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Rule Evernia: An (Ormonde Jayne) Essay on Oakmoss

22nd September 2021

Evernia by Ormonde Jayne takes its name from Evernia prunastri, the species of lichen from which oakmoss absolute – the star ingredient here – is obtained.  It is interesting that Ormonde Jayne, one of the rare fragrance houses to successfully straddle the sprawling No Man’s Land between the minuscule community of esoteric, quirk-seeking fragrance wearers and the larger group of ‘normal’ fragrance wearers who just want to smell great, has chosen to focus on oakmoss.

 

Not because oakmoss is particularly challenging for those outside the inner circle of perfume fanatics. In and of itself, oakmoss absolute is a fantastic-smelling raw material.  As you might imagine for something distilled from lichen growing on oak trees, it smells earthy and bitter, like a forest floor distilled into a dark green sludge, but with a beguilingly velvety, almost creamy depth to it that has the effect of sucking you into its shadows.  Perfumery has long leaned on those properties as a fixative to anchor flightier, more volatile notes like bergamot, lavender, geranium, and carnation (while building a fougère) or to give the sweet, ambery parts of a chypre enough backbone to keep it standing straight.

 

But its value as the third leg to the triadic structure of a chypre or a fougère has meant that oakmoss has largely remained in the shadows, consigned to the role of a reliable basenote.  Bringing it out into the light is further complicated by the uncertain status in today’s fragrance regulatory environment.  As it turns out, oakmoss absolute contains two naturally-occurring molecules, or more accurately degradation products (i.e., substances produced or emphasized by the distillation process) called chloroatranol and atranol, which are allergens known to cause sensitivity in 1-3% of the population.  For this reason, the EU, on the advice of IFRA, the International Fragrance Association[1], has banned chloroatranol and atranol outright, while oakmoss as a whole (the absolute) is restricted to similar levels as other materials deemed a bit dodgy (like coumarin and geraniol) i.e., 0.001%.

 

Anything over that percentage is technically permissible, by the way – but manufacturers are required to include the full ingredient list, with the percentage levels of each material used, as a sort of ‘health and safety’ warning akin to the skull and bones images on cigarettes.  Since no perfume brand in their right mind wants to taint what is essentially a luxury product (fine fragrance) with an association – whether real or imagined – with the picture of skin breaking out in angry red boils or crumbling off our wrists in flakes the size of a small baby,  most major fragrance houses with oakmoss-heavy heritage perfumes, for example, Guerlain (Mitsouko), have simply reformulated using one or more of the commercially-viable alternative to oakmoss absolute, i.e., low- or zero-atranol oakmoss (first developed by Robertet), tree moss (which smells like a thinner, pine-ier oakmoss), or at the very least, some combination of a synthetic replacer like Evernyl Veramoss (an IFF captive) with some vetiver or celery seed to put back some of the oakmoss ‘flavor’.

 

That all raises the question: why oakmoss for Ormonde Jayne?  Why now?  After all, it is a material that has largely fallen from favor, both in the regulatory sense, and in terms of broader consumer tastes (there is a mustiness, or ‘old furniture and floor wax’ vibe to oakmoss that, though alluring to fragrance aficionados, can smell rather dated and old-fashioned to a modern nose raised on Ambroxan and that sweet, sweet tonka bean).  And how does Evernia compare to other notably oakmossy scents on the market?

 

Right away, you are able to tell that Evernia is quite recognizably an Ormonde Jayne take on oakmoss.  By which I mean that the oakmoss has been stripped out, pared down, and framed in an elegantly sparse structure featuring several of the brand’s signatures, for example, the fizzy brightness of cardamom and other ghost spices, a peppery-metallic lift in the topnotes, a touch of freesia or peony in the basenotes for that touch of clean rubber sneaker to push back against any creaminess that edges into excess.  And Iso E Super?  Sure – this is radiant, musky stuff.  But that’s all by the by. Because Evernia never lets us get distracted from the oakmoss.

 

In Evernia, Ormonde Jayne has highlighted the savory aspects of natural oakmoss rather than its more pungent or bitter facets.  Though the two perfumes are ultimately very different, the oakmoss in Evernia reminds me very much of the one used in Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, in that they both have that soft, earthy ‘slow-cooked greens’ element to them that calls to mind the vapors of celery cooked to the point of collapse, clinging to the fibers of one’s angora sweater in a warm, steamy kitchen.  While the Guerlain surrounds its oakmoss with heaps of animalic narcissus, piercing bergamot, and that plush Guerlainade of vanilla and balsams, the Ormonde Jayne emphasizes the vegetal savoriness of its oakmoss with a cardamom-tinged musk so buttery that it feels like vaporized Kerrygold.

 

I’m almost sure that low-atranol oakmoss has been used here rather than a synthetic replacer, but as Thierry Wasser, Master Perfumer of Guerlain, has pointed out, if “you make a fractional distillation and you pull out what the European Commission doesn’t want any more, then you create an olfactive hole. So then you have to find a way of tricking the nose into thinking that it’s smelling real oakmoss. You have to cheat by using other things”.  So perhaps the perfumer has leaned on other materials to fill this ‘hole in Evernia too’, something like jasmone (which often smells like a cross between immortelle and celery to me), or a touch of mastic oil to anchor the greenness and weigh it down.  It could even be the same supporting cast as seen in Ormonde Woman (or Man), i.e., that greenish, coniferous mélange of cardamom oil, juniper, and hemlock (though Evernia is far less sweet).

 

Unlike Ormonde Woman, Evernia doesn’t end in a gingerbread amber, nor does it wind up in the scratchy oud-wood place occupied by Ormonde Man (though it clearly belongs fits into the ‘core collection’ of Ormonde Jayne, alongside these stalwarts).  Instead, Evernia shakes off the deep, earthy-saline creaminess that dominates for much of its life, and takes on the pale, woody sourness of linen washed in rainwater and hung out to dry in a cold, sharp wind. It is metallic and mineralic, the faint ‘freshly-poured-concrete’ scent of cashmeran whipping it dry.  Though I’m personally less enamored by the drydown than I am with the first 75% sprawl of Evernia, I recognize that in its absence of sweet amber, creamy sandalwood, or warming resins, the entire scent maintains this cool, modern spareness throughout that makes it an attractive choice for both sexes.

