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Gifts of the Three Magi: Frankly Frankincense

11th December 2020

Each of the gifts of the three Magi carried a special symbolic meaning – gold representing kingship, myrrh foreshadowing the death of Jesus (myrrh being commonly used as an embalming and purifying ointment in the final sendoff of a soul), and finally, frankincense for divinity. In other words, if gold represents earthy wealth and influence, and myrrh represents the suffering associated with death, then frankincense is the most spiritually elevating of all resins – and arguably the most important – as it turns the gaze upwards, towards God.  

On a more prosaic level, some believe that frankincense might have been brought along because of its medicinal qualities. In 2011, due to longstanding cultural links between Wales and Somalia (who knew?), researchers at Cardiff University decided to investigate whether there was any medical evidence to support the ancient Somali tradition of using frankincense extract as a traditional herbal remedy for the aches and pains associated with arthritis. And indeed, the scientists were able to demonstrate that treatment with an extract of Boswellia frereana (one of the rarer frankincense species) inhibits the production of key inflammatory molecules, effectively slowing down the disintegration of the cartilage tissue which causes the condition.

So, maybe the three wise men were actually…..wise? (Though, rolling up to the bedside of a woman who had just given birth in a stable without so much as a pack of Paracetamol, nappies, and a stack of gossip magazines would seem to contradict that.)  

In fact, most resins used in attar and commercial perfumery have long been as prized for their cleansing or purifying properties as for their spiritual or ritualistic ones. Arabs chew frankincense tears as chewing gum to freshen the breath and aid digestion, for example, while Papiers d’Arménie owe their existence to a Frenchman by the name of  Auguste Ponsot, who, after stumbling across benzoin resin during his travels in Armenia in 1885, decided to make benzoin-infused strips of paper to cleanse the air in stuffy rooms all across Paris. Both Arabs and Persians have long traditions of burning incense to fumigate their rooms, clothes, places of worship, and hair. The word perfume itself comes from the Latin per fumus, which means ‘through the smoke’, making it more than likely that the first rudimentary form of perfume was, in fact, the fumigation of a dwelling with incense. So put that on your burner and smoke it!

Frankincense, for many people, lies at the very tippety-top of the incense chain – the thoroughbred of the resin family. Deriving from the old French word franc encens – meaning ‘high quality incense’ – frankincense is a gum produced by the Boswellia genus of trees which grows in Somalia, Sudan, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. The bulk of frankincense, called luban or loban in Arabic, comes from Somalia. However, the finest quality of frankincense is called Hojari (alternatively referred to as howjary) or silver frankincense, and this comes from the arid Dhofar region of Oman in the United Arab Emirates.

The steam-distilled oil of frankincense resin gives attars and perfumes a fresh, coniferous resinousness, with a bright lemon-and-lime topnote. Some grades of Omani frankincense smell like oranges or tangerines in their topnotes, with a soft-ish, creamy quality in the lower register. The house of Amouage, based in Oman, was founded around the use of local Hojari frankincense, and indeed, most of this house’s output showcases the silvery beauty of Omani frankincense.

In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Trygve Harris, a frankincense distiller in Oman, talked about the different aromas associated with the different types of frankincense. “Somali has a lemony note, and a warm dryness, an austerity. It makes me thirsty — it smells vast and dry. It reminds me of Palm Springs when I was a kid. The Omani has a richness, an opulence, like a treasure box. Regarding the differences in the Omani frankincense oils, I like to say the white (howjary) has more a green, herbal, butterfly note while the black has an orange floral spice aspect.”

Frankincense is the note that many people, including me, tend to lump in with the larger category represented by the word incense. Technically, incense is any hard-ish material – be it a wood (sandalwood, oud wood) or a resin or gum (like myrrh, benzoin, copal, frankincense) – that can be slowly burned or smoked on a coal to produce a purifying but fragrant smoke. Fragrances classified as incense fragrances typically feature some ratio of frankincense to other resins, balsams, and gums (most typically myrrh, but also benzoin, labdanum, etc.), so many of the frankincense-themed fragrances on the list below are actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something else.   

Now, for someone’s who just written an 8,000-word essay on it, I feel compelled to tell you that I am deeply ambivalent about frankincense. For anyone who was born Catholic – or worse, Irish Catholic – the scent of frankincense is less an actual aroma than it is an emotional trigger, dredging up all the complex, long-buried feelings about an entire culture that revolves around the Roman Catholic Church. Or, as we refer to it in the hood, the RCC. All incense matters to us, but frankincense matters the most. It alone is the Proustian gun that fires straight into the Catholic hippocampus.

So, when it came to exploring the different categories of fragrance, it is perhaps not surprising that I set off merrily down along the High Mass path, blundering under the assumption that incense would be the bread and butter of my collection. I had, after all, spent most of my childhood downwind of a censer. But it turns out that – shocker – I much prefer a vision of High Mass filtered through a romantic, hazy vision of half-remembered holiness over anything too authentic. It is more than I am an incense lightweight than a lapsed Catholic, although I am certainly also the latter.

Ironically, in the Before Times, despite me being a terrible excuse for a Catholic, I was living in Rome, in an apartment so close to St. Peter’s Basilica that my kitchen window could be spotted every time the camera panned out in The Young Pope. I am tempted to trot out a tired line about being able to throw a stick and hit the Pope, only in the case of Papa Francis, I think we’ve established that he is pretty cool with anything as long as you don’t try to grab his hand.   

Anyway, this enormous building and its Holiest of inhabitants set the pace for much of my life in Rome. I used the gleaming, opalescent curves of its imposing colonnade to guide me through the darkness of pre-dawn runs. I crossed the square (more of a circle) most weekend days, ducking and weaving my way through the tight knots of tourists, street hawkers, and selfie sticks in a mindless, amoeba-like daze. You can’t buy an espresso or a gelato in this neighborhood without elbowing your way past a priest, nun, or monk.  

But you can get used to anything, and when you live right next to something like St. Peter’s Basilica, you get used to that too. It just becomes part of your day-to-day life. Mostly, I orbited St. Peter’s in a friendly, non-Catholic way and felt it to exist as an almost secular building in my line of vision, sometimes obstructing where I needed to go, other times making me pause to marvel at its sheer size or the way it glowed like a rose gold beacon in the evening.

But every now and then, there would be a religious procession, either from a local parish or a visiting church from Latin America, and I would smell the incense pouring off the censer again, and I walk straight into it, seeking it out the way your finger finds an old scar to worry at. I like to think that I am alert to the dangers of being pulled back in by the ancient Catholic drugs of knee-trembling beauty, architectural grandeur, and the straight-to-the-heart punch of frankincense. It is pure mind-fuckery. But sometimes, I just can’t help myself.   

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

Photo by Lisandro Garcia on Unsplash

Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense

I have owned bottles, decants, and samples of the some of the biggest players in the High Mass corner of the incense genre, and my personal favorite is Cardinal (Heeley). Compared to Avignon (Comme des Garcons) and Full Incense (Montale) – the two other High Mass scents with which Cardinal is most often grouped – Cardinal smells like incense from the priest’s censer wafting at you through shafts of sunshine, fresh air, and white sheets fluttering on a brisk breeze.

Though it is very dry, it is not tremendously dark or smoky, and therefore, not forbidding. The aldehydes lift the spirits as well as the scent itself, and the papery-sweet benzoin makes me think of vellum sheet music soaked in vanilla, strung out over a line to dry. I appreciate the elegantly-slanted, sideways approach to church incense that Cardinal employs because it gives me the vague whiff of spirituality without dragging me back to Mass.  

Casbah (Robert Piguet)Spicy Frankincense

The incense field is so crowded by giants (Cardinal, Avignon, LAVS) that it is difficult to carve out a spot. Casbah manages – just about – by clothing the hollow, Coca-Cola-ish effervescence of Avignon in a peppery fog akin to dry ice. It is much richer than Cardinal and much drier than the fizzy soda-soap that is Montale’s Full Incense.

Drilling down into the details, Casbah also has a curiously antiseptic thread running through it, but a subtle one – more the rubbery squeak of a hospital gurney against a freshly-sluiced floor rather than full-out disinfectant. This is not due to any ghost ‘oud’ note, but to an organic fudge of angelica and nutmeg. I like its medieval darkness and grunginess because it makes no apologies for being the curmudgeon of the pack.  In fact, Casbah reads more like one of Santa Maria Novella’s older, less photo-ready concoctions than a Piguet.

Armani Privé Bois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense

A minimalistic, airy, and remarkably boring concoction of frankincense over a polished cedar or Iso E Super base. Despite critics and bloggers writing a paeon of praise to this bellwether of bellwethers of the incense genre, I was never able to ‘get’ its supposed complexity. To my nose, it is a micro explosion of black pepper and frankincense e/o inside a very small (but perfectly chic) black vase. Though perfectly formed – well, everyone keeps saying it is anyway – it is too featureless to leave much of an impression on me.

