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Foundational Essential Oils: Part 2 (Oud)

12th November 2021

 

Although I will be doing a much deeper dive on both sandalwood and oud in their respective sections, I wanted to use this chapter and the previous one as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery – sandalwood and oud oil.  Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery. In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.

 

 

 

 

Oud: The Noble Rot

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Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

 

While sandalwood is the most important essential oil for traditional distilled attars, the truly essential oil for mukhallat perfumery is oud.  Oud is an oleoresin, a word that literally means ‘oily resin’.  The dark, damp oleoresin forms inside the wood of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops species of tree as a response to external trauma – the equivalent of white antibodies in the human body sent to fight infection.  The external trauma can be anything, from an infiltration of a fungus through the bark or chemical inoculation by farmers to bug infestations, drilling holes into the bark, burns caused by molten lava, or even strafing by bullets.  In other words, oud resin is the tree’s way of defending itself from attack.

 

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Photo of an Aquilaria crassna tree with (darker) oud oleoresin clearly present. The strafing on the trunk was done by poachers to allow an airborne fungus access to the wood, hopefully prompting the tree into producing more of the oleoresin as a response to the ‘attack’.  Photo by Blaise Droz,, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2254233

 

The appearance of the oleoresin is dark brown, greyish, or even black, and clearly distinguishable from the light creamy color of the non-resinated wood.  Older resinated specimens such as genuine kyara or incense-grade wood will not display such clear delineation between the oleoresin and the uninfected wood, instead appearing as one piece of wood uniformly threaded with greyish resin.

 

Oud wood refers to the piece of wood that contains the oleoresin.  Resinated oud wood can be heated gently over a burner as incense or carved into prayer beads and other objects.  In Arab culture, the smoke from heating oud wood is used to fumigate clothes (both personal and ceremonial robes), houses, and even the hair or beard.  The Japanese grind agarwood to powder to use in their world-famous stick incense.  The Chinese and the Japanese both have a long tradition of carving precious oud wood into prayer beads and ornaments to be used for ceremonial or religious purposes.  The very wealthy may even buy a top quality piece of oud wood (kyara) and display it in a glass case as a showpiece.

 

Most oud is consumed in oil form, however. Oud oil is the essential oil distilled from resinated oud wood.

 

 

Why is oud so important?

 

No other essential oil in the world is as subject to hysteria, obsessive behavior, collector’s mania, and controversy as oud oil.  Its rarity and expense parallels that of Mysore sandalwood oil, and yet, you don’t really find whole Internet communities dedicated to the minutiae of sandalwood oil.

 

There are several reasons for this. First of all, oud oil is so complex in its aroma profile that it wears as a complete perfume on the skin. Oud oils can have topnotes, a heart, and basenotes, just as in a commercial fragrance.  It is therefore the rare essential oil that provides the wearer with a full 360° experience.  This marks it out as different from other essential oils such as sambac jasmine or vetiver.

 

Second, oud oils are exciting because they vary a lot in basic aroma profile from region to region, terroir to terroir, style to style,, and species to species.  Therefore, if you don’t like the barnyardy honk of Hindi oud oils, no problem – simply move onto the sweeter, friendlier Cambodi style oud oils, or the super-treacly Trat ouds.  Likewise, one might find oneself nerdily consumed with the different types of oils that are distilled from wood grown on the island of Borneo, each with their own little quirks and personalities.  There is something in the oud pot for everyone.

 

Third, oud oils satisfy the eternal human hunger for individuality, rarity, and uniqueness.  Oud oils are the perfect riposte to the mass-market, standardized wave of products we consume in our daily lives.  Pure oud oils are small-batch and limited edition, full of minute but important nuances never to be replicated with a hundred percent exactitude again.  The idea that one can own something a tiny piece of a non-renewable resource is irresistible, especially to those with a keen collector’s mentality.

 

The final reason why oud oils can be the focus of obsession is that they, unlike other essential oils, allow for a large degree of artisanship and creativity on the part of the distiller.  Even minor tweaks to the distillation process can produce surprising variations in the resulting aroma.  Therefore, not only is the raw material more intrinsically nuanced than other materials, but its manner of distillation is more open to innovation.  The result is still an essential oil, but in experimenting with different distilling materials, mineral content of the water used, cooking temperatures, soaking times, and post-distillation aging, the distiller can arrive at a slightly different result each time.

 

This ‘room to play’ aspect of oud distilling has resulted in oud oils that display a surprisingly wide range of notes that might not otherwise appear in the oil, such as lilac, chocolate, musk, and even hints of salty, golden ambergris.  One oud artisan describes it as alchemy.  This aspect of creative experimentation in oud distilling has attracted a greater proportion of artists and artisans to the process, far more than are drawn to either sandalwood or other essential oil distilling.

 

 

 

The Process of Making Oud Oil

 

The process of distilling oil from resinated wood is very traditional.  In many ways, the process is like that of producing a ruh (essential oil) in the old Indian method, namely slow steam distillation using clay, steel, and copper degs.  First, the hunters arrive out of the jungle, bearing wood they have chopped out of living trees or felled to access the wood.  If the oud wood is from a plantation, the wood is harvested just like any other farmed crop.

 

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Uninfected agarwood, i.e., bunkwood. Photo by Hafizmuar at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4782613

 

The big logs will then be broken down into shards of oud wood and inspected for bunkwood, which is wood in and around the darker, resinated areas of the wood that do not contain any essential oil or resinoid at all (see photo above).   If the distillation is a high quality one, then the bunkwood is carefully carved out of the piece of wood and discarded.  In lower-quality distillations, the bunkwood is left in to make up the weight needed to pack the distilling pot to capacity.

 

The remaining wood shards are soaked in water for varying periods of time, but usually for no less than ten days.  Longer soaks will ensure that the wood rots a little, adding a sour, fermented note to the resulting oil.  This is an effect that consumers of Hindi oils (the Arab market) have come to prize as the principal characteristic of good oud oil.  The mineral content of the water used for soaking will impart its own character to the resulting oil, with varying effects coming from carbonated water versus spring water versus tap water, and so on.

 

After soaking, the still is loaded with about seventy kilos of soaked wood chips and a fire built underneath the still.  The oud oil is distilled from the wood over the course of a week, using very exact heat and condensing methods to keep the wood at exactly the right temperature.  Steam distillation is the preferred method of extraction because it is easier to keep the heat constant using this method.  It is vital not to allow the still to get overheated.  The average yield from a seventy kilo distillation is only about twenty to twenty-four grams, which is enough for two tolas of pure oud oil.  The yield depends on the species of the wood used, as some species are notoriously low-yielding.  The water in which the agarwood has been distilled (called a hydrosol) is valuable to producers because it still contains little particles of oud oil, so the hydrosols are used again and again to wring out the most oud particles possible.

 

 

 

The Scarcity of Oud

 

 

Oud is scarce.  Less than eight percent of wild Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees contain oud resin.  Its scarcity means that it is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  Its status as an endangered species is partly because of the naturally-low infection rate among wild trees and partly because mass deforestation across South-East Asia is mowing down much of the forests, including the agarwood-producing species of tree.  Wild oud-bearing trees are facing depletion in much the same manner as Mysore sandalwood.  Oud wood from wild trees is rare and costly, leading to high demand, which in turn means that people will spend anything or do anything to get their hands on it. 

 

Although technically it is true that trees are a renewable resource, it takes a lot of time to replace an wild tree that has spent eighty plus years growing that precious oleoresin inside its trunk.  Once a wild tree is gone, it is gone for good.  Wild agarwood trees are listed as Appendix II in CITES.  But as with all Appendix II classifications (including, for example, deer musk), this does not mean that there is a ban on the material itself.  It simply means that strict measures are in place to control its trade.  James Compton, the South East Asian director for TRAFFIC, clarified this in a press release, by saying: ‘It is important to remember that CITES Appendix II is not a trade ban, but a management intervention that will help ensure legality, promote sustainability and enable more accurate monitoring of the agarwood trade.’[i]

 

For many, the best ‘management intervention’ to address the scarcity of wild-crafted oud is plantation cultivation.  Plantations are farms that grow Aquilaria species under controlled conditions, with farmers artificially inoculating the tree trunks with fungus to spark them into producing the valuable oud oleoresin.  Plantations enable sustainability, continuation of supply, and consistency of product quality – a good thing from the point of view of commercial perfumery.

 

There is no global shortage of plantation-grown agarwood.  Trygve Harris, in her wonderful article, entitled ‘Agarwood – Is It Endangered?’, states that people in Asia are investing in agarwood farming to supply the market and that there is subsequently a healthy number of plantation-grown agarwood trees in Asia[ii]:

 

‘Ajmal perfumes estimates that there are 55 million trees planted in Assam, in anticipation of the worldwide shortage.  Many of these were planted over 20 years ago.  There is a nice plantation of 1.5 million on the Lao plain north of Vietnam, planted in 2000/2001 and now set to become a fishing resort for secondary income.  These are mostly, if not all, Aquilaria Crassna.  There are 2 million Aquilaria trees planted near Bangkok, and more all over Thailand.  One can also find in plenty of trees in Vietnam at the fragrant mountain experimental station in An Giang, not to mention other plantations.  Those trees are Aquilaria Crassna.  And it seems everyone’s planting them at home, in their yard.  All over Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam at least, these trees grow.  The world of agarwood does not exist in a separate universe where people have no concept of nature’s limits.  In fact, many people have noticed the incredibly high prices agarwood commands and are taking steps to integrate themselves in the future market.’ 

 

The CITES effort to regulate and control trade of agarwood has had a big impact in signatory countries where agarwood naturally grows, and some say not for the better.  Agarwood grows naturally in Northern India, for example, but strict CITES certification procedures have cut smallholders out of the picture and accidentally allowed corruption to flourish.

 

Trygve Harris explained the effect of CITES on agarwood production in an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018 as follows: ‘Basically, it was illegal to harvest an agarwood tree, even from your own property, unless certain steps were taken and rules followed, and the designated places to distill for oil were in cities far away from the towns and villages in NE India where Agarwood happily grows.  Agarwood naturally and traditionally grows all over those states, in people’s yards.  Trees were harvested for important events, weddings, college, etc.  But, with the 2000 regulations, people couldn’t legally sell their own agarwood, unless it had a CITES certificate, which were only obtainable though the official channels at Guwahati and Kanpur.  So, a big gap was left, and who better to step in than the mafia?  They did, and that’s all I want to say about that.’’”[iii]

 

The current production landscape is made up of large-scale plantation farmers who grow agarwood under contract for the big Emirati houses and Western commercial perfume houses, and a second, much smaller group of mostly foreign artisan distillers who run small-batch, custom distillations of oud for their customer base.  These two groups of people have very different goals for the oud oil they produce, so it stands to reason that their ways of managing the trees are also different. 

 

Indigenous plantation owners and farmers are under contract to produce the oud oil needed in large-scale perfumery, which includes the big Emirati and Indian brands, as well as Western commercial perfumery[iv].  For these plantation owners, oud is a cash crop like any other.  They do not have the financial wherewithal to wait between twenty and forty years for the trees to mature, and many begin harvesting at between six months and three years old.  Plantation-grown oleoresin therefore often lacks maturity.

 

In some regions of SE Asia, but particularly in Laos, farmers use chemical inoculants to stimulate oleoresin production, to speed up the process.  Many say that the chemicals leave a metallic dirtiness in the resulting oil.  These factors contribute to an oud oil product that is certainly cheap and plentiful, but also inferior-smelling.  In contrast, farmers in Assam, in Northern India, rarely use chemical inoculants and allow the trees to be naturally infected by bugs or wounding the trees with knives.  Therefore, different countries, different production cultures.  Laos produces trees hard and fast, while Assam takes a slower, more rural approach.

