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Rozu by Aesop

20th August 2022

 

 

Just when I thought roses had lost their capacity to surprise, along comes Rozu, which wraps a fresh, dewy rose in paper-thin layers of pink pepper, shiso leaf, and aromatic grasses that crackle with intent.  Surprisingly, it is not the spice or the aromatics that shine through the hardest.  For me, it is the evocative aroma of freshly-turned soil that makes Rozu special.  Moist, sharp, alive – this is the healthful, plush air inside a Japanese onsen.  There is also even a tenuous link to mitti, an attar that captures the aroma of the first rains of the season hitting the red earth of Mother India.

 

In line with other Aesop fragrances, Rozu smells uncluttered.  Simplicity is not shorthand for laziness, though.  On the face of it, you might write Rozu off as a rose perched between herb and wood, a dash of pink pepper providing an electrical spark to keep it moving.  But pay attention and you’ll start to wonder why you never noticed until now how minty shiso leaf can smell warm or how spices can smell cold or how a rose can smell indistinguishable from clay.  

 

There is grace (and design) in the way your impressions are prompted to shift from roses to earth to spice to wood and back again.  Yet, it is all as effortless as if Rozu had leapt fully formed from a Japanese forest floor rather than from a perfumer’s organ.

 

Hours in and you start paying for its supreme naturalness.  One by one, the sharper, zestier notes fall back and even that dewiest of roses starts to feel a little faded around the edges.  Every time I wear Rozu, I have to remind myself to stay still and let it roll over me like a fog.  Otherwise, it is easy to miss parts of its conversation.

 

For example, on my third test, I noticed that Rozu has a deeply fragrant, almost ‘dry-roasted’ drydown that, while subtle, provides the wearer with the sense of a party meandering pleasantly to a close instead of the abrupt full stop common to most ‘natural’ (or natural-styled) fragrances.   Whether this is due to a particular resin or wood is besides the point.  If you’re still paying attention at this stage, the only solid thing you grasp is a feeling of warmth.

 

My God, but it’s good.

 

 

 

Source of sample:  I have sampled Rozu several times in a department store.  Unfortunately for me, Aesop seems to apply production pricing to its catalogue of scents, so while other Aesop fragrances cost as little as €100 per 50ml bottle, Rozu is priced in the €150 range (implying that the essential oils required to make it are particularly expensive).  One day, probably when the Aesop shop girls start to object more vociferously to my soaking myself in 20mls in it at a time, or when my Catholic shame gets the better of me – whichever comes first – I might be persuaded to bring it home with me. 

 

Cover Image:   Photo by Oleh Morhun on Unsplash    

Amber Ambergris Animalic Carnation Musk Resins Review

Fiore d’Ambra by Profumum Roma

22nd June 2022

 

 

What I find disturbing about Fiore d’Ambra by Profumum Roma is that it is sweet and filthy in equal measure, like Youth Dew sprayed on a dirty crotch.  Unlike Ambra Aurea, which is immediately pleasant, Fiore d’Ambra mouths off at you in three different languages at once and gives you little time to catch up.  Best I can make out, the smell boils down to a particularly clovey stick of clove rock, sugar cubes soaked in antibiotics, and underneath, a stirring of some very unclean musks.  The combination is suggestive of both the pleasures of the headshop (musk cubes, unlit incense, dust) and of the faintly sour-sweet breath of unwashed ladybits that must have risen like yeast every time Henry VIII lifted a lady’s gown.

 

I love it.  I thumb my nose at anyone suggesting it is an amber, though.  Names are powerful things, but smell this without thinking of the ‘amber’ in the title or the fact that it sits right next to a similarly-named fragrance (Ambra Aurea) in the Profumum Roma catalogue, and you begin to see that its feral poop-fur quality aligns it far more closely with scents like Muscs Khoublai Khan (Serge Lutens), L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), and L’Ombre Fauve (Parfumerie Generale) than with stuff like Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens) or even Ambra Aurea.  

 

As an accord in perfumery, amber is both a comfort and a straitjacket.  On the one hand, the smoky-spicy sweetness of warm resins and vanilla never fails to hit, plugging into our dopamine receptors with the same ease as the smell of coffee first thing in the morning or something good in the oven when you’re hungry.   Amber cocoons you, satiating your basic appetite for warmth and richness.  It is the flannel pajamas of the scent world.

 

But there is not to distinguish between ambers – or if there is, it is a matter of minute variations to the left or the right of the same basic ambery accord.  Think of just how much really separates Ambra Aurea from an Amber Absolute (Tom Ford), say, or from an Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens), or a Mitzah (Dior Privée).   Past a certain point, you’re just playing with varying degrees of sweetness (vanilla), powderiness (benzoin), leather or caramel (labdanum), smoke (incense) and the accoutrements of spice or herbs.  The result always smells good.  But does it smell interesting or original?  Hardly ever.

 

Now, Fiore d’Ambra innovates.  It doesn’t even really smell like amber to me, unless you count any sweet element at all – here a soda stream-Coca Cola syrupiness – as ‘amber’.  The ‘opium’ element, which has traditionally been interpreted in perfumery by way of eugenol – a substance that is almost as verboten as opium itself these days – has probably been built with clove oil instead.  But the perfumers didn’t even bother to lather it up into a soft froth with geranium or rose, so the clove note juts out of the topnotes like a sudden erection.  The musks are sensual, but raw and unclean (a bit salty even), strangely reminiscent of the dry honey-toner-ink accord from M/Mink (Byredo).

 

The minute I smelled Fiore d’Ambra, I was reminded of the vials of Fleur Poudrée de Musc (Les Nereides) that the Conor McTeague (aka Jtd), my friend and the best fragrance writer in the world, sent to a group of perfume friends around the world in early 2015.  I think he got enormous fun out of the collective recoil.  It smelled like the most innocent of baby powders combined with the foulest of human shits, a merry middle finger to the frou-frou Botticelli angels and Ye Olde Italian Script of the brand itself.  Conor wrote this of Fleur Poudrée de Musc:  “Have you ever undressed somebody after a long day of winter sport, all those layers amplifying the scent of skin that’s sweated then dried multiple times? Remember that scent, then imagine some powder on top”.  I don’t know if Conor ever smelled Fiore d’Ambra, but I like to think he might have described it in much the same way.  

 

 

 

Source of sample: I purchased my 18ml travel bottle of Fiore d’Ambra from the Profumum Roma store in Rome, March 2022.  It cost €55.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Inge Poelman on Unsplash 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Incense Mukhallats Resins Review Round-Ups Smoke The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews K-T

7th June 2022

 

Wrapping up the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with the final chapter of resin-related reviews, with everything that falls between K and T, following on from Review sections 0-A and B-I.  But before you dive in, in case you missed it, why not have a glance at this brief primer on all things resiny here?  It gives you the lowdown on the differences between myrrh and sweet myrrh (opoponax), what benzoin smells like, and the intricacies of the kingliest resin of them all, frankincense.  It also explains what amber is, exactly. 

 

 

 

Kalemat Amber Oil (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Kalemat in the eau de parfum format is probably Arabian Oud’s most popular ‘mainstream’ fragrances.  So how does the oil version stack up?  Well, it sticks pretty closely to the curves of the original, the only real difference being the compression of some of the flightier notes in oil format.   In other words, Kalemat oil has a much denser, doughier texture than the original, and is both rosier and sweeter.   In general, though, the friendly, golden-fruited amber of the original has been faithfully translated.

 

I cannot therefore explain why I love Kalemat so much in its original eau de parfum format and find it so mind-numbingly dull in the oil.  I suspect it is because gooey ambers like Kalemat, being as stodgy as a bread-and-butter pudding in the depths of winter, need a bit of air and space between its molecules to make it work.  When you squash something already so densely, jammily sweet down into an even more compressed space, you end up with a stock cube’s worth of it.  And even the memory of that is enough for me to cry out for some ventilation.   

