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Areej Le Doré History of Attar Collection (Fragrances): Reviews

4th October 2022

 

The first release in the History of Attar Collection was a set of traditionally-distilled attars specifically commissioned by Areej Le Dore to give its customers an idea of what Indian attars are (thoughts and reviews of the attar set here).  This release, on the other hand, is a collection of spray-based fragrances (not oils) made by Russian Adam himself, rather than commissioned from an attar distiller.  Since their composition do revolve around the use and theme of Indian attars, however, it might be useful for readers to read my previous article describing the attar set first.  

 

 

 

Beauty and the Beast

 

Photo by Maksym Sirman on Unsplash

 

I wrote about the new generation of Amouage attars (2021) a while back, but in trying to couch my disappointment in terms of market realities, I skipped over the sense of loss – emotional and patrilineal – of never seeing the likes of Badr al Badour, Al Shomukh, and Al Molook again.  These were mukhallats that successfully positioned feral ouds against the softening backdrops of rose, ambergris, and musk, stoking a love for oud among the heretofore uninitiated.  The first sniff of Beauty and the Beast makes me realize, with great joy, that cultural ‘scent’ patrimony is never lost entirely, but rather, constantly over-written by new entrants like this.   

 

Based on the age-old Middle Eastern custom of pairing the sometimes challengingly sour, regal animalism of Hindi oud (the Beast) with the soft, winey sweetness of rose (the Beauty), Beauty and the Beast doesn’t deviate too dramatically from the basic rose-oud template.  When the starring raw materials are this good, you don’t need to.  The Hindi oud and the rose oils used here are so complex in and of themselves that an experienced perfumer chooses wisely when they leave them alone to work their synergistic magic on each other. 

 

Interestingly, the ouds in Beauty and the Beast have been distilled using rose hydrosols, meaning that the water normally loaded into the still with the oud chips has been replaced with rosewater, the natural by-product of distilling roses.  I am not sure that this makes a difference to the resulting oud oil, but the environmentalist in me likes the thinking around circular economy it implies.  

 

The balancing act the materials perform is nothing short of magisterial.  When the Hindi oud at first challenges the senses with its pungent, feral qualities – think beasts of burden steaming together in a barn, old saddles piled on old wooden barrels in the corner, piss-soaked straw matted into the dirt floor – the rose (not Taifi, for sure, but more likely something like Rosa bourboniana, used to distill attar of roses, or Rosa damascena, used to distill ruh gulab, or a mix) is there merely to soften and sweeten things.  Later, however, when there is more room to breathe, the rose offers up a kaleidoscope of different ‘flavors’, cycling through wine and chocolate to raspberry liquor, Turkish delight, truffles, and finally, that traditional rose-sandalwood ‘attar’ scent.

 

But it is crucial to note that these nuances all unfold in sequence, matching step for step the series of nuances emerging from the Hindi oud.  So, when the oud reveals that regal, spicy leather underpinning so typical of high-quality Hindi ouds, the rose offers up its truffles and wine.  The two materials continue to evolve and in doing so, change the character of the rose-oud pairing we are smelling.  First, the character is pungent and sweet, then it is leathery and winey, then it is dry, woody-spicy and jellied-loukhoum-like.  This evolution, this symbiotic dance, lasts for a whole 24 hours, so you have ample time to luxuriate in its every transition.

 

There is nothing really new or innovative about the rose-oud pairing, but Beauty and the Beast is worth your time and money if you are looking for an exemplar of the heights it can scale when only truly excellent materials are used.  It is strong, rich, long-lasting, but most of all, interesting and beautiful from every angle, from top to toe.  In terms of what is still available in this style today, I would rank Beauty and the Beast alongside The Night (Frederic Malle), Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal), Al Hareem (Sultan Pasha Attars), and Al Noukhba Elite Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi).  In other words, the fragrances that best capture the feral but regal nature of Hindi oud, balancing it perfectly against dark, sweet roses.  For what it’s worth, my husband, who is a hardcore oud enthusiast, kept muttering stuff, “Good Lord, that is good,” and “Oh, that smells insanely good” all day long every time I wore it.

