Browsing Category

Frankincense

Attars & CPOs Collection Dominique Ropion Frankincense Mukhallats Oudy Concentrated Perfume Oils Oudy mukhallats Review Saffron The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume Thoughts Vanilla

The New Generation Amouage Attars: Thoughts and Reviews

13th September 2022

 

 

Thoughts

 

Reception of the New Generation Amouage Attars has been mixed, the reasons for which are not exactly rocket science.  First, in order to explicitly associate these new perfumes with the OG attars that had garnered such praise for the brand prior to their discontinuation in 2015, Amouage called these perfumes ‘attars’.

 

Reader, the New Generation Amouage Attars are not attars.  But then, neither were the Old Generation Amouage Attars.  The word ‘attar’ refers to a specific (and specifically Indian) manner of production, i.e., the steam distillation of a fragrant material, like rose or vetiver roots, over a base of pure sandalwood oil.  These are not that.

 

Rather, these perfumes are ‘luxe’ concentrated perfume oils along the lines of Alexandria II (Xerjoff), Absolute Amber (Clive Christian), Cardamusc (Hermès), Parfum Fin (Nabucco), Patchouli (Jalaine), or any one of those Henry Jacques oils sold in Harrods.  Of course, there is prestige attached to the notion of an attar, so some of these are (erroneously) referred to as ‘attars’ in the marketing materials. 

 

Not to get too technical about it, but it is worth knowing that niche CPOs are not distilled (as in traditional Indian attars) or mixed (as in mukhallats) but instead made to a precise formula in a laboratory in one of Europe’s big oil factories, like Givaudan, IFF, or Symrise, by a perfumer working to a brief.   Just like any other perfume, in other words, only instead of being mixed with perfumer’s alcohol and sent off in pallets of 500 units to Sephora or Douglas, these particular formulas remain in oil format, are poured into dinky little bottles, and get sold at terrifyingly high prices as ‘attars’.

 

The OG Amouage ‘attars’, while not attars at all from a construction perspective, were still definitely authentic mukhallats rather than luxe CPOs.  They employed a distinctly Middle Eastern approach to perfumery in both manner of construction and artistic intent.  In terms of construction, the OG oils followed a Middle Eastern tradition of mixing (‘mukhallat’ meaning ‘mix’) already distilled attars with oud oil, musks, and resin oils.  In terms of artistic intent, the OG oils existed to draw the world’s attention to the glories of an Eastern tradition of perfume making and a wholly Eastern set of raw materials, from the silvery Omani frankincense and peppery Ta’ifi roses to lusty Sambac jasmine, Hindi oud, and Egyptian orange blossom.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Amouage branded the OG oils as ‘attars’ and hard to blame them for doing it.  By the time of the original launch, the word ‘attar’ had already come to exemplify – for Westerners – the exoticism, whether real or imagined, of the East.  Amouage is an Omani brand with a proud tradition of mukhallat perfumery rather than a Kannauj distiller.  But Amouage, being a corporation, has a right to segment its market according to what is deemed to be profitable.  So ‘attar’ it was.

 

Sadly, the OG Amouage ‘attars’ were discontinued and are now largely unobtanium outside of the UAE or the secondary market.  But now we come to 2021 and Amouage, seeing the rising popularity of oil-based perfumery, wants to claw back its rightful share of the ‘attar’ market.  This time around, they want to position themselves in the high-end consumer bracket, which has been steadily growing.  To cut a long story short, that means niche perfume oils that correspond to the luxury consumer’s idea of a perfume rather than maintaining authenticity or fidelity to the Eastern manner of perfume making.

 

The brand must have been aware that while the OG ‘attars’, in being mukhallats, were one step removed from actual distilled attars, these new oils were now two steps removed – not attars, not even mukhallats, but concentrated perfume oils.   In other words, no different than Alexandria II by Xerjoff or even the oil version of Santal 33 by Le Labo.  But the wheels had been set in motion for this particular fiction decades ago, so Amouage deciding to go all in and call these 2021 attars too was probably the only logical move.  And naturally, the brand would want to cash in some of that OG fairy dust for the 2021 release.  Thus, the word ‘attar’ front and center, expectations were raised.

 

Which begs the question – what did Amouage think would happen when these expectations were not met?  

 

My guess is that the brand simply hoped that their positioning of the 2021 oil releases at the luxury consumer market would circumvent the small but vocal group of true perfume (and attar) aficionados that had bought the OG stuff.

 

You see, the people who will be interested in buying these newer Amouage ‘attars’ are not the same as those who were buying the OG ‘attars’.  The folks who bought the OG Amouage Attars were investing in the authenticity of a Middle Eastern or Indian raw material, like oud or sandalwood, whereas the folks who will buy the New Generation Amouage Attars are mostly looking for the prestige of dabbing on an oil out of a tiny, exquisite bottle.  The first is a desire for art, the second a desire for luxury.  

 

Amouage likely looked at the market and decided that they could generate more revenue from the people who view a bottle of the newest attar from Amouage in the same way they view all other luxury consumables like, say, an Hermès handbag or a Lisa Eldridge lipstick or the latest iPhone – opulent, high-spec things that give the pleasure of an object well made, none of which will scare the horses – than from the much smaller group of fragrance enthusiasts who stay up until 4 am, sweatily gripping their computer mouse, to secure 3 mls of the latest sandalwood oil from Areej Le Doré or the newest Hindi drop from Ensar.

 

It goes without saying that one group is not morally inferior (or superior) to the other.  Their buying parameters are just different.  Some folks long for the authenticity and artistic derring-do of some of the original Amouage attars, while others will much prefer these smoother, more Westernized pleasantries. And from a marketing perspective, it is perfectly legitimate for Amouage to decide to switch lanes for the 2021 release.  

 

Where Amouage might have messed up was in not communicating the differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ as clearly as they might have to the group of people still intensely loyal to the artistry of the brand’s original oil output.  Sure, from a business perspective, no corporation has to go the extra mile to explicitly explain a change in direction, manufacture, or artistic intent such as this.  However, some of the most pointed criticism about these oils may have been averted and some goodwill created amongst the very community that helped raise and maintain Amouage’s reputation for excellence.  Instead, the brand done took a match to a couple of bridges.  

 

Surely, for example, the brand could have explained their rationale for using Western perfumers to compose these ‘attars’.  In an age where awareness about cultural misappropriation and decolonization has scaled new heights, the brand might have anticipated that its clumsy pairing of the word ‘attar’ – traditionally an Indian art – with ‘master’ European perfumers such as Dominique Ropion would create some uncomfortable associations or even take some of the shine off the brand. 

 

Amouage has always kept schtum about who composed the original ‘attars’.  It is likely that they used Middle Eastern perfumers with experience in mukhallat perfumery but didn’t name them (the company did name, however, the Western perfumers like Guy Roberts and Bertrand Duchaufour who worked on their spray-based fragrances).  For this new release of ‘attars’, Amouage’s strategy was to hire Western perfumers experienced in composing formulas for niche and designer perfumes, like Cécile Zarokian, Julien Rasquinet, and Dominique Ropion.  Now, to me, this makes perfect sense.  If you are creating a line of luxe perfume oils that are basically supposed to be a haute luxe or niche fragrance, just in oil format, then it makes sense to hire perfumers who are used to producing this sort of formula for other high end niche companies.

 

However, the brand didn’t explain that these new attars weren’t really attars at all (probably because this particular bit of fiction is now decades deep and it’s too late to walk it back), and therefore left itself wide open to accusations that it was aiding and abetting Western perfumers to misappropriate a traditionally Indian art of perfumery.

 

Now that you (yes, you Dear Reader!) understand that these oils are not attars but simply posh niche perfumes in oil format, I bet you don’t care if the formula was composed by a perfumer in Grasse or by one in Delhi or Dubai, do you?  Right.  It ceases to be an issue.  But the brand didn’t or couldn’t communicate this, thereby running straight into the fire that any 19-year-old social media manager worth their salt would have been able to predict was coming their way.  

 

More accurate than the cultural misappropriation (which is itself based on a misguided belief in the fragrance community is that only Indian or Middle Eastern perfumers can or should be involved in the creation of attar, oud, and mukhallat perfumery*) is the accusation that, in naming the 2021 oils ‘attars’, Amouage was cynically cashing in its previous reputation for authenticity and ‘realness’.  There is no real comeback to this.  The 2021 oils are, at best, a good ole cash grab, and at worst, a thumb in the face of loyal perfume fans who believed that Amouage anything was special, not to mention one of their vaunted attars.  While the general specialness of Amouage is less true today than it was ten, fifteen years ago, the 2021 ‘attar’ release still feels like a line in the sand between the brand’s proud artistic past and its now far more glossily commercial future. 

 

Whether or not this is a successful strategy from a business perspective is something only the Amouage CPA can tell us.   

 

 

Reviews

 

Now onto the actual reviews.  Spoiler alert: I enjoyed each and every single one of these new CPOs from Amouage, and as long as you go into it expecting luxe perfume oils rather than genuine distilled attars from India or authentic mukhallats from the Middle East, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t either.  Are they groundbreaking or original?  No.  But they are all extremely pleasant, smooth, and yes, luxurious-smelling perfumes.

 

Of the six that I have smelled, two oils didn’t smell at all Middle Eastern, pursuing instead traditionally Western (read: French) perfumery themes such as vanilla and orris.  Two of the ‘attars’ smelled straight up like an oil version of existing Amouage spray perfumes.  But they are all extremely nice and well executed, and thankfully (mostly) subtle in their use of modern woody ambers like Norlimbanol or Amber Extreme.

 

Are they $540 good?  Again, nope.  That’s my annual car insurance.  To be fair, I’m not the target market, and unless you’re the rare Birkin bag buyer whose SEO somehow re-routed you to this blog, then it’s safe to assume that neither are you.  The only reason I have to review these is that (a) I am currently publishing a Guide to Attars (which covers attars, mukhallats, essential oils like oud, and concentrated perfume oils) so this release kind of is my business, and (b) a very dear friend sent me her sample set free of charge.  So, there you go.

 

 

Photo by Veronika Nakhtman on Unsplash

 

Orris Wakan, composed by Julien Rasquinet, focuses on the famously cool, rooty aroma of orris butter to the exclusion of all else.  In fact, it smells suspiciously close to an ionone-rich orris butter dilution I have in my collection, which is to say a heady blend of the following: parsnip roots pulled from the soil on a freezing December morning, spermicidal jelly, a silver spoon, soap, and freshly-poured concrete or latex paint.  Why all of this should add up to a scent that Chandler Burr once described as ‘liquid good taste’ is a mystery, but God knows it does.

