I blame my workload for a lot of life stuff that just doesn’t get done, including, inter alia, regular exercise, parenting that extends to more than rubbing their little heads fondly as I pass them in the corridor, emailing people back, and, at the bottom of the list, reviewing perfume. But in the case of the new Pekji samples, which – full disclaimer – were sent to me by Omer Pekji, who also happens to be a personal friend, I have to admit it was less my workload and more my fear of trying anything that’s even a little out there, artistically-speaking, that kept these samples boxed up and unsniffed in my drawer for the past three months.
I mean, come on. It’s Omer Pekji. The chances of there being samples in there that smell like petrol mixed with jasmine (Eau Mer), incense smeared in sheep dung (Holy Shit), or horse blankets soaked in urine (Zeybek) rubbing shoulders with more safe-for-life options like exotic roses (Ruh) or cozy ambers (Battaniye) are going to be high. And since I now spend the first eight hours of the day unscented, the choice of what to wear in the evening becomes a little more high stakes. It’s what I’m stuck with all night.
A quick glance at the notes for Flesh – ambrette, iris, musks – makes me feel that this would be a safe first choice. A powdery skin scent akin to Blanc Poudre (Heeley), perhaps, or one of those metallic, crisp musks that flit between clean and not-so-clean without raising eyebrows. Holy cow was I wrong.
The first sniff is misleadingly angelic. A nuclear mushroom cloud of iris and ambrette seed – conveying messages of ice-cold vodka, steel, potatoes, toner fluid, and grey suede – blooms immediately to the nose. It smells almost unbearably pure and high-pitched, walking the line between ‘expensive naturals’ and ‘factory-strength chemicals’ so expertly that I’m not sure which one I’m smelling. It’s big and rough but pure and beautiful. It is at this point that I decide that Flesh is the bathroom gin version of Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens).
But hold up. Because like a bad trip, Flesh goes to weird places very quickly. In the space of five minutes, it loses the high-bred pearlescent glow of the iris, and starts to smell more like a soft furnishings factory when they’re soldering the non-slip plastic backing onto the carpets. The reek of hot glue guns, latex, paint thinner, leather chaps, rubber, and roiling pans of solvents fills the air insistently. Weirdly, it does still smell like suede. But it is so powerful now that the mere act of breathing makes my head spin. It’s as close to sniffing glue as you’ll get as an adult. Wear this to a kink shop in Berlin and you’ll be very popular.
As the civet starts to layer in, the industrial suede carpet gets progressively grimier. Not quite to the point that it feels like it’s been smeared in scat – though normally quite sharp and acidic, the civet here is soft and earthy – but the suede is definitely moving from a clean, modern factory setting to an abandoned warehouse where piles of raw hide are stacked to the ceiling. Here’s where I start to see past the skin (suede) through to the flesh of Flesh, a whiff of meat clinging to the underbelly of just-cured leather skins. Like the closest relatives I could think of, Cuir d’Iris by Parfumerie Generale and New Sibet by Slumberhouse, it’s hyper-clean while also being redolent of the curdled-milk-fat funk of a milking shed. And yet, at its core, Flesh still smells like an expensive, vegetally-musky iris suede.
Flesh is a disjointing experience that exemplifies the outer edges of what most people would think of niche, where mad hatters like Omer Pekji are still thinking, imagining, and experimenting. It’s worth seeking stuff like this out, not necessarily to smell good but to take a reading of what’s fermenting out there and then head back on into your comfort zone with some new perspective. I don’t think I’ve smelled an iris suede that shifts so convincingly between industrial and expensive, pure and sullied, and robotic and fleshy as Flesh. And I’m not sure I want to ever again, either.
For all that vetiver famously possesses an olfactory range stretching between hazelnut, roses, and earth, it is always unmistakably ‘vetiver’ in the same way that patchouli is always patchouli. You’ll notice, therefore, that descriptions in reviews tend to drift towards one pole or another – dark or fresh, wet or dry, wood or root. But in the end, they’re all variations up and down the scale of the essential vetiver-y-ness of vetiver.
Then there’s the personal tolerance angle to assessing vetiver fragrances. Before I learned to love the (vetiver) bomb, I would rank vetiver scents on a sliding scale from what a friend of mine calls ‘bullshit vetivers’, i.e., scents like Timbuktu (L’Artisan Parfumeur) or Shaal Nur (Etro) where it plays a key but minor role, and the hard no of the swampier, danker, more evilly-vetiver vetivers like Racine (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) and Vetiver (Guerlain). So, when I see a perfumer venturing out into vetiver soli-root territory, I always wonder (a) what the perfumer will do – or not do – to break vetiver out of the olfactory straitjacket it was born into, and (b) where it falls on my old but probably still ingrained sliding scale of tolerance.
On the first, Vetiver by Hiram Green definitely innovates on the theme by using the vetiver as the portal through which we get to – at a distance at least – a spicy, musky base dressed with a lemongrass brightness. But Vetiver is still clearly vetiver. The burnt lemon peel aspects of the root are cleverly accentuated by ginger, another root that crackles with spikes of primary yellow before tailing off into sepia. This is vetiver in the guise of a sparkling eau de cologne, although while fresh, the opening is immediately spicier and more aromatic than citrus alone. Soon, the fragrance settles into its second and what seems to be final iteration – the nostalgic scent of ancient wooden furniture and dusty covering sheets that have lain undisturbed for half a century until relatives come to clear the place out.
Not enough is said about the appeal of mustiness. But it’s precisely this smell of ancient neglect that marks fragrances like Djedi (Guerlain), Mukhallat Malaki (Swiss Arabian), Muschio di Quercia (Abdes Salaam al Attar) and Messe de Minuit (Etro) out as special. Further, it’s the dryness of materials – stone, wood, earth – that is important to me at a personal tolerance level, as anything wetter signals a rot of a less noble kind, i.e., damp rot in walls, rotting fruit, or the breaking down of animal tissue. The dustiness of the vetiver in Vetiver is the pleasant exhalation of once-loved rooms, books, and ‘good’ furniture, their human users long gone and their memory faded with time. If, like me, you abhor the rootier, marshier variants of vetiver that smell like stagnant pondwater, then you’ll love Vetiver for first its cleansing-spicy and then dry-woody character.
But let me also tell you that if you’re a complete vetiver wuss, you might like Vetiver anyway because there is the get out clause of a very good ambrette material tucked away in the basenotes. Normally quite vegetal and cool-toned, here the ambrette takes on an almost ambery, resinous sweetness (akin to the ‘rice pudding skin’ vibe the same material creates in Musc Nomade by Annick Goutal). And there are moments where the lingering citric brightness of the ginger smashes into the musk mallow, recreating that distinctive Refresher-Bar-meets-amber vibe of Opus 1144 (UMUM).
How much of this you perceive will depend on application method and the distance at which you smell it. When lightly applied, the sweet, sparkling resinous-musky facet rides up quite insistently, but applied heavily, it is the pleasantly dry, musty woodiness of the vetiver (and the warmth of the ginger) that predominates. Similarly, when smelled up close, Vetiver is all about that vetiver, but when smelled from a distance, the sillage in the air is more that of a bright, spicy Italianate balsamic mixed with something vaguely woody and earthy.
Now, that might be a mixed bag of findings for some (especially those don’t like musks or balsams masking – if even partially – the purity of vetiver), but if you’re looking for a vetiver-centric scent that faithfully conveys the essential vetiveriness of vetiver without making you feel like you’re ingesting a plateful of collard greens boiled in fetid swamp-water, the Vetiver by Hiram Green is a brilliant option. I enjoyed this sample to the last drop because it gave me the ‘dusty old books in a decaying mansion’ vibe I really dig, while also giving me the white-hot lemongrass sting of ginger at the top to wake me up and the sweet, almost resinous sparkle of ambrette in the base to see me out comfortably. It’s basically what I’d make for myself if I were a perfumer and I wanted a vetiver fragrance.
Source of sample: Kindly gifted by the perfumer, Hiram Green.
Based on my sampling of three perfumes from the Argentinian brand Frassaï, I can say that this is exactly the kind of thing that one hopes to see from modern niche perfumery but rarely does, i.e., perfumes that are unusual but not too much, and rendered in a soft, lovely manner that gives them wearability and ease.
Consider two points on that scale, for reference – the earlier perfumes of Serge Lutens, which offered bold new ideas but presented them in often luridly syrupy forms that made them challenging to wear as a personal scent outside of a grand occasion, and the perfumes of Parfums de Marly or XerJoff, which are mostly recycled ideas and tired old tropes rendered loud and muscular with über-radiant woody ambers that smash their way through more delicate accords like a bull in a china shop.
The Frassaï perfumes, on the other hand, appear to have been carefully and sensitively art-directed (by Natalia Outeda, a designer who had previously art-directed perfumes in NY for companies such as Bond No. 9, Proctor and Gamble, and Kiehl’s). Though the perfume reviewed here are all in different styles – one essentially a soliflore, one a spicy fruity scent, another a woody gourmand – and some of perfumers who composed them have usually easily-identifiable signature ‘moves’ (Rodrigo Flores-Roux, for example), there is a common thread of harmony and softness that links them all. Is it possible that the female gaze in art directorship for fragrance is just as much a thing as it is in literature, or essays, or film?
Tian Di (by perfumer Olivier Gillotin) is the most original of the three perfumes I sampled, and my outright favorite. It is really quite odd – a smoked-out peach skin nestled in a dusty ‘brown’ accord that remind me alternately of loose (peach-flavored) tea in those triangular nets sold by Dammann Frères, coffee grounds, or even cocoa – but also unexpectedly lovely. I am particularly charmed by the marvelous effect it produces on the skin, where it is all burnt peach licorice on the inhale (similar to the burnt anise-iris at the base of Guerlain’s Attrape-Coeur, albeit in dust form rather than apricot jam) and spearmint gum on the exhale. It is as gingery and as cooling as a tisane drink, yet as granular and coarsely-textured as the dry material before the hot water hits it.
Tian Di eventually deepens – or perhaps ‘spreads out’ – into a smudgy, smeary mint butterscotch and floor wax accord, with a hint of trampled grass and even beer, but never loses the malted, almost smoky graininess of the incense and tea. There is something about this that tugs a memory chord for me, making it difficult for me to evaluate objectively beyond the rather gormless ‘It’s odd but I love it’ review I’ve given it here. I think there’s either a loose connection to the peach of Trèsor (Lancôme) or to the sandalwoody, salty-minty, peony-esque weirdness of Dune (Dior), both of which I wore as a teenager, but again, this is all probably a Pavlovian response playing out in my mind and my mind only. Tian Di is special and unique. I’d buy this one in a heartbeat because I don’t have anything like it in my collection.
A Fuego Lento (by perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux) is a soft jasmine soliflore that smells like a wall covered in jasmine whose petals have started to dry a little in the late June sunshine, giving it a sweet hay or alfalfa dimension. There’s a tangy orange blossom note at the start that reads a little rubbery, like hot tarmacadam, so for a brief time, the scent gives off a pleasant sensation of being in a hot Southern city where the exhaust fumes of cars and hot pavement mingle with the sudden wafts of white flowers tucked away behind tall, patrician walls. But really, A Fuego Lento is all about that jasmine. A nutty, milky amber holds it all in place without interfering with the purity of the flowers.
I’m always moved by the simple but awe-inspiring beauty of a flower whose smell has been so faithfully recreated in scent form. This is, I recognize, no small feat in and of itself, unless you are willing to rely on the floral absolutes to do all the heavy lifting, in which case you have to deal with the more pungent, less pleasing aspects of the absolute – but Rodrigo Flores-Roux certainly knows his way around jasmine. That said, I’m a little surprised at the lack of accoutrements from a perfumer who produced both the complex, salty jasmine that is Ella (Arquiste) and the plummy jasmine chypre that is L’Âme Perdue (Le Galion), but I’m guessing that Outeda asked specifically for a pure, lush jasmine soliflore, and that is precisely what she got.
Personally, I don’t wear soliflores (preferring to smell flowers in nature than in the bottle) but if I were on the hunt for a great jasmine-dominant perfume, this would be a prime contender. The only other jasmine soliflore that matches the quality of A Fuego Lento is, in my opinion, the limited edition Diptyque Essences Insensées 2015, which is however far more syrupy and intense a smell.
Teisenddu (by perfumer Roxanne Kirkpatrick) is, in many ways, the most familiar-smelling perfume in the bunch, in that it mines a vein that many indie and niche perfumes before it have tapped into, i.e., that toasty-dry, caramelized scent of a working sauna, complete with all its spicy-fresh facets (juniper, conifer) and its dried fruit ones (cumin, caramel, prune, brandy). I quite like this toasty wood smell, even though it doesn’t really deviate from the pattern cut by scents such as Woodcut by Olympic Orchids or Bourbon by Hans Hendley.
Where it does innovate, however, is by pairing it with a full-blown movie butter popcorn accord with which I am only too familiar (unfortunately) thanks to my year-long exploration of the American indie oil sector. Every single perfume oil with the words ‘cake’ or ‘freshly baked bread’ or indeed ‘caramel’ featured precisely this note. Due to overexposure to this awful pyrazine-y aromachemical – whatever moniker it actually goes by – whenever I smell it, I think not of caramel or bread but instead of that awful fake butter popcorn flavoring they put in jellybeans. Because of its proximity to the hot, dry wood accord, the note emits a claggy ‘moistness’ that reads like warm, sweaty socks.
Now, it’s entirely possible that everyone else who smells this will smell what the perfumer intended, i.e., caramel, and that it is my particular sensitivity or over-exposure to this material that’s skewing the picture. I hope so. In any case, I hate this particular material with a passion and always wonder how Pierre Guillaume managed to pull off the toasted nuts and caramel in Aomassaï without resorting to it. (Part of me always thinks, well, if he can do it, why can’t everyone else?)
