Based on my sampling of three perfumes from the Argentinian brand Frassaï, I can say that this is exactly the kind of thing that one hopes to see from modern niche perfumery but rarely does, i.e., perfumes that are unusual but not too much, and rendered in a soft, lovely manner that gives them wearability and ease.
Consider two points on that scale, for reference – the earlier perfumes of Serge Lutens, which offered bold new ideas but presented them in often luridly syrupy forms that made them challenging to wear as a personal scent outside of a grand occasion, and the perfumes of Parfums de Marly or XerJoff, which are mostly recycled ideas and tired old tropes rendered loud and muscular with über-radiant woody ambers that smash their way through more delicate accords like a bull in a china shop.
The Frassaï perfumes, on the other hand, appear to have been carefully and sensitively art-directed (by Natalia Outeda, a designer who had previously art-directed perfumes in NY for companies such as Bond No. 9, Proctor and Gamble, and Kiehl’s). Though the perfume reviewed here are all in different styles – one essentially a soliflore, one a spicy fruity scent, another a woody gourmand – and some of perfumers who composed them have usually easily-identifiable signature ‘moves’ (Rodrigo Flores-Roux, for example), there is a common thread of harmony and softness that links them all. Is it possible that the female gaze in art directorship for fragrance is just as much a thing as it is in literature, or essays, or film?
Tian Di (by perfumer Olivier Gillotin) is the most original of the three perfumes I sampled, and my outright favorite. It is really quite odd – a smoked-out peach skin nestled in a dusty ‘brown’ accord that remind me alternately of loose (peach-flavored) tea in those triangular nets sold by Dammann Frères, coffee grounds, or even cocoa – but also unexpectedly lovely. I am particularly charmed by the marvelous effect it produces on the skin, where it is all burnt peach licorice on the inhale (similar to the burnt anise-iris at the base of Guerlain’s Attrape-Coeur, albeit in dust form rather than apricot jam) and spearmint gum on the exhale. It is as gingery and as cooling as a tisane drink, yet as granular and coarsely-textured as the dry material before the hot water hits it.
Tian Di eventually deepens – or perhaps ‘spreads out’ – into a smudgy, smeary mint butterscotch and floor wax accord, with a hint of trampled grass and even beer, but never loses the malted, almost smoky graininess of the incense and tea. There is something about this that tugs a memory chord for me, making it difficult for me to evaluate objectively beyond the rather gormless ‘It’s odd but I love it’ review I’ve given it here. I think there’s either a loose connection to the peach of Trèsor (Lancôme) or to the sandalwoody, salty-minty, peony-esque weirdness of Dune (Dior), both of which I wore as a teenager, but again, this is all probably a Pavlovian response playing out in my mind and my mind only. Tian Di is special and unique. I’d buy this one in a heartbeat because I don’t have anything like it in my collection.
A Fuego Lento (by perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux) is a soft jasmine soliflore that smells like a wall covered in jasmine whose petals have started to dry a little in the late June sunshine, giving it a sweet hay or alfalfa dimension. There’s a tangy orange blossom note at the start that reads a little rubbery, like hot tarmacadam, so for a brief time, the scent gives off a pleasant sensation of being in a hot Southern city where the exhaust fumes of cars and hot pavement mingle with the sudden wafts of white flowers tucked away behind tall, patrician walls. But really, A Fuego Lento is all about that jasmine. A nutty, milky amber holds it all in place without interfering with the purity of the flowers.
I’m always moved by the simple but awe-inspiring beauty of a flower whose smell has been so faithfully recreated in scent form. This is, I recognize, no small feat in and of itself, unless you are willing to rely on the floral absolutes to do all the heavy lifting, in which case you have to deal with the more pungent, less pleasing aspects of the absolute – but Rodrigo Flores-Roux certainly knows his way around jasmine. That said, I’m a little surprised at the lack of accoutrements from a perfumer who produced both the complex, salty jasmine that is Ella (Arquiste) and the plummy jasmine chypre that is L’Âme Perdue (Le Galion), but I’m guessing that Outeda asked specifically for a pure, lush jasmine soliflore, and that is precisely what she got.
Personally, I don’t wear soliflores (preferring to smell flowers in nature than in the bottle) but if I were on the hunt for a great jasmine-dominant perfume, this would be a prime contender. The only other jasmine soliflore that matches the quality of A Fuego Lento is, in my opinion, the limited edition Diptyque Essences Insensées 2015, which is however far more syrupy and intense a smell.
Teisenddu (by perfumer Roxanne Kirkpatrick) is, in many ways, the most familiar-smelling perfume in the bunch, in that it mines a vein that many indie and niche perfumes before it have tapped into, i.e., that toasty-dry, caramelized scent of a working sauna, complete with all its spicy-fresh facets (juniper, conifer) and its dried fruit ones (cumin, caramel, prune, brandy). I quite like this toasty wood smell, even though it doesn’t really deviate from the pattern cut by scents such as Woodcut by Olympic Orchids or Bourbon by Hans Hendley.
Where it does innovate, however, is by pairing it with a full-blown movie butter popcorn accord with which I am only too familiar (unfortunately) thanks to my year-long exploration of the American indie oil sector. Every single perfume oil with the words ‘cake’ or ‘freshly baked bread’ or indeed ‘caramel’ featured precisely this note. Due to overexposure to this awful pyrazine-y aromachemical – whatever moniker it actually goes by – whenever I smell it, I think not of caramel or bread but instead of that awful fake butter popcorn flavoring they put in jellybeans. Because of its proximity to the hot, dry wood accord, the note emits a claggy ‘moistness’ that reads like warm, sweaty socks.
Now, it’s entirely possible that everyone else who smells this will smell what the perfumer intended, i.e., caramel, and that it is my particular sensitivity or over-exposure to this material that’s skewing the picture. I hope so. In any case, I hate this particular material with a passion and always wonder how Pierre Guillaume managed to pull off the toasted nuts and caramel in Aomassaï without resorting to it. (Part of me always thinks, well, if he can do it, why can’t everyone else?)
Mercifully, this note burns off quickly enough, and my patience is rewarded by a remarkable (and really quite unusual for a toasty, spicy wood scent like this) plant milk accord that smells like coconut milk, lotion, and something green and crunchy, like agave, fig leaves, or aloe vera. What this does is add a cooling, lactonic finish to the scent that effectively rehydrates the wood, balancing it so that it never tips over into outright aridity – typically the natural end of spicy indie wood scents. I really love this surprising element, and it’s enough to compensate me for any butter popcorn trauma I might have suffered previously.
It’s worth mentioning that, even when this milky lotion component fades away, we are left with a gently-spiced, gently-resinated, and gently-ambery wood accord that never pushes the envelope too far in any one direction. It’s all quite gentle. Which suits me just fine. In this last stretch, Teisenddu reminds me a lot of Gaiac by Micallef (and its twin, Dark Horse by Dame Perfumery), as well as Wenge by Donna Karan – all scents I’d describe as soft takes on the amber-incense-wood category, a popular and rather densely-populated intersection in niche perfumery. Scents like this are the fuzzy blanket of the perfume world (or ‘woody puddings’, as NST calls them), and while not entirely a novel form, Teisenddu innovates just far enough with that green, juicy plant milk accord to carve out a space for itself.
Source of Samples: I purchased samples of these Frassaï fragrances from Neroli Hungary, a Budapest-based niche perfume store here. I have purchased samples from Neroli multiple times since 2014 and am very happy to recommend them to my fellow European fumeheads.
Gold is the most challenging of the gifts of the three Magi, of course, given that, unlike myrrh and frankincense, it is not a fragrant material in and of itself. I could write about perfumes that smell like metal or that have a metallic element to them, like, say, Superstitiousby Frederic Malle or Copper by Comme des Garcons, but that would be a rather short and unsatisfying list. So, most of the perfumes on this list fall into one of three categories.
First, perfumes that the word ‘gold’ or ‘or’ in their name – a group of fragrances that quickly exhausts itself when you realize just how many of them either fail to meet the kingly standard we’re going after (24 Gold by Scentstory didn’t make the cut, for example, and neither did the ghastly coffee sickliness that is L’Or de Torrente) or give off a golden vibe at all (Or des Indes, J’acuse).
Second, there are the perfumes that I think are the gold standard of their respective genres and are the ones that I would buy in bulk if I were to suddenly win the lottery or marry someone with both taste and bottomless pockets (we will pretend that I am not already in possession of a husband). I find it funny that many of the perfumes I consider to be gold medal winners are actually called Black something or other.
Finally, we have perfumes that prominently feature a raw material or accord that smells or feels like a sunny, radiant liquid gold around your person – amber, for example, but also ambergris and honey.
Les Nombres d’Or Oudh Osmanthus (Mona di Orio) – Black Gold
Oudh Osmanthus is both rich and dry, two qualities that are rarely found together these days. After years of puzzling over what makes this perfume tick, I think the secret to its three-dimensional richness lies in its triadic composition of a) the smoky, dried-up husk of a vanilla pod swiped from Mona di Orio Vanille, which contributes a dark, almost liquor-ish background that one might call sweet until you get close enough to see what it is, b), a midsection (borrowed from the brand’s own Musc) of blurred, indistinct floral notes desiccating to a fine white talc, which gives the scent its tinder-box dryness and a slightly soapy, dandified air, and c) a lascivious civet note that twists the florals into a grimy, almost fecal leather note à la Jicky.
Here’s the clever bit – though there is likely some quantity of real osmanthus and oud oil in the composition, their shape is carved out not by the raw materials themselves but by little olfactory nudges laid down by the perfumer herself, like a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest. Hence, the faintly cheesy fruitiness of osmanthus is suggested obliquely by an odd but genius herbal note that smells quite like fresh dill, while the cheesey ferment of oud is brought to life by the leathery civet.
In many ways, Oudh Osmanthus is the analog to my other favorite oud-themed fragrance, Nawab of Oudh(Ormonde Jayne). Both are Western abstractions of an Eastern raw material, rendered in a haute luxe style that elevates them far beyond their source material. But they arrive there from two utterly different directions – Nawab of Oudh via the light cast by crisp linen tablecloths, the brass moldings of a posh London hotel, and freshly-peeled citrus fruits, Oudh Osmanthus via the chartreuse gloom of a velvet-covered room.
Both are eye-wateringly expensive. Adding insult to injury, Oudh Osmanthus was reformulated when the bottles were changed from the wine screw bottles to the golden disc bottle. It still smells great, of course, but its smoky dryness has been toned down and made less confrontational, which has in turn subtracted much from its previously three-dimensional quality. However, if I were forced to choose just two Western oud-themed fragrances to take with me into the apocalypse, it would be Nawab of Oudh and Oudh Osmanthus, and that, for a perennial flip-flopper like me, is said with not even a hint of equivocation.
I am a big Henry James fan. Or at least I used to be until one day at school, my fifth form English teacher pulled a copy of The Golden Bowl out of my school bag and gasped, ‘You’re reading this? Oh, dear me, no – this is far too difficult for you. It will put you off James for life.’ But guys, I had already read The Golden Bowl. In fact, I had waltzed through it, not realizing that it was supposed to be difficult. But do you know what? I have struggled with Henry James ever since. Once someone points out that something is difficult or complex, it becomes so. Like someone flipping that switch in your brain between unthinking enjoyment and sudden, painful self-awareness.
I love Chypre Palatin with my unthinking part of my brain. I know, on a purely intellectual level, that it is a Golden Bowl type of scent – grand, complex, full of moving parts clicking into place. The sort of thing you have to read with your eyes at half-mast so as to perceive its entire shape at the corner of your vision. The notes list on Basenotes alone contains twenty separate notes, two thirds of which I still cannot pick up. It doesn’t matter. I slip into Chypre Palatin with a shiver of unadulterated pleasure every time, just as easily as my unthinking brain once slid into Henry James.
Chypres are not an easy read, normally. Something about them pinches me, reminding me to switch the analysis part of my brain on and the ‘feeling’ part off. They are more comfortable for me now, as I get older, but the bristling bergamot and the bitter backbone of mosses have always called to mind that scene in Titanic where Rose sees a mother is tapping her six-year old daughter on the spine to get her to straighten up. I admire the formality of chypres, and their immensely ordered, complex structure, but sometimes I find it difficult to breathe easily within their confines.
But Chypre Palatin is one of those strange hybrids between chypre and oriental that manage to combine the formality of the former with the comfortable sensuality of the latter. Chypre Palatin belongs, therefore, to a special group of perfumes that includes Puredistance M, Jubilation 25, Une Rose Chyprée, and even Guerlain’s masterpiece, Vol de Nuit. What these perfumes have in common is a chypre-like dressing of moss and bergamot, and maybe some other green, bitter, or herbal accents, over a base that feels pleasantly resinous, creamy, or vanillic (as is the case with Chypre Palatin), so a fragrance that starts its journey in an upright position can end it in a supine position on a soft divan. These chypre-oriental hybrids are built to scale, bristling with ambition, and with big enough feet to comfortably straddle several genres at once – chypre, oriental, leather, animalics, and so on. They are not so much unisex as they are omni-sex.
Chypre Palatin, for example, has a brief bergamot beginning, like a blush of first light over the horizon at dawn, and a heart of authentic oakmoss that goes on forever, but these accents are married to a lush vanilla and a warmly animalic castoreum in the base, ensuring that the whole thing feels comfortably sensual. It is distinctly masculine in feel, but the vanilla and castoreum in the base give it a rounded, luxurious feel that won’t feel out of place on a woman’s skin.
Chypre Palatin strikes me as a modern-day Vol de Nuit, in a way. Not in terms of scent, but in the way they are both lush, baroque-scaled perfumes pointing to a more romantic past than the time in which they were created. And despite their ambition, they both feel perfectly intimate – suitable for quiet, homebound pleasures. Chypre Palatin might be the Golden Bowl of its genre, but I enjoy it in that simple, instinctive way I used to enjoy Henry James before the thinking part of my brain was switched on. Just don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is a difficult or complex thing.
I have been within sniffing distance of the interior of a luxury car only twice in my life. The first was when a former colleague of my father’s, a rather sleazy guy called Alberto, would come and collect me from my job in Bergamo on a Friday night and whizz me down to Milan for the weekend in his Bugatti. Nothing terribly inappropriate happened in that car, but there was always the suggestion that something might. The second was a couple of years ago, in Rome, when a lovely salesman saw my son and me looking in the window of a Ferrari-Maserati showroom and invited us in so that my son could sit inside one. I am not into luxury anything, but the scent of inside a luxury car is intoxicating in a weirdly emotive way. You know instinctively that what you are smelling is privilege and, by corollary, exclusion, but the power you sense throbbing beneath the leather and the wood – even when the car is off – is enough to flood you with a weird sense of elation. Arousal, even.
Black by Puredistance smells like the pure, cushioned air of privilege. Though from the technical sense, it has much in common with other cardamom-saffron-leather orientals like Idole (Lubin), Black Cashmere (Donna Karan) and, more recently, the glorious Shaghaf by Anfas, the extreme refinement of Black makes them feel like they just stumbled in from the bog, muck caked on their clodhopper boots.
Black is so smooth you could almost call it boring. It is just a silky cardamom custard filtered through the air filtering system of a Maserati with creamy chamois seats and polished wood panels, with no real points of interest or anything whistling for your attention. normally lusty resins and spices have been triple-strained through a cheesecloth, appearing as smudged brushstrokes in the overall impressionistic swirl. Even the oud note is quiet, a faded sour-suedey tannin accent shading out the leather a little. As with anything Puredistance, Black is ostentatiously-priced, but then so is a Maserati. I may never get within sniffing distance of either ever again, but the memories are for free and remain lodged safely in the memory palace I have constructed in my brain (thanks for the tip, Hannibal).
Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh) – Multi-Dimensional Gold
Saqr II is a mukhallat composed in honor of nature in all its brutal beauty. It focuses on ambergris (long golden beaches), oud (green forests), Ta’ifi rose (flowers in inhospitable terrain), and Himalayan musk (animal fur). Saqr II provides the wearer with a truly kaleidoscopic experience – the florals, exotic woods, and musk all rushing out at you in a giddy vortex of scent – but maintains a rigorous clarity rarely experienced in such complex blends. The wearer can smell every component of the blend, both individually and as part of the rich, multi-layered fabric of the perfume.
The play of light on dark is particularly well executed. The tart, green spice of the Ta’ifi rose lifts the perfume, while salty-sweet ambergris lends a sparkle. These brighter elements prevent the darker oud and musk from becoming too heavy. The bright rose burns away, leaving a trail of leathery, spicy oud wood that is addictive, drawing one’s nose repeatedly to the skin. The oud here is smooth and supple, with nary a trace of sourness or animal stink. The musk, perceptible more as a texture than a scent, blurs the edges of the oud and rose notes into furred roundness that gradually softens the scent’s austerity.
The slight out-of-focus feel to this blend makes it far more approachable for beginners than many others in the Al Shareef Oudh stable. However, none of the materials have been dumbed down for a Western audience. The blend smells classic in a certain rose-oud way, but it is not clichéd. Its balance of dark and bright elements, sweet and non-sweet, dirty-musky and clean, is what makes this a masterful example of its genre.
Saqr II is complex, beautiful, restful, and above all, easy to wear. I particularly love the fuzzy golden timbre of the ambergris in this scent, which lends it a tannic apricot skin edge. It is my personal favorite of all the Al Shareef Oudh mukhallats and the one I would recommend to beginners as a great primer for the brand’s overall approach and aesthetic. Beyond that, however, it is one of the best perfumes I have had the pleasure of smelling.
Gold Woman is the souped up, Russian gilt, bells-and-whistles version of Madame Rochas, which basically means that it is an amalgamation of all those perfumes that we tend to instinctively classify as stuffy, perfumey, French and ladylike – you know, perfumes like No. 5 (Chanel), Calèche (Hermès), and Climat (Lancôme). I’d throw 24, Faubourg (Hermès) into the mix there too.
I could try to describe the common thread here – the fatty, fizzy aldehydes that strafe the expensive, Grasse-sourced florals like a steel wire brush, sending them spinning up and out like a ballerina’s tulle mid-pirouette, the silky musks, the powdered rush of floral bouquets – but with something this abstract, I’d only be embarrassing myself.
Because, honestly, let’s get real – much of what we say we smell in fragrances this big is probably just a figment of our imagination, suggested to us by reviews or ad copy. Perfumes this abstract, this overly-blended, this fuzzy-with-kinetic-aldehydes can never give anyone a clear idea of any one material, be it a lush rose or the hay-like greenness of narcissus. Most of us are not in possession of a nose sophisticated enough to pick up on every nuance or note in something like Gold Woman. If you think that it smells expensive (it does) or like what a rich woman might wear (it does), then the perfumer has gotten his point across. I’d argue – strenuously, if you ever met me in person – that what you are smelling in Gold Woman is pretty much the scent of a luxuriously creamy bar of white soap, and specifically the kind that nobody buys for themselves and is far too good to use.
