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’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.
Gold is the most challenging of the gifts of the three Magi, of course, given that, unlike myrrh and frankincense, it is not a fragrant material in and of itself. I could write about perfumes that smell like metal or that have a metallic element to them, like, say, Superstitiousby Frederic Malle or Copper by Comme des Garcons, but that would be a rather short and unsatisfying list. So, most of the perfumes on this list fall into one of three categories.
First, perfumes that the word ‘gold’ or ‘or’ in their name – a group of fragrances that quickly exhausts itself when you realize just how many of them either fail to meet the kingly standard we’re going after (24 Gold by Scentstory didn’t make the cut, for example, and neither did the ghastly coffee sickliness that is L’Or de Torrente) or give off a golden vibe at all (Or des Indes, J’acuse).
Second, there are the perfumes that I think are the gold standard of their respective genres and are the ones that I would buy in bulk if I were to suddenly win the lottery or marry someone with both taste and bottomless pockets (we will pretend that I am not already in possession of a husband). I find it funny that many of the perfumes I consider to be gold medal winners are actually called Black something or other.
Finally, we have perfumes that prominently feature a raw material or accord that smells or feels like a sunny, radiant liquid gold around your person – amber, for example, but also ambergris and honey.
Les Nombres d’Or Oudh Osmanthus (Mona di Orio) – Black Gold
Oudh Osmanthus is both rich and dry, two qualities that are rarely found together these days. After years of puzzling over what makes this perfume tick, I think the secret to its three-dimensional richness lies in its triadic composition of a) the smoky, dried-up husk of a vanilla pod swiped from Mona di Orio Vanille, which contributes a dark, almost liquor-ish background that one might call sweet until you get close enough to see what it is, b), a midsection (borrowed from the brand’s own Musc) of blurred, indistinct floral notes desiccating to a fine white talc, which gives the scent its tinder-box dryness and a slightly soapy, dandified air, and c) a lascivious civet note that twists the florals into a grimy, almost fecal leather note à la Jicky.
Here’s the clever bit – though there is likely some quantity of real osmanthus and oud oil in the composition, their shape is carved out not by the raw materials themselves but by little olfactory nudges laid down by the perfumer herself, like a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest. Hence, the faintly cheesy fruitiness of osmanthus is suggested obliquely by an odd but genius herbal note that smells quite like fresh dill, while the cheesey ferment of oud is brought to life by the leathery civet.
In many ways, Oudh Osmanthus is the analog to my other favorite oud-themed fragrance, Nawab of Oudh(Ormonde Jayne). Both are Western abstractions of an Eastern raw material, rendered in a haute luxe style that elevates them far beyond their source material. But they arrive there from two utterly different directions – Nawab of Oudh via the light cast by crisp linen tablecloths, the brass moldings of a posh London hotel, and freshly-peeled citrus fruits, Oudh Osmanthus via the chartreuse gloom of a velvet-covered room.
Both are eye-wateringly expensive. Adding insult to injury, Oudh Osmanthus was reformulated when the bottles were changed from the wine screw bottles to the golden disc bottle. It still smells great, of course, but its smoky dryness has been toned down and made less confrontational, which has in turn subtracted much from its previously three-dimensional quality. However, if I were forced to choose just two Western oud-themed fragrances to take with me into the apocalypse, it would be Nawab of Oudh and Oudh Osmanthus, and that, for a perennial flip-flopper like me, is said with not even a hint of equivocation.
I am a big Henry James fan. Or at least I used to be until one day at school, my fifth form English teacher pulled a copy of The Golden Bowl out of my school bag and gasped, ‘You’re reading this? Oh, dear me, no – this is far too difficult for you. It will put you off James for life.’ But guys, I had already read The Golden Bowl. In fact, I had waltzed through it, not realizing that it was supposed to be difficult. But do you know what? I have struggled with Henry James ever since. Once someone points out that something is difficult or complex, it becomes so. Like someone flipping that switch in your brain between unthinking enjoyment and sudden, painful self-awareness.
I love Chypre Palatin with my unthinking part of my brain. I know, on a purely intellectual level, that it is a Golden Bowl type of scent – grand, complex, full of moving parts clicking into place. The sort of thing you have to read with your eyes at half-mast so as to perceive its entire shape at the corner of your vision. The notes list on Basenotes alone contains twenty separate notes, two thirds of which I still cannot pick up. It doesn’t matter. I slip into Chypre Palatin with a shiver of unadulterated pleasure every time, just as easily as my unthinking brain once slid into Henry James.
Chypres are not an easy read, normally. Something about them pinches me, reminding me to switch the analysis part of my brain on and the ‘feeling’ part off. They are more comfortable for me now, as I get older, but the bristling bergamot and the bitter backbone of mosses have always called to mind that scene in Titanic where Rose sees a mother is tapping her six-year old daughter on the spine to get her to straighten up. I admire the formality of chypres, and their immensely ordered, complex structure, but sometimes I find it difficult to breathe easily within their confines.
But Chypre Palatin is one of those strange hybrids between chypre and oriental that manage to combine the formality of the former with the comfortable sensuality of the latter. Chypre Palatin belongs, therefore, to a special group of perfumes that includes Puredistance M, Jubilation 25, Une Rose Chyprée, and even Guerlain’s masterpiece, Vol de Nuit. What these perfumes have in common is a chypre-like dressing of moss and bergamot, and maybe some other green, bitter, or herbal accents, over a base that feels pleasantly resinous, creamy, or vanillic (as is the case with Chypre Palatin), so a fragrance that starts its journey in an upright position can end it in a supine position on a soft divan. These chypre-oriental hybrids are built to scale, bristling with ambition, and with big enough feet to comfortably straddle several genres at once – chypre, oriental, leather, animalics, and so on. They are not so much unisex as they are omni-sex.
Chypre Palatin, for example, has a brief bergamot beginning, like a blush of first light over the horizon at dawn, and a heart of authentic oakmoss that goes on forever, but these accents are married to a lush vanilla and a warmly animalic castoreum in the base, ensuring that the whole thing feels comfortably sensual. It is distinctly masculine in feel, but the vanilla and castoreum in the base give it a rounded, luxurious feel that won’t feel out of place on a woman’s skin.
Chypre Palatin strikes me as a modern-day Vol de Nuit, in a way. Not in terms of scent, but in the way they are both lush, baroque-scaled perfumes pointing to a more romantic past than the time in which they were created. And despite their ambition, they both feel perfectly intimate – suitable for quiet, homebound pleasures. Chypre Palatin might be the Golden Bowl of its genre, but I enjoy it in that simple, instinctive way I used to enjoy Henry James before the thinking part of my brain was switched on. Just don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is a difficult or complex thing.
I have been within sniffing distance of the interior of a luxury car only twice in my life. The first was when a former colleague of my father’s, a rather sleazy guy called Alberto, would come and collect me from my job in Bergamo on a Friday night and whizz me down to Milan for the weekend in his Bugatti. Nothing terribly inappropriate happened in that car, but there was always the suggestion that something might. The second was a couple of years ago, in Rome, when a lovely salesman saw my son and me looking in the window of a Ferrari-Maserati showroom and invited us in so that my son could sit inside one. I am not into luxury anything, but the scent of inside a luxury car is intoxicating in a weirdly emotive way. You know instinctively that what you are smelling is privilege and, by corollary, exclusion, but the power you sense throbbing beneath the leather and the wood – even when the car is off – is enough to flood you with a weird sense of elation. Arousal, even.
Black by Puredistance smells like the pure, cushioned air of privilege. Though from the technical sense, it has much in common with other cardamom-saffron-leather orientals like Idole (Lubin), Black Cashmere (Donna Karan) and, more recently, the glorious Shaghaf by Anfas, the extreme refinement of Black makes them feel like they just stumbled in from the bog, muck caked on their clodhopper boots.
Black is so smooth you could almost call it boring. It is just a silky cardamom custard filtered through the air filtering system of a Maserati with creamy chamois seats and polished wood panels, with no real points of interest or anything whistling for your attention. normally lusty resins and spices have been triple-strained through a cheesecloth, appearing as smudged brushstrokes in the overall impressionistic swirl. Even the oud note is quiet, a faded sour-suedey tannin accent shading out the leather a little. As with anything Puredistance, Black is ostentatiously-priced, but then so is a Maserati. I may never get within sniffing distance of either ever again, but the memories are for free and remain lodged safely in the memory palace I have constructed in my brain (thanks for the tip, Hannibal).
Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh) – Multi-Dimensional Gold
Saqr II is a mukhallat composed in honor of nature in all its brutal beauty. It focuses on ambergris (long golden beaches), oud (green forests), Ta’ifi rose (flowers in inhospitable terrain), and Himalayan musk (animal fur). Saqr II provides the wearer with a truly kaleidoscopic experience – the florals, exotic woods, and musk all rushing out at you in a giddy vortex of scent – but maintains a rigorous clarity rarely experienced in such complex blends. The wearer can smell every component of the blend, both individually and as part of the rich, multi-layered fabric of the perfume.
The play of light on dark is particularly well executed. The tart, green spice of the Ta’ifi rose lifts the perfume, while salty-sweet ambergris lends a sparkle. These brighter elements prevent the darker oud and musk from becoming too heavy. The bright rose burns away, leaving a trail of leathery, spicy oud wood that is addictive, drawing one’s nose repeatedly to the skin. The oud here is smooth and supple, with nary a trace of sourness or animal stink. The musk, perceptible more as a texture than a scent, blurs the edges of the oud and rose notes into furred roundness that gradually softens the scent’s austerity.
The slight out-of-focus feel to this blend makes it far more approachable for beginners than many others in the Al Shareef Oudh stable. However, none of the materials have been dumbed down for a Western audience. The blend smells classic in a certain rose-oud way, but it is not clichéd. Its balance of dark and bright elements, sweet and non-sweet, dirty-musky and clean, is what makes this a masterful example of its genre.
Saqr II is complex, beautiful, restful, and above all, easy to wear. I particularly love the fuzzy golden timbre of the ambergris in this scent, which lends it a tannic apricot skin edge. It is my personal favorite of all the Al Shareef Oudh mukhallats and the one I would recommend to beginners as a great primer for the brand’s overall approach and aesthetic. Beyond that, however, it is one of the best perfumes I have had the pleasure of smelling.
Gold Woman is the souped up, Russian gilt, bells-and-whistles version of Madame Rochas, which basically means that it is an amalgamation of all those perfumes that we tend to instinctively classify as stuffy, perfumey, French and ladylike – you know, perfumes like No. 5 (Chanel), Calèche (Hermès), and Climat (Lancôme). I’d throw 24, Faubourg (Hermès) into the mix there too.
I could try to describe the common thread here – the fatty, fizzy aldehydes that strafe the expensive, Grasse-sourced florals like a steel wire brush, sending them spinning up and out like a ballerina’s tulle mid-pirouette, the silky musks, the powdered rush of floral bouquets – but with something this abstract, I’d only be embarrassing myself.
Because, honestly, let’s get real – much of what we say we smell in fragrances this big is probably just a figment of our imagination, suggested to us by reviews or ad copy. Perfumes this abstract, this overly-blended, this fuzzy-with-kinetic-aldehydes can never give anyone a clear idea of any one material, be it a lush rose or the hay-like greenness of narcissus. Most of us are not in possession of a nose sophisticated enough to pick up on every nuance or note in something like Gold Woman. If you think that it smells expensive (it does) or like what a rich woman might wear (it does), then the perfumer has gotten his point across. I’d argue – strenuously, if you ever met me in person – that what you are smelling in Gold Woman is pretty much the scent of a luxuriously creamy bar of white soap, and specifically the kind that nobody buys for themselves and is far too good to use.
My mother was gifted a L’Air du Temps bath soap when I was little, and that soap remained perched on the edge of the family bath, in its delicate seashell-shaped clasp, for all of our childhood, as if silently daring us to touch it. Which we never did, of course, because the hairs on the back of my mother’s neck were psychically connected to this soap, standing on end and raising the alarm if one of us even so much as breathed in its general direction. I would only dare huff it quickly and furtively, panic-dropping it back in its seashell every time the landing floor squeaked (our Famine-era house was about as suited to privacy as it was to central heating, which is to say not very). Anyway, I remember distinctly the first time I smelled Amouage Gold Woman. It was January 2012 in one of the larger Campo Marzio 70 stores in Rome, and I had just started to read blogs, so I recognized the name and the look of the bottle. I picked up the gold bottle with trembling hands, scarcely believing that the salespeople would just let me pick up something so precious and sprayed a bit on my wrist. Well, if it wasn’t that fucking L’Air de Temps soap. Hello again, how nice to see you.
None of which explains, of course, how I now own two bottles of Gold Woman. I guess my defense is really a theory, namely that if cityscapes shape the style of those that live in them, then Rome, with its status as the erstwhile center of the Western world, expects of her citizens a similarly-outsized sense of braggadocio. While I still don’t really like Gold Woman all that much, I find it has the big dick energy that a place like Rome demands. Every time I wear it, I feel like Juno emerging angrily from her bath, left breast magnificently exposed, pumped to give the first man she encounters a heart attack or a hard-on (we are never sure which).
Or du Sérail (Naomi Goodsir) – Fool’s Gold
Or du Sérail has a beautiful, honeyed tobacco leaf at its core. But unfortunately, it gets drowned in a fruity, sticky mess of mango, rum, coconut, and ylang, giving somewhat of an impression of a day-old tropical fruit cocktail left out in the sun to develop a ‘bloom’. It is also unbearably sweet. Ambre Narguilé does the fruit-cake-and-honey tobacco thing so much better that I wonder why anybody felt this was necessary. And to be honest, if I wanted a complex, syrupy tobacco fragrance then Histoires de Parfums’ masterpiece 1740 satisfies me on all levels.
To sum it up, Or du Sérail is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind of scent where everything is thrown at tobacco in the hope that something sticks. Don’t get me wrong – it is technically ‘yummy’ in that round, sweet, bland way of another of Duchaufour’s misses, Havana Vanille. But as in Havana Vanille, Or du Sérail contains unpleasantly sour, discordant off-notes like mold on a piece of bread, or rot beginning to set in on a piece of fruit. Or du Sérail makes a lunge for that fine line between edible and inedible and misses the mark completely.
Aurum D’Angkhor is special. Every time I wear it, I marvel anew at its depth, complexity, and beauty. It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkhor in the basenotes, a fruity Cambodi oud oil with cozy wood nuances. But the ‘Aurum’ in Sultan Pasha’s remix means ‘Golden’ and indeed, that is precisely the color that comes across in this blend. Aurum is a love poem to the golden dust of saffron, polished oak floors, smoke, honey, and henna, a shady haze backed by a velvety floral richness.
The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes, it has a dark barnyard character that some might find startling. This accord is not, to my nose, unpleasantly animalic. It never approaches, for example, the sour, bilious honk of a raw Hindi oud. However, there is definitely something there that recalls the aroma of cow slurry, a smell so hotly liquid that it seems to ooze across the room like ripe Brie. One’s reaction to this type of aroma depends on one’s level of exposure to farmyard smells during childhood. I grew up around cows and now live next door to a dairy farm, so for me, the smell of cow shit is literally part of the air I breathe. In other words, I’m fine with it. You very well may not be.
The cow pat note dissipates quickly, however, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, threaded with drifts of faintly indolic jasmine. Saffron plays a pivotal role, called upon to bring out all its strange facets at once – the leather, the exotic dust, the sweetness, the faintly floral mouth-feel, fiery red spice, and a certain medicinal, iodine-like twang. The oud and the saffron create a deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty plum skin. In short, Aurum showcases the depth of real oud, but past the fecal twang of the opening, none of its more challenging aspects.
