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Attars & CPOs

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Why attars? Why oils?

25th October 2021

The longer form of that question being: why wear an attar or oil-based perfume at all when there are plenty of perfectly good spray perfumes out there?

 

Actually, there are several reasons.

 

One reason some people prefer attars to spray perfumes is because their religion prohibits the consumption of alcohol, and attars do not contain alcohol. There are several schools of thought in Islam regarding the use of alcohol in products such as perfume, but the dominant one believes very strongly that it is haram (forbidden).

 

Most religious figures in the Islamic world advise that alcohol-based perfume should be avoided at all costs unless one needs to cauterize a wound with it[i].  This is, by the way, the only circumstance under which Dior Sauvage should ever be applied to one’s skin.

 

Many Muslims are passionate consumers of perfume, deriving encouragement from key passages in the Qur’an itself.  One such passage refers to Mohammed as being a fan of perfume: ‘The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) liked aromatic things and perfume, he used them himself and recommended their use to others.  On waking up he would relieve himself, perform Wudhu, and apply fragrance on his clothing.  If fragrance was presented to him, he would never refuse it.  He would use perfume at night too, especially on Fridays for Jumu’ah prayers.’[ii]

 

Another passage exhorts good Muslims to spend money on attars:  ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) used to say that, ‘Whoever spends a third of his wealth on ‘Itr is not being extravagant.’  (A prime case of enabling if I ever saw one).

 

Another reason to wear attars or oil-based perfume is culture, which, of course, is the natural extension of religion in many parts of the world.  Attar distillation is first and foremost an Indian art.  Unearthed clay pots belonging to the Harappan civilization suggest that distillation had already begun during the Indus Valley era[iii], but it seems to have only truly flourished as a boundary-crossing art form when the Persiatic Mughal dynasty that ruled out of India for several generations used patronage and their knowledge of techniques outside of India’s boundaries to scale up local attar perfumery and flower-growing.  Even after the decline of the Mughal Empire, however, the use of attars and oils remained important in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism throughout India.

 

In India, attars are used for ayurvedic reasons, as well as for cultural events such as weddings.  Their use of the fantastic range of native plants, herbs, spices, flowers, and woods on offer throughout India is a way of honoring Mother India and an important connection to a shared cultural heritage.

 

In Arabian, Turkish, and Persian cultures, attars are used for prayer, with the robes of the Imam and the faithful richly anointed with rose and oud mukhallats.  But perfume occupies a much wider role in Arabian, Turkish, and Persian society at large, where both men and women adore rich attars and fragrances.  Arabs traditionally keep a tray of attars with which to welcome guests into their homes and to pass around after dinner.  They also fumigate their robes, hair, beards, and homes with precious incense materials such as oud wood, frankincense, and boukhour (mixed resinous materials), which they burn slowly on burners known as mabkhara.

 

Another excellent reason to wear attars is that they are the last hold-out – beyond all-natural perfumery – for abundant use of exquisite raw materials such as real jasmine oil, oud oil, ambergris, and rose.  Whereas synthetics such as Black Agar, Hedione, and Ambroxan have largely replaced natural oud oil, jasmine, and ambergris respectively in Western commercial perfumery, you can be reasonably sure to find the real stuff in attars and mukhallats (beyond a certain price point).  Furthermore, attars and mukhallats make generous use of these materials.

 

Attars exalt the most exquisite raw materials known to man.  There is something to be said for the simple but powerful beauty born out of gathering two or three incredible materials such as oud, rose, and sandalwood, and letting them work their synergistic magic on your skin.  Attars are, in general, far simpler in construction than spray perfumes.  But when that simple structure is adorned with the most magical-smelling, boundary-shifting essential oils, then who needs more?

 

Many people get into attars because they are drawn to a fantasy of Eastern exoticism, a tug on the collective imagination exerted by colorful visions of veils, palaces, and stories from the lips of Scheherazade herself.  Now this is problematic.  Although Westerners generally intend the word ‘oriental’ to be complementary –  an irresistible counter-weight to what we believe to be the comparative drabness of life in the West – we have allowed the idea of the ‘Orient’ to take root in our imagination without stopping to investigate either its basis or the harm it can do.

 

Indeed, though much used in the marketing and discussion of perfume, there is mounting scrutiny over use of the word ‘oriental’.  First, its value as a descriptor is pretty weak.  Oriental means eastern, but east of what, exactly?  How can India, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, and China – vastly different geographies, cultures, and peoples – all be grouped under the word ‘oriental’ from a perfume point of view?  Short answer: they can’t. 

 

Second, the word ‘oriental’ can be enormously Othering to the people whose resources and cultural identity have been purloined by countries who have either colonized Asian, Middle Eastern, or African territories in the past or benefited from their colonization.  Surprisingly, there has been quite a bit of pushback in the fragrance community over retiring the O word.  But if even one person in Asia or Africa or the Middle East finds the word hurtful, then there can be no justification for continuing to use it.  History will judge us harshly if we stray on the wrong side of arguments like this.  In the Attar Guide, therefore, there will be a section on ambers, resins, and balsams – not on the so-called category of ‘oriental’ perfumes[iv].  

 

Regardless of nomenclature, however, given that Westerners have little to no cultural experience of the strong, animalic aromas of oud oil, musk, and ambergris, encountering these materials for the first time is thrilling.  For some, it will prove to be an emotional or spiritual awakening from which there is no return.

 

But even if the ‘Closer to Nature, Closer to God/Shiva/Allah’ argument for wearing attars and ouds does not apply to other segments of the oil perfume sector – dupes, for example, but also indie perfume oils, roll-ons, luxury niche perfume oils and so on – there are still many reasons why a customer might prefer to buy an oil-based perfume over a traditional, alcohol-based one.

 

Fans of American indie perfume oils, for example, choose oils as part of a general anti-mainstream lifestyle choice that rejects the marketing guff and big corporate budgets of conglomerates such as L’Oréal or Estée Lauder.  Indie oils are hugely imagination and fantasy-driven, catering to highly individualistic desires not met in mainstream perfumery.

 

Many people also value oil versions of their favorite scents to wear perfume in a quieter, more subtle way.  The oil versions of the Le Labo, Fragrance du Bois, and April Aromatics scents, for example, are all subdued versions of their eau de parfum counterparts, thus the perfect choice for yoga, meditation, the office, and those pesky visits to the dentist.

 

The oil format also brings more prosaic benefits for brands.  Oil is a cost-effective carrier, less irritating to the skin than alcohol, and, importantly, can be shipped internationally without setting off any Hazmat alarms.  In recent years, for example, small American indies such as Dame Perfumery and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz Perfumes have introduced oil-based formats of their most famous perfumes, allowing them to access markets such as Europe and Asia, heretofore off limits due to the cost and hassle of shipping alcohol-based perfumes outside of America.  