Czech & Speake Frankincense and MyrrhHonest Frankincense

A straight-forward blend of frankincense and myrrh that unites the dusty, waxen ‘old wooden furniture’ mien of myrrh to the lemony-piney detergent freshness of frankincense, and pretty much calls it a day. It smells unimpeachably natural and clean, more like an eau de cologne with a resinous backdrop than the smokier, heavier takes on incense that modern niche specializes in. It smells like a church floor rigorously cleansed after Mass with buckets full of hot water (there is a hissy steam or mineral note), lemon-scented detergent, and bunches of minty, rooty herbs like lavender and clary sage stirred in for good measure.

The drydown is much better than the opening;  the strident lemon high notes of the frankincense drop off, allowing the fragrance to swan elegantly into a protracted finish of clean, unsmoked resin and wooden bannisters polished to a high shine. Absolutely no smoke, no sugar, no Eastern mysticism, no Catholic High Mass. Czech & Speake’s Frankincense and Myrrh strips the two headliner resins back to their core, demonstrating that you don’t have to bathe resins in orientalia for them to smell good.

Photo by Vladimir Šoić on Unsplash

Mad et Len Noir EncensAmaretto Frankincense

Noir Encens is not noir or, indeed, particularly encens. Rather, it is a cozy gourmand in the hazelnut-amaretto-over-iced-milk vein of Hypnotic Poison, only much less loud. It manages that very chic, very French balance of edible and semi-poisonous notes. Its milky, anisic softness in the drydown reminds me somewhat of Gucci Eau de Parfum, the one with the brown juice in the clear glass bottle.

Paul Schütze Behind the RainWild Frankincense

Behind the Rain is one of those wild, freeform bag of ‘smells’ that the perfumer seems to have corralled in from his atmosphere – a liquid message from his world to ours, a bundling up of the collected smells of the woodshop and the painter’s studio. It is green-brown, vegetal, sharp, and more than slightly weird. But it is also deeply invigorating. Something in it electrifies me. 

Behind the Rain is nominally a modern incense perfume à la Comme des Garcons. Yet from within the sleek lines of its minimalist architecture emanates the smells of Olde World Europe – oil lamps, liniment, centuries-old wood, glue bindings, turpentine, anise-scented toothpaste, and horsehair brushes idling in glasses of solvent. A dusty frankincense turns the polished wood and oily aromas of the workshop into a (homey) place of worship.

This might be an indoor scent entirely were it not for the wet rootiness of fennel, mastic, vetiver, and all manner of violently-uprooted vegetation sweeping gusts of air into closed rooms with their strange prairie outdoorsiness. The scent has one foot inside, one foot outside, ready to bolt in a Heathcliffian huff. Behind the Rain is imagined along the same lines as Marescialla by Santa Maria Novella and Olibanum by Profumum –more a summoning of the elements than a scent. Thank God perfumes like this still exist.

Rosarium (Angela Ciampagna) – Icing Sugar Frankincense

Rosarium is the third point on the triangulation of what I like to call the ‘powdered sugar incense’ category, between the rose champagne fizz of Maria Candida Gentile’s Sideris and the doughnutty yumminess of Reve d’Ossian (Oriza L. Legrand). I am drawn to the gently edible edge to these incense perfumes, because they calm the naturally sharp angles of frankincense by filtering it through the haze of powdered sugar that rises off a sweet bun when you bite into it.

Rosarium is thickly dusted with the double powder whammy of iris and benzoin in its topnotes and made slightly sherbety with the addition of rose or lemon. As others before me have pointed out, this combination of iris and incense is reminiscent of the Tauerade present in both Incense Rosé and Les Années 25 (Tauer), although far less powerful or astringent – Rosarium is softly, sweetly bready, rather than battery acid radiant. 

But what really makes Rosarium special is the carrot seed accent, which gives the powdery incense sweetness an unusually earthy-rooty depth. This smells like metal slicing through upturned earth, but also like a warm, mealy pulp made of sawdust and rainwater. The carrot seed effect makes my mouth water, although technically there is nothing edible about it. I notice that the carrot seed present in Santal Blush (Tom Ford) has a similar effect, except for the addition of cumin, which makes it even wheatier.

The combination of sweet incense dust, milk-soaked Easter bread, and metallic earth or hazelnuts in Rosarium is pretty wonderful, and if my ‘powdered sugar incense’ needs weren’t already being met by the brighter, more natural-smelling Sideris, I would seriously think about putting it on my putative ‘To Buy’ list (whereupon it would likely languish for years).   

Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense

Wazamba! It sounds explosive, which is strange, because it smells explosive too, especially when it tumbles out in that first, aldehyded rush of sugared pine needles, frankincense, and cinnamon-dipped red fruits. The pine ‘flavor’ in Wazamba is the connecting dot (for me) between the coniferous notes and the naturally piney facet of frankincense. As with its close relative, Filles en Anguilles by Serge Lutens, the pine notes read as something sunlit and Mediterranean, rather than snowy and Northern, a feeling cleverly underlined by a tangy cypress note. 

In Wazamba, the umbrella pines are bent sideways by a Bora or a Sirocco, the soil beneath them is springy with orange-brown pine needles, and everything is warm, dry, and aromatic. It is an extremely fruity scent, if you stand back and look at it from a distance – dried plum and cranberries, I think, more than apple. But up close, the piney-coniferous freshness of the woods proves an effective bridle, slowing the roll of the fruit and sobering it up. There is also quite a lot of clove or cinnamon, which manifests as a dustiness or chalkiness of texture in the gradient of the wood rather than as a hotly-spiced standalone accent. I think Wazamba proves that, in the right hands, heavy-duty stuff like plum or myrrh and frankincense can be manipulated to take up the shape of light filtering through sea-leaning pine trees. Nice (but non-essential).

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense

Over the past ten years or so, as supplies of it dwindled and the secondary market dried up, Norma Kamali Incense has attained legendary status approaching that of the 1804 Bust Dollar for coin collectors or the Pikachu Illustrator Card for Pokémon fans. Only the original Djedi (Guerlain), Iris Gris (Jacques Fath), and Chypre (Coty) top it for rarity and collector value, though modern tastes probably lean more towards the Norma Kamali. But how much of the appreciation for Norma Kamali Incense is due to its unavailability and how much to its intrinsic qualities as a scent?

Having bought and sold a 10ml decant of the later edition and tested two sample vials of it – one a cognac brown from (presumably) the early edition and the other a yellowy gold (later edition) – I suspect that it is the former. Norma Kamali is striking, but perhaps not as unique as people assume. I smell echoes of it in Amber Absolute and Sahara Noir (both Tom Ford), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio), the original Messe de Minuit (Etro), Calling All Angels (April Aromatics), DEV#4 (Olympic Orchids), and 03. Apr. 1968 (Rundholz).

What connects all of these to Norma Kamali Incense is the bittersweet, smoky quality of the labdanum material used, maybe due to a touch of Hydrocarboresine, a Biolandes-owned natural derivative of cistus-labdanum, which lends perfumes a rich ‘High Mass’ incense effect that lurches between the bitterness of buckwheat honey and the sweetness of toffee. Aside from the Hydrocarboresine, it seems to lean heavily on a nexus of copal – a South American resin that smells herbaceously bitter (burnt bay leaf) – a rubbery myrrh, and a hulking block of super-dry labdanum that smells like a leather saddle smoldering in the grate of a fire. The Hydrocarboresine is instrumental to creating that oddly animalic, stale, waxy awfulness that is half holy, half-demons-summoned-from-the-depths-of-hell.  

Norma Kamali Incense is undeniably characterful, but you have to be up for that particular brand of gloom when you put it on. This is a scent that demands the commitment of the whole day – God help you if you think you’re just going to be able to dab on a bit, test it, and then wash it off again. It has a strange way of making you feel as if you are choking on the ashy fumes of a censer swinging directly over your head (with you desperately wishing the priest would move on so you can breathe again). Phenomenally burnt, colossal in stature, and more than a bit overwhelming, Norma Kamali Incense would be, I feel, slightly a bit too over the top for confession, unless you’re confessing to the Devil himself in the ashes of Notre Dame (in which case it would be perfect).

Incense Flash (Tauerville)Frankincense Haiku

Doing what it says on the tin, Incense Flash presents a somewhat abbreviated but nonetheless satisfying picture of incense resins half-smoked on the censer. It leads the charge with a piney frankincense and quickly adds in the tarrier, bootstrap molasses nuances of myrrh for heft. It is smoky, but this is due to the resins themselves rather than the addition of birch tar, so there is still air to breathe and it never quite tips over into acridity.

There is some rubber and fuel detritus floating around in the frankincense accord, but that is just the nature of frankincense – anyone’s who has ever bought or burned any will recognize this aspect immediately. The dry woods and Ambroxan in the base are less satisfying to me. I am never sold on the ‘clean starched shirt taken off an aftershave-doused male body’ accord this tandem births like a malevolent serpent into the world. Yet it is never as aggressively ‘soap-powder-shot-into-your-nostrils’ as Incense Extrême, a small mercy for which I am very grateful.