 

Through experimenting with a combination of blending with other oud oils for consistency of smell and force-aging the oils by exposing them to the air to get those traditional barnyardy flavors, the plantations have come up with an oil that can be used in commercial and niche perfumery.  The advantages to plantation agarwood are clear – it is cheap, plentiful, and of consistent quality.  Depending on the manner of inoculation (chemical versus natural), the age of the wood when harvested, and the quality of the distillation process, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is not always pleasant or suitable for wearing neat on the skin.  But blended with other natural ingredients and lifted by synthetics, the effect in a commercial perfume is usually excellent.  It also allows for Western perfume houses to make a claim of authenticity for their oud perfumes.

 

Artisan distillers, in contrast, just want the best-smelling oil possible.  They do not care about selling large volumes of oil and intend for the oil to be worn neat on the skin, not mixed into a larger perfume formula.  Therefore, they are inclined to buy small quantities of high quality plantation wood whose quality they can control.  Artisans usually select only farmed trees that have been growing for between twenty and forty years and buy from farmers who use organic inoculation methods to infect the trees, namely drilling holes in the wood and allowing natural air-borne fungus spores and bugs to enter the wood on their own.

 

Careful management, selection, and inoculation can yield very good quality plantation oud wood for distilling.  The resulting oil can be of a quality that approaches or even matches that of wild oud.  In oud terminology, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is called ‘organic oud’, a term that, as in food, is supposed to convey to the customer qualities of purity, cleanliness, naturalness, and the level of care taken during its production.

 

 

 

The Market for Oud

 

The culture of a country or ethnic group is the strongest influence on how oud is consumed, valued, packaged, used, and sold.  Arabs consume the great majority of the Hindi-style oils and wood, for example, while the Chinese consume most wild Cambodi incense-grade wood for carving ceremonial beads and ornaments.  The Japanese consume most, if not all, of the incense-grade wood that comes out of the Vietnamese jungles for milling into incense powder for sticks and cones.

 

In terms of sheer volume, the Arab market is by far the most important consumer of oud.  Arabs have used oud oil and oud wood for burning for almost five centuries, an appetite that accelerated sharply with the discovery and exploitation of crude oil in the Emirates region.  Oil made many Arabs rich, and this wealth meant that they could now indulge their appetite for a material – oud – that had once been reserved for the Royal families.  It is the Arab preference for the smoky, austere, leathery oud oils, i.e., Hindi-type oils, that set the tone for most oud oil production in the Far East.

 

Hindi-style oud oils were traditionally consumed exclusively by the royal families of the Middle East and the Emirates.  Since Hindi oud was so highly valued by the elite, the taste for this style became pervasive in Arab culture.  The preference for this style of oud runs so deep, in fact, that if an oil does not possess the traditional Hindi aroma profile, many Arab consumers have trouble recognizing the oil as genuine oud.  Clean, green, woody oud oils such as a Borneo or Papuan oil, for example, do not sell well in this market.

 

The cultural expectation of what oud must smell like plays a huge role in how oud oil is distilled, soaked, mixed, and aged for the Arab market.  To cater to the Arab taste, many large companies require that their distillers soak the wood for a longer time before distilling it or expose the oud oil to the air in order to oxidize it and produce an aged, leathery result (called ‘force-aging’).  These processes produce a more pronounced, fermented ‘Hindi’ flavor in the oil.

 

Above all, the enormous Arab appetite for oud oil has had an impact on purity.  Yields of pure oud oil are low, averaging at about twenty grams per seventy kilo distillation, which begs the thorny question of how to satisfy huge demand with such tiny amounts of oud.  Realistically, something has got to give.  And in the case of oud oil, that something is purity.  Put bluntly, every single quantity of pure oud oil brought out of the jungles of India and the Far East and into the Emirates is adjusted, stretched out, and diluted with other oud oils, essential oils, and fillers in order to make a quantity large enough to satisfy Arab demand.

 

And the Arab demand for oud is inexhaustible.  The Arab market consumes oud oil and wood not only in their pure form, but also mixed into soaps, detergents, and toothpaste.  Therefore, oud is as much a flavoring product to be used in functional cleaning products as lily of the valley or rose is in the West.  Oud oil is an essential oil, but its purity is of a lesser concern to Arabs than its essential oudiness.  The Arabs prize purity in most all other essential oils such as rose ottos, sandalwood, or Sambac jasmine oil, but regard oud more as a general scent category than as an essential oil. 

 

The Chinese market absorbs almost all the wild, incense grade agarwood from the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam.  Ensar of Ensar Oud reports that it is practically impossible to procure Cambodi oud wood now[v], since every single log carried out of the jungles have already been bought by the Chinese and at a far higher price that other buyers can afford to pay.  The Chinese use some of the oud wood they buy for burning in their temples, but the majority is used to carve beads, ornaments, and necklaces, all of which are assumed to have ceremonial or religious importance.

 

The Japanese market consumes incense-grade oud wood for use in Japanese incense cones and sticks.  The market for oud oil itself is not significant.  The huge Japanese incense companies of Baieido, Shoyeido, and Nippon Kodo, among others, consume such large quantities of the highest grades of oud wood (termed incense-grade, Kyara, or Kinam) that they often station representatives outside the edges of jungles to make sure they get first pick from the loads the hunters carry out.  In Japan, oud wood is known as jinko or aloeswood.

 

Once back in Japan, the aloeswood is sorted further into grades, milled to fine powders, and mixed with other powdered woods such as sandalwood and cedar, spices such as clove and cinnamon, and gums and resins (most particularly benzoin).  These mixtures are destined for use as molded incense cones or incense sticks, the highest quality of which does not possess a wooden core but burn straight through.  Aloeswood is prized in Japanese culture almost uniquely for its role in incense ceremonies, known as Kōdō (香道, or the “Way of Fragrance”).  Kōdō involves ‘listening’ to Japanese incense and understanding its spiritual message.  The ceremony includes games, a code of conduct, and rituals.

 

The use of agarwood is historically important in Japan, and dates to the 6th century AD, when fragments of fragrant agarwood were combined with aromatic herbs and woods to perform Kōboku, the act of perfuming one’s robes for religious and stately purposes.  Some warriors also used it before battle, and it was an important commodity on the Silk Road.  The best pieces (Kyara) were reserved for royal use, and some pieces of Kyara from this period have been preserved in vaults by the government.  The price and scarcity of Kyara means that the ceremony of Kōboku is rarely performed today.  However, the art of Kōdō continues, with the more expensive aloeswood being mixed with sandalwood, clove, spikenard, and other aromatic spices to produce a wonderfully fragrant incense for burning during the ceremony.

 

 

Waiter! Is that an oud in my perfume?

 

When buying a perfume or oil that has oud in the name, the buyer usually wants to know: is there any real oud in this?  It is a reasonable question, especially since any scent or oil marketed as containing oud will likely be more expensive than other, non-oudy options (regardless of whether there is any oud in it).  In general, if you are buying a commercial (spray-based perfume), then the likelihood is that the oud will be synthetic.  A small number of commercial niche oud perfumes contain real oud oil, but the vast majority does not.

 

There are two reasons why not.  First, there is the problem of replicability.  Pure oud oil is one of the most inconsistent materials in the world.  Oil batches can smell different from each other even if the same type of wood is used, because of variations in the mineral content of the water used to distill, as well as differing soak times, microclimate, etc.  The problem of replicability is not a factor for small-batch artisans such as Ensar Oud, Imperial Oud, and AgarAura, because their unique selling point lies in the interesting variations from oil to the next.  But this type of batch inconsistency is a logistical nightmare for commercial perfumery.  In commercial perfumery, it is vital to be able to replicate an accord with a hundred percent consistency from one batch to the next.

 

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Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash  

 

Second, there is the problem of scaling up.  Real oud oil yields are too small and expensive to make sense in perfume formulas that require greater quantities of each raw material or aromachemical to scale up for production.  One twenty gram batch might stretch to fill a formula for two hundred bottles, but it will not be enough to make the ten thousand bottles required to stock the shelves at Sephora or Douglas.  In general, small-batch raw materials with huge variances in quality or aroma rarely translate well to large-batch commercial perfumery.

 

The great issue of oud in commercial perfumery is therefore not that of sustainability but of transparency.  If few commercial perfumes contain real oud oil, then why do companies charge more for perfumes with the word oud in them?  The simple answer is that oud is an exotic note to which ideas of rarity and expense has been attached.  Customers are demonstrably happy to buy into its mystique.  It is likely that many consumers believe that the higher prices for scents with an oud note are to cover the cost of obtaining and using real oud in the perfume, although this is rarely, if ever, the case.  Many reputable companies obfuscate on this matter and charge much higher prices for the perfumes in their lines that supposedly contain oud.

 

As mentioned, however, a small number of niche perfume houses do use real oud oil in their formulae, sourced from the plantations of Laos and Thailand.  The advantage to Western perfume houses of using plantation oud oil is that it is cheap, pre-blended with other oils to achieve a replicable consistency, and, crucially, available in the quantities needed for commercial perfumery.  Brands reputed to use real Laotian, Malaysian, and Thai farmed oud include Mona di Orio (Oudh Osmanthus), Fragrance du Bois (e.g., Oud Violet Intense), Dusita (Oudh Infini), Maison Francis Kurkdijan (Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Silk Mood, Oud Velvet Mood), and The Different Company (Oud for Love, Oud Shamash).  Ex Idolo 33 is a niche perfume that used a stock of 33-year-old Chinese oud oil and might be said to be the only commercially produced perfume to contain an amount of high-quality, vintage wild oil rather than plantation oil.

 

Higher-end oudy mukhallat sprays produced by the big Emirati and Indian brands such as Ajmal (Shams Oud) and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi (Dahn al Oudh Anteeq) also contain a quantity of real oud, diluted with other oils and perfumer’s alcohol to scale the formula up into a spray-based perfume.   In contrast, oudy mukhallats on the lower end of the price scale use the same oud synthetics as everyone else.  For a detailed breakdown of what types of perfumes are likely to contain real oud and which are not, please refer to the section in the upcoming Oud chapter titled Challenge 1: Where to Start?  This section runs you through all the available options (artisanal oils, big brand oils, oudy mukhallats, Western niche, etc.) and explains the extent to which each option is likely to contain real oud and in what proportions.

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

 

[i] http://www.fao.org/forestry/50057/en/

[ii] http://www.enfleurage.com/pages/Agarwood%252dIs-it-Endangered%3F.html

[iii] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

[iv] Fragrance du Bois, for example, is a brand that either owns or contracts exclusively with an agarwood plantation in Malaysia to supply them with oud oil for their line of fragrances.

[v] http://agarwood.ensaroud.com/the-great-cambodian-experiment-3/

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

1st September 2021

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

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

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

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

 

Hellicum

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Spirit of Narda II

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

 

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

 

 

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

 

Cover Image: Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Balsamic Coniferous Green Independent Perfumery Oud Review Violet Woods

Ormonde Elixir by Ormonde Jayne: A Review

31st August 2021

Ormonde Elixir is 45% Ormonde Woman, 45% Ormonde Man, and 10% oud oil.  I’m not mad at those percentages. The oud smells like the real deal has been used, and in more than holistic quantities too. The notes say Cambodi, but it smells like a hyper-smooth blend of Cambodi and Hindi oud to me, with the hot, bilious pleather of a Hindi (Hermès saddles buried under dirty straw) rubbing shoulders with the honeyed, berried undertone of a Cambodi (undiluted cranberry cordial) until the platonic ideal of the aroma profile that most people would think of as ‘oudy’ emerges. The oud imbues Woman’s lovely face with a menacing five-o-clock shadow, which is no mean feat given that Woman was already a moody black-green to start with. It punches Woman up a few notches, giving it a pungent, almost feral depth, without sacrificing any of the original’s gym-honed sleekness or its distinctive treacle-tart amber base.