  

 

 

Ambre de Coco

 

Photo:   Aromatics, spice, and dried plant material for a shamama distillation being loaded into the deg. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor. 

 

Coming across a genuine shamama attar in the wild is like thumbing through a library of slim poetry books and pulling out a tome with the girth of a Ulysses.  Shamama attars, which can take two months of continuous distilling and over 60 separate fragrant materials to make, are so bewilderingly complex that even reading about how they are made is exhausting.  I’ve written about the process here, but in case you haven’t come prepared with sandwiches, a flask of tea, and a map, then let me just tl;dr it for you: an even more aromatic MAAI, wearing a bear pelt.

 

But Ambre de Coco takes it one step further – there is a shamama attar at its heart, but it is wrapped up in a dark, almost bitter, but superbly plush cocoa powder note, stone fruit accords, and a deeply furry impression that suggests that deer musk grains might have been involved at some point.  Complexity-wise, this is like taking Ulysses and wrapping it in a layer of Finnegan’s Wake.

 

Where to begin?  Let’s start with the amber.  Forget the idea of those cozy-vanillic-resinous ambers like Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) or Ambre Precieux (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier).  This is Indian amber, or what they call shamamatul amber, which is green, mossy, and astringent as hell, as if amber resin was not a resin after all but a stalk of rhubarb or a copper penny.  Indian ambers are lean and a bit stern – there is zero fat on their bones.  Inside this carnivorous structure, the rest of these 50-odd raw materials flow as a swirl of tastes and impressions rather than identifiable notes.  Aromatic grasses mingle with bitter, mossy aromas, wet-smelling herbs, roasted roots, dried berries, calligraphy ink, floral bath salts, and all sorts of dried lichens, leaves, and twigs.  It smells more like something a traditional Chinese medicine man would brew up to cure an infection than a perfume.

 

Now, imagine all this soaked in a rich cocoa powder that softens all the pointy, jangly bits that threaten to poke your eye out, and you get an impression of being plunged into the warm embrace of fur – both animal and human.  The cocoa is not at all edible – fold away any expectations you might have of something gourmandy and sweet.  Rather, its powdery texture cleverly replicates the stale chocolate bitterness-dustiness that is a natural feature of real deer musk tinctures.  Shamama attars and shamama-based perfumes can often be animalic, even when they lean exclusively on plant-based materials (Ajmal’s 1001 Nights being a case in point), relying on the natural funkiness of the aromatics or woods or moss to create something that, in some quarters, might be termed a Parfum de Fourrure (a fur perfume).  Here, Ambre de Coco leans a little on oud and ambergris to boost that effect, but in spirit and intent, it joins the ranks of other glorious Indian shamama-inspired perfumes, such as 1001 Nights (Al Lail) by Ajmal and Jardin de Shalimar by Agarscents Bazaar.

 

Photo:  Charila, a type of Indian lichen that is similar to oakmoss. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor

 

The drydown is suitably bitter-musky-tobacco-ish in the way of these Indian shamamatul ambers, but I am not sure whether this is because of the additional dose of oakmoss and ambergris, or because of the naturally aromatic aspects of charila, an inky-smelling moss material from India that is oakmoss-adjacent and also the first material to be distilled in the shamama recipe.  Either way, my comment about MAAI wearing a fur coat stands.  This is a two-day affair and can be smelled on the skin even after a hot shower.  Considering that genuine shamama attars can take two months to distill and starts at a minimum of $2,000 a kilo for one that’s been distilled into real sandalwood oil, $360 for a 48ml bottle of perfume that not only does justice to shamama but elevates it to the small pantheon of shamama greats that exist on the market today, Ambre de Coco is both beautiful and superb value for money.          

