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.
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.
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.
Foundationalessential 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!
Gold is the most challenging of the gifts of the three Magi, of course, given that, unlike myrrh and frankincense, it is not a fragrant material in and of itself. I could write about perfumes that smell like metal or that have a metallic element to them, like, say, Superstitiousby Frederic Malle or Copper by Comme des Garcons, but that would be a rather short and unsatisfying list. So, most of the perfumes on this list fall into one of three categories.
First, perfumes that the word ‘gold’ or ‘or’ in their name – a group of fragrances that quickly exhausts itself when you realize just how many of them either fail to meet the kingly standard we’re going after (24 Gold by Scentstory didn’t make the cut, for example, and neither did the ghastly coffee sickliness that is L’Or de Torrente) or give off a golden vibe at all (Or des Indes, J’acuse).
Second, there are the perfumes that I think are the gold standard of their respective genres and are the ones that I would buy in bulk if I were to suddenly win the lottery or marry someone with both taste and bottomless pockets (we will pretend that I am not already in possession of a husband). I find it funny that many of the perfumes I consider to be gold medal winners are actually called Black something or other.
Finally, we have perfumes that prominently feature a raw material or accord that smells or feels like a sunny, radiant liquid gold around your person – amber, for example, but also ambergris and honey.
Les Nombres d’Or Oudh Osmanthus (Mona di Orio) – Black Gold
Oudh Osmanthus is both rich and dry, two qualities that are rarely found together these days. After years of puzzling over what makes this perfume tick, I think the secret to its three-dimensional richness lies in its triadic composition of a) the smoky, dried-up husk of a vanilla pod swiped from Mona di Orio Vanille, which contributes a dark, almost liquor-ish background that one might call sweet until you get close enough to see what it is, b), a midsection (borrowed from the brand’s own Musc) of blurred, indistinct floral notes desiccating to a fine white talc, which gives the scent its tinder-box dryness and a slightly soapy, dandified air, and c) a lascivious civet note that twists the florals into a grimy, almost fecal leather note à la Jicky.
Here’s the clever bit – though there is likely some quantity of real osmanthus and oud oil in the composition, their shape is carved out not by the raw materials themselves but by little olfactory nudges laid down by the perfumer herself, like a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest. Hence, the faintly cheesy fruitiness of osmanthus is suggested obliquely by an odd but genius herbal note that smells quite like fresh dill, while the cheesey ferment of oud is brought to life by the leathery civet.
In many ways, Oudh Osmanthus is the analog to my other favorite oud-themed fragrance, Nawab of Oudh(Ormonde Jayne). Both are Western abstractions of an Eastern raw material, rendered in a haute luxe style that elevates them far beyond their source material. But they arrive there from two utterly different directions – Nawab of Oudh via the light cast by crisp linen tablecloths, the brass moldings of a posh London hotel, and freshly-peeled citrus fruits, Oudh Osmanthus via the chartreuse gloom of a velvet-covered room.
Both are eye-wateringly expensive. Adding insult to injury, Oudh Osmanthus was reformulated when the bottles were changed from the wine screw bottles to the golden disc bottle. It still smells great, of course, but its smoky dryness has been toned down and made less confrontational, which has in turn subtracted much from its previously three-dimensional quality. However, if I were forced to choose just two Western oud-themed fragrances to take with me into the apocalypse, it would be Nawab of Oudh and Oudh Osmanthus, and that, for a perennial flip-flopper like me, is said with not even a hint of equivocation.
I am a big Henry James fan. Or at least I used to be until one day at school, my fifth form English teacher pulled a copy of The Golden Bowl out of my school bag and gasped, ‘You’re reading this? Oh, dear me, no – this is far too difficult for you. It will put you off James for life.’ But guys, I had already read The Golden Bowl. In fact, I had waltzed through it, not realizing that it was supposed to be difficult. But do you know what? I have struggled with Henry James ever since. Once someone points out that something is difficult or complex, it becomes so. Like someone flipping that switch in your brain between unthinking enjoyment and sudden, painful self-awareness.
I love Chypre Palatin with my unthinking part of my brain. I know, on a purely intellectual level, that it is a Golden Bowl type of scent – grand, complex, full of moving parts clicking into place. The sort of thing you have to read with your eyes at half-mast so as to perceive its entire shape at the corner of your vision. The notes list on Basenotes alone contains twenty separate notes, two thirds of which I still cannot pick up. It doesn’t matter. I slip into Chypre Palatin with a shiver of unadulterated pleasure every time, just as easily as my unthinking brain once slid into Henry James.
Chypres are not an easy read, normally. Something about them pinches me, reminding me to switch the analysis part of my brain on and the ‘feeling’ part off. They are more comfortable for me now, as I get older, but the bristling bergamot and the bitter backbone of mosses have always called to mind that scene in Titanic where Rose sees a mother is tapping her six-year old daughter on the spine to get her to straighten up. I admire the formality of chypres, and their immensely ordered, complex structure, but sometimes I find it difficult to breathe easily within their confines.
But Chypre Palatin is one of those strange hybrids between chypre and oriental that manage to combine the formality of the former with the comfortable sensuality of the latter. Chypre Palatin belongs, therefore, to a special group of perfumes that includes Puredistance M, Jubilation 25, Une Rose Chyprée, and even Guerlain’s masterpiece, Vol de Nuit. What these perfumes have in common is a chypre-like dressing of moss and bergamot, and maybe some other green, bitter, or herbal accents, over a base that feels pleasantly resinous, creamy, or vanillic (as is the case with Chypre Palatin), so a fragrance that starts its journey in an upright position can end it in a supine position on a soft divan. These chypre-oriental hybrids are built to scale, bristling with ambition, and with big enough feet to comfortably straddle several genres at once – chypre, oriental, leather, animalics, and so on. They are not so much unisex as they are omni-sex.
Chypre Palatin, for example, has a brief bergamot beginning, like a blush of first light over the horizon at dawn, and a heart of authentic oakmoss that goes on forever, but these accents are married to a lush vanilla and a warmly animalic castoreum in the base, ensuring that the whole thing feels comfortably sensual. It is distinctly masculine in feel, but the vanilla and castoreum in the base give it a rounded, luxurious feel that won’t feel out of place on a woman’s skin.
Chypre Palatin strikes me as a modern-day Vol de Nuit, in a way. Not in terms of scent, but in the way they are both lush, baroque-scaled perfumes pointing to a more romantic past than the time in which they were created. And despite their ambition, they both feel perfectly intimate – suitable for quiet, homebound pleasures. Chypre Palatin might be the Golden Bowl of its genre, but I enjoy it in that simple, instinctive way I used to enjoy Henry James before the thinking part of my brain was switched on. Just don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is a difficult or complex thing.
I have been within sniffing distance of the interior of a luxury car only twice in my life. The first was when a former colleague of my father’s, a rather sleazy guy called Alberto, would come and collect me from my job in Bergamo on a Friday night and whizz me down to Milan for the weekend in his Bugatti. Nothing terribly inappropriate happened in that car, but there was always the suggestion that something might. The second was a couple of years ago, in Rome, when a lovely salesman saw my son and me looking in the window of a Ferrari-Maserati showroom and invited us in so that my son could sit inside one. I am not into luxury anything, but the scent of inside a luxury car is intoxicating in a weirdly emotive way. You know instinctively that what you are smelling is privilege and, by corollary, exclusion, but the power you sense throbbing beneath the leather and the wood – even when the car is off – is enough to flood you with a weird sense of elation. Arousal, even.
Black by Puredistance smells like the pure, cushioned air of privilege. Though from the technical sense, it has much in common with other cardamom-saffron-leather orientals like Idole (Lubin), Black Cashmere (Donna Karan) and, more recently, the glorious Shaghaf by Anfas, the extreme refinement of Black makes them feel like they just stumbled in from the bog, muck caked on their clodhopper boots.
Black is so smooth you could almost call it boring. It is just a silky cardamom custard filtered through the air filtering system of a Maserati with creamy chamois seats and polished wood panels, with no real points of interest or anything whistling for your attention. normally lusty resins and spices have been triple-strained through a cheesecloth, appearing as smudged brushstrokes in the overall impressionistic swirl. Even the oud note is quiet, a faded sour-suedey tannin accent shading out the leather a little. As with anything Puredistance, Black is ostentatiously-priced, but then so is a Maserati. I may never get within sniffing distance of either ever again, but the memories are for free and remain lodged safely in the memory palace I have constructed in my brain (thanks for the tip, Hannibal).
Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh) – Multi-Dimensional Gold
Saqr II is a mukhallat composed in honor of nature in all its brutal beauty. It focuses on ambergris (long golden beaches), oud (green forests), Ta’ifi rose (flowers in inhospitable terrain), and Himalayan musk (animal fur). Saqr II provides the wearer with a truly kaleidoscopic experience – the florals, exotic woods, and musk all rushing out at you in a giddy vortex of scent – but maintains a rigorous clarity rarely experienced in such complex blends. The wearer can smell every component of the blend, both individually and as part of the rich, multi-layered fabric of the perfume.
The play of light on dark is particularly well executed. The tart, green spice of the Ta’ifi rose lifts the perfume, while salty-sweet ambergris lends a sparkle. These brighter elements prevent the darker oud and musk from becoming too heavy. The bright rose burns away, leaving a trail of leathery, spicy oud wood that is addictive, drawing one’s nose repeatedly to the skin. The oud here is smooth and supple, with nary a trace of sourness or animal stink. The musk, perceptible more as a texture than a scent, blurs the edges of the oud and rose notes into furred roundness that gradually softens the scent’s austerity.
The slight out-of-focus feel to this blend makes it far more approachable for beginners than many others in the Al Shareef Oudh stable. However, none of the materials have been dumbed down for a Western audience. The blend smells classic in a certain rose-oud way, but it is not clichéd. Its balance of dark and bright elements, sweet and non-sweet, dirty-musky and clean, is what makes this a masterful example of its genre.
Saqr II is complex, beautiful, restful, and above all, easy to wear. I particularly love the fuzzy golden timbre of the ambergris in this scent, which lends it a tannic apricot skin edge. It is my personal favorite of all the Al Shareef Oudh mukhallats and the one I would recommend to beginners as a great primer for the brand’s overall approach and aesthetic. Beyond that, however, it is one of the best perfumes I have had the pleasure of smelling.
Gold Woman is the souped up, Russian gilt, bells-and-whistles version of Madame Rochas, which basically means that it is an amalgamation of all those perfumes that we tend to instinctively classify as stuffy, perfumey, French and ladylike – you know, perfumes like No. 5 (Chanel), Calèche (Hermès), and Climat (Lancôme). I’d throw 24, Faubourg (Hermès) into the mix there too.
I could try to describe the common thread here – the fatty, fizzy aldehydes that strafe the expensive, Grasse-sourced florals like a steel wire brush, sending them spinning up and out like a ballerina’s tulle mid-pirouette, the silky musks, the powdered rush of floral bouquets – but with something this abstract, I’d only be embarrassing myself.
Because, honestly, let’s get real – much of what we say we smell in fragrances this big is probably just a figment of our imagination, suggested to us by reviews or ad copy. Perfumes this abstract, this overly-blended, this fuzzy-with-kinetic-aldehydes can never give anyone a clear idea of any one material, be it a lush rose or the hay-like greenness of narcissus. Most of us are not in possession of a nose sophisticated enough to pick up on every nuance or note in something like Gold Woman. If you think that it smells expensive (it does) or like what a rich woman might wear (it does), then the perfumer has gotten his point across. I’d argue – strenuously, if you ever met me in person – that what you are smelling in Gold Woman is pretty much the scent of a luxuriously creamy bar of white soap, and specifically the kind that nobody buys for themselves and is far too good to use.
My mother was gifted a L’Air du Temps bath soap when I was little, and that soap remained perched on the edge of the family bath, in its delicate seashell-shaped clasp, for all of our childhood, as if silently daring us to touch it. Which we never did, of course, because the hairs on the back of my mother’s neck were psychically connected to this soap, standing on end and raising the alarm if one of us even so much as breathed in its general direction. I would only dare huff it quickly and furtively, panic-dropping it back in its seashell every time the landing floor squeaked (our Famine-era house was about as suited to privacy as it was to central heating, which is to say not very). Anyway, I remember distinctly the first time I smelled Amouage Gold Woman. It was January 2012 in one of the larger Campo Marzio 70 stores in Rome, and I had just started to read blogs, so I recognized the name and the look of the bottle. I picked up the gold bottle with trembling hands, scarcely believing that the salespeople would just let me pick up something so precious and sprayed a bit on my wrist. Well, if it wasn’t that fucking L’Air de Temps soap. Hello again, how nice to see you.
None of which explains, of course, how I now own two bottles of Gold Woman. I guess my defense is really a theory, namely that if cityscapes shape the style of those that live in them, then Rome, with its status as the erstwhile center of the Western world, expects of her citizens a similarly-outsized sense of braggadocio. While I still don’t really like Gold Woman all that much, I find it has the big dick energy that a place like Rome demands. Every time I wear it, I feel like Juno emerging angrily from her bath, left breast magnificently exposed, pumped to give the first man she encounters a heart attack or a hard-on (we are never sure which).
Or du Sérail (Naomi Goodsir) – Fool’s Gold
Or du Sérail has a beautiful, honeyed tobacco leaf at its core. But unfortunately, it gets drowned in a fruity, sticky mess of mango, rum, coconut, and ylang, giving somewhat of an impression of a day-old tropical fruit cocktail left out in the sun to develop a ‘bloom’. It is also unbearably sweet. Ambre Narguilé does the fruit-cake-and-honey tobacco thing so much better that I wonder why anybody felt this was necessary. And to be honest, if I wanted a complex, syrupy tobacco fragrance then Histoires de Parfums’ masterpiece 1740 satisfies me on all levels.
To sum it up, Or du Sérail is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind of scent where everything is thrown at tobacco in the hope that something sticks. Don’t get me wrong – it is technically ‘yummy’ in that round, sweet, bland way of another of Duchaufour’s misses, Havana Vanille. But as in Havana Vanille, Or du Sérail contains unpleasantly sour, discordant off-notes like mold on a piece of bread, or rot beginning to set in on a piece of fruit. Or du Sérail makes a lunge for that fine line between edible and inedible and misses the mark completely.
Aurum D’Angkhor is special. Every time I wear it, I marvel anew at its depth, complexity, and beauty. It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkhor in the basenotes, a fruity Cambodi oud oil with cozy wood nuances. But the ‘Aurum’ in Sultan Pasha’s remix means ‘Golden’ and indeed, that is precisely the color that comes across in this blend. Aurum is a love poem to the golden dust of saffron, polished oak floors, smoke, honey, and henna, a shady haze backed by a velvety floral richness.
The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes, it has a dark barnyard character that some might find startling. This accord is not, to my nose, unpleasantly animalic. It never approaches, for example, the sour, bilious honk of a raw Hindi oud. However, there is definitely something there that recalls the aroma of cow slurry, a smell so hotly liquid that it seems to ooze across the room like ripe Brie. One’s reaction to this type of aroma depends on one’s level of exposure to farmyard smells during childhood. I grew up around cows and now live next door to a dairy farm, so for me, the smell of cow shit is literally part of the air I breathe. In other words, I’m fine with it. You very well may not be.
The cow pat note dissipates quickly, however, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, threaded with drifts of faintly indolic jasmine. Saffron plays a pivotal role, called upon to bring out all its strange facets at once – the leather, the exotic dust, the sweetness, the faintly floral mouth-feel, fiery red spice, and a certain medicinal, iodine-like twang. The oud and the saffron create a deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty plum skin. In short, Aurum showcases the depth of real oud, but past the fecal twang of the opening, none of its more challenging aspects.
The smoke in Aurum is chimerical, sometimes manifesting as little more than a faint tingle of far-off woodsmoke akin to a needle prick’s worth of birch tar or cade oil, and sometimes appearing as full-on smoke from a censer full of resins. The smoke component is similar to that of Balsamo della Mecca (La Via de Profumo), which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent dusted with the clovey, balsamic bitterness of Siam benzoin and frankincense. Backing the smoke is always a layer of dusty, medicinal henna powder and the golden sheen of honey-glazed woods. Nothing, therefore, feels out of balance, not even when the smoke is rolling in.
Aurum dries down to a dark, treacly resin that smells predominantly nutty, but also kind of gritty, like coffee grounds sprinkled with sugar – probably a side effect of benzoin mixing with the cedar and ambrette musk. There is a moment in the drydown that reminds me of the sawdusty, granular sweetness of wood pulp and suede that is the primary feature of Tuscan Leather-style fragrances. Many soft leather scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather itself, Oud Saphir (Atelier Cologne), and Tajibni (Al Haramain), use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar to create a musky, resinous suede effect, and that might be what’s happening here in Aurum. However, Aurum is far more complex than these soli-suedes, deploying as it does a layer of resins, oud, and henna to jostle and thicken the sueded musk.
Or des Indes (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) – Bait-and-Switch Gold
Out of all the perfumes reputed to smell like Shalimar, Or des Indes smells most like Mitsouko. I bought a bottle in Madrid airport on my way back from Cali, shaken after having been strip-searched by Columbian customs agents (pasty Irish chicks apparently being well known for enthusiastically promoting certain Colombian exports via that particular route), and when I got home, I showered and applied this liberally, then lay naked on the bed waiting to a) stop sweating, and b) feel the cloud of golden, resinous Shalimar-esque loveliness rise up and envelop my senses, soothing my furrowed brow, etc., etc.