Mercifully, this note burns off quickly enough, and my patience is rewarded by a remarkable (and really quite unusual for a toasty, spicy wood scent like this) plant milk accord that smells like coconut milk, lotion, and something green and crunchy, like agave, fig leaves, or aloe vera. What this does is add a cooling, lactonic finish to the scent that effectively rehydrates the wood, balancing it so that it never tips over into outright aridity – typically the natural end of spicy indie wood scents. I really love this surprising element, and it’s enough to compensate me for any butter popcorn trauma I might have suffered previously.
It’s worth mentioning that, even when this milky lotion component fades away, we are left with a gently-spiced, gently-resinated, and gently-ambery wood accord that never pushes the envelope too far in any one direction. It’s all quite gentle. Which suits me just fine. In this last stretch, Teisenddu reminds me a lot of Gaiac by Micallef (and its twin, Dark Horse by Dame Perfumery), as well as Wenge by Donna Karan – all scents I’d describe as soft takes on the amber-incense-wood category, a popular and rather densely-populated intersection in niche perfumery. Scents like this are the fuzzy blanket of the perfume world (or ‘woody puddings’, as NST calls them), and while not entirely a novel form, Teisenddu innovates just far enough with that green, juicy plant milk accord to carve out a space for itself.
Source of Samples: I purchased samples of these Frassaï fragrances from Neroli Hungary, a Budapest-based niche perfume store here. I have purchased samples from Neroli multiple times since 2014 and am very happy to recommend them to my fellow European fumeheads.
The indie perfume brand Neandertal boasts some of the most achingly cool bottles I’ve ever seen, one of the hottest talents on the indie perfumery scene (Euan McCall), and several glowing Luca Turin reviews – and yet, surprisingly little hype. I’m going to hazard a guess that, for some, ‘achingly cool’ + bottles that look like ice sculptures = intimidating.
That includes me, by the way. I am the least cool person in the room at any given time, so it’s likely I’d have continued to ignore Neandertal to infinity and beyond were it not for the fact that I recently purchased some samples of Euan McCall’s work (for his eponymous brand) and wanted to compare/contrast against his work for another brand to get a fuller picture of his style. When a perfume contact who does some PR for Neandertal (Brooke) offered to send me samples of the line, I figured it was kismet.
I’m really glad I got to smell these. All of them were interesting – unique even – and none of them were the paint-by-numbers type of jobbie we’ve come to expect from the more upmarket niche brands. One was marred by a heavy hand with nose-burning aromachems, but even that was redeemed by a beautiful and unusual central section. Matching the bottles, the perfumes draw on the jolie laide nature of raw, elemental things – metal, earth, leather, salt. The effect is often jarring, and sometimes (one senses accidentally rather than deliberately) even pleasant. But we all need a little intellectual roughage in our diets, don’t we?
Oh, the grappa and Fairy washing up liquid sting of pure orris root tincture! I love how, when used in more generous quantities than the standard dribble tapped out with a fingernail into niche perfumes to justify an obscene price tag (Floretiiiiinnnnne irisssssss), this buttery but bleachy rhizome always manages to bring in the desaturated cool grey-pink colour canvas of Scandinavia – even if what the perfumer had been going for was Italian sunshine or Russian leather. Orris will out. Luckily, we have a Northern European perfumer (Euan McCall, a Scot) going for a cool, foggy interpretation of orris root, so the Scandi colour palette works just fine.
Orris root is an interesting material because, to me, it is a mixture of high and low, which means that it smells in equal parts like a fine leather glove and like the rooty sting of moonshine brewed by a Polish potato farmer. An elevated root cellar smell. Part of the reason that Them works because the perfumer understands this element of the material and surrounds it with other high-low accents. So, we have a green, scratchy salt note rubbing up against an ambrette material that feels luxuriously cloudy (a drop of Pernod in water), and a vaporous leather note slowly losing its initially screechy, toxic edge as it is folded into a much finer, softer ‘cuir’ along the same lines as Cuir d’Ange (Hermès) or Cuir X (La Parfumerie Moderne).
It is also an outdoors-to-indoors kind of perfume. It starts in the cool, foggy outdoors (Iris Silver Mist territory even) before slowly switching the scene to a posh art gallery full of spot-lit ‘found art’ sourced from nature, like long, silvery hunks of hollowed-out driftwood, polished stone, dried seaweed, salt, leather – the type of beach-cast objets that a collector might pay thousands for. There’s an awkward moment in the transition that smells a little bit sweaty or BO-ish, but it’s brief enough for me to pass it off as my imagination (or perhaps a momentary concentration of something evil in the iris material used). The small flashes of furry warmth and leather underbelly briefly bring to mind Slumberhouse Sibet, but no, Them is green, salty, and almost aqueous in a way Sibet is not.
Us is one of those atmospheric indie scents that are more like exhibitions than perfume – experiments not really designed to survive beyond the walls of the lab but to be held up, admired, and put back down again. It smells like boot polish, tanning agents, and the soot-streaked insides of a kipper smoking house. And also like wet eucalyptus branches thrown onto an open fire in a sauna. While I admire the phantasmagoric summoning of the La Brea tar pits, I’m not sure that something this extreme is for wearing.
In the drydown, it calms down enough for me to spot the relationship to the hoary old seagrass vetiver (burnt, whiskey-ish) of Vetiver by Annick Goutal Vetiver or Arso by Profumum, but I would rather wear the Goutal than a version that’s been amped up by a factor of ten. I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of stuff anymore. If you’re just getting into niche or indie, however, and you are chasing down all the ‘burning tire’ scent experiences you can find, then Us is gripping stuff indeed.
Light is a jarring but ultimately thought-provoking fragrance. There is an opening blast of some aromachemical so vile and toxic I can feel it at the back of my throat, and for a moment or two, before this thing rights itself, I have to fight the urge to scrub it off my skin. I suspect a noxious brew of Ambroxan and the milky-metallic shriek of violet leaf, with a pronounced ‘curdled milk’ effect.
However – and you know that the ‘however’ has to be a good one in order for me to get past the teenage body spray thing at the start – Light surprises me by settling into a weird but interesting accord that I can only describe as a tart but creamy ‘rhubarb and custard’ floral that gets me in its headlights and refuses to let go. Yes, I understand that nothing in the notes list would explain this. Yes, it is possible that I’m going crazy. I have worn Light several times now, and each time I grimace my way through the opening (hairspray! licked metal spoons! teenager deo!) and each time I wind up in the rhubarb and custard place.
And if it only stayed there, I would be enthusiastic. However, after an hour or two, the scent begins a slow fade into a chemical marshmallow drydown with an unpleasantly dusty ‘wheaten’ undertone – a sort of stale, chocolate-less smores accord – which reminds me a bit of that Godawful Rouge Smoking by Parfums BDK (which is cherry cough medicine + pleather + bubblegum + stale, wheat-dusted marshmallow) and of Sangre Dulce by Strangers Parfumerie, which is actually pretty good. I’m not keen on this indie ‘protein bar’ accord, to be honest, so this is a mark against it. But that weird salty-floral-creamy rhubarby midsection – oh man. What I’d do for a flanker that excerpted that part.
Aptly named, Dark is one of those oily, industrial-smelling concoctions that get you thinking both of (a) the fuel spills, rubber, tarpaulin, and black oil of a car repair shop, and (b) the oily black infestation at the cire of a freshly-felled agarwood tree, i.e., the natural and unnatural intertwined so densely that one is undistinguishable from the other. It smells dank and oddly savory (umami), perhaps due to the seaweed note, which is more reminiscent of miso paste than of salt. Unlike Light, Dark is, well, the smell of closed-up spaces, of rot, of time v. infection.
Though unusual, its grungy industrial bent is not entirely unique – there are elements of what I am smelling here in both Nooud by Baruti and Black No. 1 by House of Matriarch. But in the drydown, Dark takes a very different turn, and this is where the paths diverge. The scent sees itself out on a long tail of pure, blinding metal. You know the metallic scent of orange juice that’s been spilled and left to dry? This is precisely that, minus any scent of orange. I don’t know if this is saffron, coriander, rose oxide, violet leaf, or some other metallic material, but the flash of metal provides a link to Light that I find interesting. Dark mixed with Light, by the way, provides for a compelling experience – the tart, metallic rhubarb and (salted) custard sparks against the oily, savory dankness of Dark’s oudy leather to yield a scent that feels as bright as an over-exposed photo and as grungy as mold.
Source of samples: Samples of the Neanderthal line were kindly sent to me by Brooke, who does some PR on social media for the brand. I disclose where my samples came from so that you (the reader) can decide for yourself whether my review is unbiased or not.
Username checks out. In its totality, Iris Perle is an opalescent soap bubble of freshly peeled mandarin over soapy-waxy-fatty mimosa clasped in a child’s slightly sweaty paw, but studied closely over a day, it breaks down into two distinct phases. The first is reminiscent of what I think of as the typically Italian take on iris, i.e., slightly bitter, powdery, and freshly-laundered, rather than floral. This is clearly built around a ‘grey’ workaday iris material (rather than orris root) dressed up with lots of mandarin peel and the sharp, vegetal greenness of violet leaf, which lends a subtle leather accent. It’s not a million miles off the Acqua di Parma or Prada Infusion d’Irisline DNA. But more expensive-smelling. So, like Satori Iris Homme.
The mimosa, shy creature that it is, is slow to unfurl, but eventually we get glimpses of that “is it a flower? Is it school glue? Is it a cucumber?” oddness that makes this flower so charming. It smells high-toned and bleachy, which gives it only a glancing similarity to the treatment of mimosa in Une Fleur de Cassie (Malle) (Une Fleur de Cassie possesses a grungy, garbagey tone that Iris Perle does not), and absolutely no connection at all to the throatier, almond gateau takes on mimosa like Farnesiana (Caron). In fact, as time goes on, it is the subtly aquatic cucumber aspects of mimosa that come to the fore, joining with the violet leaf to form a pale (wispy) melony leather accord that splits the difference between Diorella (Dior) and Le Parfum de Thérèse (Malle). Verdict: Nice, though not required reading if you have either Diorella or Le Parfum de Thérèse.
I left Fougère Émeraude for last because (a) I have extremely narrow parameters for the type of tuberose I am willing to wear (see here for evidence of just how anal I get about it), and (b) I usually find fougères too masculine and bitter-smelling for me to pull off. But I’m pleasantly surprised! Fougère Émeraude manages to find my sweet spot on both the note (tuberose) and the style (fougère) and does so with such panache that I’m genuinely excited to wear it. It might even be – gasp – my favorite of the entire Les Indémodables sample set.
Let’s start with its treatment of tuberose. Fougère Émeraude captures all the toothpasty, camphoraceous ‘box hedge’ greenness I love in Carnal Flower and sidesteps entirely the lurid butter-bubblegum loudness that I abhor in Fracas. The tuberose smells dewy, crisp, and freshly-watered, not wilted or overblown. What I appreciate in particular is that, before the tuberose can start to droop and start smelling of its naturally fleshy, semi-decaying self, the note is quickly flanked by a softly powdery ‘fern’ accord made up of lavender, mimosa, tonka, and amber, so what you end up smelling is tuberose that’s been modulated and softened from all angles – a creamy, powdery floral accord with tuberose in the mix, rather than a full-on, straight-ahead tuberose.
The fougère element of the scent also plays squarely in the modern fougère sandbox, meaning that it leans on creamy tonka, powdery lavender, and soft floral notes rather than on the rather brusque aromatic sting of leaves, twigs, and bitter-minty oakmoss for its structure, thus making it perfectly easy for a women (certainly this woman) to wear.
The green, floral creaminess of Fougère Émeraude, particularly in its drydown, reminds me a little of the drydown of Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI), albeit without that scent’s lush, dense-as-a-brick castoreum-oakmoss-labdanum accord that makes it both sweetly creamy and subtly animalic. But where Chypre Palatin is a special occasion scent, Fougère Émeraude’s lightness of texture and (comparative) freshness makes for an altogether more casual wear, and thus is perfectly suited for an everyday ‘reach’.
Rose de Jamal
I don’t know who the Jamal in Rose de Jamal is, but I suspect he’s the guy they hired to sneak into the Kannauj attar factory at night and spoil an otherwise nice, fresh green rose distillation with an over-enthusiastic pour of whatever woody aromachemical they use in Rose 31 (Le Labo).
I can’t blame Jamal. The shortage of real sandalwood oil, coupled with the rise in India of a middle class of young men and women who largely prefer to smell fresh and modern in dupes of Dior Sauvage and Gucci Flora than of anything their parents or grandparents might have worn, i.e., attars and ruhs wrung from Mother India’s abundant flowers, herbs, and aromatics, has pretty much taken the traditional attar factories of Kannauj out at the knees.
Rose de Jamal smells like the stuff churned out these days by attar houses that have accepted reality and switched to producing oil-based freshies and designer dupes in their labs (no deg and bhapka here), their backrooms filled with gallon containers of modern aromachemicals rather than precious rose oils, sandalwood, or choyas. So, like I said, I don’t blame Jamal. He’s just out there, trying to survive, you know? I do blame Antoine Lie, however. I love Antoine Lie’s work in general, so I’m not too sure what went wrong here, unless it was a deliberate cash grab for the market share currently dominated by Rose 31 (Le Labo). Rose de Jamal smells like the beginnings of a decent rose accord – minty, powdery, but also jammy – quickly smothered by a brutal cloud of chemical ‘radiance’ that seems to last for days on fabric and on the skin.
What Acqua Viva (Profumum Roma) does for lemons, Chypre Azural does for oranges – a superbly naturalistic whole-of-tree citrus accord (leaves, fruit, pith, wood) sustained for an abnormally long time without resorting to any (obvious to me anyway) aromachemical support system. It’s basically my dream orange cologne-style fragrance – Hermes Concentré d’Orange – retrofitted to last more than ten minutes. And as long as you set your expectation dial at ‘long-lasting eau de cologne freshie’ level, Chypre Azural doesn’t disappoint. If you come to it looking for a genuine chypre with all its twists and turns, however – well. Chypre Azural is a lot of things (all of which are an orange) but a chypre it is not.