 

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Photo by Aidan Hodel on Unsplash

How does Evernia compare to some of the other oakmoss-centric fragrances out there?  Here’s a small selection of other mossy scents with which I am personally familiar.  (By the way, for some stretches of its lifespan, Evernia reminds me a little of a less weird Dzongkha by L’Artisan Parfumeur.  This must be because of the savory-cooked-celery aspects the two have in common.)

 

Encens Chypre by Sultan Pasha Attars:  Encens Chypre, compared to Evernia, is a less civilized take on oakmoss.  It doesn’t strip out any of the material’s bitterness or grunge, but rather, emphasizes it.  Encens Chypre is a formidably bitter, green smell, dominated by a pungent oakmoss absolute running right down the line from its fresh, herbal top to its smoky incense base. I think what makes it work is the way the metallic, inky bitterness of oakmoss absolute has been matched with an equally pungent array of elemi and herbs.  The aromatics in the opening are themselves naturally bitter, with artemisia and clary sage providing a dark green herbal tone that sings in the same register as the oakmoss.  For the most part, Encens Chypre’s mossy timbre is actually far more reminiscent of a traditional fougère than a chypre.  The drydown adds in touches of jasmine, iris, and rose.  Ultimately, however, the shy floral presence stands no chance against the predominantly dark, mossy override of that oakmoss.  A thick brew of incense resins and balsams replaces the usual labdanum or patchouli for a fantastically dry and smoky finish.  An extremely well-done mossy chypre, Encens Chypre raises the middle finger to IFRA so openly that it makes me wonder if it’s entirely legal.

 

Chypre Siam by Rogue Perfumery:  Unlike Evernia, the whole premise of Chypre Siam (and indeed of Rogue Perfumery) is that it uses natural oakmoss absolute in contravention of IFRA recommendations.  Man, I am so tired of the overarching F%*k IFRA! narrative among some American indies.  To put things very plainly: since Rogue Perfumery is an American indie that doesn’t intend to sell its perfumes in the EU anyway and isn’t a member of IFRA, there is actually no requirement – legal, moral, or otherwise – for them not to use natural oakmoss, should they so desire.  In other words, Rogue telling IFRA to stick their oakmoss ban up their @ss is like a housewife in Madison, Wisconsin stoutly declaring that she will not be following the Taliban’s requirement for women to wear the hijab in public the next time she’s out for a pint of milk, thank you very much.  A plea, if you don’t mind, to indie perfumers.  F%*k IFRA is cool and all, but how about you focus less on crafting highly-emotive war cries and more on making great perfume?  Rant aside, Chypre Siam is a pretty great perfume.  But less because of its real oakmoss than for its clever updating of the chypre model with Asian notes such as kaffir lime and basil.  Strangely, after the rivetingly sour opening of lime and oakmoss, I find that Chypre Siam settles very quickly into a soft, powdered-leather affair (more vegetal violet leaf than an animalic leather), the lime maintaining the bitterness of the chypre style when the oakmoss runs out of steam.  Though beautiful, I find Chypre Siam to be delicate to the point of being wan, which is odd given that it uses the unadulterated stuff (compared to modern Mitsouko, which uses low-atranol oakmoss and yet smells very rich in comparison).  As always with indies, I have to ask myself if Chypre Siam does something so different or so much more satisfying than a mainstream perfume that I will brave the extra time, international shipping, and custom fees involved in getting a bottle of it to Ireland.  And in the case of Chypre Siam, the answer is, regrettably, no.  Not when I can just buy a bottle of Mitsouko eau de toilette for €60 in full confidence that it will smell great, and despite its reformulation woes, also reliably oakmossy.

 

Sballo by Bruno Acampora:  Funnily enough, Sballo doesn’t list oakmoss in its notes, but that doesn’t stop this from being one of the most joyfully oakmossy fragrances I’ve ever smelled.  Unlike Evernia, the oakmoss in Sballo is dry, herbal, and hay-like, rather than creamy or earthy.  Sballo means ‘trip’ in Italian.  Not in the ‘trip to the seaside’ sense of the word, but in the ‘I ate some funny-looking mushrooms and now your face is a rainbow’ sense of the word.  (The name is appropriate when you consider how mind-bendingly 1970s the original Acampora aesthetic was).  Sballo goes heavy on the aromatics, hay, patchouli, and oakmoss.  It ain’t pretty or cleaned up, but it sure does smell authentic.  The main thrust of this scent is a patchouli-rose chypre in the Bernard Chant style.  Think Aromatics Elixir and Aramis 900, but richer and rougher in texture.  An artisanal, homemade take on a commercially-fluted model.  The rose is brilliant and red, but quickly smothered by a wave of dry grasses, a rustic hay note acting in tandem with oakmoss and patchouli.  Some modern chypre scents fake the bitterness of oakmoss in the traditional chypre accord via other materials that share a similarly ashen dryness, like denatured patchouli aromachemicals (Akigalawood), hay, galbanum, or even saffron.  But although there is no oakmoss listed for Sballo, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t actually contain at least some. To my nose, the shadowy dankness of the material is unmistakably present.  Sballo shores up this oakmoss effect by flanking it with equally dank or earthy-dry materials such as hay, clove, patchouli, and a material that smells like tobacco.  The overall effect is gloomy and dusty, but also abstractedly perfumey in the grand chypre tradition.  Saving it from a classic ‘ladies who lunch’ formality of the chypre structure is the rough, almost burnt-ashy texture of the moss and patchouli.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Attar:  Oakmoss is one of my favorite fragrances from Abdes Salaam Attar, but compared to Evernia, it is an altogether wetter, earthier, and more vivid scent – more an experience than a perfume.  It is also as much a vetiver scent as it is an oakmoss one, though, arguably, it conjures up the ‘forest floor’ aspect of oakmoss just as effectively as oakmoss absolute does.  Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire.  It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory – playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.  Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze.  It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees.  The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest. And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort.