Well, to say I felt cheated out of my happy ending is an understatement. Or des Indes is not the golden, shimmering warm bath of resins I had been led to expect. Rather, thanks to a doughy ‘peach skin’ suede element that is far more root (orris) than resin, Or des Indes is dove grey – delicately bitter, fudgy, and ‘old smelling’, like old wooden furniture dusted off and waxed with saddle soap. Thanks to a recent love affair with Imperial Opoponax (Les Nereides), I have come to identify this doughy, rooty (almost waxy-fudgy) nuance as characteristic of opoponax resin. But because of its herbal, slightly bitter ‘almond’ core, I have stopped perceiving opoponax as a purely golden affair – in truth, it smells more lavender-grey than golden for about two-thirds of its development.
While Imperial Opoponax shakes off this dove grey pallor pretty quickly before sliding into that much-awaited, much-longed-for bath of sultry, balmy, red-gold resinousness that is the final third of opoponax resin, Or des Indes remains firmly attached to its grey, bitter-doughy suede heart for much of the ride. (There is a phantom fruit note bouncing in and out that, combined with the fine cuir accord, contributes much to the Mitsouko impression). To be fair, Or des Indes does eventually loosen up into something that might legitimately be called warm or golden, before completely dying an ignoble death at the four hour mark.
Yep, four hours. That’s all you get, folks. Now, I am no longevidee bore, but paying Maître Parfumeur et Gantier prices for the performance of a Roger et Gallet body spray is deeply unacceptable, and that’s even before you consider that, with Or des Indes, you are basically wearing a half-assed version of Mitsouko or the first 40% of Imperial Opoponax, both scents that cost roughly half of this.
Don’t get me wrong – I do quite like Or des Indes. It’s just that when you are expecting gold and get dove grey, it feels like trying to recover your gait after you’ve missed a step on the stairs. You eventually right yourself but for one horribly unsettling moment, the whole world feels off kilter.
Black Gold (Ormonde Jayne) – Gentlemanly Gold
Black Gold is every bit as stunning as its gold-plated billing makes it out to be. Perfectly in line with the Ormonde Jayne house style, it seems to be made up of hundreds of different layers of tulle and yet has the tensile density of velvet. The opening feels familiar, yet turbo-charged with something electric. The sherbet-like fizz of mandarin, lemon, and mandarin is intoxicating, and the touches of clary sage and juniper berry familiar to anyone who loves Tolu. Immediately after this somewhat characteristic Ormonde Jayne opening, the true character of the scent reveals itself as a confident duet between a particularly arid, aromatic sandalwood (one can almost visualize the reddish dust of felled heartwood in Mysore) and a hot, dusty carnation – the two accords whipping each other into a vortex of scent.
Texture is key here. Black Gold feels fuzzy and misty, like the fine-grained fizz on a glass of sparkling rosé. The quality of the sandalwood is superb, displaying as it does the peculiar character split between dry and milky of real santalum album. Although there are no piney terpenes here, the hallmark of inferior santalum spicatum from Australia, the sandalwood used in this fragrance is not at all sweet or unctuously creamy. In fact, coupled with the herbs and the spicy carnation, the woodiness strikes me as gentlemanly, similar in tone to the sandalwood in Santal Noble (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier). Later on, these same woods appear rubbed down by nuggets of creamy amber resin, their toffee-like sweetness filling out the air pockets in the wood and giving the scent a deep, velvety warmth.
However, there is also a very dry, peppery oud note in the drydown, which brings the fragrance closer in feel to Ormonde Man than some might be expecting. The oud adds a brush of something metallic and not entirely natural-smelling. The note is not exactly animalic, but a little dark and salty, tending towards carnal. This could be a touch of Ambroxan or real ambergris, or, of course, it could also simply be the listed oud coupled with the vegetal musk of ambrette. Either way, the ending is as shimmering and as translucent as the rest of the scent; it floats off the skin like cloud, never heavy or sullen.
Worth the price? Yes – with the proviso that you already have the money and won’t be skipping any meals or utility bills to buy it. There are plenty of haute luxe perfumes around at this price level anyway, but an Ormonde Jayne is consistently a trusty government bond compared to the equities market in one of the BRIC countries and is therefore a particularly safe investment. (I am just as puzzled as you as to why I’m talking about this like an investment banker).
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal) – Antique Gold
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq is a masterpiece of mukhallat perfumery. With a long name that translates to (roughly) ‘Aged Oud Blend’, it earns a place in any list of top ten or even top five mukhallats in the world. Essentially an essay on the beauty of aged Hindi oud, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq wanders through the umami flavorways of noble oud oil, touching upon sweet, sour, salty, woody, and even herbal facets as it passes through.
It may at first appear pungent or animalic to the uninitiated, but once the leathery spices rise through the initial wall of funk, you will find it difficult to tear your nose away. Sweet red roses, musk, and greenish herbs – perhaps a touch of vetiver – provide an excellent showcase for the aged oud, grounding and buttressing it with layers of complexity, body, and richness.
The other notes, while extremely rich and high quality, do not distract from the star of the show, namely that beautiful, aged Hindi oud. The oud slowly softens and melts like a pool of warm honey, pumping out wave after wave of spiced, syrupy goodness throughout the day. This intoxicating concerto of aromas is top of its class at representing the unique pleasures of oil perfumery.
In the far drydown, natural ambergris lends the scent a golden glow, as well as a hint of coniferous bitterness that recalls the aroma of raw fir balsam. Think of sea breezes blowing a forest of pine trees sideways, the salty freshness of the sea air mixing with the resinous greenery of the trees and the golden sweetness of tree sap. The ambergris amplifies the beauty of the aged oud and the brilliance of its rich Turkish rose. Beautiful, pure, and incredibly rewarding to wear, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq goes straight into the pantheon of must-haves for any serious mukhallat lover.
Kalemat is not wildly original (it smells a little like an upmarket version of 24 Gold by Scentstory, or Raghba by Lattafa Perfumes) but it is one of those rare instances when you put it on and you just know that it smells damn good, and that you smell damn good, and that other people (all of the other people, believe me) will think you smell damn good too. It reminds me that things don’t have to be wildly expensive or original to give you pleasure.
In fact, every time I wear Kalemat, I think of what Agent Dale Cooper tells Harry in Twin Peaks, namely – ‘Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.’ Kalemat is a just damn fine coffee.
It is difficult to describe Kalemat without making it seem simple or boring. It opens with a brief berry note, before sliding into a golden, honeyed amber riff that swirls around you like a delicious second skin for a whole twelve hours. There is a hint of gently smoked oud that stops the whole thing from diving off a cliff into gourmand territory. It is not real oud, of course – not at this price point. But for once, the synthetic oud or cashmeran or whatever they are using here for that smoky oud note is not obnoxious or dominant. Instead, it adds a pleasurably smoky but unobtrusive buzz to the backbone of the fragrance. It is there simply to support the spiced, honeyed amber, not to shout all over it.
Kalemat wears in a similar way to perfumes like Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114, Dior Privée Ambre Nuit, and Amouage’s Fate Woman – not in terms of scent per se, but in the way each of these particular fragrances seem to hover around your skin like a haze of fuzzy, warm, golden light, and radiate outwards, like Golden Hour light pouring into a dingy room. And really, the base appeal of Kalemat lies in its sillage. I like the Muslim idea of using perfume to scent not only yourself but also the air around you, as a gift for others. Kalemat spills out over your skin and into the air around you, leaving a trail of honeyed, gently-spiced amber and woods for others to enjoy. I have had women in the supermarket stop me to ask what I’m wearing. Dogs follow me. Little children ignore my stupidly asymmetrical face and smile at me. Kalemat is a gift you give to yourself, yes, but also to others.
Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch) – Gold Bud
Composed by Christi Meshell for her House of Matriarch line of perfumes, Black No. 1 (formerly known as Blackbird) is made up of over 300 different notes and materials, 93% of which are all-natural. This is incredibly complex, even crowded perfume – but somehow it still manages to achieve the effect of a smooth, even flow of notes, like water across a silk panel.
The opening salvo is a rush of mellow leather, dark woods, and green resins. Even though it is very dark in flavor, everything feels round and smooth, with no jagged edges anywhere. There is what I can only describe as a delicious ‘roasted’ effect here that smells quite like a lump of unsmoked hashish resin, i.e., sweetish, tarry, sticky – like summer grass trampled underfoot.
But make no mistake – this is no stoner’s joke, no hippy-dippy afternoon delight. Whereas the similarly cannabis-focused Coze (Parfumerie Generale) uses its weed note to conjure up a happy, outdoorsy vibe of buff lumberjacks lighting up a joint, here the note is used in a supporting role to add a sweet, herbal grassiness to the other woody and aromatic notes. The scent manages to evoke strong visual images in my head, spinning visions of dark forests of firs and pines beside windswept beaches. The feeling is of solitude, a glorying in the fierceness of nature at its wildest. There is a genius note of sea salt weaving in and out of the perfume at this point, serving to pierce the density of the dark notes like a sudden shaft of moonlight through the forest. For such a dense perfume, it feels incredibly ozonic.
The gentle, rounded oud accord in the opening notes becomes ever stronger as the scent develops, picking up more of a rubbery, medicinal character. This adds a surprisingly pleasant wash of something antiseptic to the complex roasted flavors of the woods and resins. In some ways, the roasted, dark woods and oud note reminded me slightly of both Montecristo (by Masque Fragranze Milano) and of Hard Leather (by LM Parfums) but nowhere near as challenging. Both Montecristo and Hard Leather play up their tough notes like oud, leather, and styrax to such a degree that they simply overpower everything else – but all the potentially harsh notes in Blackbird seem to have been folded into softer, sweeter accords, like the amber and musks in the base, thus sanding down any hard edges they might have had.
The progression here is incredible for a perfume with such a high degree of natural ingredients. There is a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The whole thing is just so coherent and beautifully put together. The sticky, tarry notes from the top eventually loosen up and spread out. The sweetness of the pot resins intensifies too, mixing with the dark leather to create an effect that is intoxicating. And the dry down – oh my God, that dry down! It is a mix of amber, musk, and that dark, supple leather note that feels at once sensual and comfortable. It reminds me of the animalic but cozy feel of L’Ombre Fauve by Parfumerie Generale and the deep coziness of the latter stages of Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens, the part where all passion is spent and now all is the sugar and cream smell of two bodies cooling on the bear hide. Though eye-wateringly expensive and difficult to obtain, Black No. 1 is one of the first perfumes I’d buy in vats if I won the lottery.
Source of Samples: All reviews are based on samples, decants, or bottles of perfume I have purchased myself, with the exception of the sample of Saqr II (Al Shareef Oudh), which was kindly gifted to me by the brand, and the sample of Puredistance Black, which was kindly sent to me by the brand in 2016 for half the cost of the regular sample set (I paid the other half, by agreement with the brand manager). I own half a tester bottle of the new Oudh Osmanthus, in lieu of payment by a former client of mine, but bought a decant of the original formulation myself. As always, I do not do paid reviews and do not accept samples in exchange for a positive review. My opinions are my own. This blog is not monetized, and I do not earn any income from my perfume writing.
Each of the gifts of the three Magi carried a special symbolic meaning – gold representing kingship, myrrh foreshadowing the death of Jesus (myrrh being commonly used as an embalming and purifying ointment in the final sendoff of a soul), and finally, frankincense for divinity. In other words, if gold represents earthy wealth and influence, and myrrh represents the suffering associated with death, then frankincense is the most spiritually elevating of all resins – and arguably the most important – as it turns the gaze upwards, towards God.
a more prosaic level, some believe that frankincense might have been brought
along because of its medicinal qualities. In 2011, due to longstanding cultural
links between Wales and Somalia (who knew?), researchers at Cardiff University decided
to investigate whether there was any medical evidence to support the ancient
Somali tradition of using frankincense extract as a traditional herbal remedy
for the aches and pains associated with arthritis. And indeed, the scientists
were able to demonstrate
that treatment with an extract of Boswellia frereana (one of the rarer
frankincense species) inhibits the production of key inflammatory molecules, effectively
slowing down the disintegration of the cartilage tissue which causes the
So, maybe the three wise men were actually…..wise? (Though, rolling up to the bedside of a woman who had just given birth in a stable without so much as a pack of Paracetamol, nappies, and a stack of gossip magazines would seem to contradict that.)
In fact, most resins used in attar and commercial perfumery have long been as prized for their cleansing or purifying properties as for their spiritual or ritualistic ones. Arabs chew frankincense tears as chewing gum to freshen the breath and aid digestion, for example, while Papiers d’Arménie owe their existence to a Frenchman by the name of Auguste Ponsot, who, after stumbling across benzoin resin during his travels in Armenia in 1885, decided to make benzoin-infused strips of paper to cleanse the air in stuffy rooms all across Paris. Both Arabs and Persians have long traditions of burning incense to fumigate their rooms, clothes, places of worship, and hair. The word perfume itself comes from the Latin per fumus, which means ‘through the smoke’, making it more than likely that the first rudimentary form of perfume was, in fact, the fumigation of a dwelling with incense. So put that on your burner and smoke it!
Frankincense, for many people, lies at the very tippety-top of the incense chain – the thoroughbred of the resin family. Deriving from the old French word franc encens – meaning ‘high quality incense’ – frankincense is a gum produced by the Boswellia genus of trees which grows in Somalia, Sudan, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. The bulk of frankincense, called luban or loban in Arabic, comes from Somalia. However, the finest quality of frankincense is called Hojari (alternatively referred to as howjary) or silver frankincense, and this comes from the arid Dhofar region of Oman in the United Arab Emirates.
steam-distilled oil of frankincense resin gives attars and perfumes a fresh,
coniferous resinousness, with a bright lemon-and-lime topnote. Some grades of
Omani frankincense smell like oranges or tangerines in their topnotes, with a
soft-ish, creamy quality in the lower register. The house of Amouage, based in
Oman, was founded around the use of local Hojari frankincense, and indeed, most
of this house’s output showcases the silvery beauty of Omani frankincense.
an interview with me for Basenotes
in March 2018, Trygve Harris, a frankincense distiller in Oman, talked
about the different aromas associated with the different types of frankincense.
“Somali has a lemony note, and a warm dryness, an austerity. It makes me
thirsty — it smells vast and dry. It reminds me of Palm Springs when I was a
kid. The Omani has a richness, an opulence, like a treasure box. Regarding the
differences in the Omani frankincense oils, I like to say the white (howjary)
has more a green, herbal, butterfly note while the black has an orange floral
is the note that many people, including me, tend to lump in with the larger
category represented by the word incense. Technically, incense is any
hard-ish material – be it a wood (sandalwood, oud wood) or a resin or gum (like
myrrh, benzoin, copal, frankincense) – that can be slowly burned or smoked on a
coal to produce a purifying but fragrant smoke. Fragrances classified as
incense fragrances typically feature some ratio of frankincense to other
resins, balsams, and gums (most typically myrrh, but also benzoin, labdanum,
etc.), so many of the frankincense-themed fragrances on the list below are
actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something
Now, for someone’s who just written an 8,000-word essay on it, I feel compelled to tell you that I am deeply ambivalent about frankincense. For anyone who was born Catholic – or worse, Irish Catholic – the scent of frankincense is less an actual aroma than it is an emotional trigger, dredging up all the complex, long-buried feelings about an entire culture that revolves around the Roman Catholic Church. Or, as we refer to it in the hood, the RCC. All incense matters to us, but frankincense matters the most. It alone is the Proustian gun that fires straight into the Catholic hippocampus.
when it came to exploring the different categories of fragrance, it is perhaps
not surprising that I set off merrily down along the High Mass path, blundering
under the assumption that incense would be the bread and butter of my
collection. I had, after all, spent most of my childhood downwind of a censer.
But it turns out that – shocker – I much prefer a vision of High Mass filtered
through a romantic, hazy vision of half-remembered holiness over anything too
authentic. It is more than I am an incense lightweight than a lapsed Catholic,
although I am certainly also the latter.
Ironically, in the Before Times, despite me being a terrible excuse for a Catholic, I was living in Rome, in an apartment so close to St. Peter’s Basilica that my kitchen window could be spotted every time the camera panned out in The Young Pope. I am tempted to trot out a tired line about being able to throw a stick and hit the Pope, only in the case of Papa Francis, I think we’ve established that he is pretty cool with anything as long as you don’t try to grab his hand.
Anyway, this enormous building and its Holiest of inhabitants set the pace for much of my life in Rome. I used the gleaming, opalescent curves of its imposing colonnade to guide me through the darkness of pre-dawn runs. I crossed the square (more of a circle) most weekend days, ducking and weaving my way through the tight knots of tourists, street hawkers, and selfie sticks in a mindless, amoeba-like daze. You can’t buy an espresso or a gelato in this neighborhood without elbowing your way past a priest, nun, or monk.
But you can get used to anything, and when you live right next to something like St. Peter’s Basilica, you get used to that too. It just becomes part of your day-to-day life. Mostly, I orbited St. Peter’s in a friendly, non-Catholic way and felt it to exist as an almost secular building in my line of vision, sometimes obstructing where I needed to go, other times making me pause to marvel at its sheer size or the way it glowed like a rose gold beacon in the evening.