 

Many people prefer to wear oil-based perfumes because of the sensual, tactile nature of wearing an oil.  Notions of luxury and self-care are attached to oil-based perfumes, a feature often emphasized by high-end niche brands.  The artistic director of Henry Jacques, Christophe Tollemer, for example, explained the appeal of oil-based perfumery as follows: ‘It is personal, emotional, and almost as if you’re protecting yourself in a bubble. It is sensual, seductive and elegant.’[v]

 

Oils also play into the modern consumer’s desire for customization, a crucial factor for the indie segments of the market that believes strongly in skin chemistry. Attars need body warmth and movement to activate the scent molecules. In a world of mass production and product homogeneity, the idea that your perfume is an entirely personal mix of raw materials, body heat, and skin chemistry exerts an irresistible tug.

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

 

[i] https://islamqa.info/en/1365

[ii] http://www.zikr.co.uk/content/view/70/111/

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/making-perfume-from-the-rain/391011/

[iv] Likewise, I will henceforth be scrubbing the entire category from this blog.

[v] https://sg.asiatatler.com/style/discovering-henry-jacques

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Introduction

22nd October 2021

Are you mystified by mukhallats, confused by concentrated perfume oils, anxious about attars, open-mouthed at oud, and dithering on dupes?  You are not alone.  The world of oil perfumery spans a vast territory from the squidge of artisanal oud that will set you back a month’s rent to the Kuumba Made roll-on you lob into your cart with the toilet paper.

 

I have written this Attar Guide to help you make sense of it all.  Over the next few weeks (or months), I’ll be uploading chapters of the Guide right here on Takeonethingoff, starting with a primer on attars, ruhs, mukhallats, and concentrated perfume oils, and seguing into actual reviews.  Stick with me, and by the end, you will be able to buy oils with confidence, secure in the knowledge that you know what goes into making them and why they cost what they do.  You will be a smarter, tougher consumer, able to look past the flashy exoticism of those little gold-capped tola bottles and spot the true gems.

 

The Guide sets out to do two things.  Its first purpose is educational.  Not all oils were created equal, and this will give you the tools you need to tell the difference.  I want you to saunter into the marketplace with the confidence that comes from knowing why one perfume costs thirty-five dollars per millimeter and another only two. 

 

The second purpose of the Guide is critical.  By this, I mean in-depth reviews of a cross-section of oils offered by brands active in each segment of the market, with the aim of sorting out, for you (the reader), the good from the bad, and the sublime from the ridiculous.  I am going to blow open the doors to the often mysterious and ill-lit world of oil-based perfumery, and answer the question that rarely gets answered to my satisfaction, which is: what does it actually smell like?

 

The Attar Guide is by no means exhaustive.  Seven hundred (give or take) oil-based perfumes is a decent sample size, but still just the tip of the iceberg.  Turnover in the oil-based perfume world is intense – what takes your fancy today might not be available to buy tomorrow.  Treat this Guide as you would a dog-eared copy of the Lonely Plant Guide you find on a bus seat.  It still identifies – in broad strokes – the top two or three places in a country worth visiting but features information that was going stale even while the ink was drying.

 

However, for someone who is interested in oil-based perfumes, this Guide could prove very useful indeed.  The genre is so bewilderingly huge that anything that points you in one direction or the other is welcome.  After all, whether you are already knee-deep in the oil-based perfume world, or just starting out, then you will already have discovered just how expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating a journey it can be.

 

First, the cost of entry is high.  Samples of attars are not as widely available as designer scents and even the smallest size bottle (quarter of a tola or roughly three milliliters) can run into the hundreds of dollars, especially if oud or ambergris is involved.  A quarter gram sample of pure artisanal oud can cost up to forty dollars, and even then, you are relying on the vendor’s description to figure out whether you will like it or not.  At this level of investment, trying to find something that will be exactly to your taste is fraught with danger.

 

Sampling within the indie perfume oil world is much easier, not to mention cheaper.  This is because the indie oil scene is dominated by companies in North America, a culture where sampling is regarded as a democratic birthright, in comparison to Europe, where Sales Assistants seem to have always ‘just run out’ the moment you ask.  Americans simply expect that reasonably-priced samples are provided as part of the ‘try before you buy’ portion of the sales funnel.  (We would be foaming at the mouth with jealousy were it not for fact that we’ve seen what their healthcare system entails). 

 

Second, exploration of attar perfumery can be difficult because there is often a dearth of information on what these oils actually smell like.  The official notes published by most of the big houses like Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Ajmal are vague, incomplete, or just plain wrong.  In the American indie perfume oil world, we have the opposite problem.  Purple-prosed product descriptions running to half a page are not uncommon, as well as notes lists so comprehensive that one suspects they contain the actual formula.  While the sparse descriptions for Arabian attars leave the buyer grasping at straws, the descriptions in the indie perfume oil sector give too much information, creating unrealistic expectations in the mind of the buyer as to how the perfume will actually smell.

 

The exception to the problem of too much or too little product information is the artisanal oil niche.  In recent years, there has been a significant upsurge in the number of artisanal attars hitting the market.  Largely ushered in by the market-storming popularity of distill-it-yourself brands like Ensar Oud, Bortnikoff, and Areej Le Doré, these attars have attained the exclusivity and cachet formerly only associated with luxury brands such as Roja Dove and Clive Christian.  Perhaps sensing a small but noticeable shift in luxury or high-net-worth consumer interest in oil-based perfumes, many luxury and high-end indie brands, from Xerjoff and Clive Christian to Auphorie, now have their own lines of attars.

 

Because it attracts mostly genuine fragrance connoisseurs, attars in this segment of the market tend to be very well reviewed and described.  The 313-page (and counting) Basenotes thread on Areej Le Dore is proof of this, as are the wonderfully detailed reviews and interviews with attar and oud artisans on blogs such as Kafkaesque and Persolaise.  However, for most everything falling to the left or the right of this narrow niche, you are largely at the mercy of fulsome marketing copy or the odd mention on an Internet forum (such as the Oudh Ud Aoud Oud Agarwood thread on Basenotes.  or the Ouddict forums). 

 

Of course, blind buying is exciting. Nothing tops the thrill of stumbling over an oil that makes the heart beat a little faster.  As in any situation where you cannot easily test the product or even find out very much about it in advance, the only benchmark turns out to be the question ‘Do I like this?’  But for the risk-averse or those who do not have a bottomless well of money to gamble away, well, that risk is a serious barrier.

 

For many, these are hurdles not worth jumping over and the interest stops there.  After all, if you are about to spend several hundred dollars or a thousand dollars on an unknown oil, then you want as much information about it before whipping out your credit card.  One wouldn’t invest in a horse or a husband before inspecting its undercarriage, and the same due diligence applies here.  Too often, the simple question, ‘What does it smell like?’ is not answered to my satisfaction.  I assume it is the same for you.  And that is why I have written this Guide.

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

The Attar Guide has been ‘under development’ for roughly six year now, but, as with most efforts like this, it has not happened in a vacuum.  Over the years, I have had the immense good fortune of learning from true experts in the field.

 

First of all, any guide or book on fragrance owes a great debt of gratitude to the work of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, the parents of modern fragrance criticism.  Their books both popularized and legitimized the notion of fragrance criticism, elevating it beyond the sphere of influence traditionally dominated by glossy magazine editors and salespeople.  Beyond this, Luca Turin has been a wonderfully supportive, kind, and only occasionally bitchy friend to me over the years.     