 

Ayuthia by Mellifluence:  Ayuthia shares a similar forest floor effect with Evernia but deepens the shadows with an animalic oud.  The first note out of the bottle is most definitely the oud – a wave of wet, rotting wood, mixed with woodsmoke, camphor, and sharp fruit.  However, this settles quickly, segueing into a dry, woody heart with lots of grounding patchouli, green leaves, and bitter oakmoss.  Although never sweet, the earth and wood notes are made rounder with a hint of something soft and giving, like vanilla.  Not enough to make it sweet, just to sand off the edges.  The Chanthaburi oud oil vibrates thickly in every fiber of this mukhallat.  Lightly smoky, it sews a thread of fermentation through the fabric of the blend.  Though oud is the main driver, the base develops a velvety green dampness that is very forest floor-ish.  The inky oakmoss note expands to meet the mossy mintiness of a Borneo-style oud, completing the picture.  Hours later, the minerality of the oakmoss and the smoky woodiness of the oud melt away, leaving only the lively bitterness of camphor on the tongue.

 

Diaghilev by Roja Dove:  Diaghilev is often dismissed as a Mitsouko knock-off at five times the price, and while I don’t disagree that Roja Dove does tend to recycle old Guerlain tropes a bit too much to be called truly original, Diaghilev is actually far heavier on the oakmoss than Mitsouko.  I don’t know if that’s simply because Mitsouko’s peach lactones have been stripped out, or if Dove simply used more oakmoss in the formula.  But the result speaks for itself – if Mitsouko is a brilliant rust-gold-brown, then Diaghilev is a deep forest green.  Furthermore, its opening of creamy, bitter oakmoss and tart bergamot is laced with enough cumin or civet to produce a sensual skin note that makes Diaghilev warmer and more human, somehow, than Mitsouko.  The heart of Diaghilev layers in a chorus of buttery floral notes such as ylang, peach, and rose, flanked by powdery musks, which emphasizes the velvety plushness of the moss.  Where Diaghilev dovetails with Evernia is mostly in the drydown, where it shares with the Ormonde Jayne fragrance a similarly matte, almost smoky marine ink (mineralic) note.

 

Givenchy III by Givenchy:  Luca Turin referred to Givenchy III as ‘good, honest earth’, and with its one-two punch of patchouli and oakmoss, I can see what he means.  I was lucky enough to find a jeroboam-sized bottle of the vintage stuff on eBay, and once you get past the slightly decayed, coffee-and-greasy-coconut hairspray vibes of the opening blast, it does settle into a smell that can be described as spray-on forest floor.  Earthy, grungy, and with quite a bit of that lank, mint-stems-in-vase-water aroma that denotes real oakmoss (it pops up in both my vintage Diorella and Dune by Dior too), my Givenchy III doesn’t seem to have held on very well to any of the softening florals (hyacinth) or the citrusy sharpness of bergamot, aside from a general fustiness that vintage chypres generally display.  But I value Givenchy III precisely for this slightly fusty, old-fashioned oakmoss vibe.  It is the direct opposite of the modern, streamlined version of oakmoss presented in Evernia.  I like the idea of these two fragrances forming neat bookends to the story of oakmoss, with one very traditional and one very modern.

 

Bergamoss by Aftelier:  Bergamoss – an all-natural solid perfume – consists of sweet orange, oakmoss absolute, antique civet, and clary sage suspended in beeswax.  Though the name cleverly suggests a marriage of bergamot and oakmoss, and therefore a chypre, this really doesn’t smell like a chypre to me.  Expecting the familiar, rich brightness of bergamot, I am momentarily disoriented by a sharp lemongrass note (from the citronellal facet of geranium or rose, I guess), overlaid on a very vegetal, savory-rooty oakmoss whose funk has been emphasized by real civet paste.  It smells more like a real forest floor than an idealized one, therefore, with hints of pungent hay, urinous herbs, the natural dankness of moss soaked in two feet of rainwater, and perhaps even the slowly-decaying body of a small woodland creature.  Unexpectedly, I rather love Bergamoss, though more for its artistic weirdness and refusal to be pretty than for the bucolic picture the copy (and most reviews) promise.  Its only intersection with Evernia is on the shared emphasis on the vegetal, savory nature of oakmoss.

 

Source of samples/bottles:  I purchased samples and/or full bottles of Givenchy III, Oakmoss EDT, Chypre Siam, Ayuthia, and Sballo.  Samples of Bergamoss, Encens Chypre, and Evernia were provide gratis by the brands, though with no expectation of a review.  The sample of Diaghilev was kindly given to me by the lovely Josie of Oswald NYC as a gift-with-purchase when I bought my bottle of Khôl de Bahreïn in October 2017.  

Cover Image: Photo by Alexx Cooper on Unsplash 

[1] IFRA not a regulatory body but a voluntary membership organisation along the same lines of, say, the Boy Scouts or the Rotary Club. However, because it represents the interests of the fragrance industry as a whole, from raw materials producers to consumers of all things fragranced, it is a hugely influential body within the health and safety sphere. When the EU passes anything into law under the EU Cosmetics Directive (products applied directly to the skin like fine fragrance, cosmetics, soap, and toothpaste), or under the Classification, Labeling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation (functional fragrance products such as laundry detergents and air care), it consults with various expert bodies, chief among them IFRA and the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS).  IFRA recommendations are therefore generally regarded as pre-law, a weird, pre-regulatory state of play you might sum up as a ‘it’s just a recommendation now but it’s likely to be a law later, so I’d better get my arse into gear’ kind of situation. Any cosmetic product that comes into contact with skin, like fragrance, gets classified under the EU Cosmetics Directive, and in order for it to be sold or marketed in the EU, it must first earn an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate. This certificate guarantees that each component of the formula is safe for contact with human skin. Safety assessors request evidence that the company is IFRA-compliant as part of the assessment protocol. Thus, being IFRA-compliant is a de facto requirement for selling fragrance goods in the EU market, whether one is an IFRA member or not.

 

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Three by Mellifluence: Hellicum, Spirit of Narda II, and Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

1st September 2021

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Abdullah’s work at Mellifluence, which was about his amazing Tsuga Musk mukhallat featured in my Basenotes article, ‘The Murky Matter of Musk‘ (1 September, 2017).  Four years might have passed since then, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been dipping into Mellifluence’s wares in the meantime. Last summer, I placed an order with Mellifluence for some raw materials and mukhallats, and Abdullah generously included some samples of stuff he also wanted me to smell. I’m getting to them only now, which unfortunately means that some of the scents I talk about are now unavailable.