 

Orris Wakan is unusual for an ‘attar’ or oil-based perfume in that it manages to capture the very nuances of orris butter that normally get ‘squashed’ by other, heavier materials in oil format.  This is all rhizome, no flower.  In fact, in keeping the structure simple, Rasquinet has managed to produce something that briefly reproduces the opening of Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens). 

 

This is quite the achievement until you remember that orris butter itself is so lovely and complex a material that all the perfumer really had to do here was set it in place and leave well enough alone.  To Rasquinet’s credit, he didn’t overstuff the composition with any shouty materials that might detract from the orris.  It just fizzles out quietly into an ether of soft, frothy musks.  Like your first roll in the hay, Orris Wakan is poignantly beautiful for all of the thirty minutes it lasts.

 

It is worth noting that Orris Wakan is one of the two 2021 perfume oils that are completely Western (read: French) in both theme and construction.  I imagine this being a big seller for the luxury leather goods crowd, because the scent of orris has a natural affinity with creamy leather, suede, and hawthorn accords.              

 

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

 

Rose Aqor, composed by Cécile Zarokian, well – let me just stop right there.  Even without looking it up, it is clear that this is a Cécile Zarokian creation.  I love her work, but this central accord of soda fizz rose, sparkling ‘white’ incense, piquant black or pink pepper, doughy benzoin, cinnamon, and radiant golden ambers is as identifiable a fingerprint as anything done by Bertrand Duchaufour.  Rose Aqor is very lovely, as it should be, as it is a near note-for-note recreation of Zarokian’s 2009 Epic Woman (Amouage) in oil format.  Epic Woman is my most worn Amouage perfume, so I know her.

 

Like Epic Woman, Rose Aqor tucks a sweet-n-sour, heavily peppered rose inside a powdery incense-amber accord that is part pickles, part sherbet.  As roses go, Rose Aqor is a complete meal in and of itself, from the lip-smacking savor of kimchi to the meaty, peppery rose and a thimbleful of thin crème anglaise to sweeten the tongue at the very end.  It diverges slightly from the Epic Woman template in some parts, most notably with a touch of the slightly doughy bubblegum-benzoin accord and zesty cardamom ‘fuzz’ borrowed from Fêtes Persanes (Parfums MDCI), another perfume by – you guessed it –  Cécile Zarokian.

 

I am predisposed to enjoy Rose Aqor because I also enjoy Epic Woman and Fêtes Persanes.  But unless you have a very small collection and you’re specifically in the market for this type of rose (spicy, ambery, incensey), then it is likely you already own something very like this.  For me personally, Rose Aqor is redundant.  But remember, neither you nor I am the target market for Rose Aqor.

 

It is in Rose Aqor, by the way, that the key differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ emerge most clearly.  Smell Rose Aqor and immediately the closest equivalents that jump to mind are themselves niche perfumes that pursue a vaguely ‘exotic’, Middle Eastern theme albeit via the heavily filtered lens of a Western luxury buyer.  Contrast this with OG Amouage rose-centric ‘attars’ like Ayoon Al Maha (rose and sandalwood) or the infamous Homage (Taifi rose, frankincense) and, straight away, you can tell the difference.  Rose Aqor smells like a niche perfume in oil format; Homage smells like the fiercest distilled attars of Taifi rose and frankincense oil mixed together.  The first is a complete perfume composition, clearly made under temperature-controlled conditions in a lab, while the second smells like something violently wrested from this good earth.   And that right there is largely the difference between a concentrated perfume oil and an attar (or mukhallat).    

 

 

Photo by allison christine on Unsplash

 

Vanilla Barka, composed by Dominique Ropion, is guilty of what Luca Turin named the ‘one-liner tendency’ in today’s niche perfume market, which is the fashion for composing a perfume around one of two headlining materials and allowing that be the whole artistic point of the fragrance.  Imagine a scale of compositional complexity with L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) at one end and Vanille Benjoin (Affinescence) at the other, where the closer you move towards Vanille Benjoin, the more ideas your perfume sheds.  Vanilla Barka is positioned right at the Affinescence point on that scale. 

 

After one thrilling note of frankincense, in all its silvery-lemony severity, this devolves very quickly into the plain white sugar + vanilla-tonka bean sludge you see everywhere from Tihota (Indult) to Vaniglia (Mazzolari) and even, to be honest, Vanille (Molinard).  It is slightly plasticky, albeit in a nice way, like Vanyl (Bruno Acampora).  You can even get reasonable versions of this accord from indie oil perfume houses, like Solstice Scents, and have it work out at $18 for a 5ml bottle.  Vanilla Barka costs $540, for scale.  

 

Vanilla Barka is far from unpleasant, just to be clear.  There is a not insignificant amount of hygge to be mined in its deeply doughy, almost almondy dollhead embrace.  But let’s be honest.  Wearing Vanilla Barka is the scent equivalent of eating white frosting or raw cookie dough straight from the packet, while mindlessly binging Netflix in your slouchiest sweatpants.  Yeah, it’s insanely comforting.  But you also kind of know it’s not good for your teeth or your IQ.  Not to mention that, for $540, you can pick up two whole bottles of Tihota.  Of course, Amouage is counting on Dubai mall foot traffic not to know about Tihota.  So, there’s that.

 

 

Photo by volant on Unsplash

 

Incense Rori, composed by Julien Rasquinet, is the standout of the 2021 line for me.  No wonder, because it takes as its starting point the wonderful Omani silver frankincense that Amouage made so famous throughout the world.  The opening note is marvelously fizzy, dark, and sooty – picture the smoked out remains of an open fire in a traditional stone church.  It smells like handfuls of charcoal dust dumped into Schweppe’s Bitter Tonic, with this clean edge that frank fans will find utterly addictive.  Cedar and I think a good deal of unlisted amber join forces to lend the soaring frankincense some basso fondo, creating a rich, resiny background that swings between ashy (pipe tobacco) and sweetly whiskey-ish (amber, immortelle).

 

This darting contrast between achingly dry smoke and ‘wet’ booze is incredible, reminding me variously of a mash-up between the original Vetiver (Annick Goutal), Jeke (Slumberhouse), Tobacco Oud (Tom Ford), and Black (Comme des Garcons).  The drydown lays out a rich, salty oakmoss for our consideration, which is the precise point at which Incense Rori does a fabulous impression of the latter stages of L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), where all that funky oakmoss dries out on a bed of halitosis.  Incense Rori isn’t at all animalic, but it shares something of the scalpy moss funk of the Miller Harris – likely that same metallic, musky, slightly cheap suit shininess of Evernyl Prunastri.  Add a rubbery, saline myrrh (deflated latex condom and all) in the far reaches, and you have the complete incense madness that is Incense Rori.

 

Incense Rori is the perfume that I imagine most appealing to the Old Guard of the perfume community, i.e., the ones who bought the OG Amouage attars.  It smells pure and smoky enough to grab the attention of the most ascetic of luxury buyers’ tastes, yet complex and different enough to capture the interest of even the most jaded of incense (or indeed oakmoss) freaks in our tiny corner of Fragcomm.  Also, is Incense Rori possibly the 2021 Amouage apology for dropping Tribute?  A very small, scaled down tribute to Tribute, mind, but better some Tribute than no Tribute at all.     

 

 

Photo by marlik saffron on Unsplash

 

Saffron Hamra, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is the most traditionally ‘attar’-like of this collection, due to its clever use of a spice – saffron – that, as part of the age-old triumvirate of rose-sandalwood-saffron, will not fail to evoke a Pavlovian response.  I smell saffron, I smell attar.  Even if you think you don’t know attars, you have certainly smelled some variation of that rosy-saffron attar scent in your local Asian supermarket, round the back where the incense sticks and chunks of bakhoor and gaudy perfume oils are stocked.

 

On its own, saffron is piercingly medicinal, like gauze bandages soaked in iodine or the rawest piece of cowhide you ever saw, a quality that aligns the material surprisingly enough with natural oud oil.  Indeed, on the lower end of the scale, you will find that all the big attar or mukhallat houses – Ajmal, Arabian Oud, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, and so on – pad out their ‘oudy’ compositions with saffron in order to create that subliminal link in our smelling receptors to natural oud, even when none is present (the same may be said for cypriol, which is smokier and far less medicinal than saffron).

 

In Saffron Hamra, Zarokian allows the medicinal properties of saffron to play out in full, but wraps a soft, sweet rose around it to cushion us from its sharper edges.  The result is a sort of vanilla custard tinged with iodine and dirty bandages.  I assure you that this is delicious and unsettling in equal measure, which is what makes it such a successful and balanced accord.  Imagine Safran Troublant by Olivia Giacobetti for L’Artisan Parfumeur but removed from the utter comfort of the Parisian salon to the harsh planes and arid environment of the Rub’ Al Khali desert in Saudi Arabia.

 

At this stage, Saffron Hamra strikes me as being authentically attar-like, and even worthy of being included in the original Amouage attar line-up. (It reminds me somewhat of a smoother Al Siraj by Arabian Oud, one of my favorite saffron-forward mukhallats).

 

However, it is worth noting that the far drydown of Saffron Hamra introduces an unpleasantly metallic note that gives me a headache.  Cade oil, listed in the notes, might be responsible for this element, as it is a dirty green, smoky material that can be quite pungent.  To my nose, though, it reads like a trace of some woody aromachemical.  A disappointing end to a perfume that started out smelling absolutely wondrous, therefore, although it also reminds me that sometimes, just sometimes, the normally thoughtful Zarokian can go ham on the woody aromachemicals (Sheiduna for Puredistance being an example).   

 

 

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

 

Oud Ulya, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is very similar to Zarokian’s own Silver Oud for Amouage, only not as earthy (there is little to no patchouli felt here).  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that, as with the Rose Aqor/Epic Woman parallel, this is Cécile Zarokian translating the formula of another of her Amouage spray perfumes to oil format.

 

Similar to its parent, Oud Ulya wraps a pungent oud oil (which smells authentically feral, aided no doubt by a lascivious touch of civet) in a syrupy amber-vanilla glove designed to make the medicine go down.  The opening resembles Trat oud oil, which is to say, soiled hay plunged into a hot, bubbly strawberry jam.  Now imagine this pungent oud-date jam spread across a huge chunk of pain d’epices and left to smolder and char at the edges on a censer, the air filling with the intense scent of burnt sugar.  The point here is that the ferocity of the animalic oud is equal to the ferocity of the syrupy sweetness of the vanillamber.  Add in the haunting smoke of birch tar and you are halfway to the delicious second half of Patchouli 24 (Le Labo).  

 

It might be the equivalent of showing up to church in full drag if the whole thing wasn’t so ergonomically velvety.  You see, Zarokian has managed to wrap all of this up in the most buttery of buttery leather accords, so even while part of your brain flashes on the barnyard, you also keep making that involuntary crooning sound you make whenever you see a picture of those Ritz-Carton lodges in the Maldives or when your hand brushes against the 500-count sheets on display in Harrods.  Oud Ulya is a mish-mash of things for sure – there is a bit of Amber Absolute, Patchouli 24, Prive by Ormonde Jayne, among others – but it is a charming and well-balanced mish-mash, and that counts for a lot.

