idea for the house of Chanel, which remains tradition-bound in order to preserve the spirit of Mademoiselle Chanel since an initial Sycomore perfume was launched in 1930 that aimed to be seemingly this contradictory object: an uncluttered woody perfume for women supporting an overall baroque interpretation.

In Michael Edwards, Perfume Legends, Jacques Polge is reported to have characterized both Bois des Iles (1924) and Sycomore (1930) as baroque pieces. The old perfume Sycomore then very interestingly already provided inspiration to him for the creation of Coco as one of two perfect fragrance embodiments of what he saw to be the lost style of Coco Chanel, now seen predominantly through the prism of her clothes. That lost side of Chanel was her less-well known predilection for the complicated chinoiseries and opulence of gold-leaf work as revealed by her Rue Cambon apartment to the in-house perfumer who explained that he wanted to absorb her influence by meditating in-situ about her taste. Admittedly though, Chanel's taste for baroque opulence and excess is more clearly apparent in her accessories, jewelry in particular.

It is therefore also the second attempt at least on the part of Polge to recapture some of the soul of the original Sycomore, but it seems going in a new interpretive direction, more towards the idea of showcasing pure woods, although a baroque hint is present as well.

More recently, Jacques Polge is reported to have wanted to concentrate solely on vetiver (Vetiveria Zizanoïde) and its natural facets this time. Despite the reported express intention not to see the vetiver be overtaken by other facets (see previous post), it seems that the incense-y facet in Sycomore is almost as equally important as the vetiver one, an already smoky varietal here.

Sycomore is a beautiful, even stunning wood and incense composition that manages to awaken the combined evocative powers of vetiver and whirling incense, their decidedly exotic association in this case, while offering itself at the same time as an oh!-so-French study in ideals of understated refinement and elegance. A little baroque flourish is discreetly inserted in the signature of the perfume as an homage paid to the spirit of the Grande Mademoiselle, she who instinctively knew how to embrace the contrasted purity of monastic lines and the golds of aristocratic ostentation and excesses to feel complete. You are tempted also to recognize the influence of perfumer Christopher Sheldrake in this discreet exotic touch.

The perfume conveys its, if you will, French style or Chanel world-view through its intuition for pure lines - like a French window, a French garden - in its sense of refined, controlled, balanced and clear, Cartesian elegance. At the same time there is to be found a sense of Baudelairean voyage to the perfume, but without that hint of opiate-laden, heavy voluptuousness found in the weight of velvet curtains or sensual women's manes as populate that universe. Something airy and pure traverses Sycomore, suggesting the original spiritual, meditative qualities of burning incense and smoke (smoky woods) while alluding to a quiet, reserved and polite sense of mysticism......


Sycomore is a complex composition. Before turning to its description proper, we would like to offer three points of reference that came immediately to our mind. As far as vetiver perfumes go, it reminds us most of the Vetyver by Givenchy in its association of vetiver with a creamy sandalwood note letting out nuances of coffee with a counterpoint of citrus.

Similarly and stylistically too, it aims to push back the boundaries of what elegance in a perfume can mean.

The perfume is remarkable in this respect. It refines some of the core impressions in Givenchy Vetyver further, offering an even subtler rendition of those ideas. Givenchy Vetyver is considered by many as the vetiver perfume of reference in its unparalleled elegance. If we thought Vetyver was more elegant than Vétiver Extraordinaire by Frédéric Malle, we have to admit now that Sycomore is more intensely elegant still, more worthy of being dabbed onto the skin found in the vicinity of the snow-white cuffs of a fastidious dandy, be he a man or be she a woman.

As Sycomore can be viewed almost as equally as an incense perfume as a vetiver perfume, it made us think for some of its more secondary facets of Bulgari Black created by Annick Menardo. Some of the very discreet fruity and powdery nuances found in Sycomore are reminiscent of that incense-y composition which offers fruity facets and child-like baby powder, but as if they were so much more subtle here. Bulgari Black is also considered to be a landmark incense perfume.

Finally, not through olfactory affinities per se, although a common incense theme is to be found, but rather more through a certain spiritual, calm atmosphere and exotic referencing created by the scent, it makes us think of Guerlain Bois d'Arménie also composed incidentally by Annick Menardo. One senses the presence of Buddhist temples and a certain aura of the sacred.

Sycomore (2008)

The perfume does not start then segues sagely into other stages. No, it engulfs you first in a whirlwind of rapidly occurring sensations: fresh bergamot, grassy vetiver, dry pepper, creamy sandalwood, Indian spices, smoky woods, incense. It is like an olfactory kaleidoscope, an eye of the storm in the Wizard of Oz that transports you to a foreign place. In filigree there is a subliminal airy impression; it never smells of ozone or Calone but the composition suggests open space, fresh air, the movement of incense and wind, a bonfire burning on the beach at dawn. The wood is crackling, the morning breeze on the coast somewhere in Thailand is carrying the crystalline sounds of temple wind-chimers and the rings of bells as cows move on to the fields. All is peace and quiet and serenity.