My mother was gifted a L’Air du Temps bath soap when I was little, and that soap remained perched on the edge of the family bath, in its delicate seashell-shaped clasp, for all of our childhood, as if silently daring us to touch it. Which we never did, of course, because the hairs on the back of my mother’s neck were psychically connected to this soap, standing on end and raising the alarm if one of us even so much as breathed in its general direction. I would only dare huff it quickly and furtively, panic-dropping it back in its seashell every time the landing floor squeaked (our Famine-era house was about as suited to privacy as it was to central heating, which is to say not very). Anyway, I remember distinctly the first time I smelled Amouage Gold Woman. It was January 2012 in one of the larger Campo Marzio 70 stores in Rome, and I had just started to read blogs, so I recognized the name and the look of the bottle. I picked up the gold bottle with trembling hands, scarcely believing that the salespeople would just let me pick up something so precious and sprayed a bit on my wrist. Well, if it wasn’t that fucking L’Air de Temps soap. Hello again, how nice to see you.
None of which explains, of course, how I now own two bottles of Gold Woman. I guess my defense is really a theory, namely that if cityscapes shape the style of those that live in them, then Rome, with its status as the erstwhile center of the Western world, expects of her citizens a similarly-outsized sense of braggadocio. While I still don’t really like Gold Woman all that much, I find it has the big dick energy that a place like Rome demands. Every time I wear it, I feel like Juno emerging angrily from her bath, left breast magnificently exposed, pumped to give the first man she encounters a heart attack or a hard-on (we are never sure which).
Or du Sérail (Naomi Goodsir) – Fool’s Gold
Or du Sérail has a beautiful, honeyed tobacco leaf at its core. But unfortunately, it gets drowned in a fruity, sticky mess of mango, rum, coconut, and ylang, giving somewhat of an impression of a day-old tropical fruit cocktail left out in the sun to develop a ‘bloom’. It is also unbearably sweet. Ambre Narguilé does the fruit-cake-and-honey tobacco thing so much better that I wonder why anybody felt this was necessary. And to be honest, if I wanted a complex, syrupy tobacco fragrance then Histoires de Parfums’ masterpiece 1740 satisfies me on all levels.
To sum it up, Or du Sérail is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind of scent where everything is thrown at tobacco in the hope that something sticks. Don’t get me wrong – it is technically ‘yummy’ in that round, sweet, bland way of another of Duchaufour’s misses, Havana Vanille. But as in Havana Vanille, Or du Sérail contains unpleasantly sour, discordant off-notes like mold on a piece of bread, or rot beginning to set in on a piece of fruit. Or du Sérail makes a lunge for that fine line between edible and inedible and misses the mark completely.
Aurum D’Angkhor is special. Every time I wear it, I marvel anew at its depth, complexity, and beauty. It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkhor in the basenotes, a fruity Cambodi oud oil with cozy wood nuances. But the ‘Aurum’ in Sultan Pasha’s remix means ‘Golden’ and indeed, that is precisely the color that comes across in this blend. Aurum is a love poem to the golden dust of saffron, polished oak floors, smoke, honey, and henna, a shady haze backed by a velvety floral richness.
The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes, it has a dark barnyard character that some might find startling. This accord is not, to my nose, unpleasantly animalic. It never approaches, for example, the sour, bilious honk of a raw Hindi oud. However, there is definitely something there that recalls the aroma of cow slurry, a smell so hotly liquid that it seems to ooze across the room like ripe Brie. One’s reaction to this type of aroma depends on one’s level of exposure to farmyard smells during childhood. I grew up around cows and now live next door to a dairy farm, so for me, the smell of cow shit is literally part of the air I breathe. In other words, I’m fine with it. You very well may not be.
The cow pat note dissipates quickly, however, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, threaded with drifts of faintly indolic jasmine. Saffron plays a pivotal role, called upon to bring out all its strange facets at once – the leather, the exotic dust, the sweetness, the faintly floral mouth-feel, fiery red spice, and a certain medicinal, iodine-like twang. The oud and the saffron create a deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty plum skin. In short, Aurum showcases the depth of real oud, but past the fecal twang of the opening, none of its more challenging aspects.
The smoke in Aurum is chimerical, sometimes manifesting as little more than a faint tingle of far-off woodsmoke akin to a needle prick’s worth of birch tar or cade oil, and sometimes appearing as full-on smoke from a censer full of resins. The smoke component is similar to that of Balsamo della Mecca (La Via de Profumo), which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent dusted with the clovey, balsamic bitterness of Siam benzoin and frankincense. Backing the smoke is always a layer of dusty, medicinal henna powder and the golden sheen of honey-glazed woods. Nothing, therefore, feels out of balance, not even when the smoke is rolling in.
Aurum dries down to a dark, treacly resin that smells predominantly nutty, but also kind of gritty, like coffee grounds sprinkled with sugar – probably a side effect of benzoin mixing with the cedar and ambrette musk. There is a moment in the drydown that reminds me of the sawdusty, granular sweetness of wood pulp and suede that is the primary feature of Tuscan Leather-style fragrances. Many soft leather scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather itself, Oud Saphir (Atelier Cologne), and Tajibni (Al Haramain), use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar to create a musky, resinous suede effect, and that might be what’s happening here in Aurum. However, Aurum is far more complex than these soli-suedes, deploying as it does a layer of resins, oud, and henna to jostle and thicken the sueded musk.
Or des Indes (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) – Bait-and-Switch Gold
Out of all the perfumes reputed to smell like Shalimar, Or des Indes smells most like Mitsouko. I bought a bottle in Madrid airport on my way back from Cali, shaken after having been strip-searched by Columbian customs agents (pasty Irish chicks apparently being well known for enthusiastically promoting certain Colombian exports via that particular route), and when I got home, I showered and applied this liberally, then lay naked on the bed waiting to a) stop sweating, and b) feel the cloud of golden, resinous Shalimar-esque loveliness rise up and envelop my senses, soothing my furrowed brow, etc., etc.
Well, to say I felt cheated out of my happy ending is an understatement. Or des Indes is not the golden, shimmering warm bath of resins I had been led to expect. Rather, thanks to a doughy ‘peach skin’ suede element that is far more root (orris) than resin, Or des Indes is dove grey – delicately bitter, fudgy, and ‘old smelling’, like old wooden furniture dusted off and waxed with saddle soap. Thanks to a recent love affair with Imperial Opoponax (Les Nereides), I have come to identify this doughy, rooty (almost waxy-fudgy) nuance as characteristic of opoponax resin. But because of its herbal, slightly bitter ‘almond’ core, I have stopped perceiving opoponax as a purely golden affair – in truth, it smells more lavender-grey than golden for about two-thirds of its development.
While Imperial Opoponax shakes off this dove grey pallor pretty quickly before sliding into that much-awaited, much-longed-for bath of sultry, balmy, red-gold resinousness that is the final third of opoponax resin, Or des Indes remains firmly attached to its grey, bitter-doughy suede heart for much of the ride. (There is a phantom fruit note bouncing in and out that, combined with the fine cuir accord, contributes much to the Mitsouko impression). To be fair, Or des Indes does eventually loosen up into something that might legitimately be called warm or golden, before completely dying an ignoble death at the four hour mark.
Yep, four hours. That’s all you get, folks. Now, I am no longevidee bore, but paying Maître Parfumeur et Gantier prices for the performance of a Roger et Gallet body spray is deeply unacceptable, and that’s even before you consider that, with Or des Indes, you are basically wearing a half-assed version of Mitsouko or the first 40% of Imperial Opoponax, both scents that cost roughly half of this.
Don’t get me wrong – I do quite like Or des Indes. It’s just that when you are expecting gold and get dove grey, it feels like trying to recover your gait after you’ve missed a step on the stairs. You eventually right yourself but for one horribly unsettling moment, the whole world feels off kilter.
Black Gold (Ormonde Jayne) – Gentlemanly Gold
Black Gold is every bit as stunning as its gold-plated billing makes it out to be. Perfectly in line with the Ormonde Jayne house style, it seems to be made up of hundreds of different layers of tulle and yet has the tensile density of velvet. The opening feels familiar, yet turbo-charged with something electric. The sherbet-like fizz of mandarin, lemon, and mandarin is intoxicating, and the touches of clary sage and juniper berry familiar to anyone who loves Tolu. Immediately after this somewhat characteristic Ormonde Jayne opening, the true character of the scent reveals itself as a confident duet between a particularly arid, aromatic sandalwood (one can almost visualize the reddish dust of felled heartwood in Mysore) and a hot, dusty carnation – the two accords whipping each other into a vortex of scent.
Texture is key here. Black Gold feels fuzzy and misty, like the fine-grained fizz on a glass of sparkling rosé. The quality of the sandalwood is superb, displaying as it does the peculiar character split between dry and milky of real santalum album. Although there are no piney terpenes here, the hallmark of inferior santalum spicatum from Australia, the sandalwood used in this fragrance is not at all sweet or unctuously creamy. In fact, coupled with the herbs and the spicy carnation, the woodiness strikes me as gentlemanly, similar in tone to the sandalwood in Santal Noble (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier). Later on, these same woods appear rubbed down by nuggets of creamy amber resin, their toffee-like sweetness filling out the air pockets in the wood and giving the scent a deep, velvety warmth.
However, there is also a very dry, peppery oud note in the drydown, which brings the fragrance closer in feel to Ormonde Man than some might be expecting. The oud adds a brush of something metallic and not entirely natural-smelling. The note is not exactly animalic, but a little dark and salty, tending towards carnal. This could be a touch of Ambroxan or real ambergris, or, of course, it could also simply be the listed oud coupled with the vegetal musk of ambrette. Either way, the ending is as shimmering and as translucent as the rest of the scent; it floats off the skin like cloud, never heavy or sullen.
Worth the price? Yes – with the proviso that you already have the money and won’t be skipping any meals or utility bills to buy it. There are plenty of haute luxe perfumes around at this price level anyway, but an Ormonde Jayne is consistently a trusty government bond compared to the equities market in one of the BRIC countries and is therefore a particularly safe investment. (I am just as puzzled as you as to why I’m talking about this like an investment banker).
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal) – Antique Gold
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq is a masterpiece of mukhallat perfumery. With a long name that translates to (roughly) ‘Aged Oud Blend’, it earns a place in any list of top ten or even top five mukhallats in the world. Essentially an essay on the beauty of aged Hindi oud, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq wanders through the umami flavorways of noble oud oil, touching upon sweet, sour, salty, woody, and even herbal facets as it passes through.
It may at first appear pungent or animalic to the uninitiated, but once the leathery spices rise through the initial wall of funk, you will find it difficult to tear your nose away. Sweet red roses, musk, and greenish herbs – perhaps a touch of vetiver – provide an excellent showcase for the aged oud, grounding and buttressing it with layers of complexity, body, and richness.
The other notes, while extremely rich and high quality, do not distract from the star of the show, namely that beautiful, aged Hindi oud. The oud slowly softens and melts like a pool of warm honey, pumping out wave after wave of spiced, syrupy goodness throughout the day. This intoxicating concerto of aromas is top of its class at representing the unique pleasures of oil perfumery.
In the far drydown, natural ambergris lends the scent a golden glow, as well as a hint of coniferous bitterness that recalls the aroma of raw fir balsam. Think of sea breezes blowing a forest of pine trees sideways, the salty freshness of the sea air mixing with the resinous greenery of the trees and the golden sweetness of tree sap. The ambergris amplifies the beauty of the aged oud and the brilliance of its rich Turkish rose. Beautiful, pure, and incredibly rewarding to wear, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq goes straight into the pantheon of must-haves for any serious mukhallat lover.
Kalemat is not wildly original (it smells a little like an upmarket version of 24 Gold by Scentstory, or Raghba by Lattafa Perfumes) but it is one of those rare instances when you put it on and you just know that it smells damn good, and that you smell damn good, and that other people (all of the other people, believe me) will think you smell damn good too. It reminds me that things don’t have to be wildly expensive or original to give you pleasure.
In fact, every time I wear Kalemat, I think of what Agent Dale Cooper tells Harry in Twin Peaks, namely – ‘Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.’ Kalemat is a just damn fine coffee.
It is difficult to describe Kalemat without making it seem simple or boring. It opens with a brief berry note, before sliding into a golden, honeyed amber riff that swirls around you like a delicious second skin for a whole twelve hours. There is a hint of gently smoked oud that stops the whole thing from diving off a cliff into gourmand territory. It is not real oud, of course – not at this price point. But for once, the synthetic oud or cashmeran or whatever they are using here for that smoky oud note is not obnoxious or dominant. Instead, it adds a pleasurably smoky but unobtrusive buzz to the backbone of the fragrance. It is there simply to support the spiced, honeyed amber, not to shout all over it.
Kalemat wears in a similar way to perfumes like Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114, Dior Privée Ambre Nuit, and Amouage’s Fate Woman – not in terms of scent per se, but in the way each of these particular fragrances seem to hover around your skin like a haze of fuzzy, warm, golden light, and radiate outwards, like Golden Hour light pouring into a dingy room. And really, the base appeal of Kalemat lies in its sillage. I like the Muslim idea of using perfume to scent not only yourself but also the air around you, as a gift for others. Kalemat spills out over your skin and into the air around you, leaving a trail of honeyed, gently-spiced amber and woods for others to enjoy. I have had women in the supermarket stop me to ask what I’m wearing. Dogs follow me. Little children ignore my stupidly asymmetrical face and smile at me. Kalemat is a gift you give to yourself, yes, but also to others.
Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch) – Gold Bud
Composed by Christi Meshell for her House of Matriarch line of perfumes, Black No. 1 (formerly known as Blackbird) is made up of over 300 different notes and materials, 93% of which are all-natural. This is incredibly complex, even crowded perfume – but somehow it still manages to achieve the effect of a smooth, even flow of notes, like water across a silk panel.
The opening salvo is a rush of mellow leather, dark woods, and green resins. Even though it is very dark in flavor, everything feels round and smooth, with no jagged edges anywhere. There is what I can only describe as a delicious ‘roasted’ effect here that smells quite like a lump of unsmoked hashish resin, i.e., sweetish, tarry, sticky – like summer grass trampled underfoot.
But make no mistake – this is no stoner’s joke, no hippy-dippy afternoon delight. Whereas the similarly cannabis-focused Coze (Parfumerie Generale) uses its weed note to conjure up a happy, outdoorsy vibe of buff lumberjacks lighting up a joint, here the note is used in a supporting role to add a sweet, herbal grassiness to the other woody and aromatic notes. The scent manages to evoke strong visual images in my head, spinning visions of dark forests of firs and pines beside windswept beaches. The feeling is of solitude, a glorying in the fierceness of nature at its wildest. There is a genius note of sea salt weaving in and out of the perfume at this point, serving to pierce the density of the dark notes like a sudden shaft of moonlight through the forest. For such a dense perfume, it feels incredibly ozonic.
The gentle, rounded oud accord in the opening notes becomes ever stronger as the scent develops, picking up more of a rubbery, medicinal character. This adds a surprisingly pleasant wash of something antiseptic to the complex roasted flavors of the woods and resins. In some ways, the roasted, dark woods and oud note reminded me slightly of both Montecristo (by Masque Fragranze Milano) and of Hard Leather (by LM Parfums) but nowhere near as challenging. Both Montecristo and Hard Leather play up their tough notes like oud, leather, and styrax to such a degree that they simply overpower everything else – but all the potentially harsh notes in Blackbird seem to have been folded into softer, sweeter accords, like the amber and musks in the base, thus sanding down any hard edges they might have had.
The progression here is incredible for a perfume with such a high degree of natural ingredients. There is a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The whole thing is just so coherent and beautifully put together. The sticky, tarry notes from the top eventually loosen up and spread out. The sweetness of the pot resins intensifies too, mixing with the dark leather to create an effect that is intoxicating. And the dry down – oh my God, that dry down! It is a mix of amber, musk, and that dark, supple leather note that feels at once sensual and comfortable. It reminds me of the animalic but cozy feel of L’Ombre Fauve by Parfumerie Generale and the deep coziness of the latter stages of Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens, the part where all passion is spent and now all is the sugar and cream smell of two bodies cooling on the bear hide. Though eye-wateringly expensive and difficult to obtain, Black No. 1 is one of the first perfumes I’d buy in vats if I won the lottery.
Source of Samples: All reviews are based on samples, decants, or bottles of perfume I have purchased myself, with the exception of the sample of Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh), which was kindly gifted to me by the brand, and the sample of Puredistance Black, which was kindly sent to me by the brand in 2016 for half the cost of the regular sample set (I paid the other half, by agreement with the brand manager). I own half a tester bottle of the new Oudh Osmanthus, in lieu of payment by a former client of mine, but bought a decant of the original formulation myself. As always, I do not do paid reviews and do not accept samples in exchange for a positive review. My opinions are my own. This blog is not monetized, and I do not earn any income from my perfume writing.
Each of the gifts of the three Magi carried a special symbolic meaning – gold representing kingship, myrrh foreshadowing the death of Jesus (myrrh being commonly used as an embalming and purifying ointment in the final sendoff of a soul), and finally, frankincense for divinity. In other words, if gold represents earthy wealth and influence, and myrrh represents the suffering associated with death, then frankincense is the most spiritually elevating of all resins – and arguably the most important – as it turns the gaze upwards, towards God.
a more prosaic level, some believe that frankincense might have been brought
along because of its medicinal qualities. In 2011, due to longstanding cultural
links between Wales and Somalia (who knew?), researchers at Cardiff University decided
to investigate whether there was any medical evidence to support the ancient
Somali tradition of using frankincense extract as a traditional herbal remedy
for the aches and pains associated with arthritis. And indeed, the scientists
were able to demonstrate
that treatment with an extract of Boswellia frereana (one of the rarer
frankincense species) inhibits the production of key inflammatory molecules, effectively
slowing down the disintegration of the cartilage tissue which causes the
So, maybe the three wise men were actually…..wise? (Though, rolling up to the bedside of a woman who had just given birth in a stable without so much as a pack of Paracetamol, nappies, and a stack of gossip magazines would seem to contradict that.)
In fact, most resins used in attar and commercial perfumery have long been as prized for their cleansing or purifying properties as for their spiritual or ritualistic ones. Arabs chew frankincense tears as chewing gum to freshen the breath and aid digestion, for example, while Papiers d’Arménie owe their existence to a Frenchman by the name of Auguste Ponsot, who, after stumbling across benzoin resin during his travels in Armenia in 1885, decided to make benzoin-infused strips of paper to cleanse the air in stuffy rooms all across Paris. Both Arabs and Persians have long traditions of burning incense to fumigate their rooms, clothes, places of worship, and hair. The word perfume itself comes from the Latin per fumus, which means ‘through the smoke’, making it more than likely that the first rudimentary form of perfume was, in fact, the fumigation of a dwelling with incense. So put that on your burner and smoke it!