 

 

 

Malik Al Motia

 

Photo by Bibi Pace on Unsplash

 

First, a bit of etymology. Motia (or alternatively mogra) is Urdu for Sambac jasmine, which itself is popularly known as ‘Arabian jasmine’, distinguishing it from Jasminum grandiflorum, the more classical jasmine grown in France and India.  You can buy motia in two forms – as an attar al motia, which involves jasmine petals distilled directly over a base of pure sandalwood, or as a ruh al motia, which is the pure essence of the flower, no sandalwood base.   Malik means, loosely, owner or King in Arabic, which I guess suggests that Malik al Motia is supposed to be the Supreme Boss of all Jasmines.  

 

But if you think that means you’re getting something loud, you would be wrong.  Russian Adam mentioned an interesting fact about traditional attars that I hadn’t known, which is that attar wallahs distilling in the old Indian manner produce essences that are pitched at a perfectly modulated mid-tone point, meaning that the final aroma is never too loud or too quiet.  And I find Malik Al Motia to be a perfect example of what he means.

 

This is jasmine with all the lights switched off.  It starts out as dusky, velvety, and slightly indolic in tone, similar to the darkened jasmine found in Ruh al Motia (Nemat) as well as to the soft, magic market indoles of Cèdre Sambac (Hermes).   But the leathery indoles are smoothed out by a judicious touch of the grandiflorum variety of jasmine, whose luscious sweetness and full-bodied charm sands down any rough edges on that Sambac.  Hints of overripe, boozy fruit – like an overblown banana liquor – lend a steamy tone but remain firmly in the background.  Oddly, Malik al Motia smells far more like jasmine than the Motia attar from the attar set that has presumably been used somewhere in the mix. 

 

There are resins and woods in the base, even some oud.  But these just act as the dimmer switch on the jasmine, making sure that everything, even the parts of jasmine that are naturally sunny, are subsumed into the folds of that black velvet olfactory curtain.  The rich, honeyed ‘just-licked skin’ tones of Sambac come through at the end and linger plaintively for hours.  Similar to the now discontinued Gelsomino triple extract by Santa Maria Novella, the natural end to any Sambac is that rich, skanky sourness of your wrist trapped under a leather watch-band all day under intense heat.

 

Yet Malik al Motia remains intensely floral.  Wearing feels like waking up in a field of jasmine at dusk, the air still redolent with scent.  It is not especially feminine and clearly not a soliflore.  The material’s rich indoles lend a slightly dirty feel, as does the mealy woods in the base (reading more cedar-ish than sandalwoody to my nose), but it manages to be darkly, sensually ‘adult’ without ever tipping over into full frontal territory.  Soft, black-purple velvet, a hushed ambience, your heels sinking into deep carpet.  Makes wish I still had someone to seduce.   

 

 

 

Al Majmua

 

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

 

Al Majmua is based on the famous majmua attar, a traditional Indian blend of four other already-distilled attars and ruhs, namely, ruh khus (vetiver root), ruh kewra (pandanus, or pandan leaf), mitti attar (a distillation of hand-made clay bowls), and kadam attar (distilled from the small, yellow bushy flowers of the Anthocephalus cadamba).   Together, these attars combine to mimic the lush, earthy fragrance of India during the rainy season.  In Al Majmua, it is the green, foresty tones of the ruh khus that dominate, at least at first.  Its rugged, earthy aroma smells like the roots of a tree dipped into a classic men’s fougère, something green and bitter enough to put hairs on your chest.  In fact, there is a chalky galbanum-like note here that links Al Majmua, at least superficially, with the front half of Incenza Mysore.

 

But what I love about majmua attars, and hence also about Al Majmua, is that the juicy-sharp bitterness of the opening tends to soften into an earthy, dusty bitterness – nature’s slide, perhaps, from vetiver root to mitti.  

