Imagine for a moment that the mighty Nile were a river called Sensei. It would begin with a small trickle of boozy rum that flows into three parallel streams made of stewed fruits, dark tobacco, and coffee. The small streams run past large banks of cinnamon and incense, sweeping up their essence as they all merge into a massive river of sticky balsamic resins which quickly flows out to the sea. There, they dissolve and vanish in waters made up solely of cinnamon amber. That is the essence and development of Sensei.
Sensei is a fragrance from Piotr Czarnecki which was released in 2013. It is the first creation from Mr. Czarnecki who is professional dance instructor and a self-taught perfumer from Poland. (If you’re interested in learning more about him, Fragrantica had a detailed article and interview with Mr. Czarnecki.) Sensei has been the subject of much talk recently, and was a Finalist in the Artisan category in the very first Arts & Olfaction Awards whose 2014 panel of judges included Luca Turin. I was sent a sample for review a few weeks ago, along with the latest 2014 release from Mr. Czarnecki called She ♥ Sensei, which I will talk about briefly at the end.
Normally, when I write reviews, I mention the concentration and then quickly move on, but it’s a little more complicated with Sensei. The fragrance comes in a conjoined set of 3 different concentrations, ranging from Eau de Toilette to pure Parfum. According to the Luckyscent description, there are small differences in focus between each one.
The company sent me a sample of both its Sensei fragrances in Eau de Parfum. I’ve been told by Jo Bond, the Czarnecki representative, that the EDP concentration best summarizes and captures the spirit of both fragrances. Ms. Bond also said, “The EDT is a tiny bit lighter version of Sensei and the EXTR DP is a bit more concentrated.” In short, I will be reviewing the Goldilocks version that is right in the middle, but do keep in mind that any bottle which you buy of “Sensei” will come with 3 concentrations, each in a 33 ml size, and that the other versions may differ slightly from what I’m describing here.
According to the Fragrantica interview with Mr. Czarnecki, the perfume pyramid for Sensei is:
Top notes: Cuban tobacco, Whiskey, Arabica coffee
Heart notes: Spices, Myrrh, Frankincense
Base notes: Labdanum, Ambrette absolute, Musk.
Sensei opens on my skin with rum, tobacco, cinnamon, spices, and coffee, all in a really rich, deep, slightly musky and briefly animalic warmth. It’s rivers of browns and gold, dominated initially by a strongly caramelized booziness that’s really lovely.
I don’t smell whisky, per se, but more of a rum note infused with stewed fruits and rum raisins. Tendrils of incense smoke and an absolutely wonderful undercurrent of coffee weave their way subtly throughout , and the whole thing is dusted off with sweet spice. Cinnamon is particularly evident and profound, but there are also flecks of powdered vanilla and chocolate cocoa. It strongly evokes images of a Starbucks counter where shakers of powdered cinnamon, vanilla, and chocolate wait to be dusted onto your frothy, booze-ladened drink.
Underlying it all is the tobacco. It is rich, dark, and just barely sweetened by the other notes. Interestingly, when I applied a smaller quantity of Sensei, the tobacco was much smokier and much more prominent than when I applied more. The larger dosage brought out more of the perfume’s boozy and run-raisin sweetness, as well as the natural, golden, vegetal musk of the ambrette. With the smaller amount, however, Sensei strongly evoked the Turkish incense and tobacco dens that were the inspiration for Serge Lutens‘ Fumerie Turque. Actually, I must say, Sensei has a very Lutenesque feel as a whole, regardless of the quantity that you apply, thanks to its dark, resinous, chewy base in conjunction with the stewed fruits, incense, and sweetness.
For the first 15 minutes, Sensei also shares a momentary kinship to Hermès‘ Ambre Narguilé. Both fragrances have the same vein of rum-raisin, boozy amber with incense and tobacco. The difference, however, is that Sensei feels a hundred times darker, thicker, and heavier. In addition, the booziness is much more heavily spiced; there are subtle gourmand elements of coffee, chocolate, and vanilla; and the tobacco is much less like the fruited, pipe tobacco of the Hermes scent and more like the smokier, blacker variety of Fumerie Turque.
Yet, I must stress again that the tobacco is quite subtle on my skin when I applied a larger amount of the fragrance. With 3 good smears, amounting to 2 small spritzes of the perfume, Sensei’s dominant notes in the opening is the spiced, boozy amber with stewed fruits, coffee, cinnamon, and subtle vanilla tonalities. Only when I applied a single big smear, amounting to a tiny spray, was the tobacco really noticeable at the start and a key part of the scent.