My main issue with this scent is that it smells like something I could knock together myself. There is a lazy, homemade edge to this that disappoints. Incense Flash is very fairly priced, but it is one of those products that make you aware of the mark-up exactly at the point you’re consuming it, like the store-bought apple tart that tastes fine, but you can taste that they cut a few corners and just knocked it out onto the production line in time for the 5 o’ clock rush, so you’re kind of questioning even the measly €6 you spent on it.

Sombre Negra (Yosh) Frankincense Fougère

The world’s first frankincense fougère? Someone is going to write an angry letter contradicting me on that. I don’t care. Listen up, ladies, because I am writing this for you. Sombre Negra is written about as one of the standout incense fragrances of the genre. I have no issue with the incense part of the equation. The promised ‘blackness’ is all there – a gorgeously sooty, dusty frankincense seemingly swept out from under the censers and grates of Europe’s most commanding cathedrals with the sole purpose of putting the fear of God in you and making you repent. It is dour. It is suitably sturm-und-drang.

However, and really, women, listen up because I am slowly but inexorably getting to the point – the other half of this fragrance is your brother’s shirt collar circa 1985. Remember the male aroma of shirts soaked in enough Drakkar Noir to scour the bath? Remember the posturing and the putting on of that older male ‘skin’ to be able to face the world in all their pimpled, trembling glory? Have you ever had to lie in the bed of a young male relative while a-visiting and known the horror of those clammy, Brut-soaked sheets that made you wish you could disassociate from your own body? Ladies, I have three brothers and four male cousins. I do not mock. I am merely reminding you.

Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal) Fag Ash Frankincense

Encens Flamboyant opens with a peculiar note of stale fag ash, like clothes after a night out in a disco, its breath freshened up a tiny bit by a fir balsam or pine note. There is nothing particularly joyful or uplifting about the frankincense. It creates instead a cool, flat grey-green aura that reminds me of mold crumbling into dust on a piece of bread.


There is a dry, metallic tinge to Encens Flamboyant that makes it quite similar in feel (if not scent) to Tauer’s Incense Extrême – they share a certain austerity and ‘bareness’ of structure. It also shares that notorious stale cigarette note with Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette, though that is a fragrance I like much better because the fag ash is balanced out by a minty green (and surprisingly cheap-smelling) jasmine note that makes it feel like someone covering up the scent of a sneaky cigarette with a drugstore ‘floral-ish’ cologne. Encens Flamboyant, lacking that little quirk of humor, feels a bit like wearing a hair shirt.

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile)Fairytale Frankincense

If Tinkerbell and the Archangel Gabriel got together to make a perfume, Sideris is what they would come up with. Two things are important to mention here – radiance and scale. Radiance-wise, Maria Candida Gentile has somehow managed to take the heaviest and stickiest substances in perfumery – French labdanum, frankincense, myrrh, beeswax – and infuse the whole thing with light and air. This is a perfume that radiates. It glows. In fact, what hits you first, when you spray it on, is this incredible note of powdered sugar, the result of a diffuse mix of frankincense and rose. This powdered sugar note coats the entire perfume from head to toe, a sort of fairy dust sifted over the heavier resins. A gentle shake of the spice jar – pepper and ginger – add to the sprightly, nose-tingling effect. The dust is finally anchored and settled at the base by creamy woods.

There is nothing synthetic in feel or reach of the incense here. And yet, Sideris achieves an unearthly radiance that would normally only be possible with Iso E Super or another woody amber material. Incredible.

Most important to me, however, is the fact that even in the crowded field of incense scents, Sideris manages to distinguish itself as a completely different beast. It is not one of those soaring High Mass perfumes like Avignon by Comme des Garcons or LAVS by UNUM, scents which take incense, blow it up into cathedral-sized places of worship, and instill a sense of gloom and awe into the wearer.

Rather, Sideris is an incense-based perfume scaled to infinitely more humble proportions. You can tell that a woman made this. It is a quiet moment of reflection over a cup of tea. It is the private rolling out of a prayer mat in your bedroom as dawn approaches. More than anything, it is a priest sweeping out the steps of the church as he opens up for the day, the mica from the dust glittering in the sun as he gives you a grin and a lusty ‘Buongiorno!’ on your way to get an espresso.

You don’t have to be a Catholic or go to church to like this. I put this on, and no matter what kind of bad day I am having, I feel like I am floating around in my own personal cloud of magic fairy dust, protected by all the bad juju around me.

La Fumée (Miller Harris)Fresh Frankincense

It is funny how sometimes it’s the fragrances you wear the most are the ones you never bother to write about. I am on my second bottle of this elegant woods and resins concoction, and yet now when I sit down to put pen to paper, I realize I have never really analyzed the notes. La Fumée performs quietly in the background of your day, like smoke from incense or oud embedded in the fabric of your clothes. It starts off on a greenish frankincense note, like crushed pine needles, pepper, and lemons, creating a fresh, masculine vibe that continues for much of the scent.


Wafting in and out of the composition is a light smoke note from a combination of the cade and birch tar, but there is also a dry labdanum in the mix, performing its teetering act between tinder-dry paper that’s about to catch fire and liquid tar. Creamy sandalwood takes over from the piney, terpenic facets of the frankincense, nudging the scent into a faintly sweet-and-sour sweat direction. But none of that describes how easy this scent is to wear, or how pleasurable in its humming-in-the-background way. Whereas other resin scents hit you over the head, this one wears like an elegant, transparent veil that exists only at the corner of your field of vision. Like a former boyfriend of mine, it is small but perfectly formed.

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian) Frankincense Absolute

Natural frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is central to its aroma, and this is precisely the characteristic that Absolute Frankincense has chosen to highlight. The scent extends the silvery bite of the resin by flanking it with a lime-like bergamot and some very natural-smelling coniferous notes. The result smells clean and high-toned – an expression of frankincense oil itself, as opposed to the burnt, smoky notes of the resin as it bubbles on a censer.

Those who love the more severe takes on frankincense such as Annick Goutal’s Encens Flamboyant will appreciate Absolute Frankincense. Just be aware that this oil is monastic in its approach, and that the green purity of the resin has been prioritized far above the smoky, resinous, or sweet notes that usually flank frankincense. This is the cold, smooth smell of the unburned resin itself, an almost exact match to the aroma of the resin when you rub it between the palms of your hands. My criticism is that Absolute Frankincense is almost too simple – too close to the aroma of good quality frankincense oil itself – to be worth the cost of entry.

Calling All Angels (April Aromatics)Butter Caramel Frankincense

Calling All Angels is perhaps one of my favorite incense compositions, and although it mostly centers around a tremendously complex, bittersweet labdanum material (helped along, I suspect, by a dose of the Biolandes Hydrocarboresine, a natural derivative of cistus-labdanum that gives both Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali their utterly toothsome burnt honey/cinder toffee quality), there is a huge dose of sooty frankincense in the opening half that firmly establishes the holy side of the holy-slash-edible equation that this scent has going on.

Calling All Angels smells like incense smoking and spluttering to a halt inside a stone jar of chestnut honey so ancient it’s become a stiff brown paste. I can never decide if it is is the kind of thing you slather yourself in when you want someone to eat you or the kind of thing you wear to commune with a Higher Power, but maybe that’s the point.

Vento nel Vento (Bois 1920)Frankincense Plus

Like Dior’s Mitzah, April Aromatics Calling All Angels, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, Contre Bombarde 32, and Bois 1920’s own Real Patchouly, Vento nel Vento blurs the lines between amber, incense, spices, and woods, making it rather difficult to pin down. Which is exactly what I like about it. It’s not pure frankincense – its frankincense plus all the other stuff I like (probably a lot more than straight-up frank).

Vento nel Vento is not, to be clear, ground-breaking stuff. But it is a good kitchen-sink of a thing that’s perfect for when you feel like wearing something warm and resinous without condemning yourself to a full day of enough straight-up amber to put you in a sugar coma or an incense so monastic that it turns into a hair shirt by dinnertime. The opening is all about balmy, dark frankincense paired and smoky labdanum resin, lifted by a thyme or rosemary note that makes me want to bite my arm. The herb is phenolic, like smoke rising off a tar pit – akin to the burnt thyme note atop Interlude Man.

Although it is not sweet, the smoke and herbs are balanced out by a smooth, round edible quality. Perhaps it is the lemony cream of the elemi resin or, again, that Hydrocarboresine material from Biolandes. Whatever it is, it reads like soft black licorice vines, the mild ones perched precisely between sweet and salty and whose major selling point is their satisfying yield as you bite into them. The slightly tarry, smoky labdanum stretches out into the heart, and as the thyme and frankincense taper off, it is joined by a smooth amber and patchouli.