 

Then there are the experts in raw materials.  I have been fortunate to learn at the knee of Mandy Aftel, the mother of natural perfumery, as well as Christopher McMahon of (the now sadly closed) White Lotus Aromatics and Trygve Harris of Enfleurage – people with inarguably the most first-hand experience of essential oil production in the world.  Their books, writings, interviews, and explorations have been instrumental to me in understanding how raw materials are produced and how they behave in compositions.  Michelle Krell Kyd of Glasspetalsmoke, a well-respected educator who uses natural science to explain olfaction, has also been a fantastic source of learning for me and many others.  If you are lucky enough to live in Michigan, please sign up to one of her Smell and Tell, or Taste and Tell workshops.  

 

I would like to thank Grant Osborne of Basenotes for not only inviting me to author several articles and interviews for Basenotes over the years, but for just being good people in general.  Always kind, supportive, and fair-minded, Grant is tireless in his dedication to making Basenotes a welcoming home for fragrance enthusiasts.  The length of my articles recently forced him to adjust the code for how long an article can be on Basenotes, which is something I’m inordinately proud of.

 

Other friends are Franco Wright of Luckyscent and Sjorn Plitzko of Essenza Nobile who have not only employed me as a writer over the years, but generously supplied me with friendship, advice, samples of oil-based perfumes, and valuable insight into the commercial side of the perfume world.  Speaking of Franco, the late, great Jtd (Connor McTeague) was the person who introduced us.  Connor was the best writer I have had the pleasure of knowing and I miss him sharply. (I am not sure that it is correct to say ‘sharply’ here but that is how it feels).    

 

On Instagram, the place to which much of today’s fragrance discussion has moved, I would also like to draw attention to the efforts of perfumer-slash-activist Christophe Laudamiel, Pranjal Kapoor (one of the key distillers of raw materials and attars in India, supplying perfumers and fragrance brands), and Scent Festival, an account run by Yosh Han, to raise awareness of cultural, social, and equity costs connected to the production of raw materials.  Together, they are working to dispel some of the smoke and mirrors around perfumery.  It is often eye-opening stuff.     

 

My heartfelt thanks go to the countless individual artisans like Ensar Oud, Russian Adam, J.K. DeLapp, Taha Syed, Ws of Kyara Zen, Dominique Dubrana of Abdes Salaam Attar, Abdullah of Mellifluence, Sultan Pasha, and the folks at Al Shareef Oudh and Imperial Oud, who have all spent considerable amounts of time and money in educating my humble nose.  Many of these artisans sweat it out in some of the world’s most inhospitable places to produce exquisite raw materials.  The very act of making attars, mukhallats, or pure oud oils is an expensive, messy, and all-consuming.  That some of this labor of love has made it onto my skin is something for which I will never not be grateful.

 

Finally, though I was unable to convince any publisher that a book on oil-based perfumery could be marketable to anyone beyond a tiny band of people inside an already narrow niche, I am immensely grateful for the support and advice shared with me by Dominique Brunel and Jeanne Doré of Nez, La Revue Olfactive, the most important and prestigious publication on perfumery and raw materials today, and Barbara Herman, author of the wonderful book ‘Scent and Subversion’ (as well as founder of Eris Parfums).  What I’ve learned is that publishing is a tough sell, unless you already have a platform, a name to trade on, or a quantifiable market that you know will buy your book.  Since I lack most of those things, I have made the decision to put the Guide out there myself, on the one platform I do have, which is Takeonethingoff.  I figure that I owe it to all the wonderful people who have given their own time and resources to help me write this Guide, as well as to anybody who is searching for attar-specific content and not finding it elsewhere.   

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

 

 


All Natural Animalic Aromatic Attars & CPOs Green Hay Herbal Honey House Exploration Immortelle Independent Perfumery Lavender Leather Oud Review Woods

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

1st September 2021

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

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

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

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

 

Hellicum

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Spirit of Narda II

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

 

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

 

 

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

 

Cover Image: Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Aldehydes Amber Ambergris Attars & CPOs Balsamic Chypre Cult of Raw Materials Gold Lists Oriental Osmanthus Oud Resins Review

Gifts of the Three Magi: Going for Gold

30th December 2020

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, Superstitious by 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.    

 

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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.  

  

 

<span>Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@dialex?utm_source=unsplash&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_content=creditCopyText">Diogo Nunes</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/palace?utm_source=unsplash&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a></span>

Photo by Diogo Nunes on Unsplash

Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI)Palatial Gold

 

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.

 

 

Black (Puredistance) Bugatti Gold

 

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 (Amouage)Gold Soap

 

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 (Sultan Pasha Attars) – D’Angkhor Gold

 

 

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.  

 

 

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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 (Arabian Oud) – Souk Gold

 

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.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash

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Gifts of the Three Magi: Frankly Frankincense

11th December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Lisandro Garcia on Unsplash

Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense

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

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

Casbah (Robert Piguet)Spicy Frankincense

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

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

Armani Privé Bois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense

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

Czech & Speake Frankincense and MyrrhHonest Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Vladimir Šoić on Unsplash

Mad et Len Noir EncensAmaretto Frankincense

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

Paul Schütze Behind the RainWild Frankincense

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

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

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

Rosarium (Angela Ciampagna) – Icing Sugar Frankincense

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

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

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

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

Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense

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

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

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

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

Incense Flash (Tauerville)Frankincense Haiku

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

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

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

Sombre Negra (Yosh) Frankincense Fougère

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

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

Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal) Fag Ash Frankincense

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


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

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile)Fairytale Frankincense

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

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

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

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

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

La Fumée (Miller Harris)Fresh Frankincense

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


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

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian) Frankincense Absolute

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

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

Calling All Angels (April Aromatics)Butter Caramel Frankincense

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

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

Vento nel Vento (Bois 1920)Frankincense Plus

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

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

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


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


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

Sahara Noir (Tom Ford)Frank Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Joshua Davis on Unsplash

Holy Terror (Arcana)Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens

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

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

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


Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Anup Ghag on Unsplash


Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio)Pure Frankincense

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

Basilica (Solstice Scents) Starter Pack Frankincense

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

Olibanum (Profumum)Polished Frankincense

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


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

Al Masih (Mellifluence)Messianic Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense

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

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


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

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

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

Apr.03.1968 (Rundholz)Jamaica Cake Frankincense  

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


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


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


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


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

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

Cover Image: Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

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Gifts of the Three Magi: A Myrrh-athon

30th November 2020

What is myrrh? Myrrh is a gum produced by the Commiphorah myrrha species of tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and North-East Africa. Deriving from the Arabic word مر (mur), meaning ‘bitter’, myrrh oil is used all over Arabia, China, and India as a traditional medicine.

Oil versus resin: Myrrh oil is quite different from myrrh resin. Myrrh oil can be bitter, rubbery-smelling, and often quite saline (mushroomy). The resin smells earthier, slightly sweet, with musty undertones – when lit, it smells quite smoky (well, duh).  

What does myrrh smell like? While frankincense is a soaring series of sunny, high-pitched notes like lime peel or crushed pine needles, myrrh is dark, fungal, and gloomy, reminding one of the dark shadows behind massive stone pillars in a cathedral, signed pine, tar, anise, licorice, and the scent of freshly-sliced ceps. It can be soapy, fatty, or rooty. In perfumery, myrrh lends a subtle, earthy tone pitched halfway between soil and stone. It has a sepulchral quality, leading some to categorize it as Gothic or moldy.