In short, Ormonde Elixir is the Platinum card upgrade to the Gold of the original Woman. And it is absolutely beautiful. If you’re starting out and you want to own just one of the Woman/Man series (and have the money to spend), then this right here is the smoothest, deepest, and more luxe version of the series. However, if you already own either Ormonde Woman or Ormonde Man, then you own 90% of Ormonde Elixir. Personally, I’ve reached the ‘more sense than money’ stage of this hobby, so a sample of Elixir is enough to satisfy the itch. 

 

Source of Sample: A 1ml sample purchased from Neroli, Budapest.

Photo by Sleep Music on Unsplash

Ambergris Ambrette House Exploration Independent Perfumery Iris Leather Oud Review Smoke Vetiver

Neandertal: Them, Us, Light, Dark

8th March 2021

The indie perfume brand Neandertal boasts some of the most achingly cool bottles I’ve ever seen, one of the hottest talents on the indie perfumery scene (Euan McCall), and several glowing Luca Turin reviews – and yet, surprisingly little hype. I’m going to hazard a guess that, for some, ‘achingly cool’ + bottles that look like ice sculptures = intimidating.

That includes me, by the way. I am the least cool person in the room at any given time, so it’s likely I’d have continued to ignore Neandertal to infinity and beyond were it not for the fact that I recently purchased some samples of Euan McCall’s work (for his eponymous brand) and wanted to compare/contrast against his work for another brand to get a fuller picture of his style. When a perfume contact who does some PR for Neandertal (Brooke) offered to send me samples of the line, I figured it was kismet. 

I’m really glad I got to smell these. All of them were interesting – unique even – and none of them were the paint-by-numbers type of jobbie we’ve come to expect from the more upmarket niche brands. One was marred by a heavy hand with nose-burning aromachems, but even that was redeemed by a beautiful and unusual central section. Matching the bottles, the perfumes draw on the jolie laide nature of raw, elemental things – metal, earth, leather, salt. The effect is often jarring, and sometimes (one senses accidentally rather than deliberately) even pleasant. But we all need a little intellectual roughage in our diets, don’t we? 

 

Them

 

Oh, the grappa and Fairy washing up liquid sting of pure orris root tincture! I love how, when used in more generous quantities than the standard dribble tapped out with a fingernail into niche perfumes to justify an obscene price tag (Floretiiiiinnnnne irisssssss), this buttery but bleachy rhizome always manages to bring in the desaturated cool grey-pink colour canvas of Scandinavia – even if what the perfumer had been going for was Italian sunshine or Russian leather. Orris will out. Luckily, we have a Northern European perfumer (Euan McCall, a Scot) going for a cool, foggy interpretation of orris root, so the Scandi colour palette works just fine.

 

Orris root is an interesting material because, to me, it is a mixture of high and low, which means that it smells in equal parts like a fine leather glove and like the rooty sting of moonshine brewed by a Polish potato farmer. An elevated root cellar smell. Part of the reason that Them works because the perfumer understands this element of the material and surrounds it with other high-low accents. So, we have a green, scratchy salt note rubbing up against an ambrette material that feels luxuriously cloudy (a drop of Pernod in water), and a vaporous leather note slowly losing its initially screechy, toxic edge as it is folded into a much finer, softer ‘cuir’ along the same lines as Cuir d’Ange (Hermès) or Cuir X (La Parfumerie Moderne).  

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It is also an outdoors-to-indoors kind of perfume. It starts in the cool, foggy outdoors (Iris Silver Mist territory even) before slowly switching the scene to a posh art gallery full of spot-lit ‘found art’ sourced from nature, like long, silvery hunks of hollowed-out driftwood, polished stone, dried seaweed, salt, leather – the type of beach-cast objets that a collector might pay thousands for. There’s an awkward moment in the transition that smells a little bit sweaty or BO-ish, but it’s brief enough for me to pass it off as my imagination (or perhaps a momentary concentration of something evil in the iris material used).   The small flashes of furry warmth and leather underbelly briefly bring to mind Slumberhouse Sibet, but no, Them is green, salty, and almost aqueous in a way Sibet is not.  

 

  

Us

 

Us is one of those atmospheric indie scents that are more like exhibitions than perfume – experiments not really designed to survive beyond the walls of the lab but to be held up, admired, and put back down again. It smells like boot polish, tanning agents, and the soot-streaked insides of a kipper smoking house. And also like wet eucalyptus branches thrown onto an open fire in a sauna. While I admire the phantasmagoric summoning of the La Brea tar pits, I’m not sure that something this extreme is for wearing.

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In the drydown, it calms down enough for me to spot the relationship to the hoary old seagrass vetiver (burnt, whiskey-ish) of Vetiver by Annick Goutal Vetiver or Arso by Profumum, but I would rather wear the Goutal than a version that’s been amped up by a factor of ten. I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of stuff anymore. If you’re just getting into niche or indie, however, and you are chasing down all the ‘burning tire’ scent experiences you can find, then Us is gripping stuff indeed.

 

 

Light

 

Light is a jarring but ultimately thought-provoking fragrance. There is an opening blast of some aromachemical so vile and toxic I can feel it at the back of my throat, and for a moment or two, before this thing rights itself, I have to fight the urge to scrub it off my skin. I suspect a noxious brew of Ambroxan and the milky-metallic shriek of violet leaf, with a pronounced ‘curdled milk’ effect.

 

However – and you know that the ‘however’ has to be a good one in order for me to get past the teenage body spray thing at the start – Light surprises me by settling into a weird but interesting accord that I can only describe as a tart but creamy ‘rhubarb and custard’ floral that gets me in its headlights and refuses to let go. Yes, I understand that nothing in the notes list would explain this. Yes, it is possible that I’m going crazy. I have worn Light several times now, and each time I grimace my way through the opening (hairspray! licked metal spoons! teenager deo!) and each time I wind up in the rhubarb and custard place.

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And if it only stayed there, I would be enthusiastic. However, after an hour or two, the scent begins a slow fade into a chemical marshmallow drydown with an unpleasantly dusty ‘wheaten’ undertone – a sort of stale, chocolate-less smores accord – which reminds me a bit of that Godawful Rouge Smoking by Parfums BDK (which is cherry cough medicine + pleather + bubblegum + stale, wheat-dusted marshmallow) and of Sangre Dulce by Strangers Parfumerie, which is actually pretty good. I’m not keen on this indie ‘protein bar’ accord, to be honest, so this is a mark against it. But that weird salty-floral-creamy rhubarby midsection – oh man. What I’d do for a flanker that excerpted that part.

 

 

Dark

 

 

Aptly named, Dark is one of those oily, industrial-smelling concoctions that get you thinking both of (a) the fuel spills, rubber, tarpaulin, and black oil of a car repair shop, and (b) the oily black infestation at the cire of a freshly-felled agarwood tree, i.e., the natural and unnatural intertwined so densely that one is undistinguishable from the other. It smells dank and oddly savory (umami), perhaps due to the seaweed note, which is more reminiscent of miso paste than of salt. Unlike Light, Dark is, well, the smell of closed-up spaces, of rot, of time v. infection.

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Though unusual, its grungy industrial bent is not entirely unique – there are elements of what I am smelling here in both Nooud by Baruti and Black No. 1 by House of Matriarch. But in the drydown, Dark takes a very different turn, and this is where the paths diverge. The scent sees itself out on a long tail of pure, blinding metal. You know the metallic scent of orange juice that’s been spilled and left to dry? This is precisely that, minus any scent of orange. I don’t know if this is saffron, coriander, rose oxide, violet leaf, or some other metallic material, but the flash of metal provides a link to Light that I find interesting. Dark mixed with Light, by the way, provides for a compelling experience – the tart, metallic rhubarb and (salted) custard sparks against the oily, savory dankness of Dark’s oudy leather to yield a scent that feels as bright as an over-exposed photo and as grungy as mold.  

 

 

Source of samples: Samples of the Neanderthal line were kindly sent to me by Brooke, who does some PR on social media for the brand. I disclose where my samples came from so that you (the reader) can decide for yourself whether my review is unbiased or not.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

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

Gifts of the Three Magi: Going for Gold

30th December 2020

Gold is the most challenging of the gifts of the three Magi, of course, given that, unlike myrrh and frankincense, it is not a fragrant material in and of itself. I could write about perfumes that smell like metal or that have a metallic element to them, like, say, Superstitious by Frederic Malle or Copper by Comme des Garcons, but that would be a rather short and unsatisfying list. So, most of the perfumes on this list fall into one of three categories.

 

First, perfumes that the word ‘gold’ or ‘or’ in their name – a group of fragrances that quickly exhausts itself when you realize just how many of them either fail to meet the kingly standard we’re going after (24 Gold by Scentstory didn’t make the cut, for example, and neither did the ghastly coffee sickliness that is L’Or de Torrente) or give off a golden vibe at all (Or des Indes, J’acuse).

 

Second, there are the perfumes that I think are the gold standard of their respective genres and are the ones that I would buy in bulk if I were to suddenly win the lottery or marry someone with both taste and bottomless pockets (we will pretend that I am not already in possession of a husband). I find it funny that many of the perfumes I consider to be gold medal winners are actually called Black something or other.

 

Finally, we have perfumes that prominently feature a raw material or accord that smells or feels like a sunny, radiant liquid gold around your person – amber, for example, but also ambergris and honey.    

 

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Photo b Gian D. on Unsplash

Les Nombres d’Or Oudh Osmanthus (Mona di Orio) Black Gold

 

Oudh Osmanthus is both rich and dry, two qualities that are rarely found together these days. After years of puzzling over what makes this perfume tick, I think the secret to its three-dimensional richness lies in its triadic composition of a) the smoky, dried-up husk of a vanilla pod swiped from Mona di Orio Vanille, which contributes a dark, almost liquor-ish background that one might call sweet until you get close enough to see what it is, b), a midsection (borrowed from the brand’s own Musc) of blurred, indistinct floral notes desiccating to a fine white talc, which gives the scent its tinder-box dryness and a slightly soapy, dandified air, and c) a lascivious civet note that twists the florals into a grimy, almost fecal leather note à la Jicky.

 

Here’s the clever bit – though there is likely some quantity of real osmanthus and oud oil in the composition, their shape is carved out not by the raw materials themselves but by little olfactory nudges laid down by the perfumer herself, like a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest. Hence, the faintly cheesy fruitiness of osmanthus is suggested obliquely by an odd but genius herbal note that smells quite like fresh dill, while the cheesey ferment of oud is brought to life by the leathery civet.

 

In many ways, Oudh Osmanthus is the analog to my other favorite oud-themed fragrance, Nawab of Oudh (Ormonde Jayne). Both are Western abstractions of an Eastern raw material, rendered in a haute luxe style that elevates them far beyond their source material. But they arrive there from two utterly different directions – Nawab of Oudh via the light cast by crisp linen tablecloths, the brass moldings of a posh London hotel, and freshly-peeled citrus fruits, Oudh Osmanthus via the chartreuse gloom of a velvet-covered room.

 

Both are eye-wateringly expensive. Adding insult to injury, Oudh Osmanthus was reformulated when the bottles were changed from the wine screw bottles to the golden disc bottle. It still smells great, of course, but its smoky dryness has been toned down and made less confrontational, which has in turn subtracted much from its previously three-dimensional quality. However, if I were forced to choose just two Western oud-themed fragrances to take with me into the apocalypse, it would be Nawab of Oudh and Oudh Osmanthus, and that, for a perennial flip-flopper like me, is said with not even a hint of equivocation.  

  

 

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

Photo by Diogo Nunes on Unsplash

Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI)Palatial Gold

 

I am a big Henry James fan. Or at least I used to be until one day at school, my fifth form English teacher pulled a copy of The Golden Bowl out of my school bag and gasped, ‘You’re reading this? Oh, dear me, no – this is far too difficult for you. It will put you off James for life.’ But guys, I had already read The Golden Bowl. In fact, I had waltzed through it, not realizing that it was supposed to be difficult. But do you know what? I have struggled with Henry James ever since. Once someone points out that something is difficult or complex, it becomes so. Like someone flipping that switch in your brain between unthinking enjoyment and sudden, painful self-awareness.