 

 

 

Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

 

Little Egypt (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Honeyed myrrh and sweet flag

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Luxor (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Egyptian Musk, Vanilla Bean, Amber, Frankincense, Patchouli, Dark Rose, Egyptian Sandalwood

 

 

Luxor is another NAVA blend that, for all its exotic notes and resins, smells as faint and as simple as an Airwick one might pick up in the local hardware store.  In other words, it is about as exotic as a roll of toilet paper.  How does a company dedicated to resurrecting the glories of ancient Egypt through use of some of the heaviest, most strongly-scented resins, gums, woods, and spices in existence manage to turn out so many perfume oils that smell like weakly-scented candle oils?

 

Note that they are not bad per se – far from it, many of them are very enjoyable.  But anyone looking for the gutsy, full-force assault of true frankincense, patchouli, or sandalwood materials will be very disappointed.  Even the worst mukhallats are more color-saturated than this.  (Also, be an informed consumer – sandalwood does not grow in Egypt).

 

But if you are determined to love NAVA anything and don’t mind overlooking the outrageous marketing guff in the descriptions, then there is enough room in Luxor to accommodate a fantasy of ancient Egypt – as long as you accept that it will be your imagination, and not the scent itself, doing all the heavy lifting.  Luxor is a soft, gently resinous-woody amber thing that is neither distinctive nor exotic.  On the positive side, you will be bothering nobody with your perfume.  Because if you can hardly smell anything, then neither will anyone else.

 

 

 

Mabrook (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mabrook is a very smoky blend of frankincense and labdanum.  As it develops, it leans almost entirely on labdanum for an effect that is leathery, balsamic, smoky, resinous, and almost tobacco-like.  Very much in the vein as La Via del Profumo’s Balsamo della Mecca, and equally as mystical, Mabrook would make for an excellent oil for layering with Western perfumes to add depth and smokiness.

 

 

 

Minister (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sandalwood, Amber, Cassia, Elemi, Sweet Smoke & Somalian Frankincense

 

 

Minister is similar in tone to Solstice Scent’s other incense blends – Incensum, Inquisitor, Basilica, and Scrying Smoke.  It differs mainly by way of its use of a sour, piney Australian sandalwood in the first half of the scent, which fights rather unpleasantly with the bitter-lemon frankincense and elemi notes.

 

Once the sourness abates, however, Minister is a satisfying ride, especially when it turns into a creamy incense-sandalwood duet spliced with woodsmoke.  The drydown is remarkably similar to the drydown of another Solstice scent, Hidden Lodge, making me wonder if some of the house bases aren’t simply re-purposed from one scent to another.

 

While nice in parts, Minister is one of those scents that confirms my belief that indie brands like Solstice Scents and others should more rigorously evaluate all their scents in one particular category to identify areas of overlap and redundancy.  Minister is, frankly, too similar to (and not as good as) other Solstice Scents perfumes in the woods-and-incense category to earn a spot in the permanent line-up.  A good pruning would allow more light to reach the perfumes that deserve it.

 

 

 

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

 

Morocco (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The intoxicating perfume of exotic incenses wafting on warm desert breezes. Arabian spices wind through a blend of warm musk, carnation, red sandalwood, and cassia.

 

 

I must be anosmic to something in Morocco because I can barely smell it at first.  The parts of it that I do smell are very nice indeed – a warm, resinous musk with a clove-like carnation and a lightly soapy sandalwood in the background.

 

It smells exotic in a vague, formless way that will please anyone who finds the pungency of real resins to be a bit de trop.  Quite honestly, while I like Morocco and wear it quite a bit, there is no escaping the fact that it smells more like a stock oil one might use for making soap or candles than a proper perfume.

 

Morocco is a homespun fantasy of orientalia rather than anything truly of the orient.  It is terribly faint.  When I smell it, I imagine the imprint of a cloth soaked in rich spices and incense pressed lightly against a sheet of paper, then the paper held to my nose to smell.  In other words, it is a secondhand impression of a smell rather than the full whack.  I would normally find that frustrating, but Morocco’s laid back laziness holds a certain appeal.

 

The drydown is a soft sandalwood that smells not (strictly speaking) of the wood itself but rather the lingering scent on one’s hands after washing with Mysore sandalwood soap.  This may sound like I am damning Morocco with faint praise, but I am not.  There is a time and a place for a subtle, creamy-golden take on the woody theme, and if that is what you are looking for, then Morocco is a solid contender.

 

 

 

Mughal Amber Oud (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A magisterially austere affair, Mughal Amber Oud pairs a funky Hindi oud with a smoky, ashy labdanum for a result so parched it sucks all the moisture out of the air like a lit match.  The oud note is first to hit the nose, clustering its damp, leathery sourness up front.  But this dies back quickly to reveal a labdanum note that is briefly toffee-ish, then increasingly dusty.  Soon, the labdanum dominates the blend, filling all the available air pockets in the scent with a sensation of punishing dryness.

 

Mughal Amber Oud smells like hot sand, Omar Sharif, and the ashes left in the grate of a coal fire.  Highly recommended to people who love their ambers to be as desiccated as a desert – complete with visions of drift weed and abandoned cattle pens.

 

 

 

Mukhallat Maliki (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Maliki is built along the same lines as Attar al Kaaba, i.e., a big rosy amber thing, but less sweet and thick all around.  It also features a dose of either bergamot or lemon up top, which freshens it up a little.

 

There seem to be coffee grains swimming in my tola, but oddly enough, I do not get any notes of coffee in the actual fragrance (whereas I do in Attar al Kaaba).  The base is a soft, vanillic amber with hints of rose.  I can’t smell any oud, synthetic or otherwise, in this.  It is a hair more subtle than Attar al Kaaba and might be more office-appropriate.  However, in general, these two mukhallats are so similar that there is really no need to own both.  Choose solely according to your tolerance for sweetness.

 

 

 

Mukhallat Saif al Hind (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Saif al Hind purports to be a blend of Hindi oud oil, Ta’if rose, amber, saffron, and musk, but to my nose, it completely skips the Hindi oud.  Instead, this is essentially a medicinal saffron-rose combo overlaid on a bed of leathery labdanum that smells like a combination of salted caramel and sheep tallow.  The combed-from-goats-hair fattiness of the labdanum is undeniably delicious and lends the mukhallat an attractive buttery smoothness.  But for the money, I recommend sourcing a good quality, vintage Cretan labdanum elsewhere and blending it with rose and saffron oils yourself.  In other words, this is good, but overpriced.

 

 

 

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

 

Nankun (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Nan-kun, meaning ‘Southern Wind’ in Japanese, is a famous coreless incense manufactured by Shoyeido.  Costing in the range of $150 for thirty five sticks, Nan-kun is a truly premium-grade incense experience featuring agarwood (oud wood), cloves, camphor, and Hinoki wood.  The experience of burning Nan-kun goes beyond a simple breakdown of notes to a meditative, transportative experience that relaxes the mind and soothes the soul.  Although hard to describe why it should be so, it smells identifiably Japanese, even for people who have never been to Japan or taken part in Japanese kōdō rituals.

 

Sultan Pasha’s Nankun goes some way towards capturing the Nan-kun burning experience, especially in the combination of the dry, spicy clove and star anise notes with the green, camphoraceous and woody nuances.  The one thing it is missing is the crisp smoke notes one gets when burning Nan-kun incense sticks, an aroma that comes close to the pleasurably sulfurous smell of a freshly-struck match.  The mukhallat does eventually gain a small degree of smokiness in the later stages of its life, but it is a wisp of sweet, transparent woodsmoke rather than the matte, almost charcoal black effect of the smoke in the incense.  Nankun mukhallat was infused with smoke by placing it close to or over a burner with sinking grade oud chips in it. 