Because here’s the thing you need to know about Mellifluence before you invest – Abdullah works in small batches, using naturals he has sourced elsewhere, and when that material runs out, so too does the mukhallat featuring it. That means you need to work fast, with a speedy turnaround time from sample to full bottle (well, tola) purchase if you’re going to snap up the thing you love. The house style is light, clean, and delicate, which is no mean feat considering the ofttimes heaviness of some of the naturals involved. In general, Abdullah excels at work involving rose, green herbaceous notes like lavender, tuberose (which he is able to render quite masculine), oud, and vetiver. 

To the best of my knowledge, Abdullah works only with naturals, because of certain sensitivities he experiences when dealing with synthetics. But worry not, while the all-natural focus does give his work a certain ‘crunchy granola’, aromatherapy-adjacent flavor, I haven’t personally experienced any of the muddiness you sometimes get with all-natural perfumery. The flip side of all this lightness and clarity is, however, a certain lack of projection and longevity. But people seeking out the authenticity of raw materials above all else are already mostly prepared for this trade-off.   

The other things to be aware of are that these are mukhallats, not attars, though people (and brands who make them) tend to use the word ‘attar’ to describe any perfume in oil. Strictly speaking, however, though mukhallats and attars are both oil-based (i.e., they do not contain alcohol), attars are defined by their manner of production, which is the distillation of raw materials into sandalwood oil in the traditional ‘dheg and bhapka’ method (named for the copper piping and leather receptacle involved in the method) used in Kannuaj, India. A mukhallat, on the other hand, is the term used to describe a mix (mukhallat is simply Arabic for ‘blend’ or ‘mix’) of any already distilled essences, absolutes, attars, ruhs, and oud oil (and sometimes even synthetics, increasingly so in modern times) with a carrier oil, which used to be sandalwood oil but for reasons of both cost and availability these days is more likely to be something like moringa, jojoba, or even good old vegetable oil. For those of you who don’t care about the pedantry of this, your main takeaway should be that these are oils, and often highly concentrated ones, and therefore need to be dabbed onto the skin (or beard, if you have one) in judicious amounts. A dab will do ya. 

 

Hellicum

 

Hellicum’s opening is both medicinal and animalic – fresh lavender and sage dipped in something lasciviously scalpy, like costus. There is also a brief flash of something sweet, like vanilla or honey, but this is gone almost immediately. Oud emerges from a mist of sinus-clearing eucalyptus or mint, and it is almost outrageous to me that a wood oil so deeply thick, so animalic, can be stretched out and massaged into something so airy. Flanked by those soft, camphoraceous herbs and pinned in place by a waxy amber accord that smells like a minty version of a Werther’s Original, the oud reads more as a light, clean leather than the stable filth that we are sometimes asked to grit our teeth through in the name of oud.

 

And this is precisely the kind of sleight of hand that Abdullah of Mellifluence excels in. Heavy, animalic substances tweaked until they are transformed into something clean, and delicate, qualities more suited, perhaps, for the soothing of frayed nerves than for the purposes of seduction or for projecting an image of yourself onto the world.

 

It is not a slight to suggest, by the way, that Hellicum, like many Mellifluence mukhallats, is more Rescue Remedy than perfume. Sometimes, that’s what life calls for. I rarely wear fragrance during the day, choosing instead to aromatherapize myself off the stress ledge by rubbing a Mellifluence mukhallat or one of his naturals onto a knuckle, or massaging some of my Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin body oil into the ends of my hair. These quiet, subtle whiffs of aroma as I type, gesticulate, or turn my head are what propel me through my workday, a friendly hand at the small of my back. Hellicum is really good at this. I especially love the hidden thicket of patchouli tucked into the tail of the scent, there to please anyone who’s been paying attention. 

 

Spirit of Narda II

 

Part of the risk of falling in love with any Mellifluence mukhallat is returning to the brand’s Etsy page and realizing that it no longer exists. I hope that Abdullah finds some way to bring this back, though, because to my nose, it is one of the best things he has ever made. It reminds me of a long lost love of mine, which is the sadly discontinued Bohèmians en Voyage (Alkemia), which had a similar pastoral quality to it, like a stroll along countryside lanes, past fields of wheat and sunny hedgerows full of wild barley and small wildflowers.

 

The ‘Nard’ in the title refers to spikenard, or jatamansi, an intensely aromatic herb native to India not a million miles away from lavender in overall scent profile, but featuring a uniquely fatty, animalic undertone, like beef tallow or the yellow subcutaneous fat under the skin of an organically reared piece of mutton. In Spirit of Nard II, the herbaceous aspects of the spikenard are sharp and spiky, like a thistle, but there is also a milky element to the it that’s relaxing to the point of inducing sleepiness. This is bracketed by medicinal woods – an antiseptic sort of oud material, no doubt – and a soft, vegetal muskiness.

 

Spirit of Narda II feels complex and multi-layered, a haze wherein herbaceous, woody, milky, floral, and musky molecules advance and recede in such a crazy loop that you are never sure what it is all supposed to be, category-wise. Each time I wear it, I’m stumped. Is it an oud masquerading as a Spanish leather? A herb that’s secretly a sheep? A plant revealed by those meddling kids to be a medicine? No idea. But two things it is not are (a) available to buy, and (b) aromatherapy rather than a fully-realized perfume.

 

Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

 

This is an odd one. Not honey at all, but rather, a pale wodge of barely set beeswax poured into a polished oak mold and wrapped up in rustling layers of that edible paper they roll candy cigarettes or torrone in. It smells varnishy, waxy, and ever so slightly stale, like printer paper or Holy Communion wafers left open in a wooden chest. I suppose all this is also very much almond – not the syrupy cyanide (benzaldehyde) tones of most almond accords, but the grassy tannins of raw almond that you get in fragrances such as L’Amandière (Heeley). The overall effect has been achieved with a combination of benzoin (for that communion wafer aspect) and beeswax (for that waxy white honey aspect). The scent thickens up, over time, into a blanched, stodgy sweetness that is never as animalic or as thick as real honey, but still quite a distance away from the beeswax-paper-almond of the first half. Miel pour Femme (Almond) is fine, if a little odd. It just doesn’t set my world on fire quite as effectively as Spirit of Narda II.