The similarities to either Fumerie Turque or Ambre Narguile are quite short-lived on my skin. Roughly 15 minutes into Sensei’s development, the rum-raisin and boozy aspects soften, while the coffee and cinnamon grow stronger. There is almost a nutty undercurrent to the perfume, as if toasted hazelnuts were now mixed into the cinnamon and vanilla. In addition, something about the carmelized nature of the amber feels a lot more like ambergris than the more toffee’d nature of labdanum. It’s lovely, especially in conjunction with the subtle muskiness of the ambrette seeds, which is one of my favorite types of musk.
Yet, for all that I keep describing sweet elements, Sensei isn’t really a gourmand fragrance on my skin. I think the fragrance straddles the boundary between the Gourmand and Oriental categories, but its main body is strongly and almost entirely in the Oriental camp on my skin. It has too much cinnamon spice, smoky incense, and balsamic resins to be a true gourmand. They keep the perfume’s sweetness in check, and not even the vaguely caramel-like facet to the amber in the base changes that. The perfume is perfectly balanced on my skin between the various sweet, dry, oriental, and resinous aspects.
In fact, Sensei is perfectly balanced in a number of ways. Take, for example, the perfume’s weight and body. Sensei is much airier and softer on my skin than the very chewy, heavy elements would lead you to think. The visuals may all be dark, and the perfume opens with incredibly richness, but Sensei is surprisingly soft in weight and feel after the first hour.
As a result, and considering the average mean, I would put Sensei in the middle of the scale. It doesn’t have the overall heft of a Profumum, Roja Dove, or SHL 777 scent, but it is initially much denser than a Lutens, LM Parfums, or Parfums d’Empire creation. It never feels opaque, and its projection begins at only 2-3 inches above the skin with 3 large smears, though small tendrils of scent lingered around me when I moved. The sillage dropped after about 30 minutes to lie just 1.5 inches above my skin, and Sensei becomes a very thin, gauzy skin scent on me about 3.25 hours into its development. Frankly, it becomes a little too thin and subdued for my personal tastes.
The main focus of Sensei continues to subtle shift over the course of the first few hours. Roughly 30 minutes into its development, the booziness takes a step back from its dominant, primary position, while the cinnamon grows stronger. Sensei is now largely a cinnamon-dusted coffee scent with tobacco, ambrette muskiness, and incense in an amber cocoon with just a touch of rum. As the booziness retreats to the sidelines, it is followed by the vanilla and chocolate cocoa powder.
The end of the first hour and the start of the second marks the beginning of a new stage in Sensei’s development. The perfume slowly starts to become drier and darker, though it’s an extremely subtle change at first. The incense and cinnamon grow stronger, while there is almost a leathery and resinous feel to the base, as if there were balsamic resins like Tolu Balsam used in addition to the labdanum. We’re now a long, long way from the Ambre Narguile opening or even the Starbucks imagery, never mind any coffee focus.
In fact, I want to emphasize that Sensei’s coffee aspect is consistently limited to the perfume’s first hour, and definitely does not last on my skin. Each time I’ve worn the fragrance, the darker elements take over, in addition to the cinnamon spice, in the second stage which usually begins roughly 90 minutes into the perfume’s evolution.
By the end of the 3rd hour, Sensei is quite a resinous, dark scent with prominent tobacco, incense, and leathery balsams in the base. Subtle flickers of vanilla, and even a touch of pepperiness lurk in the background, along with an occasional pop of booziness. Yet, from afar, Sensei feels heavily concentrated on something very different: cinnamon and amber. Up close, the perfume is drier and smokier than it was at the start, but it is also sheerer with intimate sillage.
Sensei’s third and final stage begins at the end of the 4th hour, and can essentially be summarized as cinnamon amber. There is a subtle touch of powdery, vanillic benzoin in the background, next to the slightly more prominent undercurrent of incense smokiness, but no tobacco, few labdanum toffee tonalities, and not even a really resinous, balsamic feel either. In essence, all that remains on my skin for hours and hours on end is a massive sea of cinnamon and amber. It’s a sheer, gauzy layer that clings on tenaciously, though you have to really focus hard and sniff with your nose right on your arm to detect it after the 8th hour. All in all, Sensei EDP lasted just under 10.75 hours with 3 large smears, amounting to 2 small spritzes from a bottle, and roughly 8 hours with a single large smear.