Frankincense, for many people, lies at the very tippety-top of the incense chain – the thoroughbred of the resin family. Deriving from the old French word franc encens – meaning ‘high quality incense’ – frankincense is a gum produced by the Boswellia genus of trees which grows in Somalia, Sudan, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. The bulk of frankincense, called luban or loban in Arabic, comes from Somalia. However, the finest quality of frankincense is called Hojari (alternatively referred to as howjary) or silver frankincense, and this comes from the arid Dhofar region of Oman in the United Arab Emirates.
steam-distilled oil of frankincense resin gives attars and perfumes a fresh,
coniferous resinousness, with a bright lemon-and-lime topnote. Some grades of
Omani frankincense smell like oranges or tangerines in their topnotes, with a
soft-ish, creamy quality in the lower register. The house of Amouage, based in
Oman, was founded around the use of local Hojari frankincense, and indeed, most
of this house’s output showcases the silvery beauty of Omani frankincense.
an interview with me for Basenotes
in March 2018, Trygve Harris, a frankincense distiller in Oman, talked
about the different aromas associated with the different types of frankincense.
“Somali has a lemony note, and a warm dryness, an austerity. It makes me
thirsty — it smells vast and dry. It reminds me of Palm Springs when I was a
kid. The Omani has a richness, an opulence, like a treasure box. Regarding the
differences in the Omani frankincense oils, I like to say the white (howjary)
has more a green, herbal, butterfly note while the black has an orange floral
is the note that many people, including me, tend to lump in with the larger
category represented by the word incense. Technically, incense is any
hard-ish material – be it a wood (sandalwood, oud wood) or a resin or gum (like
myrrh, benzoin, copal, frankincense) – that can be slowly burned or smoked on a
coal to produce a purifying but fragrant smoke. Fragrances classified as
incense fragrances typically feature some ratio of frankincense to other
resins, balsams, and gums (most typically myrrh, but also benzoin, labdanum,
etc.), so many of the frankincense-themed fragrances on the list below are
actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something
Now, for someone’s who just written an 8,000-word essay on it, I feel compelled to tell you that I am deeply ambivalent about frankincense. For anyone who was born Catholic – or worse, Irish Catholic – the scent of frankincense is less an actual aroma than it is an emotional trigger, dredging up all the complex, long-buried feelings about an entire culture that revolves around the Roman Catholic Church. Or, as we refer to it in the hood, the RCC. All incense matters to us, but frankincense matters the most. It alone is the Proustian gun that fires straight into the Catholic hippocampus.
when it came to exploring the different categories of fragrance, it is perhaps
not surprising that I set off merrily down along the High Mass path, blundering
under the assumption that incense would be the bread and butter of my
collection. I had, after all, spent most of my childhood downwind of a censer.
But it turns out that – shocker – I much prefer a vision of High Mass filtered
through a romantic, hazy vision of half-remembered holiness over anything too
authentic. It is more than I am an incense lightweight than a lapsed Catholic,
although I am certainly also the latter.
Ironically, in the Before Times, despite me being a terrible excuse for a Catholic, I was living in Rome, in an apartment so close to St. Peter’s Basilica that my kitchen window could be spotted every time the camera panned out in The Young Pope. I am tempted to trot out a tired line about being able to throw a stick and hit the Pope, only in the case of Papa Francis, I think we’ve established that he is pretty cool with anything as long as you don’t try to grab his hand.
Anyway, this enormous building and its Holiest of inhabitants set the pace for much of my life in Rome. I used the gleaming, opalescent curves of its imposing colonnade to guide me through the darkness of pre-dawn runs. I crossed the square (more of a circle) most weekend days, ducking and weaving my way through the tight knots of tourists, street hawkers, and selfie sticks in a mindless, amoeba-like daze. You can’t buy an espresso or a gelato in this neighborhood without elbowing your way past a priest, nun, or monk.
But you can get used to anything, and when you live right next to something like St. Peter’s Basilica, you get used to that too. It just becomes part of your day-to-day life. Mostly, I orbited St. Peter’s in a friendly, non-Catholic way and felt it to exist as an almost secular building in my line of vision, sometimes obstructing where I needed to go, other times making me pause to marvel at its sheer size or the way it glowed like a rose gold beacon in the evening.
But every now and then, there would be a religious procession, either from a local parish or a visiting church from Latin America, and I would smell the incense pouring off the censer again, and I walk straight into it, seeking it out the way your finger finds an old scar to worry at. I like to think that I am alert to the dangers of being pulled back in by the ancient Catholic drugs of knee-trembling beauty, architectural grandeur, and the straight-to-the-heart punch of frankincense. It is pure mind-fuckery. But sometimes, I just can’t help myself.
enough of my pontiff-icating (I’m here all night, folks) – here are a
few frankincense-dominated compositions to chew over.
Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense
have owned bottles, decants, and samples of the some of the biggest players in
the High Mass corner of the incense genre, and my personal favorite is Cardinal
(Heeley). Compared to Avignon (Comme des Garcons) and Full Incense
(Montale) – the two other High Mass scents with which Cardinal is most often
grouped – Cardinal smells like incense from the priest’s censer wafting at you through
shafts of sunshine, fresh air, and white sheets fluttering on a brisk breeze.
it is very dry, it is not tremendously dark or smoky, and therefore, not
forbidding. The aldehydes lift the spirits as well as the scent itself, and the
papery-sweet benzoin makes me think of vellum sheet music soaked in vanilla,
strung out over a line to dry. I appreciate the elegantly-slanted, sideways
approach to church incense that Cardinal employs because it gives me the vague
whiff of spirituality without dragging me back to Mass.
(Robert Piguet) – Spicy
incense field is so crowded by giants (Cardinal, Avignon, LAVS) that it is
difficult to carve out a spot. Casbah manages – just about – by clothing the
hollow, Coca-Cola-ish effervescence of Avignon in a peppery fog akin to dry
ice. It is much richer than Cardinal and much drier than the fizzy soda-soap
that is Montale’s Full Incense.
down into the details, Casbah also has a curiously antiseptic thread running
through it, but a subtle one – more the rubbery squeak of a hospital gurney
against a freshly-sluiced floor rather than full-out disinfectant. This is not
due to any ghost ‘oud’ note, but to an organic fudge of angelica and nutmeg. I
like its medieval darkness and grunginess because it makes no apologies for
being the curmudgeon of the pack. In fact,
Casbah reads more like one of Santa Maria Novella’s older, less photo-ready
concoctions than a Piguet.
Armani PrivéBois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense
minimalistic, airy, and remarkably boring concoction of frankincense over a
polished cedar or Iso E Super base. Despite critics and bloggers writing a paeon
of praise to this bellwether of bellwethers of the incense genre, I was never
able to ‘get’ its supposed complexity. To my nose, it is a micro explosion of
black pepper and frankincense e/o inside a very small (but perfectly chic)
black vase. Though perfectly formed – well, everyone keeps saying it is anyway –
it is too featureless to leave much of an impression on me.
Czech & Speake Frankincense and Myrrh – Honest Frankincense
straight-forward blend of frankincense and myrrh that unites the dusty, waxen
‘old wooden furniture’ mien of myrrh to the lemony-piney detergent freshness of
frankincense, and pretty much calls it a day. It smells unimpeachably natural
and clean, more like an eau de cologne with a resinous backdrop than the
smokier, heavier takes on incense that modern niche specializes in. It smells
like a church floor rigorously cleansed after Mass with buckets full of hot
water (there is a hissy steam or mineral note), lemon-scented detergent, and
bunches of minty, rooty herbs like lavender and clary sage stirred in for good
drydown is much better than the opening; the strident lemon high notes of the
frankincense drop off, allowing the fragrance to swan elegantly into a
protracted finish of clean, unsmoked resin and wooden bannisters polished to a
high shine. Absolutely no smoke, no sugar, no Eastern mysticism, no Catholic
High Mass. Czech & Speake’s Frankincense and Myrrh strips the two headliner
resins back to their core, demonstrating that you don’t have to bathe resins in
orientalia for them to smell good.
Mad et Len Noir Encens – Amaretto Frankincense
Encens is not noir or, indeed, particularly encens. Rather, it is
a cozy gourmand in the hazelnut-amaretto-over-iced-milk vein of Hypnotic
Poison, only much less loud. It manages that very chic, very French balance of
edible and semi-poisonous notes. Its milky, anisic softness in the drydown
reminds me somewhat of Gucci Eau de Parfum, the one with the brown juice in the
clear glass bottle.
Paul Schütze Behind the Rain – Wild Frankincense
the Rain is one of those wild, freeform bag of ‘smells’ that the perfumer seems
to have corralled in from his atmosphere – a liquid message from his world to
ours, a bundling up of the collected smells of the woodshop and the painter’s
studio. It is green-brown, vegetal, sharp, and more than slightly weird. But it
is also deeply invigorating. Something in it electrifies me.
the Rain is nominally a modern incense perfume à la Comme des Garcons. Yet from
within the sleek lines of its minimalist architecture emanates the smells of
Olde World Europe – oil lamps, liniment, centuries-old wood, glue bindings,
turpentine, anise-scented toothpaste, and horsehair brushes idling in glasses
of solvent. A dusty frankincense turns the polished wood and oily aromas of the
workshop into a (homey) place of worship.
might be an indoor scent entirely were it not for the wet rootiness of fennel,
mastic, vetiver, and all manner of violently-uprooted vegetation sweeping gusts
of air into closed rooms with their strange prairie outdoorsiness. The scent
has one foot inside, one foot outside, ready to bolt in a Heathcliffian huff.
Behind the Rain is imagined along the same lines as Marescialla by Santa Maria
Novella and Olibanum by Profumum –more a summoning of the elements than a scent.
Thank God perfumes like this still exist.
is the third point on the triangulation of what I like to call the ‘powdered
sugar incense’ category, between the rose champagne fizz of Maria Candida
Gentile’s Sideris and the doughnutty yumminess of Reve d’Ossian (Oriza L.
Legrand). I am drawn to the gently edible edge to these incense perfumes,
because they calm the naturally sharp angles of frankincense by filtering it
through the haze of powdered sugar that rises off a sweet bun when you bite
is thickly dusted with the double powder whammy of iris and benzoin in its
topnotes and made slightly sherbety with the addition of rose or lemon. As
others before me have pointed out, this combination of iris and incense is
reminiscent of the Tauerade present in both Incense Rosé and Les Années 25
(Tauer), although far less powerful or astringent – Rosarium is softly, sweetly
bready, rather than battery acid radiant.
what really makes Rosarium special is the carrot seed accent, which gives the
powdery incense sweetness an unusually earthy-rooty depth. This smells like
metal slicing through upturned earth, but also like a warm, mealy pulp made of
sawdust and rainwater. The carrot seed effect makes my mouth water, although
technically there is nothing edible about it. I notice that the carrot seed
present in Santal Blush (Tom Ford) has a similar effect, except for the
addition of cumin, which makes it even wheatier.
combination of sweet incense dust, milk-soaked Easter bread, and metallic earth
or hazelnuts in Rosarium is pretty wonderful, and if my ‘powdered sugar
incense’ needs weren’t already being met by the brighter, more natural-smelling
Sideris, I would seriously think about putting it on my putative ‘To Buy’ list
(whereupon it would likely languish for years).
Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense
It sounds explosive, which is strange, because it smells explosive too,
especially when it tumbles out in that first, aldehyded rush of sugared pine
needles, frankincense, and cinnamon-dipped red fruits. The pine ‘flavor’ in Wazamba
is the connecting dot (for me) between the coniferous notes and the naturally
piney facet of frankincense. As with its close relative, Filles en Anguilles by
Serge Lutens, the pine notes read as something sunlit and Mediterranean, rather
than snowy and Northern, a feeling cleverly underlined by a tangy cypress note.
Wazamba, the umbrella pines are bent sideways by a Bora or a Sirocco, the soil
beneath them is springy with orange-brown pine needles, and everything is warm,
dry, and aromatic. It is an extremely fruity scent, if you stand back and look
at it from a distance – dried plum and cranberries, I think, more than apple.
But up close, the piney-coniferous freshness of the woods proves an effective
bridle, slowing the roll of the fruit and sobering it up. There is also quite a
lot of clove or cinnamon, which manifests as a dustiness or chalkiness of
texture in the gradient of the wood rather than as a hotly-spiced standalone accent.
I think Wazamba proves that, in the right hands, heavy-duty stuff like plum or myrrh
and frankincense can be manipulated to take up the shape of light filtering
through sea-leaning pine trees. Nice (but non-essential).
Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense
the past ten years or so, as supplies of it dwindled and the secondary market
dried up, Norma Kamali Incense has attained legendary status approaching that
of the 1804 Bust Dollar for coin collectors or the Pikachu Illustrator Card for
Pokémon fans. Only the original Djedi (Guerlain), Iris Gris (Jacques Fath), and
Chypre (Coty) top it for rarity and collector value, though modern tastes
probably lean more towards the Norma Kamali. But how much of the appreciation
for Norma Kamali Incense is due to its unavailability and how much to its
intrinsic qualities as a scent?
bought and sold a 10ml decant of the later edition and tested two sample vials
of it – one a cognac brown from (presumably) the early edition and the other a
yellowy gold (later edition) – I suspect that it is the former. Norma Kamali is
striking, but perhaps not as unique as people assume. I smell echoes of it in Amber
Absolute and Sahara Noir (both Tom Ford), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio),
the original Messe de Minuit (Etro), Calling All Angels (April Aromatics), DEV#4
(Olympic Orchids), and 03. Apr. 1968 (Rundholz).
connects all of these to Norma Kamali Incense is the bittersweet, smoky quality
of the labdanum material used, maybe due to a touch of Hydrocarboresine, a
Biolandes-owned natural derivative of cistus-labdanum, which lends perfumes a
rich ‘High Mass’ incense effect that lurches between the bitterness of
buckwheat honey and the sweetness of toffee. Aside from the Hydrocarboresine,
it seems to lean heavily on a nexus of copal – a South American resin that
smells herbaceously bitter (burnt bay leaf) – a rubbery myrrh, and a hulking
block of super-dry labdanum that smells like a leather saddle smoldering in the
grate of a fire. The Hydrocarboresine is instrumental to creating that oddly
animalic, stale, waxy awfulness that is half holy, half-demons-summoned-from-the-depths-of-hell.
Kamali Incense is undeniably characterful, but you have to be up for that
particular brand of gloom when you put it on. This is a scent that demands the
commitment of the whole day – God help you if you think you’re just going to be
able to dab on a bit, test it, and then wash it off again. It has a strange way
of making you feel as if you are choking on the ashy fumes of a censer swinging
directly over your head (with you desperately wishing the priest would move on
so you can breathe again). Phenomenally burnt, colossal in stature, and more
than a bit overwhelming, Norma Kamali Incense would be, I feel, slightly a bit
too over the top for confession, unless you’re confessing to the Devil himself in
the ashes of Notre Dame (in which case it would be perfect).
Incense Flash (Tauerville) – Frankincense Haiku
what it says on the tin, Incense Flash presents a somewhat abbreviated but
nonetheless satisfying picture of incense resins half-smoked on the censer. It
leads the charge with a piney frankincense and quickly adds in the tarrier,
bootstrap molasses nuances of myrrh for heft. It is smoky, but this is due to
the resins themselves rather than the addition of birch tar, so there is still
air to breathe and it never quite tips over into acridity.
is some rubber and fuel detritus floating around in the frankincense accord,
but that is just the nature of frankincense – anyone’s who has ever bought or
burned any will recognize this aspect immediately. The dry woods and Ambroxan
in the base are less satisfying to me. I am never sold on the ‘clean starched
shirt taken off an aftershave-doused male body’ accord this tandem births like
a malevolent serpent into the world. Yet it is never as aggressively
‘soap-powder-shot-into-your-nostrils’ as Incense Extrême, a small mercy for
which I am very grateful.
main issue with this scent is that it smells like something I could knock
together myself. There is a lazy, homemade edge to this that disappoints.
Incense Flash is very fairly priced, but it is one of those products that make
you aware of the mark-up exactly at the point you’re consuming it, like the
store-bought apple tart that tastes fine, but you can taste that they cut a few
corners and just knocked it out onto the production line in time for the 5 o’
clock rush, so you’re kind of questioning even the measly €6 you spent on it.
Sombre Negra(Yosh) – Frankincense Fougère
world’s first frankincense fougère? Someone is going to write an angry letter
contradicting me on that. I don’t care. Listen up, ladies, because I am writing
this for you. Sombre Negra is written about as one of the standout incense
fragrances of the genre. I have no issue with the incense part of the equation.
The promised ‘blackness’ is all there – a gorgeously sooty, dusty frankincense
seemingly swept out from under the censers and grates of Europe’s most commanding
cathedrals with the sole purpose of putting the fear of God in you and making
you repent. It is dour. It is suitably sturm-und-drang.
and really, women, listen up because I am slowly but inexorably getting to the
point – the other half of this fragrance is your brother’s shirt collar circa
1985. Remember the male aroma of shirts soaked in enough Drakkar Noir to scour
the bath? Remember the posturing and the putting on of that older male ‘skin’
to be able to face the world in all their pimpled, trembling glory? Have you
ever had to lie in the bed of a young male relative while a-visiting and known
the horror of those clammy, Brut-soaked sheets that made you wish you could
disassociate from your own body? Ladies, I have three brothers and four male
cousins. I do not mock. I am merely reminding you.
Flamboyant opens with a peculiar note of stale fag ash, like clothes after a
night out in a disco, its breath freshened up a tiny bit by a fir balsam or
pine note. There is nothing particularly joyful or uplifting about the frankincense.
It creates instead a cool, flat grey-green aura that reminds me of mold
crumbling into dust on a piece of bread.
There is a dry, metallic tinge to Encens Flamboyant that makes it quite similar
in feel (if not scent) to Tauer’s Incense Extrême – they share a certain
austerity and ‘bareness’ of structure. It also shares that notorious stale
cigarette note with Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette, though that is a
fragrance I like much better because the fag ash is balanced out by a minty
green (and surprisingly cheap-smelling) jasmine note that makes it feel like
someone covering up the scent of a sneaky cigarette with a drugstore ‘floral-ish’
cologne. Encens Flamboyant, lacking that little quirk of humor, feels a bit like
wearing a hair shirt.
Tinkerbell and the Archangel Gabriel got together to make a perfume, Sideris is
what they would come up with. Two things are important to mention here –
radiance and scale. Radiance-wise, Maria Candida Gentile has somehow managed to
take the heaviest and stickiest substances in perfumery – French labdanum, frankincense,
myrrh, beeswax – and infuse the whole thing with light and air. This is a
perfume that radiates. It glows. In fact, what hits you first, when you spray
it on, is this incredible note of powdered sugar, the result of a diffuse mix
of frankincense and rose. This powdered sugar note coats the entire perfume
from head to toe, a sort of fairy dust sifted over the heavier resins. A gentle
shake of the spice jar – pepper and ginger – add to the sprightly,
nose-tingling effect. The dust is finally anchored and settled at the base by
is nothing synthetic in feel or reach of the incense here. And yet, Sideris
achieves an unearthly radiance that would normally only be possible with Iso E
Super or another woody amber material. Incredible.
important to me, however, is the fact that even in the crowded field of incense
scents, Sideris manages to distinguish itself as a completely different beast.