The smoke in Aurum is chimerical, sometimes manifesting as little more than a faint tingle of far-off woodsmoke akin to a needle prick’s worth of birch tar or cade oil, and sometimes appearing as full-on smoke from a censer full of resins. The smoke component is similar to that of Balsamo della Mecca (La Via de Profumo), which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent dusted with the clovey, balsamic bitterness of Siam benzoin and frankincense. Backing the smoke is always a layer of dusty, medicinal henna powder and the golden sheen of honey-glazed woods. Nothing, therefore, feels out of balance, not even when the smoke is rolling in.
Aurum dries down to a dark, treacly resin that smells predominantly nutty, but also kind of gritty, like coffee grounds sprinkled with sugar – probably a side effect of benzoin mixing with the cedar and ambrette musk. There is a moment in the drydown that reminds me of the sawdusty, granular sweetness of wood pulp and suede that is the primary feature of Tuscan Leather-style fragrances. Many soft leather scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather itself, Oud Saphir (Atelier Cologne), and Tajibni (Al Haramain), use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar to create a musky, resinous suede effect, and that might be what’s happening here in Aurum. However, Aurum is far more complex than these soli-suedes, deploying as it does a layer of resins, oud, and henna to jostle and thicken the sueded musk.
Or des Indes (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) – Bait-and-Switch Gold
Out of all the perfumes reputed to smell like Shalimar, Or des Indes smells most like Mitsouko. I bought a bottle in Madrid airport on my way back from Cali, shaken after having been strip-searched by Columbian customs agents (pasty Irish chicks apparently being well known for enthusiastically promoting certain Colombian exports via that particular route), and when I got home, I showered and applied this liberally, then lay naked on the bed waiting to a) stop sweating, and b) feel the cloud of golden, resinous Shalimar-esque loveliness rise up and envelop my senses, soothing my furrowed brow, etc., etc.
Well, to say I felt cheated out of my happy ending is an understatement. Or des Indes is not the golden, shimmering warm bath of resins I had been led to expect. Rather, thanks to a doughy ‘peach skin’ suede element that is far more root (orris) than resin, Or des Indes is dove grey – delicately bitter, fudgy, and ‘old smelling’, like old wooden furniture dusted off and waxed with saddle soap. Thanks to a recent love affair with Imperial Opoponax (Les Nereides), I have come to identify this doughy, rooty (almost waxy-fudgy) nuance as characteristic of opoponax resin. But because of its herbal, slightly bitter ‘almond’ core, I have stopped perceiving opoponax as a purely golden affair – in truth, it smells more lavender-grey than golden for about two-thirds of its development.
While Imperial Opoponax shakes off this dove grey pallor pretty quickly before sliding into that much-awaited, much-longed-for bath of sultry, balmy, red-gold resinousness that is the final third of opoponax resin, Or des Indes remains firmly attached to its grey, bitter-doughy suede heart for much of the ride. (There is a phantom fruit note bouncing in and out that, combined with the fine cuir accord, contributes much to the Mitsouko impression). To be fair, Or des Indes does eventually loosen up into something that might legitimately be called warm or golden, before completely dying an ignoble death at the four hour mark.
Yep, four hours. That’s all you get, folks. Now, I am no longevidee bore, but paying Maître Parfumeur et Gantier prices for the performance of a Roger et Gallet body spray is deeply unacceptable, and that’s even before you consider that, with Or des Indes, you are basically wearing a half-assed version of Mitsouko or the first 40% of Imperial Opoponax, both scents that cost roughly half of this.
Don’t get me wrong – I do quite like Or des Indes. It’s just that when you are expecting gold and get dove grey, it feels like trying to recover your gait after you’ve missed a step on the stairs. You eventually right yourself but for one horribly unsettling moment, the whole world feels off kilter.
Black Gold (Ormonde Jayne) – Gentlemanly Gold
Black Gold is every bit as stunning as its gold-plated billing makes it out to be. Perfectly in line with the Ormonde Jayne house style, it seems to be made up of hundreds of different layers of tulle and yet has the tensile density of velvet. The opening feels familiar, yet turbo-charged with something electric. The sherbet-like fizz of mandarin, lemon, and mandarin is intoxicating, and the touches of clary sage and juniper berry familiar to anyone who loves Tolu. Immediately after this somewhat characteristic Ormonde Jayne opening, the true character of the scent reveals itself as a confident duet between a particularly arid, aromatic sandalwood (one can almost visualize the reddish dust of felled heartwood in Mysore) and a hot, dusty carnation – the two accords whipping each other into a vortex of scent.
Texture is key here. Black Gold feels fuzzy and misty, like the fine-grained fizz on a glass of sparkling rosé. The quality of the sandalwood is superb, displaying as it does the peculiar character split between dry and milky of real santalum album. Although there are no piney terpenes here, the hallmark of inferior santalum spicatum from Australia, the sandalwood used in this fragrance is not at all sweet or unctuously creamy. In fact, coupled with the herbs and the spicy carnation, the woodiness strikes me as gentlemanly, similar in tone to the sandalwood in Santal Noble (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier). Later on, these same woods appear rubbed down by nuggets of creamy amber resin, their toffee-like sweetness filling out the air pockets in the wood and giving the scent a deep, velvety warmth.
However, there is also a very dry, peppery oud note in the drydown, which brings the fragrance closer in feel to Ormonde Man than some might be expecting. The oud adds a brush of something metallic and not entirely natural-smelling. The note is not exactly animalic, but a little dark and salty, tending towards carnal. This could be a touch of Ambroxan or real ambergris, or, of course, it could also simply be the listed oud coupled with the vegetal musk of ambrette. Either way, the ending is as shimmering and as translucent as the rest of the scent; it floats off the skin like cloud, never heavy or sullen.
Worth the price? Yes – with the proviso that you already have the money and won’t be skipping any meals or utility bills to buy it. There are plenty of haute luxe perfumes around at this price level anyway, but an Ormonde Jayne is consistently a trusty government bond compared to the equities market in one of the BRIC countries and is therefore a particularly safe investment. (I am just as puzzled as you as to why I’m talking about this like an investment banker).
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal) – Antique Gold
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq is a masterpiece of mukhallat perfumery. With a long name that translates to (roughly) ‘Aged Oud Blend’, it earns a place in any list of top ten or even top five mukhallats in the world. Essentially an essay on the beauty of aged Hindi oud, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq wanders through the umami flavorways of noble oud oil, touching upon sweet, sour, salty, woody, and even herbal facets as it passes through.
It may at first appear pungent or animalic to the uninitiated, but once the leathery spices rise through the initial wall of funk, you will find it difficult to tear your nose away. Sweet red roses, musk, and greenish herbs – perhaps a touch of vetiver – provide an excellent showcase for the aged oud, grounding and buttressing it with layers of complexity, body, and richness.
The other notes, while extremely rich and high quality, do not distract from the star of the show, namely that beautiful, aged Hindi oud. The oud slowly softens and melts like a pool of warm honey, pumping out wave after wave of spiced, syrupy goodness throughout the day. This intoxicating concerto of aromas is top of its class at representing the unique pleasures of oil perfumery.
In the far drydown, natural ambergris lends the scent a golden glow, as well as a hint of coniferous bitterness that recalls the aroma of raw fir balsam. Think of sea breezes blowing a forest of pine trees sideways, the salty freshness of the sea air mixing with the resinous greenery of the trees and the golden sweetness of tree sap. The ambergris amplifies the beauty of the aged oud and the brilliance of its rich Turkish rose. Beautiful, pure, and incredibly rewarding to wear, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq goes straight into the pantheon of must-haves for any serious mukhallat lover.
Kalemat is not wildly original (it smells a little like an upmarket version of 24 Gold by Scentstory, or Raghba by Lattafa Perfumes) but it is one of those rare instances when you put it on and you just know that it smells damn good, and that you smell damn good, and that other people (all of the other people, believe me) will think you smell damn good too. It reminds me that things don’t have to be wildly expensive or original to give you pleasure.
In fact, every time I wear Kalemat, I think of what Agent Dale Cooper tells Harry in Twin Peaks, namely – ‘Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.’ Kalemat is a just damn fine coffee.
It is difficult to describe Kalemat without making it seem simple or boring. It opens with a brief berry note, before sliding into a golden, honeyed amber riff that swirls around you like a delicious second skin for a whole twelve hours. There is a hint of gently smoked oud that stops the whole thing from diving off a cliff into gourmand territory. It is not real oud, of course – not at this price point. But for once, the synthetic oud or cashmeran or whatever they are using here for that smoky oud note is not obnoxious or dominant. Instead, it adds a pleasurably smoky but unobtrusive buzz to the backbone of the fragrance. It is there simply to support the spiced, honeyed amber, not to shout all over it.
Kalemat wears in a similar way to perfumes like Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114, Dior Privée Ambre Nuit, and Amouage’s Fate Woman – not in terms of scent per se, but in the way each of these particular fragrances seem to hover around your skin like a haze of fuzzy, warm, golden light, and radiate outwards, like Golden Hour light pouring into a dingy room. And really, the base appeal of Kalemat lies in its sillage. I like the Muslim idea of using perfume to scent not only yourself but also the air around you, as a gift for others. Kalemat spills out over your skin and into the air around you, leaving a trail of honeyed, gently-spiced amber and woods for others to enjoy. I have had women in the supermarket stop me to ask what I’m wearing. Dogs follow me. Little children ignore my stupidly asymmetrical face and smile at me. Kalemat is a gift you give to yourself, yes, but also to others.
Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch) – Gold Bud
Composed by Christi Meshell for her House of Matriarch line of perfumes, Black No. 1 (formerly known as Blackbird) is made up of over 300 different notes and materials, 93% of which are all-natural. This is incredibly complex, even crowded perfume – but somehow it still manages to achieve the effect of a smooth, even flow of notes, like water across a silk panel.
The opening salvo is a rush of mellow leather, dark woods, and green resins. Even though it is very dark in flavor, everything feels round and smooth, with no jagged edges anywhere. There is what I can only describe as a delicious ‘roasted’ effect here that smells quite like a lump of unsmoked hashish resin, i.e., sweetish, tarry, sticky – like summer grass trampled underfoot.
But make no mistake – this is no stoner’s joke, no hippy-dippy afternoon delight. Whereas the similarly cannabis-focused Coze (Parfumerie Generale) uses its weed note to conjure up a happy, outdoorsy vibe of buff lumberjacks lighting up a joint, here the note is used in a supporting role to add a sweet, herbal grassiness to the other woody and aromatic notes. The scent manages to evoke strong visual images in my head, spinning visions of dark forests of firs and pines beside windswept beaches. The feeling is of solitude, a glorying in the fierceness of nature at its wildest. There is a genius note of sea salt weaving in and out of the perfume at this point, serving to pierce the density of the dark notes like a sudden shaft of moonlight through the forest. For such a dense perfume, it feels incredibly ozonic.
The gentle, rounded oud accord in the opening notes becomes ever stronger as the scent develops, picking up more of a rubbery, medicinal character. This adds a surprisingly pleasant wash of something antiseptic to the complex roasted flavors of the woods and resins. In some ways, the roasted, dark woods and oud note reminded me slightly of both Montecristo (by Masque Fragranze Milano) and of Hard Leather (by LM Parfums) but nowhere near as challenging. Both Montecristo and Hard Leather play up their tough notes like oud, leather, and styrax to such a degree that they simply overpower everything else – but all the potentially harsh notes in Blackbird seem to have been folded into softer, sweeter accords, like the amber and musks in the base, thus sanding down any hard edges they might have had.
The progression here is incredible for a perfume with such a high degree of natural ingredients. There is a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The whole thing is just so coherent and beautifully put together. The sticky, tarry notes from the top eventually loosen up and spread out. The sweetness of the pot resins intensifies too, mixing with the dark leather to create an effect that is intoxicating. And the dry down – oh my God, that dry down! It is a mix of amber, musk, and that dark, supple leather note that feels at once sensual and comfortable. It reminds me of the animalic but cozy feel of L’Ombre Fauve by Parfumerie Generale and the deep coziness of the latter stages of Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens, the part where all passion is spent and now all is the sugar and cream smell of two bodies cooling on the bear hide. Though eye-wateringly expensive and difficult to obtain, Black No. 1 is one of the first perfumes I’d buy in vats if I won the lottery.
Source of Samples: All reviews are based on samples, decants, or bottles of perfume I have purchased myself, with the exception of the sample of Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh), which was kindly gifted to me by the brand, and the sample of Puredistance Black, which was kindly sent to me by the brand in 2016 for half the cost of the regular sample set (I paid the other half, by agreement with the brand manager). I own half a tester bottle of the new Oudh Osmanthus, in lieu of payment by a former client of mine, but bought a decant of the original formulation myself. As always, I do not do paid reviews and do not accept samples in exchange for a positive review. My opinions are my own. This blog is not monetized, and I do not earn any income from my perfume writing.
Each of the gifts of the three Magi carried a special symbolic meaning – gold representing kingship, myrrh foreshadowing the death of Jesus (myrrh being commonly used as an embalming and purifying ointment in the final sendoff of a soul), and finally, frankincense for divinity. In other words, if gold represents earthy wealth and influence, and myrrh represents the suffering associated with death, then frankincense is the most spiritually elevating of all resins – and arguably the most important – as it turns the gaze upwards, towards God.
a more prosaic level, some believe that frankincense might have been brought
along because of its medicinal qualities. In 2011, due to longstanding cultural
links between Wales and Somalia (who knew?), researchers at Cardiff University decided
to investigate whether there was any medical evidence to support the ancient
Somali tradition of using frankincense extract as a traditional herbal remedy
for the aches and pains associated with arthritis. And indeed, the scientists
were able to demonstrate
that treatment with an extract of Boswellia frereana (one of the rarer
frankincense species) inhibits the production of key inflammatory molecules, effectively
slowing down the disintegration of the cartilage tissue which causes the
So, maybe the three wise men were actually…..wise? (Though, rolling up to the bedside of a woman who had just given birth in a stable without so much as a pack of Paracetamol, nappies, and a stack of gossip magazines would seem to contradict that.)
In fact, most resins used in attar and commercial perfumery have long been as prized for their cleansing or purifying properties as for their spiritual or ritualistic ones. Arabs chew frankincense tears as chewing gum to freshen the breath and aid digestion, for example, while Papiers d’Arménie owe their existence to a Frenchman by the name of Auguste Ponsot, who, after stumbling across benzoin resin during his travels in Armenia in 1885, decided to make benzoin-infused strips of paper to cleanse the air in stuffy rooms all across Paris. Both Arabs and Persians have long traditions of burning incense to fumigate their rooms, clothes, places of worship, and hair. The word perfume itself comes from the Latin per fumus, which means ‘through the smoke’, making it more than likely that the first rudimentary form of perfume was, in fact, the fumigation of a dwelling with incense. So put that on your burner and smoke it!