I’ve read a number of accounts in perfume sites of other people’s experiences with Sensei, and they all seem to generally experience something similar, though the length of the various stages and the perfume’s overall longevity seems to differ. In most of the accounts that I’ve read, coffee seems to be a limited, not particularly dominant or long-lasting aspect of the fragrances, so I wouldn’t get your hopes up and expect a very coffee-centered perfume. On some people, Sensei seems to be primarily a cinnamon-amber bomb, without a lot of nuances. One or two people report a heavily gourmand scent. As always, what notes your skin will emphasize will depend on your skin chemistry, but I think that almost everyone will experience the cinnamon, and probably quite a bit of it, too. Keep that in mind if you aren’t a fan of the note.
I should also add that I’ve read quite a few accounts of Sensei not lasting very long on people’s skin, with some numbers as low as 4 hours. It surprised me a little, given the perfume’s richness but it does underscore just how light and subtle Sensei becomes after the first few hours.
There aren’t a ton of written reviews for the fragrance thus far, but a few people have talked about the scent on Basenotes and Fragrantica. You can read the comments for yourself, but I would like to highlight one review from “ClaireV” on Basenotes, as I agree with a number of her thoughts:
Smelling it blind the first time around, I jotted down all the notes I thought I could identify, which were as follows: Irish whisky, dried fruit, black Russian tea, unflavored tobacco leaves raw and wet, leather, woods, and the resinous edge of a cinnamon stick. Interestingly, though, there is no black tea or dried fruits anywhere in this. The only explanation I can come up with is that tobacco leaves, when presented as raw and as wet as they are here, do have a sort of tannic edge to them that resembles black tea, and they also smell somewhat fruity. I couldn’t pick up on the coffee note the first few times, either, probably because my nose was reading it as dark woods – for me, coffee is first and foremost a dark, woody smell, and not a chocolate-gourmand smell at all. In general, though, Sensei just reminds me of how great a smell tobacco is, and how multi-faceted.
The opening blast is almost unpleasantly boozy and dense, like Christmas cake, but the dry-down is absolutely gorgeous. Once the booze and wet tobacco leaves settle down a bit, it becomes drier and sweeter, eventually thinning out to become a gauzy, transparent woody-tobacco scent that I find deeply comforting. No matter the concentration, Sensei reaches its light, sheer dry down in a mere matter of hours, and does not have the sort of sillage that will invade anybody’s personal space.
She obviously didn’t experience the cinnamon-amber bomb that I and some other people had in the drydown, but she’s absolutely right that Sensei’s heft, density, and booziness settle down after a surprisingly short amount of time, as well as how sheer, gauzy, thin, and intimate the perfume becomes. I also think she’s accurate in her description of the tobacco as something much darker, smokier, and more resinous than the sort of fruited tobacco note which is so common in many “tobacco” fragrances. As I said, it’s much more like Fumerie Turque’s version than, say, Chergui, so that is something you may want to keep in mind if you’re not a particular fan of the note.
Yet, the real reason I wanted to highlight ClaireV’s comment is the rest of her review, and it pertains to my own feelings about the scent as a general whole:
So, yes, Sensei is really very good. It is wholly deserving of all the rave reviews it is getting, but it does not, in my humble opinion, justify the frenzied hype surrounding it, for the simple reason that, while it is beautiful, it is not unique. For me, Sensei is simply too reminiscent of different parts of other perfumes I already own and love to ever warrant me buying a bottle (or bottles, I should say). The black tea samovar and booze feel strongly recalls Parfums d’Empire’s incredible Ambre Russe, which is one of my favorite perfumes. The raw tobacco and slightly leathery, dirty labdanum dry down reminds me of Sonoma Scent Studio’s infinitely more severe but also more beautiful Tabac Aurea, and the woody cinnamon parts remind me (uncomfortably) of Diptyque’s spicy Eau Lente.
During the far dry down, I am reminded most delightfully of the spicy, delicious woody-fruity dry downs of fragrances such as Idole EDP by Lubin, Feminite du Bois by Serge Lutens, and even some parts of Fendi’s sadly discontinued Theorema – I don’t mean to suggest that these are smellalikes, but to me, there is something in their transparent woodiness and spiciness that unites all four. Take it as a rough guide – if you are drawn to any of the fragrances I have just mentioned, then it is highly likely that you will enjoy Sensei too. I know I did.
Although I won’t be getting a full bottle, I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying exploring my samples. [...] None of the concentrations last more than four hours on my skin, but there are slight differences between them when it comes to the presentation of notes. The EDP is stronger on the booze in the opening, the EDT has more of a dried-out tobacco leaf feel in the drydown, and the extrait is heavier on the coffee upfront. But beyond these small variations at the beginning, they all dry down to the same delicious base. [Emphasis to perfume names and longevity added by me.]