The composition is evocative enough and exotic enough to suggest the smell of a precise scenery: Thai bamboo shoots filled with sweet sticky rice roasting over a bonfire on an ivory-colored, white-sanded beach. The bonfire is gourmand and aromatic. The wind carries the spices and aromas from the market: pepper, curry leaves, diffuse floral notes. It is hard not to think of the hand of Christopher Sheldrake adding some of his experience from his Orientalist work with Serge Lutens. But here it is as if encased in a pure, clean Chanel pattern.

Then follows an indescribable and beguiling very subtle fruity and fresh impressions conjuring up straw baskets of exotic fruits next to rice cakes, all adding a subtle sweet-savory gourmand note like creamed rice drizzled on with a fine line of coconut milk, a dessert permeated with the ambient smells of market fruits.

Almost concomitantly it feels like being engulfed in a billowing cloud of incense, having your hair swept by the scent, then it fades away. Sycomore reveals its beautiful incense-y and woody nature with a very delicate fresh counterpoint of citrus. There is also a little fresh aromatic cologne facet to the scent.

Then it smells of the cold, musty steps of a medieval church whose stones let grow green moss in its interstices, crevices dug out by time and church-goers.

A slightly fruity undertone, something cherubinic and pink like the baroque swirl of a Viennese pastry or the dimples on the chubby derrieres of trumpet-blowing angels peeks through. You are now smelling coffee and hearing the clanks of drinkers in the old city of Vienna, thinking about your visit to the museum. The world outside is busy and cold, the footfalls of hurried passers-by echo with the sound of daily mundane preoccupations, yet you are able to recreate a bubble of religious silence and softness just by breathing in the air in the café house.

In the dry-down traces of black rubber (another nuance it shares with Bulgari Black), candied lemon drops appear, but ever so subtle. The sweet delicate woods are mouthwatering.The vetiver becomes hazy, transparent like organza, a feat comparable in other contexts to the skill needed to beat the fibers of a bark tree fine enough so that it can become textile. There is here more of a quote from the Chanel aldehydic sense of modernity. It becomes a bit powdery, ambery. Smoky woods return but sotto voce. The scent at this point releases a bit of that signature French wine-and-food-aromas-lingering-after-a-meal mix with a nuance of Baba Au Rhum, which we felt well in 31 rue Cambon, but is more subtle here. The longevity issue that people experienced with many of Les Exclusifs seems to not be a problem. The scent is long-lasting, if understated.

To sum it up, while a growing number of even very good quality perfumes nowadays skip on a complex construction in the dry-down, Sycomore is able to offer that increasingly scarce experience of luxury. It is very satisfying.

Main notes: Vetiver, sandalwood, cypress, juniper, pink pepper.

Sycomore is priced at $190 for 200 ml and is available in the Chanel boutiques.

Les Exclusifs: Overview 1, Overview 2, Bel Respiro, No. 18, 28, & La Pausa

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4 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. Thank you so much for your beautiful review.

    I have loved perfume almost all my life, but I am not very good about analyzing notes. However, I have been making side to side comparisons. I have samples of Givenchy Vetyver and Lubin's Vetiver.
    I also have the Guerlain one. I am not very good at describing fragrances, and also I have to consider that what I smell relates to my chemistry. Both the Guerlain and Sycomore are sweet in the drydown. I think Sycomore is more sparkling and I will put it closer to Givenchy than Guerlain. The top notes are sweeter on Sycomore than Guerlain, but the top notes last only a few minutes. Sycamore seems to have some note similar to Bel Respiro and Chanel 19, but I can't point out what it is. After reading your review, I realized that it was bergamot, when I thought it could have been galbanum. In the top notes I find similarities with Bel Respiro, but on the dry down I find similarities to Chanel's Eau de Cologne.
    The Lubin Vetiver is also incredible beautiful, but a little more austere.
    As a woman, I never had interest in vetiver, because I thought it was masculine. I have changed my mind after trying all these vetivers. They seem very feminine and fresh on me, very summer like.
    I already have the Guerlain one, but it would be a difficult decision choosing one of these four. I am leaning toward Sycomore.
    Oh another thing, all of them have good sillage and last forever, perhaps Lubin Vetiver has less lasting power than the other three. I wore Sycomore yesterday and after I came home from work I could still smell it.

  2. Thank you for your kind words and thoughts. I have a sample of Lubin Vetiver and will look forward to discovering it.

  3. This review is amazing! I have been thinking of buying Sycamore for a while. I'm not usually drawn to the smokey 'incense" fragrances but this one has some very interesting notes and sounds like a good one to me. After reading your description of the Sycamore, I think I should get it. I'm wearing Hermessence Vetiver Tonka right now and will add Sycamore into the rotation. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your kind words!

      If you like complexity and elegance in a fragrance, you will probably appreciate it even if you do not care usually for incense-y notes.

      Chant Wagner

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