Frankincense, for many people, lies at the very tippety-top of the incense chain – the thoroughbred of the resin family. Deriving from the old French word franc encens – meaning ‘high quality incense’ – frankincense is a gum produced by the Boswellia genus of trees which grows in Somalia, Sudan, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. The bulk of frankincense, called luban or loban in Arabic, comes from Somalia. However, the finest quality of frankincense is called Hojari (alternatively referred to as howjary) or silver frankincense, and this comes from the arid Dhofar region of Oman in the United Arab Emirates.
steam-distilled oil of frankincense resin gives attars and perfumes a fresh,
coniferous resinousness, with a bright lemon-and-lime topnote. Some grades of
Omani frankincense smell like oranges or tangerines in their topnotes, with a
soft-ish, creamy quality in the lower register. The house of Amouage, based in
Oman, was founded around the use of local Hojari frankincense, and indeed, most
of this house’s output showcases the silvery beauty of Omani frankincense.
an interview with me for Basenotes
in March 2018, Trygve Harris, a frankincense distiller in Oman, talked
about the different aromas associated with the different types of frankincense.
“Somali has a lemony note, and a warm dryness, an austerity. It makes me
thirsty — it smells vast and dry. It reminds me of Palm Springs when I was a
kid. The Omani has a richness, an opulence, like a treasure box. Regarding the
differences in the Omani frankincense oils, I like to say the white (howjary)
has more a green, herbal, butterfly note while the black has an orange floral
is the note that many people, including me, tend to lump in with the larger
category represented by the word incense. Technically, incense is any
hard-ish material – be it a wood (sandalwood, oud wood) or a resin or gum (like
myrrh, benzoin, copal, frankincense) – that can be slowly burned or smoked on a
coal to produce a purifying but fragrant smoke. Fragrances classified as
incense fragrances typically feature some ratio of frankincense to other
resins, balsams, and gums (most typically myrrh, but also benzoin, labdanum,
etc.), so many of the frankincense-themed fragrances on the list below are
actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something
Now, for someone’s who just written an 8,000-word essay on it, I feel compelled to tell you that I am deeply ambivalent about frankincense. For anyone who was born Catholic – or worse, Irish Catholic – the scent of frankincense is less an actual aroma than it is an emotional trigger, dredging up all the complex, long-buried feelings about an entire culture that revolves around the Roman Catholic Church. Or, as we refer to it in the hood, the RCC. All incense matters to us, but frankincense matters the most. It alone is the Proustian gun that fires straight into the Catholic hippocampus.
when it came to exploring the different categories of fragrance, it is perhaps
not surprising that I set off merrily down along the High Mass path, blundering
under the assumption that incense would be the bread and butter of my
collection. I had, after all, spent most of my childhood downwind of a censer.
But it turns out that – shocker – I much prefer a vision of High Mass filtered
through a romantic, hazy vision of half-remembered holiness over anything too
authentic. It is more than I am an incense lightweight than a lapsed Catholic,
although I am certainly also the latter.
Ironically, in the Before Times, despite me being a terrible excuse for a Catholic, I was living in Rome, in an apartment so close to St. Peter’s Basilica that my kitchen window could be spotted every time the camera panned out in The Young Pope. I am tempted to trot out a tired line about being able to throw a stick and hit the Pope, only in the case of Papa Francis, I think we’ve established that he is pretty cool with anything as long as you don’t try to grab his hand.
Anyway, this enormous building and its Holiest of inhabitants set the pace for much of my life in Rome. I used the gleaming, opalescent curves of its imposing colonnade to guide me through the darkness of pre-dawn runs. I crossed the square (more of a circle) most weekend days, ducking and weaving my way through the tight knots of tourists, street hawkers, and selfie sticks in a mindless, amoeba-like daze. You can’t buy an espresso or a gelato in this neighborhood without elbowing your way past a priest, nun, or monk.
But you can get used to anything, and when you live right next to something like St. Peter’s Basilica, you get used to that too. It just becomes part of your day-to-day life. Mostly, I orbited St. Peter’s in a friendly, non-Catholic way and felt it to exist as an almost secular building in my line of vision, sometimes obstructing where I needed to go, other times making me pause to marvel at its sheer size or the way it glowed like a rose gold beacon in the evening.
But every now and then, there would be a religious procession, either from a local parish or a visiting church from Latin America, and I would smell the incense pouring off the censer again, and I walk straight into it, seeking it out the way your finger finds an old scar to worry at. I like to think that I am alert to the dangers of being pulled back in by the ancient Catholic drugs of knee-trembling beauty, architectural grandeur, and the straight-to-the-heart punch of frankincense. It is pure mind-fuckery. But sometimes, I just can’t help myself.
enough of my pontiff-icating (I’m here all night, folks) – here are a
few frankincense-dominated compositions to chew over.
Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense
have owned bottles, decants, and samples of the some of the biggest players in
the High Mass corner of the incense genre, and my personal favorite is Cardinal
(Heeley). Compared to Avignon (Comme des Garcons) and Full Incense
(Montale) – the two other High Mass scents with which Cardinal is most often
grouped – Cardinal smells like incense from the priest’s censer wafting at you through
shafts of sunshine, fresh air, and white sheets fluttering on a brisk breeze.
it is very dry, it is not tremendously dark or smoky, and therefore, not
forbidding. The aldehydes lift the spirits as well as the scent itself, and the
papery-sweet benzoin makes me think of vellum sheet music soaked in vanilla,
strung out over a line to dry. I appreciate the elegantly-slanted, sideways
approach to church incense that Cardinal employs because it gives me the vague
whiff of spirituality without dragging me back to Mass.
(Robert Piguet) – Spicy
incense field is so crowded by giants (Cardinal, Avignon, LAVS) that it is
difficult to carve out a spot. Casbah manages – just about – by clothing the
hollow, Coca-Cola-ish effervescence of Avignon in a peppery fog akin to dry
ice. It is much richer than Cardinal and much drier than the fizzy soda-soap
that is Montale’s Full Incense.
down into the details, Casbah also has a curiously antiseptic thread running
through it, but a subtle one – more the rubbery squeak of a hospital gurney
against a freshly-sluiced floor rather than full-out disinfectant. This is not
due to any ghost ‘oud’ note, but to an organic fudge of angelica and nutmeg. I
like its medieval darkness and grunginess because it makes no apologies for
being the curmudgeon of the pack. In fact,
Casbah reads more like one of Santa Maria Novella’s older, less photo-ready
concoctions than a Piguet.
Armani PrivéBois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense
minimalistic, airy, and remarkably boring concoction of frankincense over a
polished cedar or Iso E Super base. Despite critics and bloggers writing a paeon
of praise to this bellwether of bellwethers of the incense genre, I was never
able to ‘get’ its supposed complexity. To my nose, it is a micro explosion of
black pepper and frankincense e/o inside a very small (but perfectly chic)
black vase. Though perfectly formed – well, everyone keeps saying it is anyway –
it is too featureless to leave much of an impression on me.
Czech & Speake Frankincense and Myrrh – Honest Frankincense
straight-forward blend of frankincense and myrrh that unites the dusty, waxen
‘old wooden furniture’ mien of myrrh to the lemony-piney detergent freshness of
frankincense, and pretty much calls it a day. It smells unimpeachably natural
and clean, more like an eau de cologne with a resinous backdrop than the
smokier, heavier takes on incense that modern niche specializes in. It smells
like a church floor rigorously cleansed after Mass with buckets full of hot
water (there is a hissy steam or mineral note), lemon-scented detergent, and
bunches of minty, rooty herbs like lavender and clary sage stirred in for good
drydown is much better than the opening; the strident lemon high notes of the
frankincense drop off, allowing the fragrance to swan elegantly into a
protracted finish of clean, unsmoked resin and wooden bannisters polished to a
high shine. Absolutely no smoke, no sugar, no Eastern mysticism, no Catholic
High Mass. Czech & Speake’s Frankincense and Myrrh strips the two headliner
resins back to their core, demonstrating that you don’t have to bathe resins in
orientalia for them to smell good.
Mad et Len Noir Encens – Amaretto Frankincense
Encens is not noir or, indeed, particularly encens. Rather, it is
a cozy gourmand in the hazelnut-amaretto-over-iced-milk vein of Hypnotic
Poison, only much less loud. It manages that very chic, very French balance of
edible and semi-poisonous notes. Its milky, anisic softness in the drydown
reminds me somewhat of Gucci Eau de Parfum, the one with the brown juice in the
clear glass bottle.
Paul Schütze Behind the Rain – Wild Frankincense
the Rain is one of those wild, freeform bag of ‘smells’ that the perfumer seems
to have corralled in from his atmosphere – a liquid message from his world to
ours, a bundling up of the collected smells of the woodshop and the painter’s
studio. It is green-brown, vegetal, sharp, and more than slightly weird. But it
is also deeply invigorating. Something in it electrifies me.
the Rain is nominally a modern incense perfume à la Comme des Garcons. Yet from
within the sleek lines of its minimalist architecture emanates the smells of
Olde World Europe – oil lamps, liniment, centuries-old wood, glue bindings,
turpentine, anise-scented toothpaste, and horsehair brushes idling in glasses
of solvent. A dusty frankincense turns the polished wood and oily aromas of the
workshop into a (homey) place of worship.
might be an indoor scent entirely were it not for the wet rootiness of fennel,
mastic, vetiver, and all manner of violently-uprooted vegetation sweeping gusts
of air into closed rooms with their strange prairie outdoorsiness. The scent
has one foot inside, one foot outside, ready to bolt in a Heathcliffian huff.
Behind the Rain is imagined along the same lines as Marescialla by Santa Maria
Novella and Olibanum by Profumum –more a summoning of the elements than a scent.
Thank God perfumes like this still exist.
is the third point on the triangulation of what I like to call the ‘powdered
sugar incense’ category, between the rose champagne fizz of Maria Candida
Gentile’s Sideris and the doughnutty yumminess of Reve d’Ossian (Oriza L.
Legrand). I am drawn to the gently edible edge to these incense perfumes,
because they calm the naturally sharp angles of frankincense by filtering it
through the haze of powdered sugar that rises off a sweet bun when you bite
is thickly dusted with the double powder whammy of iris and benzoin in its
topnotes and made slightly sherbety with the addition of rose or lemon. As
others before me have pointed out, this combination of iris and incense is
reminiscent of the Tauerade present in both Incense Rosé and Les Années 25
(Tauer), although far less powerful or astringent – Rosarium is softly, sweetly
bready, rather than battery acid radiant.
what really makes Rosarium special is the carrot seed accent, which gives the
powdery incense sweetness an unusually earthy-rooty depth. This smells like
metal slicing through upturned earth, but also like a warm, mealy pulp made of
sawdust and rainwater. The carrot seed effect makes my mouth water, although
technically there is nothing edible about it. I notice that the carrot seed
present in Santal Blush (Tom Ford) has a similar effect, except for the
addition of cumin, which makes it even wheatier.
combination of sweet incense dust, milk-soaked Easter bread, and metallic earth
or hazelnuts in Rosarium is pretty wonderful, and if my ‘powdered sugar
incense’ needs weren’t already being met by the brighter, more natural-smelling
Sideris, I would seriously think about putting it on my putative ‘To Buy’ list
(whereupon it would likely languish for years).
Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense
It sounds explosive, which is strange, because it smells explosive too,
especially when it tumbles out in that first, aldehyded rush of sugared pine
needles, frankincense, and cinnamon-dipped red fruits. The pine ‘flavor’ in Wazamba
is the connecting dot (for me) between the coniferous notes and the naturally
piney facet of frankincense. As with its close relative, Filles en Anguilles by
Serge Lutens, the pine notes read as something sunlit and Mediterranean, rather
than snowy and Northern, a feeling cleverly underlined by a tangy cypress note.
Wazamba, the umbrella pines are bent sideways by a Bora or a Sirocco, the soil
beneath them is springy with orange-brown pine needles, and everything is warm,
dry, and aromatic. It is an extremely fruity scent, if you stand back and look
at it from a distance – dried plum and cranberries, I think, more than apple.
But up close, the piney-coniferous freshness of the woods proves an effective
bridle, slowing the roll of the fruit and sobering it up. There is also quite a
lot of clove or cinnamon, which manifests as a dustiness or chalkiness of
texture in the gradient of the wood rather than as a hotly-spiced standalone accent.
I think Wazamba proves that, in the right hands, heavy-duty stuff like plum or myrrh
and frankincense can be manipulated to take up the shape of light filtering
through sea-leaning pine trees. Nice (but non-essential).
Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense
the past ten years or so, as supplies of it dwindled and the secondary market
dried up, Norma Kamali Incense has attained legendary status approaching that
of the 1804 Bust Dollar for coin collectors or the Pikachu Illustrator Card for
Pokémon fans. Only the original Djedi (Guerlain), Iris Gris (Jacques Fath), and
Chypre (Coty) top it for rarity and collector value, though modern tastes
probably lean more towards the Norma Kamali. But how much of the appreciation
for Norma Kamali Incense is due to its unavailability and how much to its
intrinsic qualities as a scent?
bought and sold a 10ml decant of the later edition and tested two sample vials
of it – one a cognac brown from (presumably) the early edition and the other a
yellowy gold (later edition) – I suspect that it is the former. Norma Kamali is
striking, but perhaps not as unique as people assume. I smell echoes of it in Amber
Absolute and Sahara Noir (both Tom Ford), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio),
the original Messe de Minuit (Etro), Calling All Angels (April Aromatics), DEV#4
(Olympic Orchids), and 03. Apr. 1968 (Rundholz).
connects all of these to Norma Kamali Incense is the bittersweet, smoky quality
of the labdanum material used, maybe due to a touch of Hydrocarboresine, a
Biolandes-owned natural derivative of cistus-labdanum, which lends perfumes a
rich ‘High Mass’ incense effect that lurches between the bitterness of
buckwheat honey and the sweetness of toffee. Aside from the Hydrocarboresine,
it seems to lean heavily on a nexus of copal – a South American resin that
smells herbaceously bitter (burnt bay leaf) – a rubbery myrrh, and a hulking
block of super-dry labdanum that smells like a leather saddle smoldering in the
grate of a fire. The Hydrocarboresine is instrumental to creating that oddly
animalic, stale, waxy awfulness that is half holy, half-demons-summoned-from-the-depths-of-hell.
Kamali Incense is undeniably characterful, but you have to be up for that
particular brand of gloom when you put it on. This is a scent that demands the
commitment of the whole day – God help you if you think you’re just going to be
able to dab on a bit, test it, and then wash it off again. It has a strange way
of making you feel as if you are choking on the ashy fumes of a censer swinging
directly over your head (with you desperately wishing the priest would move on
so you can breathe again). Phenomenally burnt, colossal in stature, and more
than a bit overwhelming, Norma Kamali Incense would be, I feel, slightly a bit
too over the top for confession, unless you’re confessing to the Devil himself in
the ashes of Notre Dame (in which case it would be perfect).
Incense Flash (Tauerville) – Frankincense Haiku
what it says on the tin, Incense Flash presents a somewhat abbreviated but
nonetheless satisfying picture of incense resins half-smoked on the censer. It
leads the charge with a piney frankincense and quickly adds in the tarrier,
bootstrap molasses nuances of myrrh for heft. It is smoky, but this is due to
the resins themselves rather than the addition of birch tar, so there is still
air to breathe and it never quite tips over into acridity.
is some rubber and fuel detritus floating around in the frankincense accord,
but that is just the nature of frankincense – anyone’s who has ever bought or
burned any will recognize this aspect immediately. The dry woods and Ambroxan
in the base are less satisfying to me. I am never sold on the ‘clean starched
shirt taken off an aftershave-doused male body’ accord this tandem births like
a malevolent serpent into the world. Yet it is never as aggressively
‘soap-powder-shot-into-your-nostrils’ as Incense Extrême, a small mercy for
which I am very grateful.
main issue with this scent is that it smells like something I could knock
together myself. There is a lazy, homemade edge to this that disappoints.