 

Highly recommended to fans of high-end Japanese incense and incense ceremonies, meditation, yoga, and so on. For a truly holistic smelling experience, wear this while burning some of Shoyeido’s Southern Wind itself. 

 

 

 

Osirian Purnima Bastet (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The personification of Isis, daughter of RA and Goddess of Love. Bastet’s Amber is the underworld helm of this incense perfumed with soft wisps of amber smoke, NAVA ICONIC Rose Oudh brings a smoke and NAVA floral throughout this OP.

 

 

As far as I can tell from NAVA’s rather Byzantine method for categorizing their perfume oils and series, Osirian Purnima Bastet is a mixture of three basic accords – the rose-oud accord from the Icons series (now discontinued), the Bastet amber accord, and the Osirian Purnima incense base accord, which consists of myrrh, the NAVA Kashmir accord (red musk), the NAVA Hessonite accord (patchouli), the NAVA Santalum accord (sandalwood-type oil), and NAVA’s Eternal Ankh blend (vanilla-amber).

 

You would be forgiven for thinking you need a PhD to decipher this product description.  But all it really means is that NAVA has a collection of pre-made bases that they simply recycle and configure differently from scent to scent.  A bit lazy, don’t you think?

 

As one might expect from the mixing of so many pre-made bases and accords, OP Bastet smells complex, rich, and slightly muddy, like compacted silt at the bottom of a pond.  Many people pick up on a central rose-oud axis here, but to my nose, this smells astonishingly like a pint of warm malt ale, full of yeasty sourness and rich, beery molecules all piled in one on top of the other.  

 

In fact, this is pure eau-de-pub, by which I mean that gust of warm, stale air that rushes out at you when you open the pub door the morning after the night before.  However, many resinous spicy rose fragrances do have this oddly beery tint – I find traces of this in several artisanal rose perfumes with lots of cardamom, such as Smolderose (January Scent Project), Calligraphy Rose (Aramis), and Pharaoh’s Passion (Diane St. Clair).

 

Here and there in the thick, beery miasma, there are glimpses of a berried musk, resin, burnt wood, and something darkly soapy.  However, such is the density of this wall of aroma that it is very difficult to make out the shape of any one thing clearly.

 

On balance, I guess you could say that OP Bastet wears like the color purple.  It smells not really of rose or oud, but of syrupy white flowers and gummy red musk poured over a smoky resin base.  Its distinctly beery-cardamom-rose flavors melt quickly into a caramelized, burnt wood base.  It is distantly related to Memoir Woman by Amouage and vintage Poison by Dior, which share an accord of syrupy white flowers laid across an ashy floral incense, a waft of cigarette smoke blurring its outline.  Like those perfumes, OP Bastet runs the risk of being a Bit Too Much, but there is no denying that this is a perfume with presence, darling.  I really rather like it.

 

 

 

Oud Absolute (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The name is a bold middle finger to the concept of truth in advertizing, but since this is on the cheaper end of the ASAQ scale, I won’t ride it too hard for that.  Oud Absolue is your basic rosy amber-incense oil with a chemical woody buzz in the base presumably slotted in to create a picture of oudiness.  (Well, more a photocopy than picture, but still.)

 

Having said that, I really cannot fault the pleasantness of the blend.  The topnotes are an electric fizz of bergamot, sweet orange, and lemon, which, when combined with the rose, amber, and oud, forms a low grade impression of Estee Lauder’s Amber Mystique.  Since I often recommend Amber Mystique as a great all-rounder for someone who wants a vaguely Arabian-style fragrance, I will extend the same courtesy to Oud Absolute.

 

Quibbles over the name aside, Oud Absolute would make for a great all-rounder for someone who wants a snippet of something sweet and resinous wrapped up in a digestible form.  The sweet powderiness of the florals is neatly curtailed by that woody amber.  Sillage is excellent.

 

 

 

Ozymandias (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Royal Sweet Frankincense, Amber, Royal Amber Resin, White Pepper

 

 

Ozymandias is a mild, sticky white amber with a texture vaguely reminiscent of furniture wax or saddle soap.  The sound it broadcasts is muffled, the resins and spice underneath straining to make themselves known through a thick layer of milky-soapy varnish, like the dim glow of fruits sott’ alici or mostarda.  Once the strangely gluey coating melts away, the green, peppery nuances of the frankincense start to burn a little more brightly.  Overall, pleasant if a little underwhelming.

 

 

 

Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

 

Petrichor (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

As a fan of the petrichor effect (the smell of the ground after rain) in perfumes such as Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée, I had high hopes for the Mellifluence take on it.  And indeed, the tart lime and pink pepper notes in the opening combine with the saline, mushroomy myrrh that Mellifluence uses to form a brief petrichor effect, full of watery, earthy nuance.

 

But there is an error in construction here.  For some reason, the attar maker has decided to emphasize the fungal dampness of the myrrh with the dusty, dour nuances of oud or deer musk, causing all airiness – essential to the petrichor effect – to be squeezed right out of the scent.  On the positive side, once the sharp lime dies down a bit and the sweeter benzoin and nag champa notes rise to flesh out the hollowed cheekbones of the myrrh, the blend becomes less angular and therefore more comfortable to wear.  Overall, though, Petrichor is an opportunity missed. 

 

 

 

Prince Bandar (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although labdanum is not specifically listed, Prince Bandar is a thick, syrupy, and almost goatish labdanum poured all over the tangy, fermented rotting wood of oud.  It has a treacle-like consistency that reads as simultaneously bitter, sweet, syrupy, and sour, leading to an interesting experience for the wearer.  The wet funk of fermented wood points to the use of real oud oil, but the creamier, toffee-like sweetness of the surrounding accents make me think much more of labdanum than ambergris.  In overall feel, Prince Bandar reminds me very much of several mukhallats by Abdul Karim Al Faransi, especially Oud Cambodi, which, despite the name, is not a pure oud but an oudy mukhallat with lots of labdanum.

 

The syrupy oud-amber combination develops a dry, leathery facet, further deepening the suspicion that this is labdanum rather than ambergris-based.  The leather comes slicked in a medicinal haze of something ointment-like, like a pair of army boots rubbed with lanolin and wrapped in gauze bandages.  The leathery facet grows stronger as time passes, edging out the fermented wood and syrupy amber a little, forcing them to recede.  There are hints of a creamy rose lurking at the corners.

 

Many hours on, the same dry-ish musk and cedar combination used by Agarscents Bazaar elsewhere makes an appearance.  The faint funkiness in the musk, as well as its dark, woody character, serves to bring the oud notes forward more firmly, coaxing it out from the corner to which it had retreated.

 

Overall, Prince Bandar a rich, dry but also creamy amber oud with a strong musk and leather character in the drydown.  It is dense and rich enough to provide the impression of value for money, but smooth in a way that will please those with less adventurous oud palates.

 

Whether it is worth $385 for a quarter tola is debatable, but if you have the money to burn and just want something that smells pleasantly rich and enveloping, then this is a good option.  However, for that level of investment, I would much rather hand my wallet over to Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Sultan Pasha, Ensar Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, and any number of attar artisans at work today and let them have at it.

 

 

 

Pure Incense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Pure Incense demonstrates a prune-like darkness, a sort of balancing act between bitter and sweet that is almost edible.  It makes my mouth water.  The panforte-like bitterness recalls the sticky ‘burnt hydrocarbon’ of Norma Kamali’s Incense but without the sometimes stomach-churning dirtiness.