Some facets of myrrh are intensely bitter, while some smell like sweet licorice, anise, or rubber. Often the resin smells latex-y and saline (in cookery terms, if frankincense is a citrus fruit, myrrh is volcanic salt).

Personally, I often perceive myrrh as smelling ‘hollow’, as if there were a tear in the fabric of the fragrance where the aroma is supposed to be (a sort of negative space). Myrrh has a deeply atmospheric smell, redolent of the air inside centuries-old European cathedrals.

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

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

Oriental Velours (Les Indémodables)Fog Machine Myrrh

This is a magisterial – and wholly original – take on myrrh. I find something new to marvel at every time I wear it. Fresh spearmint, spruce, rosemary, and fennel pollen crushed hard between my fingers, releasing a bitter, foresty odor into the chill night air, where it meets the equally bitter, foresty myrrh in its natural habitat, oozing from a hundred different cracks in a tree stem. But not the twisted, sun-battered husks of Commiphorah myrrha tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and North-Eastern Africa – imagine instead a Northern pine or spruce standing tall in a Scandinavian forest, weeping big fat sticky tears of myrrh, which magically disintegrate into a million powdery spores once they leave the tree.

The texture of the scent is important to note. Though both fir balsam and myrrh are sticky, dense, resinous materials that are about as easy to manipulate as a tin of molasses, here they seem to cancel each other out and disperse through the air in a sheen of glittering, super-fine mica. The effect is of myrrh and mint plunged into a dust cloud of ‘matte’ peppery notes that smell half like the business end of a just-lit firework and half like the sharp, grey chemical fog emitted by an over-enthusiastic fog machine (think Baptême du Feu by Serge Lutens, the recent Crimson Rocks by Amouage, or Fleurs et Flammes by Antonio Alessandria for similar ‘fog machine’ or gunpowder effect).

The more I wear this, the more I think that the damp, mealy bog land vetiver used here plays the largest role in achieving this textural effect. Gunpowder, fireworks, sulfur – whatever it is, it makes the scent feel exciting and taut. The vetiver acts as a gray-green, washed out, faded piece of velvet tamping everything down, giving the scent a mellow, low-key grassiness that is nonetheless devoid of sunniness or light.

There is something so simultaneously cleansing and plush about this scent that it feels like being wrapped in ermine while breathing in the air of a snowy forest. I’d like to say that the experience feels wholly natural, but of course, it does not. Aside from the ‘fog machine’ or gunpowder effect, there is a tiny hint of that metallic aftershave undertone that anything pine or spruce-like brings to the party.

Happily, though I first perceived this first as a spoiling dose of Iso E Super, I have found that if I re-frame this note for myself as more of a hangover of pine than a deliberate application of some burnt-smelling wood aromachemical, then I can live with it. (I am good at talking myself through the rough spots in a scent that I really love).

Interestingly, the clash of vanilla against this aromatic set of notes, plus that gray-green nutmeal vetiver, creates a brief whoosh of something that feels as powdered and plush as a tin of cocoa powder blown out into hot glass. The ‘velour’ part of Oriental Velours is accurate even if the ‘oriental’ is not – this is old velvet and ancient wooden furniture collapsing with time into dust spores that carry the breath of the forest with them. Licorice, mint, grass, and root buried under acres of quiet, black dust.    

Myrrhiad (Huitième Art) Myrrh for Myrrh Pussies 

A single nugget of myrrh mercy-drowned in a pudding bowl of waxen vanilla, with a sweet amber accord thickening it up like arrowroot. Myrrh will out, of course, and in Myrrhiad, it comes through as the soft, sappy licorice accent running along the back of the scent like rubber tracking.  Think the chewy licorice vines you get in the pick n’ mix at the cinema that are more texture than flavor, rather than the oily, resinous, or mushroomy twang you have in real myrrh. This is essentially myrrh for myrrh pussies, which might be an accurate way of describing me. Balmy, vanillic – Bvlgari Black-lite. Love it.

Photo by Anuja Mary Tilj on Unsplash

Baume du Doge (Eau d’Italie)Myrrh Agrodolce  

Like its brothers, Bois d’Ombre for the same brand, and Dzongkha for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Baume du Doges (Eau d’Italie) is emblematic of a period in Bertrand Duchaufour’s career when he seemed deeply interested in excavating the vegetal, vinegary side of resins for brilliant effect in incense compositions stuffed with dried fruit, smoky grasses and roots, and odd accents like whiskey or wet newspapers. The effect is that of sourness balanced by sugar and a hit of smoke – a sort of myrrh agrodolce.

True to form, the opening of Baume du Doge emits a sharp vetiver and cedarwood frequency that smells like the burn in your throat of a particularly smoky Laphroaig. This spicy burn is simultaneously calmed by a balmy orange milk accord and revived with a clove note that splits the difference between a licked spoon and a virulently camphoraceous mint. This creates a wonderful vanilla-orange-peel-incense accord that smells like Christmas morning. The vanilla is restrained; just a smear of something friendly to take the sting out of the astringent myrrh.

Because this is essentially a myrrh perfume. With its gloomy demeanor, myrrh is the sulky emo teen of the resin family, but here, a smile has been pasted on its face by way of a bright, boozy sparkle that feels like the crunch of cassonade on a crème brulée. The brown-gold depth this creates is not a million miles away from the deep dried fruit, vodka and whiskey notes in Ambre Russe (Parfums d’Empire), minus the black tea and leather notes that take that great perfume in another direction entirely. Still, I think it’s remarkable that both Baume du Doge and Ambre Russe manage to smell quietly but resolutely masculine, despite the presence of sugary, ‘edible’ notes.

The richness of the resin against the vegetal tartness of the vetiver and cedarwood smells absolutely right, as if the basic bones of this successful marriage already existed in the air, waiting for a perfumer with vision to come along and bring it all together. Unfortunately, Baume du Doge runs out of steam quickly, getting quite threadbare in the drydown, so those looking for that brilliant, rich orange peel incense and milk accord to be sustained throughout may be disappointed.

Myrrh Casati (Mona di Orio)  – Flat-Coke Myrrh

Myrrh Casati is something of a head-scratcher. The first Mona di Orio fragrance to be composed by someone other than Mona herself, following her tragic death in 2011, it is rendered in a style that seems to deliberately side-step any of Mona di Orio hallmarks. It lacks the almost overbearingly rich, dirty woodiness of Vanille and Oud, the dry-ice almond musks from Ambre and Musc, and the harsh animalism of Nuit Noire and Cuir. Without these little olfactory clues that tucked so deftly into the sleeves of her work, I am lost. Myrrh Casati could be the work of anyone.

If her other perfumes are rich tapestries, then Myrrh Casati is a silk gauze. It is beautiful but simple to the point of being spare. The opening is particularly striking. A dark, dry spice note fuses with a warm, cinnamon-tinted Siam benzoin and sharp black pepper to form the exciting specter of tarry Coca-Cola. There is also an arresting black rubber tint to proceedings, prompted by saffron or the myrrh itself (which can sometimes smell like rubber or latex). But this opening salvo of richness or darkness quickly attenuates. Within minutes, all that remains on the skin is a vague glaze of something spicy and something minty-licoricey, loosely held together by the benzoin.