It is not one of those soaring High Mass perfumes like Avignon by Comme des
Garcons or LAVS by UNUM, scents which take incense, blow it up into
cathedral-sized places of worship, and instill a sense of gloom and awe into
Sideris is an incense-based perfume scaled to infinitely more humble
proportions. You can tell that a woman made this. It is a quiet moment of
reflection over a cup of tea. It is the private rolling out of a prayer mat in
your bedroom as dawn approaches. More than anything, it is a priest sweeping
out the steps of the church as he opens up for the day, the mica from the dust
glittering in the sun as he gives you a grin and a lusty ‘Buongiorno!’ on your
way to get an espresso.
don’t have to be a Catholic or go to church to like this. I put this on, and no
matter what kind of bad day I am having, I feel like I am floating around in my
own personal cloud of magic fairy dust, protected by all the bad juju around
Fumée (Miller Harris) – Fresh
is funny how sometimes it’s the fragrances you wear the most are the ones you
never bother to write about. I am on my second bottle of this elegant woods and
resins concoction, and yet now when I sit down to put pen to paper, I realize I
have never really analyzed the notes. La Fumée performs quietly in the
background of your day, like smoke from incense or oud embedded in the fabric
of your clothes. It starts off on a greenish frankincense note, like crushed
pine needles, pepper, and lemons, creating a fresh, masculine vibe that continues
for much of the scent.
Wafting in and out of the composition is a light smoke note from a combination
of the cade and birch tar, but there is also a dry labdanum in the mix,
performing its teetering act between tinder-dry paper that’s about to catch
fire and liquid tar. Creamy sandalwood takes over from the piney, terpenic
facets of the frankincense, nudging the scent into a faintly sweet-and-sour
sweat direction. But none of that describes how easy this scent is to wear, or
how pleasurable in its humming-in-the-background way. Whereas other resin
scents hit you over the head, this one wears like an elegant, transparent veil
that exists only at the corner of your field of vision. Like a former boyfriend
of mine, it is small but perfectly formed.
frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is central to its
aroma, and this is precisely the characteristic that Absolute Frankincense has
chosen to highlight. The scent extends the silvery bite of the resin by
flanking it with a lime-like bergamot and some very natural-smelling coniferous
notes. The result smells clean and high-toned – an expression of frankincense
oil itself, as opposed to the burnt, smoky notes of the resin as it bubbles on
who love the more severe takes on frankincense such as Annick Goutal’s Encens
Flamboyant will appreciate Absolute Frankincense. Just be aware that this oil
is monastic in its approach, and that the green purity of the resin has been
prioritized far above the smoky, resinous, or sweet notes that usually flank
frankincense. This is the cold, smooth smell of the unburned resin itself, an
almost exact match to the aroma of the resin when you rub it between the palms
of your hands. My criticism is that Absolute Frankincense is almost too simple
– too close to the aroma of good quality frankincense oil itself – to be worth
the cost of entry.
All Angels (April Aromatics)
– Butter Caramel Frankincense
All Angels is perhaps one of my favorite incense compositions, and although it mostly
centers around a tremendously complex, bittersweet labdanum material (helped
along, I suspect, by a dose of the Biolandes Hydrocarboresine, a natural derivative
of cistus-labdanum that gives both Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali their utterly
toothsome burnt honey/cinder toffee quality), there is a huge dose of sooty
frankincense in the opening half that firmly establishes the holy side of the
holy-slash-edible equation that this scent has going on.
All Angels smells like incense smoking and spluttering to a halt inside a stone
jar of chestnut honey so ancient it’s become a stiff brown paste. I can never decide
if it is is the kind of thing you slather yourself in when you want someone to eat
you or the kind of thing you wear to commune with a Higher Power, but maybe that’s
nel Vento (Bois 1920) – Frankincense
Dior’s Mitzah, April Aromatics Calling All Angels, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, Contre
Bombarde 32, and Bois 1920’s own Real Patchouly, Vento nel Vento blurs the
lines between amber, incense, spices, and woods, making it rather difficult to
pin down. Which is exactly what I like about it. It’s not pure frankincense –
its frankincense plus all the other stuff I like (probably a lot more
than straight-up frank).
nel Vento is not, to be clear, ground-breaking stuff. But it is a good
kitchen-sink of a thing that’s perfect for when you feel like wearing something
warm and resinous without condemning yourself to a full day of enough
straight-up amber to put you in a sugar coma or an incense so monastic that it turns
into a hair shirt by dinnertime. The opening is all about balmy, dark
frankincense paired and smoky labdanum resin, lifted by a thyme or rosemary
note that makes me want to bite my arm. The herb is phenolic, like smoke rising
off a tar pit – akin to the burnt thyme note atop Interlude Man.
Although it is not sweet, the smoke and herbs are balanced out by a smooth, round edible quality. Perhaps it is the lemony cream of the elemi resin or, again, that Hydrocarboresine material from Biolandes. Whatever it is, it reads like soft black licorice vines, the mild ones perched precisely between sweet and salty and whose major selling point is their satisfying yield as you bite into them. The slightly tarry, smoky labdanum stretches out into the heart, and as the thyme and frankincense taper off, it is joined by a smooth amber and patchouli.
There is a small touch of oud in the heart, enough to give it an interesting
sourness that smacks of wood chips and herbs soaked in water before distilling.
Often, incensey ambers or ambery incenses ruin the effect by having one element
stick out too much, such as a too-sharp herbal note, an overly piney
frankincense, or an overload of vanilla. In Vento nel Vento, the whole is
perfectly round, smooth, and integrated. No one note catches at your skin like
a forgotten clothes pin.
Vento nel Vento starts off with immense volume (sillage) but does a surprisingly gentle fade-out, becoming very quiet after 3-4 hours. In the base, an ambergris note contributes a musky, salted caramel glaze to the finish. It is subtle – not so much the smell of ambergris tincture itself with its usual marine and earthy funk, rather the effect of white ambergris, which has little scent of its own. White ambergris, the finest grade, acts instead as a magnifying glass held up to the other notes in the composition. Here, it adds a sensual, skin-like glow that animates the resins, amber, and sandalwood like blowing onto hot coals.
Noir (Tom Ford) – Frank
inexplicably discontinued as its sibling, Amber Absolute, Sahara Noir is for
many the standout of the frankincense field. It has the advantage of being both
familiar and novel at the same time, essentially dusting off the black pepper
frankincense core of Black Cashmere (Donna Karan), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford),
and even Black (Comme des Garcons), before adding cinnamon and tobacco to
highlight the authentically dusty-sooty texture of the frankincense, and burnt
sugar and orange rind for a sweet-n-sour brightness that illuminates its
darkness. Though quite sharp at first, once it settles in a bit, what you
notice about Sahara Noir is just how smooth and high-gloss it actually is (a
sort of Tom Ford signature, I think).
objectively speaking, this is obviously a really solid fragrance – well made,
with good quality materials, rich and warm, yet true to the chilly coniferous
sting of frankincense. However, since I have owned and then sold or swapped
away two whole bottles of this monster, there is obviously something about
Sahara Noir that isn’t doing it for me at a personal level. The best I can come
up with is that it is two-thirds the way to Amber Absolute, which only serves
to remind me that I’d much rather be wearing Amber Absolute instead.
Holy Terror(Arcana) – Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens
the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product
description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk,
thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord. The myrrh and
frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather
than as accurate representations of their natural selves. So, for example,
there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as
frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to
myrrh. Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular. Indeed,
they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.
point out that Holy Terror smells more resin-like or ‘generically resinous’ is, by the way, not a criticism but an
observation. Some people blind buy incense or resin scents because they are
trying to find something that accurately represents the aroma of a specific
resin, like, for example, unlit frankincense, oud wood (rather than the oil),
myrrh, or copal. Incense freaks tend to be very specific about the effect they
are looking for. Therefore, my note about the nature of the resins in Holy
Terror is simply for clarification.
Terror is more about the homely smell of incense-scented things than High Mass.
It is not dark or massively smoky or acrid. It is not a literal incense or burning resin scent like Avignon (Comme
des Garcons). It is sweet herbs, tree sap, and woodsmoke wrapped in a
just-snuffed-out candlewax accord. It is slightly musky, which creates a tinge
of intimacy, like the skin of someone pressing close to you in church. This
gives the scent a human aura that is enormously inviting.
ÂmeSombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute
The Âme Sombre series (Âme Sombre Oud Infusion, Âme Sombre Grade 1, and Âme Sombre Grade II) was conceived as a tribute to, well, Tribute – the landmark frankincense-cedar attar from Amouage that has such a cult following that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a tiny squib of it. Naturally, when Amouage discontinued its line of attars, the desire for Tribute increased even further. Nothing enhances Holy Grail status for a scent like scarcity and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it. Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha stepped in with his take on the original.
Âme Sombre variations revolve
around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like
smoke from the censer at High Mass. This frankincense is surrounded by a very
good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine. The florals never quite succeed in
speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense –
they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like light
through a stained glass window. In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco,
ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky
bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres. The bitterness is alleviated
somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies
Infusion Oud is the most expensive and
opulent version of Âme Sombre.
It rivals or even surpasses the cost of the original Tribute, due to the
time-consuming and messy task of infusing a small quantity of Âme Sombre Grade I with smoke from
sinking grade oud wood chips, which Sultan heated on a burner directly
underneath the attar itself.
Infusion version therefore contains the uniquely clean, resinous aroma that
comes from heating oud wood (as opposed to the fermented, ‘overripe’ aroma of
pure oud oil). The oud infusion doubles down on the rich smokiness of the
frankincense, but also offers a slightly green sweetness that serves to soften
the essentially bitter character of the scent. This version, although expensive
and now also possibly discontinued, is the most balanced version of Tribute,
and my personal favorite.
Grade I and Âme Sombre Oud
Infusion both relate closely to the original Tribute (albeit with a bigger
emphasis on rose), and either would be an excellent substitute for the now
discontinued attar. Âme Sombre
Grade II differs quite dramatically from both the Oud Infusion and Grade I, but
I like it a lot as a standalone scent and wish it had been marketed
Grade I begins with an incredibly lush,
lemony rose that has the effect of flooding the gloomy church corridors with
light and air. Rose is usually added to oud to give it a sweet juiciness to
counteract its sour, stark woodiness, and here it plays that role both for the
austere, pine-like frankincense and
the sourish cedar. Then a clutch of dark, balmy resins and leather notes moves
in to draw a black velvet cloak over the bright, sourish rose, rendering the
tone of the attar somber and serious. Grade I is slightly darker, more
phenolic, and more sour-rosy in feel than the Oud Infusion, which draws sweet
woodsmoke notes from the agarwood infusion. Grade I also employs more of a
focus on balmy leather notes than the other versions.
Âme Sombre Grade I feels more
Northern in tone than Middle-Eastern. There is a fresh juniper note in the
background that further bolsters this ‘Orthodox Church in a chilly Northern
forest’ tonality. In terms of overall approach, Âme Sombre Grade I is perhaps the closest to the original Tribute
with its stark, smoky cedar-frankincense combination. It is also intensely
powerful, lasting on my skin all day and well beyond a shower.
Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) – Pure Frankincense
frankincense as taut and as vegetal as a piece of freshly-peeled silver birch. The
vin jaune of the incense genre, Incense Pure does not smell of High
Mass, but of the bright, sticky sap weeping from the tree itself, softened by the
powdery green smell of living wood. Plenty of fresh air swirls in and around
the frankincense molecules here, cutting and lifting them without (interestingly)
adding any the citrusy ‘lime peel’ nuances normally associated with
frankincense. It smells like an outdoors cathedral, its roof formed by a
closely-knit canopy of wiry spruce and oak saplings. Extremely dry and bright,
I always feel like I need a glass of water when I wear Incense Pure. An ambery
warmth in the lower register – intermittent
at best – adds a relieving warmth, if not any real sweetness.
those looking to get into incense perfumes, Basilica is a great starting point.
Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense,
this blend smells purely of High Mass. It is not complicated or indeed complex,
but its straightforwardness is part of its charm. In particular, the
naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky –
makes this an absolute pleasure. Soft and soulful, Basilica is like Comme des
Garcons’ Avignon in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it
should come with a trigger warning.
(Profumum) – Polished
skips the high-pitched lime peel notes of most frankincense renditions, instead
focusing almost entirely on the material’s rooty, medicinal sootiness. There
are some very fine Omani frankincense varieties, like Hojari, that display a
soft creamy-tangy orange note up top instead of the usual lime leaf, and this
is what Profumum has cleverly chosen to mimic here with its brief splash of
orange in the topnotes.
Rather than resin, I get the impression of dark, shiny, polished woods, an
ancient armoire maybe, carved from a single trunk of pine felled in some cold
North clime. It smells like what I imagine wenge smells like – the hidden
underbelly of wood, closest to the core, where no light penetrates. A
particularly mineralic, earthy myrrh deepens this impression. This one stirs
me. I might have to get a travel bottle.
Al Masih(Mellifluence) – Messianic Frankincense
Masih means Messiah in Arabic, one of the many names for Jesus. And to a
certain extent, Al Masih’s incense is
more Catholic High Mass than Islamic cannon. Al Masih opens with a frankincense
note as piercing as freshly-crushed pine needles, its citric edge underscored
by a lemony tandem of elemi resin and petitgrain. The total effect is of a
Mediterranean church with its doors thrown open to allow the soft breeze
brushing over mastic to mingle with the scent of unburned resin. Cypress,
cedar, and hyssop all add to its fresh, outdoorsy air, confirming that churches
are not the only places where communion with a Greater Spirit takes place.
drydown is a surprise. The sharp brightness of the herbs and resins softens, before
collapsing entirely into the sensual creaminess of sandalwood. The sandalwood
lends a golden, wholesome texture to the scent, recalling the bounty of the
harvest and all the good things to eat stored in the cellar. This series of
transitions has the effect of shifting the scene from the wildness of the maquis
to a soft and homely devotion scaled to domestic proportions. At once evocative
and pleasing, Al Masih might strike a chord for lovers of outdoorsy incense, as
well as those who love the ‘medicinal unguent’ bent of modern Italian artisanal
perfumery – think Bogue and O’Driu, albeit far, far simpler.
Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense
pine needles (frankincense) and juniper berries whipped into an egg-white
vanilla froth. Eau Duelle is really good and really simple – an essay on the
duality of two opposing elements of a cool, spicy frankincense-black tea accord
and a warm, woody vanilla. To non-French speakers, the name could also be
suggestive of a duel, an old-fashioned fight to the death between two forces.
Everything about Eau Duelle just clicks right into place. The opening is cold and aromatic, fizzy with a spray of pink pepper and juniper berries. Hiding behind the aromatic spices and black tea is a robust vanilla that is sweet enough to give pause, but – at least in the eau de parfum version – thankfully made a little bitter, rough, and woody with the addition of Ambroxan. Yep, you read that right. I praised a perfume that has Ambroxan in it. Don’t get too used to it. Eau Duelle happens to be the rare example of a fragrance that’s greatly improved by a dollop of Ambroxan.
It is worth pointing something out about the frankincense note here. It presents as not the freshly-lit, High Mass kind of frankincense, but rather, the waxy, almost herbal scent lingering in the air of incense long since extinguished. The vanilla is sharpened by the slight evergreen edge of a frankincense hangover. The texture is something special, with a starchy, papery feel to it that makes me think of freshly-opened books.
Like most Diptyques, Eau Duelle wears lightly and unobtrusively but has a presence substantial enough to surprise you in fits and bursts throughout the day. I love the idea of a non-cakey vanilla paired with a green, effervescent frankincense, and though admittedly quite plain and non-charismatic, Eau Duelle just floats my boat.
On a personal note, in January 2015, I contracted a serious virus that made me anosmic for about six weeks, and Eau Duelle was the first perfume that I was able to smell again as I was recovering. Therefore, whenever I smell it now, those feelings of gratitude and euphoria come flooding back. Like Parfum Sacre, Eau Duelle will always be something I love almost absent-mindedly, in that fuzzy, all-love-no-logic way we love our children.
Arturetto Landi has done with 03.Apr.1968 is to take the minimalist structure
of church incense and flesh it out with a gaudy array of rich, bitter, and
tooth-rottingly sweet flavors. It smells like a fat wodge of Christmas cake
doused in brandy and set to burn on a priest’s censer alongside a hulking lump
of frankincense. Underneath these smoky, soiled-fruit aromas, there is an
enticing whiff of heliotrope, a huge purple chunk of marzipan charred at the
edges. Smoke fights with burned sugar, and we all win.
The fruit, in particular, is what makes this incense smell unholy, so unclean. It is supposedly lychee, but really it could be any fruit – apples, raisins, dates – because the fruit is so close to collapse that all you can smell are the high-pitched alcohol fumes of decay that belong exclusively to fruit. Joined by a dry frankincense that flits queasily between clove and bay leaf, the fruit is anything but wholesome. Luca Turin was the first to point out that the appeal of Amouage’s Lyric Woman lay in its ‘plangent, overripe note, the exhalation of forgotten fruit in a sealed room.’ The rotting fruit note achieves a similar effect for 03.Apr.1968, at first coming off as a little stomach-churning, but then working to moisten and plump up the bitter, austere incense.
Many people have compared 03.Apr.1968 to the late, great Norma Kamali Incense, and yes, there is most certainly a kinship. The frankincense used here is similarly dry and almost stale, lacking all the citrusy, pine-like nuances usually associated with it. Reacting with the fruit, booze, and sugar, the frankincense takes on the spicy bitterness I associate with copal resin, which along with smoky labdanum is what gives Norma Kamali its unique character.
But in truth, 03.Apr.1968 occupies the same general category of incense as Norma Kamali rather than smelling exactly like it. They are both fatty and overstuffed, the very opposite of the crisply tailored haikus of Comme des Garcons. They are both rather unwholesome – the type of thing to wear to a bacchanalia rather than to church. In truth, though, although traces of it are present in the ‘bones’ of several other incense perfumes, nothing really smells precisely like Norma Kamali Incense. However, for my money, the puffy, burned sugar heliotrope makes 03.Apr.1968 the easier wear.
Well, I say easier, but it is by no means easy. This is a potent fragrance that takes commitment to wear, and even then I would only attempt it when the barometer goes below 10 degrees Celsius. Only three notes are listed: frankincense, lychee, and heliotrope, but the overall effect is so rich and multi-dimensional that I wonder if that’s really the notes list or if the perfumer is so skilled that he was able to wrangle a wealth of detail out of these raw materials.
Sources of Samples/Bottles:All reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store – with the exception of the sample of Absolute Frankincense, a sample of which was kindly sent to me free of charge by Clive Christian at the beginning of 2017. My blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review.
What is myrrh? Myrrhis a gum produced by the Commiphorah myrrha species of tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and North-East Africa. Deriving from the Arabic word مر (mur), meaning ‘bitter’, myrrh oil is used all over Arabia, China, and India as a traditional medicine.
Oil versus resin: Myrrh oil is quite different from myrrh resin. Myrrh oil can be bitter, rubbery-smelling, and often quite saline (mushroomy). The resin smells earthier, slightly sweet, with musty undertones – when lit, it smells quite smoky (well, duh).
