Onyx Eau de Cologne by Paul Sebastian Review

Collage of Onyx by Paul Sebastian and its notes, including vetiver, sandalwood, cypress, nutmeg, cardamom, and vanilla.

Paul Sebastian’s Onyx is a very clean-smelling men’s cologne. It combines an old-fashioned cool and bright, alcohol-doused vetiver aftershave opening with a middle and base of sweetened and spiced sandalwood, an unexpected timbre and temperature combination that works surprisingly well.

Onyx opens with a burst of green freshness and keeps a polite, formal, old-fashioned edge while dabbling in delicious woodsy warmth and spices beneath the surface. This is not a cologne that is woody, sweet, or warm with reckless abandon: rather, this is a restrained exploration of some of the facets of wood and spices, while fundamentally still being quite a clean, gentlemanly, old-fashioned composition.

Although the fougere, that clean barbershop aftershave genre of scent, has been a classic for centuries, something about Onyx harkens back specifically to the 90s. It’s very much a formal and professional fragrance and not a clubbing scent, but the way it screams bright and clean in its opening and fades to something less detectable is reminiscent of the initial loudness and relatively polite drydown of some calone-aquatic scents of its time.

Something about that toothpaste-y clean green camphor- or menthol-like opening brings me back to images of young men getting dressed in the morning in a time of fashion minimalism punctuated by unexpected, cringey-yet-nostalgic bits of oddness and loudness, driven by an authentic enthusiasm for new ideas and a simultaneous urge for cool simplicity.

A cluster of green shamrock clovers and a sprig of green fern.

Onyx does, thus, feel a little dated, but I wouldn’t call it “old”: there is something distinctly youthful here, in a very 90s way. I’m not sure whether many young men these days wear fougeres, but I can see ambitious young professional men splashing this on in the 90s, taking themselves so very seriously, aspiring to an image of old-timey sophistication and class.

This is a 90s-era “modern” take on a fougere. There are two distinct eras of fragrance fashion at play in this fascinating period piece: the overwhelmingly ice-cold minty-freshness of the youthful 90s cologne, and the dignity and history of the old-fashioned herbal-aromatic fougere.

A pile of light green bumpy round bergamot fruit.

The effect is not unlike going through a time machine twice. This is what a guy who time traveled from 1890 to 1990 and got stuck there smells like. It’s a fascinating mishmash of classic vetiver-and-woods barbershop scent and cool-sporty-minty-freshness.

This is a young twentysomething man in his first job that doesn’t have “assistant” in the title, wearing crisp cotton-polyester button-down shirts he’s paid too much for at Macy’s. He’s figuring out how to be a real grown-up out of college, and dressing like his older male relatives helps him feel like one. Wearing Onyx is like trying on the ambition and hope of these men, who were, in turn, trying on the old-fashioned fougere sophistication of their grandfathers.

As I spray Onyx, the first thing I smell is a faint hint of bergamot, before the toothpaste-y rush of nondescript “men’s clean fragrance base” alcohol floods my nose. There’s a minty freshness to it, a quasi-mentholic coolness that carries into the rest of the scent. There’s something green defining the opening, a cool, aromatic wood with a timbre towards menthol or camphor.

Two coniferous twigs of bald cypress.

It’s cypress! Cool and snappy, this green accord is fresher, more youthful and mintier than any vetiver I have known. Sharp, pointy evergreen leaves abound, fresh like the cool breeze and wet dewdrops in the earliest hours of a hot summer day. Some nondescript fresh green leafy notes prop it up, adding more depth to the coolness.

The warm spices are hidden underneath that cool, clean blast of mentholic vetiver alcohol, peering their heads out timidly along with the sandalwood and a hint of slightly sweet vanilla.

This will change with time, but the opening of Onyx remains entirely cool and very fresh. This isn’t a 2000s loud blue freshness, but rather a light, springy green freshness reminiscent of any number of men’s minty bathroom products.

A stalk of light green, leafy patchouli with tiny white flowers.

Perhaps there is just a touch of patchouli earthiness adding depth and dimension to the sandalwood. It’s more texture and grit than it is real dirt: the overall clean-ness of the scent — espectially the minty-fresh snappiness of cypress — drowns out any true earthiness.

Within half an hour, the hold of the clean barbershop vetiver scent starts to lift, revealing the middle and base of sandalwood and spices. There’s no smoke here, nor anything remotely dirty; this remains a very clean scent, even as the barbershop fresh smell fades away — though never entirely.

The character of the vetiver is classic and sophisticated. The general minty-alcohol-is-this-aftershave-or-mouthwash scent blends with it in a way that swallows up any earthiness or grassiness. What’s left is a yellow-green fullness at the heart of the fragrance, comforting and understated. It’s the background of the place where the fresh green aromatics and the warm base notes meet, a melding of warm and cool facets.

A green and white origami paper box containing many small bundles of dried vetiver grass tied with strips of cloth and twine.

This isn’t a front-and-center Vetiver like that in Guerlain’s eponymous Vetiver. Rather, here it adds structure and fullness to the body of the fragrance, painted in broad-brushed yellow-green contours without too much fine detail.

The vetiver and green and aromatic notes in Onyx fade gradually, leaving more and more room for the sandalwood-centered warm base notes to flourish. There’s a fascinating temperature gradient here, sliding from icy cool green mintiness in the opening down to a hazy, semi-sweet woody warmth in the base notes.