Aside from the midsection, where a rather soapy neroli-musk accord sets in, Chypre Azural is resolutely linear. If you want to smell of orange pith from morning to night, then this will thrill you. For me, personally? Smelling of citrus this bright is fantastic in the early morning hours but all kinds of inappropriate by dinnertime. My seven-year-old daughter, Mila, crawled into bed with me in the middle of the night after a nightmare, and after wriggling into ‘space pod now attached to mother ship’ position, she sniffed me and said, “Why does your neck smell like oranges? It’s the middle of the night!” Exactly.
Source of Samples: I purchased the Les Indémodables sample set here.
Vanille Havane is an undeniably good smell. How could it not be? It is basically a Greatest Hits tour of some of the most feelgood smells in modern niche perfumery, from the boozy sparkle of the vanilla-benzoin Eau des Missions and rough pain d’épices of Tobacco Vanille to the leathery black vanilla pod of Mona di Orio Vanille, the singed marshmallow of By the Fireplace, and the sticky, concentrated Coca Cola goodness of Tom Ford Noir Extreme (albeit dustier and more masculine than any of these). I am willing to overlook a perfume being slightly derivative as long as it smells great, and this one does. I’m particularly enamored of the far drydown, which smells like brown sugar and book paper that’s been toasted in a low oven.
A couple of things make me think less of it, though. First, sniffed up close, near to the skin, you can smell each one the blocky components of the perfume separately, from the intrinsic density of natural absolutes like tobacco absolute to the rather scratchy synthetic wood aromachemical they’ve chosen for radiance (this disappears fast, to be fair). In the air, these elements come together in a synergistic way and it smells fantastic, but on the skin, it’s like catching your father in his Santa suit putting presents under the tree when you were seven.
Second, Vanille Havane doesn’t take me on a journey. The older I get, the more I need my perfumes to be more than a good smell – they need to stir my imagination or feeling so that I feel less dead inside. Just kidding. But what I mean is that a good perfume – to me – is more than a hodge-podge of good-smelling materials thrown together for effect. And Vanille Havane, good-smelling as it is, is a hodge-podge.
Lastly, there is a rough and slightly cheap ‘indie oil’ edge to this perfume that allows me to mentally rank it alongside several of the Kerosene perfumes, especially Blackmail and Broken Theories, with a little of the excellent (and chewy) Vanilla Pipe Tobacco by Solstice Scents thrown in for good measure. To be clear, I’m really fond of that indie oil edge as long as the perfume in question remains at a price point that doesn’t make me wish I’d ponied up the extra €100 it would take to buy a bottle of Mona di Orio’s Vanille.
Had I only smelled Vanille Havane from Les Indémodables, I might have written the entire brand off as just another modern niche brand producing paint-by-numbers jobbies designed for niche snobs who want to smell esssspensssive rather than original. The whole nomenclature – Cuir de _, Musc des _, Rose de _ etc. didn’t help either, reminiscent as it is of the reductionist (and by now démodé) trend in modern niche perfumery of naming perfumes after raw materials or where the materials come from (as if they weren’t all from the same IFF, Symrise, Firmenich, or Givaudan catalogues), clumping two or three words together inelegantly as if anything over that was going to be audited by the taxman. Prime offenders in this include Affinescence, Essential Parfums, and about 70% of the Mizensir line up, none of which ever manage to smell like more than the sum of whatever went into the formula or succeed in stimulating my mind into anything other than performing a basic internal sorting into good-meh-bad.
Thankfully, several of the Les Indémodables perfumes challenged this perception and made me realize that there is a degree of thoughtfulness and design at work here. I’ve reviewed Oriental Velours here, but since then, whenever I’ve worn it, I’m reminded of how I (criminally) omitted to mention the slight camphoraceous effect of the minty evergreen effervescing against the myrrh, creating an astringent misty-velvety effect that I can almost taste on my tongue. The only perfume I can think of that does something similar is the magical Bohea Bohème by Mona di Orio. Witchy, whimsical, shady, and cool. I have a thing for perfumes that suck me into crawlspaces. Oriental Velours is the first perfume I’d suggest to anyone in two minds of this brand.
Musc Des Sables
Musc des Sables is the first sample of the Les Indémodables that I drained completely. It is just – how do I put this – fucking adorable. It’s as if someone took the plush toy friendliness of Helmut Lang EDP and the vintage powder puff of Teint de Neige and dunked it in a bath of condensed milk and fleur de sel caramel, and then wrapped it up in a pure white ermine fur, the likes of which have not been seen since the Childlike Empress emerged on her mother-of-pearl half shell to greet Atreyu in the Neverending Story.
A translucent tres leches cake. Expensive Italian talcum powder. White kitty belly fur. Breastmilk after having downed ten doughnuts. I don’t know, man. I have no business smelling of anything this sublime. It’s not reinventing the wheel or anything – there is a caramelized, biscuity undertone that reminds me of Muschio by Santa Maria Novella and the juxtaposition between childlike and sensual is very Helmut Lang-esque – but if I were to be tempted into buying any of the Les Indémodables, it would be this. And then I’d have to guilt-buy Oriental Velours when I realize that I’ve bypassed originality for the equivalent of a weighted blanket yet again.
Cuir de Chine
This is an interesting one. At first spray, an explosion of apricot-scented shampoo bubbles and Galaxolide musks comes spilling out over me like I’m in one of those Herbal Essence ads, so I shuffle the index cards in my head until I find the slot where I’d file the sort of clean, fruity-soapy osmanthus tea thing that Jean-Claude Ellena would classify as ‘un parfum d’après midi’ and wish he’d thought of it while he was at Hermès (except, he did, and it’s called Osmanthe Yunnan).
But not so fast, lady! A surprisingly gamey leather accord quickly elbows its way past the pretty apricot, and lest we make any mistake about it, this is the pungent odor of raw leather rather than the smoothly-shaved and powdered pudenda of Tom Ford lore. For a while there – an hour tops – Cuir de Chine lurches between peach shampoo and grimy chaps until I feel like I’m Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (‘She’s my sister’ *Slap* ‘She’s my daughter’ *Slap* ‘She’s my sister…’ *Slap*). The scent eventually gentles itself, the pungency of the leather burning off into a soft suede accent that might be mistaken as a naturally occurring feature of osmanthus oil, whittling down into a tandem of equal parts suede and osmanthus (‘She’s my sister and my daughter’). I like Cuir de Chine a lot; it adds something new to the genre. I do wish it lasted longer, though (this is the case for most of the Les Indémodables line, by the way, apart from Vanille Havane and Chypre Azural).
Source of Samples: I purchased the Les Indémodables sample set here.
There are three types of tuberose fragrance and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Category I is Photorealistic Tuberose, which is where you find the dewy ‘ripped from nature’ takes like Carnal Flower (Malle), Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), and yes, even Tubéreuse Criminelle (Lutens) after it shimmies through that Listerine bead curtain up front.
Category II is Nights in White Satin tuberose, where you find all the aging Baby Janes sweating naked but for a fur coat on a hot Southern veranda, waiting to pounce on the mail boy, her left buttock making a slurping sound as she propels herself off her lounge chair – stuff like Amarige (Givenchy), Giorgio (Giorgio Beverly Hills), and Number One Intense (De Nicolai).
Category III is Tuberose Messed Up Beyond All Recognition, the hangout room for perfumes that drown out the objectionably fruity bubblegum bullshit of tuberose until you’re smelling as much hay, leather, incense, or patchouli as tuberose itself. Tubéreuse III (Histoires de Parfum) and Daphne (Comme des Garcons) are good examples.
I have little use for perfumes from Category I. I wear Carnal Flower about once a year, swooning at its limpid green beauty only to cheerfully bench it again for another twelve months. Category II, in all its “The Eighties Called and Want Their Shoulder Pads Back” glory, is triggering, for me, and therefore a hard no. (Even some really modern perfumes, like Mélodie de l’Amour (Dusita) and L’ Eau Scandaleuse (Anatole LeBreton), released in 2016 and 2014 respectively, accidentally fall into Category II due to the man-eating nature of their tuberose). Category III is really the only space in which I can enjoy tuberose, because, as you might have guessed by now, tuberose needs to be so heavily masked with other notes that I can get it down without gagging.
Because Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi is fruit, tuberose (and ylang, to my nose) over smoky woods and uncured leather, it would seem to fall effortlessly into the third category. Right? And yep, it mostly does. However, the sticky peach jam note coaxes out all of the unfortunate bubblegum tendencies of tuberose, which means that it tips its rather cartoonish Jessica Rabbit sunhat just enough in the direction of the Nights in White Satin category to make me uncomfortable.
Which is my long-winded (even for me) way of saying that Tyger Tyger is not for me, but that is due entirely to my own personal issues with tuberose rather than the way in which the perfume is constructed or wears. The perfume itself is blameless. Lovers of the spicy 1980s floriental style of Big White Floral will rejoice in this juice. It starts off with a hugely sweet peach bubblegum note that might as well be tuberose candy – and at this point, I’m all #thanksifuckinghateit.
But this is Francesca Bianchi, y’all. She’s not going to leave those great, big honey-dripping white flowers out there on their own for long. Almost immediately, in fact, the familiar Bianchi accord of ‘stony, smoky, slutty iris leather with a side of licked skin’ (that’s how I refer to it anyway) rises up to infuse the floral candy with an attractive smokiness, kind of like hay, leather, and woods being smoked in a far off barn.
So, yes, by the mid-section, I’m starting to come around. There’s enough going on here to reduce the tuberose to something I can just about glimpse at the corner of my eye. Think Pèche Cardinal (Parfums MDCI) – minus the tropical coconut – sleeping with a stable boy, their sticky sex juices mingling with the grimy but healthy aroma of leather riding tack and hay. It shares something with the utterly mad, bubblegum-on-steroids tuberose incense of Daphne (Comme des Garcons), a bit of that fleshy peach sweetness of Pèche Cardinal, and quite a lot of overlap with the retro butter-caramel-leather-hay-filtered smut of Tubéreuse III.
The drydown smells curiously like the peach-scented floor wax of Chinatown, the tuberose boiled down until its bubblegum and peach juice juiciness evaporates, fading out into a gently smoky Crayola finish. But tuberose wax is still tuberose, and man, even a little bit of it is nigh on too much for this gal. As it flattens out slightly at the end, more of the scent’s candied tuberose-ness – and thus also its essentially 1980s floriental character – is laid bare. Don’t get me wrong – Tyger Tyger is a beautifully made, and surprisingly softly spoken white floral that will please many. It’s really no fault of the scent that it happens to brush up against one of my personal triggers.
Source of Sample: PR sample, provided gratis by the brand.
I keep trying to sum up Spell 125 by Papillon Artisan Perfumes for myself in one of those snappy two-liners that Luca Turin excels in, but it is a testament to the perfume’s shape-shifty-ness that I can’t settle on just one. Some days, I think, hmm, definitely Limey Smoke, but then there’s also Ashy Frankincense, Foresty Green, followed later by Balsamic Salt, Sour Honey, and Chewy Leather. Spell 125 just feels like a scent that’s been put together in thin, crisp layers that peel off into the atmosphere, like smears of organic matter hissing on hot volcanic rock. It smells acid-bright – neon almost – but also dry, like a nubbin of frankincense whittled to ash.
Papillon perfumes run the gamut from pretty (Angélique) and sweetly comforting (Bengale Rouge) to dirty-sexy-money (Salome) but what connects them all is that deep richness of finish that some have called Guerlainesque. Spell 125 marks something of a departure in style. Though it is as seamlessly constructed as the rest, Spell 125 actually smells far more environmental than it does classically perfumey – a clutch of green resins, blackish gums, and saltwater dripping from trees in some primordial forest, immediately evaporating into smoky ether as they hit the hot minerals beneath.
In a way, Spell 125 smells almost more like a Tauer or a Sonoma Scent Studio (think Incense Pure) than a Papillon, in that it smells both funkily organic, i.e., ‘ripped from nature’, and preternaturally airy, a whole diorama of sky, forest, and wind filling your lungs as you draw breath.
Spell 125 starts out with the lemon-and-limeade fizz of Siberian pine, sluicing everything in an acid-green halo of antiseptic fluid that might feel a little challenging at first until you realize that we all need something this invigoratingly bright to disinfect our lives of the bullshit that is life under COVID-19. An earlier mod of Spell 125 was more confrontational in its piney-ness – almost saltily urinous – but the final version turns the pitch just right, so that it feels more darkly balsamic than high-toned, with just enough residual volatility to make you think of fingers in electric sockets and lime-scented soap and ion-charged air.
But anyway, though the pine certainly is first out the gate, you immediately sense a myriad of other layers shifting, separately, and lifting into place. Most notable is a tremendous frankincense material, which is at first slightly green and waxy-balsamic-raw but grows increasingly ashy and ‘burned out’ in feel, until finally, everything feels like it is coated in a thin layer of white ash (but one that is not, thankfully, acrid).
Counteracting the vegetal coolness of the incense is the creeping mammalian funk of ambergris, with its hints of saltwater, warm tar, and loose tobacco flakes in a paper pouch. This is soon joined by other similarly resinous, gauzy layers of organic matter misting up through the scaffolds – the honeyed spicy-sourness of opoponax, dried lime peel, and a lightly chewy leather dimension that I feel sure comes from labdanum. Spell 125 is never quite animalic – but there is the suggestion (just the merest hint) of something grimy or unclean lurking beneath the ashy-resinous brightness. A Barbour waxed jacket clinging to warm, clammy flesh.
Spell 125 will be launched on the 7th July 2021, to mark the 7th anniversary of Papillon, closing the circle started by Papillon’s first fragrance, Anubis. The name is significant – Spell 125 describes the ceremony known as the “Weighing of the Heart” in The Book of the Dead (usually presided over by Anubis) where the deceased soul is asked to weigh their purity against their sins, before being led by Anubis before Osiris and their eternal reward. Incense and leather are the two accords that connect these perfumes, but they run in such opposite directions, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect the two. Anubis is a dark, incensey leather fueled by a jammy jasmine absolute that smells a bit like gasoline spilled on a forecourt; Spell 125 is a dry, effervescent incense that smells like a wash of smoky crystals in the air.