 

I love Chypre Palatin with my unthinking part of my brain. I know, on a purely intellectual level, that it is a Golden Bowl type of scent – grand, complex, full of moving parts clicking into place. The sort of thing you have to read with your eyes at half-mast so as to perceive its entire shape at the corner of your vision. The notes list on Basenotes alone contains twenty separate notes, two thirds of which I still cannot pick up. It doesn’t matter. I slip into Chypre Palatin with a shiver of unadulterated pleasure every time, just as easily as my unthinking brain once slid into Henry James.

 

Chypres are not an easy read, normally. Something about them pinches me, reminding me to switch the analysis part of my brain on and the ‘feeling’ part off. They are more comfortable for me now, as I get older, but the bristling bergamot and the bitter backbone of mosses have always called to mind that scene in Titanic where Rose sees a mother is tapping her six-year old daughter on the spine to get her to straighten up. I admire the formality of chypres, and their immensely ordered, complex structure, but sometimes I find it difficult to breathe easily within their confines.

 

But Chypre Palatin is one of those strange hybrids between chypre and oriental that manage to combine the formality of the former with the comfortable sensuality of the latter. Chypre Palatin belongs, therefore, to a special group of perfumes that includes Puredistance M, Jubilation 25, Une Rose Chyprée, and even Guerlain’s masterpiece, Vol de Nuit. What these perfumes have in common is a chypre-like dressing of moss and bergamot, and maybe some other green, bitter, or herbal accents, over a base that feels pleasantly resinous, creamy, or vanillic (as is the case with Chypre Palatin), so a fragrance that starts its journey in an upright position can end it in a supine position on a soft divan. These chypre-oriental hybrids are built to scale, bristling with ambition, and with big enough feet to comfortably straddle several genres at once – chypre, oriental, leather, animalics, and so on. They are not so much unisex as they are omni-sex.

 

Chypre Palatin, for example, has a brief bergamot beginning, like a blush of first light over the horizon at dawn, and a heart of authentic oakmoss that goes on forever, but these accents are married to a lush vanilla and a warmly animalic castoreum in the base, ensuring that the whole thing feels comfortably sensual. It is distinctly masculine in feel, but the vanilla and castoreum in the base give it a rounded, luxurious feel that won’t feel out of place on a woman’s skin.

 

Chypre Palatin strikes me as a modern-day Vol de Nuit, in a way. Not in terms of scent, but in the way they are both lush, baroque-scaled perfumes pointing to a more romantic past than the time in which they were created. And despite their ambition, they both feel perfectly intimate – suitable for quiet, homebound pleasures. Chypre Palatin might be the Golden Bowl of its genre, but I enjoy it in that simple, instinctive way I used to enjoy Henry James before the thinking part of my brain was switched on. Just don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is a difficult or complex thing.

 

 

Black (Puredistance) Bugatti Gold

 

I have been within sniffing distance of the interior of a luxury car only twice in my life. The first was when a former colleague of my father’s, a rather sleazy guy called Alberto, would come and collect me from my job in Bergamo on a Friday night and whizz me down to Milan for the weekend in his Bugatti. Nothing terribly inappropriate happened in that car, but there was always the suggestion that something might. The second was a couple of years ago, in Rome, when a lovely salesman saw my son and me looking in the window of a Ferrari-Maserati showroom and invited us in so that my son could sit inside one. I am not into luxury anything, but the scent of inside a luxury car is intoxicating in a weirdly emotive way. You know instinctively that what you are smelling is privilege and, by corollary, exclusion, but the power you sense throbbing beneath the leather and the wood – even when the car is off – is enough to flood you with a weird sense of elation. Arousal, even.

 

Black by Puredistance smells like the pure, cushioned air of privilege. Though from the technical sense, it has much in common with other cardamom-saffron-leather orientals like Idole (Lubin), Black Cashmere (Donna Karan) and, more recently, the glorious Shaghaf by Anfas, the extreme refinement of Black makes them feel like they just stumbled in from the bog, muck caked on their clodhopper boots.

 

Black is so smooth you could almost call it boring. It is just a silky cardamom custard filtered through the air filtering system of a Maserati with creamy chamois seats and polished wood panels, with no real points of interest or anything whistling for your attention. normally lusty resins and spices have been triple-strained through a cheesecloth, appearing as smudged brushstrokes in the overall impressionistic swirl. Even the oud note is quiet, a faded sour-suedey tannin accent shading out the leather a little. As with anything Puredistance, Black is ostentatiously-priced, but then so is a Maserati. I may never get within sniffing distance of either ever again, but the memories are for free and remain lodged safely in the memory palace I have constructed in my brain (thanks for the tip, Hannibal).  

 

 

 

Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh)Multi-Dimensional Gold

 

Saqr II is a mukhallat composed in honor of nature in all its brutal beauty. It focuses on ambergris (long golden beaches), oud (green forests), Ta’ifi rose (flowers in inhospitable terrain), and Himalayan musk (animal fur). Saqr II provides the wearer with a truly kaleidoscopic experience – the florals, exotic woods, and musk all rushing out at you in a giddy vortex of scent – but maintains a rigorous clarity rarely experienced in such complex blends. The wearer can smell every component of the blend, both individually and as part of the rich, multi-layered fabric of the perfume.

 

The play of light on dark is particularly well executed. The tart, green spice of the Ta’ifi rose lifts the perfume, while salty-sweet ambergris lends a sparkle. These brighter elements prevent the darker oud and musk from becoming too heavy. The bright rose burns away, leaving a trail of leathery, spicy oud wood that is addictive, drawing one’s nose repeatedly to the skin. The oud here is smooth and supple, with nary a trace of sourness or animal stink. The musk, perceptible more as a texture than a scent, blurs the edges of the oud and rose notes into furred roundness that gradually softens the scent’s austerity.

 

The slight out-of-focus feel to this blend makes it far more approachable for beginners than many others in the Al Shareef Oudh stable. However, none of the materials have been dumbed down for a Western audience. The blend smells classic in a certain rose-oud way, but it is not clichéd. Its balance of dark and bright elements, sweet and non-sweet, dirty-musky and clean, is what makes this a masterful example of its genre.

 

Saqr II is complex, beautiful, restful, and above all, easy to wear. I particularly love the fuzzy golden timbre of the ambergris in this scent, which lends it a tannic apricot skin edge. It is my personal favorite of all the Al Shareef Oudh mukhallats and the one I would recommend to beginners as a great primer for the brand’s overall approach and aesthetic. Beyond that, however, it is one of the best perfumes I have had the pleasure of smelling.

 

 

Gold Woman (Amouage)Gold Soap

 

Gold Woman is the souped up, Russian gilt, bells-and-whistles version of Madame Rochas, which basically means that it is an amalgamation of all those perfumes that we tend to instinctively classify as stuffy, perfumey, French and ladylike – you know, perfumes like No. 5 (Chanel), Calèche (Hermès), and Climat (Lancôme). I’d throw 24, Faubourg (Hermès) into the mix there too.  

 

I could try to describe the common thread here – the fatty, fizzy aldehydes that strafe the expensive, Grasse-sourced florals like a steel wire brush, sending them spinning up and out like a ballerina’s tulle mid-pirouette, the silky musks, the powdered rush of floral bouquets – but with something this abstract, I’d only be embarrassing myself.

 

Because, honestly, let’s get real – much of what we say we smell in fragrances this big is probably just a figment of our imagination, suggested to us by reviews or ad copy. Perfumes this abstract, this overly-blended, this fuzzy-with-kinetic-aldehydes can never give anyone a clear idea of any one material, be it a lush rose or the hay-like greenness of narcissus. Most of us are not in possession of a nose sophisticated enough to pick up on every nuance or note in something like Gold Woman. If you think that it smells expensive (it does) or like what a rich woman might wear (it does), then the perfumer has gotten his point across. I’d argue – strenuously, if you ever met me in person – that what you are smelling in Gold Woman is pretty much the scent of a luxuriously creamy bar of white soap, and specifically the kind that nobody buys for themselves and is far too good to use.

 

My mother was gifted a L’Air du Temps bath soap when I was little, and that soap remained perched on the edge of the family bath, in its delicate seashell-shaped clasp, for all of our childhood, as if silently daring us to touch it. Which we never did, of course, because the hairs on the back of my mother’s neck were psychically connected to this soap, standing on end and raising the alarm if one of us even so much as breathed in its general direction. I would only dare huff it quickly and furtively, panic-dropping it back in its seashell every time the landing floor squeaked (our Famine-era house was about as suited to privacy as it was to central heating, which is to say not very). Anyway, I remember distinctly the first time I smelled Amouage Gold Woman. It was January 2012 in one of the larger Campo Marzio 70 stores in Rome, and I had just started to read blogs, so I recognized the name and the look of the bottle. I picked up the gold bottle with trembling hands, scarcely believing that the salespeople would just let me pick up something so precious and sprayed a bit on my wrist. Well, if it wasn’t that fucking L’Air de Temps soap. Hello again, how nice to see you.

 

None of which explains, of course, how I now own two bottles of Gold Woman. I guess my defense is really a theory, namely that if cityscapes shape the style of those that live in them, then Rome, with its status as the erstwhile center of the Western world, expects of her citizens a similarly-outsized sense of braggadocio. While I still don’t really like Gold Woman all that much, I find it has the big dick energy that a place like Rome demands. Every time I wear it, I feel like Juno emerging angrily from her bath, left breast magnificently exposed, pumped to give the first man she encounters a heart attack or a hard-on (we are never sure which).

   

 

 

Or du Sérail (Naomi Goodsir)Fool’s Gold

 

Or du Sérail has a beautiful, honeyed tobacco leaf at its core. But unfortunately, it gets drowned in a fruity, sticky mess of mango, rum, coconut, and ylang, giving somewhat of an impression of a day-old tropical fruit cocktail left out in the sun to develop a ‘bloom’. It is also unbearably sweet. Ambre Narguilé does the fruit-cake-and-honey tobacco thing so much better that I wonder why anybody felt this was necessary. And to be honest, if I wanted a complex, syrupy tobacco fragrance then Histoires de Parfums’ masterpiece 1740 satisfies me on all levels.


To sum it up, Or du Sérail is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind of scent where everything is thrown at tobacco in the hope that something sticks. Don’t get me wrong – it is technically ‘yummy’ in that round, sweet, bland way of another of Duchaufour’s misses, Havana Vanille. But as in Havana Vanille, Or du Sérail contains unpleasantly sour, discordant off-notes like mold on a piece of bread, or rot beginning to set in on a piece of fruit. Or du Sérail makes a lunge for that fine line between edible and inedible and misses the mark completely.

 

 

 

Aurum D’Angkhor (Sultan Pasha Attars) – D’Angkhor Gold

 

 

Aurum D’Angkhor is special. Every time I wear it, I marvel anew at its depth, complexity, and beauty. It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkhor in the basenotes, a fruity Cambodi oud oil with cozy wood nuances. But the ‘Aurum’ in Sultan Pasha’s remix means ‘Golden’ and indeed, that is precisely the color that comes across in this blend. Aurum is a love poem to the golden dust of saffron, polished oak floors, smoke, honey, and henna, a shady haze backed by a velvety floral richness.

 

The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes, it has a dark barnyard character that some might find startling. This accord is not, to my nose, unpleasantly animalic. It never approaches, for example, the sour, bilious honk of a raw Hindi oud. However, there is definitely something there that recalls the aroma of cow slurry, a smell so hotly liquid that it seems to ooze across the room like ripe Brie. One’s reaction to this type of aroma depends on one’s level of exposure to farmyard smells during childhood. I grew up around cows and now live next door to a dairy farm, so for me, the smell of cow shit is literally part of the air I breathe. In other words, I’m fine with it. You very well may not be.