A small pile of light green and yellow cardamom seed pods.

In an hour, the scent is still quite clean, but the warm nature of the sandalwood and spices rises to a volume equivalent to that of the opening coolness. This is the mid-point of the temperature gradient; for every hour following, the cool notes continue to fade away while the warm notes flourish.

There’s a delicious slight sweetness to the sandalwood and vanilla here, delicately spiced with nutmeg and cardamom, that feels almost gourmand, but without any overwhelming sweetness or edible facets. A tasty creation from someone’s spice cabinet has been brought into the barbershop: not a baked treat, but perhaps something like a slightly sweetened chai latte served in a delicious sandalwood mug.

(Yes, I know there are no mugs made of sandalwood. It’s a metaphor.)

A pile of santal sandalwood chips, also known as santalum album.

Sandalwood is the star of the drydown of Onyx. The pepper, cardamom, and nutmeg draw out its piquant and cinnamon-like qualities, while the vanilla augments the woody creaminess at its center. I’m in love with the way a good sandalwood note flirts with dessert-like sweet, spiced, and creamy qualities while maintaining a distinct woody character, and this is the case here. There’s a dignity and structure here that could never be gourmand, and yet the warm spiced sandalwood is a delicious creamy comfort of a drydown, modest and restrained but still rather delicious.

This drydown is entirely opposite the cool fougere opening: warm, spicy, vanillic wood that is almost — but never quite entirely — edible.

Botanical illustration of a vanilla flower, leaves, and bean.

The mix of temperatures here is the most unique thing about Onyx. As the scales gradually tip from cool to warm, both simultaneously enter your nostrils, a fascinating scent experience. Somehow, these two sides of Onyx play nicely with each other; it is too restrained to let either half enjoy an exploration of extremes, yet the combination and synergy of two distinct, contained scents is interesting, authentic, and new.

Throughout the drydown, the signature of Onyx is this combination of cool aromatic freshness and warm spiced sandalwood, with cinnamon-like woody nuances, hints of sharp pepper and warm cardamom and nutmeg.

On me, Onyx lasts some seven to eight hours, with overwhelming loud fresh projection for the first half hour and fairly intimate sillage for the rest of its life. It feels like a bit of a costume piece, likely best-suited to the men approaching middle age now who had bought it in their youth, or, perhaps, for a young person with some great nostalgia for a time before they were born (after all, 90s nostalgia seems to have been in vogue now for longer than the 90s actually happened).

A pile of slightly crushed dried nutmeg seeds.

This is a flexible cologne well-suited to casual day-to-day and office wear. Though down-to-earth and without any dramatic suit-and-tie flourishes, it would be presentable as a formal fragrance should the occasion arise. Onyx is like a nice button-down and a pair of good slacks. It’s a flexible business casual cologne. You can bend it towards business and bask in its youthfulness and warm comfort in your stifling workplace, or you can bend it towards casual and feel much more put-together and classy at home on your couch in your crocs and socks.

Either way, this is an enjoyable, versatile fragrance with both a fresh and a cozy side. It’s unlikely to be offensive to anyone, and stands out against most of the men’s fragrances sold today. Onyx delivers a crisp, aromatic green freshness rather than a headachey cloud of aggressive blue calones, making this suitable to even hot summer days when blue freshness might feel stifling.

Two light green sprigs of mint.

In many ways, Onyx seems to be a better example of what Guerlain’s Thierry Wasser was trying to do in L’Homme Ideal. Here you have the dualism of a fresh aromatic-herb-minty-mouthwash opening and a warm and comforting semi-sweet drydown. The pacing and composition of L’Homme Ideal are altogether odd, full of extraneous half-expressed flourish notes. It’s a cologne that feels unfinished and self-conscious, as if it’s trying to hide its sweet almond side under the manly mouthwash opening.

Onyx, on the other hand, feels simpler, more honest and open, unapologetic. There are no weird citrus and floral notes throwing off the composition, save a hint of bergamot only detectable in the first few minutes. The balance between the cool fresh and warm cozy sides of the cologne feels sturdy and the blending from one phase into the other is quite smooth.

Here is a drugstore cologne that explores more different perceptions of masculinity, and in a better-blended way, than that fanfared Guerlain creation. The insouciant freshness of youth, the comforts of the old-fashioned, and the pleasures of cozy, vulnerable warmth come together here in a remarkable example of how to compose an unremarkable daily cologne.

A small wooden spice shovel overflowing with dried black peppercorns.

This is unremarkable in the best way: it doesn’t shout at you, flash and screech, or show off some odd trick. It’s simply understated, flexible, enjoyable, and effective, a sensible and well-made choice for a signature scent. The mystery nose behind this one did an excellent job of creating a high-quality drugstore cologne.

Difficult to find and likely discontinued ahead of the emergence of Azzaro’s Onyx, Paul Sebastian’s Onyx is a fascinating study of the dualistic excitement and over-serious restraint of its time. It makes a great office fragrance, with an opening that will wake you up in the morning and a quiet drydown that won’t disturb anyone. It’s unlike any cologne on the mainstream shelves today, and is a unique fragrance for the lover of the minty-fresh green accord, the old-fashioned fougere and the indulgent warm, spicy sandalwood scent.

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