But every now and then, there would be a religious procession, either from a local parish or a visiting church from Latin America, and I would smell the incense pouring off the censer again, and I walk straight into it, seeking it out the way your finger finds an old scar to worry at. I like to think that I am alert to the dangers of being pulled back in by the ancient Catholic drugs of knee-trembling beauty, architectural grandeur, and the straight-to-the-heart punch of frankincense. It is pure mind-fuckery. But sometimes, I just can’t help myself.
enough of my pontiff-icating (I’m here all night, folks) – here are a
few frankincense-dominated compositions to chew over.
Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense
have owned bottles, decants, and samples of the some of the biggest players in
the High Mass corner of the incense genre, and my personal favorite is Cardinal
(Heeley). Compared to Avignon (Comme des Garcons) and Full Incense
(Montale) – the two other High Mass scents with which Cardinal is most often
grouped – Cardinal smells like incense from the priest’s censer wafting at you through
shafts of sunshine, fresh air, and white sheets fluttering on a brisk breeze.
it is very dry, it is not tremendously dark or smoky, and therefore, not
forbidding. The aldehydes lift the spirits as well as the scent itself, and the
papery-sweet benzoin makes me think of vellum sheet music soaked in vanilla,
strung out over a line to dry. I appreciate the elegantly-slanted, sideways
approach to church incense that Cardinal employs because it gives me the vague
whiff of spirituality without dragging me back to Mass.
(Robert Piguet) – Spicy
incense field is so crowded by giants (Cardinal, Avignon, LAVS) that it is
difficult to carve out a spot. Casbah manages – just about – by clothing the
hollow, Coca-Cola-ish effervescence of Avignon in a peppery fog akin to dry
ice. It is much richer than Cardinal and much drier than the fizzy soda-soap
that is Montale’s Full Incense.
down into the details, Casbah also has a curiously antiseptic thread running
through it, but a subtle one – more the rubbery squeak of a hospital gurney
against a freshly-sluiced floor rather than full-out disinfectant. This is not
due to any ghost ‘oud’ note, but to an organic fudge of angelica and nutmeg. I
like its medieval darkness and grunginess because it makes no apologies for
being the curmudgeon of the pack. In fact,
Casbah reads more like one of Santa Maria Novella’s older, less photo-ready
concoctions than a Piguet.
Armani PrivéBois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense
minimalistic, airy, and remarkably boring concoction of frankincense over a
polished cedar or Iso E Super base. Despite critics and bloggers writing a paeon
of praise to this bellwether of bellwethers of the incense genre, I was never
able to ‘get’ its supposed complexity. To my nose, it is a micro explosion of
black pepper and frankincense e/o inside a very small (but perfectly chic)
black vase. Though perfectly formed – well, everyone keeps saying it is anyway –
it is too featureless to leave much of an impression on me.
Czech & Speake Frankincense and Myrrh – Honest Frankincense
straight-forward blend of frankincense and myrrh that unites the dusty, waxen
‘old wooden furniture’ mien of myrrh to the lemony-piney detergent freshness of
frankincense, and pretty much calls it a day. It smells unimpeachably natural
and clean, more like an eau de cologne with a resinous backdrop than the
smokier, heavier takes on incense that modern niche specializes in. It smells
like a church floor rigorously cleansed after Mass with buckets full of hot
water (there is a hissy steam or mineral note), lemon-scented detergent, and
bunches of minty, rooty herbs like lavender and clary sage stirred in for good
drydown is much better than the opening; the strident lemon high notes of the
frankincense drop off, allowing the fragrance to swan elegantly into a
protracted finish of clean, unsmoked resin and wooden bannisters polished to a
high shine. Absolutely no smoke, no sugar, no Eastern mysticism, no Catholic
High Mass. Czech & Speake’s Frankincense and Myrrh strips the two headliner
resins back to their core, demonstrating that you don’t have to bathe resins in
orientalia for them to smell good.
Mad et Len Noir Encens – Amaretto Frankincense
Encens is not noir or, indeed, particularly encens. Rather, it is
a cozy gourmand in the hazelnut-amaretto-over-iced-milk vein of Hypnotic
Poison, only much less loud. It manages that very chic, very French balance of
edible and semi-poisonous notes. Its milky, anisic softness in the drydown
reminds me somewhat of Gucci Eau de Parfum, the one with the brown juice in the
clear glass bottle.
Paul Schütze Behind the Rain – Wild Frankincense
the Rain is one of those wild, freeform bag of ‘smells’ that the perfumer seems
to have corralled in from his atmosphere – a liquid message from his world to
ours, a bundling up of the collected smells of the woodshop and the painter’s
studio. It is green-brown, vegetal, sharp, and more than slightly weird. But it
is also deeply invigorating. Something in it electrifies me.
the Rain is nominally a modern incense perfume à la Comme des Garcons. Yet from
within the sleek lines of its minimalist architecture emanates the smells of
Olde World Europe – oil lamps, liniment, centuries-old wood, glue bindings,
turpentine, anise-scented toothpaste, and horsehair brushes idling in glasses
of solvent. A dusty frankincense turns the polished wood and oily aromas of the
workshop into a (homey) place of worship.
might be an indoor scent entirely were it not for the wet rootiness of fennel,
mastic, vetiver, and all manner of violently-uprooted vegetation sweeping gusts
of air into closed rooms with their strange prairie outdoorsiness. The scent
has one foot inside, one foot outside, ready to bolt in a Heathcliffian huff.
Behind the Rain is imagined along the same lines as Marescialla by Santa Maria
Novella and Olibanum by Profumum –more a summoning of the elements than a scent.
Thank God perfumes like this still exist.
is the third point on the triangulation of what I like to call the ‘powdered
sugar incense’ category, between the rose champagne fizz of Maria Candida
Gentile’s Sideris and the doughnutty yumminess of Reve d’Ossian (Oriza L.
Legrand). I am drawn to the gently edible edge to these incense perfumes,
because they calm the naturally sharp angles of frankincense by filtering it
through the haze of powdered sugar that rises off a sweet bun when you bite
is thickly dusted with the double powder whammy of iris and benzoin in its
topnotes and made slightly sherbety with the addition of rose or lemon. As
others before me have pointed out, this combination of iris and incense is
reminiscent of the Tauerade present in both Incense Rosé and Les Années 25
(Tauer), although far less powerful or astringent – Rosarium is softly, sweetly
bready, rather than battery acid radiant.
what really makes Rosarium special is the carrot seed accent, which gives the
powdery incense sweetness an unusually earthy-rooty depth. This smells like
metal slicing through upturned earth, but also like a warm, mealy pulp made of
sawdust and rainwater. The carrot seed effect makes my mouth water, although
technically there is nothing edible about it. I notice that the carrot seed
present in Santal Blush (Tom Ford) has a similar effect, except for the
addition of cumin, which makes it even wheatier.
combination of sweet incense dust, milk-soaked Easter bread, and metallic earth
or hazelnuts in Rosarium is pretty wonderful, and if my ‘powdered sugar
incense’ needs weren’t already being met by the brighter, more natural-smelling
Sideris, I would seriously think about putting it on my putative ‘To Buy’ list
(whereupon it would likely languish for years).
Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense
It sounds explosive, which is strange, because it smells explosive too,
especially when it tumbles out in that first, aldehyded rush of sugared pine
needles, frankincense, and cinnamon-dipped red fruits. The pine ‘flavor’ in Wazamba
is the connecting dot (for me) between the coniferous notes and the naturally
piney facet of frankincense. As with its close relative, Filles en Anguilles by
Serge Lutens, the pine notes read as something sunlit and Mediterranean, rather
than snowy and Northern, a feeling cleverly underlined by a tangy cypress note.
Wazamba, the umbrella pines are bent sideways by a Bora or a Sirocco, the soil
beneath them is springy with orange-brown pine needles, and everything is warm,
dry, and aromatic. It is an extremely fruity scent, if you stand back and look
at it from a distance – dried plum and cranberries, I think, more than apple.
But up close, the piney-coniferous freshness of the woods proves an effective
bridle, slowing the roll of the fruit and sobering it up. There is also quite a
lot of clove or cinnamon, which manifests as a dustiness or chalkiness of
texture in the gradient of the wood rather than as a hotly-spiced standalone accent.
I think Wazamba proves that, in the right hands, heavy-duty stuff like plum or myrrh
and frankincense can be manipulated to take up the shape of light filtering
through sea-leaning pine trees. Nice (but non-essential).
Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense
the past ten years or so, as supplies of it dwindled and the secondary market
dried up, Norma Kamali Incense has attained legendary status approaching that
of the 1804 Bust Dollar for coin collectors or the Pikachu Illustrator Card for
Pokémon fans. Only the original Djedi (Guerlain), Iris Gris (Jacques Fath), and
Chypre (Coty) top it for rarity and collector value, though modern tastes
probably lean more towards the Norma Kamali. But how much of the appreciation
for Norma Kamali Incense is due to its unavailability and how much to its
intrinsic qualities as a scent?
bought and sold a 10ml decant of the later edition and tested two sample vials
of it – one a cognac brown from (presumably) the early edition and the other a
yellowy gold (later edition) – I suspect that it is the former. Norma Kamali is
striking, but perhaps not as unique as people assume. I smell echoes of it in Amber
Absolute and Sahara Noir (both Tom Ford), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio),
the original Messe de Minuit (Etro), Calling All Angels (April Aromatics), DEV#4
(Olympic Orchids), and 03. Apr. 1968 (Rundholz).
connects all of these to Norma Kamali Incense is the bittersweet, smoky quality
of the labdanum material used, maybe due to a touch of Hydrocarboresine, a
Biolandes-owned natural derivative of cistus-labdanum, which lends perfumes a
rich ‘High Mass’ incense effect that lurches between the bitterness of
buckwheat honey and the sweetness of toffee. Aside from the Hydrocarboresine,
it seems to lean heavily on a nexus of copal – a South American resin that
smells herbaceously bitter (burnt bay leaf) – a rubbery myrrh, and a hulking
block of super-dry labdanum that smells like a leather saddle smoldering in the
grate of a fire. The Hydrocarboresine is instrumental to creating that oddly
animalic, stale, waxy awfulness that is half holy, half-demons-summoned-from-the-depths-of-hell.
Kamali Incense is undeniably characterful, but you have to be up for that
particular brand of gloom when you put it on. This is a scent that demands the
commitment of the whole day – God help you if you think you’re just going to be
able to dab on a bit, test it, and then wash it off again. It has a strange way
of making you feel as if you are choking on the ashy fumes of a censer swinging
directly over your head (with you desperately wishing the priest would move on
so you can breathe again). Phenomenally burnt, colossal in stature, and more
than a bit overwhelming, Norma Kamali Incense would be, I feel, slightly a bit
too over the top for confession, unless you’re confessing to the Devil himself in
the ashes of Notre Dame (in which case it would be perfect).
Incense Flash (Tauerville) – Frankincense Haiku
what it says on the tin, Incense Flash presents a somewhat abbreviated but
nonetheless satisfying picture of incense resins half-smoked on the censer. It
leads the charge with a piney frankincense and quickly adds in the tarrier,
bootstrap molasses nuances of myrrh for heft. It is smoky, but this is due to
the resins themselves rather than the addition of birch tar, so there is still
air to breathe and it never quite tips over into acridity.
is some rubber and fuel detritus floating around in the frankincense accord,
but that is just the nature of frankincense – anyone’s who has ever bought or
burned any will recognize this aspect immediately. The dry woods and Ambroxan
in the base are less satisfying to me. I am never sold on the ‘clean starched
shirt taken off an aftershave-doused male body’ accord this tandem births like
a malevolent serpent into the world. Yet it is never as aggressively
‘soap-powder-shot-into-your-nostrils’ as Incense Extrême, a small mercy for
which I am very grateful.
main issue with this scent is that it smells like something I could knock
together myself. There is a lazy, homemade edge to this that disappoints.
Incense Flash is very fairly priced, but it is one of those products that make
you aware of the mark-up exactly at the point you’re consuming it, like the
store-bought apple tart that tastes fine, but you can taste that they cut a few
corners and just knocked it out onto the production line in time for the 5 o’
clock rush, so you’re kind of questioning even the measly €6 you spent on it.
Sombre Negra(Yosh) – Frankincense Fougère
world’s first frankincense fougère? Someone is going to write an angry letter
contradicting me on that. I don’t care. Listen up, ladies, because I am writing
this for you. Sombre Negra is written about as one of the standout incense
fragrances of the genre. I have no issue with the incense part of the equation.
The promised ‘blackness’ is all there – a gorgeously sooty, dusty frankincense
seemingly swept out from under the censers and grates of Europe’s most commanding
cathedrals with the sole purpose of putting the fear of God in you and making
you repent. It is dour. It is suitably sturm-und-drang.
and really, women, listen up because I am slowly but inexorably getting to the
point – the other half of this fragrance is your brother’s shirt collar circa
1985. Remember the male aroma of shirts soaked in enough Drakkar Noir to scour
the bath? Remember the posturing and the putting on of that older male ‘skin’
to be able to face the world in all their pimpled, trembling glory? Have you
ever had to lie in the bed of a young male relative while a-visiting and known
the horror of those clammy, Brut-soaked sheets that made you wish you could
disassociate from your own body? Ladies, I have three brothers and four male
cousins. I do not mock. I am merely reminding you.
Flamboyant opens with a peculiar note of stale fag ash, like clothes after a
night out in a disco, its breath freshened up a tiny bit by a fir balsam or
pine note. There is nothing particularly joyful or uplifting about the frankincense.
It creates instead a cool, flat grey-green aura that reminds me of mold
crumbling into dust on a piece of bread.
There is a dry, metallic tinge to Encens Flamboyant that makes it quite similar
in feel (if not scent) to Tauer’s Incense Extrême – they share a certain
austerity and ‘bareness’ of structure. It also shares that notorious stale
cigarette note with Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette, though that is a
fragrance I like much better because the fag ash is balanced out by a minty
green (and surprisingly cheap-smelling) jasmine note that makes it feel like
someone covering up the scent of a sneaky cigarette with a drugstore ‘floral-ish’
cologne. Encens Flamboyant, lacking that little quirk of humor, feels a bit like
wearing a hair shirt.
Tinkerbell and the Archangel Gabriel got together to make a perfume, Sideris is
what they would come up with. Two things are important to mention here –
radiance and scale. Radiance-wise, Maria Candida Gentile has somehow managed to
take the heaviest and stickiest substances in perfumery – French labdanum, frankincense,
myrrh, beeswax – and infuse the whole thing with light and air. This is a
perfume that radiates. It glows. In fact, what hits you first, when you spray
it on, is this incredible note of powdered sugar, the result of a diffuse mix
of frankincense and rose. This powdered sugar note coats the entire perfume
from head to toe, a sort of fairy dust sifted over the heavier resins. A gentle
shake of the spice jar – pepper and ginger – add to the sprightly,
nose-tingling effect. The dust is finally anchored and settled at the base by
is nothing synthetic in feel or reach of the incense here. And yet, Sideris
achieves an unearthly radiance that would normally only be possible with Iso E
Super or another woody amber material. Incredible.
important to me, however, is the fact that even in the crowded field of incense
scents, Sideris manages to distinguish itself as a completely different beast.
It is not one of those soaring High Mass perfumes like Avignon by Comme des
Garcons or LAVS by UNUM, scents which take incense, blow it up into
cathedral-sized places of worship, and instill a sense of gloom and awe into
Sideris is an incense-based perfume scaled to infinitely more humble
proportions. You can tell that a woman made this. It is a quiet moment of
reflection over a cup of tea. It is the private rolling out of a prayer mat in
your bedroom as dawn approaches. More than anything, it is a priest sweeping
out the steps of the church as he opens up for the day, the mica from the dust
glittering in the sun as he gives you a grin and a lusty ‘Buongiorno!’ on your
way to get an espresso.
don’t have to be a Catholic or go to church to like this. I put this on, and no
matter what kind of bad day I am having, I feel like I am floating around in my
own personal cloud of magic fairy dust, protected by all the bad juju around
Fumée (Miller Harris) – Fresh
is funny how sometimes it’s the fragrances you wear the most are the ones you
never bother to write about. I am on my second bottle of this elegant woods and
resins concoction, and yet now when I sit down to put pen to paper, I realize I
have never really analyzed the notes. La Fumée performs quietly in the
background of your day, like smoke from incense or oud embedded in the fabric
of your clothes. It starts off on a greenish frankincense note, like crushed
pine needles, pepper, and lemons, creating a fresh, masculine vibe that continues
for much of the scent.
Wafting in and out of the composition is a light smoke note from a combination
of the cade and birch tar, but there is also a dry labdanum in the mix,
performing its teetering act between tinder-dry paper that’s about to catch
fire and liquid tar. Creamy sandalwood takes over from the piney, terpenic
facets of the frankincense, nudging the scent into a faintly sweet-and-sour
sweat direction. But none of that describes how easy this scent is to wear, or
how pleasurable in its humming-in-the-background way. Whereas other resin
scents hit you over the head, this one wears like an elegant, transparent veil
that exists only at the corner of your field of vision. Like a former boyfriend
of mine, it is small but perfectly formed.
frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is central to its
aroma, and this is precisely the characteristic that Absolute Frankincense has
chosen to highlight. The scent extends the silvery bite of the resin by
flanking it with a lime-like bergamot and some very natural-smelling coniferous
notes. The result smells clean and high-toned – an expression of frankincense
oil itself, as opposed to the burnt, smoky notes of the resin as it bubbles on
who love the more severe takes on frankincense such as Annick Goutal’s Encens
Flamboyant will appreciate Absolute Frankincense. Just be aware that this oil
is monastic in its approach, and that the green purity of the resin has been
prioritized far above the smoky, resinous, or sweet notes that usually flank
frankincense. This is the cold, smooth smell of the unburned resin itself, an
almost exact match to the aroma of the resin when you rub it between the palms
of your hands. My criticism is that Absolute Frankincense is almost too simple
– too close to the aroma of good quality frankincense oil itself – to be worth
the cost of entry.