 

 

Source of sample: I purchased 3mls of Miel Pour Femme (Almond) from the Mellifluence Etsy page, and 0.2ml samples of Hellicum and Spirit of Narda II were included as a gift with purchase.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

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Les Indémodables Part II: Iris Perle, Fougère Émeraude, Rose de Jamal, and Chypre Azural

1st March 2021

 

Iris Perle

 

Username checks out. In its totality, Iris Perle is an opalescent soap bubble of freshly peeled mandarin over soapy-waxy-fatty mimosa clasped in a child’s slightly sweaty paw, but studied closely over a day, it breaks down into two distinct phases. The first is reminiscent of what I think of as the typically Italian take on iris, i.e., slightly bitter, powdery, and freshly-laundered, rather than floral. This is clearly built around a ‘grey’ workaday iris material (rather than orris root) dressed up with lots of mandarin peel and the sharp, vegetal greenness of violet leaf, which lends a subtle leather accent. It’s not a million miles off the Acqua di Parma or Prada Infusion d’Iris line DNA. But more expensive-smelling. So, like Satori Iris Homme

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The mimosa, shy creature that it is, is slow to unfurl, but eventually we get glimpses of that “is it a flower? Is it school glue? Is it a cucumber?” oddness that makes this flower so charming. It smells high-toned and bleachy, which gives it only a glancing similarity to the treatment of mimosa in Une Fleur de Cassie (Malle) (Une Fleur de Cassie possesses a grungy, garbagey tone that Iris Perle does not), and absolutely no connection at all to the throatier, almond gateau takes on mimosa like Farnesiana (Caron). In fact, as time goes on, it is the subtly aquatic cucumber aspects of mimosa that come to the fore, joining with the violet leaf to form a pale (wispy) melony leather accord that splits the difference between Diorella (Dior) and Le Parfum de Thérèse (Malle). Verdict: Nice, though not required reading if you have either Diorella or Le Parfum de Thérèse.   

 

 

Fougère Émeraude

 

I left Fougère Émeraude for last because (a) I have extremely narrow parameters for the type of tuberose I am willing to wear (see here for evidence of just how anal I get about it), and (b) I usually find fougères too masculine and bitter-smelling for me to pull off. But I’m pleasantly surprised! Fougère Émeraude manages to find my sweet spot on both the note (tuberose) and the style (fougère) and does so with such panache that I’m genuinely excited to wear it. It might even be – gasp – my favorite of the entire Les Indémodables sample set.

 

Let’s start with its treatment of tuberose. Fougère Émeraude captures all the toothpasty, camphoraceous ‘box hedge’ greenness I love in Carnal Flower and sidesteps entirely the lurid butter-bubblegum loudness that I abhor in Fracas. The tuberose smells dewy, crisp, and freshly-watered, not wilted or overblown. What I appreciate in particular is that, before the tuberose can start to droop and start smelling of its naturally fleshy, semi-decaying self, the note is quickly flanked by a softly powdery ‘fern’ accord made up of lavender, mimosa, tonka, and amber, so what you end up smelling is tuberose that’s been modulated and softened from all angles – a creamy, powdery floral accord with tuberose in the mix, rather than a full-on, straight-ahead tuberose.

 

The fougère element of the scent also plays squarely in the modern fougère sandbox, meaning that it leans on creamy tonka, powdery lavender, and soft floral notes rather than on the rather brusque aromatic sting of leaves, twigs, and bitter-minty oakmoss for its structure, thus making it perfectly easy for a women (certainly this woman) to wear.

 

The green, floral creaminess of Fougère Émeraude, particularly in its drydown, reminds me a little of the drydown of Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI), albeit without that scent’s lush, dense-as-a-brick castoreum-oakmoss-labdanum accord that makes it both sweetly creamy and subtly animalic. But where Chypre Palatin is a special occasion scent, Fougère Émeraude’s lightness of texture and (comparative) freshness makes for an altogether more casual wear, and thus is perfectly suited for an everyday ‘reach’.

 

Rose de Jamal

 

I don’t know who the Jamal in Rose de Jamal is, but I suspect he’s the guy they hired to sneak into the Kannauj attar factory at night and spoil an otherwise nice, fresh green rose distillation with an over-enthusiastic pour of whatever woody aromachemical they use in Rose 31 (Le Labo).

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I can’t blame Jamal. The shortage of real sandalwood oil, coupled with the rise in India of a middle class of young men and women who largely prefer to smell fresh and modern in dupes of Dior Sauvage and Gucci Flora than of anything their parents or grandparents might have worn, i.e., attars and ruhs wrung from Mother India’s abundant flowers, herbs, and aromatics, has pretty much taken the traditional attar factories of Kannauj out at the knees.

 

Rose de Jamal smells like the stuff churned out these days by attar houses that have accepted reality and switched to producing oil-based freshies and designer dupes in their labs (no deg and bhapka here), their backrooms filled with gallon containers of modern aromachemicals rather than precious rose oils, sandalwood, or choyas. So, like I said, I don’t blame Jamal. He’s just out there, trying to survive, you know? I do blame Antoine Lie, however. I love Antoine Lie’s work in general, so I’m not too sure what went wrong here, unless it was a deliberate cash grab for the market share currently dominated by Rose 31 (Le Labo). Rose de Jamal smells like the beginnings of a decent rose accord – minty, powdery, but also jammy –  quickly smothered by a brutal cloud of chemical ‘radiance’ that seems to last for days on fabric and on the skin.

 

Chypre Azural

 

What Acqua Viva (Profumum Roma) does for lemons, Chypre Azural does for oranges – a superbly naturalistic whole-of-tree citrus accord (leaves, fruit, pith, wood) sustained for an abnormally long time without resorting to any (obvious to me anyway) aromachemical support system. It’s basically my dream orange cologne-style fragrance – Hermes Concentré d’Orange – retrofitted to last more than ten minutes. And as long as you set your expectation dial at ‘long-lasting eau de cologne freshie’ level, Chypre Azural doesn’t disappoint. If you come to it looking for a genuine chypre with all its twists and turns, however – well. Chypre Azural is a lot of things (all of which are an orange) but a chypre it is not.

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Aside from the midsection, where a rather soapy neroli-musk accord sets in, Chypre Azural is resolutely linear. If you want to smell of orange pith from morning to night, then this will thrill you. For me, personally? Smelling of citrus this bright is fantastic in the early morning hours but all kinds of inappropriate by dinnertime. My seven-year-old daughter, Mila, crawled into bed with me in the middle of the night after a nightmare, and after wriggling into ‘space pod now attached to mother ship’ position, she sniffed me and said, “Why does your neck smell like oranges? It’s the middle of the night!” Exactly.     