 

This earthy, aromatic aroma is complex and ever-shifting, sometimes letting the slightly minty yellow floral of the kadam attar peek through, sometimes the piercing, fruity-vanillic, yet funky aroma of pandanus leaf (kewra attar), which Russian Adam has cleverly accentuated by adding a cat-pissy blackcurrant up front.  But what really predominates is the earthy wholesomeness of soil and dust, emphasized with patchouli, and given a spicy, armpitty warmth by a sturdy cedarwood in the base that believes itself to be a musk of some sort.  Though the notes don’t include musk or even a naturally musky material like costus, there is an aspect to Al Majmua that smells like the creamed, stale skin at the base of a woman’s neck.  A perfumer friend of mine, Omer Pekji, recommended to me long ago to wear a swipe of Majmua attar under my Muscs Khoublai Khan (Serge Lutens), and I wonder if the reason this particular layering combination works so well is because muskiness forms the bridge between the two perfumes.

 

What I admire the most about Al Majmua is the way that the perfumer chose to simply frame the majmua attar at the center (since it is a complex-smelling thing in and of itself) and then arrange other, complementary materials around it to draw out and emphasize certain aspects of the attar’s character.  For example, a silvery-powdery iris is placed in just the right place to highlight the dustiness of mitti, the cedarwood to underline the majmua’s slight bodily funk, the patchouli to draw even longer 5 o’ clock shadows under the jaw of the ruh khus, and so on.   

 

Fresh over animalic.  Earthy but not pungent.  Imagine Green Irish Tweed sprayed over a deer musk attar that faded down a long time ago.  Indians love majmua attars for their complex, aromatic character and so do I, but I like Al Majmua the best when it is almost done.  Because, just as the slow, gentle fade-to-grey starts to happen, there is a magnificent moment where the natural sandalwood smells like – similar to some parts of Musk Lave and Jicky – idealized male skin.   Meaning, skin after a hot shave, application of an old-fashioned but honest sandalwood tonic (Geo F. Trumpers, say), and then an hour of gentle exertion in the cold air.

 

 

 

Mysore Incenza

 

 

Adjust your expectations.  You see, I know what you’re thinking.  You see the words ‘Mysore’ and ‘incense’ and, like Pavlov’s dog, you immediately salivate, expecting something warm, ambered, and resinous, like Sahara Noir or Amber Absolute mixed with the best, creamiest version of Bois des Iles or Bois Noir (Chanel) that ever existed, but somehow better, you know, because it is all artisanal and therefore deeper, richer, more authentic than anything you can buy on the shelves of your local department store or even niche perfumery.

 

Mysore Incenza is not that.  In fact, so large was the gap between my expectations and reality that I had to wear it five times in a row to come to terms with what it is rather than what I thought it was going to be.   In pairing the extremely high-pitched, dusty, lime-peel notes of frankincense with the extremely soft, ‘neutral’ woody tones of the vintage Mysore sandalwood (from 2000) included in the attar set (read my review here), a transubstantiation of sorts is performed, and something else entirely emerges.

 

Specifically, this new creature is born in the surprising mold of Chanel No. 19 or Heure Exquise (Annick Goutal), with one small toe dipped into the Grey Flannel genepool on the way.  At least at first.  It glitters in this high, pure register, an explosion of Grappa, lime peel, and wood alcohol chased by baby powder, a striking frankincense, and what smells to me like the dusky, cut-bell-pepper dryness of galbanum and the slightly shrill smell of violet leaf.  This creates a dry, clean, woody aroma that smells purified and ascetic.  This kind of frankincense, perhaps changed by the presence of the sandalwood, smells unlit – slightly waxy, slightly powdered, and definitely not smoky, although it occurs to me that the perception of smokiness is as personal and nuanced as your political beliefs.