 

The mix of frankincense, myrrh, copal, and elemi creates a resin stew that shifts constantly between herbal (bay leaf), spicy (cinnamon, clove), dusty, sticky, smoky, piney, and balsamic.  If you are Catholic, one sniff of this will bring you to your knees.  Recommended to fans of the original Norma Kamali Incense, Tom Ford Sahara Noir, and Sonoma Scent Studio Incense Pure.

 

 

 

Pyramid of Khafre (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Dark Amber, Limestone Amber, Lavender, Chai Spice

 

 

A touch of the NAVA candlewax coats the opening with a balmy film, briefly obscuring the basic shape of the fragrance.  What emerges soon thereafter is a gentle lavender and spice combination knitted lightly over a watery amber accord.

 

I am not sure what limestone means as an accord in perfumery (if anything) but it surely denotes something mineralic or acidic.  This rings true for Pyramid of Khafre, whose amber accord is initially metallic, with a porous texture suggestive of tiny holes burned in the resin by acidulated rainwater.

 

However, as time wears on, the amber accord grows warmer, eventually settling into the soft, resinous sweetness we associate with classic ambers.  All in all, Pyramid of Khafre is a nice spin on the classic amber model, and one that is more suited to hot weather than most.

 

 

 

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

 

Pyramid of Menkaure (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Dark Amber, Balsam, Tangelo, White Amber

 

 

Pyramid opens on a bitter and soapy high note that bothers the nose as surely as if you had just accidentally inhaled a cloud of marine-fresh laundry soap flakes while loading the washing machine.  This is due almost entirely to the balsam note, which I take to mean fir balsam.  The problem with pine and fir notes in perfumery is that their piney freshness is now so closely associated with laundry detergents and bathroom cleaning sprays that it can come across as ‘chemically clean’ even if the material used is itself a natural.  Here, therefore, the overriding feel is that of chemically-enhanced pine.

 

Does it get better?  Yes, or more accurately, it gets more bearable.  A warm amber nudges the fir balsam in a more perfumery direction, taking down the harshness a notch.  A winey, pleasantly-bitter chypre tone develops, giving the sharpness of the blend something to aim for.  Finally, when the fir balsam dies away completely, a soft butterscotch accord slots into place.

 

For me, personally, Pyramid of Menkaure is difficult to wear or even assess objectively, because it gives me a massive headache every time I test it.  But for fans of confrontationally bitter or balsamic green oils, have at it. 

 

 

 

Regolith (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Regolith is so potent that it is wise to step back and let it settle for a while before placing your nose to skin.  The first wave of molecules hits the nose like a snifter of brandy or rum set on fire, flaring the nostrils with a plethora of really disturbing aromas, among which are fuel, pure alcohol, rotting dried fruit (raisins, plums), and something unhealthy, like the sickly air inside a room that has been closed up for centuries.

 

But then, a sugary spark of labdanum and myrrh ignites the concoction, turning it into something so edible you might be tempted to gnaw at your arm.  The change in tempo is head-spinning.  Suddenly, the basic structure takes shape – a fruitcake amber sodden with cognac, raisins, chocolate, and sugar crystals that crunch when your teeth close in on them.

 

How something so initially disturbing can be so delicious only moments later is beyond me, but there you go.  Anybody who ever loved the original Amber Absolute or even Norma Kamali’s Incense should have a little supply of Regolith in their collection.  It is not a replacement or dupe for either by any stretch of the imagination.  But they share the same balance between inedible and edible – that wild swing between claustrophobia and exaltation.

 

The oud oil is an innovation on the Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali Incense model, but I suppose it is also what updates it.  The damp wood rot nuance of oud works well here because it pushes back on the plushy sweetness of the amber.  I’m a fan.

 

 

 

Resine Precieux (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Resine Precieux is a smooth, affable amber with a strangely attractive muffled ‘sound’.  Despite the presence of asafetida – a pungent resin with onion and garlic aspects when smelled in the raw – this blend is noticeable for its gentleness.  Although packed with seemingly every resin under the sun, it is neither smoky nor sharp.  Instead, the overall texture is balmy, almost muted, as if the resins were glowing softly through a thin layer of white wax.  This lends a ‘candlelit’ glow to the composition, making it tremendously easy to wear.

 

Resine Precieux feels honeyed but in a soft, light manner that avoids the cloying heft of the material itself.  Imagine a slice of honeycomb, pale and waxen, its holes filled with resin, cacao, and caramel, backlit by a fat church candle.  This is the attraction of Resine Precieux. 

 

There is a deliciously dark, stewed fruit note in the background that is part plum, part dark cocoa – like the opening of Tobacco Vanille but less clovey.  Far into its drydown, Resine Precieux begins to manifest the drier aspects of tobacco and labdanum, for an outcome not a million miles away from the ashy leather syrup of Rania J’s Ambre Loup.  Resine Precieux’s smoked sea-salt finish is nigh on irresistible. 

 

 

 

Rouh al Amber (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

In many ways, Rouh al Amber is the archetypal Arabian attar – just ‘Middle-Eastern’ enough to smell exotic to someone who isn’t looking for anything more than a trope.  This is a simple blend of medicinal amber, a bright, lemony Taifi rose, and a dab of blond-ish woods.  I doubt any of the materials are tremendously expensive, but the overall effect is admirably unsweet, clear in intent, and reasonably exotic.

 

For the price, therefore, Rouh al Amber is an excellent everyday option for those who love traditional Arabic pairings of rose and amber.  Furthermore, because it leans heavily on the medicinal amber of traditional Indian canon rather than sweet Arabian-style amber, it retains a leathery dryness that makes it wearable in even the sludgiest of summer heat.

 

 

 

Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash

 

Sahraa Oud (Fragrance du Bois)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Sahraa Oud is a soft, waxen orange-tinted amber scent hiding a sliver of smoking oud wood within its folds of flesh.  It is unctuous, golden, and slightly fuzzy, like an oil lamp seen a mile away through a fog.  Its lack of definition should bother me and yet I remain staunchly unbothered.  Scents such as Theorema (Fendi) and Ambre Soie (Armani) were built in a similar soft-focus manner to transmit a feeling of comfort through a haze of burnished half-light.  The result, in Sahraa Oud, is soft and effortlessly luxe.

 

About half an hour into the proceedings, a winey, medicinal rose breaks free from the ambery morass.  The soft, rosy tartness prevents the syrupy amber elements from sticking to the roof of one’s mouth, rather like the strawberry jelly component in a PB&J sandwich.  If the oud is there, then it is well hidden.  Perhaps it is behind the saffron leather that emerges hand-in-hand with the rose.

 

The real star here, however, remains that waxy, toffee-like amber.  If you feel like upgrading from stuff like Theorema, Ambre Soie, and Ambra Aurea, then this is somewhat in the same wheelhouse.  Is the tiny smidgen of oud oil hiding out here somewhere worth the extra squeeze?  Only you and your pocketbook can decide that.  For me, it is a no.  Sahraa Oud is really nice but doesn’t distinguish itself enough from its peers to warrant the additional investment.

 

 

 

Salem (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Damp leaves, church incense, worn leather, dry birch woods, clove bud absolute, bonfire smoke

 

 

Insanely atmospheric, Salem really does conjure up the feeling of stumbling across an old stone chapel in the middle of a wind-whipped New England forest, dry leaves swirling around one’s ankles.  The scent hinges on the use of a smoky birch note, which, when joined to the realistic church incense accord, smells like black leather smoking out over scorched resins.

 

The opening is acrid, due to Sixteen92’s signature black leather accord, which tends to run everything in an acid (rather than alkaline) direction.  The Sixteen92 leather note is similar to that of Solstice Scent’s Library and Inquisitor, for reference.  But it is also faintly fatty, the underside of the leather dotted with yellow globules of coagulated animal fat.