I appreciate both, but Spell 125 is the one I feel in my bones, if you know what I mean. In the midst of the busiest time of the year for me, with multiple deadlines and lots of stress, coupled with a return to the ‘joys’ of home-schooling for what feels might be the next twenty years, Spell 125 has acted as a little talisman of calm ten times more powerful than Bach’s Rescue Remedy drops and yet not quite as numbing as Xanax. I find it to wear very lightly (more vellum than velvet in tensile weight) but it is also immensely durable, with no discernible sacrifice to naturalness (of feel) made to the chemical Gods of Longevidee.
Listen, I f***ing love it. I’d carry this stuff around with me in the pockets of my pants if I still wore pants and I would definitely wear it for yoga were I ever to find a yoga video on YouTube that wasn’t intensely irritating (what do these people mean by ‘breathe into your spine’?). But just because Spell 125 happens to be exactly my kind of thing these days doesn’t mean its ascetic, modern ‘spaciness’ will be for everyone. It is not a people-pleaser like Bengale Rouge, for example, and it might challenge those who’ve come to love Papillon for its richer, more classically-styled output. But if a fresh, diaphanous, almost airy-sparkly coniferous incense sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and you already love stuff like Zagorsk (Comme des Garcons), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) and the hemlocky green amber of Woman (Ormonde Jayne), then Spell 125 by Papillon will likely be a safe bet.
Source of Sample: Smuggled to me by Liz Moores of Papillon Artisan Perfumes in (Mod A) a small box of chocolate shoes filled with salted caramel and then (Mod B – the final version) a Papillon t-shirt, size XL to fit my capacious boobage.
Gold is the most challenging of the gifts of the three Magi, of course, given that, unlike myrrh and frankincense, it is not a fragrant material in and of itself. I could write about perfumes that smell like metal or that have a metallic element to them, like, say, Superstitiousby Frederic Malle or Copper by Comme des Garcons, but that would be a rather short and unsatisfying list. So, most of the perfumes on this list fall into one of three categories.
First, perfumes that the word ‘gold’ or ‘or’ in their name – a group of fragrances that quickly exhausts itself when you realize just how many of them either fail to meet the kingly standard we’re going after (24 Gold by Scentstory didn’t make the cut, for example, and neither did the ghastly coffee sickliness that is L’Or de Torrente) or give off a golden vibe at all (Or des Indes, J’acuse).
Second, there are the perfumes that I think are the gold standard of their respective genres and are the ones that I would buy in bulk if I were to suddenly win the lottery or marry someone with both taste and bottomless pockets (we will pretend that I am not already in possession of a husband). I find it funny that many of the perfumes I consider to be gold medal winners are actually called Black something or other.
Finally, we have perfumes that prominently feature a raw material or accord that smells or feels like a sunny, radiant liquid gold around your person – amber, for example, but also ambergris and honey.
Les Nombres d’Or Oudh Osmanthus (Mona di Orio) – Black Gold
Oudh Osmanthus is both rich and dry, two qualities that are rarely found together these days. After years of puzzling over what makes this perfume tick, I think the secret to its three-dimensional richness lies in its triadic composition of a) the smoky, dried-up husk of a vanilla pod swiped from Mona di Orio Vanille, which contributes a dark, almost liquor-ish background that one might call sweet until you get close enough to see what it is, b), a midsection (borrowed from the brand’s own Musc) of blurred, indistinct floral notes desiccating to a fine white talc, which gives the scent its tinder-box dryness and a slightly soapy, dandified air, and c) a lascivious civet note that twists the florals into a grimy, almost fecal leather note à la Jicky.
Here’s the clever bit – though there is likely some quantity of real osmanthus and oud oil in the composition, their shape is carved out not by the raw materials themselves but by little olfactory nudges laid down by the perfumer herself, like a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest. Hence, the faintly cheesy fruitiness of osmanthus is suggested obliquely by an odd but genius herbal note that smells quite like fresh dill, while the cheesey ferment of oud is brought to life by the leathery civet.
In many ways, Oudh Osmanthus is the analog to my other favorite oud-themed fragrance, Nawab of Oudh(Ormonde Jayne). Both are Western abstractions of an Eastern raw material, rendered in a haute luxe style that elevates them far beyond their source material. But they arrive there from two utterly different directions – Nawab of Oudh via the light cast by crisp linen tablecloths, the brass moldings of a posh London hotel, and freshly-peeled citrus fruits, Oudh Osmanthus via the chartreuse gloom of a velvet-covered room.
Both are eye-wateringly expensive. Adding insult to injury, Oudh Osmanthus was reformulated when the bottles were changed from the wine screw bottles to the golden disc bottle. It still smells great, of course, but its smoky dryness has been toned down and made less confrontational, which has in turn subtracted much from its previously three-dimensional quality. However, if I were forced to choose just two Western oud-themed fragrances to take with me into the apocalypse, it would be Nawab of Oudh and Oudh Osmanthus, and that, for a perennial flip-flopper like me, is said with not even a hint of equivocation.
I am a big Henry James fan. Or at least I used to be until one day at school, my fifth form English teacher pulled a copy of The Golden Bowl out of my school bag and gasped, ‘You’re reading this? Oh, dear me, no – this is far too difficult for you. It will put you off James for life.’ But guys, I had already read The Golden Bowl. In fact, I had waltzed through it, not realizing that it was supposed to be difficult. But do you know what? I have struggled with Henry James ever since. Once someone points out that something is difficult or complex, it becomes so. Like someone flipping that switch in your brain between unthinking enjoyment and sudden, painful self-awareness.
I love Chypre Palatin with my unthinking part of my brain. I know, on a purely intellectual level, that it is a Golden Bowl type of scent – grand, complex, full of moving parts clicking into place. The sort of thing you have to read with your eyes at half-mast so as to perceive its entire shape at the corner of your vision. The notes list on Basenotes alone contains twenty separate notes, two thirds of which I still cannot pick up. It doesn’t matter. I slip into Chypre Palatin with a shiver of unadulterated pleasure every time, just as easily as my unthinking brain once slid into Henry James.
Chypres are not an easy read, normally. Something about them pinches me, reminding me to switch the analysis part of my brain on and the ‘feeling’ part off. They are more comfortable for me now, as I get older, but the bristling bergamot and the bitter backbone of mosses have always called to mind that scene in Titanic where Rose sees a mother is tapping her six-year old daughter on the spine to get her to straighten up. I admire the formality of chypres, and their immensely ordered, complex structure, but sometimes I find it difficult to breathe easily within their confines.
But Chypre Palatin is one of those strange hybrids between chypre and oriental that manage to combine the formality of the former with the comfortable sensuality of the latter. Chypre Palatin belongs, therefore, to a special group of perfumes that includes Puredistance M, Jubilation 25, Une Rose Chyprée, and even Guerlain’s masterpiece, Vol de Nuit. What these perfumes have in common is a chypre-like dressing of moss and bergamot, and maybe some other green, bitter, or herbal accents, over a base that feels pleasantly resinous, creamy, or vanillic (as is the case with Chypre Palatin), so a fragrance that starts its journey in an upright position can end it in a supine position on a soft divan. These chypre-oriental hybrids are built to scale, bristling with ambition, and with big enough feet to comfortably straddle several genres at once – chypre, oriental, leather, animalics, and so on. They are not so much unisex as they are omni-sex.
Chypre Palatin, for example, has a brief bergamot beginning, like a blush of first light over the horizon at dawn, and a heart of authentic oakmoss that goes on forever, but these accents are married to a lush vanilla and a warmly animalic castoreum in the base, ensuring that the whole thing feels comfortably sensual. It is distinctly masculine in feel, but the vanilla and castoreum in the base give it a rounded, luxurious feel that won’t feel out of place on a woman’s skin.
Chypre Palatin strikes me as a modern-day Vol de Nuit, in a way. Not in terms of scent, but in the way they are both lush, baroque-scaled perfumes pointing to a more romantic past than the time in which they were created. And despite their ambition, they both feel perfectly intimate – suitable for quiet, homebound pleasures. Chypre Palatin might be the Golden Bowl of its genre, but I enjoy it in that simple, instinctive way I used to enjoy Henry James before the thinking part of my brain was switched on. Just don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is a difficult or complex thing.
I have been within sniffing distance of the interior of a luxury car only twice in my life. The first was when a former colleague of my father’s, a rather sleazy guy called Alberto, would come and collect me from my job in Bergamo on a Friday night and whizz me down to Milan for the weekend in his Bugatti. Nothing terribly inappropriate happened in that car, but there was always the suggestion that something might. The second was a couple of years ago, in Rome, when a lovely salesman saw my son and me looking in the window of a Ferrari-Maserati showroom and invited us in so that my son could sit inside one. I am not into luxury anything, but the scent of inside a luxury car is intoxicating in a weirdly emotive way. You know instinctively that what you are smelling is privilege and, by corollary, exclusion, but the power you sense throbbing beneath the leather and the wood – even when the car is off – is enough to flood you with a weird sense of elation. Arousal, even.
Black by Puredistance smells like the pure, cushioned air of privilege. Though from the technical sense, it has much in common with other cardamom-saffron-leather orientals like Idole (Lubin), Black Cashmere (Donna Karan) and, more recently, the glorious Shaghaf by Anfas, the extreme refinement of Black makes them feel like they just stumbled in from the bog, muck caked on their clodhopper boots.
Black is so smooth you could almost call it boring. It is just a silky cardamom custard filtered through the air filtering system of a Maserati with creamy chamois seats and polished wood panels, with no real points of interest or anything whistling for your attention. normally lusty resins and spices have been triple-strained through a cheesecloth, appearing as smudged brushstrokes in the overall impressionistic swirl. Even the oud note is quiet, a faded sour-suedey tannin accent shading out the leather a little. As with anything Puredistance, Black is ostentatiously-priced, but then so is a Maserati. I may never get within sniffing distance of either ever again, but the memories are for free and remain lodged safely in the memory palace I have constructed in my brain (thanks for the tip, Hannibal).
Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh) – Multi-Dimensional Gold
Saqr II is a mukhallat composed in honor of nature in all its brutal beauty. It focuses on ambergris (long golden beaches), oud (green forests), Ta’ifi rose (flowers in inhospitable terrain), and Himalayan musk (animal fur). Saqr II provides the wearer with a truly kaleidoscopic experience – the florals, exotic woods, and musk all rushing out at you in a giddy vortex of scent – but maintains a rigorous clarity rarely experienced in such complex blends. The wearer can smell every component of the blend, both individually and as part of the rich, multi-layered fabric of the perfume.
The play of light on dark is particularly well executed. The tart, green spice of the Ta’ifi rose lifts the perfume, while salty-sweet ambergris lends a sparkle. These brighter elements prevent the darker oud and musk from becoming too heavy. The bright rose burns away, leaving a trail of leathery, spicy oud wood that is addictive, drawing one’s nose repeatedly to the skin. The oud here is smooth and supple, with nary a trace of sourness or animal stink. The musk, perceptible more as a texture than a scent, blurs the edges of the oud and rose notes into furred roundness that gradually softens the scent’s austerity.
The slight out-of-focus feel to this blend makes it far more approachable for beginners than many others in the Al Shareef Oudh stable. However, none of the materials have been dumbed down for a Western audience. The blend smells classic in a certain rose-oud way, but it is not clichéd. Its balance of dark and bright elements, sweet and non-sweet, dirty-musky and clean, is what makes this a masterful example of its genre.
Saqr II is complex, beautiful, restful, and above all, easy to wear. I particularly love the fuzzy golden timbre of the ambergris in this scent, which lends it a tannic apricot skin edge. It is my personal favorite of all the Al Shareef Oudh mukhallats and the one I would recommend to beginners as a great primer for the brand’s overall approach and aesthetic. Beyond that, however, it is one of the best perfumes I have had the pleasure of smelling.
Gold Woman is the souped up, Russian gilt, bells-and-whistles version of Madame Rochas, which basically means that it is an amalgamation of all those perfumes that we tend to instinctively classify as stuffy, perfumey, French and ladylike – you know, perfumes like No. 5 (Chanel), Calèche (Hermès), and Climat (Lancôme). I’d throw 24, Faubourg (Hermès) into the mix there too.
I could try to describe the common thread here – the fatty, fizzy aldehydes that strafe the expensive, Grasse-sourced florals like a steel wire brush, sending them spinning up and out like a ballerina’s tulle mid-pirouette, the silky musks, the powdered rush of floral bouquets – but with something this abstract, I’d only be embarrassing myself.
Because, honestly, let’s get real – much of what we say we smell in fragrances this big is probably just a figment of our imagination, suggested to us by reviews or ad copy. Perfumes this abstract, this overly-blended, this fuzzy-with-kinetic-aldehydes can never give anyone a clear idea of any one material, be it a lush rose or the hay-like greenness of narcissus. Most of us are not in possession of a nose sophisticated enough to pick up on every nuance or note in something like Gold Woman. If you think that it smells expensive (it does) or like what a rich woman might wear (it does), then the perfumer has gotten his point across. I’d argue – strenuously, if you ever met me in person – that what you are smelling in Gold Woman is pretty much the scent of a luxuriously creamy bar of white soap, and specifically the kind that nobody buys for themselves and is far too good to use.
My mother was gifted a L’Air du Temps bath soap when I was little, and that soap remained perched on the edge of the family bath, in its delicate seashell-shaped clasp, for all of our childhood, as if silently daring us to touch it. Which we never did, of course, because the hairs on the back of my mother’s neck were psychically connected to this soap, standing on end and raising the alarm if one of us even so much as breathed in its general direction. I would only dare huff it quickly and furtively, panic-dropping it back in its seashell every time the landing floor squeaked (our Famine-era house was about as suited to privacy as it was to central heating, which is to say not very). Anyway, I remember distinctly the first time I smelled Amouage Gold Woman. It was January 2012 in one of the larger Campo Marzio 70 stores in Rome, and I had just started to read blogs, so I recognized the name and the look of the bottle. I picked up the gold bottle with trembling hands, scarcely believing that the salespeople would just let me pick up something so precious and sprayed a bit on my wrist. Well, if it wasn’t that fucking L’Air de Temps soap. Hello again, how nice to see you.