 

But again, compare Oud Ulya to the towering oudy masterpieces of Badr Al Badour (my favorite OG Amouage ‘attar’), Al Molook, or Al Shomukh, and the differences in style are immediately laid bare.  Though Oud Ulya certainly contains an authentic-smelling oud, it is framed against a backdrop of sweet and smoky notes artfully arranged to evoke a fantasy of the East as expected by a Western gaze.  Like Shalimar.   Oud Ulya is deliberately exotic, because the perfumer has arranged the amber accords, the leather, and the smoke to create just that effect.

 

In Badr Al Badour, on the other hand, the combination of the oud, the rose, the ambergris, and the frankincense smells exotic because the raw materials themselves are exotic and because the perfumer has simply mixed these exotic smells together in the most pleasing way he knows how.  Badr Al Badour cares not if it pleases our Western nose or not; it is wholly agnostic to our comfort.  In contrast, Oud Ulya brings you on a magic carpet ride but keeps checking over its shoulder to make sure we’re still on.

 

 

 *This is largely true for traditional Indian attar perfumery since genuine attar distillation is now mostly limited to Kannauj, India, but we have established that neither the old nor the new Amouage ‘attars’ are actually attars.   Still, many of the most prolific and creative perfumers or distillers working in the field of oil perfumery (oud, sandalwood, and mukhallat perfumery) are themselves Western by birth or upbringing.  Ensar is American, Taha Syed is Canadian, Sultan Pasha is a Londoner, JK DeLapp is from Atlanta, and Russian Adam is…well.   You see where this is going.   A gentle suggestion: as fragrance writers, let us put down the pitchforks and try to see the perfume sector for what it is rather than for what we think it ought to be.   

 

 

Source of sample:  A very dear friend of mine passed on her set of official Amouage samples to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

 

Cover Image: Photo taken by me. Please do not re-print without my permission.

 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Incense Mukhallats Myrrh opoponax Resins Round-Ups The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews B-I

4th June 2022

 

 

Continuing the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with everything falling between B and I.  But before you dive in, in case you missed it, why not have a glance at this brief primer on all things resiny here?  It gives you the lowdown on the differences between myrrh and sweet myrrh (opoponax), what benzoin smells like, and the intricacies of the kingliest resin of them all, frankincense.  It also explains what amber is, exactly. 

 

 

 

 

Basilica (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Rich labdanum absolute paired with effervescent frankincense, polished rosewood, dark myrrh, exotic woods and a waft of heavenly sweet and rich vanilla absolute and fragrant ashes.

 

 

I highly recommend Basilica as a starting point for anyone interested in the incense genre.  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 basically Avignon (Comme des Garcons) in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it should come with a trigger warning.

 

 

 

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

 

Balsamo della Mecca (Mecca Balsam) (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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 (mukhallat really) 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 excoriating and purifying.

 

The labdanum is downplayed in the oil version, 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 mukhallat, 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 oil to an exorcism.  

 

I own the eau de parfum but prefer the mukhallat.  It has something of the leathery darkness of Tauer’s L’Oudh but is denser, blacker, and more boiled in texture.  (Balsamo della Mecca mukhallat is also completely natural in feel while Tauer’s L’Oudh has a smoky industrial aromachemical undertone in the late drydown).

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

 

Boukhour, or barkhour as it is sometimes spelled, is a mixture of wood chips or briquettes soaked in essential oils, resins, and other fragrant materials designed to be burned over hot charcoal disks in burners to scent the home, clothes, and hair with its thick, perfumed smoke.  Muslims also burn boukhour chips to ‘seal in’ perfume oils they have applied on their skin, hair, or robes.  This is a lovely and evocative idea – after all, the original meaning of the word ‘perfume’ is per fumus in Latin, or ‘through the smoke’. 

 

Correspondingly, Boukhour Blend is a perfume oil designed to be rubbed through your hair, onto your clothes, and even ‘baked in’ using the smoke from boukhour chips (hence the name).  The opening is a maelstrom of candied white flowers, featuring the standard ASAQ gummy-sweet blend of orange blossom, jasmine, and wildflowers that turns up in other blends.  The opening is so intensely syrupy that I feel a tooth cavity coming on.

 

A generic building block base of amber, wood, and musk has been shoe-horned in to hold up the unctuous mass of honeyed white flowers, but doesn’t really do anything beyond sitting there, looking pretty in a non-descript way.  It smells exotic and resinous in the slightly faceless way of those cheap blocks of foil-wrapped barkhour one can pick up in any Asian grocery.

 

Can you tell just how under-enthused I am?  Boukhour Blend is not bad, per se, but it is sorely lacking the interesting smokiness you get when burning real barkhour.  If you love Candy by Prada or Amor Amor by Cacherel and want something similar in oil form, then this should suffice.  For everyone else – you can safely skip it. 

 

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend Supreme (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Practically identical to the regular Boukhour Blend described above, and indeed, it is likely that they are the one and the same, albeit with a bit of up-selling on the name.  To my nose, there is a slightly higher concentration of the very sweet, gummy white flowers in the Supreme version, taking it to an outrageous level of bubblegum-like sweetness that sets my teeth on edge.

 

 

 

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

 

The Cat (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sleek, black, dark, and clever: benzoin, honey, cedar, and dark musk.

 

 

The Cat smells of fruity honey poured over cedar sap and powdery benzoin, its edges diffused and feathered by a cottony musk.  The first impression is of maple syrup seeping from a tree, its lurid sweetness balanced nicely by resinous sap and the vinegary sharpness of the cedarwood, lending it a pickled flavor that pricks the taste buds.  The latter stages are packed full of powdery musks with hints of earth and funk.

 

Overall, The Cat’s forceful essay on pungent honey, resin, vinegary woods, and sweet, powdery musks is a clever balancing act that works well on the skin.  It is worth mentioning that even if you do not typically like BPAL’s honey note, The Cat should be on your radar, because the honey here is dark and pine resin-like rather than candy-sweet.

 

 

 

Chypre Profund (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Let us dispense with the pleasantries – Chypre Profund does not smell like a chypre.  What it does smell like, however, is the twenty-year-old Cretan labdanum oil that Mellifluence used to stock, which was deliciously thick, leathery, animalic, and possessed of a salted caramel depth of flavor that never got old.  It is this, and not oakmoss, that is the pillar upon which Chypre Profund is constructed.

 

It is tough to do a chypre these days.  It is especially difficult if you are a self-taught attar maker with limited access to raw materials and a tendency to ‘feel your way’ through the process of making perfume rather than taking a more formal study track.  However, if you are a small-batch attar maker and have access to oakmoss absolute and are not bound by IFRA anyway, then why not throw caution to the wind and use oakmoss in quantities that actually show up?  If I were Mellifluence, I would take this back to the drawing board and double down on the oakmoss.

 

And while I am making presumptuous suggestions, I would like to urge the addition of the other component of a chypre, i.e., bergamot.  Chypre Profund smells good largely because it features a great labdanum material.  The tarry aspects of labdanum have been accentuated by a chorus of earthy, dusty notes to create body and interest.  But in terms of structure, it lacks both the brightness of bergamot up top and the bitterness of oakmoss down below that would qualify it as chypre.  

 

As it stands, Chypre Profund is a nice essay on the complexity of labdanum, but there is no getting around the fact that the traditionally three-legged stool of a chypre construction (bergamot-labdanum-oakmoss) is missing two of its three legs and is therefore useless for sitting on.

 

 

 

Conjure Dark (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Amber, Frankincense, Sweet Incense Smoke, Dried Rose Petals, Sandalwood, Vetiver, Woods, Oud, Vanilla

 

 

Conjure Dark mixes the musty gloom of a church cellar with the powdered sweetness of cheap Indian rose incense sticks for a result that smells unexpectedly animalic, like beeswax mixed with the odor of someone who hasn’t washed for a long, long time.   Conjure Dark conjures (sorry) an image of crouching down behind old wooden crates in a church cellar, watching a secret burial ceremony, the scent of centuries-old neglect mingling with the lingering aromas of candle wax and communion wafers. 

 

Vetiver, rose, beeswax, and cold, unburned frankincense are the notes that dominate here.  There is a gorgeously stale, almost bready air to Conjure Dark.  If you like the idea of incense resin mixed with the aura of damp books and New Age shops, then Conjure Dark will be right up your alley.  Trippy but wonderful stuff.  I own a bottle.

 

 

 

Photo by Kier In Sight on Unsplash

 

Dukhan (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Dukhan refers to a Sudanese purification treatment – usually reserved for women – involving the immersion of one’s body in the smoke from a fire of exotic incense and aromatic woods.  But Dukhan leans hard on the fire part of the ritual and barely touches upon the medicinal.  This is basically what a library would smell like if set on fire.

 

Thankfully the smoke is never allowed to overwhelm.  I appreciate the restraint employed here, because smoky materials such as cade, labdanum, birch tar, tobacco, and so on, have the tendency to drown out the quieter sounds made by the other notes.  

 

Dukhan opens on a smoky vetiver note that feels as purely resinous as Hojari frankincense, before sliding into a rich tobacco and leather tandem that forms the hardest-working muscle in the scent.  Underneath this, a rubbery tar note lends the tobacco and leather some chew.  No sweetness, though.  Dukhan is as sinewy as the legs of a professional cyclist after the last Pyrenean mountain stage of the Tour de France. 

 

Overall, Dukhan smells comfortingly masculine, like burying your nose into the well-worn leather jacket of someone who smokes a pipe and has recently nibbled on a piece of frankincense gum.  The leather and tobacco are supple, almost buttery, and despite the underlying charcoal smoke, a microcosm, in scent form, of the pipe-and-slipper rituals of a gentleman.  

 

I recommend Dukhan to anyone looking for a resinous leather-tobacco masculine that doesn’t excoriate your nasal cavities with billowing gusts of BBQ smoke.  Picture a toned-down, more wearable Hyde (Hiram Green) or T-Rex (Zoologist) and you have the right idea.

 

 

 

L’Encens à la Vanille (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Madagascar Vanilla, golden amber, and resinous incense swirled together with a selection of beautifully aged incense woods and a dusting of aphrodisiac Silk Road spices. Intensely sexy in a mysterious kind of way…

 

 

L’Encens à la Vanille belies its attractive description by slicing an intensely metallic incense note through a doughy, sullen vanilla, and then pretty much dropping the mic.  The advertized Silk Road spices boil down to the single note of clove, a representation so medicinal it smells spoiled, like dried milk or blood.  It eventually settles into a nice, bubblegum-like mélange of woods and amber that fails to atone for the trauma of the first hour.