There is a small touch of oud in the heart, enough to give it an interesting sourness that smacks of wood chips and herbs soaked in water before distilling. Often, incensey ambers or ambery incenses ruin the effect by having one element stick out too much, such as a too-sharp herbal note, an overly piney frankincense, or an overload of vanilla. In Vento nel Vento, the whole is perfectly round, smooth, and integrated. No one note catches at your skin like a forgotten clothes pin.


Vento nel Vento starts off with immense volume (sillage) but does a surprisingly gentle fade-out, becoming very quiet after 3-4 hours. In the base, an ambergris note contributes a musky, salted caramel glaze to the finish. It is subtle – not so much the smell of ambergris tincture itself with its usual marine and earthy funk, rather the effect of white ambergris, which has little scent of its own. White ambergris, the finest grade, acts instead as a magnifying glass held up to the other notes in the composition. Here, it adds a sensual, skin-like glow that animates the resins, amber, and sandalwood like blowing onto hot coals.

Sahara Noir (Tom Ford)Frank Frankincense

As inexplicably discontinued as its sibling, Amber Absolute, Sahara Noir is for many the standout of the frankincense field. It has the advantage of being both familiar and novel at the same time, essentially dusting off the black pepper frankincense core of Black Cashmere (Donna Karan), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford), and even Black (Comme des Garcons), before adding cinnamon and tobacco to highlight the authentically dusty-sooty texture of the frankincense, and burnt sugar and orange rind for a sweet-n-sour brightness that illuminates its darkness. Though quite sharp at first, once it settles in a bit, what you notice about Sahara Noir is just how smooth and high-gloss it actually is (a sort of Tom Ford signature, I think).

Listen, objectively speaking, this is obviously a really solid fragrance – well made, with good quality materials, rich and warm, yet true to the chilly coniferous sting of frankincense. However, since I have owned and then sold or swapped away two whole bottles of this monster, there is obviously something about Sahara Noir that isn’t doing it for me at a personal level. The best I can come up with is that it is two-thirds the way to Amber Absolute, which only serves to remind me that I’d much rather be wearing Amber Absolute instead.

Photo by Joshua Davis on Unsplash

Holy Terror (Arcana)Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens

Despite the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk, thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord. The myrrh and frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather than as accurate representations of their natural selves. So, for example, there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to myrrh. Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular. Indeed, they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.

To point out that Holy Terror smells more resin-like or ‘generically resinous’ is, by the way, not a criticism but an observation. Some people blind buy incense or resin scents because they are trying to find something that accurately represents the aroma of a specific resin, like, for example, unlit frankincense, oud wood (rather than the oil), myrrh, or copal. Incense freaks tend to be very specific about the effect they are looking for. Therefore, my note about the nature of the resins in Holy Terror is simply for clarification.

Holy Terror is more about the homely smell of incense-scented things than High Mass. It is not dark or massively smoky or acrid. It is not a literal incense or burning resin scent like Avignon (Comme des Garcons). It is sweet herbs, tree sap, and woodsmoke wrapped in a just-snuffed-out candlewax accord. It is slightly musky, which creates a tinge of intimacy, like the skin of someone pressing close to you in church. This gives the scent a human aura that is enormously inviting.


Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute

The Âme Sombre series (Âme Sombre Oud Infusion, Âme Sombre Grade 1, and Âme Sombre Grade II) was conceived as a tribute to, well, Tribute – the landmark frankincense-cedar attar from Amouage that has such a cult following that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a tiny squib of it. Naturally, when Amouage discontinued its line of attars, the desire for Tribute increased even further. Nothing enhances Holy Grail status for a scent like scarcity and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it. Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha stepped in with his take on the original.

All the Âme Sombre variations revolve around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like smoke from the censer at High Mass. This frankincense is surrounded by a very good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine. The florals never quite succeed in speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense – they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like light through a stained glass window. In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco, ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres. The bitterness is alleviated somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies away completely.

Âme Sombre Infusion Oud is the most expensive and opulent version of Âme Sombre. It rivals or even surpasses the cost of the original Tribute, due to the time-consuming and messy task of infusing a small quantity of Âme Sombre Grade I with smoke from sinking grade oud wood chips, which Sultan heated on a burner directly underneath the attar itself.

The Oud Infusion version therefore contains the uniquely clean, resinous aroma that comes from heating oud wood (as opposed to the fermented, ‘overripe’ aroma of pure oud oil). The oud infusion doubles down on the rich smokiness of the frankincense, but also offers a slightly green sweetness that serves to soften the essentially bitter character of the scent. This version, although expensive and now also possibly discontinued, is the most balanced version of Tribute, and my personal favorite.

Âme Sombre Grade I and Âme Sombre Oud Infusion both relate closely to the original Tribute (albeit with a bigger emphasis on rose), and either would be an excellent substitute for the now discontinued attar. Âme Sombre Grade II differs quite dramatically from both the Oud Infusion and Grade I, but I like it a lot as a standalone scent and wish it had been marketed separately. 

Âme Sombre Grade I begins with an incredibly lush, lemony rose that has the effect of flooding the gloomy church corridors with light and air. Rose is usually added to oud to give it a sweet juiciness to counteract its sour, stark woodiness, and here it plays that role both for the austere, pine-like frankincense and the sourish cedar. Then a clutch of dark, balmy resins and leather notes moves in to draw a black velvet cloak over the bright, sourish rose, rendering the tone of the attar somber and serious. Grade I is slightly darker, more phenolic, and more sour-rosy in feel than the Oud Infusion, which draws sweet woodsmoke notes from the agarwood infusion. Grade I also employs more of a focus on balmy leather notes than the other versions.

Overall, Âme Sombre Grade I feels more Northern in tone than Middle-Eastern. There is a fresh juniper note in the background that further bolsters this ‘Orthodox Church in a chilly Northern forest’ tonality. In terms of overall approach, Âme Sombre Grade I is perhaps the closest to the original Tribute with its stark, smoky cedar-frankincense combination. It is also intensely powerful, lasting on my skin all day and well beyond a shower.

Photo by Anup Ghag on Unsplash


Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio)Pure Frankincense

A frankincense as taut and as vegetal as a piece of freshly-peeled silver birch. The vin jaune of the incense genre, Incense Pure does not smell of High Mass, but of the bright, sticky sap weeping from the tree itself, softened by the powdery green smell of living wood. Plenty of fresh air swirls in and around the frankincense molecules here, cutting and lifting them without (interestingly) adding any the citrusy ‘lime peel’ nuances normally associated with frankincense. It smells like an outdoors cathedral, its roof formed by a closely-knit canopy of wiry spruce and oak saplings. Extremely dry and bright, I always feel like I need a glass of water when I wear Incense Pure. An ambery warmth in the lower register  – intermittent at best – adds a relieving warmth, if not any real sweetness.  

Basilica (Solstice Scents) Starter Pack Frankincense

For those looking to get into incense perfumes, Basilica is a great starting point. Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense, this blend smells purely of High Mass. It is not complicated or indeed complex, but its straightforwardness is part of its charm. In particular, the naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky – makes this an absolute pleasure. Soft and soulful, Basilica is like Comme des Garcons’ Avignon in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it should come with a trigger warning.

Olibanum (Profumum)Polished Frankincense

Olibanum skips the high-pitched lime peel notes of most frankincense renditions, instead focusing almost entirely on the material’s rooty, medicinal sootiness. There are some very fine Omani frankincense varieties, like Hojari, that display a soft creamy-tangy orange note up top instead of the usual lime leaf, and this is what Profumum has cleverly chosen to mimic here with its brief splash of orange in the topnotes.


Rather than resin, I get the impression of dark, shiny, polished woods, an ancient armoire maybe, carved from a single trunk of pine felled in some cold North clime. It smells like what I imagine wenge smells like – the hidden underbelly of wood, closest to the core, where no light penetrates. A particularly mineralic, earthy myrrh deepens this impression. This one stirs me. I might have to get a travel bottle.

Al Masih (Mellifluence)Messianic Frankincense

Al Masih means Messiah in Arabic, one of the many names for Jesus. And to a certain extent, Al Masih’s incense is more Catholic High Mass than Islamic cannon. Al Masih opens with a frankincense note as piercing as freshly-crushed pine needles, its citric edge underscored by a lemony tandem of elemi resin and petitgrain. The total effect is of a Mediterranean church with its doors thrown open to allow the soft breeze brushing over mastic to mingle with the scent of unburned resin. Cypress, cedar, and hyssop all add to its fresh, outdoorsy air, confirming that churches are not the only places where communion with a Greater Spirit takes place.

The drydown is a surprise. The sharp brightness of the herbs and resins softens, before collapsing entirely into the sensual creaminess of sandalwood. The sandalwood lends a golden, wholesome texture to the scent, recalling the bounty of the harvest and all the good things to eat stored in the cellar. This series of transitions has the effect of shifting the scene from the wildness of the maquis to a soft and homely devotion scaled to domestic proportions. At once evocative and pleasing, Al Masih might strike a chord for lovers of outdoorsy incense, as well as those who love the ‘medicinal unguent’ bent of modern Italian artisanal perfumery – think Bogue and O’Driu, albeit far, far simpler. 

Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense

Sugared pine needles (frankincense) and juniper berries whipped into an egg-white vanilla froth. Eau Duelle is really good and really simple – an essay on the duality of two opposing elements of a cool, spicy frankincense-black tea accord and a warm, woody vanilla. To non-French speakers, the name could also be suggestive of a duel, an old-fashioned fight to the death between two forces.

Everything about Eau Duelle just clicks right into place. The opening is cold and aromatic, fizzy with a spray of pink pepper and juniper berries. Hiding behind the aromatic spices and black tea is a robust vanilla that is sweet enough to give pause, but – at least in the eau de parfum version – thankfully made a little bitter, rough, and woody with the addition of Ambroxan. Yep, you read that right. I praised a perfume that has Ambroxan in it. Don’t get too used to it. Eau Duelle happens to be the rare example of a fragrance that’s greatly improved by a dollop of Ambroxan.


It is worth pointing something out about the frankincense note here. It presents as not the freshly-lit, High Mass kind of frankincense, but rather, the waxy, almost herbal scent lingering in the air of incense long since extinguished. The vanilla is sharpened by the slight evergreen edge of a frankincense hangover. The texture is something special, with a starchy, papery feel to it that makes me think of freshly-opened books.

Like most Diptyques, Eau Duelle wears lightly and unobtrusively but has a presence substantial enough to surprise you in fits and bursts throughout the day. I love the idea of a non-cakey vanilla paired with a green, effervescent frankincense, and though admittedly quite plain and non-charismatic, Eau Duelle just floats my boat.

On a personal note, in January 2015, I contracted a serious virus that made me anosmic for about six weeks, and Eau Duelle was the first perfume that I was able to smell again as I was recovering. Therefore, whenever I smell it now, those feelings of gratitude and euphoria come flooding back. Like Parfum Sacre, Eau Duelle will always be something I love almost absent-mindedly, in that fuzzy, all-love-no-logic way we love our children.    

Apr.03.1968 (Rundholz)Jamaica Cake Frankincense  

What Arturetto Landi has done with 03.Apr.1968 is to take the minimalist structure of church incense and flesh it out with a gaudy array of rich, bitter, and tooth-rottingly sweet flavors. It smells like a fat wodge of Christmas cake doused in brandy and set to burn on a priest’s censer alongside a hulking lump of frankincense. Underneath these smoky, soiled-fruit aromas, there is an enticing whiff of heliotrope, a huge purple chunk of marzipan charred at the edges. Smoke fights with burned sugar, and we all win.


The fruit, in particular, is what makes this incense smell unholy, so unclean. It is supposedly lychee, but really it could be any fruit – apples, raisins, dates – because the fruit is so close to collapse that all you can smell are the high-pitched alcohol fumes of decay that belong exclusively to fruit. Joined by a dry frankincense that flits queasily between clove and bay leaf, the fruit is anything but wholesome. Luca Turin was the first to point out that the appeal of Amouage’s Lyric Woman lay in its ‘plangent, overripe note, the exhalation of forgotten fruit in a sealed room.’ The rotting fruit note achieves a similar effect for 03.Apr.1968, at first coming off as a little stomach-churning, but then working to moisten and plump up the bitter, austere incense.


Many people have compared 03.Apr.1968 to the late, great Norma Kamali Incense, and yes, there is most certainly a kinship. The frankincense used here is similarly dry and almost stale, lacking all the citrusy, pine-like nuances usually associated with it. Reacting with the fruit, booze, and sugar, the frankincense takes on the spicy bitterness I associate with copal resin, which along with smoky labdanum is what gives Norma Kamali its unique character.


But in truth, 03.Apr.1968 occupies the same general category of incense as Norma Kamali rather than smelling exactly like it. They are both fatty and overstuffed, the very opposite of the crisply tailored haikus of Comme des Garcons. They are both rather unwholesome – the type of thing to wear to a bacchanalia rather than to church. In truth, though, although traces of it are present in the ‘bones’ of several other incense perfumes, nothing really smells precisely like Norma Kamali Incense. However, for my money, the puffy, burned sugar heliotrope makes 03.Apr.1968 the easier wear.


Well, I say easier, but it is by no means easy. This is a potent fragrance that takes commitment to wear, and even then I would only attempt it when the barometer goes below 10 degrees Celsius. Only three notes are listed: frankincense, lychee, and heliotrope, but the overall effect is so rich and multi-dimensional that I wonder if that’s really the notes list or if the perfumer is so skilled that he was able to wrangle a wealth of detail out of these raw materials.

Sources of Samples/Bottles: All reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store – with the exception of the sample of Absolute Frankincense, a sample of which was kindly sent to me free of charge by Clive Christian at the beginning of 2017. My blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review. 

Cover Image: Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

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Walimah Attar by Areej Le Doré: A Review

7th February 2018

 

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.

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Maison Nicolas de Barry: Part II (Les Parfums Naturels, Oud Collection)

15th November 2017

Part II of my little series on Maison Nicolas de Barry focuses on the brand’s all natural and oud lines, called respectively Les Parfums Naturels and the Oud Collection. (Part I, on Les Parfums Historiques, is here). Introduced in the past few years to reflect Nicolas’ increasing interest in all natural perfumery and the perfumery of the East, these perfumes contain raw materials that Nicolas de Barry has sourced or tinctured himself, including a 25-year old lump of ambergris, rose oil from Grasse, ylang oil from Jean-Paul Guerlain’s private plantation on Mayotte, and a pure oud oil (Aquilaria subintegra) from Thailand.

 

The perfumes are formulated at 15% pure perfume oil and scaled up to make 150ml bottles of eau de parfum. None of the perfumes in the naturals and oud collection are inexpensive, ranging from €480 to €920 for the natural line, and from €920 to €1,140 for the oud collection, but two things soften the blow a bit: first, the fact that each bottle contains approximately 22mls of pure, natural (and expensive) essences like pure oud oil or sandalwood, and second, samples or should I say mini bottles are available at €52 for 7ml. Not cheap, but definitely a more feasible way for those curious about natural and oud perfumery to dip their toes into the water and see if this style of perfumery suits them.

 

Having tested quite a few of these natural and oud-based perfumes, I’d rank the Maison Nicolas de Barry perfumes alongside those of Mandy Aftel of Aftelier, in California, and Dominique Dubrana (Abdes Salaam al Attar) of La Via del Profumo. There is a similar passion for natural raw materials going on here, and the perfumes are similar in terms of texture, both being soft, gauzy, but also sometimes pungent depending on the intrinsic properties of the raw material being used. The perfumes are also similarly soft in terms of projection and lasting power, naturals often fading quickly on the skin due to the absence of synthetic musks or woody ambers to keep them locked in place.

 

The main distinction between these all-natural brands comes in the form of artistic intent and compositional styles: Mandy Aftel’s work places naturals in the context of a more abstract, perfumey vision (atmospheric and emotional rather than soliflores, etc.), whereas the work of both Nicolas de Barry, in his naturals and oud collections, and Abdes Salaam al Attar  is more attar-orientated. Both specialize in simple natural arrangements of materials and more complex ones, but the underlying aim is always to exalt the beauty of the raw materials used.

Here below are reviews of the naturals and oud collection that I tested.

 

Ylang de Mayotte

 

Ylang de Mayotte is my favorite out of the natural samples provided to me by Nicolas de Barry. Sourced from the 100% natural, small-batch production of ylang on the private plantation of Jean-Paul Guerlain on the island of Mayotte, this particular oil showcases all of the good aspects of ylang and none of the more disturbing properties. I have a personal weakness for ylang, but it’s a difficult material to work with because it is enormously potent and can overpower a composition. Depending on the grade used, ylang can be a brash, grapey, fuel-like bully of a smell that mows down any other note that’s unlucky enough to get in its way.

 

My favorite treatments of ylang, including this one focus on the delicate “egg custard” properties of ylang that align it quite naturally with vanilla and sandalwood. Ylang de Mayotte smells like a powdered length of buttery yellow silk, a subtle pattern of fresh mint leaf picked out here and there.  It is delicately fruity, but not in the harsh, benzene-laden way of some ylang oils, rather like a sliver of apricot skin dropped into a milky banana custard halfway through the cooking. It’s rich but subtle, with small gourmand flourishes that make it quite delicious – a quivering, fine-boned tropical panna cotta dotted with slivers of apricot, almonds, peaches, and mint.

 

Ylang de Mayotte is somewhat comparable to Tasnim by La Via del Profumo in that they are both 100% natural, artisanal productions and both present the soft, custardy side of ylang. But Tasnim is more oriental in evolution (smokier, woodier, and more ambery) while Ylang de Mayotte doesn’t deviate from the central ylang note and has a clear, pure shampoo-like smell. Both allow the soft, sweet almond-like tones of the ylang to emerge in the late drydown, a pleasure for anyone who loves this complex oil.