All Angels (April Aromatics)
– Butter Caramel Frankincense
All Angels is perhaps one of my favorite incense compositions, and although it mostly
centers around a tremendously complex, bittersweet labdanum material (helped
along, I suspect, by a dose of the Biolandes Hydrocarboresine, a natural derivative
of cistus-labdanum that gives both Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali their utterly
toothsome burnt honey/cinder toffee quality), there is a huge dose of sooty
frankincense in the opening half that firmly establishes the holy side of the
holy-slash-edible equation that this scent has going on.
All Angels smells like incense smoking and spluttering to a halt inside a stone
jar of chestnut honey so ancient it’s become a stiff brown paste. I can never decide
if it is is the kind of thing you slather yourself in when you want someone to eat
you or the kind of thing you wear to commune with a Higher Power, but maybe that’s
nel Vento (Bois 1920) – Frankincense
Dior’s Mitzah, April Aromatics Calling All Angels, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, Contre
Bombarde 32, and Bois 1920’s own Real Patchouly, Vento nel Vento blurs the
lines between amber, incense, spices, and woods, making it rather difficult to
pin down. Which is exactly what I like about it. It’s not pure frankincense –
its frankincense plus all the other stuff I like (probably a lot more
than straight-up frank).
nel Vento is not, to be clear, ground-breaking stuff. But it is a good
kitchen-sink of a thing that’s perfect for when you feel like wearing something
warm and resinous without condemning yourself to a full day of enough
straight-up amber to put you in a sugar coma or an incense so monastic that it turns
into a hair shirt by dinnertime. The opening is all about balmy, dark
frankincense paired and smoky labdanum resin, lifted by a thyme or rosemary
note that makes me want to bite my arm. The herb is phenolic, like smoke rising
off a tar pit – akin to the burnt thyme note atop Interlude Man.
Although it is not sweet, the smoke and herbs are balanced out by a smooth, round edible quality. Perhaps it is the lemony cream of the elemi resin or, again, that Hydrocarboresine material from Biolandes. Whatever it is, it reads like soft black licorice vines, the mild ones perched precisely between sweet and salty and whose major selling point is their satisfying yield as you bite into them. The slightly tarry, smoky labdanum stretches out into the heart, and as the thyme and frankincense taper off, it is joined by a smooth amber and patchouli.
There is a small touch of oud in the heart, enough to give it an interesting
sourness that smacks of wood chips and herbs soaked in water before distilling.
Often, incensey ambers or ambery incenses ruin the effect by having one element
stick out too much, such as a too-sharp herbal note, an overly piney
frankincense, or an overload of vanilla. In Vento nel Vento, the whole is
perfectly round, smooth, and integrated. No one note catches at your skin like
a forgotten clothes pin.
Vento nel Vento starts off with immense volume (sillage) but does a surprisingly gentle fade-out, becoming very quiet after 3-4 hours. In the base, an ambergris note contributes a musky, salted caramel glaze to the finish. It is subtle – not so much the smell of ambergris tincture itself with its usual marine and earthy funk, rather the effect of white ambergris, which has little scent of its own. White ambergris, the finest grade, acts instead as a magnifying glass held up to the other notes in the composition. Here, it adds a sensual, skin-like glow that animates the resins, amber, and sandalwood like blowing onto hot coals.
Noir (Tom Ford) – Frank
inexplicably discontinued as its sibling, Amber Absolute, Sahara Noir is for
many the standout of the frankincense field. It has the advantage of being both
familiar and novel at the same time, essentially dusting off the black pepper
frankincense core of Black Cashmere (Donna Karan), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford),
and even Black (Comme des Garcons), before adding cinnamon and tobacco to
highlight the authentically dusty-sooty texture of the frankincense, and burnt
sugar and orange rind for a sweet-n-sour brightness that illuminates its
darkness. Though quite sharp at first, once it settles in a bit, what you
notice about Sahara Noir is just how smooth and high-gloss it actually is (a
sort of Tom Ford signature, I think).
objectively speaking, this is obviously a really solid fragrance – well made,
with good quality materials, rich and warm, yet true to the chilly coniferous
sting of frankincense. However, since I have owned and then sold or swapped
away two whole bottles of this monster, there is obviously something about
Sahara Noir that isn’t doing it for me at a personal level. The best I can come
up with is that it is two-thirds the way to Amber Absolute, which only serves
to remind me that I’d much rather be wearing Amber Absolute instead.
Holy Terror(Arcana) – Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens
the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product
description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk,
thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord. The myrrh and
frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather
than as accurate representations of their natural selves. So, for example,
there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as
frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to
myrrh. Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular. Indeed,
they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.
point out that Holy Terror smells more resin-like or ‘generically resinous’ is, by the way, not a criticism but an
observation. Some people blind buy incense or resin scents because they are
trying to find something that accurately represents the aroma of a specific
resin, like, for example, unlit frankincense, oud wood (rather than the oil),
myrrh, or copal. Incense freaks tend to be very specific about the effect they
are looking for. Therefore, my note about the nature of the resins in Holy
Terror is simply for clarification.
Terror is more about the homely smell of incense-scented things than High Mass.
It is not dark or massively smoky or acrid. It is not a literal incense or burning resin scent like Avignon (Comme
des Garcons). It is sweet herbs, tree sap, and woodsmoke wrapped in a
just-snuffed-out candlewax accord. It is slightly musky, which creates a tinge
of intimacy, like the skin of someone pressing close to you in church. This
gives the scent a human aura that is enormously inviting.
ÂmeSombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute
The Âme Sombre series (Âme Sombre Oud Infusion, Âme Sombre Grade 1, and Âme Sombre Grade II) was conceived as a tribute to, well, Tribute – the landmark frankincense-cedar attar from Amouage that has such a cult following that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a tiny squib of it. Naturally, when Amouage discontinued its line of attars, the desire for Tribute increased even further. Nothing enhances Holy Grail status for a scent like scarcity and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it. Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha stepped in with his take on the original.
Âme Sombre variations revolve
around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like
smoke from the censer at High Mass. This frankincense is surrounded by a very
good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine. The florals never quite succeed in
speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense –
they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like light
through a stained glass window. In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco,
ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky
bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres. The bitterness is alleviated
somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies
Infusion Oud is the most expensive and
opulent version of Âme Sombre.
It rivals or even surpasses the cost of the original Tribute, due to the
time-consuming and messy task of infusing a small quantity of Âme Sombre Grade I with smoke from
sinking grade oud wood chips, which Sultan heated on a burner directly
underneath the attar itself.
Infusion version therefore contains the uniquely clean, resinous aroma that
comes from heating oud wood (as opposed to the fermented, ‘overripe’ aroma of
pure oud oil). The oud infusion doubles down on the rich smokiness of the
frankincense, but also offers a slightly green sweetness that serves to soften
the essentially bitter character of the scent. This version, although expensive
and now also possibly discontinued, is the most balanced version of Tribute,
and my personal favorite.
Grade I and Âme Sombre Oud
Infusion both relate closely to the original Tribute (albeit with a bigger
emphasis on rose), and either would be an excellent substitute for the now
discontinued attar. Âme Sombre
Grade II differs quite dramatically from both the Oud Infusion and Grade I, but
I like it a lot as a standalone scent and wish it had been marketed
Grade I begins with an incredibly lush,
lemony rose that has the effect of flooding the gloomy church corridors with
light and air. Rose is usually added to oud to give it a sweet juiciness to
counteract its sour, stark woodiness, and here it plays that role both for the
austere, pine-like frankincense and
the sourish cedar. Then a clutch of dark, balmy resins and leather notes moves
in to draw a black velvet cloak over the bright, sourish rose, rendering the
tone of the attar somber and serious. Grade I is slightly darker, more
phenolic, and more sour-rosy in feel than the Oud Infusion, which draws sweet
woodsmoke notes from the agarwood infusion. Grade I also employs more of a
focus on balmy leather notes than the other versions.
Âme Sombre Grade I feels more
Northern in tone than Middle-Eastern. There is a fresh juniper note in the
background that further bolsters this ‘Orthodox Church in a chilly Northern
forest’ tonality. In terms of overall approach, Âme Sombre Grade I is perhaps the closest to the original Tribute
with its stark, smoky cedar-frankincense combination. It is also intensely
powerful, lasting on my skin all day and well beyond a shower.
Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) – Pure Frankincense
frankincense as taut and as vegetal as a piece of freshly-peeled silver birch. The
vin jaune of the incense genre, Incense Pure does not smell of High
Mass, but of the bright, sticky sap weeping from the tree itself, softened by the
powdery green smell of living wood. Plenty of fresh air swirls in and around
the frankincense molecules here, cutting and lifting them without (interestingly)
adding any the citrusy ‘lime peel’ nuances normally associated with
frankincense. It smells like an outdoors cathedral, its roof formed by a
closely-knit canopy of wiry spruce and oak saplings. Extremely dry and bright,
I always feel like I need a glass of water when I wear Incense Pure. An ambery
warmth in the lower register – intermittent
at best – adds a relieving warmth, if not any real sweetness.
those looking to get into incense perfumes, Basilica is a great starting point.
Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense,
this blend smells purely of High Mass. It is not complicated or indeed complex,
but its straightforwardness is part of its charm. In particular, the
naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky –
makes this an absolute pleasure. Soft and soulful, Basilica is like Comme des
Garcons’ Avignon in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it
should come with a trigger warning.
(Profumum) – Polished
skips the high-pitched lime peel notes of most frankincense renditions, instead
focusing almost entirely on the material’s rooty, medicinal sootiness. There
are some very fine Omani frankincense varieties, like Hojari, that display a
soft creamy-tangy orange note up top instead of the usual lime leaf, and this
is what Profumum has cleverly chosen to mimic here with its brief splash of
orange in the topnotes.
Rather than resin, I get the impression of dark, shiny, polished woods, an
ancient armoire maybe, carved from a single trunk of pine felled in some cold
North clime. It smells like what I imagine wenge smells like – the hidden
underbelly of wood, closest to the core, where no light penetrates. A
particularly mineralic, earthy myrrh deepens this impression. This one stirs
me. I might have to get a travel bottle.
Al Masih(Mellifluence) – Messianic Frankincense
Masih means Messiah in Arabic, one of the many names for Jesus. And to a
certain extent, Al Masih’s incense is
more Catholic High Mass than Islamic cannon. Al Masih opens with a frankincense
note as piercing as freshly-crushed pine needles, its citric edge underscored
by a lemony tandem of elemi resin and petitgrain. The total effect is of a
Mediterranean church with its doors thrown open to allow the soft breeze
brushing over mastic to mingle with the scent of unburned resin. Cypress,
cedar, and hyssop all add to its fresh, outdoorsy air, confirming that churches
are not the only places where communion with a Greater Spirit takes place.
drydown is a surprise. The sharp brightness of the herbs and resins softens, before
collapsing entirely into the sensual creaminess of sandalwood. The sandalwood
lends a golden, wholesome texture to the scent, recalling the bounty of the
harvest and all the good things to eat stored in the cellar. This series of
transitions has the effect of shifting the scene from the wildness of the maquis
to a soft and homely devotion scaled to domestic proportions. At once evocative
and pleasing, Al Masih might strike a chord for lovers of outdoorsy incense, as
well as those who love the ‘medicinal unguent’ bent of modern Italian artisanal
perfumery – think Bogue and O’Driu, albeit far, far simpler.
Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense
pine needles (frankincense) and juniper berries whipped into an egg-white
vanilla froth. Eau Duelle is really good and really simple – an essay on the
duality of two opposing elements of a cool, spicy frankincense-black tea accord
and a warm, woody vanilla. To non-French speakers, the name could also be
suggestive of a duel, an old-fashioned fight to the death between two forces.
Everything about Eau Duelle just clicks right into place. The opening is cold and aromatic, fizzy with a spray of pink pepper and juniper berries. Hiding behind the aromatic spices and black tea is a robust vanilla that is sweet enough to give pause, but – at least in the eau de parfum version – thankfully made a little bitter, rough, and woody with the addition of Ambroxan. Yep, you read that right. I praised a perfume that has Ambroxan in it. Don’t get too used to it. Eau Duelle happens to be the rare example of a fragrance that’s greatly improved by a dollop of Ambroxan.
It is worth pointing something out about the frankincense note here. It presents as not the freshly-lit, High Mass kind of frankincense, but rather, the waxy, almost herbal scent lingering in the air of incense long since extinguished. The vanilla is sharpened by the slight evergreen edge of a frankincense hangover. The texture is something special, with a starchy, papery feel to it that makes me think of freshly-opened books.
Like most Diptyques, Eau Duelle wears lightly and unobtrusively but has a presence substantial enough to surprise you in fits and bursts throughout the day. I love the idea of a non-cakey vanilla paired with a green, effervescent frankincense, and though admittedly quite plain and non-charismatic, Eau Duelle just floats my boat.
On a personal note, in January 2015, I contracted a serious virus that made me anosmic for about six weeks, and Eau Duelle was the first perfume that I was able to smell again as I was recovering. Therefore, whenever I smell it now, those feelings of gratitude and euphoria come flooding back. Like Parfum Sacre, Eau Duelle will always be something I love almost absent-mindedly, in that fuzzy, all-love-no-logic way we love our children.
Arturetto Landi has done with 03.Apr.1968 is to take the minimalist structure
of church incense and flesh it out with a gaudy array of rich, bitter, and
tooth-rottingly sweet flavors. It smells like a fat wodge of Christmas cake
doused in brandy and set to burn on a priest’s censer alongside a hulking lump
of frankincense. Underneath these smoky, soiled-fruit aromas, there is an
enticing whiff of heliotrope, a huge purple chunk of marzipan charred at the
edges. Smoke fights with burned sugar, and we all win.
The fruit, in particular, is what makes this incense smell unholy, so unclean. It is supposedly lychee, but really it could be any fruit – apples, raisins, dates – because the fruit is so close to collapse that all you can smell are the high-pitched alcohol fumes of decay that belong exclusively to fruit. Joined by a dry frankincense that flits queasily between clove and bay leaf, the fruit is anything but wholesome. Luca Turin was the first to point out that the appeal of Amouage’s Lyric Woman lay in its ‘plangent, overripe note, the exhalation of forgotten fruit in a sealed room.’ The rotting fruit note achieves a similar effect for 03.Apr.1968, at first coming off as a little stomach-churning, but then working to moisten and plump up the bitter, austere incense.
Many people have compared 03.Apr.1968 to the late, great Norma Kamali Incense, and yes, there is most certainly a kinship. The frankincense used here is similarly dry and almost stale, lacking all the citrusy, pine-like nuances usually associated with it. Reacting with the fruit, booze, and sugar, the frankincense takes on the spicy bitterness I associate with copal resin, which along with smoky labdanum is what gives Norma Kamali its unique character.
But in truth, 03.Apr.1968 occupies the same general category of incense as Norma Kamali rather than smelling exactly like it. They are both fatty and overstuffed, the very opposite of the crisply tailored haikus of Comme des Garcons. They are both rather unwholesome – the type of thing to wear to a bacchanalia rather than to church. In truth, though, although traces of it are present in the ‘bones’ of several other incense perfumes, nothing really smells precisely like Norma Kamali Incense. However, for my money, the puffy, burned sugar heliotrope makes 03.Apr.1968 the easier wear.
Well, I say easier, but it is by no means easy. This is a potent fragrance that takes commitment to wear, and even then I would only attempt it when the barometer goes below 10 degrees Celsius. Only three notes are listed: frankincense, lychee, and heliotrope, but the overall effect is so rich and multi-dimensional that I wonder if that’s really the notes list or if the perfumer is so skilled that he was able to wrangle a wealth of detail out of these raw materials.
Sources of Samples/Bottles:All reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store – with the exception of the sample of Absolute Frankincense, a sample of which was kindly sent to me free of charge by Clive Christian at the beginning of 2017. My blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review.
What is myrrh? Myrrhis a gum produced by the Commiphorah myrrha species of tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and North-East Africa. Deriving from the Arabic word مر (mur), meaning ‘bitter’, myrrh oil is used all over Arabia, China, and India as a traditional medicine.
Oil versus resin: Myrrh oil is quite different from myrrh resin. Myrrh oil can be bitter, rubbery-smelling, and often quite saline (mushroomy). The resin smells earthier, slightly sweet, with musty undertones – when lit, it smells quite smoky (well, duh).
What does myrrh smell like? While frankincense is a soaring series of sunny, high-pitched notes like lime peel or crushed pine needles, myrrh is dark, fungal, and gloomy, reminding one of the dark shadows behind massive stone pillars in a cathedral, signed pine, tar, anise, licorice, and the scent of freshly-sliced ceps. It can be soapy, fatty, or rooty. In perfumery, myrrh lends a subtle, earthy tone pitched halfway between soil and stone. It has a sepulchral quality, leading some to categorize it as Gothic or moldy.
Some facets of myrrh are intensely bitter, while some smell like sweet licorice, anise, or rubber. Often the resin smells latex-y and saline (in cookery terms, if frankincense is a citrus fruit, myrrh is volcanic salt).