None of which explains, of course, how I now own two bottles of Gold Woman. I guess my defense is really a theory, namely that if cityscapes shape the style of those that live in them, then Rome, with its status as the erstwhile center of the Western world, expects of her citizens a similarly-outsized sense of braggadocio. While I still don’t really like Gold Woman all that much, I find it has the big dick energy that a place like Rome demands. Every time I wear it, I feel like Juno emerging angrily from her bath, left breast magnificently exposed, pumped to give the first man she encounters a heart attack or a hard-on (we are never sure which).
Or du Sérail (Naomi Goodsir) – Fool’s Gold
Or du Sérail has a beautiful, honeyed tobacco leaf at its core. But unfortunately, it gets drowned in a fruity, sticky mess of mango, rum, coconut, and ylang, giving somewhat of an impression of a day-old tropical fruit cocktail left out in the sun to develop a ‘bloom’. It is also unbearably sweet. Ambre Narguilé does the fruit-cake-and-honey tobacco thing so much better that I wonder why anybody felt this was necessary. And to be honest, if I wanted a complex, syrupy tobacco fragrance then Histoires de Parfums’ masterpiece 1740 satisfies me on all levels.
To sum it up, Or du Sérail is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind of scent where everything is thrown at tobacco in the hope that something sticks. Don’t get me wrong – it is technically ‘yummy’ in that round, sweet, bland way of another of Duchaufour’s misses, Havana Vanille. But as in Havana Vanille, Or du Sérail contains unpleasantly sour, discordant off-notes like mold on a piece of bread, or rot beginning to set in on a piece of fruit. Or du Sérail makes a lunge for that fine line between edible and inedible and misses the mark completely.
Aurum D’Angkhor is special. Every time I wear it, I marvel anew at its depth, complexity, and beauty. It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkhor in the basenotes, a fruity Cambodi oud oil with cozy wood nuances. But the ‘Aurum’ in Sultan Pasha’s remix means ‘Golden’ and indeed, that is precisely the color that comes across in this blend. Aurum is a love poem to the golden dust of saffron, polished oak floors, smoke, honey, and henna, a shady haze backed by a velvety floral richness.
The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes, it has a dark barnyard character that some might find startling. This accord is not, to my nose, unpleasantly animalic. It never approaches, for example, the sour, bilious honk of a raw Hindi oud. However, there is definitely something there that recalls the aroma of cow slurry, a smell so hotly liquid that it seems to ooze across the room like ripe Brie. One’s reaction to this type of aroma depends on one’s level of exposure to farmyard smells during childhood. I grew up around cows and now live next door to a dairy farm, so for me, the smell of cow shit is literally part of the air I breathe. In other words, I’m fine with it. You very well may not be.
The cow pat note dissipates quickly, however, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, threaded with drifts of faintly indolic jasmine. Saffron plays a pivotal role, called upon to bring out all its strange facets at once – the leather, the exotic dust, the sweetness, the faintly floral mouth-feel, fiery red spice, and a certain medicinal, iodine-like twang. The oud and the saffron create a deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty plum skin. In short, Aurum showcases the depth of real oud, but past the fecal twang of the opening, none of its more challenging aspects.
The smoke in Aurum is chimerical, sometimes manifesting as little more than a faint tingle of far-off woodsmoke akin to a needle prick’s worth of birch tar or cade oil, and sometimes appearing as full-on smoke from a censer full of resins. The smoke component is similar to that of Balsamo della Mecca (La Via de Profumo), which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent dusted with the clovey, balsamic bitterness of Siam benzoin and frankincense. Backing the smoke is always a layer of dusty, medicinal henna powder and the golden sheen of honey-glazed woods. Nothing, therefore, feels out of balance, not even when the smoke is rolling in.
Aurum dries down to a dark, treacly resin that smells predominantly nutty, but also kind of gritty, like coffee grounds sprinkled with sugar – probably a side effect of benzoin mixing with the cedar and ambrette musk. There is a moment in the drydown that reminds me of the sawdusty, granular sweetness of wood pulp and suede that is the primary feature of Tuscan Leather-style fragrances. Many soft leather scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather itself, Oud Saphir (Atelier Cologne), and Tajibni (Al Haramain), use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar to create a musky, resinous suede effect, and that might be what’s happening here in Aurum. However, Aurum is far more complex than these soli-suedes, deploying as it does a layer of resins, oud, and henna to jostle and thicken the sueded musk.
Or des Indes (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) – Bait-and-Switch Gold
Out of all the perfumes reputed to smell like Shalimar, Or des Indes smells most like Mitsouko. I bought a bottle in Madrid airport on my way back from Cali, shaken after having been strip-searched by Columbian customs agents (pasty Irish chicks apparently being well known for enthusiastically promoting certain Colombian exports via that particular route), and when I got home, I showered and applied this liberally, then lay naked on the bed waiting to a) stop sweating, and b) feel the cloud of golden, resinous Shalimar-esque loveliness rise up and envelop my senses, soothing my furrowed brow, etc., etc.
Well, to say I felt cheated out of my happy ending is an understatement. Or des Indes is not the golden, shimmering warm bath of resins I had been led to expect. Rather, thanks to a doughy ‘peach skin’ suede element that is far more root (orris) than resin, Or des Indes is dove grey – delicately bitter, fudgy, and ‘old smelling’, like old wooden furniture dusted off and waxed with saddle soap. Thanks to a recent love affair with Imperial Opoponax (Les Nereides), I have come to identify this doughy, rooty (almost waxy-fudgy) nuance as characteristic of opoponax resin. But because of its herbal, slightly bitter ‘almond’ core, I have stopped perceiving opoponax as a purely golden affair – in truth, it smells more lavender-grey than golden for about two-thirds of its development.
While Imperial Opoponax shakes off this dove grey pallor pretty quickly before sliding into that much-awaited, much-longed-for bath of sultry, balmy, red-gold resinousness that is the final third of opoponax resin, Or des Indes remains firmly attached to its grey, bitter-doughy suede heart for much of the ride. (There is a phantom fruit note bouncing in and out that, combined with the fine cuir accord, contributes much to the Mitsouko impression). To be fair, Or des Indes does eventually loosen up into something that might legitimately be called warm or golden, before completely dying an ignoble death at the four hour mark.
Yep, four hours. That’s all you get, folks. Now, I am no longevidee bore, but paying Maître Parfumeur et Gantier prices for the performance of a Roger et Gallet body spray is deeply unacceptable, and that’s even before you consider that, with Or des Indes, you are basically wearing a half-assed version of Mitsouko or the first 40% of Imperial Opoponax, both scents that cost roughly half of this.
Don’t get me wrong – I do quite like Or des Indes. It’s just that when you are expecting gold and get dove grey, it feels like trying to recover your gait after you’ve missed a step on the stairs. You eventually right yourself but for one horribly unsettling moment, the whole world feels off kilter.
Black Gold (Ormonde Jayne) – Gentlemanly Gold
Black Gold is every bit as stunning as its gold-plated billing makes it out to be. Perfectly in line with the Ormonde Jayne house style, it seems to be made up of hundreds of different layers of tulle and yet has the tensile density of velvet. The opening feels familiar, yet turbo-charged with something electric. The sherbet-like fizz of mandarin, lemon, and mandarin is intoxicating, and the touches of clary sage and juniper berry familiar to anyone who loves Tolu. Immediately after this somewhat characteristic Ormonde Jayne opening, the true character of the scent reveals itself as a confident duet between a particularly arid, aromatic sandalwood (one can almost visualize the reddish dust of felled heartwood in Mysore) and a hot, dusty carnation – the two accords whipping each other into a vortex of scent.
Texture is key here. Black Gold feels fuzzy and misty, like the fine-grained fizz on a glass of sparkling rosé. The quality of the sandalwood is superb, displaying as it does the peculiar character split between dry and milky of real santalum album. Although there are no piney terpenes here, the hallmark of inferior santalum spicatum from Australia, the sandalwood used in this fragrance is not at all sweet or unctuously creamy. In fact, coupled with the herbs and the spicy carnation, the woodiness strikes me as gentlemanly, similar in tone to the sandalwood in Santal Noble (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier). Later on, these same woods appear rubbed down by nuggets of creamy amber resin, their toffee-like sweetness filling out the air pockets in the wood and giving the scent a deep, velvety warmth.
However, there is also a very dry, peppery oud note in the drydown, which brings the fragrance closer in feel to Ormonde Man than some might be expecting. The oud adds a brush of something metallic and not entirely natural-smelling. The note is not exactly animalic, but a little dark and salty, tending towards carnal. This could be a touch of Ambroxan or real ambergris, or, of course, it could also simply be the listed oud coupled with the vegetal musk of ambrette. Either way, the ending is as shimmering and as translucent as the rest of the scent; it floats off the skin like cloud, never heavy or sullen.
Worth the price? Yes – with the proviso that you already have the money and won’t be skipping any meals or utility bills to buy it. There are plenty of haute luxe perfumes around at this price level anyway, but an Ormonde Jayne is consistently a trusty government bond compared to the equities market in one of the BRIC countries and is therefore a particularly safe investment. (I am just as puzzled as you as to why I’m talking about this like an investment banker).
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal) – Antique Gold
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq is a masterpiece of mukhallat perfumery. With a long name that translates to (roughly) ‘Aged Oud Blend’, it earns a place in any list of top ten or even top five mukhallats in the world. Essentially an essay on the beauty of aged Hindi oud, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq wanders through the umami flavorways of noble oud oil, touching upon sweet, sour, salty, woody, and even herbal facets as it passes through.
It may at first appear pungent or animalic to the uninitiated, but once the leathery spices rise through the initial wall of funk, you will find it difficult to tear your nose away. Sweet red roses, musk, and greenish herbs – perhaps a touch of vetiver – provide an excellent showcase for the aged oud, grounding and buttressing it with layers of complexity, body, and richness.
The other notes, while extremely rich and high quality, do not distract from the star of the show, namely that beautiful, aged Hindi oud. The oud slowly softens and melts like a pool of warm honey, pumping out wave after wave of spiced, syrupy goodness throughout the day. This intoxicating concerto of aromas is top of its class at representing the unique pleasures of oil perfumery.
In the far drydown, natural ambergris lends the scent a golden glow, as well as a hint of coniferous bitterness that recalls the aroma of raw fir balsam. Think of sea breezes blowing a forest of pine trees sideways, the salty freshness of the sea air mixing with the resinous greenery of the trees and the golden sweetness of tree sap. The ambergris amplifies the beauty of the aged oud and the brilliance of its rich Turkish rose. Beautiful, pure, and incredibly rewarding to wear, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq goes straight into the pantheon of must-haves for any serious mukhallat lover.
Kalemat is not wildly original (it smells a little like an upmarket version of 24 Gold by Scentstory, or Raghba by Lattafa Perfumes) but it is one of those rare instances when you put it on and you just know that it smells damn good, and that you smell damn good, and that other people (all of the other people, believe me) will think you smell damn good too. It reminds me that things don’t have to be wildly expensive or original to give you pleasure.
In fact, every time I wear Kalemat, I think of what Agent Dale Cooper tells Harry in Twin Peaks, namely – ‘Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.’ Kalemat is a just damn fine coffee.
It is difficult to describe Kalemat without making it seem simple or boring. It opens with a brief berry note, before sliding into a golden, honeyed amber riff that swirls around you like a delicious second skin for a whole twelve hours. There is a hint of gently smoked oud that stops the whole thing from diving off a cliff into gourmand territory. It is not real oud, of course – not at this price point. But for once, the synthetic oud or cashmeran or whatever they are using here for that smoky oud note is not obnoxious or dominant. Instead, it adds a pleasurably smoky but unobtrusive buzz to the backbone of the fragrance. It is there simply to support the spiced, honeyed amber, not to shout all over it.
Kalemat wears in a similar way to perfumes like Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114, Dior Privée Ambre Nuit, and Amouage’s Fate Woman – not in terms of scent per se, but in the way each of these particular fragrances seem to hover around your skin like a haze of fuzzy, warm, golden light, and radiate outwards, like Golden Hour light pouring into a dingy room. And really, the base appeal of Kalemat lies in its sillage. I like the Muslim idea of using perfume to scent not only yourself but also the air around you, as a gift for others. Kalemat spills out over your skin and into the air around you, leaving a trail of honeyed, gently-spiced amber and woods for others to enjoy. I have had women in the supermarket stop me to ask what I’m wearing. Dogs follow me. Little children ignore my stupidly asymmetrical face and smile at me. Kalemat is a gift you give to yourself, yes, but also to others.
Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch) – Gold Bud
Composed by Christi Meshell for her House of Matriarch line of perfumes, Black No. 1 (formerly known as Blackbird) is made up of over 300 different notes and materials, 93% of which are all-natural. This is incredibly complex, even crowded perfume – but somehow it still manages to achieve the effect of a smooth, even flow of notes, like water across a silk panel.
The opening salvo is a rush of mellow leather, dark woods, and green resins. Even though it is very dark in flavor, everything feels round and smooth, with no jagged edges anywhere. There is what I can only describe as a delicious ‘roasted’ effect here that smells quite like a lump of unsmoked hashish resin, i.e., sweetish, tarry, sticky – like summer grass trampled underfoot.
But make no mistake – this is no stoner’s joke, no hippy-dippy afternoon delight. Whereas the similarly cannabis-focused Coze (Parfumerie Generale) uses its weed note to conjure up a happy, outdoorsy vibe of buff lumberjacks lighting up a joint, here the note is used in a supporting role to add a sweet, herbal grassiness to the other woody and aromatic notes. The scent manages to evoke strong visual images in my head, spinning visions of dark forests of firs and pines beside windswept beaches. The feeling is of solitude, a glorying in the fierceness of nature at its wildest. There is a genius note of sea salt weaving in and out of the perfume at this point, serving to pierce the density of the dark notes like a sudden shaft of moonlight through the forest. For such a dense perfume, it feels incredibly ozonic.