I’ve spent a few days trying to figure out why Sensei left me a bit cold when all is said and done. After all, its notes are absolutely and completely up my alley; boozy, tobacco, smoky, ambered Orientals are my favorite type of fragrance; and I love cozy, spiced richness. With Sensei, I enjoyed the very rich, heavy opening, and particularly the coffee of the first 30 minutes. And, unlike the Basenotes commentator, Sensei was substantially better for me when it was dark, dense, boozy, and chewy, not when it became a simplistic, sheer, wispy, rather linear cinnamon-amber bomb. (Then again, I love boozy scents, and she obviously doesn’t.)
Yet, I have to be honest, I found Sensei uninteresting the second time that I tried it, and very boring the third time, despite simultaneously recognizing that it is, indeed, very good. I want to be clear on that point: Sensei really is very well done. It’s perfectly balanced, rich at times, darkly chewy initially, and with some truly lovely undercurrents. It’s an impressive debut for a first-time, self-taught perfumer. So, I’ve struggled to pinpoint the reasons for my feelings, and for why I doubt I’d wear Sensei much, even if a full bottle fell into my lap. I’m not particularly close to being able to find the answer, but some of it is that I think Sensei tries to be several things at once, perhaps too many things, before ending up being nothing but simple cinnamon-amber, at least on me.
In a way, and what I think the Basenoter was saying with her comparison to many other fragrances, is that Sensei feels lacking in a strong, individual, original identity. It is Oriental but Gourmand, dense but light, chewy but sheer, hefty but thin. It is a boozy-rum raisin Ambre Narguilé scent. No, wait, it is a coffee Starbucks scent. No, it’s a tobacco, incense, balsamic scent. No, actually, it is just amber-cinnamon for hours on end. Writing all that out seems to make my comments feel even more unfair, as Sensei definitely has nuances and layers in the first 3 hours. It’s hard to call it a simplistic or linear scent when you look at its overall transformation, but I still am not sure what Sensei wants to be. Perhaps the problem is that all of Sensei’s transformations are short-lived in the face of the very lengthy, main drydown stage and its ultimate simplicity. Or, perhaps, maybe, and in all fairness, none of this is accurately pinpointing the real issue because it’s such a subjective, personal feeling.
It’s very hard for me to explain. All I know is that Sensei is a fragrance that is extremely well done, worthy of all the praise, and very enjoyable to wear the first time, but just not interesting enough for me (personally) to want to wear repeatedly. For me, it lacks a spark and character. Nonetheless, I encourage any of you who love the notes in question (especially cinnamon) to give Sensei a sniff. It’s really very well-done, and I think would be a big hit with a number of amber or oriental lovers.
SHE ♥ SENSEI:
She ♥ Sensei is the latest creation from the company and came out just a few weeks ago. It’s too new for a Fragrantica listing and isn’t offered on Luckyscent, the sole retail distributor for Piotr Czarnecki perfumes thus far. However, Ms. Jo Bond, the company’s representative provided a description for the scent on Facebook:
Well balanced and unique arrangement of plum and rose with nuance of vanilla, based on exclusive natural ingredients of SENSEI classic. Composition reminds of the best quality plum dipped in chocolate and rose petals in some sweet dessert. Opening of the fragrance is sweet and fresh with a hint of morning garden rose. Elegant, violet and full flavoured plum is the main fragrance note. In the heart notes the classical myrrh, frankincense and labdanum give classical but very interesting perfume accord. Whiskey, coffee and some spices give an impression of the best quality chocolate-box with alcohol when they opened for the first time. The fragrance base is changing slowly because of using the oriental musk with ambrette and small touch of vanilla.
She ♥ Sensei’s succinct list of notes is:
Plum, rose, vanilla, whiskey, cuban tobacco, arabica coffee, spices, myrrh, frankincense, labdanum, ambrette, musk.
She ♥ Sensei Eau de Parfum opens on my skin with plum, ginger, booziness, smoke, tobacco, and leathery nuances, all in an amber cocoon. The scent is initially quite strong in feel, though sheer, light, and substantially less hefty than the original Sensei’s opening. The tobacco is extremely minimal, and the main bouquet is dominated by plumminess and gingered, stewed fruits. Lurking in the background is a touch of rose, while the base has a very jammy, fruited, syrupy patchouli running through it. As a result, She ♥ Sensei is extremely sweet on my skin, to the point where it feels much more wholly gourmand than its brother.