 

In terms of price, Ylang de Mayotte is twice the price of Tasnim per ml, so perhaps only the true ylang enthusiast would be able to justify a purchase. But both are beautiful, both present the very best sides of the difficult ylang, and both are all-natural; a preference for faithfulness to the central material versus a preference for a more evolved composition are the only parameters (beyond budget) that matter here.

 

 

Santal d’Australie

 

Santal d’Australie focuses on the native Australian species of sandalwood oil (santalum spiccatum), both an ordinary grade and an organic, high quality s. spiccatum extract with higher santalol content from Mount Romance in Australia. I have to admit that when I saw the name, I had been hoping that there was also going to be some of that very expensive santalum album oil from the newish plantations in Northern Australia, because I recently smelled some in a sandalwood attar made by Al Shareef Oudh that was excellent. But Santal d’Australie focuses entirely on the s. spiccatum, an oil I’m not overly keen on because of its fresh, piney, and sometimes harsh facets.

 

True to form, Santal d’Australie opens with the citric, camphoraceous slap of Australian sandalwood, which, if you haven’t smelled it before, smells like a freshly split pine log covered in lime peel and lemon juice, with a faint backdrop of soured milk or cheese curds. It’s not unpleasant; in fact, I like its good-natured, silvery freshness, but anyone expecting the creamy, arid sweetness specific to Indian sandalwood might be disappointed. The citric/fresh impression is helped along by a very limey bergamot in the topnotes.

 

The drydown is very nice, developing into a richer, curdier version of the opening notes but with a tinge of browned butter and incense. The freshness prevails in the form of a sour lime leaf facet, but it is softer than in the opening, and fleshed out by the apricot skin richness of osmanthus. The presence of the osmanthus gives the sandalwood a background of fruity suede that works very well in adding curves to the angular sandalwood. Osmanthus also has tannic properties, and this comes out more in the far drydown, with a pronounced black tea leaf bitterness that works nicely against the cottage cheese curdiness of the sandalwood.  Fresh and green, Santal d’Australie reminds me quite a bit of FeelOud’s Sandal 100k, but scaled up to eau de parfum format to allow for generous application.

 

 

Oud du Siam

 

Oud du Siam straddles the categories of naturals and the oud collection: it features in both, priced at the higher end of the naturals collection, and at the lower end of the oud collection (which features Oud du Siam as the main starting point for each oud perfume). Oud du Siam is made with 100% natural, pure oud oil from Thailand, specifically oil from a well-regarded species in the oud world, Aquilaria subintegra.

 

I guess the most important thing to know about Oud du Siam is that, although it seems to have a fairly simple composition of oud oil and sandalwood, it smells more like a more complex, oriental perfume than a pure oud or an attar (bucking the trend somewhat for this brand). There is something about the way the fresh, citrusy sandalwood reacts with the oud oil that creates an interesting brocade of citrus on golden amber resin, leather, and smoke that ends up resembling an all-natural Shalimar or Habit Rouge.

 

Oud du Siam is immediately likeable and not at all pungent or animalic. The oud oil comes across as a handsome, brown leather accord, like a lawyer’s briefcase rubbed in medicinal salve. Slowly, the oud wood materializes in a haze of smoke, nuggets of golden honey popping like fireworks in the dark, as if amber resins were knotted into the grain of the agarwood from which the oil was distilled. It is subtly smoky, in the same leathery, resinous way as Shalimar or Habit Rouge, and just as easy to wear.

 

Make no mistake about it – there is clearly natural oud oil used here, and its character comes through quite clearly. But it’s not nearly as pungent, fecal, or as difficult as some oud oils, and therefore would be a fantastic entry point for a beginner or for people who prefer to take their oud oil tamed and corralled in mixed compositions, such as the Fragrance du Bois perfumes. Towards the end, the perfume does a very interesting thing: it becomes brighter and more citrusy (lime leaf) with time, instead of the reverse. This is the point where the oud hands the reins over to the handsome, silvery Australian sandalwood, which pumps a stream of aromatic citrus and coniferous notes through the tail end of the fragrance.

 

Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes

 

With Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes, we are now firmly in the Oud Collection, although it is also all-natural and therefore could technically belong to both categories. This is a perfume that trusts the complexity of its starring raw material, here natural tuberose, to put on a show for the crowd, and it does, pirouetting gracefully from a minty, camphoraceous topnote to a salty, buttery cheese note reminiscent of gardenia, and finally ending in a creamy but rooty pool on the ground, like parsnips pulled from the wet earth, creamed, salted and peppered. The tuberose in Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes is fleshy and sensual, but never syrupy a la Fracas; rather, it is earthy and savory, with a distinctly rubbery texture.

 

The medicinal facets of tuberose – hospital tubing, camphor, and acetone – are accentuated by the oud, which bathes the florals in a smoky, sour haze of smoke. There is a very appealing “rotted” facet to the tuberose petals and the oud, as if both had been soaked in water for a few days, their edges beginning to blacken and disintegrate. This slight edge of fermentation adds tremendous depth to the fragrance, as well as a sort of wildness.

 

There are some parallels to Jardin de Borneo Tuberose by Sultan Pasha, which combines a very bitter, camphoraceous tuberose absolute with the dark green jungle notes of the rare Bois de Borneo oud from Ensar Oud, as well as a needle prick’s worth of skunk. Jardin de Borneo Tuberose is more herbaceous, bitter, and complex than Oud du Siam et sa Tubéreuse des Indes, but I love both for daring to combine two of perfumery’s most characterful materials and not allow one get swallowed up by the other.

 

Oud du Siam et son Jasmin des Indes

 

Oud du Siam et son Jasmin des Indes features the jasmine most commonly grown in India, which is the Grandiflora variant – sweet, pure, buttery floral bliss in a classical manner (also the variety grown in Grasse) as opposed to the mintier, but coarser and sexier sambac jasmine. The jasmine here is quite high-pitched at first, with the natural fuel-like or spilled gasoline topnote caused by the benzyl acetate molecule in jasmine. It is slightly grapey, but also tarry and spicy, with the same sort of fizzy coca-cola backdrop as seen in Jasmin de Nuit (The Different Company).

 

The cinnamon and coca-cola effervescence is one facet; the strangely sweet, plasticky texture is another. The jasmine smells both floral (sweet, full, buttery) and non-floral (plastic, rubber, fuel), which lines up perfectly with my experience of naturals. Less flower, more the scent on your lips after you’ve blown up 50 purple balloons for a child’s party. The smoky woodiness of the oud here plays perfectly with the smoky phenols of the jasmine; even more so than the tuberose, these are natural bed partners.

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Maison Nicolas de Barry: Part I (Les Parfums Historiques)

9th November 2017

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.

 

Mumtaz-I Mahal

 

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

 

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.

Round-Ups Thoughts

Some Excellent New Perfumes: Not Reviews, Just Smelling Notes

14th April 2017

I haven’t been writing about perfume lately – at least in public. I’ve been writing a book on attars, researching raw materials, writing product descriptions for various perfume sites, and hosting an Aftelier Parfums thread over on Basenotes, but in terms of actual perfume reviews, nada. Maybe at some point, I’ll feel like writing about why I stopped, but not right now.

Not publishing reviews doesn’t mean I have stopped writing or wearing perfume, though. Apart from writing a book, I also write product descriptions for sites such as Luckyscent and Essenza Nobile, so I am lucky enough to smell many of the new releases.

But remove the pressure of blogging and something wonderful happens: you simply wear perfume for the pleasure of wearing it rather than holding it at arm’s length. I can feel some of the original joy I felt in perfume flooding back into me, and it feels, tentatively, like a blessing. Wearing a perfume to evaluate it for a review forces you to step outside of your own enjoyment and consider more objection questions such as structure, longevity, and the situation in which you might wear it. Shedding these criteria feels like taking off tight pants at the end of a long day.

Wearing perfume for myself for a few months has taught me a lot about the way I use, collect, and wear perfume. I no longer want to smell all the new releases right now. I don’t feel the same pressing need to own every single violet fragrance ever made, for, you know, “comparison purposes”. I have become immune to the shiny new gobs of faux-luxe seem to hit the perfume scene every week, clogging up my critical drains and obscuring the view of the really, really good perfume.

My collection instinct has also changed, shifting from “I must smell all the perfume in this category” (which, by the way, also made me buy all the perfume in that category) to “I will buy only the ones worth owning.” My wardrobe is stuffed to the brim with good-but-not-exceptional perfumes – bottles and decants – that I mainly bought with the purpose of educating my nose, building a reference library of smells, and ultimately, writing a review for this blog or elsewhere. That doesn’t feel like a good plan to me anymore, because not least because it runs counter to the blog’s original manifesto of paring things down to only the best and buying less schtuff, but because I really can’t afford to smell all the perfume in the world.