What does myrrh smell like? While frankincense is a soaring series of sunny, high-pitched notes like lime peel or crushed pine needles, myrrh is dark, fungal, and gloomy, reminding one of the dark shadows behind massive stone pillars in a cathedral, signed pine, tar, anise, licorice, and the scent of freshly-sliced ceps. It can be soapy, fatty, or rooty. In perfumery, myrrh lends a subtle, earthy tone pitched halfway between soil and stone. It has a sepulchral quality, leading some to categorize it as Gothic or moldy.
Some facets of myrrh are intensely bitter, while some smell like sweet licorice, anise, or rubber. Often the resin smells latex-y and saline (in cookery terms, if frankincense is a citrus fruit, myrrh is volcanic salt).
Personally, I often perceive myrrh as smelling ‘hollow’, as if there were a tear in the fabric of the fragrance where the aroma is supposed to be (a sort of negative space). Myrrh has a deeply atmospheric smell, redolent of the air inside centuries-old European cathedrals.
are some examples of myrrh-based fragrances, or fragrances where myrrh plays an
unexpected or pivotal role, even if unlisted.
Velours (Les Indémodables) – Fog
a magisterial – and wholly original – take on myrrh. I find something new to
marvel at every time I wear it. Fresh spearmint, spruce, rosemary, and fennel pollen
crushed hard between my fingers, releasing a bitter, foresty odor into the
chill night air, where it meets the equally bitter, foresty myrrh in its
natural habitat, oozing from a hundred different cracks in a tree stem. But not
the twisted, sun-battered husks of Commiphorah myrrha tree native to the
Arabian Peninsula and North-Eastern Africa – imagine instead a Northern pine or
spruce standing tall in a Scandinavian forest, weeping big fat sticky tears of
myrrh, which magically disintegrate into a million powdery spores once they leave
The texture of the scent is important to note. Though both fir balsam and myrrh are sticky, dense, resinous materials that are about as easy to manipulate as a tin of molasses, here they seem to cancel each other out and disperse through the air in a sheen of glittering, super-fine mica. The effect is of myrrh and mint plunged into a dust cloud of ‘matte’ peppery notes that smell half like the business end of a just-lit firework and half like the sharp, grey chemical fog emitted by an over-enthusiastic fog machine (think Baptême du Feu by Serge Lutens, the recent Crimson Rocks by Amouage, or Fleurs et Flammes by Antonio Alessandria for similar ‘fog machine’ or gunpowder effect).
The more I wear this, the more I think that the damp, mealy bog land vetiver used here plays the largest role in achieving this textural effect. Gunpowder, fireworks, sulfur – whatever it is, it makes the scent feel exciting and taut. The vetiver acts as a gray-green, washed out, faded piece of velvet tamping everything down, giving the scent a mellow, low-key grassiness that is nonetheless devoid of sunniness or light.
There is something so simultaneously cleansing and plush about this scent that it feels like being wrapped in ermine while breathing in the air of a snowy forest. I’d like to say that the experience feels wholly natural, but of course, it does not. Aside from the ‘fog machine’ or gunpowder effect, there is a tiny hint of that metallic aftershave undertone that anything pine or spruce-like brings to the party.
Happily, though I first perceived this first as a spoiling dose of Iso E Super, I have found that if I re-frame this note for myself as more of a hangover of pine than a deliberate application of some burnt-smelling wood aromachemical, then I can live with it. (I am good at talking myself through the rough spots in a scent that I really love).
Interestingly, the clash of vanilla against this aromatic set of notes, plus that gray-green nutmeal vetiver, creates a brief whoosh of something that feels as powdered and plush as a tin of cocoa powder blown out into hot glass. The ‘velour’ part of Oriental Velours is accurate even if the ‘oriental’ is not – this is old velvet and ancient wooden furniture collapsing with time into dust spores that carry the breath of the forest with them. Licorice, mint, grass, and root buried under acres of quiet, black dust.
(Huitième Art) – Myrrh for Myrrh Pussies
nugget of myrrh mercy-drowned in a pudding bowl of waxen vanilla, with a sweet
amber accord thickening it up like arrowroot. Myrrh will out, of course, and in
Myrrhiad, it comes through as the soft, sappy licorice accent running along the
back of the scent like rubber tracking. Think
the chewy licorice vines you get in the pick n’ mix at the cinema that are more
texture than flavor, rather than the oily, resinous, or mushroomy twang you
have in real myrrh. This is essentially myrrh for myrrh pussies, which might be
an accurate way of describing me. Balmy, vanillic – Bvlgari Black-lite. Love it.
du Doge (Eau d’Italie)– Myrrh
Like its brothers, Bois d’Ombre for the same brand, and Dzongkha for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Baume du Doges (Eau d’Italie) is emblematic of a period in Bertrand Duchaufour’s career when he seemed deeply interested in excavating the vegetal, vinegary side of resins for brilliant effect in incense compositions stuffed with dried fruit, smoky grasses and roots, and odd accents like whiskey or wet newspapers. The effect is that of sourness balanced by sugar and a hit of smoke – a sort of myrrh agrodolce.
form, the opening of Baume du Doge emits a sharp vetiver and cedarwood frequency
that smells like the burn in your throat of a particularly smoky Laphroaig.
This spicy burn is simultaneously calmed by a balmy orange milk accord and revived
with a clove note that splits the difference between a licked spoon and a
virulently camphoraceous mint. This creates a wonderful vanilla-orange-peel-incense
accord that smells like Christmas morning. The vanilla is restrained; just a smear
of something friendly to take the sting out of the astringent myrrh.
Because this is essentially a myrrh perfume. With its gloomy demeanor, myrrh is the sulky emo teen of the resin family, but here, a smile has been pasted on its face by way of a bright, boozy sparkle that feels like the crunch of cassonade on a crème brulée. The brown-gold depth this creates is not a million miles away from the deep dried fruit, vodka and whiskey notes in Ambre Russe (Parfums d’Empire), minus the black tea and leather notes that take that great perfume in another direction entirely. Still, I think it’s remarkable that both Baume du Doge and Ambre Russe manage to smell quietly but resolutely masculine, despite the presence of sugary, ‘edible’ notes.
richness of the resin against the vegetal tartness of the vetiver and cedarwood
smells absolutely right, as if the basic bones of this successful marriage
already existed in the air, waiting for a perfumer with vision to come along
and bring it all together. Unfortunately, Baume du Doge runs out of steam
quickly, getting quite threadbare in the drydown, so those looking for that
brilliant, rich orange peel incense and milk accord to be sustained throughout
may be disappointed.
Casati (Mona di Orio) – Flat-Coke Myrrh
Myrrh Casati is something of a head-scratcher. The first Mona di Orio fragrance to be composed by someone other than Mona herself, following her tragic death in 2011, it is rendered in a style that seems to deliberately side-step any of Mona di Orio hallmarks. It lacks the almost overbearingly rich, dirty woodiness of Vanille and Oud, the dry-ice almond musks from Ambre and Musc, and the harsh animalism of Nuit Noire and Cuir. Without these little olfactory clues that tucked so deftly into the sleeves of her work, I am lost. Myrrh Casati could be the work of anyone.
If her other perfumes are rich tapestries, then Myrrh Casati is a silk gauze. It is beautiful but simple to the point of being spare. The opening is particularly striking. A dark, dry spice note fuses with a warm, cinnamon-tinted Siam benzoin and sharp black pepper to form the exciting specter of tarry Coca-Cola. There is also an arresting black rubber tint to proceedings, prompted by saffron or the myrrh itself (which can sometimes smell like rubber or latex). But this opening salvo of richness or darkness quickly attenuates. Within minutes, all that remains on the skin is a vague glaze of something spicy and something minty-licoricey, loosely held together by the benzoin.
d’Iparie (L’Occitane) – Mossy
Apart from a honeyed, fruity (almost berried) topnote not present in the original, the reissue of Eau d’Iparie remains mostly the same as before – a very natural-smelling, balsamic myrrh fragrance that sets the myrrh in an outdoors context rather than in the typically dark, Gothic-churchy one.
The honeyed radiance of myrrh resin predominates at first, but soon, the scent shakes off this cozy mantle in favor of a flinty minerality, which smells to me very much like water running over moss-covered stones in a stream. With its unpretentious, earthy demeanor, Eau d’Iparie is the type of non-perfumey perfume that smells good to people for whom fragrance is a secondary ‘grooming’ thing rather than a full-on obsession.
America has Mandy Aftel, Australia has Teone Reinthal, and Europe has Annette Neuffer. I’m not sure why Annette doesn’t get the kind of attention that the other natural or indie perfumers do, but I suspect it has less to do with her natural talent than with her reluctance (as with many indie perfumers) to engage with the quid pro quo sleaze involved in the social media marketing and self-promotion that these days goes hand in hand with making and selling perfume.
If you want to see what Annette Neuffer can do, though, I beg you to try something like Avicenna Myrrha Mystica. She has a way of turning this rubbery, dense, semi-bitter resin into pure ether. Applying a balmy orange peel note to make the dusty myrrh bright and juicy, and surrounding the resin with a puffer jacket of velvety cocoa powder for comfort and depth, Neuffer feeds us a myrrh that’s been massaged into its most agreeable shape yet.
Mid-section, it develops a wonderfully damp (almost soggy) cardboard sweetness that reminds me a lot of Cocoa Tuberose by Providence Perfumery, and in fact, both scents share a soft, smudgy feel that is as sexy and endearing (to me) as the idea of Jeff Goldblum breathing on his spectacles to fog up the glass and clean them with the corner of his wooly sweater. Part cocoa powder, part flat Coca Cola, backlit with a dry hyraceum note that adds a faintly musky, funky quality to the myrrh.
But that orange peel persists, and that is what wins out in the end – a fresh, resinous orange (or perhaps a fresh, orange-tinted resin?). Either way, I find Avicenna Myrrha Mystica both utterly engrossing and a breeze to wear, and it is not often that you can say both things about myrrh, especially in an indie or all-natural take.
Essence Absolue is primarily a thick, rich floral vanilla but one in which a
dollop of bitter myrrh has been placed to keep things in balance. It smells
like bitter almonds, marzipan, and papery tobacco, all folded into a thick
vanilla and jasmine custard. When applied lightly or dabbed on, the cool, minty
anise of the myrrh emerges, backlighting the warm ambery vanilla. The jasmine
is so creamy and rich it almost takes on a coconut edge, briefly summoning up
the feel of a tropical gardenia. As an aside, the bottle is shaped like a butt.
And who doesn’t have shelf space for something shaped like a butt, I ask you sincerely?
de Minuit (Etro) – Sepulchral
always been puzzled when people would describe Messe de Minuit as a gloomy
fragrance, because until about a year ago, the only version with which I was
familiar was the modern one, which has been cleaned (and brightened) up so much
that none of the original descriptions of the scent made any sense. The latest
version of Messe de Minuit smells like a gloomy Italian cathedral with the
flood lights suddenly turned on and the doors thrown open to let the fresh air
in. It is an incredibly cheerful smell – bitter orange peel and mixed with the
lime-peel and pine brightness of unlit frankincense.
The older version, of which I now own a bottle, is a different story. Though still not quite as nihilistic as the very first version, the reaction to which saw Etro scuttling back to the drawing board to ‘fix’ it, the dour, fungal dampness of myrrh mixed with a powdery, spicy benzoin produces an aroma that recalls with a startling degree of accuracy the scent of cold stone floors, mildewy papers, and the slightly metallic, inert air of a closed-up sacristy. The chill of the myrrh is eventually warmed a little by the golden labdanum lolling around in the basenotes, but the scent never truly shakes off its central character of cold, dusty, ancient stone.
I understand why not everyone wants to wear the smell of rising damp on a
sacristy wall (carrying with it the unsettling suggestion of neglect), you have
to give Messe de Minuit credit for making its wearer feel like they’ve been plunged
into a particularly dark Goya painting, and I am thinking here of the one where
Saturn is devouring his own son.
et Délires (Guerlain) – Macaron
As I inch closer to collection completion (or the end of my ‘scent journey’), I have had to get very tough with my Guerlains. L’Heure Bleue, for example, doesn’t make it into my final edit (I’ll finish the small vintage parfum I have, as it is delightfully trashy and rich compared to the candied floral that is the current EdP), and, much as I enjoy wearing them from time to time, neither does Chamade,Tonka Impérial, Cuir Beluga, or the much vaunted Après L’Ondée. These are not the essential Guerlains for me.
Myrrhe et Délires under such conditions reveals my lines in the sand. A few
years ago, I would have forgiven this scent its flaccid body for its charming
violety-irisy topnotes, which smell like those lilac-colored macarons in the
window of Ladurée, or what I imagine the pastry scenes in Sofia Coppola’s Marie
Antoinette must have smelled like – all spun sugar, candied violets, and sugar
paste roses. If I had tested this during my violet phase, fuhgeddaboudit. Would
have sold my soul, probably.
But honestly, from where I’m sitting now, Myrrhe et Délires just doesn’t make the cut. Full marks, though, for rendering the bullish myrrh – a material whose darkish, mushroom-water tonalities usually drown delicate floral notes like candied violet – into a lace doiley’s worth of frothy anise and soft bready notes. Taken together, Myrrhe et Délires smells like Chowder’s violets and those soft black licorice rolls so mild that you could thumb them into the mouths of babies. But with great age comes wisdom; I can tell you that Guerlain’s own Black Perfecto is a much punchier, more emphatic spin on the same idea.
NYC) – Oudy
Review here. What I smell in fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere. Of course, it is entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh. It is also possible that it is just myrrh.
d’Argent (Dior Privée) – Woody
named, Bois d’Argent is a creamy, smoky woods scent with a streak of silvery
iris running through it. The iris is here only to cut through the heaviness of the
other notes – a lump of levain mixed into a heavy bread dough – so most of its
lovely grey rootiness or butter tones are lost in the fray. However, without
the soulful lift of the iris note, I think this composition would be a heavy,
sodden mess – a dense genoise rather than angel food.
d’Argent is primarily a sticky myrrh scent to my nose. Myrrh is a tricky
material to work with in a perfume. Myrrh oil can be very bitter, mushroomy,
and ‘black’ in its favor profile, although I suspect that the perfumers went
more for the myrrh resin smell here, which is earthier, woodier, and sweeter
than the oil itself, which can smell very rubbery.
in similar fragrances such as Bois d’Iris (The Different Company) and Myrrhe
Ardente (Annick Goutal), the myrrh in Bois d’Argent is paired with a sweet
honey and vanilla pairing designed to tone down the bitterness of the oil, and
a polished woods basenote to play up the smokier notes of the resin. There is
also a faintly licorice-like note here, a note frequently matched to the anisic
qualities of myrrh oil.
is a crystalline texture to Bois d’Argent that I also note in Myrrhe Ardente,
like crunching on honey candies, the small ones you sometimes get with coffee
in Italian bars – they look and taste sweetly creamy, but quickly explode into
shards when you crunch down on them. And, as with the candies in question, myrrh,
when this sweetened, has the tendency to cloy.
this reason, I find Bois d’Argent striking but ultimately exhausting to wear.
The silvery iris and woods opening is beautiful, but the sweet vanilla in the base
is far too syrupy, and the myrrh just continues droning on in its monogrammed monologue
for hours on end, like the dinner guest who has zero self-awareness and thinks
that we will all be as fascinated by his role in corporate finance as he is. The
same complaint applies to Bois d’Iris and Myrrhe Ardente. There are times when
these fragrances work on me, but inevitably, something in them eventually clogs
up my airways and wears on my spirit.
Ilang Ilan (Mellifluence) – Tropical Myrrh
Ilan bursts open with a pungent ylang note, vibrating at an especially evil
level of banana-and-petroleum fruitiness inherent to the material. But almost
immediately, this is counterparted by the chewy licorice snap of myrrh, whose
dark, anisic saltiness stuffs a cloth in the shouty mouth of that exuberant
ylang, telling it to calm the f&*k down. For a while, this is so good that
you wonder why ylang is ever paired with anything else other than an equally
it is an all too brief display of force. In the drydown, the ylang departs,
leaving only the mineralic, mushroomy facets of the myrrh to dominate. It
smells like water you’ve soaked ceps in. For myrrh fanatics, this might be a
boon. For the ylang enthusiasts, this will feel like bait-and-switch of the
Ilang Ilan is worth at least a sample, especially if you’re into the excitement
of an action-packed opening. The leather, the rubber, the fuel, the
licorice…whoever said that tropical florals are not for men just haven’t tried
the right ones. There is no creamy, trembling banana custard here, and
certainly no tropical leis draped on Gaugin-esque island beauties. Instead,
this is ylang with the sinister shadow of myrrh standing over it, dagger in
Kisses (Lush) – Marmalade
For once, Lush’s strategy of unceremoniously dumping a vat load of bolshy, untrimmed raw materials into a scent and letting them all duke it out actually works. The osmanthus takes the form of a cooked apricot jam spiced heavily with almond essence and cinnamon, making me think of boozy Christmas fruitcakes slathered in apricot jam and carefully wrapped in a layer of rolled-out marzipan. But if there is cooked citrus jam, then there is also something nicely fresh here, in the form of that metallic, juicy brightness that stains your fingers for hours after you’ve peeled a mandarin.
These layers of both juicy and jammy citrus interact with the dusty but headily spiced myrrh to accentuate the Coca Cola-ish aspects of the resin, complete with its dark ‘crunchy’ sweetness and joyful, nose-tickling fizz. If I could spread 1000 Kisses on a slice of toasted panettone, I totally would. A uniquely cheerful take on myrrh.
& Tonka (Jo Malone) –
Mass Market Myrrh
A stodgy almond Battenberg of a tonka bean cups a chewy licorice lace myrrh in its sweaty clasp, and they both drown in the disappointing chemical buzz that is the standard Jo Malone base. Pro: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day. Con: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day.
to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews
you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral,
incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things.
Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an
Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly
Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a
matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively
complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two
monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic
character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes
over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.
Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy
castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw
and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one
of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall
right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes
that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is
some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of
myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar
crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin.
I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have
to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular
sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore,
for a very specific taste.
Ungu (Agar Aura) – Myrrhic Oud
Some oud oils are so complex that they can display notes
such as mint, white flowers, honey, and ambergris without actually containing a
speck of these materials. In oud cannon, it is usually Chinese oud oils that
are known to feature notes of myrrh, but this is a great example of a myrrhic
oud oil that actually comes from one of my favorite oud terroirs, which is Malaysia.
Distilled from wood from the Terengganu region of Malaysia,
Sutera Ungu displays both characteristics from the fruity Crassna and the
typical Malaysian structure. Cutting past all the gobbledygook, what this means
is that there is a complex series of shifts from top to bottom, often
separating into two layers – smoke on top, and fruity leather beneath. Agarwood
from the Terengganu region is said to be particularly perfumey and rich, a
theory borne out by this oil.