 

Salem seems to be a scent that improves with age, however.  When I first received my sample, I found the leather note both bitter and goaty; now, a full three years later, it is smooth and sharp in all the right places.

 

It is worth noting that the realistic church incense at the start eventually gives way to something a little more headshoppy in nature.  But on the whole, I think that Salem works fantastically as an atmospheric set piece.  It is properly moody and almost cartoonishly witchy.  I visualize the scent as a wine-stained mouth in a pancaked Goth face, her sneer hidden by a wall of pitch black hair.

 

 

 

Scrying Smoke (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Natural and Meditative Melting Frankincense Resin, Frankincense Smoke, Vanilla, Sandalwood, Cedar, Petitgrain, Vetiver, Labdanum & much more

 

 

Scrying Smoke is all about the frankincense, a resin whose natural lemon-and-lime piquancy is emphasized here by pine, bitter orange, and a rich Coca-Cola note.  The gustatory sourness of the frankincense is subdued somewhat by the dusty spices of labdanum and cedar, giving the scent a rather dour, unsmiling character.  A stripped down, even more morose version of Messe de Minuit by Etro, this should go on the list of anyone who’s beginning to look into incense as a theme.  And if you have a particular fetish for frankincense, then Scrying Smoke is an imperative rather than a suggestion.

 

 

 

Smenkhare (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Oriental Amber, Nokturne, Agarwood, Guiacwood, Ho Wood, Labdanum, Black Pepper EO, Balsam Peru, White Frankincense, Amber Musk

 

 

Despite the impressive roll-out of exotic-sounding resins and balsams, Smenkhare is a rather understated affair. In fact, I would call it homely rather than exotic or Middle-Eastern in temperament.

 

Boiled down to its essence, Smenkhare is a smooth honey-amber blend with a faint prickling of black pepper for interest.  I recommend it to anyone with a specific fetish for honey scents, but to be honest, it doesn’t offer much over and above the baseline established by Kim Kardashian’s perfectly good Honey fragrance.

 

 

 

Photo by Tim van Kempen on Unsplash

 

Sorcière Rouge (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Bakhoor incense from a 13th century recipe, Tibetan agar-wood, and Dragon’s Blood infused with Rock Rose and dark amber.

 

 

Sorcière Rouge opens with sharp, earthy herbs over a vegetal, spicy amber.  The oud note is similar to that used in another Alkemia blend – Hellcat – which is to say more than slightly pissy, indicating a use of synthetic civet or honey to ‘skank’ up the oud note.  Slowly, the perfume becomes earthier, warmer, and sweeter, sanding down some of the sharper corners.

 

But Tibetan agarwood?  Poor Tibet.  Shrouded in mystery due to its general inaccessibility to most Westerners, it has conveniently become the repository for every type of ‘oriental’ myth that happens to fall into the cracks between India and China.  Rest assured that the reference to Tibet in Sorcière Rouge has nothing to do with provenance of the oud (since the oud here is most assuredly grown in a lab rather than in Tibet) and everything to do with the concept of traditional Tibetan medicine, which uses precious herbs, oud, and real deer musk in prescriptions to heal patients.

 

And indeed, Sorcière Rouge does feature all the dusty, astringent feel of a Chinese or Indian healing shop, where one might buy little packets of mysterious powders and unguents with which to treat common ailments.  Whether this effect is a pleasant or desirable one is, I suppose, up to you.

 

 

 

Still (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Still features a candied floral note threaded through a dusty seam of resins and woods.  Although I do not have the notes, it smells like iris, rose, cinnamon, Peru balsam, opoponax, benzoin, and frankincense over a sandalwood base.  It reminds me of several perfumes by Maria Candida Gentile, notably Sideris and Burlesque, but also of a sweet, powdery cologne that an old boyfriend used to wear that might or might not have been Jaipur (Boucheron).  Still tugs at my heartstrings, making it difficult to evaluate objectively.  But high quality as it indubitably is, it is far from unique and perhaps therefore not the Henry Jacques on which to blow your wad.

 

 

 

Tabac Oranger (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Tabac Oranger is a thick, labdanum-driven amber that emphasizes the dustier, more tobacco-like facets of rock rose extract.  The effect of the orange and rose oils at the start is breathtaking, their juicy brightness merging seamlessly with the ashy tobacco undertones of the labdanum to produce a river of delicious, near edible aromas.  It becomes smokier and more sweetly ambery as time passes, sadly shedding the orange-tinted tobacco hues of the start.

 

 

 

Tinderbox (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The essence of a baroque case filled with tempered firesteel [sic], flint, and linen charcloth: resinous black amber, woodsmoke, sweet mallow root, frankincense, cubeb, and sandalwood.

 

 

Tinderbox is great for people who love the grungy smells of undergrowth, with lots of smoldering resins and cedar.  It opens with a cutting note as metallic as fresh blood, creating the sudden sensation of a rusty blade drawn across your tongue.  This is not unpleasant per se but may be jarring to anyone unused to confrontational accords in perfume.

 

The metallic smoke note dominates for about half an hour, before dying down to reveal a sweet, almost meaty woodsmoke note and the soapy-fattiness of frankincense resin as it starts to bubble on a censer.  It smells like herbs and freshly tanned skins thrown on a campfire to scorch.  The base is a musky mishmash of creamy woods (a sandalwood material of some description), woodsmoke, and the lingering trace of sharp metal.  It is similar in many ways to Holy Terror.

 

I like Tinderbox very much and often use it as a smoke layering note for other fragrances.  On its own, I would have to be in a Lisbeth Salander kind of mood to wear it.  Then again, since I feel like a murderous bad-ass with a chip on my shoulder at least once a month, Tinderbox is right down my alley.  

 

 

 

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

 

Source of samples: I purchased my samples (and bottles) of Arcana, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Sixteen92, Arabian Oud, NAVA, BPAL, Mellifluence,  Solstice Scents, Alkemia, Agarscents Bazaar, and Al Haramain.  My samples of oils from Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands or a distributor.  My samples of Henry Jacques and Fragrance du Bois came to me courtesy of lovely Basenotes friends.

 

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

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Cristi Ursea on Unsplash

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

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews B-I

4th June 2022

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Basilica (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

I highly recommend Basilica as a starting point for anyone interested in the incense genre.  Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense, this blend smells purely of High Mass.  It is not complicated or indeed complex, but its straightforwardness is part of its charm.  In particular, the naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky – makes this an absolute pleasure.  Soft and soulful, Basilica is basically Avignon (Comme des Garcons) in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it should come with a trigger warning.

 

 

 

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend Supreme (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

 

The Cat (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Chypre Profund (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Conjure Dark (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Kier In Sight on Unsplash

 

Dukhan (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

L’Encens à la Vanille (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Enheduanna (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Enigma Intense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Eve (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

fallintostars (Strangelove NYC)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

FBI.17 (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

Geisha Amber Rouge (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Geisha Noire (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Holy Terror (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

Holy Terror is the star of the Arcana line-up.  Despite the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk, thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord.

 

The myrrh and frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather than as accurate representations of their natural selves.  So, for example, there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to myrrh.  Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular.  Indeed, they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

HopHead (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Incense Oud (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

 

Incense Royale (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Incensum (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Inferno (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Inquisitor (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cover Image: Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

 

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

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews 0-A

31st May 2022

 

 

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

 

 

 

020 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Absolute Amber (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo: My own, Omani silver frankincense 

 

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Al Masih (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Nazar Strutynsky on Unsplash

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Musc (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Andrea Donato on Unsplash

 

Amberosia (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Oud (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Oudh (Rasasi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Paste (Kuumba Made)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash

 

Ambre Cuir (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ambrecuir (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ambre Narcotique (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Ambre Sauvage (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

 

Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

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

 

All the Âme Sombre variations revolve around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like smoke from the censer at High Mass.  This frankincense is surrounded by a very good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine.  The florals never succeed in speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense – they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like sunlight through a stained glass window.