Incense Flash is very fairly priced, but it is one of those products that make
you aware of the mark-up exactly at the point you’re consuming it, like the
store-bought apple tart that tastes fine, but you can taste that they cut a few
corners and just knocked it out onto the production line in time for the 5 o’
clock rush, so you’re kind of questioning even the measly €6 you spent on it.
Sombre Negra(Yosh) – Frankincense Fougère
world’s first frankincense fougère? Someone is going to write an angry letter
contradicting me on that. I don’t care. Listen up, ladies, because I am writing
this for you. Sombre Negra is written about as one of the standout incense
fragrances of the genre. I have no issue with the incense part of the equation.
The promised ‘blackness’ is all there – a gorgeously sooty, dusty frankincense
seemingly swept out from under the censers and grates of Europe’s most commanding
cathedrals with the sole purpose of putting the fear of God in you and making
you repent. It is dour. It is suitably sturm-und-drang.
and really, women, listen up because I am slowly but inexorably getting to the
point – the other half of this fragrance is your brother’s shirt collar circa
1985. Remember the male aroma of shirts soaked in enough Drakkar Noir to scour
the bath? Remember the posturing and the putting on of that older male ‘skin’
to be able to face the world in all their pimpled, trembling glory? Have you
ever had to lie in the bed of a young male relative while a-visiting and known
the horror of those clammy, Brut-soaked sheets that made you wish you could
disassociate from your own body? Ladies, I have three brothers and four male
cousins. I do not mock. I am merely reminding you.
Flamboyant opens with a peculiar note of stale fag ash, like clothes after a
night out in a disco, its breath freshened up a tiny bit by a fir balsam or
pine note. There is nothing particularly joyful or uplifting about the frankincense.
It creates instead a cool, flat grey-green aura that reminds me of mold
crumbling into dust on a piece of bread.
There is a dry, metallic tinge to Encens Flamboyant that makes it quite similar
in feel (if not scent) to Tauer’s Incense Extrême – they share a certain
austerity and ‘bareness’ of structure. It also shares that notorious stale
cigarette note with Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette, though that is a
fragrance I like much better because the fag ash is balanced out by a minty
green (and surprisingly cheap-smelling) jasmine note that makes it feel like
someone covering up the scent of a sneaky cigarette with a drugstore ‘floral-ish’
cologne. Encens Flamboyant, lacking that little quirk of humor, feels a bit like
wearing a hair shirt.
Tinkerbell and the Archangel Gabriel got together to make a perfume, Sideris is
what they would come up with. Two things are important to mention here –
radiance and scale. Radiance-wise, Maria Candida Gentile has somehow managed to
take the heaviest and stickiest substances in perfumery – French labdanum, frankincense,
myrrh, beeswax – and infuse the whole thing with light and air. This is a
perfume that radiates. It glows. In fact, what hits you first, when you spray
it on, is this incredible note of powdered sugar, the result of a diffuse mix
of frankincense and rose. This powdered sugar note coats the entire perfume
from head to toe, a sort of fairy dust sifted over the heavier resins. A gentle
shake of the spice jar – pepper and ginger – add to the sprightly,
nose-tingling effect. The dust is finally anchored and settled at the base by
is nothing synthetic in feel or reach of the incense here. And yet, Sideris
achieves an unearthly radiance that would normally only be possible with Iso E
Super or another woody amber material. Incredible.
important to me, however, is the fact that even in the crowded field of incense
scents, Sideris manages to distinguish itself as a completely different beast.
It is not one of those soaring High Mass perfumes like Avignon by Comme des
Garcons or LAVS by UNUM, scents which take incense, blow it up into
cathedral-sized places of worship, and instill a sense of gloom and awe into
Sideris is an incense-based perfume scaled to infinitely more humble
proportions. You can tell that a woman made this. It is a quiet moment of
reflection over a cup of tea. It is the private rolling out of a prayer mat in
your bedroom as dawn approaches. More than anything, it is a priest sweeping
out the steps of the church as he opens up for the day, the mica from the dust
glittering in the sun as he gives you a grin and a lusty ‘Buongiorno!’ on your
way to get an espresso.
don’t have to be a Catholic or go to church to like this. I put this on, and no
matter what kind of bad day I am having, I feel like I am floating around in my
own personal cloud of magic fairy dust, protected by all the bad juju around
Fumée (Miller Harris) – Fresh
is funny how sometimes it’s the fragrances you wear the most are the ones you
never bother to write about. I am on my second bottle of this elegant woods and
resins concoction, and yet now when I sit down to put pen to paper, I realize I
have never really analyzed the notes. La Fumée performs quietly in the
background of your day, like smoke from incense or oud embedded in the fabric
of your clothes. It starts off on a greenish frankincense note, like crushed
pine needles, pepper, and lemons, creating a fresh, masculine vibe that continues
for much of the scent.
Wafting in and out of the composition is a light smoke note from a combination
of the cade and birch tar, but there is also a dry labdanum in the mix,
performing its teetering act between tinder-dry paper that’s about to catch
fire and liquid tar. Creamy sandalwood takes over from the piney, terpenic
facets of the frankincense, nudging the scent into a faintly sweet-and-sour
sweat direction. But none of that describes how easy this scent is to wear, or
how pleasurable in its humming-in-the-background way. Whereas other resin
scents hit you over the head, this one wears like an elegant, transparent veil
that exists only at the corner of your field of vision. Like a former boyfriend
of mine, it is small but perfectly formed.
frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is central to its
aroma, and this is precisely the characteristic that Absolute Frankincense has
chosen to highlight. The scent extends the silvery bite of the resin by
flanking it with a lime-like bergamot and some very natural-smelling coniferous
notes. The result smells clean and high-toned – an expression of frankincense
oil itself, as opposed to the burnt, smoky notes of the resin as it bubbles on
who love the more severe takes on frankincense such as Annick Goutal’s Encens
Flamboyant will appreciate Absolute Frankincense. Just be aware that this oil
is monastic in its approach, and that the green purity of the resin has been
prioritized far above the smoky, resinous, or sweet notes that usually flank
frankincense. This is the cold, smooth smell of the unburned resin itself, an
almost exact match to the aroma of the resin when you rub it between the palms
of your hands. My criticism is that Absolute Frankincense is almost too simple
– too close to the aroma of good quality frankincense oil itself – to be worth
the cost of entry.
All Angels (April Aromatics)
– Butter Caramel Frankincense
All Angels is perhaps one of my favorite incense compositions, and although it mostly
centers around a tremendously complex, bittersweet labdanum material (helped
along, I suspect, by a dose of the Biolandes Hydrocarboresine, a natural derivative
of cistus-labdanum that gives both Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali their utterly
toothsome burnt honey/cinder toffee quality), there is a huge dose of sooty
frankincense in the opening half that firmly establishes the holy side of the
holy-slash-edible equation that this scent has going on.
All Angels smells like incense smoking and spluttering to a halt inside a stone
jar of chestnut honey so ancient it’s become a stiff brown paste. I can never decide
if it is is the kind of thing you slather yourself in when you want someone to eat
you or the kind of thing you wear to commune with a Higher Power, but maybe that’s
nel Vento (Bois 1920) – Frankincense
Dior’s Mitzah, April Aromatics Calling All Angels, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, Contre
Bombarde 32, and Bois 1920’s own Real Patchouly, Vento nel Vento blurs the
lines between amber, incense, spices, and woods, making it rather difficult to
pin down. Which is exactly what I like about it. It’s not pure frankincense –
its frankincense plus all the other stuff I like (probably a lot more
than straight-up frank).
nel Vento is not, to be clear, ground-breaking stuff. But it is a good
kitchen-sink of a thing that’s perfect for when you feel like wearing something
warm and resinous without condemning yourself to a full day of enough
straight-up amber to put you in a sugar coma or an incense so monastic that it turns
into a hair shirt by dinnertime. The opening is all about balmy, dark
frankincense paired and smoky labdanum resin, lifted by a thyme or rosemary
note that makes me want to bite my arm. The herb is phenolic, like smoke rising
off a tar pit – akin to the burnt thyme note atop Interlude Man.
Although it is not sweet, the smoke and herbs are balanced out by a smooth, round edible quality. Perhaps it is the lemony cream of the elemi resin or, again, that Hydrocarboresine material from Biolandes. Whatever it is, it reads like soft black licorice vines, the mild ones perched precisely between sweet and salty and whose major selling point is their satisfying yield as you bite into them. The slightly tarry, smoky labdanum stretches out into the heart, and as the thyme and frankincense taper off, it is joined by a smooth amber and patchouli.
There is a small touch of oud in the heart, enough to give it an interesting
sourness that smacks of wood chips and herbs soaked in water before distilling.
Often, incensey ambers or ambery incenses ruin the effect by having one element
stick out too much, such as a too-sharp herbal note, an overly piney
frankincense, or an overload of vanilla. In Vento nel Vento, the whole is
perfectly round, smooth, and integrated. No one note catches at your skin like
a forgotten clothes pin.
Vento nel Vento starts off with immense volume (sillage) but does a surprisingly gentle fade-out, becoming very quiet after 3-4 hours. In the base, an ambergris note contributes a musky, salted caramel glaze to the finish. It is subtle – not so much the smell of ambergris tincture itself with its usual marine and earthy funk, rather the effect of white ambergris, which has little scent of its own. White ambergris, the finest grade, acts instead as a magnifying glass held up to the other notes in the composition. Here, it adds a sensual, skin-like glow that animates the resins, amber, and sandalwood like blowing onto hot coals.
Noir (Tom Ford) – Frank
inexplicably discontinued as its sibling, Amber Absolute, Sahara Noir is for
many the standout of the frankincense field. It has the advantage of being both
familiar and novel at the same time, essentially dusting off the black pepper
frankincense core of Black Cashmere (Donna Karan), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford),
and even Black (Comme des Garcons), before adding cinnamon and tobacco to
highlight the authentically dusty-sooty texture of the frankincense, and burnt
sugar and orange rind for a sweet-n-sour brightness that illuminates its
darkness. Though quite sharp at first, once it settles in a bit, what you
notice about Sahara Noir is just how smooth and high-gloss it actually is (a
sort of Tom Ford signature, I think).
objectively speaking, this is obviously a really solid fragrance – well made,
with good quality materials, rich and warm, yet true to the chilly coniferous
sting of frankincense. However, since I have owned and then sold or swapped
away two whole bottles of this monster, there is obviously something about
Sahara Noir that isn’t doing it for me at a personal level. The best I can come
up with is that it is two-thirds the way to Amber Absolute, which only serves
to remind me that I’d much rather be wearing Amber Absolute instead.
Holy Terror(Arcana) – Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens
the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product
description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk,
thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord. The myrrh and
frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather
than as accurate representations of their natural selves. So, for example,
there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as
frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to
myrrh. Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular. Indeed,
they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.
point out that Holy Terror smells more resin-like or ‘generically resinous’ is, by the way, not a criticism but an
observation. Some people blind buy incense or resin scents because they are
trying to find something that accurately represents the aroma of a specific
resin, like, for example, unlit frankincense, oud wood (rather than the oil),
myrrh, or copal. Incense freaks tend to be very specific about the effect they
are looking for. Therefore, my note about the nature of the resins in Holy
Terror is simply for clarification.
Terror is more about the homely smell of incense-scented things than High Mass.
It is not dark or massively smoky or acrid. It is not a literal incense or burning resin scent like Avignon (Comme
des Garcons). It is sweet herbs, tree sap, and woodsmoke wrapped in a
just-snuffed-out candlewax accord. It is slightly musky, which creates a tinge
of intimacy, like the skin of someone pressing close to you in church. This
gives the scent a human aura that is enormously inviting.
ÂmeSombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute
The Âme Sombre series (Âme Sombre Oud Infusion, Âme Sombre Grade 1, and Âme Sombre Grade II) was conceived as a tribute to, well, Tribute – the landmark frankincense-cedar attar from Amouage that has such a cult following that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a tiny squib of it. Naturally, when Amouage discontinued its line of attars, the desire for Tribute increased even further. Nothing enhances Holy Grail status for a scent like scarcity and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it. Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha stepped in with his take on the original.
Âme Sombre variations revolve
around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like
smoke from the censer at High Mass. This frankincense is surrounded by a very
good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine. The florals never quite succeed in
speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense –
they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like light
through a stained glass window. In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco,
ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky
bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres. The bitterness is alleviated
somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies
Infusion Oud is the most expensive and
opulent version of Âme Sombre.
It rivals or even surpasses the cost of the original Tribute, due to the
time-consuming and messy task of infusing a small quantity of Âme Sombre Grade I with smoke from
sinking grade oud wood chips, which Sultan heated on a burner directly
underneath the attar itself.
Infusion version therefore contains the uniquely clean, resinous aroma that
comes from heating oud wood (as opposed to the fermented, ‘overripe’ aroma of
pure oud oil). The oud infusion doubles down on the rich smokiness of the
frankincense, but also offers a slightly green sweetness that serves to soften
the essentially bitter character of the scent. This version, although expensive
and now also possibly discontinued, is the most balanced version of Tribute,
and my personal favorite.
Grade I and Âme Sombre Oud
Infusion both relate closely to the original Tribute (albeit with a bigger
emphasis on rose), and either would be an excellent substitute for the now
discontinued attar. Âme Sombre
Grade II differs quite dramatically from both the Oud Infusion and Grade I, but
I like it a lot as a standalone scent and wish it had been marketed
Grade I begins with an incredibly lush,
lemony rose that has the effect of flooding the gloomy church corridors with
light and air. Rose is usually added to oud to give it a sweet juiciness to
counteract its sour, stark woodiness, and here it plays that role both for the
austere, pine-like frankincense and
the sourish cedar. Then a clutch of dark, balmy resins and leather notes moves
in to draw a black velvet cloak over the bright, sourish rose, rendering the
tone of the attar somber and serious. Grade I is slightly darker, more
phenolic, and more sour-rosy in feel than the Oud Infusion, which draws sweet
woodsmoke notes from the agarwood infusion. Grade I also employs more of a
focus on balmy leather notes than the other versions.
Âme Sombre Grade I feels more
Northern in tone than Middle-Eastern. There is a fresh juniper note in the
background that further bolsters this ‘Orthodox Church in a chilly Northern
forest’ tonality. In terms of overall approach, Âme Sombre Grade I is perhaps the closest to the original Tribute
with its stark, smoky cedar-frankincense combination. It is also intensely
powerful, lasting on my skin all day and well beyond a shower.
Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) – Pure Frankincense
frankincense as taut and as vegetal as a piece of freshly-peeled silver birch. The
vin jaune of the incense genre, Incense Pure does not smell of High
Mass, but of the bright, sticky sap weeping from the tree itself, softened by the
powdery green smell of living wood. Plenty of fresh air swirls in and around
the frankincense molecules here, cutting and lifting them without (interestingly)
adding any the citrusy ‘lime peel’ nuances normally associated with
frankincense. It smells like an outdoors cathedral, its roof formed by a
closely-knit canopy of wiry spruce and oak saplings. Extremely dry and bright,
I always feel like I need a glass of water when I wear Incense Pure. An ambery
warmth in the lower register – intermittent
at best – adds a relieving warmth, if not any real sweetness.
those looking to get into incense perfumes, Basilica is a great starting point.
Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense,
this blend smells purely of High Mass. It is not complicated or indeed complex,
but its straightforwardness is part of its charm. In particular, the
naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky –
makes this an absolute pleasure. Soft and soulful, Basilica is like Comme des
Garcons’ Avignon in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it
should come with a trigger warning.
(Profumum) – Polished
skips the high-pitched lime peel notes of most frankincense renditions, instead
focusing almost entirely on the material’s rooty, medicinal sootiness. There
are some very fine Omani frankincense varieties, like Hojari, that display a
soft creamy-tangy orange note up top instead of the usual lime leaf, and this
is what Profumum has cleverly chosen to mimic here with its brief splash of
orange in the topnotes.
Rather than resin, I get the impression of dark, shiny, polished woods, an
ancient armoire maybe, carved from a single trunk of pine felled in some cold
North clime. It smells like what I imagine wenge smells like – the hidden
underbelly of wood, closest to the core, where no light penetrates. A
particularly mineralic, earthy myrrh deepens this impression. This one stirs
me. I might have to get a travel bottle.
Al Masih(Mellifluence) – Messianic Frankincense
Masih means Messiah in Arabic, one of the many names for Jesus. And to a
certain extent, Al Masih’s incense is
more Catholic High Mass than Islamic cannon. Al Masih opens with a frankincense
note as piercing as freshly-crushed pine needles, its citric edge underscored
by a lemony tandem of elemi resin and petitgrain. The total effect is of a
Mediterranean church with its doors thrown open to allow the soft breeze
brushing over mastic to mingle with the scent of unburned resin. Cypress,
cedar, and hyssop all add to its fresh, outdoorsy air, confirming that churches
are not the only places where communion with a Greater Spirit takes place.
drydown is a surprise. The sharp brightness of the herbs and resins softens, before
collapsing entirely into the sensual creaminess of sandalwood. The sandalwood
lends a golden, wholesome texture to the scent, recalling the bounty of the
harvest and all the good things to eat stored in the cellar. This series of
transitions has the effect of shifting the scene from the wildness of the maquis
to a soft and homely devotion scaled to domestic proportions. At once evocative
and pleasing, Al Masih might strike a chord for lovers of outdoorsy incense, as
well as those who love the ‘medicinal unguent’ bent of modern Italian artisanal
perfumery – think Bogue and O’Driu, albeit far, far simpler.
Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense
pine needles (frankincense) and juniper berries whipped into an egg-white
vanilla froth. Eau Duelle is really good and really simple – an essay on the
duality of two opposing elements of a cool, spicy frankincense-black tea accord
and a warm, woody vanilla. To non-French speakers, the name could also be
suggestive of a duel, an old-fashioned fight to the death between two forces.
Everything about Eau Duelle just clicks right into place. The opening is cold and aromatic, fizzy with a spray of pink pepper and juniper berries. Hiding behind the aromatic spices and black tea is a robust vanilla that is sweet enough to give pause, but – at least in the eau de parfum version – thankfully made a little bitter, rough, and woody with the addition of Ambroxan. Yep, you read that right. I praised a perfume that has Ambroxan in it. Don’t get too used to it. Eau Duelle happens to be the rare example of a fragrance that’s greatly improved by a dollop of Ambroxan.
It is worth pointing something out about the frankincense note here. It presents as not the freshly-lit, High Mass kind of frankincense, but rather, the waxy, almost herbal scent lingering in the air of incense long since extinguished. The vanilla is sharpened by the slight evergreen edge of a frankincense hangover. The texture is something special, with a starchy, papery feel to it that makes me think of freshly-opened books.
Like most Diptyques, Eau Duelle wears lightly and unobtrusively but has a presence substantial enough to surprise you in fits and bursts throughout the day. I love the idea of a non-cakey vanilla paired with a green, effervescent frankincense, and though admittedly quite plain and non-charismatic, Eau Duelle just floats my boat.
On a personal note, in January 2015, I contracted a serious virus that made me anosmic for about six weeks, and Eau Duelle was the first perfume that I was able to smell again as I was recovering. Therefore, whenever I smell it now, those feelings of gratitude and euphoria come flooding back. Like Parfum Sacre, Eau Duelle will always be something I love almost absent-mindedly, in that fuzzy, all-love-no-logic way we love our children.
Arturetto Landi has done with 03.Apr.1968 is to take the minimalist structure
of church incense and flesh it out with a gaudy array of rich, bitter, and
tooth-rottingly sweet flavors. It smells like a fat wodge of Christmas cake
doused in brandy and set to burn on a priest’s censer alongside a hulking lump
of frankincense. Underneath these smoky, soiled-fruit aromas, there is an
enticing whiff of heliotrope, a huge purple chunk of marzipan charred at the
edges. Smoke fights with burned sugar, and we all win.
The fruit, in particular, is what makes this incense smell unholy, so unclean. It is supposedly lychee, but really it could be any fruit – apples, raisins, dates – because the fruit is so close to collapse that all you can smell are the high-pitched alcohol fumes of decay that belong exclusively to fruit. Joined by a dry frankincense that flits queasily between clove and bay leaf, the fruit is anything but wholesome. Luca Turin was the first to point out that the appeal of Amouage’s Lyric Woman lay in its ‘plangent, overripe note, the exhalation of forgotten fruit in a sealed room.’ The rotting fruit note achieves a similar effect for 03.Apr.1968, at first coming off as a little stomach-churning, but then working to moisten and plump up the bitter, austere incense.
Many people have compared 03.Apr.1968 to the late, great Norma Kamali Incense, and yes, there is most certainly a kinship. The frankincense used here is similarly dry and almost stale, lacking all the citrusy, pine-like nuances usually associated with it. Reacting with the fruit, booze, and sugar, the frankincense takes on the spicy bitterness I associate with copal resin, which along with smoky labdanum is what gives Norma Kamali its unique character.
But in truth, 03.Apr.1968 occupies the same general category of incense as Norma Kamali rather than smelling exactly like it. They are both fatty and overstuffed, the very opposite of the crisply tailored haikus of Comme des Garcons. They are both rather unwholesome – the type of thing to wear to a bacchanalia rather than to church. In truth, though, although traces of it are present in the ‘bones’ of several other incense perfumes, nothing really smells precisely like Norma Kamali Incense. However, for my money, the puffy, burned sugar heliotrope makes 03.Apr.1968 the easier wear.
Well, I say easier, but it is by no means easy. This is a potent fragrance that takes commitment to wear, and even then I would only attempt it when the barometer goes below 10 degrees Celsius. Only three notes are listed: frankincense, lychee, and heliotrope, but the overall effect is so rich and multi-dimensional that I wonder if that’s really the notes list or if the perfumer is so skilled that he was able to wrangle a wealth of detail out of these raw materials.
Sources of Samples/Bottles:All reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store – with the exception of the sample of Absolute Frankincense, a sample of which was kindly sent to me free of charge by Clive Christian at the beginning of 2017. My blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review.
What is myrrh? Myrrhis a gum produced by the Commiphorah myrrha species of tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and North-East Africa. Deriving from the Arabic word مر (mur), meaning ‘bitter’, myrrh oil is used all over Arabia, China, and India as a traditional medicine.
Oil versus resin: Myrrh oil is quite different from myrrh resin. Myrrh oil can be bitter, rubbery-smelling, and often quite saline (mushroomy). The resin smells earthier, slightly sweet, with musty undertones – when lit, it smells quite smoky (well, duh).
What does myrrh smell like? While frankincense is a soaring series of sunny, high-pitched notes like lime peel or crushed pine needles, myrrh is dark, fungal, and gloomy, reminding one of the dark shadows behind massive stone pillars in a cathedral, signed pine, tar, anise, licorice, and the scent of freshly-sliced ceps. It can be soapy, fatty, or rooty. In perfumery, myrrh lends a subtle, earthy tone pitched halfway between soil and stone. It has a sepulchral quality, leading some to categorize it as Gothic or moldy.
Some facets of myrrh are intensely bitter, while some smell like sweet licorice, anise, or rubber. Often the resin smells latex-y and saline (in cookery terms, if frankincense is a citrus fruit, myrrh is volcanic salt).
Personally, I often perceive myrrh as smelling ‘hollow’, as if there were a tear in the fabric of the fragrance where the aroma is supposed to be (a sort of negative space). Myrrh has a deeply atmospheric smell, redolent of the air inside centuries-old European cathedrals.
are some examples of myrrh-based fragrances, or fragrances where myrrh plays an
unexpected or pivotal role, even if unlisted.
Velours (Les Indémodables) – Fog
a magisterial – and wholly original – take on myrrh. I find something new to
marvel at every time I wear it. Fresh spearmint, spruce, rosemary, and fennel pollen
crushed hard between my fingers, releasing a bitter, foresty odor into the
chill night air, where it meets the equally bitter, foresty myrrh in its
natural habitat, oozing from a hundred different cracks in a tree stem. But not
the twisted, sun-battered husks of Commiphorah myrrha tree native to the
Arabian Peninsula and North-Eastern Africa – imagine instead a Northern pine or
spruce standing tall in a Scandinavian forest, weeping big fat sticky tears of
myrrh, which magically disintegrate into a million powdery spores once they leave
The texture of the scent is important to note. Though both fir balsam and myrrh are sticky, dense, resinous materials that are about as easy to manipulate as a tin of molasses, here they seem to cancel each other out and disperse through the air in a sheen of glittering, super-fine mica. The effect is of myrrh and mint plunged into a dust cloud of ‘matte’ peppery notes that smell half like the business end of a just-lit firework and half like the sharp, grey chemical fog emitted by an over-enthusiastic fog machine (think Baptême du Feu by Serge Lutens, the recent Crimson Rocks by Amouage, or Fleurs et Flammes by Antonio Alessandria for similar ‘fog machine’ or gunpowder effect).
The more I wear this, the more I think that the damp, mealy bog land vetiver used here plays the largest role in achieving this textural effect. Gunpowder, fireworks, sulfur – whatever it is, it makes the scent feel exciting and taut. The vetiver acts as a gray-green, washed out, faded piece of velvet tamping everything down, giving the scent a mellow, low-key grassiness that is nonetheless devoid of sunniness or light.
There is something so simultaneously cleansing and plush about this scent that it feels like being wrapped in ermine while breathing in the air of a snowy forest. I’d like to say that the experience feels wholly natural, but of course, it does not. Aside from the ‘fog machine’ or gunpowder effect, there is a tiny hint of that metallic aftershave undertone that anything pine or spruce-like brings to the party.
Happily, though I first perceived this first as a spoiling dose of Iso E Super, I have found that if I re-frame this note for myself as more of a hangover of pine than a deliberate application of some burnt-smelling wood aromachemical, then I can live with it. (I am good at talking myself through the rough spots in a scent that I really love).
Interestingly, the clash of vanilla against this aromatic set of notes, plus that gray-green nutmeal vetiver, creates a brief whoosh of something that feels as powdered and plush as a tin of cocoa powder blown out into hot glass. The ‘velour’ part of Oriental Velours is accurate even if the ‘oriental’ is not – this is old velvet and ancient wooden furniture collapsing with time into dust spores that carry the breath of the forest with them. Licorice, mint, grass, and root buried under acres of quiet, black dust.
(Huitième Art) – Myrrh for Myrrh Pussies
nugget of myrrh mercy-drowned in a pudding bowl of waxen vanilla, with a sweet
amber accord thickening it up like arrowroot. Myrrh will out, of course, and in
Myrrhiad, it comes through as the soft, sappy licorice accent running along the
back of the scent like rubber tracking. Think
the chewy licorice vines you get in the pick n’ mix at the cinema that are more
texture than flavor, rather than the oily, resinous, or mushroomy twang you
have in real myrrh. This is essentially myrrh for myrrh pussies, which might be
an accurate way of describing me. Balmy, vanillic – Bvlgari Black-lite. Love it.
du Doge (Eau d’Italie)– Myrrh
Like its brothers, Bois d’Ombre for the same brand, and Dzongkha for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Baume du Doges (Eau d’Italie) is emblematic of a period in Bertrand Duchaufour’s career when he seemed deeply interested in excavating the vegetal, vinegary side of resins for brilliant effect in incense compositions stuffed with dried fruit, smoky grasses and roots, and odd accents like whiskey or wet newspapers. The effect is that of sourness balanced by sugar and a hit of smoke – a sort of myrrh agrodolce.
form, the opening of Baume du Doge emits a sharp vetiver and cedarwood frequency
that smells like the burn in your throat of a particularly smoky Laphroaig.
This spicy burn is simultaneously calmed by a balmy orange milk accord and revived
with a clove note that splits the difference between a licked spoon and a
virulently camphoraceous mint. This creates a wonderful vanilla-orange-peel-incense
accord that smells like Christmas morning. The vanilla is restrained; just a smear
of something friendly to take the sting out of the astringent myrrh.
Because this is essentially a myrrh perfume. With its gloomy demeanor, myrrh is the sulky emo teen of the resin family, but here, a smile has been pasted on its face by way of a bright, boozy sparkle that feels like the crunch of cassonade on a crème brulée. The brown-gold depth this creates is not a million miles away from the deep dried fruit, vodka and whiskey notes in Ambre Russe (Parfums d’Empire), minus the black tea and leather notes that take that great perfume in another direction entirely. Still, I think it’s remarkable that both Baume du Doge and Ambre Russe manage to smell quietly but resolutely masculine, despite the presence of sugary, ‘edible’ notes.
richness of the resin against the vegetal tartness of the vetiver and cedarwood
smells absolutely right, as if the basic bones of this successful marriage
already existed in the air, waiting for a perfumer with vision to come along
and bring it all together. Unfortunately, Baume du Doge runs out of steam
quickly, getting quite threadbare in the drydown, so those looking for that
brilliant, rich orange peel incense and milk accord to be sustained throughout
may be disappointed.
Casati (Mona di Orio) – Flat-Coke Myrrh
Myrrh Casati is something of a head-scratcher. The first Mona di Orio fragrance to be composed by someone other than Mona herself, following her tragic death in 2011, it is rendered in a style that seems to deliberately side-step any of Mona di Orio hallmarks. It lacks the almost overbearingly rich, dirty woodiness of Vanille and Oud, the dry-ice almond musks from Ambre and Musc, and the harsh animalism of Nuit Noire and Cuir. Without these little olfactory clues that tucked so deftly into the sleeves of her work, I am lost. Myrrh Casati could be the work of anyone.
If her other perfumes are rich tapestries, then Myrrh Casati is a silk gauze. It is beautiful but simple to the point of being spare. The opening is particularly striking. A dark, dry spice note fuses with a warm, cinnamon-tinted Siam benzoin and sharp black pepper to form the exciting specter of tarry Coca-Cola. There is also an arresting black rubber tint to proceedings, prompted by saffron or the myrrh itself (which can sometimes smell like rubber or latex). But this opening salvo of richness or darkness quickly attenuates. Within minutes, all that remains on the skin is a vague glaze of something spicy and something minty-licoricey, loosely held together by the benzoin.
d’Iparie (L’Occitane) – Mossy
Apart from a honeyed, fruity (almost berried) topnote not present in the original, the reissue of Eau d’Iparie remains mostly the same as before – a very natural-smelling, balsamic myrrh fragrance that sets the myrrh in an outdoors context rather than in the typically dark, Gothic-churchy one.