I can smell smoke and fruited wood, backed by a smoky incense quality. Once the
saturnine drama of the opening settles a bit, it is possible to discern subtle
little gradients of color and tone. There are waves of freshly-stripped bark,
clear furniture polish, green apple skin, and fermenting dried fruit, all
dispersed within a boozy vapor akin to dried fruits soaking in brandy for
Christmas pudding. You get all this and more, filtered through a haze of
oud oils go, this is perfumey in the way of an older Chanel extrait, and I am
thinking of vintage Coco Parfum in particular here (something about the rich
fruits in brandy feel). In the heart, the smoke parts to reveal an earthy myrrh
note, old wooden chests, and, darting through the darkness, the reddish iodine
snap of pure saffron threads soaked in oil. None of these materials exist in
Sutera Ungu as notes, you understand – just their nuance.
show is not over just yet. In a whiplash move, the oil circles back on itself
to the dry, incensey woodsmoke that greeted the nose in the topnotes. Sutera
Ungu is a rich, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable Malaysian oil experience from
top to bottom. It is both an oud oil and a proper perfume in its own right. I
highly recommend Agar Aura oils to beginners because they are exceptionally
smooth, light-to-medium weight in terms of darkness and possessed of a depth of
flavor that does not sacrifice legibility.
Trois (Diptyque) – Piney
Most of the older Diptyques smell like ancient medicinal salves made out of crushing various barks, spices, and unguents down into a fiery yellow paste and applied to an open wound (Eau Lente, L’ Eau). L’ Eau Trois flips the trope a little, taking it outside to the sunburnt hillsides of Greece or Southern France where the healer combs up tufts of wild rosemary, pine needles, and mastic from the maquis, and uses his cocaine fingernail to dig out sticky yellow globules of myrrh and pine sap from ancient, shrubby trees bent over with age and wind, before singeing it all over a fire so that greenery takes on a burnt, bitter flavor, and mashing it all down to a paste in a pestle and mortar.
wild, and herbaceous, L’Eau Trois this is myrrh at its most confrontational. It
smells of incense, yes, but also of bitter greenery that will either kill you
or cure you if ingested. Less like a perfume than something born of the bowels
of the earth.
Balsamo della Mecca (Abdes Salaam Attar) – Sanctifying Myrrh
Two versions of this scent exist – an eau de parfum and an attar. Here I discuss the attar, which, to my nose, is distinguished by its use of myrrh.
Although the crepuscular darkness of the resins is essentially the same from eau de parfum to attar, Balsamo della Mecca attar has a very different texture and therefore a completely different feel. Whereas the original is so dry that it threatens to ignite on the skin at any moment, the attar is a concentrated tar, like molasses seeping from a rusty pipe. Dense, sticky fir balsam, myrrh, frankincense, cade, and who knows what else, all boiled down to a medicinal salve one might rub onto an infection. Despite its opacity, it feels purifying.
labdanum is downplayed in the attar, allowing the rubbery, fungal saltiness of
myrrh to take the spotlight. By corollary, the eau de parfum is dustier and
sweeter, thick with labdanum. Given its greater diffusiveness, the eau de
parfum has a spiritual, if not ecclesiastical, feel; the attar, on the other
hand, feels gothic and a little bit sinister. Put it this way – I would wear the eau de parfum to Midnight
Mass, and the attar to an exorcism.
Little Egypt (BPAL)– Honeyed Myrrh
Egypt is a bright, resinous honey scent with a sharp green calamus note running
through it to keep things fresh. All the honeyed, sticky sweetness of myrrh has
been drawn out and emphasized in this scent, but none of its anisic or
earthy-mushroomy nuances. This makes for a very sweet blend indeed, but the
inherent smokiness of myrrh resin, plus that crisp calamus note, does a good
job of holding back the syrup. Myrrh fanatics may want to hunt this one down.
Myrrhe (Serge Lutens) – Elegant
Pairing the fatty, soapy aspect of myrrh with a spray of fatty, soapy aldehydes is genius because, like any solid marriage, they compensate for each other’s failings. The fizzy aldehydes lift the heavy resin up into space, exploding it into stardust, while the bitter, rubbery characteristics of myrrh add depth and drama to the lower register of aldehydes, lending it a rooty, sub-woofer substance just as the champagne bubbles begin to fade away. In the base, a creamy jasmine and sandalwood turn up to mitigate the ‘rubber ball’ astringency of the myrrh, essentially taking over the reins from the sweet, effervescent aldehydes.
Because the aldehydes in La Myrrhe smells very much like the kind used in Chanel No. 5 (fatty, soapy, waxy, slightly rosy), many people find it to resemble No. 5, though to my nose, it smells rather like Chanel No. 22 with its Fanta-and-incense-on-steroids mien – with one key difference. La Myrrhe has a lurid almond-cherry-ade aspect to it that reminds me of Cherry Coke, rather than Fanta. Picture a single candied cherry lifted from a jar of (cough) syrup and dropped into a bag of pure white soap powder, causing the powder to explode outwards and upwards like a cluster bomb.
Myrrhe is a sensational myrrh fragrance, and unfortunately hard to find these
days unless you live in Europe and can order direct from les Salons du
Palais Royal in Paris. It is worth the effort and expense, though, especially,
if you prefer the gauzier, more light-filled creations of Serge Lutens over the
stickier, fruitcake-and-incense ones, like Arabie, Fumerie Turque et al. With the
anisic, rubbery bitterness of the resin perfectly juxtaposed against the sweet,
frothy soapiness of aldehydes, La Myrrhe will appeal enormously to lovers of Douce
Amère, Chanel No. 5 Eau Première, Chanel No. 22, Guerlain Vega, Rêve d’Ossian
by Oriza L. Legrand, and Miriam by Tableau de Parfums (Tauer).
(Acqua di Parma) – Ambroxan
my ass. This is Acqua di Parma halfway down the slide from its once glorious
position at the top of classic Italian heritage to the mosh pit of
bro-pandering the brand is currently strutting around in. A flurry of citrus
and herbs in the opening 0.02 seconds of Mirra convinces me that nothing is
unforgivable and maybe the brand can claw its way back, but this is quickly
drowned in that unnatural concoction that greets me in so many of the ‘perfumes
for the modern man’ these days – a vile and droning medley of synthetically
radiant Ambroxan or Iso E Super drowned in enough ambery syrup to fell a horse
at ten paces.
It depresses me that the bones of Sauvage are everywhere, lurking in even the oldest, most heritage-y of heritage brands, waiting to pop out at me. For all that Luca Turin lauds Italian perfumery as being where it’s at these days, most young passers-by – women and men, professional or preppy – that I smell in Rome smell like this rather than of invigorating lemons of Santa Maria Novella or something cool by Antonio Alessandria.
For me, Mirra is nothing more than sweet, sugared woods inflated with enough Ambroxan to send a thousand chemical ice picks aimed at my head, but for anyone not as sensitized to these woody alcohols, it probably comes across as something gorgeously fresh, clean, and well, radiant. I can see the appeal of stuff like this for those who do not pick up on the awful grimness of those modern aromachemicals. But I feel personally attacked by Mirra and the 967 other modern masculines that smell virtually identical.
(Bruno Acampora) – Anachronistic
is a perfectly-preserved time capsule of a time in perfumery when perfumers
were free to use the stinkiest of floral absolutes, plant oils, and resins in
their perfumes. Iranzol smells like the seventies, which makes perfect sense
because it was launched
in the seventies. What is extraordinary is that the formula seems to have
remained unchanged since then; this is the perfume in its original form. In a
day and age when brands reformulate every few years to keep up with IFRA
recommendations, it is a small wonder that something like Iranzol can and does
The opening is as damply mushroomy as Acampora’s own Musc, brimming with wet soil, freshly-cut mushrooms, raw patchouli oil, and possibly some salty Italian kitchen herbs, like dried lavender and fennel root. There is definitely myrrh in the blend somewhere, helping those wet earth notes along.
is also suspected, because there is an accord here that is half-claggy,
half-dusty, like the sour, unwashed smell of sheets folded away while still
damp. This accord is both medicinal (clean) and animalic (unwashed, dusty,
stale), which, although not entirely pleasant to my nose, is effective at
creating an atmosphere of gloomy, faded grandeur. One imagines a dusty chaise
longue in an abandoned mansion by the sea somewhere.
drydown diverges from the central accords found in Musc by finishing up in a
dry amber and sandalwood base. It retains, as most of Acampora’s oils do, that
brusque connection to the earthier, more aromatic smells of the seventies, when
men wore either Jovan Musk or barbershop fougères and shaved with proper soap.
In other words, the sandalwood is dry and astringent, and the amber vegetal. No
cream, sugar, or butter anywhere in sight. You might have to adjust your
television set when attempting Iranzol for the first time – it is neither
modern nor easy. It is an anachronism, an earthy scent for those who like the
pungent, untouched smells of nature and their fellow human beings.
Sirocco (Solstice Scents) – Caveman Myrrh
a sunburst of saffron, its astringent aroma redolent of hay, leather, and
iodine. This quickly gives way to the mitti, which smells of wet soil rather
than the dry earth of true Indian mitti. Last to emerge is the rubbery,
mushroomy myrrh, which smells like the plain essential oil one picks up at the
health store, i.e., bitter, saline, and musty. The myrrh dominates the scent
completely; once it pops its head around the door, it is here for breakfast,
lunch, and dinner.
In short, don’t trust the scent description given by the company – Sirocco is not the hot, dry ‘desert’ scent billed in the description, but instead, given the prominent role of the myrrh, the fungal scent of caves. If you like the wet, sepulchral side of myrrh, and earthy, medicinal smells in general, then you will love Sirocco. If you are specifically looking for dry heat, deserts, and sand, look elsewhere.
Myrrhe Ardente (Annick Goutal) – Root Beer Myrrh
A dry spackle of resin at first, golden, crunchy, and slightly herbal – austere enough to wear to the bank – that becomes steadily stickier and gummier with a heavy pour of tonka, amber, and honey. When I wear this, I can almost feel the myrrh crystallizing in huge chunks on my arm, thick enough to smash out into a resinous paste.
There is also a nigh-on-bitter smack of cherry cough syrup floating against something medicinally creamy, which is essentially what Americans know as the ‘root beer float’ flavor – this is a pronounced characteristic of myrrh that comes out to play a lot anywhere there is amber or vanilla.
I would place this in the same group as Myrrhiad, i.e., a dry-creamy myrrh amber thickened up with lots of licorice-scented vanilla in the background, designed to soothe and cosset rather than excite. I sold my bottle a long time ago, however, once I began to perceive a piercing woody aromachemical note that ran rampant all over the scent’s original ‘weighted blanket’ premise.
Black (Agarscents Bazaar) – Coca
Cashmiri Black is a wonderfully odd mukhallat that nudges Agarscents Bazaar out of its comfort zone of Indian-style musks and ambers, and into a slightly more ‘niche’ perfume area. The blend opens with an accord that smells like salted buckwheat honey or molasses smeared over pieces of hardcore Scandinavian licorice, shot through with plumes of sooty fireside smoke. Black pepper, oily and pungent, explodes all over, recalling several modern Comme des Garcons efforts such as Black Pepper and Black.
firecracker dose of saffron soon joins the fray, streaking across the dark
canvas created by a fusion of tarry, resinous myrrh, creating an effect that is
half Idole (Lubin) and half Nesquik-y Darbar attar. There is a faintly fizzy
Coca Cola effect providing lift in the background. Thanks to the myrrh, the
texture is chewy and medicinal, with a hard-boiled, anisic blackness. It is
smoky and cocoa-dry, but this syrupy facet lends a nice textural counterpoint.
Cashmiri grows drier and smokier as time wends on, finishing up the ride as a tinder-box mixture of fiery cedarwood, myrrh, powdery (chocolate) musk, malty licorice, and charred woods. Cashmiri Black is an excellent alternative to expensive Arabian style niche smoke-and-resin bombs such as Black Afgano or Black Gemstone.
Parfum Sacre (Caron)
– Cashmere Myrrh
Parfum Sacre is one of those perfumes that I find hard to write about because it hooked me early, at a tender time of my life when I needed a Big Perfume Love, and therefore is utterly resistant to any attempt at objective analysis.
If pushed, I would say it smells like an ancient carved sandalwood chest filled to the brim with myrrh resin reduced to a fine golden powder and tender pink curlicues of rose soap loving carved off a block of Camay with a pocketknife. It smells full and soft, like cashmere, but studded with little kitten licks of black pepper and lemon that trickle the back of the throat.
The myrrh is fuzzy and warm, especially in the round-bellied vintage eau de parfum, where only its muted fatty-soapy-waxy facets have been coaxed out. In the modern eau de parfum, the myrrh smells sharper, more astringent, and woodier, thanks to the vigorous dosing of black pepper to compensate for the lower quality of sandalwood. Best of all, perhaps, is the salty, golden radiance sent in by natural ambergris to lift the myrrh and woods in the now discontinued Parfum.
But even the thin, reedy version of Parfum Sacre available to buy today possesses that gently pepper, rosy, soapy quality that says ‘Mother’ to me. It therefore continues to be one of my Big, Albeit Incoherently Described Perfume Loves.
Myrrhe Impériale is impressively loud and rich and voluminous. But once you get
past the clattering noise of the opening – oiled galoshes, radiating resin,
treacly licorice – you realize that it is not much more than a powerful
fruitcake amber dressed up with so much Amber Xtreme or Norlimbanol that even a
knuckle daub’s worth is unbearable. It is like a large, expensively dressed man
whose braying laugh and physical volume seems to swell to fill the entire room,
impregnating all the available air pockets until you feel you will still be
able to hear/smell/taste him from two countries away. These niche behemoths are
designed to be impress you at ten paces, steam-rolling over any distinguishing
features other than its own powerful, magnetic radiance. An olfactory Charles
reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have
purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store. My
blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to
quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the
source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I
do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review. If I
like something, or find something interesting, then I will write about it. You
might not always like my opinions, but you may trust that they are mine and
you want a silky pâté that rolls around velvetily in your mouth for a few
seconds before dissolving into perfumed air, and sometimes you want the thick,
meaty savor of a butcher’s organic pork sausage slathered in fried onions and enough
hot yellow mustard to guarantee a ruined shirt. Copper Skies is the pork
sausage of the amber genre.
balancing the gooey resinousness of amber and tobacco with a close-fitting
sheath of basil that splits the difference between mint and black licorice, it scratches
my itch for the kind of big, gutsy flavors that make my mouth throb and my
heart sing. The amber smells more like incense to me, with a rich, deep sort of
bitterness that probably originates with the tobacco leaf. Worth noting that Copper
Skies doesn’t smell particularly like tobacco leaf to me per se, probably
because the usual cinnamon and dried fruits aspect is missing, replaced by that
surprisingly fresh, anisic topnote. But there is a chewy, toasty quality to
Copper Skies that certainly hints at tobacco.
Skies is not what you’d call refined, but that’s the point. Its flashes of industrial
rubber wiring, sharp incense, and hot metal are what keep my salivary glands
pumping and the juices running unchecked down my chin. It turns on a coin; sometimes
it smells like just another rich, sweet incensey amber (quite Amber
Absolute-like), and other times like a herbal, leafy thing that has more in
common with licorice root tea than resin.
is one of those accords that smells so good in and of itself that that it is
difficult to innovate on the theme without losing the plot somewhere. The more of
them I smell, the more I appreciate the ones that retain the affability of
amber while doing something quirky and original to keep us all from slumping
over into that over-stated torpor that follows a rich pudding. Copper Skies is not
particularly subtle or ‘worked out’, but to my mind, it absolutely succeeds in
giving you the full satisfaction of amber without sending you to sleep.
Theories speaks directly to my fantasy of trekking home through snowy woods towards
my rustic-but-architect-designed log cabin, in Fair Isle leggings that
miraculously don’t make my legs look like two ham hocks in a sack, a
Golden lab at my side, and the pink-tinged winter sky above my head tilting slowly
towards indigo. A thread of sweet, tarry woodsmoke – from a far-off campfire,
perhaps, or even the wood burning stove lit by my husband, Mads Mikkelsen – hangs
in the cold, crisp air.
Pause and there is the heady scent of scattered forest homes gearing up for the night. Someone is revving their jeep to check if the winter tires are ok. Someone else is smoking a cigar while peeling an orange. Someone is smoking vanilla pods in their shed for some fancy artisanal market niche I’m not aware of. There’s an illicit coal fire in the mix too – not terribly environmental, the neighbors bitch, while surreptitiously gulping in lungfuls of the familiar charred scent of their childhood like junkies.
But the best thing about these aromas in that they are too far off in the distance to distinguish as one thing or another. Sandalwood, leather, oud, tobacco, vanilla, woodsmoke, burning sugar, dried kelp, and tar all melt down into one delicious aroma that is definitely more a collective of environmental ‘smells’ than perfume.
I love Broken Theories and really want a bottle. But the sweet woodsmoke-campfire genre is a crowded one, and bitter experience compels me to be clear-eyed about where this fits in the pecking order. First of all, let me admit that Broken Theories smell very, very indie, and by indie, I mean it smells like a number of popular woodsmoke perfume oils from companies such as Solstice Scents (especially Manor, Manor Fire, Grey’s Cabin, and Inquisitor) and Alkemia (especially Smoke and Mirrors and Fumé Oud à la Vanille). I’m fine with the association but all the same, the indie vanilla-woodsmoke theme (a) does tend to smell a bit samey from brand to brand, (b) is gummily (albeit enjoyably) indistinct, like several woodsmoke stock oils or ‘house notes’ thrown into a jerrycan, and (c) doesn’t carry quite the same degree of elegance as a masstige or luxury perfume featuring woodsmoke, e.g., Bois d’Armenie by Guerlain or Bois d’Ascèseby Naomi Goodsir. That I smell this type of ‘indie-ness’ in the vanilla-woodsmoke aspect of Broken Theories makes me hesitate.
However, I can think of many other perfumes – some of them luxury, some of them prestigious indies -that Broken Theories beats into a corner with a stick, and on balance, that tips the whole decision into the yes direction. For example, while I like Fireside Intense (Sonoma Scent Studio), it is too bitter-smoky for me to wear on the regular without me feeling like I am wearing a hair shirt. Bois d’Ascèse has a similar problem, in that there is a harsh woody aromachemical in the base that makes wearing it a chore – there is no such problem in Broken Theories, which beds down the tougher smoke and oud-leather notes in a balmy vanilla softness that feels as comfy as those fantasy Fair Isle leggings. And Broken Theories is infinitely preferable to the popular By the Fireplace (Marson Martin Margiela), a perfume whose sharp, burnt sugar and viscous campfire or wood aromachemical makes me physically nauseous.
Broken Theories is, however, not as good as Jeke (Slumberhouse) or Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch), other perfumes with a strong campfire or woodsmoke element. But it is cheaper, lighter, and easier to obtain. It is roughly similar – both in quality and execution – to the wonderful Winter Woods by Sonoma Scent Studio, and by process of elimination, I guess I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between this and that.
