Tolu is one of perfumer Geza Schoen’s early perfumes and one of the perfumes that launched the Ormonde Jayne line in 2002. It’s an interesting spin on the oriental genre and provides a glimpse of the techniques and style that would become Schoen’s signature. It also demonstrates how a ‘contemporary’ style ages.
Contemporary independent perfumers have riffed on the oriental perfume since the niche trend started. Just as Christopher Sheldrake did with the Bois series for Serge Lutens, Schoen based Tolu on a close reading of the traditional model. Both perfumers deciphered it, focussing not just on the compositional ‘recipe’ but the logic behind it—the how and the why. Sheldrake’s Bois perfumes were famous/infamous for their optimistic use of woody amber materials, and in this respect there is a lot of common ground in Sheldrake’s and Schoen’s methodologies. Where they differ is in their relationships to archetypal oriental perfumes.
Sheldrake bent what he found into a distinctly new shape. Shoen also took the genre down to the studs but came up with a different model for innovation: facsimile. Tolu is a clever rebuild of the traditional oriental perfume. In terms of scent Tolu and Guerlain Shalimar run on close parallel paths but they diverge sharply when it comes to texture. Tolu’s stained glass luminescence has all of Shalimar’s richness but none of the opacity and graininess that makes it seem dated to the modern nose.
Schoen recreates Shalimar’s citrus accord with an evergreen/herbal mix. It has a whiff of turpentine, whose citric/lime facet replicates Shalimar’s bergamot topnote. The aromatic herbal accord lasts well into drydown, making it an ingenious proxy for Shalimar’s famously hefty dose of Guerlinade. As the name implies Tolu’s resinous core stems from tolu balsam, which gives the perfume an unwrinkled matte appearance. Tolu’s heart is significantly less sweet than Shalimar’s but the vanilla is just as pronounced and tolu balsam’s hint of cinnamon accents vanilla’s woodiness. Leather is as prominent as it is in the Guerlain but without the smoky backdrop of birch tar it is sheerer and decidedly more modern. Shoen gave his perfume a sizable orange blossom note, which differs from the Guerlain’s jasmine and rose heart, but adds noticeably to the perfume’s suntanned glow.
Tolu’s innovative reimagining of an historical genre with contemporary materials made it novel when it was released in 2002 but the particular style of luminosity does date it. It scores exceedingly high on ‘radiance’ which pegs it as a Millennial Perfume, a cohort of fragrances composed with famously high percentages of insistent woody-amber materials. To Schoen’s great credit, Tolu has aged more gracefully than most perfumes of the early ’00s. It reads as era-specific rather than outdated. Trend might have followed Shoen, but he lead through innovation.
Part of the charm and appeal of oriental perfumes has always been their over-the-topness. To the modern nose, though, they might be a little much for daily wear, like opera or high drag. For those who do favor the Emeraudes, Tabus and Youth Dews of the world Tolu’s light version of a dense style might seem inauthentic, like a spray tan or a faked orgasm. But for those who find traditional perfumes a bit too heavily brocaded Tolu offers an oriental without melodrama.
Image Nasir ul Mulk Mosque, Shiraz Iran