In the interests of doing what I originally set up this blog to do, which was to separate the wheat from the chaff, and pare my collection down to only the truly excellent examples in each category, I will tell you about the perfumes I have smelled in the last 4 months of radio silence that have been truly special in some way. I often smell between 50 and 75 perfumes, samples, and attars over the course of any given month, both in the guise of writing the attar book and writing for perfume sites, and over time, these are the ones that floated to the top, like cream.

In the past, I might have dropped in a quick review and then moved on to the next thing, but the absence of blogging pressure has meant that I could simply return to them over and over again at my own leisure. A perfume is judged in the context of all the other perfume you’ve smelled, and these are the ones that, for me, stand out as exceptional.

 

Bogue MEM: This is the perfume that made me want to write again in public – not to return to blogging, really, but simply to spread the word about how brilliant it is and how everyone who invests in perfume as art should buy a bottle. I got a sample from Luckyscent and spent the next few days struggling to understand it enough to write about it.

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My basic description would be dirty lavender marmalade: Jicky dragged through the quinoa section of the health food store, covered in earth, incense, and floor wax, and lifted up into the air with the malty fizz of champagne. All of this nestled in a burned-sugar floral accord that smells a bit like tuberose but isn’t tuberose, a complex series of smoke and mirrors designed to lead your nose out of its depth.

Unusually for a modern perfume – although this isn’t really a modern perfume – MEM reveals its true complexity in the base, where a silty, musky ambergris lights up all the other elements like a blowtorch. Antonio used real animalics for the base, and it shows. The perfume is complex, beautiful, and abstract, far more so than even Maai. By far one of the most exciting perfumes I’ve put on my skin lately.

Notes (deep breath now): petitgrain, mandarin, grapefruit, 4 different types of lavender, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, white champaca, jasmine grandiflorum, rose damascena, bourbon geranium, vanilla, peppermint, laurel, Siam benzoin, rosewood, sandalwood (santalum album), Himalayan cedarwood, labdanum, aldehydes, ethyl maltol, ambergris, musk, castoreum, civet, amber

 

Naja by Vero Profumo: A creamy, blond tobacco floral sluiced with the iodine-like astringency of melon rind. Naja reminds me of Le Parfum de Therese and Diorella, not in the way it smells, particularly, but because they all take dense, saturated materials and pass them through a sieve of something salty and aqueous, giving them a luminescence that is particularly French. The dense tobacco of Naja is leavened by this salty, wet fruit note, and underpinned by a bitter, doughy suede note fleshed out with the apricot skin of osmanthus flower. Pulled in two directions, sometimes it feels airy and dusty, other times, thick and chewy.

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There is also a sharp spice to Naja that is immensely appealing, something hot, slightly smoky, and carnation-like, but although I can understand the references to Tabac Blond and Habanita, Naja is far stranger and more modern than either – in other words, a creature of its own time.

I sense a dusty, pollen-ish honey texture here too, unsweet and slightly floral, which I conclude is coming from the lime blossom. I don’t know if the effect is deliberate or not, but it is this slightly bitter, dusty honey that links Naja to both Onda and Rozy.

To my nose, there is none of the citric brightness of lime that others seem to be picking up, just the slightly green floral tang of linden honey and that salty, wet fruit note that is too blurry to define as either a melon, an apple, or anything else specific. What I love the most about Naja is its surprising sturdiness, its sense of substance. In each of my wearings, I visualized Naja as a dense square of osmanthus-tobacco lokhoum, striated with saltwater and dusted with an inch-deep layer of green pollen.

Like MEM, Naja is an El Bulli meal full of little trade-offs between texture and taste that will prick your saliva buds and fire up all five of your senses. And like its creator, Naja is as elegant and fierce as a single slash of Russian Red across an otherwise unmade-up face.

Notes: tobacco, osmanthus, lime (linden) blossom, melon

 

Dryad by Papillon Perfumes:   Basically a reworking of vintage Vol de Nuit parfum for modern times, and yes, I understand the impact of my comparison here. To many, Vol de Nuit is the zenith of the art of Guerlain, but to me, it speaks of home. The heart of Dryad reproduces almost exactly the same damp, green narcissus and jonquil accord found in Vol de Nuit (and actually, come to think of it, also the original Miss Dior), and there is a similar support in the form of oakmoss, tarragon, galbanum, and vetiver. But the sage note spins it in a slightly naughty, “witchy” direction. It smells like dark green velvet, with a bluebottle anisic sheen from the tarragon to keep things lively.

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Liz Moores calls this a green chypre-oriental, which of course is the same category to which Vol de Nuit belongs. But it diverges in the base. Dryad features none of the sweet, ambery notes found in Vol de Nuit, switching instead to a dry, rubbery galbanum resin that gives off the feel of sage and hay thrown on a bonfire and left to smoke out. It is also not powdery, but it does exhibit the kind of “cut grass” and “lime peel” dustiness that galbanum has.

Supposedly, there’s quite a lot of costus root in this, but thankfully, I can’t smell it. (I’ve never smelled a treatment of costus that didn’t end up smelling like unwashed hair). In fact, I don’t pick up on anything animalic here at all, which is fine with me, because all the focus is kept on those burningly pure green notes. It’s all resin and grass and sage, no soft landing in the form of amber or vanilla. There is something crystalline and focused about it.

Green perfumes are not overly represented in my wardrobe, but I would buy this in a hot second. Dryad has joined the small but exclusive group of green perfumes I truly love, which include Vol de Nuit (Guerlain), Mito (Vero Kern), Romanza (Masque), Vie de Chateau Intense (De Nicolai), Ormonde Jayne Woman, and Sycomore (Chanel).

Notes: narcissus, jonquil, oakmoss, galbanum, labdanum, clary sage, vetiver bourbon, apricot, costus, deer tongue, cedrat, benzoin, tarragon

 

Vetiver Blanc by Sultan Pasha Attars: I am not a huge fan of vetiver, but wow, Vetiver Blanc is sexy. Straight out of the bottle, it is a creamy emulsion of grass and tropical flowers, with a texture close to coconut cream or butter. The gardenia and tuberose absolutes give up their softer, low-register facets but none of their strident, candied, or rubbery undertones, so the blend stays smoothly earthy, like damp, hummus-rich earth covered with tropical blossoms that have fallen from nearby bushes.

But it’s unmistakably green. The galbanum and the vetiver in Vetiver Blanc run a smoky, rooty thread through the attar, tethering it to the greenery of the jungles and preventing the scent from floating away aimlessly into a pool of pikake island bliss. There is sensuality, but it is reigned in. Which, of course, is what makes this even sexier.

Another welcome surprise: ambergris. The composition of Vetiver Blanc contains 35% real ambergris, procured on the West Coast of Ireland and tinctured by Sultan Pasha himself. It is white ambergris, the highest grade of all, which does not produce much of a scent of its own beyond a certain sweet, sparkling, seawater minerality.

The role that the white ambergris plays in this composition is vital – it causes all the other notes and materials to glow hotly, as if lit by some internal heat source. The effect in this attar is a gauzy halo of buttery white florals and creamy green grasses and resins, all pulsing outwards in concentric circles of scent waves that fill the room and (almost) one’s own mouth.

I find this incredibly beautiful, sexy, and warm; the perfect white floral for white floral avoiders and the perfect vetiver for the vetiver-averse. It rivals both Songes and Manoumalia for their damp, fecund, “tropical island” sensuality, which, if you know those perfumes at all, is really saying something.

 

Grimoire by Anatole Lebreton: I respect and admire Anatole Lebreton’s work, but Grimoire in particular stands out at being special. Not everyone will like it, and I think it’s fair to say that the perfume has a cool, remote air that means it must select you, not the other way around. Setting out to smell like the thick dust that rises off a book of spells (a grimoire, in French) when closed shut, it combines a set of ashy resin notes with the earthy red-brown dampness of cumin.

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It’s a riff on the idea of Gris Clair but better, more successful because the dust tamps down the screech of lavender and makes it feel genuinely restful. It’s also monastically, ascetically dry. But the scent manages to capture dryness without filling the scent with the usual nose-scrapingly dry aromachemicals, for which I’m genuinely grateful.

As a side-note, I’ve recently smelled a couple of perfumes that seek to recreate the feeling or smell of dry, hot dust from a desert. L’Air du Desert Marocain, of course, was the trail blazer in this area, but it’s been followed by two equally costly niche fragrances, namely, Sheiduna by Puredistance and Taklamakan by SHL 777. These two perfumes demonstrate the risk and rewards associated with using the new generation of potently dry, woody-ambery aromachemicals: Sheiduna fails miserably, becoming a white, massively radiant ball of pain to those sensitive to scratchy aromachemicals, and Taklamakan succeeds completely, emitting a low pulse of warm, ambery “sand” and dry patchouli aromas that smell toasted, dry, and yet utterly comfortable to wear and to smell.