 

In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco, ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres.  The bitterness is alleviated somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies away completely.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Anubis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Attar al Kaaba (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Krystal Ng on Unsplash 

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

The Attar Guide to Resins

30th May 2022

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Andriy Tod on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Frankincense is the note that many people, including me, tend to lump in with the larger category represented by the word incense.  Technically, incense is any hard-ish material – be it a wood (sandalwood, oud wood) or a resin or gum (like myrrh, benzoin, copal, frankincense) – that can be slowly burned or smoked on a coal to produce a purifying but fragrant smoke.  Fragrances classified as incense fragrances typically feature some ratio of frankincense to other resins, balsams, and gums (most typically myrrh, but also benzoin, labdanum, etc.), so many of the frankincense-themed fragrances are actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something else.  Read my 2020 article on frankincense for a round-up of over 25 frankincense fragrances that are worth your time if you want to do a deep dive on this majestic resin.

 

 

Myrrh is a gum produced by the Commiphorah myrrha species of tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and North-East Africa.  Deriving from the Arabic word مر (mur), meaning ‘bitter’, myrrh oil is used all over Arabia, China, and India as a traditional medicine. Myrrh oil is quite different from myrrh resin.  Myrrh oil can be bitter, rubbery-smelling, and often quite saline (mushroomy).  The resin smells earthier, slightly sweet, with musty undertones – when lit, it smells quite smoky (well, duh).  

 

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

 

Some facets of myrrh are intensely bitter, while some smell like sweet licorice, anise, or rubber.  Often the resin smells latex-y and saline (in cookery terms, if frankincense is a citrus fruit, myrrh is volcanic salt).  Personally, I often perceive myrrh as smelling ‘hollow’, as if there were a tear in the fabric of the fragrance where the aroma is supposed to be (a sort of negative space).  Myrrh has a deeply atmospheric smell, redolent of the air inside centuries-old European cathedrals. Read my 2020 article on myrrh for a round-up of 27 myrrh fragrances that, together, form a whole education on the scent of myrrh.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Ambergris Animalic Aromatic Balsamic Citrus Cult of Raw Materials Incense Leather Myrrh Neroli Oud Resins Review Saffron Spice Summer Woods

Aquilaria Blossom by Areej le Doré X Agar Aura

26th May 2022

 

 

Aquilaria Blossom is an exciting new collaboration between Russian Adam of Areej le Doré and Taha Syed of Agar Aura, both oud artisan distillers and perfumers of repute in the oud and mukhallat community.  Russian Adam is something of a pioneer for the oud community in that Areej Le Doré was the first brand to make a commercially successful breakthrough from pure oud distillation into the bigger market of niche spray perfumes.  In doing so, he opened new doors for the rest of the oud artisan community.

 

And now it seems that Russian Adam is once again forging new market pathways both for his own brand and others, this time with a marketing strategy known as collaboration, a partnership-based strategy that expands the commercial reach of both partners, cements reputations, and deepens the customers’ feeling of engagement and authenticity associated with the brand.  Areej le Doré’s first collab was with Sultan Pasha Attars on Civet de Nuit (review here). 

 

For us consumers, the important thing is to understand what we are getting in terms of value added.  How are the two styles of the two collab partners different, or similar?  Why does a collab between them make sense, both for them as artisans and for us as the people who end up buying and wearing this perfume?  For readers who are perhaps unfamiliar with the respective styles and signature ‘moves’ of Taha Syed and Russian Adam, let’s take a closer look at them individually before examining the end result of their collaboration, i.e., Aquilaria Blossom.   

 

Taha Syed of Agar Aura is a famous artisan oud distiller, with a reputation roughly at the same level of Ensar Oud (they are fierce competitors).  Though unfamiliar with his mixed media work, I have tested and reviewed two of his pure oud oils for my oud series here and here (I purchased both samples directly from Taha).  The common thread I found in both ouds was that his style is deceptively clean and minimalist, eventually revealing very complex substrata.

 

But Taha is also famous for his support for the idea of using fractionated compounds of oud oil to ‘build’ a more complete or compelling aroma.  In oud distillation, as in any essential oil distillation, the quality of the aroma of the compounds in the distillate varies according to many different factors (read here for more detail), one of which is the timeline at which the distillate is ‘pulled’ out from the still. 

 

For example, in ylang, the distillate produced in the first hour of distillation is known as Extra, with the grades of First, Second, and Third following in sequential order.  The descending order is generally thought to correspond to a descending quality, though lack of standardization in the essential oil distillation business makes this extremely difficult to verify and is often purely conjecture.  I am not sure that fractioning is that precise or quantifiable a tool.  But what it does allow for is a bit more room to play for the artisan who is distilling the oil.  

 

The upshot is that at each stage (or ‘pull’) of the oud distillation process, the distillate possesses some characteristics that customers find desirable and some that are less so.  The artisan’s job is to figure out how to amplify the desirable traits and weed out the less desirable ones.  What Taha Syed is known for doing is separating out the oud distillate into individual compounds and then putting them back together in a way that fits with the idea he holds in his head.  If the customers love the smoke and leather notes of a particular style of oud oil, but not the more sour, abrasive ones, Taha can separate them out and discard what he doesn’t need.  A retrofitting of sorts[1].  Apparently, this is now a quite common approach in the pure oud distilling world. 

 

Russian Adam, on the other hand, is probably best known for the Areej le Doré perfumes, many of which I have reviewed here on this blog.  His perfume compositions tend to be baroque, retro-styled florientals that lean hard on rare raw materials (oud oil, real deer musk, genuine ambergris) but stop short of making them the entire point of the exercise.  The result is often as pungent as its constituent raw materials, but you would never mistake it for a simple distillate; these are clearly perfumes.

 

Interestingly, his pure oud distillation work under the Feel Oud banner tends to be far more experimental.  Read through my pure oud oil reviews (grouped and alphabetized here: 0-CD-KL-O, and P-Y) to see reviews of Russian Adam’s pure oud oils and you’ll see what I mean.  From runny Brie to green curry oil and jasmine, his oud oils are perhaps the quirkiest and most playful I’ve seen in what can be a very po-faced genre.   

 

So, without further waffling on, how does Aquilaria Blossom – as a collab between two oud artisans who also happen to be self-taught perfumers – fare both as a fragrance and as a representation of two quite different artistic styles?

 

Let me start by saying that Aquilaria Blossom surprised me by its lightness and its simplicity.  Now, never were two words more guaranteed to make the Basenotes boys sweat than these, so let me clarify.  When I say ‘light’, I mean that texturally, it wears as thinly and elegantly on the skin as an Hermès silk scarf (compared to, say, an Aran sweater).  This isn’t the bulky ‘stacked to the rafters’ scent experience we are used to from Areej le Doré.  It wears on the skin in the same way as Dehn Oud Ateeq (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi) does, which is to say a sheer but durable wash of scent on the skin.

 

And when I say ‘simplicity’, I mean that this isn’t a perfume that crowds in so many notes and accords that all you smell is a thick mud of absolutes.  It remains legible, uncluttered  – no squinting required to make out what it is that you’re smelling.

 

Don’t know about you guys, but those are both positives in my book.  It certainly makes the scent easier to describe.

 

The TL;DR:  Aquilaria Blossom is a fresh, spicy scent that pairs a juicy floral-tart citrus accord with a fine-grained, horsey leather (most likely the result of that ‘touch of oud’ promised in the notes list), bracketed by an ambrein-rich resinousness that seems to build from nowhere about six hours in.   