 

 

 

Enheduanna (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A dark and sultry incantation of seven ancient temple offerings: Zanzibar clove, oakmoss, aged frankincenses, champa blossom, Madagascar vanilla, iron-distilled patchouli, and dark amber.

 

 

Enheduanna smells just like the inside of a head shop, i.e., unlit nag champa sticks, amber cubes, and dusty spices.  Now, there are perfumes that do a really good job of nailing the atmosphere of one of these places without getting too literal about it (Sikkim Girls by Lush and Le Maroc Pour Elle by Andy Tauer, for example), but Enheduanna is not one of them.  It is too straight-forwardly headshoppy to be elegant or interesting.  There are much better variations on the theme out there.

 

 

 

Enigma Intense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Holy smokes, batman!  Lovers of fragrances such as Slumberhouse Jeke, Naomi Goodsir’s Bois d’Ascèse, and Le Labo Patchouli 24, please welcome your newest member to the inner circle!  Citrus and lavender offer a glimpse of sunlight before it is whisked away almost immediately, and the wearer plunged deep inside a smokehouse where a leather jacket has just been thrown onto the open fire.

 

Birch tar is the note that dominates with its fiercely rubbery smoke, but cedar, aged vetiver, Siam benzoin, and copaiba also add to the somber atmosphere.  A salty, ashy guaiacol note emerges from the fire, and somewhere in the distance, someone is dry-roasting cardamom, cumin, and caraway seeds on a hot pan.  The mouth waters, and so do the eyes.  The drydown is warmly ambery without once straying into sweetness.

 

 

 

Eve (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Company description: Eve is a heavy oriental, resplendent with musks, earthy sweetnesses [sic], lingering and sexy as only that first lady could have been. This is a complex blend, profound even, but still there is a sparkle to it which marks it as a Posset. 

 

Unfortunately, my sample had turned by the time I got to it (to be fair to Possets, it was a full year later).  By then, all I could smell rancid carrier oil.

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

fallintostars (Strangelove NYC)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

fallintostars by Strangelove NYC is clever because it pairs the 15th century smell of Hindi oud – the dank, rotting, wet wood smell of animal hides piled high in a medieval dungeon – with the 21st century radiance of a modern amber.  For the first half hour, the dissonance is dizzying.  The oud is so authentically filthy that you feel like you’re being pressed up against a wall by an lout with a shiv and bad intentions.  It is as funky as a plate of fruit and cheese furred over with mold, wrapped in a length of freshly-tanned leather, and buried in a pile of steaming, matted straw.

 

But just when you fear you are slipping wholesale into slurry, you notice the bright, peppery overlay of something radiant and electric, like sparks popping off a shorted wire.  This accord calls to mind the aromachemically fresh, smoky black tea opening of Russian Tea (Masque Milano Fragranze) more than the pink pepper the notes tell me this is likely to be.  The distance between the light and the dark is perfectly judged.  It is more of a whoosh than a lift.

 

But wait, because we haven’t really talked about the amber yet.  Poor Christophe Laudamiel – I bet that after the category-defining glory that is Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) he is afraid to touch labdanum for fear of either never reaching those heights again or being accused of repeating himself.  Therefore, no, this is not the benzoin-thickened incense amber of Amber Absolute, but (unexpectedly) the bright, hard sparkle of a champagne-and-vodka amber in the style of pre-reform Ambre Russe (Parfum d’Empire).   Like a shot of those clear gold liquors served in the Alps after dinner, it smells so cleansing that I am not sure whether to drink it or apply it to a wound.

 

My nose fails me when it comes to the other notes.  I don’t get any of the green, hay-like barnyardiness of narcissus (unless it is giving the dirty straw notes in the Hindi oud some welly) or indeed any of the gentler, more jasmine-like nuances of the jonquil variety, and there is nary a hint of rose.  I don’t perceive the benzoin at all, which is strange because even if I can’t smell it, I can usually feel it thickening the texture of the basenotes into a flurry of papery dust.

 

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.

 

Anyway, what I like about this perfume is that it transcends its raw materials to make you think about the way it is composed.  The modern, near slavish adoration at the foot of complex-smelling naturals such as Hindi oud or rose or labdanum often results in muddy, brown-tinged accords that speak more to their own worthiness than to joy, especially in the indie sector.  In fallintostars, Christophe Laudamiel takes heavy hitters like Hindi oud and makes it smell like bottled fireflies.  And that is alchemy, pure and simple.

 

 

 

FBI.17 (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The name stands for Fabulous Blend from India, the 2017 edition.  It features a dark-ish musk with the faint twang of urinal cakes over tobacco, labdanum, and oud.  Thankfully, the musk is not so shriekingly animalic that you have to hide indoors until it fades.  Its funkiness is soft and velvety, with only the subtlest of bathroom nuances.

 

If this was all there was to it, FBI.17 would be a nice but boring iteration on the Arabian ‘black musk’ theme, but it has a trick or two up its sleeve.  The perfume releases its tight musky fist quite suddenly, swiveling into a complex, ashy tobacco accord, which in turn melts into a buttery, incensey labdanum drydown that will appeal to fans of the tobacco-labdanum-heavy Ambre Loup by Rania J.

 

There is no vanilla or benzoin to act as the transition shade, so the blend leans on the complexity of labdanum to do all the heavy-lifting.  There is a marked similarity between this and the drydown of Amber Ash Sheikh, but the base of FBI.17 is even more unctuously buttery.  My nose fails to pick out any oud in this blend at all, but to be fair, I don’t particularly miss it.  If you want a cost-effective alternative to Ambre Loup, FBI.17 might be a contender.

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

Geisha Amber Rouge (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Geisha Amber Rouge is – or was – a limited edition version of Geisha Rouge.  But to say that Geisha Amber Rouge simply adds amber to the Geisha Rouge formula is inaccurate.  Geisha Amber Rouge opens with hot clove and an accord that smells very much like rooibos tea that’s been brewed for a long time and allowed to grow cold.  The red tea notes smell tannic, with hints of dried currants, star anise, and rose petals stirring beneath.  Those familiar with the original Comme des Garcons Parfum and Costes No. 1 will appreciate the translucent ‘pink-red’ sourness of this accord. 

 

The amber itself only shifts into view when smelled directly side by side with its parent scent, Geisha Rouge.  When the nose returns to Geisha Amber Rouge after smelling the original, the resiny thickness of the amber accord suddenly ‘pops’, making you wonder how you missed it in the first place.

 

But the amber does not cloud the clarity of the red tea notes at all.  It simply adds a certain louche, dank sexiness that makes me think of women lolling around in half-open kimonos, unwashed and unshaved.  All in all, this is an admirably cool-headed spicy amber with a rooibos undertone that tea lovers will appreciate. 

 

 

 

Geisha Noire (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Aroma M made its reputation on Geisha Noire, and it is easy to see why.  The secret to Geisha Noire is that it gets better the longer you wear it, making it the inverse of most modern fragrances, which hit you with all the glory in the first hour or so but peter out by the time you get home and unbox your new purchase.  Thankfully, because Aroma M perfumes are not sold in department stores, there is no urgency to sell you on its topnotes.  Most Aroma M perfumes, therefore, take their time to hit their stride.

 

And true to form, Geisha Noire is a perfume that demands you wait a little for your satisfaction.  The topnotes are bright but leaden, an undissolved lump of golden resin that hisses on the skin like a scalded cat.  The resin accord is piercingly sharp, like lemon rind without any citrus high notes, reminding me a bit of elemi resin.  There is also a sherbety, turbo-charged fizz to the texture that smells the way Refresher bars taste.  Not a bad smell, you understand – just massively unrefined.

 

But give Geisha Noire the courtesy of wearing it for a full day and a strange thing happens.  The lump of resin begins to dissolve, liquefying into distinct pools of amber, creamy sandalwood, tonka, and salty ambergris.  It smells like antique gold velvet, its flavor miles deep and radiating in every direction.  It is also an intensely powdery scent, connecting it to its progenitor Shalimar in firm brushstrokes that might not agree with everyone.  But what makes Geisha Noire special, and what marks it out as more than just another Shalimar clone, is its balance between burned sugar and salty driftwood (ambergris).

 

Geisha Noire is at its very best at the end of the day when its salty-sweet amber has melted into the heat of your skin, forming a veritable forcefield of radiant, gold-tipped sweetness.  A true my-skin-but-better kind of scent.   

 

 

 

Holy Terror (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: There are utterly somber and fearsome spirits which are known to haunt certain long-deserted chapels, monasteries and abbeys. An unsettling, austere blend of burning frankincense, sandalwood, deep myrrh, and dusty beeswax candles.

 

 

Holy Terror is the star of the Arcana line-up.  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.

 

 

 

HopHead (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Very nervous people love this blend, it calms you down but leaves you very mellow. Coffee in its most perfectly beautiful form is dropped into 5 ambers which range from sweet to dry. Somehow this combination just makes me want to have a nosegasm. Gourmandy and very bea-utiful [sic].

 

 

HopHead is the coffee opening of The Seductive Jesuit draped over a sugary amber accord.  Is it the five different ambers as promised by the description?  Nope.  Just one – a bog-standard indie amber, which is to say sweet, vegetal, and hippyish.  

 

 

 

Incense Oud (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The incense note in the dupe is a hair soapier, but in general, this is a close match for By Kilian’s Incense Oud.  The original fragrance is a subdued, natural-smelling incense scent, backed by soft green woods, powder, and a hint of smoke.  Structurally, the By Kilian is sparse to the point of austerity but rose adds a subtle flush of warmth where needed.

 

Admittedly, the dupe does not have the same strong rose presence as the original, and its sparkly, dusty texture is more Pez than frankincense.  But it completely nails the tranquil, meditative air of the original.  With dupes, sometimes it is more important that the general atmosphere of the original is captured, rather than a precise note-by-note breakdown.  This is a great example of that.

 

 

 

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

 

Incense Royale (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Not all incense scents are alike, a fact that Incense Royale illustrates by mixing some of the resins used in the dark, tarry Pure Incense with vanilla and some of the lighter, sweeter resins such as benzoin, elemi, and opoponax to arrive at an incense fragrance that is a complete 180 degrees from Pure Incense.

 

In comparison to its muscular big brother, Incense Royale floats in on a big powdery, vanillic cloud of scent with hints of cinnamon, lemon, lavender, red berries, and rose – all facets naturally present in the resins and oud used rather than the inclusion of any floral absolutes.  A fat cushion of benzoin and vanilla adds a plush, pillowy texture that makes the incense feels luxe and pampered rather than churchy or severe.