 

Source of Samples: I purchased the Les Indémodables sample set here.  

Cover Image: Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash

 

 

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Les Indémodables Part I: Vanille Havane, Oriental Velours, Musc des Sables, and Cuir de Chine

15th February 2021

 

 

Vanille Havane

 

Vanille Havane is an undeniably good smell. How could it not be? It is basically a Greatest Hits tour of some of the most feelgood smells in modern niche perfumery, from the boozy sparkle of the vanilla-benzoin Eau des Missions and rough pain d’épices of Tobacco Vanille to the leathery black vanilla pod of Mona di Orio Vanille, the singed marshmallow of By the Fireplace, and the sticky, concentrated Coca Cola goodness of Tom Ford Noir Extreme (albeit dustier and more masculine than any of these). I am willing to overlook a perfume being slightly derivative as long as it smells great, and this one does. I’m particularly enamored of the far drydown, which smells like brown sugar and book paper that’s been toasted in a low oven.       

 

A couple of things make me think less of it, though. First, sniffed up close, near to the skin, you can smell each one the blocky components of the perfume separately, from the intrinsic density of natural absolutes like tobacco absolute to the rather scratchy synthetic wood aromachemical they’ve chosen for radiance (this disappears fast, to be fair). In the air, these elements come together in a synergistic way and it smells fantastic, but on the skin, it’s like catching your father in his Santa suit putting presents under the tree when you were seven.

 

Second, Vanille Havane doesn’t take me on a journey. The older I get, the more I need my perfumes to be more than a good smell – they need to stir my imagination or feeling so that I feel less dead inside. Just kidding. But what I mean is that a good perfume – to me – is more than a hodge-podge of good-smelling materials thrown together for effect. And Vanille Havane, good-smelling as it is, is a hodge-podge.

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Lastly, there is a rough and slightly cheap ‘indie oil’ edge to this perfume that allows me to mentally rank it alongside several of the Kerosene perfumes, especially Blackmail and Broken Theories, with a little of the excellent (and chewy) Vanilla Pipe Tobacco by Solstice Scents thrown in for good measure. To be clear, I’m really fond of that indie oil edge as long as the perfume in question remains at a price point that doesn’t make me wish I’d ponied up the extra €100 it would take to buy a bottle of Mona di Orio’s Vanille.

 

 

Oriental Velours

 

Had I only smelled Vanille Havane from Les Indémodables, I might have written the entire brand off as just another modern niche brand producing paint-by-numbers jobbies designed for niche snobs who want to smell esssspensssive rather than original. The whole nomenclature – Cuir de _, Musc des _, Rose de _ etc. didn’t help either, reminiscent as it is of the reductionist (and by now démodé) trend in modern niche perfumery of naming perfumes after raw materials or where the materials come from (as if they weren’t all from the same IFF, Symrise, Firmenich, or Givaudan catalogues), clumping two or three words together inelegantly as if anything over that was going to be audited by the taxman. Prime offenders in this include Affinescence, Essential Parfums, and about 70% of the Mizensir line up, none of which ever manage to smell like more than the sum of whatever went into the formula or succeed in stimulating my mind into anything other than performing a basic internal sorting into good-meh-bad.

 

Thankfully, several of the Les Indémodables perfumes challenged this perception and made me realize that there is a degree of thoughtfulness and design at work here. I’ve reviewed Oriental Velours here, but since then, whenever I’ve worn it, I’m reminded of how I (criminally) omitted to mention the slight camphoraceous effect of the minty evergreen effervescing against the myrrh, creating an astringent misty-velvety effect that I can almost taste on my tongue. The only perfume I can think of that does something similar is the magical Bohea Bohème by Mona di Orio. Witchy, whimsical, shady, and cool. I have a thing for perfumes that suck me into crawlspaces. Oriental Velours is the first perfume I’d suggest to anyone in two minds of this brand.

        

 

Musc Des Sables

 

 

Musc des Sables is the first sample of the Les Indémodables that I drained completely. It is just – how do I put this – fucking adorable. It’s as if someone took the plush toy friendliness of Helmut Lang EDP and the vintage powder puff of Teint de Neige and dunked it in a bath of condensed milk and fleur de sel caramel, and then wrapped it up in a pure white ermine fur, the likes of which have not been seen since the Childlike Empress emerged on her mother-of-pearl half shell to greet Atreyu in the Neverending Story.

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A translucent tres leches cake. Expensive Italian talcum powder. White kitty belly fur. Breastmilk after having downed ten doughnuts. I don’t know, man. I have no business smelling of anything this sublime. It’s not reinventing the wheel or anything – there is a caramelized, biscuity undertone that reminds me of Muschio by Santa Maria Novella and the juxtaposition between childlike and sensual is very Helmut Lang-esque – but if I were to be tempted into buying any of the Les Indémodables, it would be this. And then I’d have to guilt-buy Oriental Velours when I realize that I’ve bypassed originality for  the equivalent of a weighted blanket yet again.

 

 

 

Cuir de Chine

 

 

This is an interesting one. At first spray, an explosion of apricot-scented shampoo bubbles and Galaxolide musks comes spilling out over me like I’m in one of those Herbal Essence ads, so I shuffle the index cards in my head until I find the slot where I’d file the sort of clean, fruity-soapy osmanthus tea thing that Jean-Claude Ellena would classify as ‘un parfum d’après midi’ and wish he’d thought of it while he was at Hermès (except, he did, and it’s called Osmanthe Yunnan).

 

But not so fast, lady! A surprisingly gamey leather accord quickly elbows its way past the pretty apricot, and lest we make any mistake about it, this is the pungent odor of raw leather rather than the smoothly-shaved and powdered pudenda of Tom Ford lore. For a while there – an hour tops – Cuir de Chine lurches between peach shampoo and grimy chaps until I feel like I’m Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (‘She’s my sister’ *Slap* ‘She’s my daughter’ *Slap* ‘She’s my sister…’ *Slap*). The scent eventually gentles itself, the pungency of the leather burning off into a soft suede accent that might be mistaken as a naturally occurring feature of osmanthus oil, whittling down into a tandem of equal parts suede and osmanthus (‘She’s my sister and my daughter’). I like Cuir de Chine a lot; it adds something new to the genre. I do wish it lasted longer, though (this is the case for most of the Les Indémodables line, by the way, apart from Vanille Havane and Chypre Azural).  