Personally, I often perceive myrrh as smelling ‘hollow’, as if there were a tear in the fabric of the fragrance where the aroma is supposed to be (a sort of negative space). Myrrh has a deeply atmospheric smell, redolent of the air inside centuries-old European cathedrals.
are some examples of myrrh-based fragrances, or fragrances where myrrh plays an
unexpected or pivotal role, even if unlisted.
Velours (Les Indémodables) – Fog
a magisterial – and wholly original – take on myrrh. I find something new to
marvel at every time I wear it. Fresh spearmint, spruce, rosemary, and fennel pollen
crushed hard between my fingers, releasing a bitter, foresty odor into the
chill night air, where it meets the equally bitter, foresty myrrh in its
natural habitat, oozing from a hundred different cracks in a tree stem. But not
the twisted, sun-battered husks of Commiphorah myrrha tree native to the
Arabian Peninsula and North-Eastern Africa – imagine instead a Northern pine or
spruce standing tall in a Scandinavian forest, weeping big fat sticky tears of
myrrh, which magically disintegrate into a million powdery spores once they leave
The texture of the scent is important to note. Though both fir balsam and myrrh are sticky, dense, resinous materials that are about as easy to manipulate as a tin of molasses, here they seem to cancel each other out and disperse through the air in a sheen of glittering, super-fine mica. The effect is of myrrh and mint plunged into a dust cloud of ‘matte’ peppery notes that smell half like the business end of a just-lit firework and half like the sharp, grey chemical fog emitted by an over-enthusiastic fog machine (think Baptême du Feu by Serge Lutens, the recent Crimson Rocks by Amouage, or Fleurs et Flammes by Antonio Alessandria for similar ‘fog machine’ or gunpowder effect).
The more I wear this, the more I think that the damp, mealy bog land vetiver used here plays the largest role in achieving this textural effect. Gunpowder, fireworks, sulfur – whatever it is, it makes the scent feel exciting and taut. The vetiver acts as a gray-green, washed out, faded piece of velvet tamping everything down, giving the scent a mellow, low-key grassiness that is nonetheless devoid of sunniness or light.
There is something so simultaneously cleansing and plush about this scent that it feels like being wrapped in ermine while breathing in the air of a snowy forest. I’d like to say that the experience feels wholly natural, but of course, it does not. Aside from the ‘fog machine’ or gunpowder effect, there is a tiny hint of that metallic aftershave undertone that anything pine or spruce-like brings to the party.
Happily, though I first perceived this first as a spoiling dose of Iso E Super, I have found that if I re-frame this note for myself as more of a hangover of pine than a deliberate application of some burnt-smelling wood aromachemical, then I can live with it. (I am good at talking myself through the rough spots in a scent that I really love).
Interestingly, the clash of vanilla against this aromatic set of notes, plus that gray-green nutmeal vetiver, creates a brief whoosh of something that feels as powdered and plush as a tin of cocoa powder blown out into hot glass. The ‘velour’ part of Oriental Velours is accurate even if the ‘oriental’ is not – this is old velvet and ancient wooden furniture collapsing with time into dust spores that carry the breath of the forest with them. Licorice, mint, grass, and root buried under acres of quiet, black dust.
(Huitième Art) – Myrrh for Myrrh Pussies
nugget of myrrh mercy-drowned in a pudding bowl of waxen vanilla, with a sweet
amber accord thickening it up like arrowroot. Myrrh will out, of course, and in
Myrrhiad, it comes through as the soft, sappy licorice accent running along the
back of the scent like rubber tracking. Think
the chewy licorice vines you get in the pick n’ mix at the cinema that are more
texture than flavor, rather than the oily, resinous, or mushroomy twang you
have in real myrrh. This is essentially myrrh for myrrh pussies, which might be
an accurate way of describing me. Balmy, vanillic – Bvlgari Black-lite. Love it.
du Doge (Eau d’Italie)– Myrrh
Like its brothers, Bois d’Ombre for the same brand, and Dzongkha for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Baume du Doges (Eau d’Italie) is emblematic of a period in Bertrand Duchaufour’s career when he seemed deeply interested in excavating the vegetal, vinegary side of resins for brilliant effect in incense compositions stuffed with dried fruit, smoky grasses and roots, and odd accents like whiskey or wet newspapers. The effect is that of sourness balanced by sugar and a hit of smoke – a sort of myrrh agrodolce.
form, the opening of Baume du Doge emits a sharp vetiver and cedarwood frequency
that smells like the burn in your throat of a particularly smoky Laphroaig.
This spicy burn is simultaneously calmed by a balmy orange milk accord and revived
with a clove note that splits the difference between a licked spoon and a
virulently camphoraceous mint. This creates a wonderful vanilla-orange-peel-incense
accord that smells like Christmas morning. The vanilla is restrained; just a smear
of something friendly to take the sting out of the astringent myrrh.
Because this is essentially a myrrh perfume. With its gloomy demeanor, myrrh is the sulky emo teen of the resin family, but here, a smile has been pasted on its face by way of a bright, boozy sparkle that feels like the crunch of cassonade on a crème brulée. The brown-gold depth this creates is not a million miles away from the deep dried fruit, vodka and whiskey notes in Ambre Russe (Parfums d’Empire), minus the black tea and leather notes that take that great perfume in another direction entirely. Still, I think it’s remarkable that both Baume du Doge and Ambre Russe manage to smell quietly but resolutely masculine, despite the presence of sugary, ‘edible’ notes.
richness of the resin against the vegetal tartness of the vetiver and cedarwood
smells absolutely right, as if the basic bones of this successful marriage
already existed in the air, waiting for a perfumer with vision to come along
and bring it all together. Unfortunately, Baume du Doge runs out of steam
quickly, getting quite threadbare in the drydown, so those looking for that
brilliant, rich orange peel incense and milk accord to be sustained throughout
may be disappointed.
Casati (Mona di Orio) – Flat-Coke Myrrh
Myrrh Casati is something of a head-scratcher. The first Mona di Orio fragrance to be composed by someone other than Mona herself, following her tragic death in 2011, it is rendered in a style that seems to deliberately side-step any of Mona di Orio hallmarks. It lacks the almost overbearingly rich, dirty woodiness of Vanille and Oud, the dry-ice almond musks from Ambre and Musc, and the harsh animalism of Nuit Noire and Cuir. Without these little olfactory clues that tucked so deftly into the sleeves of her work, I am lost. Myrrh Casati could be the work of anyone.
If her other perfumes are rich tapestries, then Myrrh Casati is a silk gauze. It is beautiful but simple to the point of being spare. The opening is particularly striking. A dark, dry spice note fuses with a warm, cinnamon-tinted Siam benzoin and sharp black pepper to form the exciting specter of tarry Coca-Cola. There is also an arresting black rubber tint to proceedings, prompted by saffron or the myrrh itself (which can sometimes smell like rubber or latex). But this opening salvo of richness or darkness quickly attenuates. Within minutes, all that remains on the skin is a vague glaze of something spicy and something minty-licoricey, loosely held together by the benzoin.
d’Iparie (L’Occitane) – Mossy
Apart from a honeyed, fruity (almost berried) topnote not present in the original, the reissue of Eau d’Iparie remains mostly the same as before – a very natural-smelling, balsamic myrrh fragrance that sets the myrrh in an outdoors context rather than in the typically dark, Gothic-churchy one.
The honeyed radiance of myrrh resin predominates at first, but soon, the scent shakes off this cozy mantle in favor of a flinty minerality, which smells to me very much like water running over moss-covered stones in a stream. With its unpretentious, earthy demeanor, Eau d’Iparie is the type of non-perfumey perfume that smells good to people for whom fragrance is a secondary ‘grooming’ thing rather than a full-on obsession.
America has Mandy Aftel, Australia has Teone Reinthal, and Europe has Annette Neuffer. I’m not sure why Annette doesn’t get the kind of attention that the other natural or indie perfumers do, but I suspect it has less to do with her natural talent than with her reluctance (as with many indie perfumers) to engage with the quid pro quo sleaze involved in the social media marketing and self-promotion that these days goes hand in hand with making and selling perfume.
If you want to see what Annette Neuffer can do, though, I beg you to try something like Avicenna Myrrha Mystica. She has a way of turning this rubbery, dense, semi-bitter resin into pure ether. Applying a balmy orange peel note to make the dusty myrrh bright and juicy, and surrounding the resin with a puffer jacket of velvety cocoa powder for comfort and depth, Neuffer feeds us a myrrh that’s been massaged into its most agreeable shape yet.
Mid-section, it develops a wonderfully damp (almost soggy) cardboard sweetness that reminds me a lot of Cocoa Tuberose by Providence Perfumery, and in fact, both scents share a soft, smudgy feel that is as sexy and endearing (to me) as the idea of Jeff Goldblum breathing on his spectacles to fog up the glass and clean them with the corner of his wooly sweater. Part cocoa powder, part flat Coca Cola, backlit with a dry hyraceum note that adds a faintly musky, funky quality to the myrrh.
But that orange peel persists, and that is what wins out in the end – a fresh, resinous orange (or perhaps a fresh, orange-tinted resin?). Either way, I find Avicenna Myrrha Mystica both utterly engrossing and a breeze to wear, and it is not often that you can say both things about myrrh, especially in an indie or all-natural take.
Essence Absolue is primarily a thick, rich floral vanilla but one in which a
dollop of bitter myrrh has been placed to keep things in balance. It smells
like bitter almonds, marzipan, and papery tobacco, all folded into a thick
vanilla and jasmine custard. When applied lightly or dabbed on, the cool, minty
anise of the myrrh emerges, backlighting the warm ambery vanilla. The jasmine
is so creamy and rich it almost takes on a coconut edge, briefly summoning up
the feel of a tropical gardenia. As an aside, the bottle is shaped like a butt.
And who doesn’t have shelf space for something shaped like a butt, I ask you sincerely?
de Minuit (Etro) – Sepulchral
always been puzzled when people would describe Messe de Minuit as a gloomy
fragrance, because until about a year ago, the only version with which I was
familiar was the modern one, which has been cleaned (and brightened) up so much
that none of the original descriptions of the scent made any sense. The latest
version of Messe de Minuit smells like a gloomy Italian cathedral with the
flood lights suddenly turned on and the doors thrown open to let the fresh air
in. It is an incredibly cheerful smell – bitter orange peel and mixed with the
lime-peel and pine brightness of unlit frankincense.
The older version, of which I now own a bottle, is a different story. Though still not quite as nihilistic as the very first version, the reaction to which saw Etro scuttling back to the drawing board to ‘fix’ it, the dour, fungal dampness of myrrh mixed with a powdery, spicy benzoin produces an aroma that recalls with a startling degree of accuracy the scent of cold stone floors, mildewy papers, and the slightly metallic, inert air of a closed-up sacristy. The chill of the myrrh is eventually warmed a little by the golden labdanum lolling around in the basenotes, but the scent never truly shakes off its central character of cold, dusty, ancient stone.
I understand why not everyone wants to wear the smell of rising damp on a
sacristy wall (carrying with it the unsettling suggestion of neglect), you have
to give Messe de Minuit credit for making its wearer feel like they’ve been plunged
into a particularly dark Goya painting, and I am thinking here of the one where
Saturn is devouring his own son.
et Délires (Guerlain) – Macaron
As I inch closer to collection completion (or the end of my ‘scent journey’), I have had to get very tough with my Guerlains. L’Heure Bleue, for example, doesn’t make it into my final edit (I’ll finish the small vintage parfum I have, as it is delightfully trashy and rich compared to the candied floral that is the current EdP), and, much as I enjoy wearing them from time to time, neither does Chamade,Tonka Impérial, Cuir Beluga, or the much vaunted Après L’Ondée. These are not the essential Guerlains for me.
Myrrhe et Délires under such conditions reveals my lines in the sand. A few
years ago, I would have forgiven this scent its flaccid body for its charming
violety-irisy topnotes, which smell like those lilac-colored macarons in the
window of Ladurée, or what I imagine the pastry scenes in Sofia Coppola’s Marie
Antoinette must have smelled like – all spun sugar, candied violets, and sugar
paste roses. If I had tested this during my violet phase, fuhgeddaboudit. Would
have sold my soul, probably.
But honestly, from where I’m sitting now, Myrrhe et Délires just doesn’t make the cut. Full marks, though, for rendering the bullish myrrh – a material whose darkish, mushroom-water tonalities usually drown delicate floral notes like candied violet – into a lace doiley’s worth of frothy anise and soft bready notes. Taken together, Myrrhe et Délires smells like Chowder’s violets and those soft black licorice rolls so mild that you could thumb them into the mouths of babies. But with great age comes wisdom; I can tell you that Guerlain’s own Black Perfecto is a much punchier, more emphatic spin on the same idea.
NYC) – Oudy
Review here. What I smell in fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere. Of course, it is entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh. It is also possible that it is just myrrh.
d’Argent (Dior Privée) – Woody
named, Bois d’Argent is a creamy, smoky woods scent with a streak of silvery
iris running through it. The iris is here only to cut through the heaviness of the
other notes – a lump of levain mixed into a heavy bread dough – so most of its
lovely grey rootiness or butter tones are lost in the fray. However, without
the soulful lift of the iris note, I think this composition would be a heavy,
sodden mess – a dense genoise rather than angel food.
d’Argent is primarily a sticky myrrh scent to my nose. Myrrh is a tricky
material to work with in a perfume. Myrrh oil can be very bitter, mushroomy,
and ‘black’ in its favor profile, although I suspect that the perfumers went
more for the myrrh resin smell here, which is earthier, woodier, and sweeter
than the oil itself, which can smell very rubbery.
in similar fragrances such as Bois d’Iris (The Different Company) and Myrrhe
Ardente (Annick Goutal), the myrrh in Bois d’Argent is paired with a sweet
honey and vanilla pairing designed to tone down the bitterness of the oil, and
a polished woods basenote to play up the smokier notes of the resin. There is
also a faintly licorice-like note here, a note frequently matched to the anisic
qualities of myrrh oil.
is a crystalline texture to Bois d’Argent that I also note in Myrrhe Ardente,
like crunching on honey candies, the small ones you sometimes get with coffee
in Italian bars – they look and taste sweetly creamy, but quickly explode into
shards when you crunch down on them. And, as with the candies in question, myrrh,
when this sweetened, has the tendency to cloy.
this reason, I find Bois d’Argent striking but ultimately exhausting to wear.
The silvery iris and woods opening is beautiful, but the sweet vanilla in the base
is far too syrupy, and the myrrh just continues droning on in its monogrammed monologue
for hours on end, like the dinner guest who has zero self-awareness and thinks
that we will all be as fascinated by his role in corporate finance as he is. The
same complaint applies to Bois d’Iris and Myrrhe Ardente. There are times when
these fragrances work on me, but inevitably, something in them eventually clogs
up my airways and wears on my spirit.
Ilang Ilan (Mellifluence) – Tropical Myrrh
Ilan bursts open with a pungent ylang note, vibrating at an especially evil
level of banana-and-petroleum fruitiness inherent to the material. But almost
immediately, this is counterparted by the chewy licorice snap of myrrh, whose
dark, anisic saltiness stuffs a cloth in the shouty mouth of that exuberant
ylang, telling it to calm the f&*k down. For a while, this is so good that
you wonder why ylang is ever paired with anything else other than an equally
it is an all too brief display of force. In the drydown, the ylang departs,
leaving only the mineralic, mushroomy facets of the myrrh to dominate. It
smells like water you’ve soaked ceps in. For myrrh fanatics, this might be a
boon. For the ylang enthusiasts, this will feel like bait-and-switch of the
Ilang Ilan is worth at least a sample, especially if you’re into the excitement
of an action-packed opening. The leather, the rubber, the fuel, the
licorice…whoever said that tropical florals are not for men just haven’t tried
the right ones. There is no creamy, trembling banana custard here, and
certainly no tropical leis draped on Gaugin-esque island beauties. Instead,
this is ylang with the sinister shadow of myrrh standing over it, dagger in
Kisses (Lush) – Marmalade
For once, Lush’s strategy of unceremoniously dumping a vat load of bolshy, untrimmed raw materials into a scent and letting them all duke it out actually works. The osmanthus takes the form of a cooked apricot jam spiced heavily with almond essence and cinnamon, making me think of boozy Christmas fruitcakes slathered in apricot jam and carefully wrapped in a layer of rolled-out marzipan. But if there is cooked citrus jam, then there is also something nicely fresh here, in the form of that metallic, juicy brightness that stains your fingers for hours after you’ve peeled a mandarin.
These layers of both juicy and jammy citrus interact with the dusty but headily spiced myrrh to accentuate the Coca Cola-ish aspects of the resin, complete with its dark ‘crunchy’ sweetness and joyful, nose-tickling fizz. If I could spread 1000 Kisses on a slice of toasted panettone, I totally would. A uniquely cheerful take on myrrh.
& Tonka (Jo Malone) –
Mass Market Myrrh
A stodgy almond Battenberg of a tonka bean cups a chewy licorice lace myrrh in its sweaty clasp, and they both drown in the disappointing chemical buzz that is the standard Jo Malone base. Pro: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day. Con: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day.
to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews
you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral,
incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things.
Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an
Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly
Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a
matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively
complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two
monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic
character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes
over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.
Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy
castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw
and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one
of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall
right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes
that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is
some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of
myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar
crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin.
I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have
to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular
sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore,
for a very specific taste.