 

There is a faint, sour streak in the woody backdrop that comes from the aged Hindi oud used for Incense Royale, but in general, the oud is not especially prominent.  Rather, it sings a low brown note in unison with the other woody notes.  Sweet, powdery, faintly resinous, and woody, Incense Royale could be a sort of Ambre 114 flushed with silvery bits of oud.  The structure is flooded with citric brightness, perhaps due to the pine and lime peel facets of frankincense, or the creamy, lemony side of elemi resin.

 

Either way, the diffuse sweetness of the blend feels like it sits at opposite ends to the dark, sticky pungency of Pure Incense.  Pure Incense is compacted resin, dark and prune-like, while Incense Royale has light and air and the birds and the bees.  Choose according to personal preference, but both are excellent.  For ease of comparison, Incense Royale has a very similar feel to softly powdered, sweet incense compositions such as Creed’s Angelique Encens and Guerlain’s Bois d’Armenie.  It also shares an airy, woody-aromatic sweetness with Ambre 114.

 

 

 

Incensum (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Amber, Frankincense, Palo Santo, Myrrh, Spices, Attars, Oud, Vetiver & more

 

 

Incensum is one of the brand’s premium blends, meaning that it is one hundred percent natural, and made with a mixture of attars and essential oils rather than with synthetics.  The all-natural nature of this composition bears out in both its quality and in its flat and somewhat muddy feel.

 

Incensum seems to be structured around a clutch of opposing materials – a cluster of smoky, green, and ‘bitter’ elements such as vetiver, palo santo (guaiac wood), and frankincense on one side, and a grouping of earthy ‘brown’ notes such as oud oil and myrrh on the other.  Incensum starts out in a very earnest tone, dominated by sourish wood and resin.  But then the oud note drops out of the picture entirely, leaving the balance hanging askew.

 

Incensum is limited in its movement by the upper limits of its natural raw materials.  It morphs very slowly from smoky green wood to earthy, anisic myrrh over the course of a wear.  There is a certain rawness (or perhaps sharpness) to the perfume that I like very much.  However, demonstrating that a negative reaction can be caused as much by naturals as by synthetic, Incensum gives me a howling headache every time I wear it.

 

 

 

Inferno (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Inferno is a potent tobacco and resin bomb presaged by a piercing lime note that runs acrid on my skin.  The opening is arresting, with a brief coca cola note leading into a blackstrap molasses note, like prune juice boiled down to a thimbleful of liquid.  However, the main character of the mukhallat lies in the interaction between that lime peel topnote with the aromatics, musk, and tobacco in the heart, a combination that draws an unfortunate association with citrus-scented floor disinfectants.  Underneath the lime-musk disinfectant note, there lies a very good, smoky tobacco accord, as dry and as husky as a thick book left to smolder in the ashes of a campfire.

 

People who are fond of well-done animalics should seek out a sample of Inferno, as it features significant amounts of hyraceum, castoreum, musk, ambergris, and civet, as well as a touch of Hindi oud, but is blended expertly so as to lend the attar a dark, sultry growl rather than an all-out, high-pitched animal shriek.  As the astringent lime-musk combo dies out, the wonderfully dry, smoky smell of the resins, animalics, and woods lingers for hours.  In fact, the drydown of Inferno is my favorite of all Sultan Pasha’s blends (excepting Aurum D’Angkhor).  I just can’t take the first half.

 

 

 

Inquisitor (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A Dark Resinous Blend of Myrrh, Labdanum, Beeswax Absolute, Frankincense, Amber, Leather & Fire

 

 

Every now and then, you want to smell like the Second Coming.  A bit churchy, a bit gothic, a bit Mordor?  Yeah, I hear you.  Forget Avignon (Comme des Garcons), Casbah (Robert Piguet), and Full Incense (Montale) – Inquisitor by Solstice Scents gets you there for about eighteen dollars.  Featuring a raw, chlorine-dipped leather over a pile of smoking resins, Inquisitor makes a lunge for your throat and doesn’t let go.

 

It is weirdly sexy.  The drydown, thick with vanillic resins like benzoin and labdanum, is slightly creamier, but the perfume never really strays too far from its dominatrix-meets-smoking-censer theme.  More gothic than churchy, Inquisitor is perhaps the choice for apostates.  If you are a true believer, I would instead recommend the wonderful Basilica by the same brand – a quiet, simple Avignon-lite number that scratches the ecclesiastical itch to perfection.

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples: I purchased my samples of Arcana, Maison Anthony Marmin, BPAL, Mellifluence, Possets, Solstice Scents, Aroma M, Alkemia, and Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics.  My samples of oils from Abdes Salaam Attar, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands or a distributor.  My sample of Strangelove NYC fallintostars was courtesy of Luckyscent, provided for copywriting purposes. 

 

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: Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Gold Incense Mukhallats Myrrh opoponax Resins Review Single note exploration Smoke Spice The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews 0-A

31st May 2022

 

 

Kicking off the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with the A’s – and given that amber starts with an A, there is a lot.  But before you dive in, in case you missed it, why not have a glance at this brief primer on all things resiny here?  It gives you the lowdown on the differences between myrrh and sweet myrrh (opoponax), what benzoin smells like, and the intricacies of the kingliest resin of them all, frankincense.  It also explains what amber is, exactly. 

 

 

 

020 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 020 is orange-scented toffee rendered in liquid form, with a sprinkle of pepper for interest.  A combination of patchouli, tonka, and vanilla gives the scent a waxy, fudge-like texture that muffles the high-toned brightness of the orange blossom.  No. 020 bears some similarity to Hermès Ambre des Merveilles, its orangey goodness spiced with pepper instead of salt. 

 

 

 

Absolute Amber (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Escaping the wrath of Tom Ford’s legal department by a hair, Absolute Amber is a juggernaut of an amber with a synth under-pinning so potent it could fell a horse at five paces.  One sniff of this stuff was enough to cause my olfactory system to start closing up shop.  But at the edges, certain elements that characterize the Clive Christian approach with these exclusive oils can still be identified.

 

The first characteristic element is a topnote that is Lanolin-like in its medicinal balminess, redolent of a mixture of vegetable oil, sheep’s wool, tallow, and raw silk.  This is probably due to the carrier oil used in the Absolute line of perfume oils.  The second element is the supersonic radiance deriving from woody amber synthetics typically used for reach, such as Iso E Super, Cedramber, and the like.  The third characteristic I notice, both here and in one or two other examples in the Absolute range, is the emphasis on bringing out the sharper, more confrontational facets of the raw material being highlighted.  Sweet and fluffy these oils are not.

 

True to type, Absolute Amber is a tremendously spicy, resinous amber with undertones of plum, raisin, and grated cinnamon bark.  It is somewhat comparable in tone to Ambre Eccentrico (Armani Privé), swapping out the plush, fruity tonka bean for a somewhat bitter, aftershavey base that men might appreciate.  Absolute Amber is rich without being syrupy or ‘wet in any way.  In overall feel, Absolute Amber matches the synthy radiance of other rather butch amber scents such as Amouage’s Opus VI and Ambra Meditteranea by Profumi del Forte.  For those unbothered by potent woody ambers, Absolute Amber would be a strong (in every sense of the word) option for winter daywear, especially under a formal suit.

 

 

 

Photo: My own, Omani silver frankincense 

 

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Natural frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is practically its main character trait, 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, and 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.

 

 

 

Al Masih (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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, collapsing 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 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 piney, 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. 

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

I have to put my hand up here and admit that I like almost every dupe of Amber Absolute that has crossed my desk.  I would wear any of them quite happily in the place of the Tom Ford, because they are invariably lighter, thinner, and don’t quite feel like the twenty-four-hour marathon that the real deal entails.  That said, every single Amber Absolute dupe, when worn side by side with the real Amber Absolute, suffers greatly in comparison.

 

And this is no different.  The dupe is satisfying and rich on its own but, worn in proximity to the great Tom Ford, reveals itself to fall far short of the mark.  Amber Absolute has an enormously thick and heavy labdanum note, possibly Ambreine, a smoky, caramelized labdanum material (natural) owned by Biolandes.  This produces an intoxicating brew of caramelized toffee, leather, and burning incense.  It is thick and bittersweet, puffed up on all sides by a singed marshmallow note that makes it as hefty as a sleeping toddler.  As a perfume experience, it is remarkably well-balanced.

 

This dupe – like most others – does not feature that special thick furriness of labdanum or the vanillic cushion of benzoin.  The textural density is not right, therefore.  The bitterness of the incense notes has been replicated well, but compared to the original, the resins appear watered down.  Additionally, there is a minty freshness to the amber absent in the original, whose amber is more richly toffee-like, with whiskyish undertones.  In fact, the tart herbal twinge brings the dupe closer to Ambre Sultan than Amber Absolute (although the Serge Lutens is itself far thicker, more resinous, and more full-bodied).

 

In time, this dupe settles into a plain incense amber that, while nice, is nothing to write home about.  It subtlety and near-translucence compared to the Tom Ford means that it might make for a good option for summer or for those occasions when you want a nip of amber rather than the full jeroboam.  Not a great dupe, therefore, but not a bad all-purpose amber oil.

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Woody Allen once said that ‘Pizza is a lot like sex. When it is good, it is really good. When it is bad, it is still pretty good’.  The same could be said for Amber Absolute dupes.  Even at their worst, they still smell absolutely fantastic.

 

Even though it is not a hundred percent accurate, this is the best dupe for Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute that I have personally experienced.  It lacks the essential herbal-bitter depth of the incense component that makes the original so ‘tasty’, and as with all dupes of resin-heavy fragrances, there is a thickness missing in the body of the dupe.  In particular, the expensive lushness of high quality labdanum and benzoin is just not there.  The smoky marshmallow note is also missing, and there is a weird mintiness to the amber that does not feature in the original.

 

Despite these niggles, however, this dupe manages to nail the essential fruitcake-like deliciousness of the original.  It gets you about two-thirds of the way to the real Amber Absolute, and for me personally, that is good enough.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Nazar Strutynsky on Unsplash

 

Amber Afghani (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Afghani is in many ways a traditional Eastern take on amber – dusty, vegetal, and medicinal, with an undercurrent of iodine provided by saffron and henna.  This is an amber that walks on the dry, leathery side of labdanum, rather than its unctuously sheep-fatty one.  In style and feel, Amber Afghani is similar to Royal Amber Blend by ASAQ, albeit greener and spicier.  Although floral notes and spices are listed, only saffron is perceptible, although there is a touch of the oily coolness of black pepper further on.

 

Amber Afghani is more monolithic than complex, and not something I would ever call refined.  However, if you’re in the market for a basic vegetal amber, and you’re more cowboy than cowgirl, then this is a pleasant and reasonably-priced option.  To add interest, I suggest layering it with rose and oud oils, or underneath Western (spray) soliflores such as Dame Perfumery’s Gardenia or Tuberose.