 

The feature-length movie version: A one-two punch of a tarry citrus and a pop of (briefly) gamey oud opens the scent with a dramatic flourish, holding court in that vein for quite some time.  The citrus accord, pithy with bergamot and aromatic-woody with yuzu, is bitter but also balmy, with a waxy perfumeyness that brings to mind orange blossom.  If you’ve ever had those strange Japanese gummies that taste both citrusy and floral in the mouth (think Diptyque’s Oyedo), then you have an idea of what this smells like.  For the record, this is the only even vaguely floral part of the scent, for me at least.  

 

A note on the oud (or ouds) used.  They are not specified and maybe not even the point.  But I do wonder if Taha Sayed use compounds of different ouds at various points of the perfume’s composition to highlight an effect he wanted and discard the rest.   For example, the briefly animalic pop of oud at the start might be a fractionated compound of a Hindi oil, because we get the spicy hay and leather notes of a Hindi but none of its depth or range.   And while the faint undercurrent of sour berries and stale radiator dust that soon develops under the skin of this opening might point to a Cambodi, who really knows, because there sure ain’t any caramel. 

 

Whatever it is, the main effect of oud is to start building a lightly gamey leather accord that stretches all the way from the top of the scent to its basenotes.  The citrus notes eventually fall off, as they do, but when they do, you don’t lose any of the freshness initially created by them, largely because the leather that the oud whips up is so elegantly thin.

 

Ambergris sometimes adds this wonderfully silty, horsehair muskiness to a composition.  Combined with the oud in Aquilaria Blossom, I find this produces the impression of being in a tack room, the air thick with the scent of saddles freshly taken off heated horseflesh.  A touch of castoreum (beaver butt) adds to the soupy animal warmth.  Yet, the doors of this putative tack room have been flung open to let the fresh smells of flowers and hay in from the fields.  And maybe someone peeled an orange an hour ago, its volatile skin oils still staining the air.   

 

‘Aquilaria Blossom’ is so-named for what both Taha Syed and Russian Adam imagined what a flower growing out of an Aquilaria tree might smell like.  But despite the listed magnolia and neroli, the only floral touches I perceive are brief and upfront, worked into the perfumey bittersweetness of the citrus notes in the opening.  Thankfully, the neroli doesn’t go soapy on me, or perhaps it does and all I end smelling is saddle soap, which is the only way I take my soap in perfumery anyway.

 

The ending really does come as a bit of a surprise.  It shows up right when everything else is winding down, but unlike that one drunk guy who shows up at 3 am, it is most welcome.  One by one, all the other notes seem to get siphoned off into a golden cloud of glittery resin particles, anchored by a rubbery licorice myrrh, and thickened only slightly by a subtle (thin) vanilla.  The ending, like the rest of the scent, feels deliciously sheer.  This is a scent where all the molecules are spread out and have ample room to breathe. 

 

In the end, how much of Taha and how much of Russian Adam actually got into Aquilaria Blossom?  I think the light, minimalistic structure is more Taha than Adam, but then I haven’t smelled any of Russian Adam’s fresher, more citrus-forward perfumes, like Chinese Oud (though his Limau Hijau under the Feel Oud banner is very citrus-forward) and I only know Taha’s work through his pure oud oils.  All I can say with confidence is that Aquilaria Blossom has none of that heady, musky floriental thickness of body that we are used to in Areej Le Doré releases.

 

Is it possible that two oud greats came together and created….a freshie?  Maybe!  Russian Adam is an innovator and this is possibly him shaking things up.  Aquilaria Blossom is fragrant and aromatic, woody and bright.  It lingers on the skin and in the air but feels like no weight at all on the skin.  But that’s not to say that its simplicity is, well, simple.  I’m reminded of the line in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” where he says “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / I am large, I contain multitudes”.  Aquilaria Blossom is relatively simple and straightforward.  But it too contains multitudes.  Multitudes of hay, ambergris, spice, citrus peel, and wood rot all tucked away neatly into one long thin line of leather.

 

 

Source of sample:  A 2ml sample sent to me free of charge by Russian Adam (I paid customs).   

 

Cover Image:  Photo, my own, of Aquilaria Blossom sample next to piece of Wild Thai agarwood for scale.  Please do not distribute, circulate or use this photo without my permission.

 

 

[1] For example, on the Agar Aura website, Taha describes his technique for Berkilau Hitam, a discontinued oil, as follows: ‘Berkilau Hitam is the pure isolated base-note fractions of the agarwood extract (and approximately 6 times higher in quality: Berkilau raw materials). This is pure wood, resin, and smoke. These are the same aromatic fractions that most people associate with actual burning agarwood, Fractions which are either missing altogether in many oud oils, or extracted using inferior distillation techniques. Scientifically speaking, this oil literally consists of only the heaviest, densest, richest aromatic compounds found in agarwood (read: darkest smelling)[1].’ Interesting, no?

 

Amber Balsamic Gold Herbal Incense opoponax Oriental Resins Review Single note exploration Spice Uncategorized

Empire des Indes by Oriza L. Legrand

17th May 2022

 

 

Oh, opoponax, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.  First, there’s the fact that, in its upper register at least, this is a resin that doesn’t know that it’s a resin at all.  In fact, it wants to be a spice or a herb, but can’t decide which, which is why the first flash of opoponax lurches wildly between the metallic, sweaty sting of clove and the aromatic camphor of bay leaf.  It’s like listening to a teenager’s voice breaking.

 

Then, there’s the ambery resinousness in its lower registers that smells like a rich toffee but also quite a bit like Disaronno, which gives it a boozy almond butter tonality that cracks the safe open a little to reveal how the drydowns of No. 5 (Chanel) and Shalimar (Guerlain) are actually constructed.  There is even a hint of Johnson and Johnson’s Baby Powder or Baby Oil that lingers towards the very end.  Now when people talk about wet wipes or nappies when it comes to either the Chanel or the Guerlain, I have an idea where that association is coming from.  New level unlocked.

 

Lastly, the fact that the transition between the astringent spicy-herbal topnotes and the almond taffy basenotes is awkward as hell, which makes things interesting.  Sometimes, this clash of cymbals produces an old fashioned bay rhum effect that makes me think of amber mixed up with Old Spice or Brut.  There is a lingering soapiness in among all that almond butter richness that calls to mind shaving foam.  Personally, I love this confusing mash up of balsamic sweetness and rinsing herbal sourness.  You get the gold honey of a resin and the aromatic rigor of a barbershop fougère.  What’s not to like?

 

I bought Empire des Indes (Oriza L. Legrand) blind because I’d heard that it was an opoponax perfume.  I heard right.  At first spray, I thought that perhaps I’d screwed myself because, you know, opoponax will opoponax, and is there really any point to owning something that repeats on you like a burp across your collection if you already own Imperial Opoponax (Les Nereides), Ligea la Sirena (Carthusia), and the Big Daddy of them all, Eau Lente (Diptyque)?  Not to mention Jicky (Guerlain) and Bengale Rouge (Papillon Perfumery), no slouches in the opoponax department themselves.  

 

But not to worry, because Empire des Indes, though it certainly possesses a strong opoponax character, has been dressed quite differently to these perfumes, and therefore occupies a different slot on my collection.  The sweaty metal of opoponax’s clove topnotes are softened by a dusty cinnamon Nag Champa accord, which has the effect of puffing the perfume up and out into a sweet, ambered dust cloud that shifts softly around you as you move.  It is something you can cuddle into.  By comparison, Ligea la Sirena is more citrusy-hot with lemons, sour tea, and carnation, a jagged knife perfect for cutting through the heat, while Imperial Opoponax is shaving foam central before hitting its toffee stride much later on.