In Grimoire, the dryness feels cool and almost ashy. It gains an element of warmth, however, from the rather generous dose of cumin featured in this scent. The cumin adds a nice human touch to the cool dustiness of the lavender and incense, like the sweet, damp, oniony sweat under the arms of an ancient gardener tending a Mediterranean herb garden. The aromatic, simmering heat of the spice and the elemi makes the base of the scent feel hot to the touch, a nice contrast to the cool dryness of the top half. Grimoire is surprisingly easy to wear, and has a natural elegance to it that doesn’t labor any particular point. Have you ever seen the photos of the Italian men coming and going from the Pitti men’s fashion shows in September? This scent is the living embodiment of that.

Notes: bergamot, patchouli, musk, basil, moss, atlas cedar, lavender, elemi, olibanum and cumin

 

Al’Ghaliyah by Kyara Zen: Al’Ghaliyah, meaning “the most valuable”, is one of the very few rose-oud mukhallats out there that successfully manages to achieve perfect balance between the elements in the blend – a rich, perfumey oud that smells like liquid calf leather, a winey rose with no sourness or sharp corners, and what smells to me like a golden nectar of apricots, peaches, plums, and osmanthus soaking into all the other notes.

It’s important to note that all the elements reach the nose at once, cresting over each over continuously like the swell of a wave. The bright rose has been modulated to run straight through the blend like a piece of thread, so even in the basenotes you can sense its rich, red presence glowing like pulp through the oud and musk. I am unsure whether the succulent fruit notes are wafting out of the oud or the rose, but there is a cornucopia of winey, autumnal fruits to savor here. The fruit notes fade away gently, leaving the rich rose to proceed on its own.

According to Kyara Zen’s Instagram feed, it appears that genuine deer musk grains were macerated and then added to the final blend. If that is true, then it is a clever vehicle to demonstrate to people that natural deer musk does not smell as dirty or as fecal as its recreations sometimes make it out to be. Rather, it is unobtrusively musky, with all the pleasing warmth of a clean, furred animal.

Overall, I am astonished by the richness and depth of this mukhallat, and applaud the skill of the perfumer who managed to corral two or three of the most commonly-used raw materials in attar perfumery and shape them into a form that smells, well, if not new exactly, then at least a 100 times better than other iterations of the same materials. The attar equivalent of a piece of opulent, gold-threaded brocade, Al’Ghaliyah truly one of the most beautiful oils I have smelled on my attar journey. If it ever becomes available again, I will be buying it.

 

L’Animal Sauvage by Marlou: The minute I smelled this, I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from ordering it. The opening notes contain something of the almost fecal furriness of Serge Lutens Muscs Kublai Khan, but tempered with fresh, sugary orange blossoms, there’s also a thread of milky innocence running through it.

Actually, it straddles the divide between dirty and clean as successfully as Kiehl’s Original Musk, which it somewhat resembles, but the luxe factor is higher in L’Animal Sauvage. I’d add only that, on subsequent wears, I’ve noticed it is even softer and milkier than it at first appeared to me, making it a good contender for a summer musk. I don’t think that I will buy this, not because it’s not gorgeous (it is), but because I’m not buying much perfume these days. Still, it makes me happy indeed that people are still making fragrances like this.

 

Violet Moss by SP Parfums: I have been testing all the perfumes by Sven Pritzkoleit, and I think that although few are actually wearable, they are very bold, new, and have something to say. They are all a bit harsh at first, and all of them work more as separate accords just smashed together rather than a real, complete perfume, but some of them just nail it. In particular, Violet Moss, which smells like our family holidays to France when the boat would dock in Cherbourg, the aroma of raw petrol on dank harbor water mingling with the foreignness of the air, and the Grey Flannel-type colognes worn by my father’s French colleagues, his fellow customs officers.

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There is a strong waft of cigarette smoke darting through the structure too, calling to mind fond olfactory memories of the near-constant stream of smoke from Gitanes and Gauloises on the dock, which only ever added to the exotic, exciting air of newness that greeted us on the other side of the water. If this smell had a name, it was “freedom” and “not Ireland.” Violet Moss represents such a specific smell memory for me that I can barely judge it as a perfume.

Sunmilkflowers is also interesting, a totally weird, nearly repulsive mixture of bitter, green notes and milky caramel, creating a striking duel of fresh-green and sickly-lactonic notes. Challenging stuff, but again, a perfume I am glad to have smelled.

Attars & CPOs

Sultan Pasha Aurum D’Angkhor

30th November 2015

For those of you who don’t know him, Sultan Pasha is a passionate attar collector, curator, and now in recent years, also a perfumer of his own teaching. Based in the UK, Sultan Pasha used to sell a fantastic range of samples of very rare or discontinued attars, including almost all of the Amouage ones, along with his own creations (see his eBay page here). I don’t know if he’s still selling the sample set of other brands, but he very kindly gave me samples from his own range of concentrated perfume oils, attars, and essential oils (including a sample of wild Mysore sandalwood, which I can’t wait to get to!). In the coming weeks and months, I will be reviewing each attar sample in the order they came to me.

If you’re interested in acquiring the sample set yourself (it contains about two drops each of 45 CPOs), you can order it here. Sultan Pasha advises that you dip the end of a paper clip into each sample well to draw out a tiny amount of the oil and apply it to the skin – these oils are extremely strong, so each two-drop sample is more than enough for five wears.

Now to Aurum D’Angkhor. It’s the first CPO in the pack that I tested, and right now I’m worried that nothing will be able to top this for me. Aurum is just mind-blowing. I trudge through an awful lot of the lower-priced Arabian oils and attars (as well as some very high-priced ones), and it’s rare that any of them stand out to me as being worth the skin time. What I mean is that there’s an awful lot of dodgy stuff out there in the CPO world, and with price not always correlating to quality or complexity, you have to have a lot of time and money to hone in on the good ones.

Or maybe it’s just me. Plenty of fellows over at Basenotes go straight to the super high end stuff, such as the pure oud oils and oud mixes (mukhallats) being sold by Ensar Oud and Agar Aura. But the price of entry for that serious oud scares me, so I mainly just lurk in the waters of whatever samples of Ajmal, Al Haramain, and Amouage CPOs that I get my hands on, lazily hoping to somehow stumble upon the attar that seems made just for me.

The Amouage attars, with the exception of Badr al Badour, failed to impress me much. I liked Tribute too, but the expense of tracking it down now seems prohibitive. The recently released premium collection by Al Haramain (reviewed here) was very mixed and in general, not worth the Amouage-level prices they are asking for them. But I did go through about 25 of ASAQ CPOs and oud mukhallats over a year ago, and I got to understand more about oud, the general profiles of the different types, and the difference between young and aged oud. Now I have my favorite CPOs, oud and non-oud mukhallats, ranging from the very costly (Badr al Badour, Ajmal Mukhallat Dehn al Oud Moattaq), mid-range (Arabian Oud Najdi Maliki and Al Siraj) to the very cheap (Majmua attar).

Aurum D’Angkhor, though, is special. It blew my socks off with its depth, complexity, and beauty. It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkor in the basenotes, which is a smooth, fruity Cambodi oud oil with soft, cozy wood aspects. But the “Aurum” in Sultan Pasha’s remix means “Golden” and indeed that’s the color that comes across in this blend – golden, dusty saffron, a light smooth oud with the timbre of polished oak floors, smoke, honey, henna, and a haze of sweet jasmine and rose.

The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes it has a ripe, barnyard aroma to it – not unpleasantly animalic, for example nowhere near the sour bile facets of a Hindi oud oil – but it definitely recalls the soft, ripe smell of fresh cow silage, a sort of liquid, sweet aroma that oozes across the room. I find this smell to be warm and nostalgic, because I grew up around farms.

The cow pat note disappears quickly, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, with faintly indolic jasmine floating in and out. To my nose, saffron plays a pivotal role here, called on 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 this deep, deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty fruit skins (plums and figs). It is such a smooth, woody, refined aroma – it has the depth of real oud, but none of the challenging aspects.

Now, as to the smoke – this varied greatly on me from one test to another. At first, I found the opening and heart notes so smoky I felt sure there had to be either a touch of birch tar or cade oil in the topnotes, or at least a hefty dose of labdanum in the basenotes. At times, I felt that the smokiness was almost exactly like the rough, smoky Balsamo della Mecca, which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent, with dusty cinnamon (Siam benzoin) and frankincense. During my second test, I couldn’t detect as much smokiness, but instead I picked up on the honey (a sort of toffee-like, ambery sweetness) and a hint of the hay-like dustiness of henna.

In the base, I pick up a woody resin, kind of nutty, but also kind of granular, like coffee grounds. It may also be the musk, because some suede scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather, Oud Saphir, Black Suede, and Al Haramain Tajibni, use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar/woods to create a sort of musky, resinous suede effect. Whatever it is, it’s great. GBP 400 for 3ml, though…..it’s too much for me personally, but I have no doubt that it’s worth it.

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