 

 

 

Amber Ash Sheikh (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Ash Sheikh is a potent labdanum bomb with the feral honk of freshly-pored road tar and hot ash.  Subtle it is most certainly not, but if you are a fan of smoky tobacco fragrances such as Jeke, Tribute, and Patchouli 24, and want a current of sweet, molasses-like amber running beneath, then Amber Ash Sheikh is a must-try.

 

On my skin, it is mostly a fearsomely smoky labdanum bomb.  Labdanum is a resin from the rockrose plant that can read as ashy, tobacco-ish, and leathery, or alternatively, as wet, unctuous, and caramelic.  The way the resin will read in any given scenario depends on the direction the perfumer decides to take it in.

 

The direction taken here, with Amber Ash Sheikh, is firmly that of the ashy, dry leather.  The opening is so parched it sucks all the moisture out of one’s mouth, but there’s a molasses note hiding behind the ash, bringing a bitter, tarry edge for depth and texture.  It is somewhat like the play on ashy and wet seen in Soleil de Jeddah by Stephane Humbert Lucas.  But unlike that perfume, there are no bright fruit notes in Amber Ash Sheikh with which to relieve the unrelenting dryness.

 

Over time – and this is an oil that plays out on the skin over the course of a day or more if you don’t shower (heck, even if you do shower) – the bittersweet molasses note emerges from the shadows, imbuing the blend with a ‘black’ note pitched halfway between soft black licorice and buckwheat honey.  The stickiness of this accord is leavened by sour, dusty wood notes, which have a mitti-like pungency to them.  Later, the mukhallat smoothes out into a more traditionally buttery version of labdanum, nicely granulated with a gritty, bittersweet resin that recalls both the incensey amber in Amber Absolute by Tom Ford and the dried-fruit, copal bitterness of Norma Kamali Incense.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

 

Amber Chocolate (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Who on earth could possibly dislike something that smells so delicious?  Amber Chocolate is roasted tonka bean shaved into a cup of the creamiest hot chocolate you can imagine.  It is spiced with a touch of cinnamon, black pepper, or even chili providing a little burn at the back of your tongue.  Thankfully, the spice element has been carefully calibrated to merely texturize the surface of the scent a little, not turn it into a niche-style freak show with curry or B.O. hiding out in the gourmandise, waiting to spring a nasty little surprise on you.

 

Amber Chocolate is a very thick, fluffy scent, and almost entirely linear.  In fact, it is remarkably similar to the yummy but simple goodness of Café Cacao by En Voyage.  If you love the smell of dark chocolate with a caramelized ‘condensed milk’ edge, then you’ll love Amber Chocolate.  If you don’t, or if you’re hoping it will evolve into something drier or less obviously edible, then you’re out of luck.

 

The attar format has much better longevity and duration than the eau de parfum, which fixes the common complaint that most people had with the original.  In fact, when it comes to the attar, it is as if the scent refuses to die.  It comes as a very dark, thick liquid that goes on like tar and stains the skin.  The drydown is finely textured, with hints of toasted bitter almond, hay, and an accord like burnt coffee grounds.  For me, Amber Chocolate lives up to the name of ‘delicious tonka bean’ better than Fève Délicieuse does, but I guess Dior got there first.

 

 

 

Amber & Frankincense / Amber Oudh #3 With Frankincense (Aloes of Ish)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although this quarter tola bottle came to me labeled as ‘Amber & Frankincense’, I am reasonably certain that this is Amber Oudh #3 With Frankincense, based on what I can discern of the notes.  The first portion of this oil is pleasant if a little predictable – a dry, vegetal Indian-style amber with lots of raw, rubbery saffron and the lime-peel astringency of frankincense.  So far, so traditional.  Medicinal and severe, this Indian style of amber accord sits in direct opposition to souk-style ambers, which are focused on sweet, creamy combinations of labdanum, benzoin, and vanilla.

 

However, soon one notices the distinct presence of ambergris – salty, bright, and ozonic – which alleviates the dourness of the Indian amber accord, blowing gusts of sea air up its skirt.  The amber/ambergris accord becomes flushed with a thin layer of rubbery smoke, like a lump of resin seen through the haze of steam from a samovar.  Like most ambergris-laden affairs, there is also a note of charred leather, reminiscent of choya nakh, the destructive distillation of roasted seashells that many attar makers use to give their perfumes a salty, leathery pungency.

 

The heart is amber and smoky black tea, elevated by a transparent texture, like sugar water, vodka, or even champagne running through the pores of the resin, making it possible for the wearer to smell each note clearly.  This is unusual in an attar, because the natural density of oil tends to compress more than it aerates.  It is a quieter, more translucent take on the smoky booze, black tea, and dried fruit of Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire.

 

At one stage, there is a fleeting impression of the mint-leaf freshness of a Borneo-style oud, but this soon recedes into the smoky, rubbery black tea accent.  The drydown is a pleasurable affair of smoky, sweet resins and vanilla, approaching the singed marshmallow delight of Amber Absolute.  This is the little mukhallat that could.  Belying its low price, it walks you confidently through several styles of amber, starting off with the saffron-tinged medicinal amber of India, then shifting into a more Arabic ambergris-amber accord, then a Russian samovar (boozy, black tea) amber, to finally, a Western style amber in the incensey mold of Amber Absolute.  A prize at any price.

 

 

 

Amber Musc (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Amber Musc by Narciso Rodriguez riffs on the basic framework of the original Narciso Rodriguez For Her EDT (sweet orange blossom, musk, and patchouli) by adding amber and oud notes to spin it off into a more oriental direction.  The result?  A fragrance that retains the clean skin sexiness of the original while gaining a vaguely soukish exoticism. 

 

The dupe oil is virtually identical, down to the antiseptic cleanliness of the musk and the stiffening breeze of Iso E Super in the drydown.  The dupe more than adequately stands in for the original, which costs over two hundred dollars for the big bottle at full retail.

 

When a fragrance is constructed from entirely synthetic ingredients such as white musk, Maltol, and oud replacers anyway, you begin to wonder what exactly you are shelling out the big bucks for.  The special raw materials?  Nah.  Past a certain price point, you are paying for the brand name and the perceived exclusivity or rarity of the scent.  Given that Amber Musc is such a basic bitch to begin with, you might as well just buy the dupe and be done with it. 

 

 

 

Photo by Andrea Donato on Unsplash

 

Amberosia (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amberosia is a parched amber with the texture of paper singed briefly at the edges with a blowtorch.  Picture the driftwood amber note subtracted from L’Air du Desert Marocain fused with aromatic rosewood, and that’s the basic character of this mukhallat.  Herbs and roses play second fiddle here, stepping back to let that austere, slightly cowboy-ish woody amber take the stage.  People who love, for example, the desert-dry woods, amber, and restrained rose in Czech and Speake’s No. 88 or Dior’s Ambre Nuit, will also appreciate Amberosia.

 

Towards the end of its life, Amberosia takes on a surprisingly barbershop-like quality.  You can almost taste the dry slap of a leather shaving strap against a freshly-shaved jaw.  There is a touch of soap, steam, herbs, and a tantalizing whiff of clean male skin.  These barbershoppy notes rough up the amber and wipe out any lingering traces of rose.  At this point, Amberosia is reminiscent of hairy-chested retro masculines such as Sahara by Mekkanische Rose, Ker by Bogue Profumo, and even somewhat, the far drydown of Peety by O’Driu.  Fans of gentlemanly colognes, wet shaving, and the traditional grooming art of the barbershop will adore this one. 

 

 

 

Amber Oud (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The original By Kilian Amber Oud is a refined take on a Western-style amber – leathery, woody, and ever-so-slightly-characterless.  There’s a whiff of campfire smoke at the edges, but its unique selling point is really its politeness.  An amber that merely hints at the spice and roughness of other ambers, and an oud that is non-existent.  I am always surprised at this scent’s popularity until I remember that it is the perfect solution for people who dislike both amber and oud.

 

The dupe gets the basic scent profile right.  But where the original is discreet, the dupe is faint to the point of being undetectable.  Oils are generally closer-wearing than sprays, so one expects the volume to be a bit lower.  But in exchange for quietness, there should be a certain level of richness to compensate, and this fails to deliver.  A nice aroma, therefore, but in a concentration more suited to a body massage oil than a perfume.

 

 

 

Amber Oudh (Rasasi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Oudh is a waxy ‘coddled fruit’ amber with a chaser of rose and saffron for that essential taste of exotica.  Many a nose will interpret the astringency of the saffron or henna as oud, which is exactly how lower-end mukhallats achieve that oudy, medicinal feel without charging for the real stuff.

 

Credit where credit is due, Amber Oudh is no better or worse than any other ambery mukhallat on the low end of the scale.  It doesn’t read as overly synthetic, and I would recommend it quite happily as part of a beginner’s starter pack on mukhallats.  However, it doesn’t hold up to close inspection, collapsing quickly into the soapy white musk that seems to be the natural end of most Rasasi oils. 

 

 

 

Amber Paste (Kuumba Made)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Amber Paste is the breakout star of the Kuumba Made collection, garnering rave reviews and fierce customer loyalty from people who don’t even wear perfume on the regular.  The fact that Kuumba Made is sold in Wholefoods and other emporia means that it is accessible to broad cross-section of people.  There is something pleasingly democratic about the line, with Amber Paste flying the flag for the brand in a big way.

 

They weren’t kidding with the name, though.  Amber Paste is definitely a paste rather than an oil, its sticky texture making it more difficult to apply to skin than the other blends in the line.  However, the slight fussiness of application is more than worth it because this amber satisfies with its balance between dark, herbaceous topnotes, and golden basenotes.  There is even some similarity, briefly, between Amber Paste and that bellwether of ambers, Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens, although Amber Paste is less complex from every angle.

 

Amber Paste quickly settles into a powdery vanilla once the initial roar of resin and bay leaf has abated, developing a certain waxen blandness that makes it perfect for casual wear or for layering under more complex amber fragrances.  It may not satisfy the niche hound, but for everyone else, this is a great amber option.

 

 

 

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash

 

Ambre Cuir (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Ambre Cuir (‘Amber Leather’) exerts the sort of soapy, traditional shaving-cream appeal that will seduce men nostalgic for the feel of the leather strap and hot towel against their skin.  Ambre Cuir proved to be the most praised Henry Jacques among the men of Basenotes during a 2018 Henry Jacques sample pass, and with good reason – it has one of the most natural opoponax notes I’ve smelled in oil form.

 

Opoponax is a rather medicinal-smelling resin that smells partially cool, like herbal shaving foam, and partially warm, with an intensely spicy, balsamic underbite similar to cinnamon and clove.  Here, the resin has been pulled in the direction of cool by way of lavender absolute up top and a stony frankincense-iris pairing in the heart.

