In the world of men’s fragrance (and really all fragrance for that matter) there are three key countries of production: France, Italy, and England. Sure, there are producers across the globe, like Caswell-Massey in the United States. But those three are the ones that dominate the industry. Each country seems to have their own characteristics of what makes their fragrances unique. Now this is indeed a broad generalization, and I recognize that. But I think it helps to have a general understanding of those traits to determine a jumping off point before entering the world of men’s cologne, and I don’t just mean eau de cologne.
It’s important to point out that I am using the world cologne as a broad term to include eau de toilette, eau de perfume, etc. Eau de cologne is in itself a measure of fragrance strength, but the word cologne helps to describe the entire world of mens fragrance.
This is the granddaddy of them all. I think when people think of cologne and perfume their mind invariably travels to France. French cologne is intentional. It’s complex. Every note is created with purpose. In fact a top level fragrance might be the focal point of an entire outfit. There are no unintended consequences with French cologne. My personal favorites are Guerlain and Creed (even though Creed was originally an English fragrance house).
If French cologne is built with a purpose in mind, Italian colognes are developed with a concept or idea, but not a fully developed intent. They are aloof and somewhat less intentional. Italian colognes are reminiscent of an idea, but not necessarily fully formed. The notes are evocative and triggering, if not identifiable. Highlights for me from Italy come from Acqua di Parma and Carthusia.
If French cologne is the final product and Italian cologne is the idea, then English cologne is the undertone. These fragrances tend to be more subtle and refined. They are the accessory, not the focus. When I wear English fragrances it’s because I don’t want them to stand out, but linger in the background as an ethereal afterthought. They enhance the man, they don’t define him. The two English fragrance houses I recommend for men are Floris and Penhaligon’s.
Over time these lines have blurred. Penhaligon’s is putting out some nice fragrances with a French tone to them (probably due to their purchase by Puig). Creed’s start in England and move to France has always defined the brand. Whether it’s your first bottle of cologne or fiftieth, a good place to start is by asking yourself how you want your cologne to function, as the focus, an evocation, or an accessory, then move on from there.