 

Empire des Indes probably comes closest in orbit to Bengale Rouge due to the shared emphasis on that spicy cinnamon and a rich ambery-balsamic tonality.  They are both, it must be said, perfectly slottable into that one slot you likely have reserved for spicy ‘orientals’ whose primary function is to warm your bones (and emit a golden, balsamic sillage) when the weather is cold.  But in terms of weight and ‘thicc-ness’, there is no competition – Bengale Rouge is a Two-Ton Tessie, its generous pours of honey and tonka bean keeping the resin in place like a weighted blanket.  Empire des Indes is far lighter and more diaphanous, similar to the weight of something like Fêtes Persanes (MDCI Parfums), Black Cashmere (Donna Karan), or Theorema (Fendi).

 

But, of course, opoponax is not the only show in town (if it were, I’d recommend just going out and buying some opoponax).  There are some really nice, interesting things happening in Empire des Indes that make this so much more.  For one, ginger adds a savory, mealy texture to the cinnamony topnotes, creating a briefly musky, almost urinous twang that some will invariably interpret as Musc Ravageur-lite (ginger does something similar in Shams Oud by Memo).  Sandalwood adds a gently peanutty milkiness that fades too quickly for my liking.  

 

Once the spicy-herbal flash flare of the opoponax dies back a little, the scent breathes and stretches its limbs into that golden, toffee-ed resinousness (splashed here and there by Old Spice) that one expects from opoponax in general.  But where Empire des Indes innovates is in its earthy shading of this ambery accord with the cocoa-ish dust of patchouli and what smells to me like the curried maple leaf richness of immortelle.  (Neither of those notes are listed).  These accents, coupled with the dusty nag champa, give the perfume a witchy, leaf-blown tenor that feels like something out of the Solstice Scents catalogue (Foxcroft, Inquisitor, or Manor Fire, for example, some of which feature a similarly indie ‘burning autumn leaves’ accord).  Not headshop territory, exactly, but heading in that direction.         

 

Or would had Empire des Indes lasted any longer than it does.  The trajectory from top to bottom is regrettably short.  At least those last tendrils of dusty nag champa seem to be standing in for what otherwise might be a white musk or something abrasive, like Iso E Super, i.e., it carries the perfume across the last mile without compromising any of its delicacy.  Still, this is not a terribly rich or deep perfume.  It floats in wisps and tendrils and drafts.  Indeed, you might say that the only downside to Empire des Indes is its softness.  But you know what?  Like Fêtes Persanes, that is possibly what I like the most about it.

 

 

Source of sample:  Sample?  Baby, when it comes to opoponax, I buy the whole bottle.  Sometimes even blind.  I purchased my bottle directly from Oriza L. Legrand.   

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Sergey Norkov on Unsplash 

 

Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Resins The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Middle-Eastern Mukhallats

8th November 2021

 

 

Now we come to Middle-Eastern mukhallats.  First, let’s get etymology out of the way.  The word mukhallat simply means blend in Arabic and refers to a mix of pre-distilled attars and ruhs with other raw materials culturally significant in the Middle-Eastern perfumery, such as ambergris, oud oil, musk, resins, and amber accords.  Remember, unlike traditional Indian attars, which are distilled, mukhallats are mixed, using already distilled or compounded materials.

 

One of the most famous types of mukhallat is the rose-oud mukhallat, a pairing that matches the sour, smoky bluntness of oud oil with the peppery brightness of Taifi rose.  This coupling has taken the world of Western commercial perfumery by storm, flooding the market with hundreds of rose-oud fragrances that ape the structure of the original mukhallat template.

 

Of course, in modern-day parlance, the words attar and mukhallat are used almost interchangeably.   Hence, Amouage calls its (sadly discontinued) range of perfume oils attars even though, from a technical perspective, they are mukhallats.  The same applies to Sultan Pasha and most other young, modern attar makers – although technically mukhallats made by blending distilled attars and essential oils (some of which the attar maker may even distill himself), the final product is always marketed as an attar, because attar is the word that modern customers know and recognize.

 

It is important to note that the cultural ties and trade in perfume between India and the Middle-East go back thousands of years, which has led to a symbiotic exchange of materials, knowledge, and even language about perfume between these cultures.  For example, the word attar is virtually identical across all major languages in the area, meaning Hindu, Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, etc.  Thanks to the rich melting pot of cultures and arts encouraged by the Mughal dynasty, themselves an empire of traders, attars are something of a fluid, boundary-crossing art, claimed by all cultures in this part of the world as their own.

 

But the culture of use of perfume throughout Turkey, Northern Africa, and the Middle East has evolved quite differently to that of India.  Though it is difficult to speak on this without flattening entire and richly diverse cultures into one generalization, it is broadly accurate to say that people of Arabian, Persian, Turkish, and Northern African descent have a cultural preference for richer and heavier animalic aromas, such as those from oud, deer musk, and ambergris.  While Indian attar perfumery is inward-looking, focused almost exclusively on India’s own natural bounty, Middle-Eastern oil perfumery avails itself of a much broader range of raw materials sourced outside their own national borders, likely the result of the centuries-long history of Arabic-Persiatic empire-building and trading.

 

Oud oil, for example, is sourced from humid jungle areas of a geographically-vast sweep of countries ranging from North India and Borneo island to China and the countries of the Mekong Delta (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand).  Resins and gums such as frankincense (loban/luban) and myrrh are more important in Arabic oil perfumery than in Indian perfumery, because these resins are not native to India – they are grown and gathered in the hot, desert-like areas of Arabia and Africa (with some like copal resin, Peru and tolu balsams even coming all the way from Peru, Colombia, and Argentina, in South America).  Use of these smoky, sometimes vanillic gums and resins has come to define a whole genre of perfume, formerly known (inaccurately) as the oriental family of perfumes (a term now being replaced by more culturally and etymologically-correct terminology, such as ambery or resinous perfumes, see note here).  In general, the Middle-Eastern market for perfume displays a strong, cultural preference for more heavily perfumey smells than Indians.

 

But the cultural and historical links between these two perfume-making cultures run deep.  Arab and Persian perfumers value Indian ruhs and attars for their purity and use them to mix into their mukhallats.  One of the biggest attar companies in the world, Ajmal, is an Indian company that distills oud and makes mukhallats almost exclusively for the Middle-Eastern market.  Furthermore, it was India, and specifically the Assam region in Northern India, that gave Arabs their first taste of oud oil, stoking a fire in their hearts for the animalic, Hindi (Indian) style of oud oil that burns brightly to this day.

 

 

End Note

Reminder:  We are working our way through the four categories of oil-based perfumery as I see them, which are (1) traditional distilled attars (discussed here, here, and here), (2) Middle-Eastern mukhallats (this chapter), (3) foundational essential oils such as oud oil and sandalwood oil, and (4) concentrated perfume oils.  The main differences are briefly outlined below:

 

Traditional distilled attars:  In contrast to its catch-all categorization today, the word attar originally referred to a specific method of production, and a tradition that was almost exclusively Indian.  True attars are made through the slow, laborious process of hydro- or steam-distilling flower petals, herbs, exotic woods, and resins directly into a base of sandalwood oil.

 

Middle-Eastern mukhallats:  While traditional Indian attars are distilled from a fragrant material, mukhallats – meaning ‘mix’ – are compounds of many different oils that have already been distilled, tinctured, or otherwise produced elsewhere.

 

Foundational essential oils:  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.

 

Concentrated perfume oils:  Although all attars are by nature concentrated perfume oils, not all concentrated perfume oils are attars.  For example, a perfume oil from Bruno Acampora, Le Labo, or BPAL is not an attar.  Neither is the Al Rehab dupe for Dakar Noir that you can buy on Amazon for four dollars.  They are perfumes in oil format but made in a completely different manner (and intent) than attars.

 

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.

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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