Ungu (Agar Aura) – Myrrhic Oud
Some oud oils are so complex that they can display notes
such as mint, white flowers, honey, and ambergris without actually containing a
speck of these materials. In oud cannon, it is usually Chinese oud oils that
are known to feature notes of myrrh, but this is a great example of a myrrhic
oud oil that actually comes from one of my favorite oud terroirs, which is Malaysia.
Distilled from wood from the Terengganu region of Malaysia,
Sutera Ungu displays both characteristics from the fruity Crassna and the
typical Malaysian structure. Cutting past all the gobbledygook, what this means
is that there is a complex series of shifts from top to bottom, often
separating into two layers – smoke on top, and fruity leather beneath. Agarwood
from the Terengganu region is said to be particularly perfumey and rich, a
theory borne out by this oil.
I can smell smoke and fruited wood, backed by a smoky incense quality. Once the
saturnine drama of the opening settles a bit, it is possible to discern subtle
little gradients of color and tone. There are waves of freshly-stripped bark,
clear furniture polish, green apple skin, and fermenting dried fruit, all
dispersed within a boozy vapor akin to dried fruits soaking in brandy for
Christmas pudding. You get all this and more, filtered through a haze of
oud oils go, this is perfumey in the way of an older Chanel extrait, and I am
thinking of vintage Coco Parfum in particular here (something about the rich
fruits in brandy feel). In the heart, the smoke parts to reveal an earthy myrrh
note, old wooden chests, and, darting through the darkness, the reddish iodine
snap of pure saffron threads soaked in oil. None of these materials exist in
Sutera Ungu as notes, you understand – just their nuance.
show is not over just yet. In a whiplash move, the oil circles back on itself
to the dry, incensey woodsmoke that greeted the nose in the topnotes. Sutera
Ungu is a rich, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable Malaysian oil experience from
top to bottom. It is both an oud oil and a proper perfume in its own right. I
highly recommend Agar Aura oils to beginners because they are exceptionally
smooth, light-to-medium weight in terms of darkness and possessed of a depth of
flavor that does not sacrifice legibility.
Trois (Diptyque) – Piney
Most of the older Diptyques smell like ancient medicinal salves made out of crushing various barks, spices, and unguents down into a fiery yellow paste and applied to an open wound (Eau Lente, L’ Eau). L’ Eau Trois flips the trope a little, taking it outside to the sunburnt hillsides of Greece or Southern France where the healer combs up tufts of wild rosemary, pine needles, and mastic from the maquis, and uses his cocaine fingernail to dig out sticky yellow globules of myrrh and pine sap from ancient, shrubby trees bent over with age and wind, before singeing it all over a fire so that greenery takes on a burnt, bitter flavor, and mashing it all down to a paste in a pestle and mortar.
wild, and herbaceous, L’Eau Trois this is myrrh at its most confrontational. It
smells of incense, yes, but also of bitter greenery that will either kill you
or cure you if ingested. Less like a perfume than something born of the bowels
of the earth.
Balsamo della Mecca (Abdes Salaam Attar) – Sanctifying Myrrh
Two versions of this scent exist – an eau de parfum and an attar. Here I discuss the attar, which, to my nose, is distinguished by its use of myrrh.
Although the crepuscular darkness of the resins is essentially the same from eau de parfum to attar, Balsamo della Mecca attar has a very different texture and therefore a completely different feel. Whereas the original is so dry that it threatens to ignite on the skin at any moment, the attar is a concentrated tar, like molasses seeping from a rusty pipe. Dense, sticky fir balsam, myrrh, frankincense, cade, and who knows what else, all boiled down to a medicinal salve one might rub onto an infection. Despite its opacity, it feels purifying.
labdanum is downplayed in the attar, allowing the rubbery, fungal saltiness of
myrrh to take the spotlight. By corollary, the eau de parfum is dustier and
sweeter, thick with labdanum. Given its greater diffusiveness, the eau de
parfum has a spiritual, if not ecclesiastical, feel; the attar, on the other
hand, feels gothic and a little bit sinister. Put it this way – I would wear the eau de parfum to Midnight
Mass, and the attar to an exorcism.
Little Egypt (BPAL)– Honeyed Myrrh
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.
Myrrhe (Serge Lutens) – Elegant
Pairing the fatty, soapy aspect of myrrh with a spray of fatty, soapy aldehydes is genius because, like any solid marriage, they compensate for each other’s failings. The fizzy aldehydes lift the heavy resin up into space, exploding it into stardust, while the bitter, rubbery characteristics of myrrh add depth and drama to the lower register of aldehydes, lending it a rooty, sub-woofer substance just as the champagne bubbles begin to fade away. In the base, a creamy jasmine and sandalwood turn up to mitigate the ‘rubber ball’ astringency of the myrrh, essentially taking over the reins from the sweet, effervescent aldehydes.
Because the aldehydes in La Myrrhe smells very much like the kind used in Chanel No. 5 (fatty, soapy, waxy, slightly rosy), many people find it to resemble No. 5, though to my nose, it smells rather like Chanel No. 22 with its Fanta-and-incense-on-steroids mien – with one key difference. La Myrrhe has a lurid almond-cherry-ade aspect to it that reminds me of Cherry Coke, rather than Fanta. Picture a single candied cherry lifted from a jar of (cough) syrup and dropped into a bag of pure white soap powder, causing the powder to explode outwards and upwards like a cluster bomb.
Myrrhe is a sensational myrrh fragrance, and unfortunately hard to find these
days unless you live in Europe and can order direct from les Salons du
Palais Royal in Paris. It is worth the effort and expense, though, especially,
if you prefer the gauzier, more light-filled creations of Serge Lutens over the
stickier, fruitcake-and-incense ones, like Arabie, Fumerie Turque et al. With the
anisic, rubbery bitterness of the resin perfectly juxtaposed against the sweet,
frothy soapiness of aldehydes, La Myrrhe will appeal enormously to lovers of Douce
Amère, Chanel No. 5 Eau Première, Chanel No. 22, Guerlain Vega, Rêve d’Ossian
by Oriza L. Legrand, and Miriam by Tableau de Parfums (Tauer).
(Acqua di Parma) – Ambroxan
my ass. This is Acqua di Parma halfway down the slide from its once glorious
position at the top of classic Italian heritage to the mosh pit of
bro-pandering the brand is currently strutting around in. A flurry of citrus
and herbs in the opening 0.02 seconds of Mirra convinces me that nothing is
unforgivable and maybe the brand can claw its way back, but this is quickly
drowned in that unnatural concoction that greets me in so many of the ‘perfumes
for the modern man’ these days – a vile and droning medley of synthetically
radiant Ambroxan or Iso E Super drowned in enough ambery syrup to fell a horse
at ten paces.
It depresses me that the bones of Sauvage are everywhere, lurking in even the oldest, most heritage-y of heritage brands, waiting to pop out at me. For all that Luca Turin lauds Italian perfumery as being where it’s at these days, most young passers-by – women and men, professional or preppy – that I smell in Rome smell like this rather than of invigorating lemons of Santa Maria Novella or something cool by Antonio Alessandria.
For me, Mirra is nothing more than sweet, sugared woods inflated with enough Ambroxan to send a thousand chemical ice picks aimed at my head, but for anyone not as sensitized to these woody alcohols, it probably comes across as something gorgeously fresh, clean, and well, radiant. I can see the appeal of stuff like this for those who do not pick up on the awful grimness of those modern aromachemicals. But I feel personally attacked by Mirra and the 967 other modern masculines that smell virtually identical.
(Bruno Acampora) – Anachronistic
is a perfectly-preserved time capsule of a time in perfumery when perfumers
were free to use the stinkiest of floral absolutes, plant oils, and resins in
their perfumes. Iranzol smells like the seventies, which makes perfect sense
because it was launched
in the seventies. What is extraordinary is that the formula seems to have
remained unchanged since then; this is the perfume in its original form. In a
day and age when brands reformulate every few years to keep up with IFRA
recommendations, it is a small wonder that something like Iranzol can and does
The opening is as damply mushroomy as Acampora’s own Musc, brimming with wet soil, freshly-cut mushrooms, raw patchouli oil, and possibly some salty Italian kitchen herbs, like dried lavender and fennel root. There is definitely myrrh in the blend somewhere, helping those wet earth notes along.
is also suspected, because there is an accord here that is half-claggy,
half-dusty, like the sour, unwashed smell of sheets folded away while still
damp. This accord is both medicinal (clean) and animalic (unwashed, dusty,
stale), which, although not entirely pleasant to my nose, is effective at
creating an atmosphere of gloomy, faded grandeur. One imagines a dusty chaise
longue in an abandoned mansion by the sea somewhere.
drydown diverges from the central accords found in Musc by finishing up in a
dry amber and sandalwood base. It retains, as most of Acampora’s oils do, that
brusque connection to the earthier, more aromatic smells of the seventies, when
men wore either Jovan Musk or barbershop fougères and shaved with proper soap.
In other words, the sandalwood is dry and astringent, and the amber vegetal. No
cream, sugar, or butter anywhere in sight. You might have to adjust your
television set when attempting Iranzol for the first time – it is neither
modern nor easy. It is an anachronism, an earthy scent for those who like the
pungent, untouched smells of nature and their fellow human beings.
Sirocco (Solstice Scents) – Caveman Myrrh
a sunburst of saffron, its astringent aroma redolent of hay, leather, and
iodine. This quickly gives way to the mitti, which smells of wet soil rather
than the dry earth of true Indian mitti. Last to emerge is the rubbery,
mushroomy myrrh, which smells like the plain essential oil one picks up at the
health store, i.e., bitter, saline, and musty. The myrrh dominates the scent
completely; once it pops its head around the door, it is here for breakfast,
lunch, and dinner.
In short, don’t trust the scent description given by the company – Sirocco is not the hot, dry ‘desert’ scent billed in the description, but instead, given the prominent role of the myrrh, the fungal scent of caves. If you like the wet, sepulchral side of myrrh, and earthy, medicinal smells in general, then you will love Sirocco. If you are specifically looking for dry heat, deserts, and sand, look elsewhere.
Myrrhe Ardente (Annick Goutal) – Root Beer Myrrh
A dry spackle of resin at first, golden, crunchy, and slightly herbal – austere enough to wear to the bank – that becomes steadily stickier and gummier with a heavy pour of tonka, amber, and honey. When I wear this, I can almost feel the myrrh crystallizing in huge chunks on my arm, thick enough to smash out into a resinous paste.
There is also a nigh-on-bitter smack of cherry cough syrup floating against something medicinally creamy, which is essentially what Americans know as the ‘root beer float’ flavor – this is a pronounced characteristic of myrrh that comes out to play a lot anywhere there is amber or vanilla.
I would place this in the same group as Myrrhiad, i.e., a dry-creamy myrrh amber thickened up with lots of licorice-scented vanilla in the background, designed to soothe and cosset rather than excite. I sold my bottle a long time ago, however, once I began to perceive a piercing woody aromachemical note that ran rampant all over the scent’s original ‘weighted blanket’ premise.
Black (Agarscents Bazaar) – Coca
Cashmiri Black is a wonderfully odd mukhallat that nudges Agarscents Bazaar out of its comfort zone of Indian-style musks and ambers, and into a slightly more ‘niche’ perfume area. The blend opens with an accord that smells like salted buckwheat honey or molasses smeared over pieces of hardcore Scandinavian licorice, shot through with plumes of sooty fireside smoke. Black pepper, oily and pungent, explodes all over, recalling several modern Comme des Garcons efforts such as Black Pepper and Black.
firecracker dose of saffron soon joins the fray, streaking across the dark
canvas created by a fusion of tarry, resinous myrrh, creating an effect that is
half Idole (Lubin) and half Nesquik-y Darbar attar. There is a faintly fizzy
Coca Cola effect providing lift in the background. Thanks to the myrrh, the
texture is chewy and medicinal, with a hard-boiled, anisic blackness. It is
smoky and cocoa-dry, but this syrupy facet lends a nice textural counterpoint.
Cashmiri grows drier and smokier as time wends on, finishing up the ride as a tinder-box mixture of fiery cedarwood, myrrh, powdery (chocolate) musk, malty licorice, and charred woods. Cashmiri Black is an excellent alternative to expensive Arabian style niche smoke-and-resin bombs such as Black Afgano or Black Gemstone.
Parfum Sacre (Caron)
– Cashmere Myrrh
Parfum Sacre is one of those perfumes that I find hard to write about because it hooked me early, at a tender time of my life when I needed a Big Perfume Love, and therefore is utterly resistant to any attempt at objective analysis.
If pushed, I would say it smells like an ancient carved sandalwood chest filled to the brim with myrrh resin reduced to a fine golden powder and tender pink curlicues of rose soap loving carved off a block of Camay with a pocketknife. It smells full and soft, like cashmere, but studded with little kitten licks of black pepper and lemon that trickle the back of the throat.
The myrrh is fuzzy and warm, especially in the round-bellied vintage eau de parfum, where only its muted fatty-soapy-waxy facets have been coaxed out. In the modern eau de parfum, the myrrh smells sharper, more astringent, and woodier, thanks to the vigorous dosing of black pepper to compensate for the lower quality of sandalwood. Best of all, perhaps, is the salty, golden radiance sent in by natural ambergris to lift the myrrh and woods in the now discontinued Parfum.
But even the thin, reedy version of Parfum Sacre available to buy today possesses that gently pepper, rosy, soapy quality that says ‘Mother’ to me. It therefore continues to be one of my Big, Albeit Incoherently Described Perfume Loves.
Myrrhe Impériale is impressively loud and rich and voluminous. But once you get
past the clattering noise of the opening – oiled galoshes, radiating resin,
treacly licorice – you realize that it is not much more than a powerful
fruitcake amber dressed up with so much Amber Xtreme or Norlimbanol that even a
knuckle daub’s worth is unbearable. It is like a large, expensively dressed man
whose braying laugh and physical volume seems to swell to fill the entire room,
impregnating all the available air pockets until you feel you will still be
able to hear/smell/taste him from two countries away. These niche behemoths are
designed to be impress you at ten paces, steam-rolling over any distinguishing
features other than its own powerful, magnetic radiance. An olfactory Charles
reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have
purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store. My
blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to
quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the
source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I
do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review. If I
like something, or find something interesting, then I will write about it. You
might not always like my opinions, but you may trust that they are mine and
you want a silky pâté that rolls around velvetily in your mouth for a few
seconds before dissolving into perfumed air, and sometimes you want the thick,
meaty savor of a butcher’s organic pork sausage slathered in fried onions and enough
hot yellow mustard to guarantee a ruined shirt. Copper Skies is the pork
sausage of the amber genre.
balancing the gooey resinousness of amber and tobacco with a close-fitting
sheath of basil that splits the difference between mint and black licorice, it scratches
my itch for the kind of big, gutsy flavors that make my mouth throb and my
heart sing. The amber smells more like incense to me, with a rich, deep sort of
bitterness that probably originates with the tobacco leaf. Worth noting that Copper
Skies doesn’t smell particularly like tobacco leaf to me per se, probably
because the usual cinnamon and dried fruits aspect is missing, replaced by that
surprisingly fresh, anisic topnote. But there is a chewy, toasty quality to
Copper Skies that certainly hints at tobacco.
Skies is not what you’d call refined, but that’s the point. Its flashes of industrial
rubber wiring, sharp incense, and hot metal are what keep my salivary glands
pumping and the juices running unchecked down my chin. It turns on a coin; sometimes
it smells like just another rich, sweet incensey amber (quite Amber
Absolute-like), and other times like a herbal, leafy thing that has more in
common with licorice root tea than resin.
is one of those accords that smells so good in and of itself that that it is
difficult to innovate on the theme without losing the plot somewhere. The more of
them I smell, the more I appreciate the ones that retain the affability of
amber while doing something quirky and original to keep us all from slumping
over into that over-stated torpor that follows a rich pudding. Copper Skies is not
particularly subtle or ‘worked out’, but to my mind, it absolutely succeeds in
giving you the full satisfaction of amber without sending you to sleep.
Theories speaks directly to my fantasy of trekking home through snowy woods towards
my rustic-but-architect-designed log cabin, in Fair Isle leggings that
miraculously don’t make my legs look like two ham hocks in a sack, a
Golden lab at my side, and the pink-tinged winter sky above my head tilting slowly
towards indigo. A thread of sweet, tarry woodsmoke – from a far-off campfire,
perhaps, or even the wood burning stove lit by my husband, Mads Mikkelsen – hangs
in the cold, crisp air.
Pause and there is the heady scent of scattered forest homes gearing up for the night. Someone is revving their jeep to check if the winter tires are ok. Someone else is smoking a cigar while peeling an orange. Someone is smoking vanilla pods in their shed for some fancy artisanal market niche I’m not aware of. There’s an illicit coal fire in the mix too – not terribly environmental, the neighbors bitch, while surreptitiously gulping in lungfuls of the familiar charred scent of their childhood like junkies.
But the best thing about these aromas in that they are too far off in the distance to distinguish as one thing or another. Sandalwood, leather, oud, tobacco, vanilla, woodsmoke, burning sugar, dried kelp, and tar all melt down into one delicious aroma that is definitely more a collective of environmental ‘smells’ than perfume.