The honeyed radiance of myrrh resin predominates at first, but soon, the scent shakes off this cozy mantle in favor of a flinty minerality, which smells to me very much like water running over moss-covered stones in a stream. With its unpretentious, earthy demeanor, Eau d’Iparie is the type of non-perfumey perfume that smells good to people for whom fragrance is a secondary ‘grooming’ thing rather than a full-on obsession.
America has Mandy Aftel, Australia has Teone Reinthal, and Europe has Annette Neuffer. I’m not sure why Annette doesn’t get the kind of attention that the other natural or indie perfumers do, but I suspect it has less to do with her natural talent than with her reluctance (as with many indie perfumers) to engage with the quid pro quo sleaze involved in the social media marketing and self-promotion that these days goes hand in hand with making and selling perfume.
If you want to see what Annette Neuffer can do, though, I beg you to try something like Avicenna Myrrha Mystica. She has a way of turning this rubbery, dense, semi-bitter resin into pure ether. Applying a balmy orange peel note to make the dusty myrrh bright and juicy, and surrounding the resin with a puffer jacket of velvety cocoa powder for comfort and depth, Neuffer feeds us a myrrh that’s been massaged into its most agreeable shape yet.
Mid-section, it develops a wonderfully damp (almost soggy) cardboard sweetness that reminds me a lot of Cocoa Tuberose by Providence Perfumery, and in fact, both scents share a soft, smudgy feel that is as sexy and endearing (to me) as the idea of Jeff Goldblum breathing on his spectacles to fog up the glass and clean them with the corner of his wooly sweater. Part cocoa powder, part flat Coca Cola, backlit with a dry hyraceum note that adds a faintly musky, funky quality to the myrrh.
But that orange peel persists, and that is what wins out in the end – a fresh, resinous orange (or perhaps a fresh, orange-tinted resin?). Either way, I find Avicenna Myrrha Mystica both utterly engrossing and a breeze to wear, and it is not often that you can say both things about myrrh, especially in an indie or all-natural take.
Essence Absolue is primarily a thick, rich floral vanilla but one in which a
dollop of bitter myrrh has been placed to keep things in balance. It smells
like bitter almonds, marzipan, and papery tobacco, all folded into a thick
vanilla and jasmine custard. When applied lightly or dabbed on, the cool, minty
anise of the myrrh emerges, backlighting the warm ambery vanilla. The jasmine
is so creamy and rich it almost takes on a coconut edge, briefly summoning up
the feel of a tropical gardenia. As an aside, the bottle is shaped like a butt.
And who doesn’t have shelf space for something shaped like a butt, I ask you sincerely?
de Minuit (Etro) – Sepulchral
always been puzzled when people would describe Messe de Minuit as a gloomy
fragrance, because until about a year ago, the only version with which I was
familiar was the modern one, which has been cleaned (and brightened) up so much
that none of the original descriptions of the scent made any sense. The latest
version of Messe de Minuit smells like a gloomy Italian cathedral with the
flood lights suddenly turned on and the doors thrown open to let the fresh air
in. It is an incredibly cheerful smell – bitter orange peel and mixed with the
lime-peel and pine brightness of unlit frankincense.
The older version, of which I now own a bottle, is a different story. Though still not quite as nihilistic as the very first version, the reaction to which saw Etro scuttling back to the drawing board to ‘fix’ it, the dour, fungal dampness of myrrh mixed with a powdery, spicy benzoin produces an aroma that recalls with a startling degree of accuracy the scent of cold stone floors, mildewy papers, and the slightly metallic, inert air of a closed-up sacristy. The chill of the myrrh is eventually warmed a little by the golden labdanum lolling around in the basenotes, but the scent never truly shakes off its central character of cold, dusty, ancient stone.
I understand why not everyone wants to wear the smell of rising damp on a
sacristy wall (carrying with it the unsettling suggestion of neglect), you have
to give Messe de Minuit credit for making its wearer feel like they’ve been plunged
into a particularly dark Goya painting, and I am thinking here of the one where
Saturn is devouring his own son.
et Délires (Guerlain) – Macaron
As I inch closer to collection completion (or the end of my ‘scent journey’), I have had to get very tough with my Guerlains. L’Heure Bleue, for example, doesn’t make it into my final edit (I’ll finish the small vintage parfum I have, as it is delightfully trashy and rich compared to the candied floral that is the current EdP), and, much as I enjoy wearing them from time to time, neither does Chamade,Tonka Impérial, Cuir Beluga, or the much vaunted Après L’Ondée. These are not the essential Guerlains for me.
Myrrhe et Délires under such conditions reveals my lines in the sand. A few
years ago, I would have forgiven this scent its flaccid body for its charming
violety-irisy topnotes, which smell like those lilac-colored macarons in the
window of Ladurée, or what I imagine the pastry scenes in Sofia Coppola’s Marie
Antoinette must have smelled like – all spun sugar, candied violets, and sugar
paste roses. If I had tested this during my violet phase, fuhgeddaboudit. Would
have sold my soul, probably.
But honestly, from where I’m sitting now, Myrrhe et Délires just doesn’t make the cut. Full marks, though, for rendering the bullish myrrh – a material whose darkish, mushroom-water tonalities usually drown delicate floral notes like candied violet – into a lace doiley’s worth of frothy anise and soft bready notes. Taken together, Myrrhe et Délires smells like Chowder’s violets and those soft black licorice rolls so mild that you could thumb them into the mouths of babies. But with great age comes wisdom; I can tell you that Guerlain’s own Black Perfecto is a much punchier, more emphatic spin on the same idea.
NYC) – Oudy
Review here. What I smell in fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere. Of course, it is entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh. It is also possible that it is just myrrh.
d’Argent (Dior Privée) – Woody
named, Bois d’Argent is a creamy, smoky woods scent with a streak of silvery
iris running through it. The iris is here only to cut through the heaviness of the
other notes – a lump of levain mixed into a heavy bread dough – so most of its
lovely grey rootiness or butter tones are lost in the fray. However, without
the soulful lift of the iris note, I think this composition would be a heavy,
sodden mess – a dense genoise rather than angel food.
d’Argent is primarily a sticky myrrh scent to my nose. Myrrh is a tricky
material to work with in a perfume. Myrrh oil can be very bitter, mushroomy,
and ‘black’ in its favor profile, although I suspect that the perfumers went
more for the myrrh resin smell here, which is earthier, woodier, and sweeter
than the oil itself, which can smell very rubbery.
in similar fragrances such as Bois d’Iris (The Different Company) and Myrrhe
Ardente (Annick Goutal), the myrrh in Bois d’Argent is paired with a sweet
honey and vanilla pairing designed to tone down the bitterness of the oil, and
a polished woods basenote to play up the smokier notes of the resin. There is
also a faintly licorice-like note here, a note frequently matched to the anisic
qualities of myrrh oil.
is a crystalline texture to Bois d’Argent that I also note in Myrrhe Ardente,
like crunching on honey candies, the small ones you sometimes get with coffee
in Italian bars – they look and taste sweetly creamy, but quickly explode into
shards when you crunch down on them. And, as with the candies in question, myrrh,
when this sweetened, has the tendency to cloy.
this reason, I find Bois d’Argent striking but ultimately exhausting to wear.
The silvery iris and woods opening is beautiful, but the sweet vanilla in the base
is far too syrupy, and the myrrh just continues droning on in its monogrammed monologue
for hours on end, like the dinner guest who has zero self-awareness and thinks
that we will all be as fascinated by his role in corporate finance as he is. The
same complaint applies to Bois d’Iris and Myrrhe Ardente. There are times when
these fragrances work on me, but inevitably, something in them eventually clogs
up my airways and wears on my spirit.
Ilang Ilan (Mellifluence) – Tropical Myrrh
Ilan bursts open with a pungent ylang note, vibrating at an especially evil
level of banana-and-petroleum fruitiness inherent to the material. But almost
immediately, this is counterparted by the chewy licorice snap of myrrh, whose
dark, anisic saltiness stuffs a cloth in the shouty mouth of that exuberant
ylang, telling it to calm the f&*k down. For a while, this is so good that
you wonder why ylang is ever paired with anything else other than an equally
it is an all too brief display of force. In the drydown, the ylang departs,
leaving only the mineralic, mushroomy facets of the myrrh to dominate. It
smells like water you’ve soaked ceps in. For myrrh fanatics, this might be a
boon. For the ylang enthusiasts, this will feel like bait-and-switch of the
Ilang Ilan is worth at least a sample, especially if you’re into the excitement
of an action-packed opening. The leather, the rubber, the fuel, the
licorice…whoever said that tropical florals are not for men just haven’t tried
the right ones. There is no creamy, trembling banana custard here, and
certainly no tropical leis draped on Gaugin-esque island beauties. Instead,
this is ylang with the sinister shadow of myrrh standing over it, dagger in
Kisses (Lush) – Marmalade
For once, Lush’s strategy of unceremoniously dumping a vat load of bolshy, untrimmed raw materials into a scent and letting them all duke it out actually works. The osmanthus takes the form of a cooked apricot jam spiced heavily with almond essence and cinnamon, making me think of boozy Christmas fruitcakes slathered in apricot jam and carefully wrapped in a layer of rolled-out marzipan. But if there is cooked citrus jam, then there is also something nicely fresh here, in the form of that metallic, juicy brightness that stains your fingers for hours after you’ve peeled a mandarin.
These layers of both juicy and jammy citrus interact with the dusty but headily spiced myrrh to accentuate the Coca Cola-ish aspects of the resin, complete with its dark ‘crunchy’ sweetness and joyful, nose-tickling fizz. If I could spread 1000 Kisses on a slice of toasted panettone, I totally would. A uniquely cheerful take on myrrh.
& Tonka (Jo Malone) –
Mass Market Myrrh
A stodgy almond Battenberg of a tonka bean cups a chewy licorice lace myrrh in its sweaty clasp, and they both drown in the disappointing chemical buzz that is the standard Jo Malone base. Pro: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day. Con: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day.
to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews
you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral,
incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things.
Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an
Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly
Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a
matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively
complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two
monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic
character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes
over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.
Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy
castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw
and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one
of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall
right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes
that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is
some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of
myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar
crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin.
I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have
to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular
sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore,
for a very specific taste.
Ungu (Agar Aura) – Myrrhic Oud
Some oud oils are so complex that they can display notes
such as mint, white flowers, honey, and ambergris without actually containing a
speck of these materials. In oud cannon, it is usually Chinese oud oils that
are known to feature notes of myrrh, but this is a great example of a myrrhic
oud oil that actually comes from one of my favorite oud terroirs, which is Malaysia.
Distilled from wood from the Terengganu region of Malaysia,
Sutera Ungu displays both characteristics from the fruity Crassna and the
typical Malaysian structure. Cutting past all the gobbledygook, what this means
is that there is a complex series of shifts from top to bottom, often
separating into two layers – smoke on top, and fruity leather beneath. Agarwood
from the Terengganu region is said to be particularly perfumey and rich, a
theory borne out by this oil.
I can smell smoke and fruited wood, backed by a smoky incense quality. Once the
saturnine drama of the opening settles a bit, it is possible to discern subtle
little gradients of color and tone. There are waves of freshly-stripped bark,
clear furniture polish, green apple skin, and fermenting dried fruit, all
dispersed within a boozy vapor akin to dried fruits soaking in brandy for
Christmas pudding. You get all this and more, filtered through a haze of
oud oils go, this is perfumey in the way of an older Chanel extrait, and I am
thinking of vintage Coco Parfum in particular here (something about the rich
fruits in brandy feel). In the heart, the smoke parts to reveal an earthy myrrh
note, old wooden chests, and, darting through the darkness, the reddish iodine
snap of pure saffron threads soaked in oil. None of these materials exist in
Sutera Ungu as notes, you understand – just their nuance.
show is not over just yet. In a whiplash move, the oil circles back on itself
to the dry, incensey woodsmoke that greeted the nose in the topnotes. Sutera
Ungu is a rich, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable Malaysian oil experience from
top to bottom. It is both an oud oil and a proper perfume in its own right. I
highly recommend Agar Aura oils to beginners because they are exceptionally
smooth, light-to-medium weight in terms of darkness and possessed of a depth of
flavor that does not sacrifice legibility.
Trois (Diptyque) – Piney
Most of the older Diptyques smell like ancient medicinal salves made out of crushing various barks, spices, and unguents down into a fiery yellow paste and applied to an open wound (Eau Lente, L’ Eau). L’ Eau Trois flips the trope a little, taking it outside to the sunburnt hillsides of Greece or Southern France where the healer combs up tufts of wild rosemary, pine needles, and mastic from the maquis, and uses his cocaine fingernail to dig out sticky yellow globules of myrrh and pine sap from ancient, shrubby trees bent over with age and wind, before singeing it all over a fire so that greenery takes on a burnt, bitter flavor, and mashing it all down to a paste in a pestle and mortar.
wild, and herbaceous, L’Eau Trois this is myrrh at its most confrontational. It
smells of incense, yes, but also of bitter greenery that will either kill you
or cure you if ingested. Less like a perfume than something born of the bowels
of the earth.
Balsamo della Mecca (Abdes Salaam Attar) – Sanctifying Myrrh
Two versions of this scent exist – an eau de parfum and an attar. Here I discuss the attar, which, to my nose, is distinguished by its use of myrrh.
Although the crepuscular darkness of the resins is essentially the same from eau de parfum to attar, Balsamo della Mecca attar has a very different texture and therefore a completely different feel. Whereas the original is so dry that it threatens to ignite on the skin at any moment, the attar is a concentrated tar, like molasses seeping from a rusty pipe. Dense, sticky fir balsam, myrrh, frankincense, cade, and who knows what else, all boiled down to a medicinal salve one might rub onto an infection. Despite its opacity, it feels purifying.
labdanum is downplayed in the attar, allowing the rubbery, fungal saltiness of
myrrh to take the spotlight. By corollary, the eau de parfum is dustier and
sweeter, thick with labdanum. Given its greater diffusiveness, the eau de
parfum has a spiritual, if not ecclesiastical, feel; the attar, on the other
hand, feels gothic and a little bit sinister. Put it this way – I would wear the eau de parfum to Midnight
Mass, and the attar to an exorcism.
Little Egypt (BPAL)– Honeyed Myrrh
Egypt is a bright, resinous honey scent with a sharp green calamus note running
through it to keep things fresh. All the honeyed, sticky sweetness of myrrh has
been drawn out and emphasized in this scent, but none of its anisic or
earthy-mushroomy nuances. This makes for a very sweet blend indeed, but the
inherent smokiness of myrrh resin, plus that crisp calamus note, does a good
job of holding back the syrup. Myrrh fanatics may want to hunt this one down.
Myrrhe (Serge Lutens) – Elegant
Pairing the fatty, soapy aspect of myrrh with a spray of fatty, soapy aldehydes is genius because, like any solid marriage, they compensate for each other’s failings. The fizzy aldehydes lift the heavy resin up into space, exploding it into stardust, while the bitter, rubbery characteristics of myrrh add depth and drama to the lower register of aldehydes, lending it a rooty, sub-woofer substance just as the champagne bubbles begin to fade away. In the base, a creamy jasmine and sandalwood turn up to mitigate the ‘rubber ball’ astringency of the myrrh, essentially taking over the reins from the sweet, effervescent aldehydes.