Eau d’Iparie (L’Occitane)Mossy Myrrh   

Apart from a honeyed, fruity (almost berried) topnote not present in the original, the reissue of Eau d’Iparie remains mostly the same as before – a very natural-smelling, balsamic myrrh fragrance that sets the myrrh in an outdoors context rather than in the typically dark, Gothic-churchy one.

The honeyed radiance of myrrh resin predominates at first, but soon, the scent shakes off this cozy mantle in favor of a flinty minerality, which smells to me very much like water running over moss-covered stones in a stream. With its unpretentious, earthy demeanor, Eau d’Iparie is the type of non-perfumey perfume that smells good to people for whom fragrance is a secondary ‘grooming’ thing rather than a full-on obsession.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Avicenna Myrrha Mystica (Annette Neuffer) – Sunlit Myrrh  

America has Mandy Aftel,  Australia has Teone Reinthal, and Europe has Annette Neuffer. I’m not sure why Annette doesn’t get the kind of attention that the other natural or indie perfumers do, but I suspect it has less to do with her natural talent than with her reluctance (as with many indie perfumers) to engage with the quid pro quo sleaze involved in the social media marketing and self-promotion that these days goes hand in hand with making and selling perfume.

If you want to see what Annette Neuffer can do, though, I beg you to try something like Avicenna Myrrha Mystica. She has a way of turning this rubbery, dense, semi-bitter resin into pure ether. Applying a balmy orange peel note to make the dusty myrrh bright and juicy, and surrounding the resin with a puffer jacket of velvety cocoa powder for comfort and depth, Neuffer feeds us a myrrh that’s been massaged into its most agreeable shape yet.

Mid-section, it develops a wonderfully damp (almost soggy) cardboard sweetness that reminds me a lot of Cocoa Tuberose by Providence Perfumery, and in fact, both scents share a soft, smudgy feel that is as sexy and endearing (to me) as the idea of Jeff Goldblum breathing on his spectacles to fog up the glass and clean them with the corner of his wooly sweater. Part cocoa powder, part flat Coca Cola, backlit with a dry hyraceum note that adds a faintly musky, funky quality to the myrrh.

But that orange peel persists, and that is what wins out in the end – a fresh, resinous orange (or perhaps a fresh, orange-tinted resin?). Either way, I find Avicenna Myrrha Mystica both utterly engrossing and a breeze to wear, and it is not often that you can say both things about myrrh, especially in an indie or all-natural take.       

Alien Essence Absolue (Thierry Mugler)Hubba Hubba Myrrh

Alien Essence Absolue is primarily a thick, rich floral vanilla but one in which a dollop of bitter myrrh has been placed to keep things in balance. It smells like bitter almonds, marzipan, and papery tobacco, all folded into a thick vanilla and jasmine custard. When applied lightly or dabbed on, the cool, minty anise of the myrrh emerges, backlighting the warm ambery vanilla. The jasmine is so creamy and rich it almost takes on a coconut edge, briefly summoning up the feel of a tropical gardenia. As an aside, the bottle is shaped like a butt. And who doesn’t have shelf space for something shaped like a butt, I ask you sincerely?

Messe de Minuit (Etro)Sepulchral Myrrh 

I’d always been puzzled when people would describe Messe de Minuit as a gloomy fragrance, because until about a year ago, the only version with which I was familiar was the modern one, which has been cleaned (and brightened) up so much that none of the original descriptions of the scent made any sense. The latest version of Messe de Minuit smells like a gloomy Italian cathedral with the flood lights suddenly turned on and the doors thrown open to let the fresh air in. It is an incredibly cheerful smell – bitter orange peel and mixed with the lime-peel and pine brightness of unlit frankincense.


The older version, of which I now own a bottle, is a different story. Though still not quite as nihilistic as the very first version, the reaction to which saw Etro scuttling back to the drawing board to ‘fix’ it, the dour, fungal dampness of myrrh mixed with a powdery, spicy benzoin produces an aroma that recalls with a startling degree of accuracy the scent of cold stone floors, mildewy papers, and  the slightly metallic, inert air of a closed-up sacristy. The chill of the myrrh is eventually warmed a little by the golden labdanum lolling around in the basenotes, but the scent never truly shakes off its central character of cold, dusty, ancient stone.

Though I understand why not everyone wants to wear the smell of rising damp on a sacristy wall (carrying with it the unsettling suggestion of neglect), you have to give Messe de Minuit credit for making its wearer feel like they’ve been plunged into a particularly dark Goya painting, and I am thinking here of the one where Saturn is devouring his own son.   

Photo by Jordan Nix on Unsplash

Myrrhe et Délires (Guerlain)Macaron Myrrh

As I inch closer to collection completion (or the end of my ‘scent journey’), I have had to get very tough with my Guerlains. L’Heure Bleue, for example, doesn’t make it into my final edit (I’ll finish the small vintage parfum I have, as it is delightfully trashy and rich compared to the candied floral that is the current EdP), and, much as I enjoy wearing them from time to time, neither does Chamade, Tonka Impérial, Cuir Beluga, or the much vaunted Après L’Ondée. These are not the essential Guerlains for me.

Testing Myrrhe et Délires under such conditions reveals my lines in the sand. A few years ago, I would have forgiven this scent its flaccid body for its charming violety-irisy topnotes, which smell like those lilac-colored macarons in the window of Ladurée, or what I imagine the pastry scenes in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette must have smelled like – all spun sugar, candied violets, and sugar paste roses. If I had tested this during my violet phase, fuhgeddaboudit. Would have sold my soul, probably.


But honestly, from where I’m sitting now, Myrrhe et Délires just doesn’t make the cut. Full marks, though, for rendering the bullish myrrh – a material whose darkish, mushroom-water tonalities usually drown delicate floral notes like candied violet – into a lace doiley’s worth of frothy anise and soft bready notes. Taken together, Myrrhe et Délires smells like Chowder’s violets and those soft black licorice rolls so mild that you could thumb them into the mouths of babies. But with great age comes wisdom; I can tell you that Guerlain’s own Black Perfecto is a much punchier, more emphatic spin on the same idea.

fallintostars (Strangelove NYC)Oudy Myrrh

Review here. What I smell in fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere. Of course, it is entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh. It is also possible that it is just myrrh.

Bois d’Argent (Dior Privée)Woody Myrrh

Aptly named, Bois d’Argent is a creamy, smoky woods scent with a streak of silvery iris running through it. The iris is here only to cut through the heaviness of the other notes – a lump of levain mixed into a heavy bread dough – so most of its lovely grey rootiness or butter tones are lost in the fray. However, without the soulful lift of the iris note, I think this composition would be a heavy, sodden mess – a dense genoise rather than angel food.