 

Handsome and acerbic, Ambre Cuir smells old-school in the most elegant way possible.  Fans of Dia Man (Amouage) will likely love Ambre Cuir, as it possesses something of the same silvery, soapy refinement, and a similar way of grinding rough, sticky resins into a bone-pale powder using Florentine orris as grist.

 

 

 

Ambrecuir (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

I would say that Ambrecuir is one of my favorites from the Sultan Pasha stable of mukhallats, but given the quality of his work, that is like throwing a pebble onto the beach and hoping to hit sand.  Ambrecuir is essentially a plush ‘white’ leather crème cut here and there with the sour, fruity funk of castoreum.  In theme, it riffs on the elegance of the contrast between the cool, powdered whiteness of orris butter and the rough blackness of varnished shoe leather as pioneered by Cuir Ottoman by Parfum d’Empire.

 

Where these fragrances diverge is in the drydown, when all traces of the creamy, iris suede have melted away.  While Cuir Ottoman goes on to develop a rich, powdery hay-amber accord that makes one think of brocaded liveries and pompadours of Versailles, the sour castoreum pulsing through Ambrecuir’s amber keep us firmly in the souk, pressed up against the heaving mass of bodies.  Indeed, fans of Rania J.’s Ambre Loup might appreciate Ambrecuir, as might lovers of Serge Lutens’ spicy Cuir Mauresque. 

 

Something to note here – a pleasingly antiseptic saffron darts in and out of Ambrecuir’s base, cutting the richness of the other notes like a knife worth’s of dried blood and iodine.  Without this spicy, medicinal note, Ambrecuir might have become as bloated as a corpse after a hot day in the river.  It is this balance of sweet and medicinal notes that gives Ambrecuir its curious delicacy and refinement.  The saffron-tinged amber also gives the mukhallat an ancestral link to the sternly vegetal, iodine-tinged ambers of Northern India, a category of fragrance that is one hundred percent sugar- and vanilla-free. 

 

A rich dulce de leche base brings it all home, though, turning away from Mother India and back towards Paris.  Anyone familiar with the ridiculously rich dried-fruit amber and benzoin duet in Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute may feel tears come to their eyes.  A gorgeous bastard child of leather and amber, Ambrecuir is for those who take their leather with a side of cream.

 

 

 

Ambre Narcotique (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambre Narcotique will induce a state of bliss in anyone who loves thick, spicy labdanum bombs such as Amber Absolute, Ambre Sultan, or Ambre Loup.  It opens with the bitter, leathery aroma of labdanum resin, introducing an animalic dark chocolate note that gets my Spidey senses tingling.  From that point onwards, however, this pleasantly bitter note is masked by a thick sieving of dusty benzoin, sweet myrrh (opoponax), and vanilla.  If you love incensey ambers with spices, herbs, and rosy notes operating at a more subliminal level, then it doesn’t get much better than this.

 

 

 

Ambre Sauvage (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambre Sauvage is a smooth-as-silk amber with a nutty, slightly plasticized leather undertone to balance out the sweetness.  In contrast to the dark, smoky incense of Ambre Narcotique, this amber showcases the buttery pleasure that is the marriage between a toffee-rich amber and a spanking new pair of leather brogues.  Not terribly complex, but like a caramel mocha latte, it goes down so easily it is hard to begrudge its simplicity.  Fans of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s L’Eau d’Ambre Extreme or Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114 will find their bliss here.

 

 

 

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

 

Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

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 even a sample 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 unattainability, scarcity, and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it.  Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha has stepped in with his take on the original Tribute.

 

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 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 sunlight 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 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.

 

Âme Sombre Grade II is more tobacco-focused than Ame Sombre Grade I and has a sharper rose element.  When compared directly to Grade I, it reveals a big-boned, souk-ish amber-rose combination not a million miles away from sweet mukhallat-style fragrances like Raghba, Lateefa, and 24 Gold.  Not that this style doesn’t have a rough-hued, sexy charm of its own, you understand.  It is just that nobody in their right mind would pay Sultan Pasha prices for the kind of thing that sells for $30-$40 on eBay for 100 milliliters shipped. 

 

The tobacco, powered by the super-powerful synthetic Kephalis, is dry, papery, and rather strident.  Unlike Âme Sombre Oud Infusion and Âme Sombre Grade I, Ame Sombre Grade II contains a small quantity of synthetic aromachemicals.  In some circles, this piece of information seems to have sunk this version of the attar as being low-quality or inferior to the other versions.  I would argue mildly against that categorization because, although it contains some synthetics, it does not smell terribly inferior in quality.  Admittedly, it does lack the smoky, aquiline mystery of the other two versions.

 

Still, you get what you pay for, and who knows, you might just be in the market for a sweeter, friendlier version of Tribute.  The severity of the original does not sit well with quite a few women, for example, so this version might be the right pick.  In short, Âme Sombre Grade II is a pleasing rose-tobacco blend that would work well for people who like Wardasina or any of the Lateefa or 24 Gold scents – somewhat loud, rosy ambers that project a clear message of affability from a distance, thus perfect for clubbing.

 

 

 

Anubis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Egyptian Kyphi, Egyptian Amber, Egyptian Musk, Darkness of the Dead

 

 

Kyphi is a type of compacted incense used by the ancient Egyptians, consisting of herbs, gums, resins, and woods powdered down into dust, bound with wine and honey to form briquettes of incense, and subsequently burned on ceremonial censers.

 

Kyphi differs from other forms of incense and bakhoor mainly in its inclusion of unusual aromatics such as mastic, juniper berry, turpentine (pine resin), calamus, and rush reeds, as well as its binding agents of honey, raisins, and wine.  Nowadays, scents referencing kyphi will normally use medicinal, bitter, or green resin notes that are not often seen in other types of incense.  They will often include a wine, honey, or raisin facet too.

 

Anubis opens with the same vegetable oil-like note noticeable in almost all the NAVA blends.  Once this dissipates, the bitter herbaciousness of the kyphi rises to the fore, mingling with a low key amber-resin accord for body, and an attractively musty, medicinal undertone.  True to the original raison d’être of kyphi, the blend smells purifying, albeit in a wispy, barely-there manner.  In other words, this is not a heavy or rich blend.  Its essential character is peppery and green – subtly bitter even.

 

Anubis does get sweeter and muskier as time goes on, picking up a not entirely unpleasant headshoppiness in the process (I assume that the Darkness of the Dead accord has something to do with patchouli).  Good, but I think I’d prefer this in an oil burner than as a personal fragrance.

 

 

 

Attar al Kaaba (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is one of Al Haramain’s bestsellers, and justifiably so.  A fabulously thick, potent oil featuring a fruity pink rose, creamy sandalwood, and sweet amber, it paints a picture of eastern exotica in very broad brushstrokes.  No oud, either real or fake, no matter what you think you may be smelling.  However, there is a woodsy, almost coffee-like note swimming around in the syrup that’s deliberately open to misinterpretation, so if you want to close your eyes and pretend, then who am I to say otherwise?

 

Attar al Kaaba is a great starter ambery mukhallat.  A simple, and accessible and quite lovely rendition of the typical ‘attar’ smell, it will do the trick when you want to smell exotic and alluring in a slightly ‘foreign’ way.  It is quite sweet, syrupy even, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples: I purchased my samples of Maison Anthony Marmin, Hyde & Alchemy, Mellifluence, Kuumba Made, Rasasi, Mr. Perfume, Al Haramain, NAVA and Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics.  My samples of oils from Clive Christian, Abdes Salaam Attar and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands.  The Aloes of Ish and Henry Jacques samples were sent to me by two separate but equally kind Basenotes friends. 

 

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:  Photo by Krystal Ng on Unsplash 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Incense Myrrh opoponax Oriental Resins Round-Ups Single note exploration Smoke Spice The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide to Resins

30th May 2022

 

 

Arabic and Persian mukhallat perfumery differs from traditional Indian attar perfumery by way of its heavy use of the aromatic resins, gums, and balsams, which are all substances produced by trees and plants in order to protect themselves from disease or attack.  There is some use of resins in Indian attar perfumery – resins are smoked dry as part of a ‘destructive distillation’ process that is conducted independently of the main attar distillation; this produces what is known as a ‘choya’, which is then added into the final attar distillate to lend a specific warm, smoky facet to the final result.  However, the use of resins in Indian attar perfumery is minimal compared to Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, where resins often play a significant, if not leading role in the character of its perfumes.

 

Most of the resins used in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery have healing, cleansing, and antioxidant properties, and have long been used in traditional medicine.  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!

 

 

Photo by Andriy Tod on Unsplash

 

The role of resins in oil perfumery is to lend a blend a smoky, balsamic tone that provides both depth and fixative properties.  To Westerners, resins simply smell exotic and mysterious.  Our first exposure to them is likely through church where they are often burned on a priest’s censer.  Resins are, of course, important in Western classic perfumery too.  They form the bedrock of the ambery-balsamic family of perfumes formerly known as ‘oriental’, with resins such as labdanum and benzoin joining with vanilla to create the famous amber accord, recognizable to anyone who has ever smelled Shalimar by Guerlain.  The principal resins used in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery are described below.

 

 

Labdanum (Cistus ladanifer) is the prime component of the amber accord in mukhallat (and indeed commercial) perfumery.   Labdanum is the name for the sticky exudate that covers the entire plant of this shrubby rock rose that grows in mountainous Mediterranean regions such as Crete and Cyprus.   In ancient times, the labdanum resin was transferred to the wool of grazing goats and sheep who brushed up against the shrub, and later, combed out of the animal’s hair by shepherds.  These days, however, modern perfumery extraction methods are used, such as boiling the twigs and leaves of the plant to extract raw resin, solvent extraction to extract an absolute, or steam distillation to extract an essential oil (the different extraction methods produce results that all smell quite different to one another).   

 

Labdanum absolute is a wondrous raw material.  It smells smoky, rich, incensey, leathery, and often displays an attractive salted caramel or toffee-like undertone.  In terms of texture, it can either come across as extremely buttery (unctuous) or extremely dry (dusty).  Under some lights, there is a slightly animalic, goaty facet to labdanum, but in and of itself, the scent of labdanum is not animalic.  

 

 

Benzoin is a sweet vanillic resin from two species of the styrax tree, the styrax tonkinensis (Siam benzoin) and styrax benzoin (from Sumatra).  Siam benzoin is the one most widely used in perfumery, and it has a slightly sweet, dusty cinnamon aspect to it.   In some lights, it smells like slightly woody vanilla. But benzoin resin has other subtler nuances such as brown sugar crystals, coffee, paper, and sometimes a wintergreen note like mastic or camphor.  Benzoin added to an attar or mukhallat lends a balsamic, spicy-vanillic tonality.  It plays an important role in the composition of the amber accord in perfumery.