 

The cow pat note dissipates quickly, however, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, threaded with drifts of faintly indolic jasmine. Saffron plays a pivotal role, called upon to bring out all its strange facets at once – the leather, the exotic dust, the sweetness, the faintly floral mouth-feel, fiery red spice, and a certain medicinal, iodine-like twang. The oud and the saffron create a deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty plum skin. In short, Aurum showcases the depth of real oud, but past the fecal twang of the opening, none of its more challenging aspects.

 

The smoke in Aurum is chimerical, sometimes manifesting as little more than a faint tingle of far-off woodsmoke akin to a needle prick’s worth of birch tar or cade oil, and sometimes appearing as full-on smoke from a censer full of resins. The smoke component is similar to that of Balsamo della Mecca (La Via de Profumo), which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent dusted with the clovey, balsamic bitterness of Siam benzoin and frankincense. Backing the smoke is always a layer of dusty, medicinal henna powder and the golden sheen of honey-glazed woods. Nothing, therefore, feels out of balance, not even when the smoke is rolling in.

 

Aurum dries down to a dark, treacly resin that smells predominantly nutty, but also kind of gritty, like coffee grounds sprinkled with sugar – probably a side effect of benzoin mixing with the cedar and ambrette musk. There is a moment in the drydown that reminds me of the sawdusty, granular sweetness of wood pulp and suede that is the primary feature of Tuscan Leather-style fragrances. Many soft leather scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather itself, Oud Saphir (Atelier Cologne), and Tajibni (Al Haramain), use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar to create a musky, resinous suede effect, and that might be what’s happening here in Aurum. However, Aurum is far more complex than these soli-suedes, deploying as it does a layer of resins, oud, and henna to jostle and thicken the sueded musk.

 

 

 

Or des Indes (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier)Bait-and-Switch Gold

 

Out of all the perfumes reputed to smell like Shalimar, Or des Indes smells most like Mitsouko. I bought a bottle in Madrid airport on my way back from Cali, shaken after having been strip-searched by Columbian customs agents (pasty Irish chicks apparently being well known for enthusiastically promoting certain Colombian exports via that particular route), and when I got home, I showered and applied this liberally, then lay naked on the bed waiting to a) stop sweating, and b) feel the cloud of golden, resinous Shalimar-esque loveliness rise up and envelop my senses, soothing my furrowed brow, etc., etc.

 

Well, to say I felt cheated out of my happy ending is an understatement. Or des Indes is not the golden, shimmering warm bath of resins I had been led to expect. Rather, thanks to a doughy ‘peach skin’ suede element that is far more root (orris) than resin, Or des Indes is dove grey – delicately bitter, fudgy, and ‘old smelling’, like old wooden furniture dusted off and waxed with saddle soap. Thanks to a recent love affair with Imperial Opoponax (Les Nereides), I have come to identify this doughy, rooty (almost waxy-fudgy) nuance as characteristic of opoponax resin. But because of its herbal, slightly bitter ‘almond’ core, I have stopped perceiving opoponax as a purely golden affair – in truth, it smells more lavender-grey than golden for about two-thirds of its development.

 

While Imperial Opoponax shakes off this dove grey pallor pretty quickly before sliding into that much-awaited, much-longed-for bath of sultry, balmy, red-gold resinousness that is the final third of opoponax resin, Or des Indes remains firmly attached to its grey, bitter-doughy suede heart for much of the ride. (There is a phantom fruit note bouncing in and out that, combined with the fine cuir accord, contributes much to the Mitsouko impression). To be fair, Or des Indes does eventually loosen up into something that might legitimately be called warm or golden, before completely dying an ignoble death at the four hour mark.

 

Yep, four hours. That’s all you get, folks. Now, I am no longevidee bore, but paying Maître Parfumeur et Gantier prices for the performance of a Roger et Gallet body spray is deeply unacceptable, and that’s even before you consider that, with Or des Indes, you are basically wearing a half-assed version of Mitsouko or the first 40% of Imperial Opoponax, both scents that cost roughly half of this.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I do quite like Or des Indes. It’s just that when you are expecting gold and get dove grey, it feels like trying to recover your gait after you’ve missed a step on the stairs. You eventually right yourself but for one horribly unsettling moment, the whole world feels off kilter.  

 

 

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Black Gold (Ormonde Jayne)Gentlemanly Gold

 

Black Gold is every bit as stunning as its gold-plated billing makes it out to be. Perfectly in line with the Ormonde Jayne house style, it seems to be made up of hundreds of different layers of tulle and yet has the tensile density of velvet.  The opening feels familiar, yet turbo-charged with something electric. The sherbet-like fizz of mandarin, lemon, and mandarin is intoxicating, and the touches of clary sage and juniper berry familiar to anyone who loves Tolu. Immediately after this somewhat characteristic Ormonde Jayne opening, the true character of the scent reveals itself as a confident duet between a particularly arid, aromatic sandalwood (one can almost visualize the reddish dust of felled heartwood in Mysore) and a hot, dusty carnation – the two accords whipping each other into a vortex of scent.


Texture is key here. Black Gold feels fuzzy and misty, like the fine-grained fizz on a glass of sparkling rosé. The quality of the sandalwood is superb, displaying as it does the peculiar character split between dry and milky of real santalum album. Although there are no piney terpenes here, the hallmark of inferior santalum spicatum from Australia, the sandalwood used in this fragrance is not at all sweet or unctuously creamy. In fact, coupled with the herbs and the spicy carnation, the woodiness strikes me as gentlemanly, similar in tone to the sandalwood in Santal Noble (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier). Later on, these same woods appear rubbed down by nuggets of creamy amber resin, their toffee-like sweetness filling out the air pockets in the wood and giving the scent a deep, velvety warmth.


However, there is also a very dry, peppery oud note in the drydown, which brings the fragrance closer in feel to Ormonde Man than some might be expecting. The oud adds a brush of something metallic and not entirely natural-smelling. The note is not exactly animalic, but a little dark and salty, tending towards carnal. This could be a touch of Ambroxan or real ambergris, or, of course, it could also simply be the listed oud coupled with the vegetal musk of ambrette. Either way, the ending is as shimmering and as translucent as the rest of the scent; it floats off the skin like cloud, never heavy or sullen.


Worth the price? Yes – with the proviso that you already have the money and won’t be skipping any meals or utility bills to buy it. There are plenty of haute luxe perfumes around at this price level anyway, but an Ormonde Jayne is consistently a trusty government bond compared to the equities market in one of the BRIC countries and is therefore a particularly safe investment. (I am just as puzzled as you as to why I’m talking about this like an investment banker).

 

 

 

Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal) – Antique Gold

 

 

Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq is a masterpiece of mukhallat perfumery. With a long name that translates to (roughly) ‘Aged Oud Blend’, it earns a place in any list of top ten or even top five mukhallats in the world. Essentially an essay on the beauty of aged Hindi oud, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq wanders through the umami flavorways of noble oud oil, touching upon sweet, sour, salty, woody, and even herbal facets as it passes through.

 

It may at first appear pungent or animalic to the uninitiated, but once the leathery spices rise through the initial wall of funk, you will find it difficult to tear your nose away. Sweet red roses, musk, and greenish herbs – perhaps a touch of vetiver – provide an excellent showcase for the aged oud, grounding and buttressing it with layers of complexity, body, and richness. 

 

The other notes, while extremely rich and high quality, do not distract from the star of the show, namely that beautiful, aged Hindi oud. The oud slowly softens and melts like a pool of warm honey, pumping out wave after wave of spiced, syrupy goodness throughout the day. This intoxicating concerto of aromas is top of its class at representing the unique pleasures of oil perfumery.

 

In the far drydown, natural ambergris lends the scent a golden glow, as well as a hint of coniferous bitterness that recalls the aroma of raw fir balsam. Think of sea breezes blowing a forest of pine trees sideways, the salty freshness of the sea air mixing with the resinous greenery of the trees and the golden sweetness of tree sap. The ambergris amplifies the beauty of the aged oud and the brilliance of its rich Turkish rose. Beautiful, pure, and incredibly rewarding to wear, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq goes straight into the pantheon of must-haves for any serious mukhallat lover.

 

Kalemat (Arabian Oud) – Souk Gold

 

Kalemat is not wildly original (it smells a little like an upmarket version of 24 Gold by Scentstory, or Raghba by Lattafa Perfumes) but it is one of those rare instances when you put it on and you just know that it smells damn good, and that you smell damn good, and that other people (all of the other people, believe me) will think you smell damn good too. It reminds me that things don’t have to be wildly expensive or original to give you pleasure.

 

In fact, every time I wear Kalemat, I think of what Agent Dale Cooper tells Harry in Twin Peaks, namely – ‘Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.’ Kalemat is a just damn fine coffee.

 

It is difficult to describe Kalemat without making it seem simple or boring. It opens with a brief berry note, before sliding into a golden, honeyed amber riff that swirls around you like a delicious second skin for a whole twelve hours. There is a hint of gently smoked oud that stops the whole thing from diving off a cliff into gourmand territory. It is not real oud, of course – not at this price point. But for once, the synthetic oud or cashmeran or whatever they are using here for that smoky oud note is not obnoxious or dominant. Instead, it adds a pleasurably smoky but unobtrusive buzz to the backbone of the fragrance. It is there simply to support the spiced, honeyed amber, not to shout all over it.

 

Kalemat wears in a similar way to perfumes like Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114, Dior Privée Ambre Nuit, and Amouage’s Fate Woman – not in terms of scent per se, but in the way each of these particular fragrances seem to hover around your skin like a haze of fuzzy, warm, golden light, and radiate outwards, like Golden Hour light pouring into a dingy room. And really, the base appeal of Kalemat lies in its sillage. I like the Muslim idea of using perfume to scent not only yourself but also the air around you, as a gift for others. Kalemat spills out over your skin and into the air around you, leaving a trail of honeyed, gently-spiced amber and woods for others to enjoy. I have had women in the supermarket stop me to ask what I’m wearing. Dogs follow me. Little children ignore my stupidly asymmetrical face and smile at me. Kalemat is a gift you give to yourself, yes, but also to others.

 

 

Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch)Gold Bud

 

Composed by Christi Meshell for her House of Matriarch line of perfumes, Black No. 1 (formerly known as Blackbird) is made up of over 300 different notes and materials, 93% of which are all-natural. This is incredibly complex, even crowded perfume – but somehow it still manages to achieve the effect of a smooth, even flow of notes, like water across a silk panel.

 

The opening salvo is a rush of mellow leather, dark woods, and green resins. Even though it is very dark in flavor, everything feels round and smooth, with no jagged edges anywhere. There is what I can only describe as a delicious ‘roasted’ effect here that smells quite like a lump of unsmoked hashish resin, i.e., sweetish, tarry, sticky – like summer grass trampled underfoot.

 

But make no mistake – this is no stoner’s joke, no hippy-dippy afternoon delight. Whereas the similarly cannabis-focused Coze (Parfumerie Generale) uses its weed note to conjure up a happy, outdoorsy vibe of buff lumberjacks lighting up a joint, here the note is used in a supporting role to add a sweet, herbal grassiness to the other woody and aromatic notes.  The scent manages to evoke strong visual images in my head, spinning visions of dark forests of firs and pines beside windswept beaches. The feeling is of solitude, a glorying in the fierceness of nature at its wildest. There is a genius note of sea salt weaving in and out of the perfume at this point, serving to pierce the density of the dark notes like a sudden shaft of moonlight through the forest. For such a dense perfume, it feels incredibly ozonic.  