The gentle, rounded oud accord in the opening notes becomes ever stronger as the scent develops, picking up more of a rubbery, medicinal character. This adds a surprisingly pleasant wash of something antiseptic to the complex roasted flavors of the woods and resins. In some ways, the roasted, dark woods and oud note reminded me slightly of both Montecristo (by Masque Fragranze Milano) and of Hard Leather (by LM Parfums) but nowhere near as challenging. Both Montecristo and Hard Leather play up their tough notes like oud, leather, and styrax to such a degree that they simply overpower everything else – but all the potentially harsh notes in Blackbird seem to have been folded into softer, sweeter accords, like the amber and musks in the base, thus sanding down any hard edges they might have had.
The progression here is incredible for a perfume with such a high degree of natural ingredients. There is a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The whole thing is just so coherent and beautifully put together. The sticky, tarry notes from the top eventually loosen up and spread out. The sweetness of the pot resins intensifies too, mixing with the dark leather to create an effect that is intoxicating. And the dry down – oh my God, that dry down! It is a mix of amber, musk, and that dark, supple leather note that feels at once sensual and comfortable. It reminds me of the animalic but cozy feel of L’Ombre Fauve by Parfumerie Generale and the deep coziness of the latter stages of Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens, the part where all passion is spent and now all is the sugar and cream smell of two bodies cooling on the bear hide. Though eye-wateringly expensive and difficult to obtain, Black No. 1 is one of the first perfumes I’d buy in vats if I won the lottery.
Source of Samples: All reviews are based on samples, decants, or bottles of perfume I have purchased myself, with the exception of the sample of Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh), which was kindly gifted to me by the brand, and the sample of Puredistance Black, which was kindly sent to me by the brand in 2016 for half the cost of the regular sample set (I paid the other half, by agreement with the brand manager). I own half a tester bottle of the new Oudh Osmanthus, in lieu of payment by a former client of mine, but bought a decant of the original formulation myself. As always, I do not do paid reviews and do not accept samples in exchange for a positive review. My opinions are my own. This blog is not monetized, and I do not earn any income from my perfume writing.
Each of the gifts of the three Magi carried a special symbolic meaning – gold representing kingship, myrrh foreshadowing the death of Jesus (myrrh being commonly used as an embalming and purifying ointment in the final sendoff of a soul), and finally, frankincense for divinity. In other words, if gold represents earthy wealth and influence, and myrrh represents the suffering associated with death, then frankincense is the most spiritually elevating of all resins – and arguably the most important – as it turns the gaze upwards, towards God.
a more prosaic level, some believe that frankincense might have been brought
along because of its medicinal qualities. In 2011, due to longstanding cultural
links between Wales and Somalia (who knew?), researchers at Cardiff University decided
to investigate whether there was any medical evidence to support the ancient
Somali tradition of using frankincense extract as a traditional herbal remedy
for the aches and pains associated with arthritis. And indeed, the scientists
were able to demonstrate
that treatment with an extract of Boswellia frereana (one of the rarer
frankincense species) inhibits the production of key inflammatory molecules, effectively
slowing down the disintegration of the cartilage tissue which causes the
So, maybe the three wise men were actually…..wise? (Though, rolling up to the bedside of a woman who had just given birth in a stable without so much as a pack of Paracetamol, nappies, and a stack of gossip magazines would seem to contradict that.)
In fact, most resins used in attar and commercial perfumery have long been as prized for their cleansing or purifying properties as for their spiritual or ritualistic ones. Arabs chew frankincense tears as chewing gum to freshen the breath and aid digestion, for example, while Papiers d’Arménie owe their existence to a Frenchman by the name of Auguste Ponsot, who, after stumbling across benzoin resin during his travels in Armenia in 1885, decided to make benzoin-infused strips of paper to cleanse the air in stuffy rooms all across Paris. Both Arabs and Persians have long traditions of burning incense to fumigate their rooms, clothes, places of worship, and hair. The word perfume itself comes from the Latin per fumus, which means ‘through the smoke’, making it more than likely that the first rudimentary form of perfume was, in fact, the fumigation of a dwelling with incense. So put that on your burner and smoke it!
Frankincense, for many people, lies at the very tippety-top of the incense chain – the thoroughbred of the resin family. Deriving from the old French word franc encens – meaning ‘high quality incense’ – frankincense is a gum produced by the Boswellia genus of trees which grows in Somalia, Sudan, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. The bulk of frankincense, called luban or loban in Arabic, comes from Somalia. However, the finest quality of frankincense is called Hojari (alternatively referred to as howjary) or silver frankincense, and this comes from the arid Dhofar region of Oman in the United Arab Emirates.
steam-distilled oil of frankincense resin gives attars and perfumes a fresh,
coniferous resinousness, with a bright lemon-and-lime topnote. Some grades of
Omani frankincense smell like oranges or tangerines in their topnotes, with a
soft-ish, creamy quality in the lower register. The house of Amouage, based in
Oman, was founded around the use of local Hojari frankincense, and indeed, most
of this house’s output showcases the silvery beauty of Omani frankincense.
an interview with me for Basenotes
in March 2018, Trygve Harris, a frankincense distiller in Oman, talked
about the different aromas associated with the different types of frankincense.
“Somali has a lemony note, and a warm dryness, an austerity. It makes me
thirsty — it smells vast and dry. It reminds me of Palm Springs when I was a
kid. The Omani has a richness, an opulence, like a treasure box. Regarding the
differences in the Omani frankincense oils, I like to say the white (howjary)
has more a green, herbal, butterfly note while the black has an orange floral
is the note that many people, including me, tend to lump in with the larger
category represented by the word incense. Technically, incense is any
hard-ish material – be it a wood (sandalwood, oud wood) or a resin or gum (like
myrrh, benzoin, copal, frankincense) – that can be slowly burned or smoked on a
coal to produce a purifying but fragrant smoke. Fragrances classified as
incense fragrances typically feature some ratio of frankincense to other
resins, balsams, and gums (most typically myrrh, but also benzoin, labdanum,
etc.), so many of the frankincense-themed fragrances on the list below are
actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something
Now, for someone’s who just written an 8,000-word essay on it, I feel compelled to tell you that I am deeply ambivalent about frankincense. For anyone who was born Catholic – or worse, Irish Catholic – the scent of frankincense is less an actual aroma than it is an emotional trigger, dredging up all the complex, long-buried feelings about an entire culture that revolves around the Roman Catholic Church. Or, as we refer to it in the hood, the RCC. All incense matters to us, but frankincense matters the most. It alone is the Proustian gun that fires straight into the Catholic hippocampus.
when it came to exploring the different categories of fragrance, it is perhaps
not surprising that I set off merrily down along the High Mass path, blundering
under the assumption that incense would be the bread and butter of my
collection. I had, after all, spent most of my childhood downwind of a censer.
But it turns out that – shocker – I much prefer a vision of High Mass filtered
through a romantic, hazy vision of half-remembered holiness over anything too
authentic. It is more than I am an incense lightweight than a lapsed Catholic,
although I am certainly also the latter.
Ironically, in the Before Times, despite me being a terrible excuse for a Catholic, I was living in Rome, in an apartment so close to St. Peter’s Basilica that my kitchen window could be spotted every time the camera panned out in The Young Pope. I am tempted to trot out a tired line about being able to throw a stick and hit the Pope, only in the case of Papa Francis, I think we’ve established that he is pretty cool with anything as long as you don’t try to grab his hand.
Anyway, this enormous building and its Holiest of inhabitants set the pace for much of my life in Rome. I used the gleaming, opalescent curves of its imposing colonnade to guide me through the darkness of pre-dawn runs. I crossed the square (more of a circle) most weekend days, ducking and weaving my way through the tight knots of tourists, street hawkers, and selfie sticks in a mindless, amoeba-like daze. You can’t buy an espresso or a gelato in this neighborhood without elbowing your way past a priest, nun, or monk.
But you can get used to anything, and when you live right next to something like St. Peter’s Basilica, you get used to that too. It just becomes part of your day-to-day life. Mostly, I orbited St. Peter’s in a friendly, non-Catholic way and felt it to exist as an almost secular building in my line of vision, sometimes obstructing where I needed to go, other times making me pause to marvel at its sheer size or the way it glowed like a rose gold beacon in the evening.
But every now and then, there would be a religious procession, either from a local parish or a visiting church from Latin America, and I would smell the incense pouring off the censer again, and I walk straight into it, seeking it out the way your finger finds an old scar to worry at. I like to think that I am alert to the dangers of being pulled back in by the ancient Catholic drugs of knee-trembling beauty, architectural grandeur, and the straight-to-the-heart punch of frankincense. It is pure mind-fuckery. But sometimes, I just can’t help myself.
enough of my pontiff-icating (I’m here all night, folks) – here are a
few frankincense-dominated compositions to chew over.
Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense
have owned bottles, decants, and samples of the some of the biggest players in
the High Mass corner of the incense genre, and my personal favorite is Cardinal
(Heeley). Compared to Avignon (Comme des Garcons) and Full Incense
(Montale) – the two other High Mass scents with which Cardinal is most often
grouped – Cardinal smells like incense from the priest’s censer wafting at you through
shafts of sunshine, fresh air, and white sheets fluttering on a brisk breeze.
it is very dry, it is not tremendously dark or smoky, and therefore, not
forbidding. The aldehydes lift the spirits as well as the scent itself, and the
papery-sweet benzoin makes me think of vellum sheet music soaked in vanilla,
strung out over a line to dry. I appreciate the elegantly-slanted, sideways
approach to church incense that Cardinal employs because it gives me the vague
whiff of spirituality without dragging me back to Mass.
(Robert Piguet) – Spicy
incense field is so crowded by giants (Cardinal, Avignon, LAVS) that it is
difficult to carve out a spot. Casbah manages – just about – by clothing the
hollow, Coca-Cola-ish effervescence of Avignon in a peppery fog akin to dry
ice. It is much richer than Cardinal and much drier than the fizzy soda-soap
that is Montale’s Full Incense.
down into the details, Casbah also has a curiously antiseptic thread running
through it, but a subtle one – more the rubbery squeak of a hospital gurney
against a freshly-sluiced floor rather than full-out disinfectant. This is not
due to any ghost ‘oud’ note, but to an organic fudge of angelica and nutmeg. I
like its medieval darkness and grunginess because it makes no apologies for
being the curmudgeon of the pack. In fact,
Casbah reads more like one of Santa Maria Novella’s older, less photo-ready
concoctions than a Piguet.
Armani PrivéBois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense
minimalistic, airy, and remarkably boring concoction of frankincense over a
polished cedar or Iso E Super base. Despite critics and bloggers writing a paeon
of praise to this bellwether of bellwethers of the incense genre, I was never
able to ‘get’ its supposed complexity. To my nose, it is a micro explosion of
black pepper and frankincense e/o inside a very small (but perfectly chic)
black vase. Though perfectly formed – well, everyone keeps saying it is anyway –
it is too featureless to leave much of an impression on me.
Czech & Speake Frankincense and Myrrh – Honest Frankincense
straight-forward blend of frankincense and myrrh that unites the dusty, waxen
‘old wooden furniture’ mien of myrrh to the lemony-piney detergent freshness of
frankincense, and pretty much calls it a day. It smells unimpeachably natural
and clean, more like an eau de cologne with a resinous backdrop than the
smokier, heavier takes on incense that modern niche specializes in. It smells
like a church floor rigorously cleansed after Mass with buckets full of hot
water (there is a hissy steam or mineral note), lemon-scented detergent, and
bunches of minty, rooty herbs like lavender and clary sage stirred in for good
drydown is much better than the opening; the strident lemon high notes of the
frankincense drop off, allowing the fragrance to swan elegantly into a
protracted finish of clean, unsmoked resin and wooden bannisters polished to a
high shine. Absolutely no smoke, no sugar, no Eastern mysticism, no Catholic
High Mass. Czech & Speake’s Frankincense and Myrrh strips the two headliner
resins back to their core, demonstrating that you don’t have to bathe resins in
orientalia for them to smell good.
Mad et Len Noir Encens – Amaretto Frankincense
Encens is not noir or, indeed, particularly encens. Rather, it is
a cozy gourmand in the hazelnut-amaretto-over-iced-milk vein of Hypnotic
Poison, only much less loud. It manages that very chic, very French balance of
edible and semi-poisonous notes. Its milky, anisic softness in the drydown
reminds me somewhat of Gucci Eau de Parfum, the one with the brown juice in the
clear glass bottle.
Paul Schütze Behind the Rain – Wild Frankincense
the Rain is one of those wild, freeform bag of ‘smells’ that the perfumer seems
to have corralled in from his atmosphere – a liquid message from his world to
ours, a bundling up of the collected smells of the woodshop and the painter’s
studio. It is green-brown, vegetal, sharp, and more than slightly weird. But it
is also deeply invigorating. Something in it electrifies me.
the Rain is nominally a modern incense perfume à la Comme des Garcons. Yet from
within the sleek lines of its minimalist architecture emanates the smells of
Olde World Europe – oil lamps, liniment, centuries-old wood, glue bindings,
turpentine, anise-scented toothpaste, and horsehair brushes idling in glasses
of solvent. A dusty frankincense turns the polished wood and oily aromas of the
workshop into a (homey) place of worship.
might be an indoor scent entirely were it not for the wet rootiness of fennel,
mastic, vetiver, and all manner of violently-uprooted vegetation sweeping gusts
of air into closed rooms with their strange prairie outdoorsiness. The scent
has one foot inside, one foot outside, ready to bolt in a Heathcliffian huff.
Behind the Rain is imagined along the same lines as Marescialla by Santa Maria
Novella and Olibanum by Profumum –more a summoning of the elements than a scent.
Thank God perfumes like this still exist.
is the third point on the triangulation of what I like to call the ‘powdered
sugar incense’ category, between the rose champagne fizz of Maria Candida
Gentile’s Sideris and the doughnutty yumminess of Reve d’Ossian (Oriza L.