Bois d’Argent is primarily a sticky myrrh scent to my nose. Myrrh is a tricky material to work with in a perfume. Myrrh oil can be very bitter, mushroomy, and ‘black’ in its favor profile, although I suspect that the perfumers went more for the myrrh resin smell here, which is earthier, woodier, and sweeter than the oil itself, which can smell very rubbery.

As in similar fragrances such as Bois d’Iris (The Different Company) and Myrrhe Ardente (Annick Goutal), the myrrh in Bois d’Argent is paired with a sweet honey and vanilla pairing designed to tone down the bitterness of the oil, and a polished woods basenote to play up the smokier notes of the resin. There is also a faintly licorice-like note here, a note frequently matched to the anisic qualities of myrrh oil.

There is a crystalline texture to Bois d’Argent that I also note in Myrrhe Ardente, like crunching on honey candies, the small ones you sometimes get with coffee in Italian bars – they look and taste sweetly creamy, but quickly explode into shards when you crunch down on them. And, as with the candies in question, myrrh, when this sweetened, has the tendency to cloy.

For this reason, I find Bois d’Argent striking but ultimately exhausting to wear. The silvery iris and woods opening is beautiful, but the sweet vanilla in the base is far too syrupy, and the myrrh just continues droning on in its monogrammed monologue for hours on end, like the dinner guest who has zero self-awareness and thinks that we will all be as fascinated by his role in corporate finance as he is. The same complaint applies to Bois d’Iris and Myrrhe Ardente. There are times when these fragrances work on me, but inevitably, something in them eventually clogs up my airways and wears on my spirit.

Photo by Ruth Enyedi on Unsplash

Ilang Ilan (Mellifluence)Tropical Myrrh

Ilang Ilan bursts open with a pungent ylang note, vibrating at an especially evil level of banana-and-petroleum fruitiness inherent to the material. But almost immediately, this is counterparted by the chewy licorice snap of myrrh, whose dark, anisic saltiness stuffs a cloth in the shouty mouth of that exuberant ylang, telling it to calm the f&*k down. For a while, this is so good that you wonder why ylang is ever paired with anything else other than an equally pugnacious myrrh.

Alas, it is an all too brief display of force. In the drydown, the ylang departs, leaving only the mineralic, mushroomy facets of the myrrh to dominate. It smells like water you’ve soaked ceps in. For myrrh fanatics, this might be a boon. For the ylang enthusiasts, this will feel like bait-and-switch of the worst kind.

However, Ilang Ilan is worth at least a sample, especially if you’re into the excitement of an action-packed opening. The leather, the rubber, the fuel, the licorice…whoever said that tropical florals are not for men just haven’t tried the right ones. There is no creamy, trembling banana custard here, and certainly no tropical leis draped on Gaugin-esque island beauties. Instead, this is ylang with the sinister shadow of myrrh standing over it, dagger in hand.

1000 Kisses (Lush)Marmalade Myrrh

For once, Lush’s strategy of unceremoniously dumping a vat load of bolshy, untrimmed raw materials into a scent and letting them all duke it out actually works. The osmanthus takes the form of a cooked apricot jam spiced heavily with almond essence and cinnamon, making me think of boozy Christmas fruitcakes slathered in apricot jam and carefully wrapped in a layer of rolled-out marzipan. But if there is cooked citrus jam, then there is also something nicely fresh here, in the form of that metallic, juicy brightness that stains your fingers for hours after you’ve peeled a mandarin.

These layers of both juicy and jammy citrus interact with the dusty but headily spiced myrrh to accentuate the Coca Cola-ish aspects of the resin, complete with its dark ‘crunchy’ sweetness and joyful, nose-tickling fizz. If I could spread 1000 Kisses on a slice of toasted panettone, I totally would. A uniquely cheerful take on myrrh.

Myrrh & Tonka (Jo Malone)Mass Market Myrrh

A stodgy almond Battenberg of a tonka bean cups a chewy licorice lace myrrh in its sweaty clasp, and they both drown in the disappointing chemical buzz that is the standard Jo Malone base. Pro: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day. Con: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day.

Photo by Zuzana on Unsplash

Thichila (Parfums Prissana)Plastic Balloon Myrrh

Sorry to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral, incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things. Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.

The Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is starting.

At some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin. I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore, for a very specific taste.

Sutera Ungu (Agar Aura)Myrrhic Oud

Some oud oils are so complex that they can display notes such as mint, white flowers, honey, and ambergris without actually containing a speck of these materials. In oud cannon, it is usually Chinese oud oils that are known to feature notes of myrrh, but this is a great example of a myrrhic oud oil that actually comes from one of my favorite oud terroirs, which is Malaysia.

Distilled from wood from the Terengganu region of Malaysia, Sutera Ungu displays both characteristics from the fruity Crassna and the typical Malaysian structure. Cutting past all the gobbledygook, what this means is that there is a complex series of shifts from top to bottom, often separating into two layers – smoke on top, and fruity leather beneath. Agarwood from the Terengganu region is said to be particularly perfumey and rich, a theory borne out by this oil.

Immediately, I can smell smoke and fruited wood, backed by a smoky incense quality. Once the saturnine drama of the opening settles a bit, it is possible to discern subtle little gradients of color and tone. There are waves of freshly-stripped bark, clear furniture polish, green apple skin, and fermenting dried fruit, all dispersed within a boozy vapor akin to dried fruits soaking in brandy for Christmas pudding. You get all this and more, filtered through a haze of incense smoke.

As pure oud oils go, this is perfumey in the way of an older Chanel extrait, and I am thinking of vintage Coco Parfum in particular here (something about the rich fruits in brandy feel). In the heart, the smoke parts to reveal an earthy myrrh note, old wooden chests, and, darting through the darkness, the reddish iodine snap of pure saffron threads soaked in oil. None of these materials exist in Sutera Ungu as notes, you understand – just their nuance.  

But the show is not over just yet. In a whiplash move, the oil circles back on itself to the dry, incensey woodsmoke that greeted the nose in the topnotes. Sutera Ungu is a rich, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable Malaysian oil experience from top to bottom. It is both an oud oil and a proper perfume in its own right. I highly recommend Agar Aura oils to beginners because they are exceptionally smooth, light-to-medium weight in terms of darkness and possessed of a depth of flavor that does not sacrifice legibility.   

L’Eau Trois (Diptyque)Piney Myrrh

Most of the older Diptyques smell like ancient medicinal salves made out of crushing various barks, spices, and unguents down into a fiery yellow paste and applied to an open wound (Eau Lente, L’ Eau). L’ Eau Trois flips the trope a little, taking it outside to the sunburnt hillsides of Greece or Southern France where the healer combs up tufts of wild rosemary, pine needles, and mastic from the maquis, and uses his cocaine fingernail to dig out sticky yellow globules of myrrh and pine sap from ancient, shrubby trees bent over with age and wind, before singeing it all over a fire so that greenery takes on a burnt, bitter flavor, and mashing it all down to a paste in a pestle and mortar.

Smoky, wild, and herbaceous, L’Eau Trois this is myrrh at its most confrontational. It smells of incense, yes, but also of bitter greenery that will either kill you or cure you if ingested. Less like a perfume than something born of the bowels of the earth.    