 

The gentle, rounded oud accord in the opening notes becomes ever stronger as the scent develops, picking up more of a rubbery, medicinal character. This adds a surprisingly pleasant wash of something antiseptic to the complex roasted flavors of the woods and resins. In some ways, the roasted, dark woods and oud note reminded me slightly of both Montecristo (by Masque Fragranze Milano) and of Hard Leather (by LM Parfums) but nowhere near as challenging. Both Montecristo and Hard Leather play up their tough notes like oud, leather, and styrax to such a degree that they simply overpower everything else – but all the potentially harsh notes in Blackbird seem to have been folded into softer, sweeter accords, like the amber and musks in the base, thus sanding down any hard edges they might have had. 

 

The progression here is incredible for a perfume with such a high degree of natural ingredients. There is a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The whole thing is just so coherent and beautifully put together. The sticky, tarry notes from the top eventually loosen up and spread out. The sweetness of the pot resins intensifies too, mixing with the dark leather to create an effect that is intoxicating. And the dry down – oh my God, that dry down! It is a mix of amber, musk, and that dark, supple leather note that feels at once sensual and comfortable. It reminds me of the animalic but cozy feel of L’Ombre Fauve by Parfumerie Generale and the deep coziness of the latter stages of Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens, the part where all passion is spent and now all is the sugar and cream smell of two bodies cooling on the bear hide. Though eye-wateringly expensive and difficult to obtain, Black No. 1 is one of the first perfumes I’d buy in vats if I won the lottery.

 

 

Source of Samples: All reviews are based on samples, decants, or bottles of perfume I have purchased myself, with the exception of the sample of Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh), which was kindly gifted to me by the brand, and the sample of Puredistance Black, which was kindly sent to me by the brand in 2016 for half the cost of the regular sample set (I paid the other half, by agreement with the brand manager). I own half a tester bottle of the new Oudh Osmanthus, in lieu of payment by a former client of mine, but bought a decant of the original formulation myself. As always, I do not do paid reviews and do not accept samples in exchange for a positive review. My opinions are my own. This blog is not monetized, and I do not earn any income from my perfume writing.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash

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Gifts of the Three Magi: A Myrrh-athon

30th November 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

Oriental Velours (Les Indémodables)Fog Machine Myrrh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myrrhiad (Huitième Art) Myrrh for Myrrh Pussies 

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

Photo by Anuja Mary Tilj on Unsplash

Baume du Doge (Eau d’Italie)Myrrh Agrodolce  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eau d’Iparie (L’Occitane)Mossy Myrrh   

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

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

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Avicenna Myrrha Mystica (Annette Neuffer) – Sunlit Myrrh  

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

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

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

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

Alien Essence Absolue (Thierry Mugler)Hubba Hubba Myrrh

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

Messe de Minuit (Etro)Sepulchral Myrrh 

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


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

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

Photo by Jordan Nix on Unsplash

Myrrhe et Délires (Guerlain)Macaron Myrrh

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

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


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

fallintostars (Strangelove NYC)Oudy Myrrh

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

Bois d’Argent (Dior Privée)Woody Myrrh

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ruth Enyedi on Unsplash

Ilang Ilan (Mellifluence)Tropical Myrrh

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

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

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

1000 Kisses (Lush)Marmalade Myrrh

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

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

Myrrh & Tonka (Jo Malone)Mass Market Myrrh

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

Photo by Zuzana on Unsplash

Thichila (Parfums Prissana)Plastic Balloon Myrrh

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

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

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

Sutera Ungu (Agar Aura)Myrrhic Oud

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

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

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

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

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

L’Eau Trois (Diptyque)Piney Myrrh

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

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

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

Balsamo della Mecca (Abdes Salaam Attar)Sanctifying Myrrh

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

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

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

Little Egypt (BPAL) Honeyed Myrrh

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

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

La Myrrhe (Serge Lutens)Elegant Myrrh

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

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

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

Mirra (Acqua di Parma)Ambroxan Myrrh

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

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

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

Iranzol (Bruno Acampora)Anachronistic Myrrh

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

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

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

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

Sirocco (Solstice Scents)Caveman Myrrh

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

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

Photo by Jarritos Mexican Soda on Unsplash

Myrrhe Ardente (Annick Goutal)Root Beer Myrrh

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

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

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

Cashmiri Black (Agarscents Bazaar)Coca Cola Myrrh

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

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

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

Photo by Raspopova Marina on Unsplash

Parfum Sacre (Caron)Cashmere Myrrh

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

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

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

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

Myrrhe Impériale (Armani Privé)Obnoxiously Loud Myrrh

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

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

Cover Image: Photo by Y S on Unsplash

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Kerosene Part 1: Copper Skies and Broken Theories

20th October 2020

Copper Skies

Sometimes you want a silky pâté that rolls around velvetily in your mouth for a few seconds before dissolving into perfumed air, and sometimes you want the thick, meaty savor of a butcher’s organic pork sausage slathered in fried onions and enough hot yellow mustard to guarantee a ruined shirt. Copper Skies is the pork sausage of the amber genre.

Photo by Justin Lane on Unsplash

Cleverly balancing the gooey resinousness of amber and tobacco with a close-fitting sheath of basil that splits the difference between mint and black licorice, it scratches my itch for the kind of big, gutsy flavors that make my mouth throb and my heart sing. The amber smells more like incense to me, with a rich, deep sort of bitterness that probably originates with the tobacco leaf. Worth noting that Copper Skies doesn’t smell particularly like tobacco leaf to me per se, probably because the usual cinnamon and dried fruits aspect is missing, replaced by that surprisingly fresh, anisic topnote. But there is a chewy, toasty quality to Copper Skies that certainly hints at tobacco.    

Copper Skies is not what you’d call refined, but that’s the point. Its flashes of industrial rubber wiring, sharp incense, and hot metal are what keep my salivary glands pumping and the juices running unchecked down my chin. It turns on a coin; sometimes it smells like just another rich, sweet incensey amber (quite Amber Absolute-like), and other times like a herbal, leafy thing that has more in common with licorice root tea than resin.

Amber is one of those accords that smells so good in and of itself that that it is difficult to innovate on the theme without losing the plot somewhere. The more of them I smell, the more I appreciate the ones that retain the affability of amber while doing something quirky and original to keep us all from slumping over into that over-stated torpor that follows a rich pudding. Copper Skies is not particularly subtle or ‘worked out’, but to my mind, it absolutely succeeds in giving you the full satisfaction of amber without sending you to sleep.

Photo by Graham Padmore on Unsplash

Broken Theories

Broken Theories speaks directly to my fantasy of trekking home through snowy woods towards my rustic-but-architect-designed log cabin, in Fair Isle leggings that miraculously don’t make my legs look like two ham hocks in a sack, a Golden lab at my side, and the pink-tinged winter sky above my head tilting slowly towards indigo. A thread of sweet, tarry woodsmoke – from a far-off campfire, perhaps, or even the wood burning stove lit by my husband, Mads Mikkelsen – hangs in the cold, crisp air.

Pause and there is the heady scent of scattered forest homes gearing up for the night. Someone is revving their jeep to check if the winter tires are ok. Someone else is smoking a cigar while peeling an orange. Someone is smoking vanilla pods in their shed for some fancy artisanal market niche I’m not aware of. There’s an illicit coal fire in the mix too – not terribly environmental, the neighbors bitch, while surreptitiously gulping in lungfuls of the familiar charred scent of their childhood like junkies.

But the best thing about these aromas in that they are too far off in the distance to distinguish as one thing or another. Sandalwood, leather, oud, tobacco, vanilla, woodsmoke, burning sugar, dried kelp, and tar all melt down into one delicious aroma that is definitely more a collective of environmental ‘smells’ than perfume.

I love Broken Theories and really want a bottle. But the sweet woodsmoke-campfire genre is a crowded one, and bitter experience compels me to be clear-eyed about where this fits in the pecking order. First of all, let me admit that Broken Theories smell very, very indie, and by indie, I mean it smells like a number of popular woodsmoke perfume oils from companies such as Solstice Scents (especially Manor, Manor Fire, Grey’s Cabin, and Inquisitor) and Alkemia (especially Smoke and Mirrors and Fumé Oud à la Vanille). I’m fine with the association but all the same, the indie vanilla-woodsmoke theme (a) does tend to smell a bit samey from brand to brand, (b) is gummily (albeit enjoyably) indistinct, like several woodsmoke stock oils or ‘house notes’ thrown into a jerrycan, and (c) doesn’t carry quite the same degree of elegance as a masstige or luxury perfume featuring woodsmoke, e.g., Bois d’Armenie by Guerlain or Bois d’Ascèse by Naomi Goodsir. That I smell this type of ‘indie-ness’ in the vanilla-woodsmoke aspect of Broken Theories makes me hesitate.

However, I can think of many other perfumes – some of them luxury, some of them prestigious indies -that Broken Theories beats into a corner with a stick, and on balance, that tips the whole decision into the yes direction. For example, while I like Fireside Intense (Sonoma Scent Studio), it is too bitter-smoky for me to wear on the regular without me feeling like I am wearing a hair shirt. Bois d’Ascèse has a similar problem, in that there is a harsh woody aromachemical in the base that makes wearing it a chore – there is no such problem in Broken Theories, which beds down the tougher smoke and oud-leather notes in a balmy vanilla softness that feels as comfy as those fantasy Fair Isle leggings. And Broken Theories is infinitely preferable to the popular By the Fireplace (Marson Martin Margiela), a perfume whose sharp, burnt sugar and viscous campfire or wood aromachemical makes me physically nauseous.

Broken Theories is, however, not as good as Jeke (Slumberhouse) or Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch), other perfumes with a strong campfire or woodsmoke element. But it is cheaper, lighter, and easier to obtain. It is roughly similar – both in quality and execution – to the wonderful Winter Woods by Sonoma Scent Studio, and by process of elimination, I guess I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between this and that.

Conclusion: Broken Theories is one of the best woodsmoke scents on the market today. But it only makes sense if you don’t already have a plethora of other woodsmoke scents to fill that particular niche. My fantasy self and I will be having words.  

Source of Sample: I purchased my Kerosene samples from the wonderful Polish website Lulua. I have used Lulua many times over the past five years to sample American or Canadian indies, such as Slumberhouse, Zoologist, Olympic Orchids, and now, Kerosene, which can be extremely difficult for European customers to track down and smell. I am 100% happy to recommend Lulua, because they provide a terrific service for not too much money, have the best packaging I’ve ever seen for samples-only orders, and they always throw in a few extras too.

Cover Image: Photo by Siim Lukka on Unsplash

Balsamic Citrus Coffee Collection Cult of Raw Materials Floral Fougere Green Floral Incense Independent Perfumery Iris Jasmine Lavender Leather Musk Oriental Osmanthus Oud Resins Review Rose Round-Ups Saffron Sandalwood Smoke Spice Spicy Floral Thoughts Violet White Floral Woods

Areej Le Doré Agar de Noir, Musk Lave, Cuir de Russie, Grandenia, & Santal Galore

28th September 2020

The challenge for any reviewer in reviewing the Areej Le Doré releases is that (a) either you’re late and the perfumes you’re writing about are no longer available to buy, or (b) you’re on time for a full bottle release, but you are talking only to the group of three to six hundred people that are buying them, a tiny circle of devotees that seems to get tighter and more closed-off with each successive release from the house.

I can certainly see why many people in perfume-land might be attracted by the fantastic raw materials on offer by Areej Le Doré but turned off by the feverish fandom that has sprung up around the brand. If you’re not willing to set your timer to bumfuck o’ clock Thailand time or duke it out with the scalpers, then the whole thing can feel like the most fearsome clique from high school. And when anyone feels excluded, there is the natural tendency to grumble to yourself, “Well, if I’m not in, then I’m sure as hell out…of this hot, culty mess.”   