Legrand). I am drawn to the gently edible edge to these incense perfumes,
because they calm the naturally sharp angles of frankincense by filtering it
through the haze of powdered sugar that rises off a sweet bun when you bite
is thickly dusted with the double powder whammy of iris and benzoin in its
topnotes and made slightly sherbety with the addition of rose or lemon. As
others before me have pointed out, this combination of iris and incense is
reminiscent of the Tauerade present in both Incense Rosé and Les Années 25
(Tauer), although far less powerful or astringent – Rosarium is softly, sweetly
bready, rather than battery acid radiant.
what really makes Rosarium special is the carrot seed accent, which gives the
powdery incense sweetness an unusually earthy-rooty depth. This smells like
metal slicing through upturned earth, but also like a warm, mealy pulp made of
sawdust and rainwater. The carrot seed effect makes my mouth water, although
technically there is nothing edible about it. I notice that the carrot seed
present in Santal Blush (Tom Ford) has a similar effect, except for the
addition of cumin, which makes it even wheatier.
combination of sweet incense dust, milk-soaked Easter bread, and metallic earth
or hazelnuts in Rosarium is pretty wonderful, and if my ‘powdered sugar
incense’ needs weren’t already being met by the brighter, more natural-smelling
Sideris, I would seriously think about putting it on my putative ‘To Buy’ list
(whereupon it would likely languish for years).
Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense
It sounds explosive, which is strange, because it smells explosive too,
especially when it tumbles out in that first, aldehyded rush of sugared pine
needles, frankincense, and cinnamon-dipped red fruits. The pine ‘flavor’ in Wazamba
is the connecting dot (for me) between the coniferous notes and the naturally
piney facet of frankincense. As with its close relative, Filles en Anguilles by
Serge Lutens, the pine notes read as something sunlit and Mediterranean, rather
than snowy and Northern, a feeling cleverly underlined by a tangy cypress note.
Wazamba, the umbrella pines are bent sideways by a Bora or a Sirocco, the soil
beneath them is springy with orange-brown pine needles, and everything is warm,
dry, and aromatic. It is an extremely fruity scent, if you stand back and look
at it from a distance – dried plum and cranberries, I think, more than apple.
But up close, the piney-coniferous freshness of the woods proves an effective
bridle, slowing the roll of the fruit and sobering it up. There is also quite a
lot of clove or cinnamon, which manifests as a dustiness or chalkiness of
texture in the gradient of the wood rather than as a hotly-spiced standalone accent.
I think Wazamba proves that, in the right hands, heavy-duty stuff like plum or myrrh
and frankincense can be manipulated to take up the shape of light filtering
through sea-leaning pine trees. Nice (but non-essential).
Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense
the past ten years or so, as supplies of it dwindled and the secondary market
dried up, Norma Kamali Incense has attained legendary status approaching that
of the 1804 Bust Dollar for coin collectors or the Pikachu Illustrator Card for
Pokémon fans. Only the original Djedi (Guerlain), Iris Gris (Jacques Fath), and
Chypre (Coty) top it for rarity and collector value, though modern tastes
probably lean more towards the Norma Kamali. But how much of the appreciation
for Norma Kamali Incense is due to its unavailability and how much to its
intrinsic qualities as a scent?
bought and sold a 10ml decant of the later edition and tested two sample vials
of it – one a cognac brown from (presumably) the early edition and the other a
yellowy gold (later edition) – I suspect that it is the former. Norma Kamali is
striking, but perhaps not as unique as people assume. I smell echoes of it in Amber
Absolute and Sahara Noir (both Tom Ford), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio),
the original Messe de Minuit (Etro), Calling All Angels (April Aromatics), DEV#4
(Olympic Orchids), and 03. Apr. 1968 (Rundholz).
connects all of these to Norma Kamali Incense is the bittersweet, smoky quality
of the labdanum material used, maybe due to a touch of Hydrocarboresine, a
Biolandes-owned natural derivative of cistus-labdanum, which lends perfumes a
rich ‘High Mass’ incense effect that lurches between the bitterness of
buckwheat honey and the sweetness of toffee. Aside from the Hydrocarboresine,
it seems to lean heavily on a nexus of copal – a South American resin that
smells herbaceously bitter (burnt bay leaf) – a rubbery myrrh, and a hulking
block of super-dry labdanum that smells like a leather saddle smoldering in the
grate of a fire. The Hydrocarboresine is instrumental to creating that oddly
animalic, stale, waxy awfulness that is half holy, half-demons-summoned-from-the-depths-of-hell.
Kamali Incense is undeniably characterful, but you have to be up for that
particular brand of gloom when you put it on. This is a scent that demands the
commitment of the whole day – God help you if you think you’re just going to be
able to dab on a bit, test it, and then wash it off again. It has a strange way
of making you feel as if you are choking on the ashy fumes of a censer swinging
directly over your head (with you desperately wishing the priest would move on
so you can breathe again). Phenomenally burnt, colossal in stature, and more
than a bit overwhelming, Norma Kamali Incense would be, I feel, slightly a bit
too over the top for confession, unless you’re confessing to the Devil himself in
the ashes of Notre Dame (in which case it would be perfect).
Incense Flash (Tauerville) – Frankincense Haiku
what it says on the tin, Incense Flash presents a somewhat abbreviated but
nonetheless satisfying picture of incense resins half-smoked on the censer. It
leads the charge with a piney frankincense and quickly adds in the tarrier,
bootstrap molasses nuances of myrrh for heft. It is smoky, but this is due to
the resins themselves rather than the addition of birch tar, so there is still
air to breathe and it never quite tips over into acridity.
is some rubber and fuel detritus floating around in the frankincense accord,
but that is just the nature of frankincense – anyone’s who has ever bought or
burned any will recognize this aspect immediately. The dry woods and Ambroxan
in the base are less satisfying to me. I am never sold on the ‘clean starched
shirt taken off an aftershave-doused male body’ accord this tandem births like
a malevolent serpent into the world. Yet it is never as aggressively
‘soap-powder-shot-into-your-nostrils’ as Incense Extrême, a small mercy for
which I am very grateful.
main issue with this scent is that it smells like something I could knock
together myself. There is a lazy, homemade edge to this that disappoints.
Incense Flash is very fairly priced, but it is one of those products that make
you aware of the mark-up exactly at the point you’re consuming it, like the
store-bought apple tart that tastes fine, but you can taste that they cut a few
corners and just knocked it out onto the production line in time for the 5 o’
clock rush, so you’re kind of questioning even the measly €6 you spent on it.
Sombre Negra(Yosh) – Frankincense Fougère
world’s first frankincense fougère? Someone is going to write an angry letter
contradicting me on that. I don’t care. Listen up, ladies, because I am writing
this for you. Sombre Negra is written about as one of the standout incense
fragrances of the genre. I have no issue with the incense part of the equation.
The promised ‘blackness’ is all there – a gorgeously sooty, dusty frankincense
seemingly swept out from under the censers and grates of Europe’s most commanding
cathedrals with the sole purpose of putting the fear of God in you and making
you repent. It is dour. It is suitably sturm-und-drang.
and really, women, listen up because I am slowly but inexorably getting to the
point – the other half of this fragrance is your brother’s shirt collar circa
1985. Remember the male aroma of shirts soaked in enough Drakkar Noir to scour
the bath? Remember the posturing and the putting on of that older male ‘skin’
to be able to face the world in all their pimpled, trembling glory? Have you
ever had to lie in the bed of a young male relative while a-visiting and known
the horror of those clammy, Brut-soaked sheets that made you wish you could
disassociate from your own body? Ladies, I have three brothers and four male
cousins. I do not mock. I am merely reminding you.
Flamboyant opens with a peculiar note of stale fag ash, like clothes after a
night out in a disco, its breath freshened up a tiny bit by a fir balsam or
pine note. There is nothing particularly joyful or uplifting about the frankincense.
It creates instead a cool, flat grey-green aura that reminds me of mold
crumbling into dust on a piece of bread.
There is a dry, metallic tinge to Encens Flamboyant that makes it quite similar
in feel (if not scent) to Tauer’s Incense Extrême – they share a certain
austerity and ‘bareness’ of structure. It also shares that notorious stale
cigarette note with Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette, though that is a
fragrance I like much better because the fag ash is balanced out by a minty
green (and surprisingly cheap-smelling) jasmine note that makes it feel like
someone covering up the scent of a sneaky cigarette with a drugstore ‘floral-ish’
cologne. Encens Flamboyant, lacking that little quirk of humor, feels a bit like
wearing a hair shirt.
Tinkerbell and the Archangel Gabriel got together to make a perfume, Sideris is
what they would come up with. Two things are important to mention here –
radiance and scale. Radiance-wise, Maria Candida Gentile has somehow managed to
take the heaviest and stickiest substances in perfumery – French labdanum, frankincense,
myrrh, beeswax – and infuse the whole thing with light and air. This is a
perfume that radiates. It glows. In fact, what hits you first, when you spray
it on, is this incredible note of powdered sugar, the result of a diffuse mix
of frankincense and rose. This powdered sugar note coats the entire perfume
from head to toe, a sort of fairy dust sifted over the heavier resins. A gentle
shake of the spice jar – pepper and ginger – add to the sprightly,
nose-tingling effect. The dust is finally anchored and settled at the base by
is nothing synthetic in feel or reach of the incense here. And yet, Sideris
achieves an unearthly radiance that would normally only be possible with Iso E
Super or another woody amber material. Incredible.
important to me, however, is the fact that even in the crowded field of incense
scents, Sideris manages to distinguish itself as a completely different beast.
It is not one of those soaring High Mass perfumes like Avignon by Comme des
Garcons or LAVS by UNUM, scents which take incense, blow it up into
cathedral-sized places of worship, and instill a sense of gloom and awe into
Sideris is an incense-based perfume scaled to infinitely more humble
proportions. You can tell that a woman made this. It is a quiet moment of
reflection over a cup of tea. It is the private rolling out of a prayer mat in
your bedroom as dawn approaches. More than anything, it is a priest sweeping
out the steps of the church as he opens up for the day, the mica from the dust
glittering in the sun as he gives you a grin and a lusty ‘Buongiorno!’ on your
way to get an espresso.
don’t have to be a Catholic or go to church to like this. I put this on, and no
matter what kind of bad day I am having, I feel like I am floating around in my
own personal cloud of magic fairy dust, protected by all the bad juju around
Fumée (Miller Harris) – Fresh
is funny how sometimes it’s the fragrances you wear the most are the ones you
never bother to write about. I am on my second bottle of this elegant woods and
resins concoction, and yet now when I sit down to put pen to paper, I realize I
have never really analyzed the notes. La Fumée performs quietly in the
background of your day, like smoke from incense or oud embedded in the fabric
of your clothes. It starts off on a greenish frankincense note, like crushed
pine needles, pepper, and lemons, creating a fresh, masculine vibe that continues
for much of the scent.
Wafting in and out of the composition is a light smoke note from a combination
of the cade and birch tar, but there is also a dry labdanum in the mix,
performing its teetering act between tinder-dry paper that’s about to catch
fire and liquid tar. Creamy sandalwood takes over from the piney, terpenic
facets of the frankincense, nudging the scent into a faintly sweet-and-sour
sweat direction. But none of that describes how easy this scent is to wear, or
how pleasurable in its humming-in-the-background way. Whereas other resin
scents hit you over the head, this one wears like an elegant, transparent veil
that exists only at the corner of your field of vision. Like a former boyfriend
of mine, it is small but perfectly formed.
frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is central to its
aroma, and this is precisely the characteristic that Absolute Frankincense has
chosen to highlight. The scent extends the silvery bite of the resin by
flanking it with a lime-like bergamot and some very natural-smelling coniferous
notes. The result smells clean and high-toned – an expression of frankincense
oil itself, as opposed to the burnt, smoky notes of the resin as it bubbles on
who love the more severe takes on frankincense such as Annick Goutal’s Encens
Flamboyant will appreciate Absolute Frankincense. Just be aware that this oil
is monastic in its approach, and that the green purity of the resin has been
prioritized far above the smoky, resinous, or sweet notes that usually flank
frankincense. This is the cold, smooth smell of the unburned resin itself, an
almost exact match to the aroma of the resin when you rub it between the palms
of your hands. My criticism is that Absolute Frankincense is almost too simple
– too close to the aroma of good quality frankincense oil itself – to be worth
the cost of entry.
All Angels (April Aromatics)
– Butter Caramel Frankincense
All Angels is perhaps one of my favorite incense compositions, and although it mostly
centers around a tremendously complex, bittersweet labdanum material (helped
along, I suspect, by a dose of the Biolandes Hydrocarboresine, a natural derivative
of cistus-labdanum that gives both Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali their utterly
toothsome burnt honey/cinder toffee quality), there is a huge dose of sooty
frankincense in the opening half that firmly establishes the holy side of the
holy-slash-edible equation that this scent has going on.
All Angels smells like incense smoking and spluttering to a halt inside a stone
jar of chestnut honey so ancient it’s become a stiff brown paste. I can never decide
if it is is the kind of thing you slather yourself in when you want someone to eat
you or the kind of thing you wear to commune with a Higher Power, but maybe that’s
nel Vento (Bois 1920) – Frankincense
Dior’s Mitzah, April Aromatics Calling All Angels, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, Contre
Bombarde 32, and Bois 1920’s own Real Patchouly, Vento nel Vento blurs the
lines between amber, incense, spices, and woods, making it rather difficult to
pin down. Which is exactly what I like about it. It’s not pure frankincense –
its frankincense plus all the other stuff I like (probably a lot more
than straight-up frank).
nel Vento is not, to be clear, ground-breaking stuff. But it is a good
kitchen-sink of a thing that’s perfect for when you feel like wearing something
warm and resinous without condemning yourself to a full day of enough
straight-up amber to put you in a sugar coma or an incense so monastic that it turns
into a hair shirt by dinnertime. The opening is all about balmy, dark
frankincense paired and smoky labdanum resin, lifted by a thyme or rosemary
note that makes me want to bite my arm. The herb is phenolic, like smoke rising
off a tar pit – akin to the burnt thyme note atop Interlude Man.