 

 

Source of Samples: I purchased the Les Indémodables sample set here.  

Cover Image: Photo by Jordan Plihal on Unsplash

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Gifts of the Three Magi: Frankly Frankincense

11th December 2020

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.  

On 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 condition.

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.

The 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.

In 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 spice aspect.”

Frankincense 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 else.   

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.

So, 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.   

Anyway, enough of my pontiff-icating (I’m here all night, folks) – here are a few frankincense-dominated compositions to chew over.  

Photo by Lisandro Garcia on Unsplash

Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense

I 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.

Though 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.  

Casbah (Robert Piguet)Spicy Frankincense

The 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.

Drilling 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 Privé Bois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense

A 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 MyrrhHonest Frankincense

A 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 measure.

The 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.

Photo by Vladimir Šoić on Unsplash

Mad et Len Noir EncensAmaretto Frankincense

Noir 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 RainWild Frankincense

Behind 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. 

Behind 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.

This 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.

Rosarium (Angela Ciampagna) – Icing Sugar Frankincense

Rosarium 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 into it.

Rosarium 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. 

But 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.

The 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

Wazamba! 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. 

In 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).

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense

Over 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?

Having 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).

What 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.  

Norma 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

Doing 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.

There 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.

My 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

The 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.

However, 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.

Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal) Fag Ash Frankincense

Encens 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.

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile)Fairytale Frankincense

If 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 creamy woods.

There 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.

Most 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 the wearer.

Rather, 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.

You 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 me.

La Fumée (Miller Harris)Fresh Frankincense

It 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.

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian) Frankincense Absolute

Natural 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 a censer.

Those 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.

Calling All Angels (April Aromatics)Butter Caramel Frankincense

Calling 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.

Calling 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 the point.

Vento nel Vento (Bois 1920)Frankincense Plus

Like 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).

Vento 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.

Sahara Noir (Tom Ford)Frank Frankincense

As 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).

Listen, 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.

Photo by Joshua Davis on Unsplash

Holy Terror (Arcana)Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens

Despite 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.

To 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.

Holy 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.


Âme Sombre 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.

All the 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 away completely.

Âme Sombre 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.

The Oud 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.

Âme Sombre 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 separately. 

Âme Sombre 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.

Overall, 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.

Photo by Anup Ghag on Unsplash


Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio)Pure Frankincense

A 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.  

Basilica (Solstice Scents) Starter Pack Frankincense

For 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.

Olibanum (Profumum)Polished Frankincense

Olibanum 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

Al 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.

The 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. 

Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense

Sugared 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.    

Apr.03.1968 (Rundholz)Jamaica Cake Frankincense  

What 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. 

Cover Image: Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

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Gifts of the Three Magi: A Myrrh-athon

30th November 2020

What is myrrh? Myrrh is 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.

Below are some examples of myrrh-based fragrances, or fragrances where myrrh plays an unexpected or pivotal role, even if unlisted.

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Oriental Velours (Les Indémodables)Fog Machine Myrrh

This is 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 tree.

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.    

Myrrhiad (Huitième Art) Myrrh for Myrrh Pussies 

A single 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.

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Baume du Doge (Eau d’Italie)Myrrh Agrodolce  

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.

True to 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.

The 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.

Myrrh 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.

Eau d’Iparie (L’Occitane)Mossy Myrrh   

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.

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Avicenna Myrrha Mystica (Annette Neuffer) – Sunlit Myrrh  

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.       

Alien Essence Absolue (Thierry Mugler)Hubba Hubba Myrrh

Alien 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?

Messe de Minuit (Etro)Sepulchral Myrrh 

I’d 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.

Though 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.   

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Myrrhe et Délires (Guerlain)Macaron Myrrh

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.

Testing 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.

fallintostars (Strangelove NYC)Oudy Myrrh

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.

Bois d’Argent (Dior Privée)Woody Myrrh

Aptly 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.

Bois 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.

As 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.

There 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.

For 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.

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Ilang Ilan (Mellifluence)Tropical Myrrh

Ilang 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 pugnacious myrrh.

Alas, 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 worst kind.

However, 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 hand.

1000 Kisses (Lush)Marmalade Myrrh

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.

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.

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Thichila (Parfums Prissana)Plastic Balloon Myrrh

Sorry 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.

The 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 starting.

At 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.

Sutera 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.

Immediately, 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 incense smoke.

As pure 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.  

But the 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.   

L’Eau Trois (Diptyque)Piney Myrrh

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.

Smoky, 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.    

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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.

The 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

Little 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.

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La Myrrhe (Serge Lutens)Elegant Myrrh

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.

La 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).  

Mirra (Acqua di Parma)Ambroxan Myrrh

Myrrh 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.

Iranzol (Bruno Acampora)Anachronistic Myrrh

Iranzol 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 still exist.

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.

Clove 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.

The 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

First, 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.

Photo by Jarritos Mexican Soda on Unsplash

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.     

Cashmiri Black (Agarscents Bazaar)Coca Cola Myrrh

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.

A 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.

Photo by Raspopova Marina on Unsplash

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 (Armani Privé)Obnoxiously Loud Myrrh

Yes, 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 Atlas. Meh.    

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. 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 mine alone.     

Cover Image: Photo by Y S on Unsplash

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Kerosene Part 2: Blackmail and R’Oud Elements

16th November 2020

Mining the same marshmallow-meets-campfire vein as By the Fireplace by Maison Martin Margiela, albeit only about a hundred times more pleasant and natural-smelling, Blackmail captures that exciting feeling of anticipation your tummy gets at a country fair, the promise of something deep-fried and sugary vibrating on the air like a wind chime.

The luscious berry-tipped incense topnote is a cruel tease – smell it once and then it’s gone, but not before introducing the central block of fruit-over-smoked-oakwood that hangs around for the rest of the ride.

Though distinguished by a wonderfully sour streak of sodden, fermenting oud chips, Blackmail eventually settles into a shape not a million miles away from Broken Theories. They don’t smell alike note for note, but make no mistake – these guys happily fill the same gap in a well-curated wardrobe.