While this is certainly not a problem for Areej Le Doré itself – selling everything you produce is the dream, after all – I wonder if the lack of new entrants into the inner circle of devotees represents a problem over the longer term. Fresh perspectives on your work are essential whether you are making a car or a perfume because they stop you from drowning in the reflecting pool of constant and uncritical adoration. They also safeguard the perfumer against the danger of becoming essentially a private label or custom outfit dancing to the whim of a small but intimidatingly vocal group of buyers, none of whom I’d particularly like to meet in a dark alley. Just kidding, just kidding (sort of).

Anyway, this review goes out to anyone who has an interest in Areej Le Doré fragrances but has, for one reason or another, avoided actually buying them, either in sample or full bottle form. This might be someone who loves natural raw materials, for example, or someone who loves and misses the rich orientals of yesteryear that boasted real sandalwood or expensive floral absolutes. Or it might be people who are into perfumes in general and have the money to invest in the really good examples, but zero stomach for the clusterfuckery around the brand itself. If that’s you, and you’re reading right now, then let me tell you that this particular Areej Le Doré collection is the one to dip your toes into, if you were reluctant before.

Here’s why I think this collection is a good entry point for newcomers to Areej Le Doré. First, the perfumes in this collection are noticeably lighter and more refined than previous cycles, making them easier and more pleasant to wear, especially for women.

Second, none of the perfumes in this collection are marred by the heavy, almost seedy animalic undertone that has dogged other collections. For example, I loved Plumeria de Orris from one of the previous collections, however, once the buttery orris and frangipani burned off, the fragrance was dragged under the gutters by a honeyed civet or musk that smelled disturbingly like dried saliva. Koh-i-Noor was my absolute favorite of a previous generation, but a greasy costus-laden musk gave it an old-man’s-crotch vibe that I couldn’t quite shake. But in this collection, even the musk- and oud-heavy perfumes are not overly heavy, greasy, or saliva-ish.

Third, and probably the most important one: I think that this collection is Russian Adam’s best yet. If you don’t know already, each Areej Le Doré collection usually contains variations on a basic line-up of a (i) musk (usually natural deer musk-based), (ii) an oud, (iii) a humongous mixed oriental floral, (iv) a ‘soliflore’, (v) an ambergris, and/or (vi) a leather or sandalwood. Although there doesn’t seem to be an ambergris-focused scent this time around, the others are all either superlative or really good examples of their respective ‘theme’. If you love natural raw materials like oud and sandalwood, then pull up a chair: brands like Areej Le Doré are the last holdout for exquisite raw materials in a world that is increasingly sanitized and lab-molecule-dependent.   

Image by DEZALB from Pixabay

Rather confusingly, Santal Galore is the kaleidoscopic floral nag champa extravaganza this time around, rather than the sandalwood you might be expecting (which is actually to be found in the equally-confusingly-named Musk Lave). My vial leaked in transit, but after smashing it open and swabbing the gooey remnants onto my skin with a Q-Tip, I can tell you that this is the one I’d crawl over hot coals to smell again. Oh God, grant me the unlimited funds to buy the few perfumes that smell as good as this. It opens with a big, creamy swirl of aromas that you imagine emanating from a Persian carpet or a well-oiled antique from a souk, soaked in multiple generations’ worth of glossy, fruity Cambodi oud oils, rosy-sandal attars, and the sweetness of smoke from decades of burning Indian Chandan sticks and barkhour.

This perfume carries that full romantic sweep of Orientalia in its bosom that Westerners like me find so irresistible but that usually come out mawkish and kind of cheap-smelling. Santal Galore deftly matches the slightly gummy-floral sweetness of nag champa with a savory cream cheese background that seems to encompass the smoked Easter Ham aroma of guaiacol and a salty-minty oakmoss. Eventually winding down to the lovely smell of a freshly-struck match, Santal Galore performs the same trick as Santal de Mysore in that it is suggestive of the spiced warmth of real sandalwood without smelling directly of it.   

For my personal taste, this is the best floral/woody/musky thing that Areej Le Doré has ever done. There are no analogs in the commercial or niche world, so it’s difficult to draw comparisons that will make sense to those new to the brand. But if pushed, I would mention Le Maroc Pour Elle (Tauer Perfumes) or Daphne (Comme des Garcons) as scents that occupy the same scentoverse ideologically speaking.  Less helpfully perhaps for newcomers, but more so for people who have bought into the brand since its inception, Santal Galore is roughly in the same ballpark as Ottoman Empire, with which it shares a similar nag champa floral richness, and Koh-I-Noor, for that same almost claustrophobic rush of dense, heavily-packed-in floral notes and that texture that is both creamy and powdery (although Santal Galore is not as animalic or as costus-laden).  It has been a while, but there could also be a line drawn to the sharp, almost oily Flux de Fleurs, though Santal Galore is a far gentler, rounder affair.

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Musk Lave has one of the best real sandalwood finishes I have smelled outside of attar and mukhallat perfumery. For fans of real sandalwood, the real treasure lies here, and not in Santal Galore. But be aware that this is the type of musky, spicy, masculine-leaning sandalwood that used to feature in high quality ‘barbershop’ fougères before Indian sandalwood became generally unavailable to commercial perfumery in the late eighties, and before entire carpets of beige, sweetish tonka bean were conscripted to fill the gap.

In other words, though it certainly smells rich and incensey, like all good sandalwood should, this sandalwood is the handsome, rugged version that smells more like good wood and bay rum spices than a creamy dessert that will send you into a stupor. The invigorating sparkle of the sandalwood is beefed up by a nice lump of labdanum, so you get the full balance of aromatic-dry and sweet-incensey that the very best examples of sandalwood possess, e.g., the Mysore 1984 by Ensar Oud, which, because it is aged, has developed that rich, incensey sonic boom ‘loudness of voice’ that would be most unusual for a pure sandalwood more freshly distilled.

Winding back to the start, Musk Lave opens with a fresh, powdery lemon and lavender accord, which would be a naturally lean kind of thing were it not for the immediate upswell of an unctuously buttery musk or tonka that adds richness, like a pat of yellow Irish butter melted over a salad. Think Jicky but with real sandalwood and musk dialled in for that naughty ‘skin musk’ feel, writing over the rather sharp, sometimes foul-smelling synthetic civet of the Guerlain. Given that Jicky is my favorite fragrance in the world, hopefully you’ll take my word for it that Musk Lave is the upgrade nobody knew was in the wings but immediately presses the install button on.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Agar de Noir (can’t you just feel Luca Turin squirming?) is the oud in the collection and is quite the departure for Russian Adam for two reasons. First, although the oud is the real deal, it does not smell like any one particular terroir or style of oud (as opposed to Antiquity, which smelled almost entirely of the beautiful Cambodi oud oil used) but rather presents as a generalized picture of ‘oudiness’ that’s been cleaned up for public consumption. So, you get the characteristic smell of damp, fermenting wood chips and the dusty scent of old wood varnish, but not the shriekingly sour hay and leather highnotes of a Hindi, or the hyper-treacly stickiness of a Trat, or the wolf-fur wooliness and ambergris-saltiness of a Chinese oud. The oud is there merely as a signpost planted in the scent to suck you deep into the shadows, where the equally dusty darkness of ground coffee is waiting, deepening the gloom.

The opening reminds me more of Borneo 1834 (Serge Lutens) than any of the other Areej Le Dore oud-dominated fragrances, due to that ‘brown’ dustiness; Oud Luwak also used coffee as a note, but it felt much more like an oud-focused affair than Agar de Noir, which feels more floral. It does share with Oud Luwak that dark, airy elegance of structure – like an expensive bar of chocolate that makes a satisfyingly clean ‘snap’ noise when you break it. The gloom of these brown notes has been lifted by the chalky brightness of violets, which create a sort of pastel-colored clearing in the Agar de Noir forest. I like the civilizing effect the violets exert on the oud: they add an unexpected foppish lightness that could be read, in some lights, as ‘dandified’. This tangy, balmy oud-and-violet accord makes what is essentially a floral leather sort of thing – like Jolie Madame (Balmain) with an oudy twist.

The second way in which I find Agar de Noir a departure is in its overall lightness of feel. The light-on-dark, violet-on-oud-leather thing is super elegant while it lasts but after two hours, the show is essentially over, save for the cinder toffee-like sweetness of the labdanum that brings up the rear.

The labdanum persists for hours beyond this, of course – it is a traditional basenote for a reason and has been the finish of choice for Russian Adam in all his oud blends after Oud Zen. But compared to Russian Oud and Oud Piccante, the labdanum absolute used here is of a much lighter weight – a judicious smear of incensey, golden toffee, but unencumbered by the sheep fat unctuousness of the labdanum in Oud Piccante or the chocolatey amberiness in Russian Oud. Personally, this ‘middle’ weight of labdanum suits me just fine; Oud Piccante is too savory-fatty for my tastes, and Russian Oud too gourmand. Agar de Noir is lighter, shorter, more attenuated, and is all the better for it. However, oud heads who want their oud to be perceptible past the third hour mark, Agar de Noir might be one sacrifice too far in the name of elegance.

For anyone not already inducted into the Areej Le Doré oud hall of fame mentioned here, just picture an oudified Jolie Madame and you’re on the right track. I think this would also be a particularly friendly oud for beginners, and because of its soft, ‘thin’ floral mien that restrains the brutishness of the oud, it may also be a better pick for women. Dark, dapper, and mysterious in a Victorian gentle-person kind of way, Agar de Noir is my pick of the Areej ouds, barring Oud Zen, which was similarly minimalist and ‘legible’.         

Image by Pitsch from Pixabay

Grandenia suggests that it might be going big on the famously creamy, mushroomy lushness of gardenia, but this is not the case. Rather, this is a tightly-wound, stiffly-starched green floral that starts out at the data point of a citrusy-piney frankincense – a resin that here smells like a freshly-stripped piece of Silver Birch – and winds up in Chandrika soap territory.

I find this pinched, freshly-scrubbed sort of floral a chore to wear, but it may appeal to people who like Antonia by Puredistance. I also want to acknowledge that this would be a good white floral for men, as it is completely devoid of the soft, candied creaminess and tinned-fruit syrupiness of most white florals. It is clipped and pure; the sort of thing to stiffen the spine. A very good wood accord develops in the base that smells more like sandalwood soap than oud or sandalwood per se. And then, finally, in the last gasps – a ghostly imprint of gardenia, with that slightly glassy, freshly-cut-mushroom quality it shares with myrrh.

Image by HG-Fotografie from Pixabay

Cuir de Russie is a scent to spray on fabric rather than on your skin, but I have done both to no ill effect (if you have sensitive skin, just obey the damn instructions). This is not the Chanel kind of Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather), but rather, a leather-ish note in a minor key nestled inside a massively cheesy and then baby-powdery deer musk. On the skin, the chalky, innocent pallor of violets peeks out shyly, but not to the extent where you would define the scent as floral (or feminine, or soft, or indeed any of the usual descriptors used for flowers). On fabric, it is the rude, smeary honk of deer musk that dominates, stepping firmly down on the neck of any floral note that threatens to make a break for it.

Given that Cuir de Russie has real deer musk in it, it stands to reason that it is very, very powdery and clings to the inside of the nostrils for days. If you want to know what real deer musk smells like, by the way, please read my article ‘The Murky Matter of Muskhere. Many people think that real musk smells foul or fecal. It does not. It does smell intimate, like the morning breath of someone you love, or a clean perineum, but it is more often than not quiet, powdery, and quite sweet, its odor clinging to skin, hair, and fabrics for many days (deer musk was one of the four great animalic fixatives of perfumery).

The musk in Cuir de Russie is somewhat similar to the musk in War and Peace, which I loved for the way its musk was so dry that it smelled like smoke from a just-fired gun (some people interpreted the dryness as baby powder). But Cuir de Russie also doesn’t have the almost pretty smuttiness of the musk in War and Peace, nor its sultry sweetness; it is more butch and a bit rough around the edges, despite the inch-thick layer of powder.   