 

 

Opoponax, also known as sweet myrrh, is native to Somalia and Ethiopia. In its upper register at least, this is a resin that barely knows that it is a resin at all.   In fact, it wants to be a spice or a herb, but can’t decide which, which is why the first flash of opoponax lurches wildly between the metallic, sweaty sting of clove and the aromatic camphor of bay leaf.  Another layer is the ambery resinousness in its lower registers that smells like a rich toffee but also quite a bit like Disaronno, which gives it a boozy almond butter tonality that cracks the safe open a little to reveal how the drydowns of No. 5 (Chanel) and Shalimar (Guerlain) are actually constructed.  There is even a hint of Johnson and Johnson’s Baby Powder or Baby Oil that lingers towards the very end. 

 

Later, the transition between the astringent spicy-herbal topnotes and the almond taffy basenotes makes things interesting.  This clash of cymbals produces an old fashioned bay rhum effect that makes me think of amber mixed up with Old Spice or Brut.  There is a lingering soapiness in among all that almond butter richness that calls to mind shaving foam.  It is a confusing but ultimately loveable mash up of balsamic sweetness and rinsing herbal sourness.  You get the gold honey of a resin and the aromatic rigor of a barbershop fougère. 

 

Opoponax (sweet myrrh) is not as medicinal as true myrrh but does have a rooty, almost herbal quality that sets it apart from the sweeter, creamier resins.  It can smell green and coniferous, like fresh lavender buds crushed between finger and thumb, but with a warm, golden, balsamic tone underneath that marks it out as a resin rather than a herb.  It is quite spicy, with a cinnamon bark facet, and a subtle soapiness in the lower register.

 

Fragrances that espouse the true spirit of opoponax in commercial perfumery include: Imperial Opoponax (Les Nereides), Ligea la Sirena (Carthusia), Or des Indes (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier), Eau Lente (Diptyque), Jicky and Shalimar (Guerlain), En Avion (Caron), Coco (Chanel), and Bengale Rouge (Papillon Perfumery).

 

 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

 

Amber resin, from the Baltic pine tree, does not produce its own essential oil.  In mukhallat perfumery, as in Western perfumery, amber is a fantasy composition rather than an actual raw material, its honeyed, resinous warmth suggested by a combination of labdanum, vanilla, and benzoin.  The proportions of ingredients used in the amber formula will depend on the effect the perfumer is seeking: more labdanum to create a leathery, dusty amber, more benzoin to create a sweetly powdery one, and so on.  Ambergris may have been used in the place of labdanum as part of a traditional amber accord, especially in earlier forms of mukhallats and attars, but for reason of cost and scarcity, this is no longer the case.  Read Kafkaesque’s marvelous Guide to 50 amber fragrances to help you identify amber scents that pique your interest.

 

There is a fossilized amber resin oil available for use in attar perfumery, produced through the process of destructive distillation, quite similar to making a traditional Indian choya.  In this process, the amber resin is burned and then distilled, producing a smoky, tarry-smelling oil.  This is not a true essential oil of amber but a by-product of burning.  Fossilized amber oil, when used in a perfume composition, produces a dark, balsamic effect, and must be dosed very carefully in order not to overwhelm the other notes.  It is sometimes called black amber. A fragrance that famously uses this is Black Gemstone by 777 Stephane Humbert Lucas.

 

 

 

Photo: My own, of Boswellia sacra (frankincense) gums from Oman

 

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 are actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something else.  Read my 2020 article on frankincense for a round-up of over 25 frankincense fragrances that are worth your time if you want to do a deep dive on this majestic resin.

 

 

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. 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. Read my 2020 article on myrrh for a round-up of 27 myrrh fragrances that, together, form a whole education on the scent of myrrh.

 

 

Styrax is a sweet, ambery gum that comes from the tree known as Liquidamber orientalis native to Turkey.  It produces a rich, balsamic oil with leathery properties.  It shares a rich, heady sweetness with benzoin resin, a variety of which is called Styrax benzoin because of its commonalities with true styrax resin.

 

 

Other gums such as copal, copaiba, tolu, and peru balsam are used to a lesser extent in mukhallat perfumery, possibly because, with the exception of copal, they are species not native to the Middle-East or Africa and therefore always had to imported.

 

 

Copal possesses a bay-leaf bitterness that adds a pleasantly animalic bite to amber accords.  It is the prime component in Norma Kamali’s famous Incense, considered the behemoth of incense fragrances.  Copaiba is a woody, pungent resin from a tree native to South America, and is only rarely used in mukhallats.  Peru balsam, also native to South America, is a resinous, sweet-smelling gum with earthy, almost bitter basenotes of cinnamon bark, almond, and green olives. Tolu balsam is similar, but softer and velvetier.  All these resins come primarily from South America, although copal is also found in Eastern Africa.  They therefore tend to be more popular in Western interpretations of resinous-balsamic perfumery than in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery itself.  These balsams add a voluptuous, velvety sweetness and depth to ambery-balsamic compositions.

 

 

 

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:  Photo, my own, of Boswellia sacra (frankincense) gums from Oman.  Please do not reprint, distribute or use without my permission. 

Ambergris Balsamic Frankincense Green Incense Independent Perfumery Leather Review Smoke

Spell 125 by Papillon Artisan Perfumes: Love in the Time of COVID

25th January 2021

I keep trying to sum up Spell 125 by Papillon Artisan Perfumes for myself in one of those snappy two-liners that Luca Turin excels in, but it is a testament to the perfume’s shape-shifty-ness that I can’t settle on just one. Some days, I think, hmm, definitely Limey Smoke, but then there’s also Ashy Frankincense, Foresty Green, followed later by Balsamic Salt, Sour Honey, and Chewy Leather. Spell 125 just feels like a scent that’s been put together in thin, crisp layers that peel off into the atmosphere, like smears of organic matter hissing on hot volcanic rock. It smells acid-bright – neon almost – but also dry, like a nubbin of frankincense whittled to ash.

 

Papillon perfumes run the gamut from pretty (Angélique) and sweetly comforting (Bengale Rouge) to dirty-sexy-money (Salome) but what connects them all is that deep richness of finish that some have called Guerlainesque. Spell 125 marks something of a departure in style. Though it is as seamlessly constructed as the rest, Spell 125 actually smells far more environmental than it does classically perfumey – a clutch of green resins, blackish gums, and saltwater dripping from trees in some primordial forest, immediately evaporating into smoky ether as they hit the hot minerals beneath.

 

In a way, Spell 125 smells almost more like a Tauer or a Sonoma Scent Studio (think Incense Pure) than a Papillon, in that it smells both funkily organic, i.e., ‘ripped from nature’, and preternaturally airy, a whole diorama of sky, forest, and wind filling your lungs as you draw breath.

 

Spell 125 starts out with the lemon-and-limeade fizz of Siberian pine, sluicing everything in an acid-green halo of antiseptic fluid that might feel a little challenging at first until you realize that we all need something this invigoratingly bright to disinfect our lives of the bullshit that is life under COVID-19. An earlier mod of Spell 125 was more confrontational in its piney-ness – almost saltily urinous – but the final version turns the pitch just right, so that it feels more darkly balsamic than high-toned, with just enough residual volatility to make you think of fingers in electric sockets and lime-scented soap and ion-charged air.

 

But anyway, though the pine certainly is first out the gate, you immediately sense a myriad of other layers shifting, separately, and lifting into place. Most notable is a tremendous frankincense material, which is at first slightly green and waxy-balsamic-raw but grows increasingly ashy and ‘burned out’ in feel, until finally, everything feels like it is coated in a thin layer of white ash (but one that is not, thankfully, acrid).

 

Counteracting the vegetal coolness of the incense is the creeping mammalian funk of ambergris, with its hints of saltwater, warm tar, and loose tobacco flakes in a paper pouch. This is soon joined by other similarly resinous, gauzy layers of organic matter misting up through the scaffolds – the honeyed spicy-sourness of opoponax, dried lime peel, and a lightly chewy leather dimension that I feel sure comes from labdanum. Spell 125 is never quite animalic – but there is the suggestion (just the merest hint) of something grimy or unclean lurking beneath the ashy-resinous brightness. A Barbour waxed jacket clinging to warm, clammy flesh.  

 

Spell 125 will be launched on the 7th July 2021, to mark the 7th anniversary of Papillon, closing the circle started by Papillon’s first fragrance, Anubis. The name is significant – Spell 125 describes the ceremony known as the “Weighing of the Heart” in The Book of the Dead (usually presided over by Anubis) where the deceased soul is asked to weigh their purity against their sins, before being led by Anubis before Osiris and their eternal reward. Incense and leather are the two accords that connect these perfumes, but they run in such opposite directions, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect the two. Anubis is a dark, incensey leather fueled by a jammy jasmine absolute that smells a bit like gasoline spilled on a forecourt; Spell 125 is a dry, effervescent incense that smells like a wash of smoky crystals in the air.  

 

I appreciate both, but Spell 125 is the one I feel in my bones, if you know what I mean. In the midst of the busiest time of the year for me, with multiple deadlines and lots of stress, coupled with a return to the ‘joys’ of home-schooling for what feels might be the next twenty years, Spell 125 has acted as a little talisman of calm ten times more powerful than Bach’s Rescue Remedy drops and yet not quite as numbing as Xanax. I find it to wear very lightly (more vellum than velvet in tensile weight) but it is also immensely durable, with no discernible sacrifice to naturalness (of feel) made to the chemical Gods of Longevidee.

 

Listen, I f***ing love it. I’d carry this stuff around with me in the pockets of my pants if I still wore pants and I would definitely wear it for yoga were I ever to find a yoga video on YouTube that wasn’t intensely irritating (what do these people mean by ‘breathe into your spine’?). But just because Spell 125 happens to be exactly my kind of thing these days doesn’t mean its ascetic, modern ‘spaciness’ will be for everyone. It is not a people-pleaser like Bengale Rouge, for example, and it might challenge those who’ve come to love Papillon for its richer, more classically-styled output. But if a fresh, diaphanous, almost airy-sparkly coniferous incense sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and you already love stuff like Zagorsk (Comme des Garcons), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) and the hemlocky green amber of Woman (Ormonde Jayne), then Spell 125 by Papillon will likely be a safe bet.  

 

Source of Sample: Smuggled to me by Liz Moores of Papillon Artisan Perfumes in (Mod A) a small box of chocolate shoes filled with salted caramel and then (Mod B – the final version) a Papillon t-shirt, size XL to fit my capacious boobage. 

 

Cover Image: Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

Amber Animalic Aromatic Attars & CPOs Balsamic Citrus Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Incense Lists Resins Round-Ups Scent Memory Smoke Spice Thoughts Woods

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