Because the aldehydes in La Myrrhe smells very much like the kind used in Chanel No. 5 (fatty, soapy, waxy, slightly rosy), many people find it to resemble No. 5, though to my nose, it smells rather like Chanel No. 22 with its Fanta-and-incense-on-steroids mien – with one key difference. La Myrrhe has a lurid almond-cherry-ade aspect to it that reminds me of Cherry Coke, rather than Fanta. Picture a single candied cherry lifted from a jar of (cough) syrup and dropped into a bag of pure white soap powder, causing the powder to explode outwards and upwards like a cluster bomb.
Myrrhe is a sensational myrrh fragrance, and unfortunately hard to find these
days unless you live in Europe and can order direct from les Salons du
Palais Royal in Paris. It is worth the effort and expense, though, especially,
if you prefer the gauzier, more light-filled creations of Serge Lutens over the
stickier, fruitcake-and-incense ones, like Arabie, Fumerie Turque et al. With the
anisic, rubbery bitterness of the resin perfectly juxtaposed against the sweet,
frothy soapiness of aldehydes, La Myrrhe will appeal enormously to lovers of Douce
Amère, Chanel No. 5 Eau Première, Chanel No. 22, Guerlain Vega, Rêve d’Ossian
by Oriza L. Legrand, and Miriam by Tableau de Parfums (Tauer).
(Acqua di Parma) – Ambroxan
my ass. This is Acqua di Parma halfway down the slide from its once glorious
position at the top of classic Italian heritage to the mosh pit of
bro-pandering the brand is currently strutting around in. A flurry of citrus
and herbs in the opening 0.02 seconds of Mirra convinces me that nothing is
unforgivable and maybe the brand can claw its way back, but this is quickly
drowned in that unnatural concoction that greets me in so many of the ‘perfumes
for the modern man’ these days – a vile and droning medley of synthetically
radiant Ambroxan or Iso E Super drowned in enough ambery syrup to fell a horse
at ten paces.
It depresses me that the bones of Sauvage are everywhere, lurking in even the oldest, most heritage-y of heritage brands, waiting to pop out at me. For all that Luca Turin lauds Italian perfumery as being where it’s at these days, most young passers-by – women and men, professional or preppy – that I smell in Rome smell like this rather than of invigorating lemons of Santa Maria Novella or something cool by Antonio Alessandria.
For me, Mirra is nothing more than sweet, sugared woods inflated with enough Ambroxan to send a thousand chemical ice picks aimed at my head, but for anyone not as sensitized to these woody alcohols, it probably comes across as something gorgeously fresh, clean, and well, radiant. I can see the appeal of stuff like this for those who do not pick up on the awful grimness of those modern aromachemicals. But I feel personally attacked by Mirra and the 967 other modern masculines that smell virtually identical.
(Bruno Acampora) – Anachronistic
is a perfectly-preserved time capsule of a time in perfumery when perfumers
were free to use the stinkiest of floral absolutes, plant oils, and resins in
their perfumes. Iranzol smells like the seventies, which makes perfect sense
because it was launched
in the seventies. What is extraordinary is that the formula seems to have
remained unchanged since then; this is the perfume in its original form. In a
day and age when brands reformulate every few years to keep up with IFRA
recommendations, it is a small wonder that something like Iranzol can and does
The opening is as damply mushroomy as Acampora’s own Musc, brimming with wet soil, freshly-cut mushrooms, raw patchouli oil, and possibly some salty Italian kitchen herbs, like dried lavender and fennel root. There is definitely myrrh in the blend somewhere, helping those wet earth notes along.
is also suspected, because there is an accord here that is half-claggy,
half-dusty, like the sour, unwashed smell of sheets folded away while still
damp. This accord is both medicinal (clean) and animalic (unwashed, dusty,
stale), which, although not entirely pleasant to my nose, is effective at
creating an atmosphere of gloomy, faded grandeur. One imagines a dusty chaise
longue in an abandoned mansion by the sea somewhere.
drydown diverges from the central accords found in Musc by finishing up in a
dry amber and sandalwood base. It retains, as most of Acampora’s oils do, that
brusque connection to the earthier, more aromatic smells of the seventies, when
men wore either Jovan Musk or barbershop fougères and shaved with proper soap.
In other words, the sandalwood is dry and astringent, and the amber vegetal. No
cream, sugar, or butter anywhere in sight. You might have to adjust your
television set when attempting Iranzol for the first time – it is neither
modern nor easy. It is an anachronism, an earthy scent for those who like the
pungent, untouched smells of nature and their fellow human beings.
Sirocco (Solstice Scents) – Caveman Myrrh
a sunburst of saffron, its astringent aroma redolent of hay, leather, and
iodine. This quickly gives way to the mitti, which smells of wet soil rather
than the dry earth of true Indian mitti. Last to emerge is the rubbery,
mushroomy myrrh, which smells like the plain essential oil one picks up at the
health store, i.e., bitter, saline, and musty. The myrrh dominates the scent
completely; once it pops its head around the door, it is here for breakfast,
lunch, and dinner.
In short, don’t trust the scent description given by the company – Sirocco is not the hot, dry ‘desert’ scent billed in the description, but instead, given the prominent role of the myrrh, the fungal scent of caves. If you like the wet, sepulchral side of myrrh, and earthy, medicinal smells in general, then you will love Sirocco. If you are specifically looking for dry heat, deserts, and sand, look elsewhere.
Myrrhe Ardente (Annick Goutal) – Root Beer Myrrh
A dry spackle of resin at first, golden, crunchy, and slightly herbal – austere enough to wear to the bank – that becomes steadily stickier and gummier with a heavy pour of tonka, amber, and honey. When I wear this, I can almost feel the myrrh crystallizing in huge chunks on my arm, thick enough to smash out into a resinous paste.
There is also a nigh-on-bitter smack of cherry cough syrup floating against something medicinally creamy, which is essentially what Americans know as the ‘root beer float’ flavor – this is a pronounced characteristic of myrrh that comes out to play a lot anywhere there is amber or vanilla.
I would place this in the same group as Myrrhiad, i.e., a dry-creamy myrrh amber thickened up with lots of licorice-scented vanilla in the background, designed to soothe and cosset rather than excite. I sold my bottle a long time ago, however, once I began to perceive a piercing woody aromachemical note that ran rampant all over the scent’s original ‘weighted blanket’ premise.
Black (Agarscents Bazaar) – Coca
Cashmiri Black is a wonderfully odd mukhallat that nudges Agarscents Bazaar out of its comfort zone of Indian-style musks and ambers, and into a slightly more ‘niche’ perfume area. The blend opens with an accord that smells like salted buckwheat honey or molasses smeared over pieces of hardcore Scandinavian licorice, shot through with plumes of sooty fireside smoke. Black pepper, oily and pungent, explodes all over, recalling several modern Comme des Garcons efforts such as Black Pepper and Black.
firecracker dose of saffron soon joins the fray, streaking across the dark
canvas created by a fusion of tarry, resinous myrrh, creating an effect that is
half Idole (Lubin) and half Nesquik-y Darbar attar. There is a faintly fizzy
Coca Cola effect providing lift in the background. Thanks to the myrrh, the
texture is chewy and medicinal, with a hard-boiled, anisic blackness. It is
smoky and cocoa-dry, but this syrupy facet lends a nice textural counterpoint.
Cashmiri grows drier and smokier as time wends on, finishing up the ride as a tinder-box mixture of fiery cedarwood, myrrh, powdery (chocolate) musk, malty licorice, and charred woods. Cashmiri Black is an excellent alternative to expensive Arabian style niche smoke-and-resin bombs such as Black Afgano or Black Gemstone.
Parfum Sacre (Caron)
– Cashmere Myrrh
Parfum Sacre is one of those perfumes that I find hard to write about because it hooked me early, at a tender time of my life when I needed a Big Perfume Love, and therefore is utterly resistant to any attempt at objective analysis.
If pushed, I would say it smells like an ancient carved sandalwood chest filled to the brim with myrrh resin reduced to a fine golden powder and tender pink curlicues of rose soap loving carved off a block of Camay with a pocketknife. It smells full and soft, like cashmere, but studded with little kitten licks of black pepper and lemon that trickle the back of the throat.
The myrrh is fuzzy and warm, especially in the round-bellied vintage eau de parfum, where only its muted fatty-soapy-waxy facets have been coaxed out. In the modern eau de parfum, the myrrh smells sharper, more astringent, and woodier, thanks to the vigorous dosing of black pepper to compensate for the lower quality of sandalwood. Best of all, perhaps, is the salty, golden radiance sent in by natural ambergris to lift the myrrh and woods in the now discontinued Parfum.
But even the thin, reedy version of Parfum Sacre available to buy today possesses that gently pepper, rosy, soapy quality that says ‘Mother’ to me. It therefore continues to be one of my Big, Albeit Incoherently Described Perfume Loves.
Myrrhe Impériale is impressively loud and rich and voluminous. But once you get
past the clattering noise of the opening – oiled galoshes, radiating resin,
treacly licorice – you realize that it is not much more than a powerful
fruitcake amber dressed up with so much Amber Xtreme or Norlimbanol that even a
knuckle daub’s worth is unbearable. It is like a large, expensively dressed man
whose braying laugh and physical volume seems to swell to fill the entire room,
impregnating all the available air pockets until you feel you will still be
able to hear/smell/taste him from two countries away. These niche behemoths are
designed to be impress you at ten paces, steam-rolling over any distinguishing
features other than its own powerful, magnetic radiance. An olfactory Charles
reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have
purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store. My
blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to
quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the
source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I
do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review. If I
like something, or find something interesting, then I will write about it. You
might not always like my opinions, but you may trust that they are mine and
In autumn 2018, Areej Le Dore released its 4th generation of fragrances. Russian Adam very kindly sent me a sample set, which I’ve been playing around with for a while now. Without further ado, here are my reviews of Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris.
The opening of Walimah Attar by Areej Le Doré is strangely familiar to me, and it haunts me for a while until I realize that it simply shares what I would characterize as the syrupy, sepia-toned density common to all blends of natural floral absolutes in attar or natural perfumery. When you mix a bunch of floral absolutes together, they combine to make a thick, oily-muddy fug of smells only vaguely recognizable as floral in dilution. Unlike the synthetic representations of flowers in mixed media perfumes or commercial perfumery, where you can clearly differentiate one floral note from another, the flowers in all-natural attars don’t give up their individual identities without a fight. They’re melted down into the soup, so to speak. But still, there are markers that can tip you off as to what’s there.
It’s difficult to figure out what Strangelove NYC is, as a brand. If you were to go by appearances alone – the fashionably minimalistic, almost text-free website, the $260 perfume necklaces with 1.25mls of perfume oil, the fact that Helena Christiansen is the brand’s spokesperson – you’d be forgiven for writing these off as perfumes for New York socialites, designed to look banging on the glossy, bronzed neck of a supermodel as she poses for a photo to go with her ITC Top Shelf interview.
Rising Phoenix Perfumery Bushido Attar is an attar made exclusively for The World in Scents, a Princeton-based purveyor of fine attars and pure oud oils, and its name translates to “the way of the Samurai”. The idea for this particular attar came from the ancient Japanese practice among royalty, Samurai warriors, and the nobility of scenting their kimonos, robes, and sword sheaths with a blend of tsubaki, an oil made from camellia flower petals, and choji, clove oil.
Funny gif aside, he is making the point that only people of Eastern culture (Indian, Far East, of the Islamic or Hindi faiths, etc.) truly understand how to make an attar, and that Westerners doing it is either a cynical cash grab or a case of cultural misappropriation.
This comment, whether founded or not, raises the crucial question of how attar perfumery is perceived in the West. I have noticed a certain awestruck tendency towards attars by Westerners, a kind of mass reverence for the genre, as if all attars and oils hitting our shores were uniformly possessed the magic of the Orient simply because they originated there. This is rubbish, of course.
First of all, speaking as someone who has tested hundreds of attars and mukhallats from almost every major brand from Amouage to Surrati, I can tell you that there is as much dreck coming out of the East as there is from the West. I’d estimate the percentage of truly sublime attars or mukhallats at about 5-10% of the mass, which is roughly equal to the hit rate in Western perfumery. Unfortunately, because these oils carry mysterious names, come in a little gold bottle, and are from an exotic-sounding house like Rasasi or Al Haramain, the consumer is psychologically primed to find them amazing even if they’re aren’t. Even Amouage has attars that are dull, nasty, or just plain unimpressive.
Second, it’s not the where (the East) that counts, it’s the who. The best quality attars out there are not being made by the big Gulf or Indian brands in the East but by small-batch artisans with a mostly Western background and upbringing. Sultan Pasha, Ensar of Ensar Oud, JK DeLapp, Al Shareef Oudh, Russian Adam, Dominique Dubrana, and now Andy Tauer – these are all people who, no matter whether they are Muslim or not, are Western by birth, location, or background.
I mention this because although some people seem to think it is the exclusive preserve of Easterners to make attars, these days it is actually mostly Westerners that take the care to distill oils in the old manner, hand-blend and macerate formulas, and source the purest raw materials. I like to think that they are taking a certain Western propensity towards precision, authenticity, and attention to detail to bear on an old tradition of perfumery.
And now Andy Tauer, himself an artisan in the genre of Western perfumery, has joined this elite group. In a way, it’s a natural fit: Tauer already mixes everything for his perfumes by hand (in a similar fashion to blending an attar) and as a longstanding user of resins, sandalwood, and jasmine, he would have all the necessary contacts in the Middle East to source the materials needed for this.
Attar AT is excellent work. It succeeds both as an attar and as an atmospheric set piece in the Tauer manner; it contains exotic raw materials but somehow conjures up more of that tough old Americana (cowboy boots, pilgrims, vast open spaces of the American plains) than it does the East. It opens up as an extract of pure boot leather, with a dense wall of fuel-like jasmine, birch tar, and castoreum-driven leather hitting the nose all at once.
But despite the tarry creosote-like tone and the fact that Tauer has used materials like this before, mainly in Lonestar Memories and L’Air du Desert Marocain, Attar AT does not make me think of his other perfumes. The leather, although smoky, is smooth and dark, and, crucially, completely free of competing notes like amber or citrus. There is no Tauerade. It is powerful and concentrated at first, but soon becomes very quiet and almost linear. A rubbery jasmine appears just past the opening notes, relieving, albeit briefly, the almost matte darkness of the leather accord.
As an aside, it’s funny how noses differ: my husband smelled this and immediately said that there was jasmine in this, as well as a little bit of oud. I, on the other hand, can only smell the jasmine briefly (it is similar to the phenolic jasmine used in the topnotes of Anubis by Papillon, for reference), and the impression of oudiness is only a background one, playing second fiddle to the leather. However, at a distance and at certain points of the attar’s development, it has something of the leathery, fermented smokiness that I associate with oud oil. In general, I think it’s fair to say that Attar AT genuinely has an oud-like tone to it at times, but that it in no way dominates.
Perception of sweetness seems to be subjective, but I’d peg Attar AT as being un-sweet, which is not to say that it is piercingly dry or sour. It is more a question of lacking sweetness in the form of amber or a syrupy floral note; if you know the sappy, sooty darkness of perfumes such as Heeley’s Phoenicia or Le Labo Patchouli 24, then you will know what I mean – an unsentimental, un-sweet darkness that nonetheless possesses so much texture and energy that it never tires the nose. Dusty, dark woods in the base only confirm this impression. There is no creamy sandalwood or welcoming amber in the drydown to placate the sweet tooth, only a continuation of the main accord of dark, smoky birch tar leather.