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

Balsamo della Mecca (Abdes Salaam Attar)Sanctifying Myrrh

Two versions of this scent exist – an eau de parfum and an attar. Here I discuss the attar, which, to my nose, is distinguished by its use of myrrh.

Although the crepuscular darkness of the resins is essentially the same from eau de parfum to attar, Balsamo della Mecca attar has a very different texture and therefore a completely different feel. Whereas the original is so dry that it threatens to ignite on the skin at any moment, the attar is a concentrated tar, like molasses seeping from a rusty pipe. Dense, sticky fir balsam, myrrh, frankincense, cade, and who knows what else, all boiled down to a medicinal salve one might rub onto an infection. Despite its opacity, it feels purifying.

The labdanum is downplayed in the attar, allowing the rubbery, fungal saltiness of myrrh to take the spotlight. By corollary, the eau de parfum is dustier and sweeter, thick with labdanum. Given its greater diffusiveness, the eau de parfum has a spiritual, if not ecclesiastical, feel; the attar, on the other hand, feels gothic and a little bit sinister. Put it this way –  I would wear the eau de parfum to Midnight Mass, and the attar to an exorcism.  

Little Egypt (BPAL) Honeyed Myrrh

Little Egypt is a bright, resinous honey scent with a sharp green calamus note running through it to keep things fresh. All the honeyed, sticky sweetness of myrrh has been drawn out and emphasized in this scent, but none of its anisic or earthy-mushroomy nuances. This makes for a very sweet blend indeed, but the inherent smokiness of myrrh resin, plus that crisp calamus note, does a good job of holding back the syrup. Myrrh fanatics may want to hunt this one down.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

La Myrrhe (Serge Lutens)Elegant Myrrh

Pairing the fatty, soapy aspect of myrrh with a spray of fatty, soapy aldehydes is genius because, like any solid marriage, they compensate for each other’s failings. The fizzy aldehydes lift the heavy resin up into space, exploding it into stardust, while the bitter, rubbery characteristics of myrrh add depth and drama to the lower register of aldehydes, lending it a rooty, sub-woofer substance just as the champagne bubbles begin to fade away. In the base, a creamy jasmine and sandalwood turn up to mitigate the ‘rubber ball’ astringency of the myrrh, essentially taking over the reins from the sweet, effervescent aldehydes.   

Because the aldehydes in La Myrrhe smells very much like the kind used in Chanel No. 5 (fatty, soapy, waxy, slightly rosy), many people find it to resemble No. 5, though to my nose, it smells rather like Chanel No. 22 with its Fanta-and-incense-on-steroids mien – with one key difference. La Myrrhe has a lurid almond-cherry-ade aspect to it that reminds me of Cherry Coke, rather than Fanta. Picture a single candied cherry lifted from a jar of (cough) syrup and dropped into a bag of pure white soap powder, causing the powder to explode outwards and upwards like a cluster bomb.

La Myrrhe is a sensational myrrh fragrance, and unfortunately hard to find these days unless you live in Europe and can order direct from les Salons du Palais Royal in Paris. It is worth the effort and expense, though, especially, if you prefer the gauzier, more light-filled creations of Serge Lutens over the stickier, fruitcake-and-incense ones, like Arabie, Fumerie Turque et al. With the anisic, rubbery bitterness of the resin perfectly juxtaposed against the sweet, frothy soapiness of aldehydes, La Myrrhe will appeal enormously to lovers of Douce Amère, Chanel No. 5 Eau Première, Chanel No. 22, Guerlain Vega, Rêve d’Ossian by Oriza L. Legrand, and Miriam by Tableau de Parfums (Tauer).  

Mirra (Acqua di Parma)Ambroxan Myrrh

Myrrh my ass. This is Acqua di Parma halfway down the slide from its once glorious position at the top of classic Italian heritage to the mosh pit of bro-pandering the brand is currently strutting around in. A flurry of citrus and herbs in the opening 0.02 seconds of Mirra convinces me that nothing is unforgivable and maybe the brand can claw its way back, but this is quickly drowned in that unnatural concoction that greets me in so many of the ‘perfumes for the modern man’ these days – a vile and droning medley of synthetically radiant Ambroxan or Iso E Super drowned in enough ambery syrup to fell a horse at ten paces.

It depresses me that the bones of Sauvage are everywhere, lurking in even the oldest, most heritage-y of heritage brands, waiting to pop out at me. For all that Luca Turin lauds Italian perfumery as being where it’s at these days, most young passers-by – women and men, professional or preppy – that I smell in Rome smell like this rather than of invigorating lemons of Santa Maria Novella or something cool by Antonio Alessandria.

For me, Mirra is nothing more than sweet, sugared woods inflated with enough Ambroxan to send a thousand chemical ice picks aimed at my head, but for anyone not as sensitized to these woody alcohols, it probably comes across as something gorgeously fresh, clean, and well, radiant. I can see the appeal of stuff like this for those who do not pick up on the awful grimness of those modern aromachemicals. But I feel personally attacked by Mirra and the 967 other modern masculines that smell virtually identical.

Iranzol (Bruno Acampora)Anachronistic Myrrh

Iranzol is a perfectly-preserved time capsule of a time in perfumery when perfumers were free to use the stinkiest of floral absolutes, plant oils, and resins in their perfumes. Iranzol smells like the seventies, which makes perfect sense because it was launched in the seventies. What is extraordinary is that the formula seems to have remained unchanged since then; this is the perfume in its original form. In a day and age when brands reformulate every few years to keep up with IFRA recommendations, it is a small wonder that something like Iranzol can and does still exist.

The opening is as damply mushroomy as Acampora’s own Musc, brimming with wet soil, freshly-cut mushrooms, raw patchouli oil, and possibly some salty Italian kitchen herbs, like dried lavender and fennel root. There is definitely myrrh in the blend somewhere, helping those wet earth notes along.

Clove is also suspected, because there is an accord here that is half-claggy, half-dusty, like the sour, unwashed smell of sheets folded away while still damp. This accord is both medicinal (clean) and animalic (unwashed, dusty, stale), which, although not entirely pleasant to my nose, is effective at creating an atmosphere of gloomy, faded grandeur. One imagines a dusty chaise longue in an abandoned mansion by the sea somewhere.

The drydown diverges from the central accords found in Musc by finishing up in a dry amber and sandalwood base. It retains, as most of Acampora’s oils do, that brusque connection to the earthier, more aromatic smells of the seventies, when men wore either Jovan Musk or barbershop fougères and shaved with proper soap. In other words, the sandalwood is dry and astringent, and the amber vegetal. No cream, sugar, or butter anywhere in sight. You might have to adjust your television set when attempting Iranzol for the first time – it is neither modern nor easy. It is an anachronism, an earthy scent for those who like the pungent, untouched smells of nature and their fellow human beings.

Sirocco (Solstice Scents)Caveman Myrrh

First, a sunburst of saffron, its astringent aroma redolent of hay, leather, and iodine. This quickly gives way to the mitti, which smells of wet soil rather than the dry earth of true Indian mitti. Last to emerge is the rubbery, mushroomy myrrh, which smells like the plain essential oil one picks up at the health store, i.e., bitter, saline, and musty. The myrrh dominates the scent completely; once it pops its head around the door, it is here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

In short, don’t trust the scent description given by the company – Sirocco is not the hot, dry ‘desert’ scent billed in the description, but instead, given the prominent role of the myrrh, the fungal scent of caves. If you like the wet, sepulchral side of myrrh, and earthy, medicinal smells in general, then you will love Sirocco. If you are specifically looking for dry heat, deserts, and sand, look elsewhere.