Although it is not sweet, the smoke and herbs are balanced out by a smooth, round edible quality. Perhaps it is the lemony cream of the elemi resin or, again, that Hydrocarboresine material from Biolandes. Whatever it is, it reads like soft black licorice vines, the mild ones perched precisely between sweet and salty and whose major selling point is their satisfying yield as you bite into them. The slightly tarry, smoky labdanum stretches out into the heart, and as the thyme and frankincense taper off, it is joined by a smooth amber and patchouli.
There is a small touch of oud in the heart, enough to give it an interesting
sourness that smacks of wood chips and herbs soaked in water before distilling.
Often, incensey ambers or ambery incenses ruin the effect by having one element
stick out too much, such as a too-sharp herbal note, an overly piney
frankincense, or an overload of vanilla. In Vento nel Vento, the whole is
perfectly round, smooth, and integrated. No one note catches at your skin like
a forgotten clothes pin.
Vento nel Vento starts off with immense volume (sillage) but does a surprisingly gentle fade-out, becoming very quiet after 3-4 hours. In the base, an ambergris note contributes a musky, salted caramel glaze to the finish. It is subtle – not so much the smell of ambergris tincture itself with its usual marine and earthy funk, rather the effect of white ambergris, which has little scent of its own. White ambergris, the finest grade, acts instead as a magnifying glass held up to the other notes in the composition. Here, it adds a sensual, skin-like glow that animates the resins, amber, and sandalwood like blowing onto hot coals.
Noir (Tom Ford) – Frank
inexplicably discontinued as its sibling, Amber Absolute, Sahara Noir is for
many the standout of the frankincense field. It has the advantage of being both
familiar and novel at the same time, essentially dusting off the black pepper
frankincense core of Black Cashmere (Donna Karan), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford),
and even Black (Comme des Garcons), before adding cinnamon and tobacco to
highlight the authentically dusty-sooty texture of the frankincense, and burnt
sugar and orange rind for a sweet-n-sour brightness that illuminates its
darkness. Though quite sharp at first, once it settles in a bit, what you
notice about Sahara Noir is just how smooth and high-gloss it actually is (a
sort of Tom Ford signature, I think).
objectively speaking, this is obviously a really solid fragrance – well made,
with good quality materials, rich and warm, yet true to the chilly coniferous
sting of frankincense. However, since I have owned and then sold or swapped
away two whole bottles of this monster, there is obviously something about
Sahara Noir that isn’t doing it for me at a personal level. The best I can come
up with is that it is two-thirds the way to Amber Absolute, which only serves
to remind me that I’d much rather be wearing Amber Absolute instead.
Holy Terror(Arcana) – Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens
the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product
description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk,
thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord. The myrrh and
frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather
than as accurate representations of their natural selves. So, for example,
there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as
frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to
myrrh. Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular. Indeed,
they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.
point out that Holy Terror smells more resin-like or ‘generically resinous’ is, by the way, not a criticism but an
observation. Some people blind buy incense or resin scents because they are
trying to find something that accurately represents the aroma of a specific
resin, like, for example, unlit frankincense, oud wood (rather than the oil),
myrrh, or copal. Incense freaks tend to be very specific about the effect they
are looking for. Therefore, my note about the nature of the resins in Holy
Terror is simply for clarification.
Terror is more about the homely smell of incense-scented things than High Mass.
It is not dark or massively smoky or acrid. It is not a literal incense or burning resin scent like Avignon (Comme
des Garcons). It is sweet herbs, tree sap, and woodsmoke wrapped in a
just-snuffed-out candlewax accord. It is slightly musky, which creates a tinge
of intimacy, like the skin of someone pressing close to you in church. This
gives the scent a human aura that is enormously inviting.
ÂmeSombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute
The Âme Sombre series (Âme Sombre Oud Infusion, Âme Sombre Grade 1, and Âme Sombre Grade II) was conceived as a tribute to, well, Tribute – the landmark frankincense-cedar attar from Amouage that has such a cult following that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a tiny squib of it. Naturally, when Amouage discontinued its line of attars, the desire for Tribute increased even further. Nothing enhances Holy Grail status for a scent like scarcity and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it. Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha stepped in with his take on the original.
Âme Sombre variations revolve
around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like
smoke from the censer at High Mass. This frankincense is surrounded by a very
good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine. The florals never quite succeed in
speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense –
they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like light
through a stained glass window. In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco,
ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky
bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres. The bitterness is alleviated
somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies
Infusion Oud is the most expensive and
opulent version of Âme Sombre.
It rivals or even surpasses the cost of the original Tribute, due to the
time-consuming and messy task of infusing a small quantity of Âme Sombre Grade I with smoke from
sinking grade oud wood chips, which Sultan heated on a burner directly
underneath the attar itself.
Infusion version therefore contains the uniquely clean, resinous aroma that
comes from heating oud wood (as opposed to the fermented, ‘overripe’ aroma of
pure oud oil). The oud infusion doubles down on the rich smokiness of the
frankincense, but also offers a slightly green sweetness that serves to soften
the essentially bitter character of the scent. This version, although expensive
and now also possibly discontinued, is the most balanced version of Tribute,
and my personal favorite.
Grade I and Âme Sombre Oud
Infusion both relate closely to the original Tribute (albeit with a bigger
emphasis on rose), and either would be an excellent substitute for the now
discontinued attar. Âme Sombre
Grade II differs quite dramatically from both the Oud Infusion and Grade I, but
I like it a lot as a standalone scent and wish it had been marketed
Grade I begins with an incredibly lush,
lemony rose that has the effect of flooding the gloomy church corridors with
light and air. Rose is usually added to oud to give it a sweet juiciness to
counteract its sour, stark woodiness, and here it plays that role both for the
austere, pine-like frankincense and
the sourish cedar. Then a clutch of dark, balmy resins and leather notes moves
in to draw a black velvet cloak over the bright, sourish rose, rendering the
tone of the attar somber and serious. Grade I is slightly darker, more
phenolic, and more sour-rosy in feel than the Oud Infusion, which draws sweet
woodsmoke notes from the agarwood infusion. Grade I also employs more of a
focus on balmy leather notes than the other versions.
Âme Sombre Grade I feels more
Northern in tone than Middle-Eastern. There is a fresh juniper note in the
background that further bolsters this ‘Orthodox Church in a chilly Northern
forest’ tonality. In terms of overall approach, Âme Sombre Grade I is perhaps the closest to the original Tribute
with its stark, smoky cedar-frankincense combination. It is also intensely
powerful, lasting on my skin all day and well beyond a shower.
Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) – Pure Frankincense
frankincense as taut and as vegetal as a piece of freshly-peeled silver birch. The
vin jaune of the incense genre, Incense Pure does not smell of High
Mass, but of the bright, sticky sap weeping from the tree itself, softened by the
powdery green smell of living wood. Plenty of fresh air swirls in and around
the frankincense molecules here, cutting and lifting them without (interestingly)
adding any the citrusy ‘lime peel’ nuances normally associated with
frankincense. It smells like an outdoors cathedral, its roof formed by a
closely-knit canopy of wiry spruce and oak saplings. Extremely dry and bright,
I always feel like I need a glass of water when I wear Incense Pure. An ambery
warmth in the lower register – intermittent
at best – adds a relieving warmth, if not any real sweetness.
those looking to get into incense perfumes, Basilica is a great starting point.
Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense,
this blend smells purely of High Mass. It is not complicated or indeed complex,
but its straightforwardness is part of its charm. In particular, the
naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky –
makes this an absolute pleasure. Soft and soulful, Basilica is like Comme des
Garcons’ Avignon in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it
should come with a trigger warning.
(Profumum) – Polished
skips the high-pitched lime peel notes of most frankincense renditions, instead
focusing almost entirely on the material’s rooty, medicinal sootiness. There
are some very fine Omani frankincense varieties, like Hojari, that display a
soft creamy-tangy orange note up top instead of the usual lime leaf, and this
is what Profumum has cleverly chosen to mimic here with its brief splash of
orange in the topnotes.
Rather than resin, I get the impression of dark, shiny, polished woods, an
ancient armoire maybe, carved from a single trunk of pine felled in some cold
North clime. It smells like what I imagine wenge smells like – the hidden
underbelly of wood, closest to the core, where no light penetrates. A
particularly mineralic, earthy myrrh deepens this impression. This one stirs
me. I might have to get a travel bottle.
Al Masih(Mellifluence) – Messianic Frankincense
Masih means Messiah in Arabic, one of the many names for Jesus. And to a
certain extent, Al Masih’s incense is
more Catholic High Mass than Islamic cannon. Al Masih opens with a frankincense
note as piercing as freshly-crushed pine needles, its citric edge underscored
by a lemony tandem of elemi resin and petitgrain. The total effect is of a
Mediterranean church with its doors thrown open to allow the soft breeze
brushing over mastic to mingle with the scent of unburned resin. Cypress,
cedar, and hyssop all add to its fresh, outdoorsy air, confirming that churches
are not the only places where communion with a Greater Spirit takes place.
drydown is a surprise. The sharp brightness of the herbs and resins softens, before
collapsing entirely into the sensual creaminess of sandalwood. The sandalwood
lends a golden, wholesome texture to the scent, recalling the bounty of the
harvest and all the good things to eat stored in the cellar. This series of
transitions has the effect of shifting the scene from the wildness of the maquis
to a soft and homely devotion scaled to domestic proportions. At once evocative
and pleasing, Al Masih might strike a chord for lovers of outdoorsy incense, as
well as those who love the ‘medicinal unguent’ bent of modern Italian artisanal
perfumery – think Bogue and O’Driu, albeit far, far simpler.
Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense
pine needles (frankincense) and juniper berries whipped into an egg-white
vanilla froth. Eau Duelle is really good and really simple – an essay on the
duality of two opposing elements of a cool, spicy frankincense-black tea accord
and a warm, woody vanilla. To non-French speakers, the name could also be
suggestive of a duel, an old-fashioned fight to the death between two forces.
Everything about Eau Duelle just clicks right into place. The opening is cold and aromatic, fizzy with a spray of pink pepper and juniper berries. Hiding behind the aromatic spices and black tea is a robust vanilla that is sweet enough to give pause, but – at least in the eau de parfum version – thankfully made a little bitter, rough, and woody with the addition of Ambroxan. Yep, you read that right. I praised a perfume that has Ambroxan in it. Don’t get too used to it. Eau Duelle happens to be the rare example of a fragrance that’s greatly improved by a dollop of Ambroxan.
It is worth pointing something out about the frankincense note here. It presents as not the freshly-lit, High Mass kind of frankincense, but rather, the waxy, almost herbal scent lingering in the air of incense long since extinguished. The vanilla is sharpened by the slight evergreen edge of a frankincense hangover. The texture is something special, with a starchy, papery feel to it that makes me think of freshly-opened books.
Like most Diptyques, Eau Duelle wears lightly and unobtrusively but has a presence substantial enough to surprise you in fits and bursts throughout the day. I love the idea of a non-cakey vanilla paired with a green, effervescent frankincense, and though admittedly quite plain and non-charismatic, Eau Duelle just floats my boat.
On a personal note, in January 2015, I contracted a serious virus that made me anosmic for about six weeks, and Eau Duelle was the first perfume that I was able to smell again as I was recovering. Therefore, whenever I smell it now, those feelings of gratitude and euphoria come flooding back. Like Parfum Sacre, Eau Duelle will always be something I love almost absent-mindedly, in that fuzzy, all-love-no-logic way we love our children.
Arturetto Landi has done with 03.Apr.1968 is to take the minimalist structure
of church incense and flesh it out with a gaudy array of rich, bitter, and
tooth-rottingly sweet flavors. It smells like a fat wodge of Christmas cake
doused in brandy and set to burn on a priest’s censer alongside a hulking lump
of frankincense. Underneath these smoky, soiled-fruit aromas, there is an
enticing whiff of heliotrope, a huge purple chunk of marzipan charred at the
edges. Smoke fights with burned sugar, and we all win.
The fruit, in particular, is what makes this incense smell unholy, so unclean. It is supposedly lychee, but really it could be any fruit – apples, raisins, dates – because the fruit is so close to collapse that all you can smell are the high-pitched alcohol fumes of decay that belong exclusively to fruit. Joined by a dry frankincense that flits queasily between clove and bay leaf, the fruit is anything but wholesome. Luca Turin was the first to point out that the appeal of Amouage’s Lyric Woman lay in its ‘plangent, overripe note, the exhalation of forgotten fruit in a sealed room.’ The rotting fruit note achieves a similar effect for 03.Apr.1968, at first coming off as a little stomach-churning, but then working to moisten and plump up the bitter, austere incense.
Many people have compared 03.Apr.1968 to the late, great Norma Kamali Incense, and yes, there is most certainly a kinship. The frankincense used here is similarly dry and almost stale, lacking all the citrusy, pine-like nuances usually associated with it. Reacting with the fruit, booze, and sugar, the frankincense takes on the spicy bitterness I associate with copal resin, which along with smoky labdanum is what gives Norma Kamali its unique character.
But in truth, 03.Apr.1968 occupies the same general category of incense as Norma Kamali rather than smelling exactly like it. They are both fatty and overstuffed, the very opposite of the crisply tailored haikus of Comme des Garcons. They are both rather unwholesome – the type of thing to wear to a bacchanalia rather than to church. In truth, though, although traces of it are present in the ‘bones’ of several other incense perfumes, nothing really smells precisely like Norma Kamali Incense. However, for my money, the puffy, burned sugar heliotrope makes 03.Apr.1968 the easier wear.
Well, I say easier, but it is by no means easy. This is a potent fragrance that takes commitment to wear, and even then I would only attempt it when the barometer goes below 10 degrees Celsius. Only three notes are listed: frankincense, lychee, and heliotrope, but the overall effect is so rich and multi-dimensional that I wonder if that’s really the notes list or if the perfumer is so skilled that he was able to wrangle a wealth of detail out of these raw materials.
Sources of Samples/Bottles:All reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store – with the exception of the sample of Absolute Frankincense, a sample of which was kindly sent to me free of charge by Clive Christian at the beginning of 2017. My blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review.