Conclusion: Broken Theories is one of the best woodsmoke scents on the market today. But it only makes sense if you don’t already have a plethora of other woodsmoke scents to fill that particular niche. My fantasy self and I will be having words.
of Sample: I purchased my
Kerosene samples from the wonderful Polish website Lulua. I have used Lulua many times over
the past five years to sample American or Canadian indies, such as Slumberhouse,
Zoologist, Olympic Orchids, and now, Kerosene, which can be extremely difficult
for European customers to track down and smell. I am 100% happy to recommend Lulua,
because they provide a terrific service for not too much money, have the best packaging
I’ve ever seen for samples-only orders, and they always throw in a few extras
The more I wear Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi, the more I’m convinced it is the Bengale Rouge of the Bianchi line, by which I mean a deliciously thicc n’ fuzzy oriental that’s characterful without being challenging – the much-loved woolly sweater your hand reaches for over the stark, uncompromising Ann Demeulemeester gilet you bought in a factory sale but could never figure out where the arm holes were. The thing these perfumes have in common is their sense of familiarity – they remind you (vaguely) of scents you already know and love. They wear like old friends even if you’ve just been introduced.
Just like Bengale Rouge is a more ‘people-pleasing’ option for people who would never wear Salome, Sticky Fingers is the perfect ‘out’ for people who want to own a Bianchi but find Sex and The Sea or The Lover’s Tale too heavy on the harsh orris-leather accord that has become the Bianchi calling card. That’s not to say that there’s none of Francesca in this perfume, because women with strong personalities always spill over into their art. You’d know, for example, that Sticky Fingers is a Bianchi creation as surely as you can tell Bengale Rouge is a Liz Moores one.
But Sticky Fingers is not going to ruffle any feathers. It is a cosy, feel-good diorama of Francesca Bianchi’s back catalogue with most of the hard edges sanded down and its already duvet-thick volume fluffed up by a mille-feuille of chocolatey patchouli, resins, amber, tonka bean, and vanilla.
My own sticky fingers hover over the ‘buy’ button on Sticky Fingers mostly for the last two thirds of its life, which is when it turns into that combination of smells perfume lovers know as ‘sweater mélange’ – that sweet, lived-in aroma of a fabric like wool or coat collar or seatbelt exhaling, like a sigh, the breath of multiple perfumes last worn God knows when. Or that lovely and as-individual-as-a-fingerprint nuclear cloud that rushes up at you when you open a box of your favorite perfumes or cosmetics.
To wit, Sticky Fingers smells like the heady, third-day fug imprinted on my bathrobe after several days of wearing some of Francesca Bianchi’s other perfumes; especially The Dark Side with its honeyed resins, The Lover’s Tale with its sharp leather, and Lost in Heaven for its simultaneously urinous and sherbety civet-iris accord that is practically the Bianchi DNA. Yet Sticky Fingers is much softer and gauzier than any of these. It’s like all of these perfumes mingling together and blown in at you through an air vent from another room.
Digging down into the detail, there are muffled echoes of something of the choco-wheat-cereal notes from indie perfumes of the last few years (like Ummagumma by Bruno Fazzolari, Café Cacao by En Voyage, or Amber Chocolate by Abdes Salaam Attar), but also a spicy tobacco gingerbread (Tan d’Epices), and a thick ‘white’ note like sandalwood creamed with benzoin (Santal Blush perhaps). I sprayed some Ta’if (Ormonde Jayne) over the tail end of Sticky Fingers once and could have sworn to the presence of smoky, caramelized marshmallow (Amber Absolute by Tom Ford). To be clear, Sticky Fingers doesn’t smell like any one of these perfumes. It’s just a delicious, jumbled up funk of rich woody or resinous orientals that have been worn at some point in the past two or three weeks, and have left an indelible, if undefined, impression.
In essence, Sticky Fingers is a patchouli perfume. But through a glass darkly. Think of the patchouli as the soloist leading the charge in a huge orchestra, drawing in supporting riffs from the strings and the bass until the music swells up from a hundred different sources, creating an incredibly rich, harmonious sound that fills all the air pockets in the room. The patchouli starts out solo, a musty, stale, and fruity rendition of pure earth. But almost immediately it calls in the high notes of the string section, in the form of those acidulated orris-leather tones of the Bianchi DNA, and to counter that, the bass tones of grainy tobacco leaf, shredded into tiny pieces and soaked in a glass of cold, floral-anisic Chinese tea. This combination of notes and ‘sounds’ has the effect of roughing up the patchouli, turning it into a hessian cloth accord of earth, stewed tea, and tobacco, back-lit by the yellow streak of ureic civet-iris that runs through Bianchi’s work like battery acid.
This opening act is attention-catching but, focused on two or three accords that ride bullishly over everything else, it feels like we are all waiting this part out until the quieter, richer sound of the rest of the orchestra can spot an opening and rise to fill it. Eventually this happens, a whole chorus of dusty spices and sandblasted resins and micas ‘blooming’ in unison, softening the sharp edges of the Bianchi iris and blurring the outline of the patchouli. If I like the scent thus far, then I start to love it now, just as the central accord thickens up like a custard with the addition of tonka, sandalwood, vanilla, and tons of sparkly resin. This is when the perfume becomes a comforting ‘sweater mélange’.
The older the get, the more I enjoy scents that envelop me in a billowing cloud of warm, toasty goodness powered by the natural expansiveness of their resins, flowers, or sandalwood, as opposed to the fake radiance of Ambroxan or the forced volume achieved by over-spraying. The most naturally ‘wafty’ fragrances in my arsenal are the big balsamic orientals like L’Heure Bleue parfum (Guerlain), Opus 1144 (UNUM), Bengale Rouge (Papillon), Coromandel (Chanel), Farnesiana (Caron), and Taklamakan (777 SHL), which wear like a delicious ‘gold-brown’ scent cloud that moves with me, like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Sticky Fingers – welcome to the fold.
Source of Sample: Free with my purchase of Under My Skin from the Francesca Bianchi website.
Neither of these 2016 Ormonde Jayne releases – Jardin d’Ombre and Ambre Royal – are my kind of thing, even though there are interesting and even beautiful moments in both of them. But I’m beginning to wonder if 2016 marked some kind of strategic shift for Ormonde Jayne as a brand, away from the more characterful – and some might say challenging – compositions and towards a simpler, broader aesthetic that panders to a more mainstream taste?
Because, from this point onwards, that fascinating Ormonde Jayne interplay between piquant, peppery citrus notes and opulent woody, floral, or resinous drydown seems to be, if not missing, then certainly thinner – a mission drift of the kind that you notice only if you look closely enough. I notice, in the post-2016 Ormonde Jayne output, a flattening out on the complexity front, as well as a tendency to hoist them into the air with a sticky-sweet aromachemical volume far outpacing even the boost of the Iso E Super for which the brand is well known.
It’s fine, it’s fine – there are high points and successes even within this ‘slide’, if that is what it is, (the Love Collection was more lovely than not, and the 2016 release of Rose Gold was a triumph, even if it was followed by the insipid, more department-store-ish White Gold in 2017). And I will continue to think of, and rate, Ormonde Jayne as highly as I do Chanel, Hermès, and Mona di Orio when it comes to their consistency in turning out solidly-built, classically luxurious perfume. Ormonde Jayne is and always will be a top tier house for me. But, speaking as a serious Ormonde Jayne fan and owner of about six of their fragrances, if the La Route de la Soie collection marks where the brand is headed, then I will lock myself in with my pre-2016 Ormonde Jayne perfumes and try to pretend that the house ended its run there.
Neither Jardin d’Ombre nor Ambre Royal are all that bad but compared to the perfumes in the core collection and in the Four Corners collection, they’re not that great either. They could be said to mark the beginning of the shift in Ormonde Jayne direction towards the common denominator of popular taste for Ambroxan-driven ambers and florals, and from this perspective, they are interesting to study. Would I wear them myself? No, probably because nowadays, I tend to rank new perfumes – flurries of interest or even what I think might be ‘like’ or ‘love’ – against the gold standard of Nawab of Oudh, and when it comes down to it, I would always prefer to save for that bottle of Nawab of Oudh.
It’s impossible to tell from the notes list, but Jardin d’Ombre
is not a rich, velvety floriental but rather a sheer and uplifting Eau
de Lancôme medley of lime and bergamot strung out over gauzy white flowers
(Hedione-assisted) and a whoosh of what feels like aldehydes. There’s a tannic ‘linen’
note in the midst of the scent’s Big Lift which makes me wonder if there was a
microtrend afoot for this sort of sourish, diaphanous white floral in 2016; the
way Jardin d’Ombre is set up strongly recalls the cold champagne-and-copper-pennies
fizz of Superstitious (Frederic Malle), also 2016.
Truth be told, these soapy aldehyded florals with their sharp elbows and chilly demeanor – Climat, Arpège, etc. – are not really my thing; I need a bit of warmth and sweetness (Gold Woman by Amouage and Ella by Arquiste are as close as I am willing to get). But I do love the cold, aerated feel of Jardin d’ Ombre at first; it smells like a freshly-laundered bedsheet whipped by gusts of mountain air, the scent of the lemon or jasmine-scented water still clinging to the fabric. There’s also a brief but enchanting moment where it smells a bit like a freshly-opened sheaf of printing paper.
Unfortunately, the sourish, papery freshness I enjoy so much fades away within the hour, leaving in its place a sullen clutch of gummy ‘white flowers’ and an amber accord so sticky that I feel like I’ve just peeled open one of my husband’s white shirts taken wet from the machine to discover that it’s gone through the wash wrapped around one of the children’s abandoned, half-sucked lollipops (flavor undetermined). Funnily enough, the gummy white flower/amber-Ambroxan accord that Jardin d’Ombre dries down to happens to be the point from which the next fragrance I’m reviewing – Ambre Royal – starts out.
This is a stretch, so bear with me – but is it possible that
Ambre Royal is Ormonde Jayne’s riposte to Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Baccarat
Rouge 540? Both follow a basic formula of something candied joined to a spacey,
metallic Ambrox overload that sends the whole thing shooting off into space.
Both are sweet (in an acceptably masculine manner) and enormously radiant. Both
fragrances affect me in an almost physical sense. Some portions leave me nose
blind, while other portions drive an Ambrox-shaped ice pick into the most
tender and vulnerable part of my brain. I can’t wear either of them for an
extended length of time without wanting to boil my skin off to make it stop,
but I did anyway, because reviews based on a quick sniff rather than a full day’s
wear are only 10% of the story.
On my skin, Ambre Royal smells absolutely awful at first. I am assaulted by the
scent of boiled sweets melted down and smeared over salty fishing tackle – a
queasy mélange of Maltol, shiny lab musks, the sweaty, aftershavey radiance of
Ambrox, and the bone-dry, faux-cedar crackle of Iso E Super. Smells like the
essence of Man on steroids. But the Sporty Modern Man edition, because it sure
But listen, this is Ormonde Jayne, and they are never just going to leave this
accord hanging around all on its own like that. So, the ugliness of the initial
chords gets gentled down in a bed of powdery musks, amber, myrrh, and
(real-smelling) cedarwood that smells like an expensive wooden box full of
antique amber resin.
The amber is not rich, but light, expansive, and nicely salty. In fact, it reminds me of the black licorice-inflected almond play-dough (tonka bean and myrrh) of Alien Absolue, minus the overt jasmine notes. I warm up to Ambre Royal at precisely the point at which I stop smelling aftershave and start smelling the anisic custard accord I love so much in the Mugler, though the Ormonde Jayne take on the theme has been lighted and aerated so much that it bears only a distant relationship to Alien Absolue’s gouty bullishness. I don’t know what kind of black magic has been employed to massage something so brutal into the shape of luxuriousness, but that’s Ormonde Jayne for you. I just wish we’d been treated to the smooth stuff from the get-go rather than having to sweat through the unpleasantly metallic ambery goop at the start.
Before I posted this review, I checked the fragrance again, this time spraying on paper – and what a revelation! Ambre Royal behaves very differently on paper than on my skin. Paper slows its roll. I’m treated to a drawn-out procession of some pretty wonderful notes that had whizzed right by me the last few times. I smell anise, red and purple berries, licorice vines, velvety musks, gin and tonic, gripe water, and a sort of creamy, candied white musk-custard accord that reminded me immediately of the amazing Musc Nomade (Annick Goutal), shot through with the cedary aftershave notes of Ambrox and Iso E Super, which are now subdued under the indolent weight of silky amber notes. Quite a different experience. If it weren’t socially unacceptable to wear perfume via paper strips taped to one’s pulse points, that’s totally how I’d handle Ambre Royal.
Source of Samples: Ormonde Jayne as PR samples in 2016-2017 (ish). This review was not required by the brand.
Ormonde Jayne set out its mission and values in its original core collection, and to this day, it remains the standard bearer for the brand. I’ve written about some of the perfumes in the Ormonde Jayne core collection before, but since I’ve been reevaluating much of my collection recently, I thought it might be useful to update or expand upon my thoughts.
In general, my unscientific belief that Ormonde Jayne is the English Chanel bears out. This is solidly-built, almost classical perfumery with a modern elegance derived from strong artistic direction and an admirably no-nonsense approach to the valuable role synthetics play in elevating naturals.
One thing I have noticed this time around is that the literal names – Champaca, Ta’if, Frangipani, and so on – are a Le Labo-ish piece of misdirection, suggestive of a soliflore-ism that simply isn’t there. Words have power, so there will always be those disappointed if the titular ingredient isn’t headlining the whole show. But on the flip side, newcomers to the brand who are able to park their expectations at the door may find their minds blown by the beauty arrived at via more circuitous routes.
Champaca is a scent whose appeal
eludes many. But you know what? Half the time it eludes me too. On its bad
days, many of the slurs thrown its way worm their way into my head and nag
persistently at me with the worry that they might be true – that Champaca is nothing
special, that it’s too champaca or not champaca enough, that it’s
nondescript, that it’s a dowdy green floral that Calvin Klein’s Truth
did better and cheaper. Then there’s its musky loudness, which I always forget
until I get called out on it by a colleague who is never backward about coming
forward on the subject of my perfume.
But on good days, Champaca is the
gently starched air from a bowl of Chinese greens and the damp, permeating
nuttiness of brown basmati rice. It makes me think of stepping in from a cold,
rainy afternoon in Cork or Limerick into the wood-lined hush of a traditional
Japanese restaurant, slightly steamy from condensation and humming with low
I don’t understand the accusations of tropical yellow flowers or heady ambers in relation to Champaca. It is not even a particularly floral experience. To me, Champaca smells more like the fresh green peel of a Granny Smith apple rinsed with rainwater than a flower. Yes, technically, this all might be unexciting. The scent of an upscale Japanese onsen or spa is never really going to raise the barometer on anyone’s passion. But when I am feeling delicate, or in need of a friendly hand at the small of my back, then Champaca, with its gossamer-light bloom of starchy musks, rice steam, apple peel, watery bamboo, maybe mint, and the environmental exhalations of clean, blond wood, is what I find myself reaching for.
I originally invested in Orris
Noir as a poor man’s substitute for the far more expensive Tsarina, having
identified a creamy-milky, anisic iris as the underpinning to both. Now, after
taking the time to study both at leisure, I can say that while Tsarina is by
far the creamiest, more luxurious ‘white’ leather scent I have ever smelled, in
retrospect it doesn’t turn me on as much as Orris Noir, which, although less ‘beautiful’
than Tsarina, has more conversation.
Orris Noir has three or four
distinct layers. The first is a doughy iris as dense as under-proved bread
dough studded with dried fruit. A couple of years on, I now smell this as a
rosy iris bread that’s been soaked in sweet milk, like the egg-rich Easter crown
baked once a year in the Balkans. The second layer is an anisic myrrh with the
same crystallized texture as found in other myrrh scents such as Myrrhe Ardente,
albeit more golden and less overtly itchy-scratchy. The third layer is a minimally
smoky cloud of wood or incense that lifts the perfume and makes it radiant
(probably a combination of the Iso E Super and the Chinese cedar). Last but not
least, there’s a bright, fruity jasmine that fizzes as sweetly as a glass of
freshly-poured Coca Cola. Somehow, all of these elements hang together as
naturally and as lightly as a silk shawl.
Orris Noir is a fantastic advertisement for the Ormonde Jayne style of building a fragrance, in that it is composed of many different layers, all of them as light as air, but which when laid one on top of another become a dense, velvety mass. I love Orris Noir for what it is – a beguilingly soft spice oriental – rather than hate it for what it is not, i.e., noir or even orris. Indeed, if Ormonde Jayne had named it something else, Orris Noir might have gained the respect granted to other similarly soft, hazy resinous-floral orientals such as Bois d’Argent (Dior) or Jasmin de Nuit (The Different Company). This is one perfume in my collection that has improved greatly upon (re)acquaintance.
Frangipani Absolute is at least accurately
named, given that it smells more like the absolute than the living flower. The
absolute smells green and waxy, like a nubbin of beeswax rolled in matcha
powder; the living flower, which I had the opportunity of smelling for the
first time in Colombia last summer, smells a bit like jasmine but without the
indole and grape, and there is a buttery undertone that I associate with gardenia,
minus the heavy bleu cheese aspects.
Frangipani Absolute freshens the waxy-green heft of the absolute by filtering it through lime and linden blossom, creating the impression of hothoused tropical flowers drenched in ice water and the glass partitions thrown open to salty sea air. The brightness of this topnote is undercut later on by the lush creaminess of the living flower, embodied by an accord that smells like a dairy-heavy rice and coconut pudding made out of tuberose petals, with pools of yellow Irish butter rising to the surface. A subtly salty musk and clean cedar hum in the far background, mainly there for support in case the almost unrelenting brightness of the lime-drenched white flowers falters.
Cleverly, the perfumer has made the floral component very peachy, to mimic the peachy jasmine-like aura of the living flower. Frangipani is therefore blessed with a suede-skin note that smells charmingly like the back of a rubber watch on a sweaty child. The scent shifts between these three main accords – green-aqueous-fresh, peachy-rubber, and creamy-buttery-tuberose – without ever getting pulled too far down in one single direction. That’s some balancing act.
Frangipani Absolute is an undeniably
beautiful scent, and an interesting take on a flower that often plays second
fiddle to more powerful headliners such as gardenia or tuberose. My hesitation on
whether it stays in my collection or not stems from several different quarters.
First, the salty, quasi-aquatic
musk in the drydown reminds me very much of Lys Méditerranée (Malle), already a wardrobe staple
for me, which makes me wonder if it’s not duplicative to have two scents that represent
largely the same ‘feel’, i.e., heady white flowers drenched in dew and the
salty air rolling in off the ocean. The occasions when I feel the need for this
precise combination are few and far between, therefore surely it is redundant for
me to have two separate fragrances at the ready when this tight little niche
corner of my ‘need’ rears its head.
Second, Frangipani is so pretty
and well-presented that it makes me feel slightly uncouth in comparison.
Worse, the prettiness reminds me of the golden, solar fruity-floral ‘glazed
eyes’ affair that is J ’Adore (Dior), which is fine if you’re wearing
something you can pick up from any Sephora or Douglas, but not great if you’re
special ordering from a classy niche brand like Ormonde Jayne.
Third, the brightness of the lime-and-peach-hued white flowers feels a little too sharp and insistent at times, like when you neck that syrupy but metallic juice from a tin of canned tropical fruit. In other words, absolutely gorgeous at first but perhaps wearing a little on your nerves towards the last? Along the same lines of complaint (minor, but still), the vanilla tuberose pudding base flirts with heaviness; it clashes a little queasily with the citric acid of the lime, to the extent that it teeters on the precipice of a curdle.