As an attar, Attar AT starts off very strong and dense, but soon loosens up into something much softer and quieter. It wears close to the body and doesn’t project much. However, longevity is excellent. So far, so standard for an attar. But people will want to know if there is anything of Tauer’s synthetic signature in Attar AT: my take is that it doesn’t feel synthetic to my nose at all, but be aware that birch tar in high concentration can have a bitter, metallic sharpness to it that some noses may interpret as synthetic. The only hint of something unnatural comes when you try to wash it off, and then (only then) something synthetic does linger on the piece of skin you’ve just washed.
Masculine? Yes. I’d even go so far as to say that this is super-macho, especially during the first couple of hours when the leather is blazing streaks across the sky. Attar AT is more evocative (for me) of the landscapes of the American West than of the deserts of the East; something about it celebrates the good-natured but tough manliness of the men who had to conquer large stretches of the American West on horseback, hungry and alone. This is a theme that seems to course through much of Andy’s work.
Having said that, there are plenty of women who like this sort of dry, unemotional scent, and I count myself as one of them. Overall, this is a great *masculine* attar for a very reasonable price, and also yet another addition to the attar genre that proves that you don’t have to be Muslim or be located in the East to make an attar that smells authentically, genuinely good.
Notes: animalic leather, birch tar, Java vetiver, dark dry woods, sandalwood, hints of Jasmine, cistus, and castoreum
Maison Nicolas de Barry has been around since 2003, but has garnered relatively little praise or attention. I wonder why that is? I’ve enjoyed every single perfume I’ve tried from this brand, and find some of their natural perfumes to be stunning. In an era where natural and attar-themed perfumes for a Western audience is gaining traction (Sultan Pasha Attars, Areej Le Dore, Rising Phoenix Perfumery etc.), the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry should be a slam dunk. And yet….crickets.
I don’t think that the price is the barrier. Their historical EDPs, while not cheap, are not terribly unreasonable at €149 for 100mls. The naturals and oud collection perfumes are indeed very expensive (between €600 and €1,140 for 150mls), but there are 7ml mini bottles to be purchased at a reasonable cost of between €29 and €52. I know plenty of perfumistas who wouldn’t mind paying that, especially those who care about high quality naturals, pure ouds, and sandalwood oil. The people who love Siberian Musk by Areej Le Dore, or Nan-Kun by Sultan Pasha, or Bushido attar by Rising Phoenix Perfumery, or the latest sandalwood oil by FeelOud do not hesitate to drop in excess of $500 on even a small quantity of these perfumes.
But scarcely anyone in the perfume blogosphere mentions Maison Nicolas de Barry. The few blog mentions or reviews on Fragrantica and Basenotes seem polite but slightly puzzled or underwhelmed. Having tested a diverse selection of their offerings, there is absolutely no question regarding the high quality of the materials and compositions.
I do believe, however, that the way the brand has positioned itself might have caused some confusion or misunderstanding. In brief, while most brands have one driving force behind their establishment, Maison Nicolas de Barry has two, and pursues both – sometimes on dual tracks, and sometimes simultaneously within the same collection.
Every niche parfum house has an avowed driving force – a raison d’être – behind their existence, be it to explore the beauty of synthetic molecules (Nomenclature), translate Italian and Mediterranean music and art into fragrance (Sospiro), or bring the magic of the Orient to Western noses in a digestible, French format (Amouage). I think it’s possible that Maison de Barry has gone ignored and misunderstood because, although the brand says it is mostly focused on recreating the historical perfumes of the past, many of the perfumes themselves smell much more like attars or natural perfumes.
The stated mission of Maison Nicolas de Barry is to recreate the perfumes that might have been worn by historical figures important to European social and cultural history, such as Empress Sissi, King Louis XV, and Georges Sand. But the perfumer and owner of Maison Nicolas de Barry – Nicolas de Barry himself – is clearly far more passionate about natural perfumery and the attar perfumery of both India and the Middle-East than any other type of perfume. He has personally visited the center of attar making, in Kannauj, India, to watch distillers and attar makers at work. He also travels around the world, visiting ylang plantations, jasmine farms, oud distillers, and sandalwood projects, sourcing his materials there and bringing them back to Paris with him, where he works them into his perfumes. He has even written a beautiful book on Indian attar making, called L’Inde des Parfums.
So, although Nicolas started off with a range of conventional niche perfumes – the historical ones – he has since focused more and more on his ranges of all-natural perfumes, raw materials, and (real) oud compositions. In other words, the soul of the brand “Maison Nicolas de Barry” is actually more about natural perfumery and attar/oil perfumery translated to a Western format than, strictly speaking, historical reconstructions (although there are some of those in the line too).
The only problem that this presents is that the split purpose might confuse customers (and even fragrance bloggers). The first impression any customer will get of the brand is the historical reconstruction angle, with the attar and naturals focus emerging only when you delve deeper into the descriptions and background on the site. Hence, a disconnect between that the brand itself suggests you’re going to smell, and what you actually smell.
The recreation, or reimagining, of les parfums historiques is not a new or unusual theme in perfumery, of course, as brands such as Parfum d’Empire, Histoires de Parfum, Rance, Creed, and even Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier demonstrate. But because these niche brands either got there first or are more popular, they managed to set the expectation for a parfum historique as thus: abstract, modern, niche constructions that behave like any other Western niche fragrance. Since the compositions of Maison Nicolas de Barry are at once far more streamlined and more naturals-focused, it’s possible that they appear simplistic or muddy to someone expecting the 3D mixed media richness of an Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire or even the Samsara stylings of Guerlain.
So, let’s re-set expectations here. The perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are great when viewed through the lens of a parfum historique, but superlative when viewed as their rightful form, i.e., naturals, pure ouds, and attar scaled up into a sprayable EDP format.
Understanding that the perfumes of Maison Nicolas de Barry are basically scaled-up attars and naturals in the guise of les parfum historiques is crucial to understanding the perfumes themselves. I remember receiving a tiny vial of Mumtaz-I Mahal from a perfume friend in 2014: it had leaked and filled the wrapping of the parcel with one of the most intensely beautiful smells I had ever experienced – sandalwood and rose. Strangely enough, when I applied what was left of the perfume to my skin, I found it to be less complex than the scent it left in the air: a sweet rose over an austere sandalwood. I much preferred the smell of the spilled perfume to the perfume itself as a wearing experience.
Looking back at this now, I think I understand that Mumtaz-I Mahal was teaching me my first lessons about attar perfumery in general, which are that:
attar perfumery is quite simple compared to complex, French or Western perfumery, focusing as it does on exalting the spiritual beauty of just one or two naturals rather than on an abstract, perfumey vision,
when a blend is this simple and composed almost entirely of naturals, the properties of the 1-2 naturals chosen for the blend are very important – there is nothing to disguise the inherently green sharpness of Ta’if rose oil or the soured milk tones of Australian sandalwood, and so on. And finally, that;
since attar perfumery was created more as a way of scenting the air for others, in a display of Muslim and Hindi generosity of spirit to fellow worshippers, than for one’s own personal pleasure, the trail of scent left behind by an attar is often more pleasing than the scent smelled up close on one’s own skin.
Since I’ve already waffled on quite a bit, I’m going to split this article into two parts, the first dealing with the conventional parfums historiques produced by Maison Nicolas de Barry (samples of which can be found here), the second part dealing with the all-natural perfumes and oud collection of the house (samples of which can be found here).
The first part, below, contains reviews of a cross-selection of samples from the historical perfumes range. Some of these perfumes behave like most conventional Western niche perfumes (abstract, complex, perfumey), albeit with a strong naturals focus, while others behave as pure attars diluted with alcohol to scale them up into EDP format.
L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé)
L’Eau de Louis XV (Le Bien-Aimé) – le bien-aimé meaning beloved or well-loved – is a scented tribute to King Louis XV. It is one of the most sublime and natural-smelling neroli fragrances I’ve had the pleasure of smelling. Unlike most neroli fragrances, there is no slow descent into soapiness; L’Eau de Louis XV retains a juicy, fresh bitterness that’s akin to biting into a winter orange and getting a mouthful of peel, waxy green leaf, and a bit of the woody bark too. It is both bright and salubrious. There is a floral poudrée heart of rose, violet, tuberose, and other flowers for support, as well as a dark, unsweet amber accord, but these are merely there to hold the orange and neroli aloft.
Am I imagining the slightly animalic muskiness that closes in around the neroli topnotes after the first few minutes? Probably. But something about this fragrance makes me think of the steamy, soapy floral odors escaping from the King’s boudoir during his morning bath, with the underlying funk of a sleepy and as of yet unwashed body warm from his bed. Without doubt, this should be the bellwether for neroli scents. It smells natural, uplifting, fresh, and bitter in all the right places. Bien aimé indeed…
La Reine Margot (La Scandaleuse)
It’s odd that jasmine is technically a white floral when its smell is so purple. In La Reine Margot, the natural jasmine really shines through – round and creamily sweet but not as bright, high-pitched, or as sunlit as the synthetic variants. In fact, it has a curiously dusky, subdued hue, as if the flower has been covered in heavy velvet. There is also a slightly muddy, plasticky tone that I associate with natural jasmine. It smells almost exactly like a natural jasmine ruh I’ve smelled before, while doing research for the Indian attar portion of my book.
The star is the natural jasmine, but it is backed by a powdery, spicy amber and what reads to my nose as creamy pheromone. What I mean by this is that it features the same “cream of wheat” smell that I’ve picked up in two pheromone-based fragrances, the all-natural Feromone Donna by La Via del Profumo and Pheromone 4, an attar produced by Agarscents Bazaar. Feromone Donna features a similar although not identical notes list to Pheromone 4: jasmine, civet, ambergris, tuberose, and vanilla. Like Pheromone 4, these materials come together to form a floral creaminess that is part cream of wheat, part white chocolate.
In La Reine Margot, there is something of a similar effect, with the jasmine interacting with either an animalic musk or ambergris in the base to produce a creamy floral porridge effect. It is perhaps more accurate to view this as a natural jasmine soliflore filtered through the sheen of a milky sandalwood oriental like Dries Van Noten for Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. I find this to be a very sensual, natural-feeling jasmine perfume that – unlike many other jasmine-musk combinations – never tapers off into that leathery sourness one smells beneath the wrist band of a rubber watch at the end of the day. It remains soft, pure, and creamy all the way through.
L’Impératrice Sissi (L’Indomptable)
L’Indomptable means indomitable, a person who cannot be subdued or defeated, and this describes perfectly both the character of Empress Sissi and the fragrance itself. Sissi is a cheeky little scent. It comes so over-stuffed with violet pastilles, gummy bears, face powder, cherry syrup, and doll head plastic that you’d think that it would be insufferable to anyone over the age of 12, and for a while, it is. But then a thick, raw lump of benzoin and the uncooked pallor of a very potato-y iris emerge, interjecting the saving grace of ugliness into the pretty.
Sissi is extreme in all respects – a sort of cosmetics violet-iris accord set on fire and sent rolling down the hill to flatten everybody in its wake. People who like the part-syrupy, part-powdery excesses of Guerlain’s Insolence, Incarnata by Anatole Lebreton, or Ombre Mercure by Terry de Gunsberg will probably love this lipstick-on-steroids perfume too. I don’t love it, myself, but I certainly enjoy wearing it more than I should. In fact, it’s become something of a guilty pleasure. There’s a fluffy marshmallow crème accord in the drydown that gives as much pleasure and comfort as a giant, fluffy onesie. I’d imagine. Not that I own one or anything.
L’Eau de George Sand
I find it fascinating that both Maison Nicolas de Barry and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier have historical fragrances in honor of George Sand and Queen Margot. Both houses chose jasmine as the principal material for their Queen Margot fragrances, although the MPG version is more of an animalic orange blossom than a true jasmine, and the Maison Nicolas de Barry version stars a very dark, natural jasmine accord.
For George Sand, both houses focus on the dried-up remnants of a perfume vial carried by Sand herself, which seemed to be made up of patchouli, roses, and amber. But while MPG takes the basic historical formula in a spicy, ambery oriental direction, the Maison Nicolas de Barry focuses on the dark, chypric elements. Think Amouage Beloved, Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and Noir Patchouli by Histoires de Parfum, rather than Cinnabar or Or Noir.
L’Eau de George Sand establishes its chypre credentials immediately upon application, putting forth a mossy, abstract bitterness that recalls dried plums, polished wood, and violin resin. It is also immediately powdery in a sumptuously floral way, and I’m sure that I can smell the bones of Acqua di Parma Profumo here, itself a cleaner, more powdery version of Mitsouko. However, there is also a plush animalic feel lurking under the topnotes, which could be either a grubby musk or labdanum. The contrast between the bright, elegant sharpness of the flowers and the murky skin-like feel of an animal is quietly disarming.
It is only towards the heart that I sense the darkness of patchouli moving in. But from there on out, this is a herbal, earthy patchouli chypre with a healthy dose of powdery rose. It is dark and somber in feel, while also elegant in that inimitable French manner. Lovers of Aromatics Elixir, Beloved, Noir Patchouli, or even Profumo should give this a try. It does everything they do albeit in a quieter and more natural way.
This was the perfume that sparked my initial interest in Maison Nicolas de Barry back in 2014, but I could reconcile neither my actual wearing experience nor the middling reviews with the incredible, unforgettable scent that had spilled on the package and permeated my sample box. In much the same way that I love the collected smells of all my perfumes on my winter coat collar or when I open up my perfume drawer more than the scent of any one single perfume on the skin, Mumtaz-I Mahal smells better in the ambience than on the skin.
On the skin, it is a very simple fragrance, just a Turkish rose backed by a smidge of sandalwood. The rose is very high quality – truffled, velvety, rich, and slightly jammy around the edges – but for all intents and purposes, it’s a rose soliflore, and that has to be what you’re looking for when you buy or sample Mumtaz-I Mahal. I think of it as the rose note from Aramis Calligraphy Rose cut free of all the spices, smoke, and resins of the Aramis.
It grows a little more citrusy and fresh towards the base when it meets the sandalwood, but in general, the rose tends more towards the softly jammy and truffled rather than sharp or green. Beautiful rose, beautiful materials…but perhaps better smelled in the secondary wake of someone else than as a personal perfume.
Shah Jahan is, of course, the natural companion to Mumtaz-I Mahal and supposedly the masculine counterpart. It is unisex, in truth, like all of the perfumes produced under Maison Nicolas de Barry. Inspired by the traditional attars produced in Kannauj and offered as gifts to the ruling emperors and princes of the Persiatic Mughal dynasty in India, Sha Jahan is far more complex than Mumtaz-I Mahal, with a tart, rhubarb-like rose on top of sandalwood, a vegetal amber attar base, and a touch of pure oud for exotic Arabian flair.
Shah Jahan has a fresh, silvery mien to it that speaks to homely Indian green herbs; compared to its female counterpart, it is angular and sugar-free. A woody, oudy sourness lurks at the corners, drawing the bright rose and herbs into the shadows somewhat, but mainly providing depth. It is spicy, sharp, and quite traditionally Indian in feel. Indian ambers are not creamy or vanillic, tending instead towards tart and spicy.
Oddly enough, the raw materials behave in this EDP format in much the same way as they would in an oil-based attar, meaning that the rose, which normally fades out over time in conventional fragrances due to the volatility of its geraniol and citronal molecules, re-emerges towards the end of the perfume, bathing the taut oud and woods in a rosy glow, that, while never sweet, softens the austerity of the blend. Think of this one as a rose-oud accord wrapped up in the clothing of a traditional Indian attar, which in turn is disguised in the form of a conventional eau de parfum. Superb.