I love Broken Theories and really want a bottle. But the sweet woodsmoke-campfire genre is a crowded one, and bitter experience compels me to be clear-eyed about where this fits in the pecking order. First of all, let me admit that Broken Theories smell very, very indie, and by indie, I mean it smells like a number of popular woodsmoke perfume oils from companies such as Solstice Scents (especially Manor, Manor Fire, Grey’s Cabin, and Inquisitor) and Alkemia (especially Smoke and Mirrors and Fumé Oud à la Vanille). I’m fine with the association but all the same, the indie vanilla-woodsmoke theme (a) does tend to smell a bit samey from brand to brand, (b) is gummily (albeit enjoyably) indistinct, like several woodsmoke stock oils or ‘house notes’ thrown into a jerrycan, and (c) doesn’t carry quite the same degree of elegance as a masstige or luxury perfume featuring woodsmoke, e.g., Bois d’Armenie by Guerlain or Bois d’Ascèseby Naomi Goodsir. That I smell this type of ‘indie-ness’ in the vanilla-woodsmoke aspect of Broken Theories makes me hesitate.
However, I can think of many other perfumes – some of them luxury, some of them prestigious indies -that Broken Theories beats into a corner with a stick, and on balance, that tips the whole decision into the yes direction. For example, while I like Fireside Intense (Sonoma Scent Studio), it is too bitter-smoky for me to wear on the regular without me feeling like I am wearing a hair shirt. Bois d’Ascèse has a similar problem, in that there is a harsh woody aromachemical in the base that makes wearing it a chore – there is no such problem in Broken Theories, which beds down the tougher smoke and oud-leather notes in a balmy vanilla softness that feels as comfy as those fantasy Fair Isle leggings. And Broken Theories is infinitely preferable to the popular By the Fireplace (Marson Martin Margiela), a perfume whose sharp, burnt sugar and viscous campfire or wood aromachemical makes me physically nauseous.
Broken Theories is, however, not as good as Jeke (Slumberhouse) or Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch), other perfumes with a strong campfire or woodsmoke element. But it is cheaper, lighter, and easier to obtain. It is roughly similar – both in quality and execution – to the wonderful Winter Woods by Sonoma Scent Studio, and by process of elimination, I guess I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between this and that.
Conclusion: Broken Theories is one of the best woodsmoke scents on the market today. But it only makes sense if you don’t already have a plethora of other woodsmoke scents to fill that particular niche. My fantasy self and I will be having words.
of Sample: I purchased my
Kerosene samples from the wonderful Polish website Lulua. I have used Lulua many times over
the past five years to sample American or Canadian indies, such as Slumberhouse,
Zoologist, Olympic Orchids, and now, Kerosene, which can be extremely difficult
for European customers to track down and smell. I am 100% happy to recommend Lulua,
because they provide a terrific service for not too much money, have the best packaging
I’ve ever seen for samples-only orders, and they always throw in a few extras
Kintsugi by Masque Milano smells the way those mysterious salted fruits and chutneys in an Asian restaurant taste – perfumey, bitter, and dark in a way that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth while simultaneously flicking your salivary glands into action. Like in Mitsouko (Guerlain) and Iris 39 (Le Labo), two perfumes that this reminds me of in idea if not execution, the secret to Kintsugi’s successful navigation of that narrow line between repulsion and attraction lies in its lack of legibility.
Kintsugi has been billed as a modern chypre, and refreshingly, that is exactly what it is. Chypres are like a good Chinese meal, balancing a complex range of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors against each other to produce a very satisfying (but completely abstract) sense of completeness. The result is strange and exotic, imprinting on the imagination in a way soliflores and straight-up ambers cannot. This is all present and correct in Kintsugi, so no need to quibble about which material has been chosen to stand in for the moss. The effect is there.
As all good chypres do, Kintsugi revolves around a complex set of juxtapositions. It is cigarette-ashy but also bread-doughy, syrup-sweet but also vermouth-dry, and as vegetal as parsnips but also as perfumey as your mother’s best going-out perfume. Adding to the drama is a shiny, neon-lit fruit note flashing against the desiccated patchouli hulking malevolently in the background.
But like with many Le Labos, and especially Iris 39, what really sets this thing on fire is the pairing of things that smell natural – polished woods, incense, earth, rose petal potpourri – with things that smell industrial, like latex paint, printer chemicals, calligraphy ink, and linseed oil.
Kintsugi is the perfume equivalent of those duochrome eyeshadows that appear bottle green straight on but peacock blue when you turn your head. Sometimes it exactly smells like the grand, tassels-bedecked kind of thing you imagine Oscar Wilde drenching his velvet curtains with, and sometimes like your old school stationary cupboard with a bunch of kids getting high on solvents.
It dries down quickly to the pungent but virile smell of the horse ring, the air thick with saddle leather, sawdust, and the warm muskiness specific to a freshly-exercised horse. I suppose you could also call it cedar but that doesn’t capture even two percent of the total mood that Kintsugi has going on here.
Kintsugi is a love-hate kind of thing, for sure. I hated it when I first smelled it, and then I loved it. And I might hate it the next time I smell it, who knows? People used to the taste of fermented things – natto, kimchi, tea – will cleave as easily to this perfume as they might to oud oil or osmanthus absolute, sharing with this perfume as they do that unique dichotomy of (leathery) dryness and (fruity-cheesey) funkiness.
Based on the resounding silence that greeted this perfume when it launched in 2019, it is fair to say that Kintsugi’s appeal is not immediate. And I get it. Forget about Kintsugi being people-pleasing – it is barely even me-pleasing. But for all its oddness, I find Kintsugi exciting, like a strange flavor of wine or cough syrup or gummy bear that only exists in Japan, and therefore utterly foreign to me.
Source of sample: Purchased from Swedish retailer, Fragrance & Art, in November 2019. A friend of mine kindly sent me another sample of it a couple of days ago, jogging my memory and prompting this review.
The challenge for any reviewer in reviewing the Areej Le Doré releases is that (a) either you’re late and the perfumes you’re writing about are no longer available to buy, or (b) you’re on time for a full bottle release, but you are talking only to the group of three to six hundred people that are buying them, a tiny circle of devotees that seems to get tighter and more closed-off with each successive release from the house.
I can certainly see why many people in perfume-land might be attracted by the fantastic raw materials on offer by Areej Le Doré but turned off by the feverish fandom that has sprung up around the brand. If you’re not willing to set your timer to bumfuck o’ clock Thailand time or duke it out with the scalpers, then the whole thing can feel like the most fearsome clique from high school. And when anyone feels excluded, there is the natural tendency to grumble to yourself, “Well, if I’m not in, then I’m sure as hell out…of this hot, culty mess.”
While this is certainly not a problem for Areej Le Doré itself – selling everything you produce is the dream, after all – I wonder if the lack of new entrants into the inner circle of devotees represents a problem over the longer term. Fresh perspectives on your work are essential whether you are making a car or a perfume because they stop you from drowning in the reflecting pool of constant and uncritical adoration. They also safeguard the perfumer against the danger of becoming essentially a private label or custom outfit dancing to the whim of a small but intimidatingly vocal group of buyers, none of whom I’d particularly like to meet in a dark alley. Just kidding, just kidding (sort of).
Anyway, this review goes out to anyone who has an interest in Areej Le Doré fragrances but has, for one reason or another, avoided actually buying them, either in sample or full bottle form. This might be someone who loves natural raw materials, for example, or someone who loves and misses the rich orientals of yesteryear that boasted real sandalwood or expensive floral absolutes. Or it might be people who are into perfumes in general and have the money to invest in the really good examples, but zero stomach for the clusterfuckery around the brand itself. If that’s you, and you’re reading right now, then let me tell you that this particular Areej Le Doré collection is the one to dip your toes into, if you were reluctant before.
Here’s why I think this
collection is a good entry pointfor newcomers to Areej Le Doré.
First, the perfumes in this collection are noticeably lighter and more refined
than previous cycles, making them easier and more pleasant to wear, especially
Second, none of the perfumes in this collection are marred by the heavy, almost seedy animalic undertone that has dogged other collections. For example, I loved Plumeria de Orris from one of the previous collections, however, once the buttery orris and frangipani burned off, the fragrance was dragged under the gutters by a honeyed civet or musk that smelled disturbingly like dried saliva. Koh-i-Noor was my absolute favorite of a previous generation, but a greasy costus-laden musk gave it an old-man’s-crotch vibe that I couldn’t quite shake. But in this collection, even the musk- and oud-heavy perfumes are not overly heavy, greasy, or saliva-ish.
Third, and probably the most
important one: I think that this collection is Russian Adam’s best yet. If you
don’t know already, each Areej Le Doré collection usually contains variations on a
basic line-up of a (i) musk (usually natural deer musk-based), (ii) an oud,
(iii) a humongous mixed oriental floral, (iv) a ‘soliflore’, (v) an ambergris,
and/or (vi) a leather or sandalwood. Although there doesn’t seem to be an
ambergris-focused scent this time around, the others are all either superlative
or really good examples of their respective ‘theme’. If you love natural raw
materials like oud and sandalwood, then pull up a chair: brands like Areej Le
Doré are the last holdout for exquisite raw materials in a world that is
increasingly sanitized and lab-molecule-dependent.
Rather confusingly, Santal Galore is the kaleidoscopic floral nag champa extravaganza this time around, rather than the sandalwood you might be expecting (which is actually to be found in the equally-confusingly-named Musk Lave). My vial leaked in transit, but after smashing it open and swabbing the gooey remnants onto my skin with a Q-Tip, I can tell you that this is the one I’d crawl over hot coals to smell again. Oh God, grant me the unlimited funds to buy the few perfumes that smell as good as this. It opens with a big, creamy swirl of aromas that you imagine emanating from a Persian carpet or a well-oiled antique from a souk, soaked in multiple generations’ worth of glossy, fruity Cambodi oud oils, rosy-sandal attars, and the sweetness of smoke from decades of burning Indian Chandan sticks and barkhour.
This perfume carries that full romantic sweep of Orientalia in its bosom that Westerners like me find so irresistible but that usually come out mawkish and kind of cheap-smelling. Santal Galore deftly matches the slightly gummy-floral sweetness of nag champa with a savory cream cheese background that seems to encompass the smoked Easter Ham aroma of guaiacol and a salty-minty oakmoss. Eventually winding down to the lovely smell of a freshly-struck match, Santal Galore performs the same trick as Santal de Mysore in that it is suggestive of the spiced warmth of real sandalwood without smelling directly of it.
For my personal taste, this is the best floral/woody/musky thing that Areej Le Doré has ever done. There are no analogs in the commercial or niche world, so it’s difficult to draw comparisons that will make sense to those new to the brand. But if pushed, I would mention Le Maroc Pour Elle(Tauer Perfumes) or Daphne (Comme des Garcons) as scents that occupy the same scentoverse ideologically speaking. Less helpfully perhaps for newcomers, but more so for people who have bought into the brand since its inception, Santal Galore is roughly in the same ballpark as Ottoman Empire, with which it shares a similar nag champa floral richness, and Koh-I-Noor, for that same almost claustrophobic rush of dense, heavily-packed-in floral notes and that texture that is both creamy and powdery (although Santal Galore is not as animalic or as costus-laden). It has been a while, but there could also be a line drawn to the sharp, almost oily Flux de Fleurs, though Santal Galore is a far gentler, rounder affair.
Musk Lave has one of the best real sandalwood finishes I have smelled outside of attar and mukhallat perfumery. For fans of real sandalwood, the real treasure lies here, and not in Santal Galore. But be aware that this is the type of musky, spicy, masculine-leaning sandalwood that used to feature in high quality ‘barbershop’ fougères before Indian sandalwood became generally unavailable to commercial perfumery in the late eighties, and before entire carpets of beige, sweetish tonka bean were conscripted to fill the gap.
In other words, though it certainly smells rich and incensey, like all good sandalwood should, this sandalwood is the handsome, rugged version that smells more like good wood and bay rum spices than a creamy dessert that will send you into a stupor. The invigorating sparkle of the sandalwood is beefed up by a nice lump of labdanum, so you get the full balance of aromatic-dry and sweet-incensey that the very best examples of sandalwood possess, e.g., the Mysore 1984 by Ensar Oud, which, because it is aged, has developed that rich, incensey sonic boom ‘loudness of voice’ that would be most unusual for a pure sandalwood more freshly distilled.
Winding back to the start, Musk Lave opens with a fresh, powdery lemon and lavender accord, which would be a naturally lean kind of thing were it not for the immediate upswell of an unctuously buttery musk or tonka that adds richness, like a pat of yellow Irish butter melted over a salad. Think Jicky but with real sandalwood and musk dialled in for that naughty ‘skin musk’ feel, writing over the rather sharp, sometimes foul-smelling synthetic civet of the Guerlain. Given that Jicky is my favorite fragrance in the world, hopefully you’ll take my word for it that Musk Lave is the upgrade nobody knew was in the wings but immediately presses the install button on.
Agar de Noir (can’t you just feel Luca Turin squirming?) is the oud in the collection and is quite the departure for Russian Adam for two reasons. First, although the oud is the real deal, it does not smell like any one particular terroir or style of oud (as opposed to Antiquity, which smelled almost entirely of the beautiful Cambodi oud oil used) but rather presents as a generalized picture of ‘oudiness’ that’s been cleaned up for public consumption. So, you get the characteristic smell of damp, fermenting wood chips and the dusty scent of old wood varnish, but not the shriekingly sour hay and leather highnotes of a Hindi, or the hyper-treacly stickiness of a Trat, or the wolf-fur wooliness and ambergris-saltiness of a Chinese oud. The oud is there merely as a signpost planted in the scent to suck you deep into the shadows, where the equally dusty darkness of ground coffee is waiting, deepening the gloom.
The opening reminds me more of Borneo 1834 (Serge Lutens) than any of the other Areej Le Dore oud-dominated fragrances, due to that ‘brown’ dustiness; Oud Luwak also used coffee as a note, but it felt much more like an oud-focused affair than Agar de Noir, which feels more floral. It does share with Oud Luwak that dark, airy elegance of structure – like an expensive bar of chocolate that makes a satisfyingly clean ‘snap’ noise when you break it. The gloom of these brown notes has been lifted by the chalky brightness of violets, which create a sort of pastel-colored clearing in the Agar de Noir forest. I like the civilizing effect the violets exert on the oud: they add an unexpected foppish lightness that could be read, in some lights, as ‘dandified’. This tangy, balmy oud-and-violet accord makes what is essentially a floral leather sort of thing – like Jolie Madame (Balmain) with an oudy twist.
The second way in which I find Agar de Noir a departure is in its overall lightness of feel. The light-on-dark, violet-on-oud-leather thing is super elegant while it lasts but after two hours, the show is essentially over, save for the cinder toffee-like sweetness of the labdanum that brings up the rear.
The labdanum persists for hours beyond this, of course – it is a traditional basenote for a reason and has been the finish of choice for Russian Adam in all his oud blends after Oud Zen. But compared to Russian Oud and Oud Piccante, the labdanum absolute used here is of a much lighter weight – a judicious smear of incensey, golden toffee, but unencumbered by the sheep fat unctuousness of the labdanum in Oud Piccante or the chocolatey amberiness in Russian Oud. Personally, this ‘middle’ weight of labdanum suits me just fine; Oud Piccante is too savory-fatty for my tastes, and Russian Oud too gourmand. Agar de Noir is lighter, shorter, more attenuated, and is all the better for it. However, oud heads who want their oud to be perceptible past the third hour mark, Agar de Noir might be one sacrifice too far in the name of elegance.
For anyone not already inducted into the Areej Le Doré oud hall of fame mentioned here, just picture an oudified Jolie Madame and you’re on the right track. I think this would also be a particularly friendly oud for beginners, and because of its soft, ‘thin’ floral mien that restrains the brutishness of the oud, it may also be a better pick for women. Dark, dapper, and mysterious in a Victorian gentle-person kind of way, Agar de Noir is my pick of the Areej ouds, barring Oud Zen, which was similarly minimalist and ‘legible’.
Grandenia suggests that it might be going big on the famously creamy, mushroomy lushness of gardenia, but this is not the case. Rather, this is a tightly-wound, stiffly-starched green floral that starts out at the data point of a citrusy-piney frankincense – a resin that here smells like a freshly-stripped piece of Silver Birch – and winds up in Chandrika soap territory.
I find this pinched, freshly-scrubbed sort of floral a chore to wear, but it may appeal to people who like Antonia by Puredistance. I also want to acknowledge that this would be a good white floral for men, as it is completely devoid of the soft, candied creaminess and tinned-fruit syrupiness of most white florals. It is clipped and pure; the sort of thing to stiffen the spine. A very good wood accord develops in the base that smells more like sandalwood soap than oud or sandalwood per se. And then, finally, in the last gasps – a ghostly imprint of gardenia, with that slightly glassy, freshly-cut-mushroom quality it shares with myrrh.
Cuir de Russie is a scent to spray on fabric rather than on your skin, but I have done both to no ill effect (if you have sensitive skin, just obey the damn instructions). This is not the Chanel kind of Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather), but rather, a leather-ish note in a minor key nestled inside a massively cheesy and then baby-powdery deer musk. On the skin, the chalky, innocent pallor of violets peeks out shyly, but not to the extent where you would define the scent as floral (or feminine, or soft, or indeed any of the usual descriptors used for flowers). On fabric, it is the rude, smeary honk of deer musk that dominates, stepping firmly down on the neck of any floral note that threatens to make a break for it.