Out of all the Ormonde Jayne scents I own, Frangipani Absolute is the one I agonize over the most. Do I need it? No. Does its classical (but slightly mainstream) beauty justify me keeping it? Maybe. But the fact that I swing between a yes and a no on this scent, personally, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rank among the top tier of tropical floral perfumes I’ve had the pleasure of smelling.
Despite not being wowed at first
sniff, I have come around to the pleasures of Tolu. It has a bitter, spicy
broom note that slices through the golden, balsamic sweetness of amber to
create something that is both fresh and heavy, like a flourless chocolate torte
that dissolves into fennel dust on the tongue. The kind of thing that invites
you to take a second slice, even in summer. I can see this working as a sort of
upmarket Dune. In that sense, this is definitely a floral oriental rather than
a straight up ‘golden’ amber. It certainly doesn’t maintain a strict tolu
balsam fidelity. Rather, Tolu has that sophisticated French floral-sandy feel
to it that I associate not only with Dune (Dior) but also with 24,
Rue Faubourg (Hermes), albeit with the innovation of a sweetly resinous base
to tilt it ever so slightly in the direction of Morocco rather than Paris.
The more I wear Tolu, the more I appreciate its subtlety. I used to prefer the caramelized full frontal of one-the-nose resin bombs and ambers to the almost too quiet, too ‘mixed’ cloud of balsams, orange blossom, and musks represented by Tolu. But Tolu is, I realize, a mood. It is very perfumey meaning it’s been worked and reworked to the same point of abstraction as Coco (Chanel), Dune (Dior) or even Alahine (Teo Cabanel).
Tolu is the quintessential going out perfume for nights along the Riviera, where women and men are beautifully dressed and the warm air smells like a mixture of flowers, salty skin, and the balsamic twang of Mediterranean herbs and umbrella pines lining the promenade. It’s easy to argue that there’s nothing very unusual about Tolu, but what it does, it does extremely well. I will always have space in my wardrobe for this perfumey, French-smelling take on the warm, golden balsams I love rinsed out with flowers, salt, and herbs.
For a while, my interest in
Ormonde Jayne stopped with OJ Woman, a perfume I’d struggled with for years
before finally falling in love with it. That was, until one day a couple of
years ago, I fished around in my sample box looking for something crisp and
green to go well with a planned walk in a nearby castle grounds with my children
and stumbled upon Tiaré.
Its lack of anything truly tiaré-like or tropical puzzled me at first. But I remember marveling at the champagne-like quality of the lime and green notes fizzing gently around the oily but fresh white flower petals. The damp, mossy drydown proved to be a perfect reflection of the elegance of the castle lake and grounds. There is something pinned-up and Victorian in its mien – not entirely me, but rather someone I aspire to be. It was the first sample from the Ormonde Jayne sample set that I drained completely. Whereupon I forgot about it entirely.
Fast forward to Summer 2017, which is when, while sweating our way through the forests and fields of the Sologne and Loiret, I decided that, really, nothing was more French or more crisply elegant than Tiaré, and that I desperately needed a bottle of it. Tiaré would be, I’d decided, my entry point to a new life in France that, although it never actually materialized, was the Big Plan in our family at the time, to the point of flying the kids out to various French cities in an attempt to decide where we would settle.
The firm belief that a life in
France calls for a thoroughly ‘French’ perfume (as if my collection wasn’t
already 75% made up of so-called French perfume) is why I am now the proud
possessor of a totally unnecessary 120mls of Tiaré. (I am perennially guilty of
daydreaming my life forward and allowing my purchases to lead the way. In 2018,
I was so convinced that I was going to be hired by a British not-for-profit to
manage their programs in Myanmar that I got emotionally invested in Indochine
by Parfumerie Generale, a perfume based on Burmese thanaka wood. I didn’t get
the job, but you bet I bought a bottle of Indochine. I don’t even want to say
how many ‘Roman’ perfumes were necessary for me to settle into a new life in
Anyway, back to Ireland in these early, post-Coronavirus times and Tiaré, like Cristalle (Chanel), doesn’t really suit the damp, cool conditions. Yet I am loathe to get rid of Tiaré, because, God knows, I will probably need it for when we finally move to France. In which case, I will also need the quintessential cognac-colored leather shopper, very pointy ballet flats, a chic haircut, and a perfectly-cut navy blazer. So, I guess I’d better start shopping now….
Ormonde Jayne Woman
Woman occupies a place in my personal pantheon of greats, but the route to loving her has not been easy. In fact, I have struggled with this perfume on and off for years. I imagine that, for people like me, with biological sensitivities to certain materials, getting past Woman’s many thorns is like loving someone who is beautiful but difficult.
Initially, my nose was so sensitive to the combination of woody ambers, sticky pine, and Iso E Super that the only notes I could smell were acrid, burnt, metallic – like burnt fuses and the La Roche Posay medicated acne cream. These unfortunate associations, plus the physical sensation I had of an ice-cold shiv driving into the tender recesses of my brain, are what made me keep my sample of Woman at a safe distance from my nose, wrapped twice in cling film and double-bagged.
Every so often, over the years, I
would take out that sample of Woman and tentatively sniff. Now, here’s the
strangest thing. As my exposure to the violent woody ambers and brutal Iso E
Super used increasingly in niche increased, so too did my tolerance. I don’t
mean that I started to like them, but rather that their presence no longer
obscured large parts of a composition for me. This meant that perfumes such as Indochine
(Parfumerie Generale), Musc Nomade (Annick Goutal), and Ormonde Jayne Woman
were now ‘unlocked’ for me. I could smell all parts of these perfumes rather
Having said that, progress was gradual. For example, for about six months, although I could smell all parts of Woman, all depth perception dropped off after about an hour or two, leading me to believe (mistakenly) that the perfume had simply stopped in its tracks. I now believe that this was due to the type of woody ambers used, some of which have a curious side effect of making a scent seem to disappear and then come back, over and over again, throughout a day’s wear. Ambroxan can have this odd ‘receding and resurging’ effect too; I sense it most keenly in Amouage Jubilation XXV, which my husband says he wears for other people because he himself cannot smell it after an hour (to his family, it seems quite big and room-filling).
Anyway, the reason I’m waffling on about this odd facet of Woman is that reviews are the little markers we drop along our journey, in the hope that they serve as clues to fellow travelers years down the road, right? I remember smelling Indochine and doing a Google search for something along the lines of ‘Why does Indochine smell like an ice pick to my brain?’ and stumbling across Kafkaesque’s review, which was the first source of answers for me as to why some materials were physically obtrusive to my nose yet imperceptible to others. I felt seen. I hope that someone struggling with Ormonde Jayne Woman finds their way to this review and gets comfort from knowing that they’re not alone, and that there might be a rational explanation for not immediately jiving with one of the most renowned perfumes in modern niche.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel, folks, there really is. Now when I smell Ormonde Woman, I smell the whole forest, the sugared smoke of gingerbread crumbs thrown onto the fire, and the inky mass of woodland violets and hemlock rolled out underfoot, and Scarlett O’ Hara’s dark green velvet gown made out of curtains and fury.
At heart, Ormonde Woman is a nugget of amber surrounded by tall conifers and hemlock, but its mysterious appeal can’t be explained by its notes or even how we think they all hang together. Woman is one of those perfumes you submit to, body and soul, without much hope of ever picking it apart. It took me years to be able to smell all parts of it but now when I wear Ormonde Jayne Woman now, I smell it all, and what I smell makes me breathe deep and easy.
Osmanthus is not my favorite osmanthus-themed scent in the Ormonde Jayne stable (that would be Qi), but it is surely the prettiest. Osmanthus explores the softly soapy, ‘clean linen’ side of the bloom that marks it out more as vaguely cherry blossom than the pungent fruity apricot suede trope often plumbed in niche.
In fact, aside from a vaguely peachy or apricotty tinge in the topnotes, Osmanthus sidesteps its namesake ingredient and goes for pomelo peel and white petals plunged into ice water and polished to a high shine by radiant aquatic musks. It smells pleasantly cooling, like a tall glass of lemonade or the feel of fresh cotton on hot skin.
Think of it this way; if Qi is an apricot-colored suede pouch filled with green tea, then Osmanthus is a white broderie anglaise sundress and a pair of straw espadrilles strung over one perfectly tan shoulder.
All very nice but running a little too close to one of those Atelier Cologne citrus-and-cotton-musk scents for comfort. I always thought that Osmanthus would smell more ‘at home’ in the form of a body care product than a perfume, and it turns out I was right; the Osmanthus Hair Mist is lovely. Warmer and peachier than the perfume – to my nose at least – the pert, perfumey prettiness of Osmanthus makes more sense to me when spritzed through second day hair. It is still much girlier than I am, but at least in this form, it just creates the manifest lie impression that I am freshly bathed and impeccably groomed.
Ta’if is one of those fragrances
where I seem to be experiencing something completely different to everyone
else. People use the words ‘rich’, ‘dark’, and ‘exotic’ to describe it, which
suggests a texture as heavy as velvet – close to Lyric Woman (Amouage) or
Portrait of a Lady (Malle). But reality is miles removed. On my skin, Ta’if
reads as a sheer peppery mixed floral layered over a musky, dried-fruit base. Neither
the advertized dates nor Taifi rose show up for me, or at least not in any form
I recognize (when I see ‘Ta’if’ rose, I expect a pop of fiercely spicy, green lemon-and-lime
sharpness announcing a tannic rose).
In fact, I’d rank Ta’if alongside Rose Noir (Miller Harris) and Tobacco Rose (Papillon) as rose fragrances that bill themselves as one thing and then deliver another. Clearly, the sheer amount of admiration and positive reviews out there for Ta’if and Tobacco Rose demonstrates that it is possible not only to get over any cognitive dissonance related to their names, but to love them wholeheartedly for themselves.
On me, Ta’if is mostly a blowsy peach and orange blossom chiffonade, interspersed with brief flashes here and there of something that might be interpreted as a tart, green rose. The peachy-powdery feel of the fragrance makes me think of something functional I used to use when I was a teenager, like the Impulse O2 body spray. The dry down is a slightly powdery musk with a streak of dates running through it, which doesn’t tilt too literally in the direction of any one particular note. Rather, one is bathed in a fluffy miasma of musk, fruit, orange blossoms, and caramel that reminds me of some of the prettier ‘pink-smelling’ dry downs in designer perfumery, such as Coco Mademoiselle, or Elie Saab.
Source of samples: Based on a sample set generously gifted to me in 2015 of the niche perfumer store in Dublin, ParfuMarija, I subsequently bought bottles or partials of most of the above. The Osmanthus Hair Mist was kindly gifted to me by Ormonde Jayne PR a couple of weeks ago, along with a Petits Fours box of samples of four of the La Route de la Soie collection sent to me for review (review is upcoming). My opinions are firmly my own.
Fallintostars by Strangelove NYC is clever because it pairs the 15th century smell of Hindi oud – the dank, rotting, wet wood smell of animal hides piled high in a medieval dungeon – with the 21st century radiance of a modern amber. For the first half hour, the dissonance is dizzying. The oud is so authentically filthy that I feel like I’m being pressed up against a wall by an lout with a shiv and bad intentions. It’s as funky as a plate of fruit and cheese furred over with mold, wrapped in a length of freshly-tanned leather, and buried in a pile of steaming, matted straw.
But just when you fear you’re slipping wholesale into slurry, you notice the bright, peppery overlay of something radiant and electric, like sparks popping off a shorted wire. This accord calls to mind the aromachemically fresh, smoky black tea opening of Russian Tea (Masque Milano Fragranze) more than the pink pepper the notes tell me this is likely to be. The distance between the light and the dark is perfectly judged. It’s more of a whoosh than a lift. It smells exciting – sexy even. I’m tempted to douse myself in it and force strange men to come sniff my neck, even though, technically, this hard, peppery smell is more masculine-leaning than otherwise.
But wait, because we haven’t really talked about the amber yet. Poor Christophe Laudamiel – I bet that after the category-defining glory that is Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) he’s afraid to touch labdanum for fear of either never reaching those heights again or being accused of repeating himself. But then again, this is Christophe Laudamiel we’re talking about – a man who, as I’ve said before, when confronted with a straight line instinctively starts to zig zag wildly across the page like a wild hoss. He seems to create restlessly in one forward motion, refusing to circle back to even his most hallowed of halls.
So, no, this is not the benzoin-thickened incense amber of Amber Absolute, but (unexpectedly) the bright, hard sparkle of a champagne-and-vodka amber in the style of pre-reform Ambre Russe (Parfum d’Empire). Like a shot of those clear gold liquors served in the Alps after dinner, I’m not sure which I want to do more – drink it or apply it to a wound. It smells…well, excuse my language, but fucking amazing. How does a perfumer get amber to smell as rich as leather but as transparent as jelly?
My nose fails me when it comes to the other notes. I don’t get any of the green, hay-like barnyardiness of narcissus (unless it’s giving the dirty straw notes in the Hindi oud some welly) or indeed any of the gentler, more jasmine-like nuances of the jonquil variety, and there’s nary a hint of rose. I don’t perceive the benzoin at all, which is strange because even if I can’t smell it, I can usually feel it thickening the texture of the basenotes into a flurry of papery dust.
What I smell in Fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh. It’s also possible that it’s just myrrh.
Anyway, what I like about this perfume is that it transcends its raw materials to make you think about the way it is composed. The modern, near slavish adoration at the foot of complex-smelling naturals such as Hindi oud or rose or labdanum often results in muddy, brown-tinged accords that speak more to their own worthiness than to joy, especially in the indie sector. In Fallintostars, Christophe Laudamiel takes heavy hitters like Hindi oud and makes it smell like bottled fireflies. And that is alchemy, pure and simple.
Disclosure: A sample of Fallintostars was sent to me by Strangelove NYC for review. My opinions are my own.
Have you ever been walking along the street and suddenly feel so good that you burst into a run? Zoologist Bee is that for me – a burst of positivity that settles on you like a blessing you don’t remember asking for. The perfume doesn’t seem to be particularly complicated, but the trick it performs is by no means simple; effortlessness, or at least the impression of it, always requires an invisible-to-the-naked-nose system of levers and pulleys operating under the surface. Perfumes exuding this sense of almost child-like glee are rare. I can count on one hand the number of fragrances so exuberantly good-smelling that you feel you’re the world’s Secret Santa. Kalemat is one; so is Shaal Nur. Now Zoologist Bee joins their ranks.
I’m torn as to how best describe the pleasantness of the balance between bitter and sweet achieved in the opening – it’s the smoky, brown sugar-tinged bitterness of molten honeycomb (cinder toffee) just before the baking powder is added, but at the same time, there’s a jellied, clear coldness that calms the roil before it reaches burning point. This note, or rather texture, could be the royal jelly that appears in the notes. But the way I perceive the royal jelly note in Bee changes with each wearing. Sometimes, it feels as gelatinous as the cubes of grass jelly you get in bubble tea, at others, it smells more like rooibos tea that’s been boiled with a spoon of honey and allowed to cool on a window sill, i.e., a mixture of something tannic and something coldly sweet.
Whether it’s jelly or cold tea, the important thing is that this accord lends an impression of clarity, or transparency to the perfume. The rundown of notes doesn’t matter here because, as with any honey perfume, it’s as important to state what Bee is not as what it is. So, Bee is not treacly or syrupy or heavy. It’s not so sweet that it smells pungent or sharp. It is hugely radiant, but not unpleasantly scratchy or ‘fake’, by which I mean that it doesn’t smell like it’s been overloaded with those annoying woody ambers stuffed into most perfumes laying claim to the word ‘radiant’.
Bee is not – crucially, for me at least – animalic. I adore pissy honey perfumes like Absolue Pour Le Soir, but I have to be mentally ready for them. I don’t like when the saliva-ish staleness of honey reveals itself only in the far drydown, because it’s like an uninvited guest who, no matter how charming or brilliant they turn out to be, grate purely because their presence was unsolicited. I’d describe Bee a clear, radiantly ambery floral honey, tilting more towards amber than floral. There’s a doughy, fluffy sweetness in its underskirts that I take to be heliotrope, but the floral notes are largely indistinguishable, muffled as they are by the thick, white-ish beeswax note. There’s orange in the notes list, but I don’t smell any citrus at all, and if there’s anything green or fresh in the bitterness of the opening, then I’ve missed it entirely.
Bee is clearly honey from the start. No mistaking it for anything else. My children absolutely loved the scent and keep sticking their noses into my arm; my husband sniffed it and said, rather grimly, ‘yes, that’s honey alright.’ So, make no mistake – you need to like the essential honey-ness of honey to like Bee. Zoologist Bee is not the perfume for you, for example, if you like your honey notes abstract or folded into the weft where, as one note among many, it can do the least damage.
For me, honey is as problematic a note as coffee, chocolate, and caramel notes. In the context of a perfume, these solinotes almost always present more as a series of problems to be resolved (too bitter, too burnt, too urinous, too pungent, etc.) than the purer sensory pleasure they are capable of giving in the mouth. So, it’s really something for me to say that Bee is probably the only honey or beeswax-centric fragrance that I can see myself committing to without having to make a series of unhappy compromises with my own self.
For example, I like Honey Oud by Floris but am in two minds over that vaguely synthy wood in the basenotes that only I seem to be able to smell. I enjoy the grapey, musty honey of Botrytis by Ginestet, but only when I can smell the rot – about 70% of the time I wear it, it reads as a slightly dull, fruity amber. With its smoky-sweet cinder toffee amber, my memory of Immortelle de Corse by L’Occitane comes closest of all to Bee, but of course, it’s been discontinued so my memory might be serving me up false positives. But what anybody reading this review really wants to know is this: how does Bee compare to the last honey-focused runaway success on the niche/indie scene, namely Hiram Green’s Slowdive?
Slowdive is much richer, thicker, and more complex than Bee, with the herbs, florals, and tobacco almost as important to the whole smell as the honey and beeswax. On the other hand, Slowdive is far too heavy and syrupy for me to wear casually. I can’t just throw it on – I’d have to suit up for it. Compared to Slowdive, Zoologist Bee is simpler, more user-friendly in a big-boned, good-natured, ambery way. Bee and Slowdive are connected by way of their indie or smaller niche ‘feel’ (both have more in common with those rustic, ‘honest’ indie honeys such as Golden Cattleya by Olympic Orchids than with, say, Oajan by Parfums de Marly or Honey by Kim Kardashian West). But while Slowdive has that unmistakably hand-crafted, all-natural feel to it, Bee has the more polished, high-spec finish you get with mixed media perfumes, positioning it as slightly more niche than artisanal.
With its expansive ambery radiance, Bee moves one step closer to what most people outside the tight inner circle of perfume nerds would consider ‘yummy’ and gorgeous and easy to wear. And I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing – Zoologist Bee made it to my ‘to buy’ list the minute I smelled it. Anything that smells this good just begs to be bought and worn, not endlessly agonized over.