I like Cuir de Russie but wouldn’t particularly recommend it to a newcomer seeking an entry point to the brand. There’s always the danger that leather fans might roll up and expect leather (crazy, right?) and right now, before the full whack of aging and maceration, Cuir de Russie is mostly musk. Birch tar fans, of which I am one, might be disappointed at its subtlety in CdR – there is zero BBQ meat or ‘just threw a leather jacket on a campfire’ smokiness here. Cuir de Russie is primarily a very rich, powdery musk that ultimately leans a bit too hard on the intrinsic complexity of its naturals to fill in the olfactory blanks.

This is probably going to mature into something stunning, along the lines of Koh-i-Noor. But it is a high risk investment for a bottle of something whose materials might veer off into directions that not even its perfumer can predict with 100% certainty. For those signed up to the rare natural materials pledge, this is is part of the thrill; for the rest of us, contained within the unfixed, mutable nature of these raw materials is the warning that the perfume might also change for the worse.  

Source of Samples: Kindly sent to me free of charge by the brand. My opinion are my own.

Cover Image: Thanapat Pirmphol from Pixabay

Cult of Raw Materials Independent Perfumery Musk Oud Patchouli Resins Review Woods

The Cult of Raw Materials: Treewitch by Teone Reinthal and Antiquity by Areej Le Doré

10th September 2020

A common assumption in evaluating all-natural fragrances – thanks in large part to the Cult of Raw Materials that has sprung up around top-tier artisanal, distill-it-yourself houses such as Bortnikoff and Areej Le Doré – is that the presence of a rare natural like oud or sandalwood automatically translates to a superior composition. Another is that because the starring raw material is rare and natural, it must be – by corollary – the best example of its kind among all available rare and natural materials.

Both are fallacies. The first correlates the quality of a natural raw material with compositional skill, which, while tempting, just doesn’t bear out. The second assumption flirts with the idea that most fragrance fans won’t be able to differentiate between a top notch raw material and a shitty one as long as there is demonstrably some of it in the scent. In other words, as long as it smells oudy or sandalwoody or deer-musky, then that’s the main bar cleared.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Treewitch by Teone Reinthal demonstrates the problems inherent to the latter. While I enjoy many of Reinthal’s other compositions and think she does a fantastic job of creating all-natural fragrances that smell like fully-fledged, 1980s powerhouse orientals rather than the slightly dull, worthy muddiness of most all-natural scents, Treewitch just doesn’t really smell that great, despite the rare and natural oud that has been used.

Or maybe it is because of the rare and natural oud that’s been used? While the oud is obviously real, it doesn’t smell like a very good one. Rather, it smells like an oud oil that has either been hastily distilled (many modern Cambodi-style oils display an unpleasantly stale nuance that smells like radiators being cranked up after many years) or force-aged, a post-distillation process that involves leaving the oil uncovered for weeks until it picks up the biliously-sour hay and leather high notes of the traditional Hindi profile.         

The good news is that a) it gets better, and b) if you haven’t had much oud-smelling experience, then you’ll likely not know or care about the difference between high quality and low quality oud – oud is, for most people, just a generally broad oud ‘flavor’ profile, in that it either smells authentically oudy or it doesn’t. Depressingly, in this age of the Cult of Raw Materials, many perfume aficionados believe that this binary indicator (smells like real oud – yay or nay) trumps the famous Guy Robert assertion that ‘Un parfum doit avant tout sentir bon.’     

And indeed, perfume should, above all, smell good. Treewitch does not. It opens with a grandstanding blast of honest-to-goodness Hindi oud – phenomenally dusty, animalic, with a hulking sour note that, on the inhale, smells like unwashed towels left to molder in a holiday let, and on the exhale, like a glass of Irish whiskey left on the counter for several days. It categorically does not smell like earth or the forest or the wilderness (the perfumer’s description had me visualizing something like Chypre Mousse, Muschio di Quercia or even Supercell), but of the unpleasant staleness of neglected fabrics and the dust trapped behind appliances that haven’t been touched in decades.

I love the undervalued scent of mustiness, but more the air of cultured neglect clinging to old books (Dzing!) or closed-up aristocratic lairs (Iranzol) than something genuinely unhealthy. I love the moldy dankness of stuff like Marescialla and the peeling wall plaster lurking behind the innocent violet topnote of Iris by Santa Maria Novella. Onda extrait and Djedi make me think of ancient sarcophagi being opened. But I cannot love the staleness of the oud used in Treewitch, because it smells like the poor hygiene of real neglect rather than a romanticized version of it.

True to form for Teone Reinthal’s style, however, a rich, spicy oriental base swells up to muffle the offending oud in an intricately-woven carpet of 1980s Opium or Coco – bittersweet red-brown balsams, tree sap, amber crystals, clove or carnation, all adding up to a spicy-mature orientalia clustering around a hot pink floral note that could be anything from carnation to rose. An amazing finish, therefore, but not quite amazing enough (for me personally) to make up for the objectionably foul-smelling oud in the front half.

Photo by Benjamin Ranger on Unsplash

Antiquity by Areej Le Doré is a good example of the first assumption, i.e., that a superb raw material is synonymous with compositional artistry. Now, Antiquity is a perfume that uses a natural raw material of superb quality – an aged Cambodi oud oil – and also smells really good (meeting that Guy Robert benchmark). However, and this might sound a bit controversial, the reason Antiquity smells so good is 80% due to the quality of that aged oud oil rather than to compositional skill.

I mean absolutely no offense to Russian Adam. He is a very promising, self-taught perfumer who has managed, in the space of just three years, to carve out and then completely dominate his own niche in the narrow crawlspace between the super-competitive, internecine oud community and the niche all-naturals crowd, building a committed fan base while remaining polite, loyal to his customers, and ethically-responsible. His perfumes are rich, big, and dripping in complex raw materials. There’s also a purity to him as a person that I appreciate.

However, I’d argue that Russian Adam’s real talent lies not in composing perfumes per se, but in finding (or distilling) two or three of the best raw materials for each composition, introducing them to each other, and then staying the hell out of their way, allowing them to work their synergistic magic on one another. This is the way, by and large, an Eastern way of making perfume – it is how attar wallahs work. Russian Adam clearly understands how each raw material will behave and evolve in a composition when placed alongside other raw materials. It is easy to mistake the richness of an attar-like perfume made in this manner for the gloss of classically French or Western perfumery – I’ve done it myself – but I think that the Guerlainesque richness and complexity we are smelling has more to do with the qualities of the raw materials that go into these perfumes than a ‘French’ way of making perfume. They feel composed more by instinct than formula.

As a result, if you love the raw material Russian Adam has used, then you’ll love the perfume itself, with the inverse also being true. Sometimes, if I don’t love the raw material he’s chosen, I find myself picking up on a certain blockiness to the composition, which tells me that really great raw materials can blow you away, masking the underlying compositional features one might otherwise notice or criticize. For example, the unctuously buttery labdanum used in two of Russian Adam’s oud-dominated fragrances, Oud Piccante, and to a lesser extent in Russian Oud, is not my favorite: it reminds me uncomfortably of the savory-greasiness of that sub-cutaneous layer of fat you have to excise from your lamb shank before braising it. Therefore, Oud Zen, which uses a nutty vetiver instead of this greasy labdanum in the base, strikes as the more elegant composition.  

I love the Cambodi oud used in Antiquity, because it smells like a vintage Cambodi oud oil (Kambodi 1976) that Ensar sent me a sample of once. What many people don’t realize is that the trees that made the original (and deservedly popular) Cambodi oud oil of the 1970s no longer exist, thanks to over-exploitation. New Aquilaria trees were planted, of course, but it turns out that subsequent harvests could never replicate the unique conditions of the original trees, which some suspect had something to do with the cleaner water and air quality ‘achieved’ during the forced agrarian rule of Pol Pot. Ensar asserts that of the existing Cambodi oil on the market today, less than 5% is vintage stock from the original trees, while the remainder is oud oil distilled to mimic the Cambodi ‘style’ – and it seems to me that Adam got his hands on a little store of the real stuff.   

It’s worth taking a minute to discuss what vintage Cambodi oud oil smells like on its own, because (a) Antiquity smells mostly like vintage Cambodi oud oil, and (b) not many people will have had the opportunity to smell the OG raw material itself. Unlike the hyper sweet berries-and-caramel punch of modern Cambodi-style oud oils, marred in some cases by the funky, dusty staleness associated with rushed distillation, vintage Cambodi oil from the original trees has had a leisurely 40+ years to deepen in the bottle, the sharp edges of the woods and berries sanded down over time to produce a perfectly round, glossy smell of old leather and decades-old wood.

The OG Cambodi oil doesn’t smell at all animalic, and if it is slightly dusty or stale, then it more pleasant than not – an old cedar chest that once held damsons and figs, but where the fruit has long since disappeared into the grain of the wood, leaving a ghostly presence of its dark, raisin-like fruit. It has a patina that glimmers darkly, calling to mind a good aged port.

In Antiquity, the fruit is ostensibly peach but it is the darker, vaguer scent of plum skin that predominates. Sometimes the underlying basenote is an intensely honeyed, saliva-ish musk-leather, but sometimes it smells more like the polish of old wood that has been cared for over decades with a weekly application of linseed-and-lemon furniture oil. The saliva-honey leather note intensifies with the passage of time, creating a sharp, almost sheepy muskiness that calls to mind the aroma of real animal fur or an ancient leather chesterfield armchair decades-deep in manly smells – fermented sweat, old booze, decades of grime, tobacco stains – a sort of sweet n’ sour smell that smells distinctly (to me) masculine.  

The Cambodi oil is the big, deep smell that drives the body of the scent, but cleverly, Adam has dressed it up with light chypric elements to extend and accentuate key features of the oil. I admit that little of this chypre nuance was evident to me when I tried this in Rome, where I lived until recently, a place far warmer and more humid than where I live right now. The first few tries, I thought Antiquity was leaning far too hard on the natural complexity of the oud oil to do all the heavy lifting. But in a cooler climate, and by applying the dregs of my sample in big brown smears all over my arms, I am finally able to smell the chypre in this – the tart, spicy bergamot in the topnotes (still no aldehydes, though), and far down in the basenotes, past the massive Cambodi oud midsection, that buttery-animalic-leathery labdanum that Adam uses (the kind that smells like it was freshly combed from a particularly goaty goat) and in the very last gasps of its life, a whisper of something minty and vase water-ish that is probably the oakmoss.

So, yes, technically a chypre if you are ticking off the boxes of the tripartite formula – bergamot, labdanum, and moss. And yet, Antiquity still smells more like an amplified vintage Cambodi oud oil set in musk than a chypre. Real chypres are like a good Chinese meal in that the elements of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness come together at the same time in order to produce that essential chypre ‘flavor’: Antiquity feeds all the right elements into the composition but, dwarfed by the intensity of the Cambodi oud oil, they are squeezed to the sides, from where they make an appearance whenever an air pocket opens up in the structure. But the three strands never come together at the same time. Still, Antiquity is a pretty darned great oud fragrance and one that definitely improves upon aging.

Source of samples: The sample of Teone Reinthal’s Treewitch was kindly sent to me by a fragrance friend, along with generous samples of many of her newer stuff (which I hope to get around to reviewing soon). Areej Le Doré kindly sent me a sample set of the next-to-last collection* in early autumn 2019, without any obligation to review.

*Yes, I know, I know. That collection is now long sold out, which again shows why so few perfume houses send me samples to review and why they honestly should not – I am deeply unreliable and don’t work to any schedule or logic that would make sense to anyone but me. I feel guilty about this occasionally but know that feeling guilty would tip me over into a sense of obligation towards brands, especially the smaller indie ones, which in turn would probably skew my content more positive, and that right there is a slippery slide. As always, I write content for people who want to read about perfume for the pleasure of it, not to influence what you think you’re smelling or fuel a purchase decision

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