My own personal preferences lean more towards sandalwoody woodsmoke than burnt marshmallow, so I’m currently only tempted by Broken Theories. But, honestly, either would do in a pinch for when I am craving something sweet n’ smoky in that slightly blocky style of Kerosene. And that, really, is my one bone to pick with Blackmail and all fragrances like it. They are always more set pieces – big wooden panels you move around in each scene to achieve a specific effect – than the kind of thing that sets the imagination alight. Mind you, that’s not to say,  as we limp across the finish line of 2020, that there isn’t value to walking around with your own personal country-fair-meets-campfire soundtrack playing on a constant loop over your head.

Photo by Dominik Martin on Unsplash

R’Oud Elements is a total wow for me – just wow! Pairing a bitter orange note (itself lurching charmingly from the naturalness of a freshly-peeled orange to the artificiality of a vitamin C drink) with a savory sandalwood standing in for oud, it has much the same effect as Many Aftel’s Oud Luban, in that it throws open the windows and floods a dark material (oud) with citrusy light.

R’Oud Elements turns the traditional treatment of oud – almost reverential, lengthening the shadows of its dankness with similarly deep, brown flavors, or countering them with truffled rose notes – on its head, making it sing out in hot orange-gold tones. R’Oud Elements is so bright it’s blinding – fizzy, zesty, and slightly mineralic. It smells like someone spilled freshly-squeezed orange juice on a grungy old brown leather sofa, which is all the better for it. The scent stops just short of achieving maximum creamsicle, the bitter orange never quite bridging it all the way to the creaminess set free by the sandal in the base. But feel good? God, yes.

Many people on Fragrantica say that this smells like M7 (Yves Saint Laurent), one of the first commercial fragrances in the West to feature oud. And I suppose that’s fair, though it is the sour, nutty mealiness of cedarwood (or even vetiver), rather than amber, painting an exotic picture of oudiness here. But what this reminds of the most – in effect, if not smell – is that low-high contrast between the aromatic, fizzy ‘dustiness’ of Italian herbs and the satiny, sour-cream umami-ness of sandalwood that runs through much of Lorenzo Villoresi’s work, particularly that of Sandalo and Musk. Something about the rub of something sharp or aromatic (saffron, lavender, orange peel) against something tartly lactonic (musk, sandalwood), fleshed out by an intensely powdery cedar, creates in all three scents the impression of cream lightly curdled by a squirt of lemon juice.

If I didn’t already own Musk (Lorenzo Villoresi) and vintage Sandalo (Etro) to satisfy my aromatic tart-sour-creamy woody needs, I would be setting my cap hard at R’Oud Elements. As it is, I’m still thinking about R’Oud Elements long after my sample is gone.  

Source 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 too.

Cover Image: Photo by Simon Zhu on Unsplash

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Kerosene Part 1: Copper Skies and Broken Theories

20th October 2020

Copper Skies

Sometimes 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.

Photo by Justin Lane on Unsplash

Cleverly 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.    

Copper 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.

Amber 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.

Photo by Graham Padmore on Unsplash

Broken Theories

Broken 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’Ascèse by 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.  

Source 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 too.

Cover Image: Photo by Siim Lukka on Unsplash

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Kintsugi by Masque Milano

13th October 2020

Kintsugi by Masque Milano smells the way those mysterious salted fruits and chutneys in an Asian restaurant taste – perfumey, bitter, and dark in a way that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth while simultaneously flicking your salivary glands into action. Like in Mitsouko (Guerlain) and Iris 39 (Le Labo), two perfumes that this reminds me of in idea if not execution, the secret to Kintsugi’s successful navigation of that narrow line between repulsion and attraction lies in its lack of legibility.

Kintsugi has been billed as a modern chypre, and refreshingly, that is exactly what it is. Chypres are like a good Chinese meal, balancing a complex range of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors against each other to produce a very satisfying (but completely abstract) sense of completeness. The result is strange and exotic, imprinting on the imagination in a way soliflores and straight-up ambers cannot. This is all present and correct in Kintsugi, so no need to quibble about which material has been chosen to stand in for the moss. The effect is there.

As all good chypres do,  Kintsugi revolves around a complex set of juxtapositions. It is cigarette-ashy but also bread-doughy, syrup-sweet but also vermouth-dry, and as vegetal as parsnips but also as perfumey as your mother’s best going-out perfume. Adding to the drama is a shiny, neon-lit fruit note flashing against the desiccated patchouli hulking malevolently in the background.

But like with many Le Labos, and especially Iris 39, what really sets this thing on fire is the pairing of things that smell natural – polished woods, incense, earth, rose petal potpourri – with things that smell industrial, like latex paint, printer chemicals, calligraphy ink, and linseed oil.

Kintsugi is the perfume equivalent of those duochrome eyeshadows that appear bottle green straight on but peacock blue when you turn your head. Sometimes it exactly smells like the grand, tassels-bedecked kind of thing you imagine Oscar Wilde drenching his velvet curtains with, and sometimes like your old school stationary cupboard with a bunch of kids getting high on solvents.

It dries down quickly to the pungent but virile smell of the horse ring, the air thick with saddle leather, sawdust, and the warm muskiness specific to a freshly-exercised horse. I suppose you could also call it cedar but that doesn’t capture even two percent of the total mood that Kintsugi has going on here.   

Kintsugi is a love-hate kind of thing, for sure. I hated it when I first smelled it, and then I loved it. And I might hate it the next time I smell it, who knows? People used to the taste of fermented things – natto, kimchi, tea – will cleave as easily to this perfume as they might to oud oil or osmanthus absolute, sharing with this perfume as they do that unique dichotomy of (leathery) dryness and (fruity-cheesey) funkiness.

Based on the resounding silence that greeted this perfume when it launched in 2019, it is fair to say that Kintsugi’s appeal is not immediate. And I get it. Forget about Kintsugi being people-pleasing – it is barely even me-pleasing. But for all its oddness, I find Kintsugi exciting, like a strange flavor of wine or cough syrup or gummy bear that only exists in Japan, and therefore utterly foreign to me.

Source of sample: Purchased from Swedish retailer, Fragrance & Art, in November 2019. A friend of mine kindly sent me another sample of it a couple of days ago, jogging my memory and prompting this review.

Cover Image: Photo by Tokyo Luv on Unsplash

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Ormonde Jayne Jardin d’Ombre and Ambre Royal

14th August 2020

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.

Photo by Missy Stinson on Unsplash

Jardin d’Ombre

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.

Photo by Mona Eendra on Unsplash

Ambre Royal

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 is sweet.

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.

Cover Image: Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

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