Given that Cuir de Russie has real deer musk in it, it stands to reason that it is very, very powdery and clings to the inside of the nostrils for days. If you want to know what real deer musk smells like, by the way, please read my article ‘The Murky Matter of Musk‘ here. Many people think that real musk smells foul or fecal. It does not. It does smell intimate, like the morning breath of someone you love, or a clean perineum, but it is more often than not quiet, powdery, and quite sweet, its odor clinging to skin, hair, and fabrics for many days (deer musk was one of the four great animalic fixatives of perfumery).
The musk in Cuir de Russie is somewhat similar to the musk in War and Peace, which I loved for the way its musk was so dry that it smelled like smoke from a just-fired gun (some people interpreted the dryness as baby powder). But Cuir de Russie also doesn’t have the almost pretty smuttiness of the musk in War and Peace, nor its sultry sweetness; it is more butch and a bit rough around the edges, despite the inch-thick layer of powder.
I like Cuir de Russie but wouldn’t particularly recommend it to a newcomer seeking an entry point to the brand. There’s always the danger that leather fans might roll up and expect leather (crazy, right?) and right now, before the full whack of aging and maceration, Cuir de Russie is mostly musk. Birch tar fans, of which I am one, might be disappointed at its subtlety in CdR – there is zero BBQ meat or ‘just threw a leather jacket on a campfire’ smokiness here. Cuir de Russie is primarily a very rich, powdery musk that ultimately leans a bit too hard on the intrinsic complexity of its naturals to fill in the olfactory blanks.
This is probably going to mature into something stunning, along the lines of Koh-i-Noor. But it is a high risk investment for a bottle of something whose materials might veer off into directions that not even its perfumer can predict with 100% certainty. For those signed up to the rare natural materials pledge, this is is part of the thrill; for the rest of us, contained within the unfixed, mutable nature of these raw materials is the warning that the perfume might also change for the worse.
Source of Samples: Kindly
sent to me free of charge by the brand. My opinion are my own.
A common assumption in evaluating all-natural fragrances – thanks in large part to the Cult of Raw Materials that has sprung up around top-tier artisanal, distill-it-yourself houses such as Bortnikoff and Areej Le Doré – is that the presence of a rare natural like oud or sandalwood automatically translates to a superior composition. Another is that because the starring raw material is rare and natural, it must be – by corollary – the best example of its kind among all available rare and natural materials.
Both are fallacies. The first correlates the quality of a natural raw material with compositional skill, which, while tempting, just doesn’t bear out. The second assumption flirts with the idea that most fragrance fans won’t be able to differentiate between a top notch raw material and a shitty one as long as there is demonstrably some of it in the scent. In other words, as long as it smells oudy or sandalwoody or deer-musky, then that’s the main bar cleared.
Treewitch by Teone Reinthal demonstrates the
problems inherent to the latter. While I enjoy many of Reinthal’s other compositions
and think she does a fantastic job of creating all-natural fragrances that
smell like fully-fledged, 1980s powerhouse orientals rather than the slightly
dull, worthy muddiness of most all-natural scents, Treewitch just doesn’t
really smell that great, despite the rare and natural oud that has been used.
Or maybe it is because of the rare and natural oud that’s been used? While the oud is obviously real, it doesn’t smell like a very good one. Rather, it smells like an oud oil that has either been hastily distilled (many modern Cambodi-style oils display an unpleasantly stale nuance that smells like radiators being cranked up after many years) or force-aged, a post-distillation process that involves leaving the oil uncovered for weeks until it picks up the biliously-sour hay and leather high notes of the traditional Hindi profile.
good news is that a) it gets better, and b) if you haven’t had much
oud-smelling experience, then you’ll likely not know or care about the
difference between high quality and low quality oud – oud is, for most people,
just a generally broad oud ‘flavor’ profile, in that it either smells
authentically oudy or it doesn’t. Depressingly, in this age of the Cult of Raw
Materials, many perfume aficionados believe that this binary indicator (smells
like real oud – yay or nay) trumps the famous Guy Robert assertion that ‘Un
parfum doit avant tout sentir bon.’
And indeed, perfume should, above all, smell good. Treewitch does not. It opens with a grandstanding blast of honest-to-goodness Hindi oud – phenomenally dusty, animalic, with a hulking sour note that, on the inhale, smells like unwashed towels left to molder in a holiday let, and on the exhale, like a glass of Irish whiskey left on the counter for several days. It categorically does not smell like earth or the forest or the wilderness (the perfumer’s description had me visualizing something like Chypre Mousse, Muschio di Quercia or even Supercell), but of the unpleasant staleness of neglected fabrics and the dust trapped behind appliances that haven’t been touched in decades.
I love the undervalued scent of mustiness, but more the air of cultured neglect clinging to old books (Dzing!) or closed-up aristocratic lairs (Iranzol) than something genuinely unhealthy. I love the moldy dankness of stuff like Marescialla and the peeling wall plaster lurking behind the innocent violet topnote of Iris by Santa Maria Novella. Onda extrait and Djedi make me think of ancient sarcophagi being opened. But I cannot love the staleness of the oud used in Treewitch, because it smells like the poor hygiene of real neglect rather than a romanticized version of it.
True to form for Teone Reinthal’s style, however, a rich, spicy oriental base swells up to muffle the offending oud in an intricately-woven carpet of 1980s Opium or Coco – bittersweet red-brown balsams, tree sap, amber crystals, clove or carnation, all adding up to a spicy-mature orientalia clustering around a hot pink floral note that could be anything from carnation to rose. An amazing finish, therefore, but not quite amazing enough (for me personally) to make up for the objectionably foul-smelling oud in the front half.
Antiquity by Areej Le Doré is a good example of the first assumption, i.e., that a superb raw material is synonymous with compositional artistry. Now, Antiquity is a perfume that uses a natural raw material of superb quality – an aged Cambodi oud oil – and also smells really good (meeting that Guy Robert benchmark). However, and this might sound a bit controversial, the reason Antiquity smells so good is 80% due to the quality of that aged oud oil rather than to compositional skill.
I mean absolutely no offense to Russian Adam. He is a very promising, self-taught perfumer who has managed, in the space of just three years, to carve out and then completely dominate his own niche in the narrow crawlspace between the super-competitive, internecine oud community and the niche all-naturals crowd, building a committed fan base while remaining polite, loyal to his customers, and ethically-responsible. His perfumes are rich, big, and dripping in complex raw materials. There’s also a purity to him as a person that I appreciate.
However, I’d argue that Russian Adam’s real talent lies not in composing perfumes per se, but in finding (or distilling) two or three of the best raw materials for each composition, introducing them to each other, and then staying the hell out of their way, allowing them to work their synergistic magic on one another. This is the way, by and large, an Eastern way of making perfume – it is how attar wallahs work. Russian Adam clearly understands how each raw material will behave and evolve in a composition when placed alongside other raw materials. It is easy to mistake the richness of an attar-like perfume made in this manner for the gloss of classically French or Western perfumery – I’ve done it myself – but I think that the Guerlainesque richness and complexity we are smelling has more to do with the qualities of the raw materials that go into these perfumes than a ‘French’ way of making perfume. They feel composed more by instinct than formula.
As a result, if you love the raw material Russian Adam has used, then you’ll love the perfume itself, with the inverse also being true. Sometimes, if I don’t love the raw material he’s chosen, I find myself picking up on a certain blockiness to the composition, which tells me that really great raw materials can blow you away, masking the underlying compositional features one might otherwise notice or criticize. For example, the unctuously buttery labdanum used in two of Russian Adam’s oud-dominated fragrances, Oud Piccante, and to a lesser extent in Russian Oud, is not my favorite: it reminds me uncomfortably of the savory-greasiness of that sub-cutaneous layer of fat you have to excise from your lamb shank before braising it. Therefore, Oud Zen, which uses a nutty vetiver instead of this greasy labdanum in the base, strikes as the more elegant composition.
I love the Cambodi oud used in Antiquity, because it smells like a vintage Cambodi oud oil (Kambodi 1976) that Ensar sent me a sample of once. What many people don’t realize is that the trees that made the original (and deservedly popular) Cambodi oud oil of the 1970s no longer exist, thanks to over-exploitation. New Aquilaria trees were planted, of course, but it turns out that subsequent harvests could never replicate the unique conditions of the original trees, which some suspect had something to do with the cleaner water and air quality ‘achieved’ during the forced agrarian rule of Pol Pot. Ensar asserts that of the existing Cambodi oil on the market today, less than 5% is vintage stock from the original trees, while the remainder is oud oil distilled to mimic the Cambodi ‘style’ – and it seems to me that Adam got his hands on a little store of the real stuff.
It’s worth taking a minute to discuss what vintage Cambodi oud oil smells like on its own, because (a) Antiquity smells mostly like vintage Cambodi oud oil, and (b) not many people will have had the opportunity to smell the OG raw material itself. Unlike the hyper sweet berries-and-caramel punch of modern Cambodi-style oud oils, marred in some cases by the funky, dusty staleness associated with rushed distillation, vintage Cambodi oil from the original trees has had a leisurely 40+ years to deepen in the bottle, the sharp edges of the woods and berries sanded down over time to produce a perfectly round, glossy smell of old leather and decades-old wood.
The OG Cambodi oil doesn’t smell at all animalic, and if it is slightly dusty or stale, then it more pleasant than not – an old cedar chest that once held damsons and figs, but where the fruit has long since disappeared into the grain of the wood, leaving a ghostly presence of its dark, raisin-like fruit. It has a patina that glimmers darkly, calling to mind a good aged port.
In Antiquity, the fruit is ostensibly peach but it is the darker, vaguer scent of plum skin that predominates. Sometimes the underlying basenote is an intensely honeyed, saliva-ish musk-leather, but sometimes it smells more like the polish of old wood that has been cared for over decades with a weekly application of linseed-and-lemon furniture oil. The saliva-honey leather note intensifies with the passage of time, creating a sharp, almost sheepy muskiness that calls to mind the aroma of real animal fur or an ancient leather chesterfield armchair decades-deep in manly smells – fermented sweat, old booze, decades of grime, tobacco stains – a sort of sweet n’ sour smell that smells distinctly (to me) masculine.
The Cambodi oil is the big, deep smell that drives the body of the scent, but cleverly, Adam has dressed it up with light chypric elements to extend and accentuate key features of the oil. I admit that little of this chypre nuance was evident to me when I tried this in Rome, where I lived until recently, a place far warmer and more humid than where I live right now. The first few tries, I thought Antiquity was leaning far too hard on the natural complexity of the oud oil to do all the heavy lifting. But in a cooler climate, and by applying the dregs of my sample in big brown smears all over my arms, I am finally able to smell the chypre in this – the tart, spicy bergamot in the topnotes (still no aldehydes, though), and far down in the basenotes, past the massive Cambodi oud midsection, that buttery-animalic-leathery labdanum that Adam uses (the kind that smells like it was freshly combed from a particularly goaty goat) and in the very last gasps of its life, a whisper of something minty and vase water-ish that is probably the oakmoss.
So, yes, technically a chypre if you are ticking off the boxes of the tripartite formula – bergamot, labdanum, and moss. And yet, Antiquity still smells more like an amplified vintage Cambodi oud oil set in musk than a chypre. Real chypres are like a good Chinese meal in that the elements of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness come together at the same time in order to produce that essential chypre ‘flavor’: Antiquity feeds all the right elements into the composition but, dwarfed by the intensity of the Cambodi oud oil, they are squeezed to the sides, from where they make an appearance whenever an air pocket opens up in the structure. But the three strands never come together at the same time. Still, Antiquity is a pretty darned great oud fragrance and one that definitely improves upon aging.
Source of samples: The sample of Teone Reinthal’s Treewitch was kindly sent to me by a fragrance friend, along with generous samples of many of her newer stuff (which I hope to get around to reviewing soon). Areej Le Doré kindly sent me a sample set of the next-to-last collection* in early autumn 2019, without any obligation to review.
*Yes, I know, I know. That collection is now long sold out, which again shows why so few perfume houses send me samples to review and why they honestly should not – I am deeply unreliable and don’t work to any schedule or logic that would make sense to anyone but me. I feel guilty about this occasionally but know that feeling guilty would tip me over into a sense of obligation towards brands, especially the smaller indie ones, which in turn would probably skew my content more positive, and that right there is a slippery slide. As always, I write content for people who want to read about perfume for the pleasure of it, not to influence what you think you’re smelling or fuel a purchase decision
The more I wear Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi, the more I’m convinced it is the Bengale Rouge of the Bianchi line, by which I mean a deliciously thicc n’ fuzzy oriental that’s characterful without being challenging – the much-loved woolly sweater your hand reaches for over the stark, uncompromising Ann Demeulemeester gilet you bought in a factory sale but could never figure out where the arm holes were. The thing these perfumes have in common is their sense of familiarity – they remind you (vaguely) of scents you already know and love. They wear like old friends even if you’ve just been introduced.
Just like Bengale Rouge is a more ‘people-pleasing’ option for people who would never wear Salome, Sticky Fingers is the perfect ‘out’ for people who want to own a Bianchi but find Sex and The Sea or The Lover’s Tale too heavy on the harsh orris-leather accord that has become the Bianchi calling card. That’s not to say that there’s none of Francesca in this perfume, because women with strong personalities always spill over into their art. You’d know, for example, that Sticky Fingers is a Bianchi creation as surely as you can tell Bengale Rouge is a Liz Moores one.
But Sticky Fingers is not going to ruffle any feathers. It is a cosy, feel-good diorama of Francesca Bianchi’s back catalogue with most of the hard edges sanded down and its already duvet-thick volume fluffed up by a mille-feuille of chocolatey patchouli, resins, amber, tonka bean, and vanilla.
My own sticky fingers hover over the ‘buy’ button on Sticky Fingers mostly for the last two thirds of its life, which is when it turns into that combination of smells perfume lovers know as ‘sweater mélange’ – that sweet, lived-in aroma of a fabric like wool or coat collar or seatbelt exhaling, like a sigh, the breath of multiple perfumes last worn God knows when. Or that lovely and as-individual-as-a-fingerprint nuclear cloud that rushes up at you when you open a box of your favorite perfumes or cosmetics.
To wit, Sticky Fingers smells like the heady, third-day fug imprinted on my bathrobe after several days of wearing some of Francesca Bianchi’s other perfumes; especially The Dark Side with its honeyed resins, The Lover’s Tale with its sharp leather, and Lost in Heaven for its simultaneously urinous and sherbety civet-iris accord that is practically the Bianchi DNA. Yet Sticky Fingers is much softer and gauzier than any of these. It’s like all of these perfumes mingling together and blown in at you through an air vent from another room.
Digging down into the detail, there are muffled echoes of something of the choco-wheat-cereal notes from indie perfumes of the last few years (like Ummagumma by Bruno Fazzolari, Café Cacao by En Voyage, or Amber Chocolate by Abdes Salaam Attar), but also a spicy tobacco gingerbread (Tan d’Epices), and a thick ‘white’ note like sandalwood creamed with benzoin (Santal Blush perhaps). I sprayed some Ta’if (Ormonde Jayne) over the tail end of Sticky Fingers once and could have sworn to the presence of smoky, caramelized marshmallow (Amber Absolute by Tom Ford). To be clear, Sticky Fingers doesn’t smell like any one of these perfumes. It’s just a delicious, jumbled up funk of rich woody or resinous orientals that have been worn at some point in the past two or three weeks, and have left an indelible, if undefined, impression.
In essence, Sticky Fingers is a patchouli perfume. But through a glass darkly. Think of the patchouli as the soloist leading the charge in a huge orchestra, drawing in supporting riffs from the strings and the bass until the music swells up from a hundred different sources, creating an incredibly rich, harmonious sound that fills all the air pockets in the room. The patchouli starts out solo, a musty, stale, and fruity rendition of pure earth. But almost immediately it calls in the high notes of the string section, in the form of those acidulated orris-leather tones of the Bianchi DNA, and to counter that, the bass tones of grainy tobacco leaf, shredded into tiny pieces and soaked in a glass of cold, floral-anisic Chinese tea. This combination of notes and ‘sounds’ has the effect of roughing up the patchouli, turning it into a hessian cloth accord of earth, stewed tea, and tobacco, back-lit by the yellow streak of ureic civet-iris that runs through Bianchi’s work like battery acid.
This opening act is attention-catching but, focused on two or three accords that ride bullishly over everything else, it feels like we are all waiting this part out until the quieter, richer sound of the rest of the orchestra can spot an opening and rise to fill it. Eventually this happens, a whole chorus of dusty spices and sandblasted resins and micas ‘blooming’ in unison, softening the sharp edges of the Bianchi iris and blurring the outline of the patchouli. If I like the scent thus far, then I start to love it now, just as the central accord thickens up like a custard with the addition of tonka, sandalwood, vanilla, and tons of sparkly resin. This is when the perfume becomes a comforting ‘sweater mélange’.
The older the get, the more I enjoy scents that envelop me in a billowing cloud of warm, toasty goodness powered by the natural expansiveness of their resins, flowers, or sandalwood, as opposed to the fake radiance of Ambroxan or the forced volume achieved by over-spraying. The most naturally ‘wafty’ fragrances in my arsenal are the big balsamic orientals like L’Heure Bleue parfum (Guerlain), Opus 1144 (UNUM), Bengale Rouge (Papillon), Coromandel (Chanel), Farnesiana (Caron), and Taklamakan (777 SHL), which wear like a delicious ‘gold-brown’ scent cloud that moves with me, like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Sticky Fingers – welcome to the fold.
Source of Sample: Free with my purchase of Under My Skin from the Francesca Bianchi website.