In fact, there are quite a few differences from the original Sensei. The amber and booziness in She ♥ Sensei is substantially weaker; there isn’t much tobacco; the incense is mostly in the base and quite subtle; the spice focus is on ginger instead of cinnamon; and the perfume is much more heavily fruited in nature. When taken as a whole, it also has a substantial floral focus that the original Sensei lacked. And, again, it is much lighter and airier in feel than Sensei, even from the start.
She ♥ Sensei reminds me very much of the Serge Lutens‘ Bois Series, particularly Feminité du Bois mixed with Bois et Fruits, with a small touch of the ginger plum smokiness of my beloved Fille en Aiguilles. There are differences, though. She ♥ Sensei is much, much sweeter on my skin than those fragrances. I suspect one reason why is the jammy fruitchouli which rises up from the base after 10 minutes.
The rose comes out of the shadows at the same time, too, turning She ♥ Sensei into a very plummy, ginger spiced, syrupy, darkly stewed rose fragrance with a light touch of booziness, subtle tendrils of incense smoke, and a minute sliver of vanilla, all over a base of dark resins. At the end of the first hour, I could finally detect the violet note lurking in the background. It’s more metallic than green, dewy, or peppery, but it generally isn’t a significant part of the fragrance on my skin. I don’t smell any chocolate at all.
She ♥ Sensei is generally a very linear, uncomplicated fragrance on my skin. It has fewer changes than the original as well. At the end of 90 minutes, the perfume hovers a bare half-inch above my skin, but it continues to be a lightly boozy, dark, fruited rose with plum and ginger spice, all over a darkly resinous base infused with incense and the faintest wisp of vanilla. It feels even sweeter and more syrupy than it was at the start, though also a hair more resinous.
Using the same amount of 3 big smears that I used for the original Sensei, She ♥ Sensei turns into a skin scent on me roughly 3.25 hours into its development. Around the same time, the notes largely blur into one, but the perfume finally starts to feel a little drier and darker, and the incense seems fractionally stronger. It’s a question of degree, though, as She ♥ Sensei continues to be a very sweet fruity-floral oriental for the most part.
The secondary oriental, resinous, and smoky notes weaken even more as time passes. By the end of the 6th hour, She ♥ Sensei is primarily just a plummy rose fragrance with subtle suggestions of darkness and ambered warmth at the edges. It essentially dies away in the same way, a little over 8.75 hours from its start. The sillage was generally intimate and weak throughout the majority of the fragrance’s lifetime, though it wasn’t hard to detect the scent up close for the first 6 hours.
I’m not particularly a rose person, and I dislike heavy, purple fruitchouli notes as well as strong sweetness, so She ♥ Sensei wasn’t my personal cup of tea. It’s well-done, rich, and seamless in feel, but I found it even less interesting than the original Sensei. That said, I think women (and men) who love dark, sweet, rose scents would probably enjoy She ♥ Sensei. I don’t think the perfume is as obviously unisex as the original Sensei, and I personally think it skews rather feminine in nature, just as the “She” part of its name implies. However, a number of men seem love gourmand rose fragrances, and I know fruitchouli-rose combinations like that in Phaedon‘s Rouge Avignon are popular, so it’s going to come down to taste.
ALL IN ALL:
Regardless of my personal tastes, I think both fragrances are worth a sniff. They are rich, well-done, seamless, and smooth. They are also generally quite reasonably priced. Sensei costs $160 or €130 for 99 ml or roughly 3.3 oz. She ♥ Sensei costs €120 for 66 ml, or just over 2.2 oz.
However, accessibility is a small issue. Neither of these fragrances is in wide circulation, and the sole online distributor for the company is Luckyscent in America. It only carries Sensei at this time, but the perfume sold out on its first day and, at the time of this review, is back-ordered on the site until mid-August. Nonetheless, Mr. Czarnecki makes it quite easy for anyone who is interested in either Sensei fragrance, as you can purchase them directly from the company or his representative. There is also a sample duo of both the original Sensei and She ♥ Sensei (in the EDP concentrations reviewed here) which is available for a very affordable price. It’s $11 or €8, and they ship world-wide. (See the Details section below.)
In short, if you’re a fan of the notes in either fragrance or curious about all the fuss, then I encourage you to give them a sniff. I think the original Sensei, in particular, may win a few fans.
Disclosure: Samples were provided by the company. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my thoughts are my own.