Photo by Jarritos Mexican Soda on Unsplash

Myrrhe Ardente (Annick Goutal)Root Beer Myrrh

A dry spackle of resin at first, golden, crunchy, and slightly herbal – austere enough to wear to the bank – that becomes steadily stickier and gummier with a heavy pour of tonka, amber, and honey. When I wear this, I can almost feel the myrrh crystallizing in huge chunks on my arm, thick enough to smash out into a resinous paste.

There is also a nigh-on-bitter smack of cherry cough syrup floating against something medicinally creamy, which is essentially what Americans know as the ‘root beer float’ flavor – this is a pronounced characteristic of myrrh that comes out to play a lot anywhere there is amber or vanilla.

I would place this in the same group as Myrrhiad, i.e., a dry-creamy myrrh amber thickened up with lots of licorice-scented vanilla in the background, designed to soothe and cosset rather than excite. I sold my bottle a long time ago, however, once I began to perceive a piercing woody aromachemical note that ran rampant all over the scent’s original ‘weighted blanket’ premise.     

Cashmiri Black (Agarscents Bazaar)Coca Cola Myrrh

Cashmiri Black is a wonderfully odd mukhallat that nudges Agarscents Bazaar out of its comfort zone of Indian-style musks and ambers, and into a slightly more ‘niche’ perfume area. The blend opens with an accord that smells like salted buckwheat honey or molasses smeared over pieces of hardcore Scandinavian licorice, shot through with plumes of sooty fireside smoke. Black pepper, oily and pungent, explodes all over, recalling several modern Comme des Garcons efforts such as Black Pepper and Black.

A firecracker dose of saffron soon joins the fray, streaking across the dark canvas created by a fusion of tarry, resinous myrrh, creating an effect that is half Idole (Lubin) and half Nesquik-y Darbar attar. There is a faintly fizzy Coca Cola effect providing lift in the background. Thanks to the myrrh, the texture is chewy and medicinal, with a hard-boiled, anisic blackness. It is smoky and cocoa-dry, but this syrupy facet lends a nice textural counterpoint.

Cashmiri grows drier and smokier as time wends on, finishing up the ride as a tinder-box mixture of fiery cedarwood, myrrh, powdery (chocolate) musk, malty licorice, and charred woods. Cashmiri Black is an excellent alternative to expensive Arabian style niche smoke-and-resin bombs such as Black Afgano or Black Gemstone.

Photo by Raspopova Marina on Unsplash

Parfum Sacre (Caron)Cashmere Myrrh

Parfum Sacre is one of those perfumes that I find hard to write about because it hooked me early, at a tender time of my life when I needed a Big Perfume Love, and therefore is utterly resistant to any attempt at objective analysis.

If pushed, I would say it smells like an ancient carved sandalwood chest filled to the brim with myrrh resin reduced to a fine golden powder and tender pink curlicues of rose soap loving carved off a block of Camay with a pocketknife. It smells full and soft, like cashmere, but studded with little kitten licks of black pepper and lemon that trickle the back of the throat.

The myrrh is fuzzy and warm, especially in the round-bellied vintage eau de parfum, where only its muted fatty-soapy-waxy facets have been coaxed out. In the modern eau de parfum, the myrrh smells sharper, more astringent, and woodier, thanks to the vigorous dosing of black pepper to compensate for the lower quality of sandalwood. Best of all, perhaps, is the salty, golden radiance sent in by natural ambergris to lift the myrrh and woods in the now discontinued Parfum.

But even the thin, reedy version of Parfum Sacre available to buy today possesses that gently pepper, rosy, soapy quality that says ‘Mother’ to me. It therefore continues to be one of my Big, Albeit Incoherently Described Perfume Loves.

Myrrhe Impériale (Armani Privé)Obnoxiously Loud Myrrh

Yes, Myrrhe Impériale is impressively loud and rich and voluminous. But once you get past the clattering noise of the opening – oiled galoshes, radiating resin, treacly licorice – you realize that it is not much more than a powerful fruitcake amber dressed up with so much Amber Xtreme or Norlimbanol that even a knuckle daub’s worth is unbearable. It is like a large, expensively dressed man whose braying laugh and physical volume seems to swell to fill the entire room, impregnating all the available air pockets until you feel you will still be able to hear/smell/taste him from two countries away. These niche behemoths are designed to be impress you at ten paces, steam-rolling over any distinguishing features other than its own powerful, magnetic radiance. An olfactory Charles Atlas. Meh.    

Sources of Samples/Bottles: All reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store. My blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review. If I like something, or find something interesting, then I will write about it. You might not always like my opinions, but you may trust that they are mine and mine alone.     

Cover Image: Photo by Y S on Unsplash

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Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris

15th November 2018

 

In autumn 2018, Areej Le Dore released its 4th generation of fragrances. Russian Adam very kindly sent me a sample set, which I’ve been playing around with for a while now. Without further ado, here are my reviews of Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris.

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Animalic Attars & CPOs Floral Independent Perfumery Musk Review Saffron Tuberose Vetiver

Walimah Attar by Areej Le Doré: A Review

7th February 2018

 

The opening of Walimah Attar by Areej Le Doré is strangely familiar to me, and it haunts me for a while until I realize that it simply shares what I would characterize as the syrupy, sepia-toned density common to all blends of natural floral absolutes in attar or natural perfumery. When you mix a bunch of floral absolutes together, they combine to make a thick, oily-muddy fug of smells only vaguely recognizable as floral in dilution. Unlike the synthetic representations of flowers in mixed media perfumes or commercial perfumery, where you can clearly differentiate one floral note from another, the flowers in all-natural attars don’t give up their individual identities without a fight. They’re melted down into the soup, so to speak. But still, there are markers that can tip you off as to what’s there.

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Strangelove NYC: silencethesea, meltmyheart, & deadofnight

5th February 2018

 It’s difficult to figure out what Strangelove NYC is, as a brand. If you were to go by appearances alone – the fashionably minimalistic, almost text-free website, the $260 perfume necklaces with 1.25mls of perfume oil, the fact that Helena Christiansen is the brand’s spokesperson – you’d be forgiven for writing these off as perfumes for New York socialites, designed to look banging on the glossy, bronzed neck of a supermodel as she poses for a photo to go with her ITC Top Shelf interview.

 

But you’d be wrong.

 

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Rising Phoenix Perfumery Bushido Attar: A Review

30th January 2018

 

Rising Phoenix Perfumery Bushido Attar is an attar made exclusively for The World in Scents, a Princeton-based purveyor of fine attars and pure oud oils, and its name translates to “the way of the Samurai”. The idea for this particular attar came from the ancient Japanese practice among royalty, Samurai warriors, and the nobility of scenting their kimonos, robes, and sword sheaths with a blend of tsubaki, an oil made from camellia flower petals, and choji, clove oil.

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