 

There is no warmth, no sweetness, and no comfort at all.  Don’t look towards the sandalwood to provide any relief, either.  Mysore Incenza is cleansing, angular, and ‘holy’ in the same way as other famously austere scents in incense canon are, such as Incense Extreme (Tauer), Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal), and Ambra (Lorenzo Villoresi).  These are all fragrances that steer away from softening the jutting sharpness of frankincense with amber or vanilla or flowers, choosing instead to focus on the dry, musky-soapy, ‘hard core’ character of resin that radiates hard, like tiny particles of mica or dust leaping off the bible when the priest thumps it to make a point in the angriest of angry sermons.   Mysore Incenza keeps you kneeling straight, anxiously waiting for the priest to say that you can sit back down again.

 

Although technically beautiful, it is most definitely not my kind of thing.  My personal tastes run towards hedonism and gluttony rather than asceticism.  I put the hair shirt away a long time ago.  People who loved Grandenia will also love Mysore Incenza, as there is something of the same vibe.    

 

 

 

Le Mitti

 

Photo: The clay bowls of Indian earth loaded into the still to make mitti attar.  Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, with full permission to use.

 

As Russian Adam warns, Le Mitti is less of a perfume and more of a bottled emotion, so expect a maelstrom with a short but dramatic trajectory from start to finish.  Like Mitti from Oudologie (review here), Le Mitti is a departure from the mineralic, petrichor effect of very traditional mitti attars, in that it is smoky to the point of smelling charred.  I like this way of approaching mitti, as it feels more modern and exciting.  What is lost in all this delicious smoke, however, is that essential feeling of something wet (rain) hitting something dry (the parched red soil of India), which in effect activates the geosmin in the earth and makes that pure ‘after the rain’ effect ring out.  Try Après L’Ondée, if that’s what you’re looking for, or a traditional mitti attar.  But remember that Le Mitti is a perfume, not an attar, and is therefore more of an imaginative interpretation than a dogged replication.

 

So, what does Le Mitti smell like?  Like a perfect storm of peanut dust, tar, soot – charred remnants of a wood fire, soot snaking up the wall in black streaks.  It is Comme des Garcons Black without the anise or the clove.  I love it.  But it is definitely a hybrid mitti rather than a pureline one.  It joins the earthy red dust of Indian clay bowls to the dry, sooty scent of an Irish cottage without ventilation.  As you might imagine, it is hilariously atmospheric.  Don’t wear it unless you’re prepared for people to ask if you’ve been near an open fire recently.

 

 

 

Gul Hina

 

Photo by Photos by Lanty on Unsplash

 

Gul Hina, or Gul Heena, or sometimes even Attar Mehndi, meaning ‘flower of henna’, is an attar derived from distilling henna leaves (Lawsonia Inermis) directly into sandalwood oil.   As you might guess from the name, the attar comes from the same plant as the popular red dye that is used to paint elaborate patterns onto the hands and face of brides in most Indian weddings, be it a Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh ceremony.  There is also a Ruh Mehndi, but since it is very expensive at $43,000 per kilogram (while the attar ranges between $500 and $5,000 per kilogram), it is rarely used commercially.  Well, to be honest, neither the attar or ruh of henna is well known outside of India and is therefore under-utilized in Western niche or artisanal perfumery.   Strangelove NYC’s fallintostars is an exception – it uses a heena attar distilled by M.L. Ramnarain.  (Review here).  

 

Gul Hina by Areej Le Doré is an entirely different experience to most Gul Hina attars I have tried.  The scent of mehndi attar is that of earth, hay, flower petals, ink, baked clay, and iodine.  (The ruh smells greener, with a  tobacco-ish facet).  It can smell rather austere.  But the Areej Le Doré approach to Gul Hina is to bathe the henna flower in the prettiest of magnolia blossoms, rose, and jasmine, so that what emerges is a sort of Venus on a Half Shell – a pearlescent, creamy, and indubitably feminine experience.  This is not the hot baked earth and hay that I am used to in mehndi.  And I’m not complaining.

 

It strikes me that this would be perfect for a bride, especially one that is also getting those intricate henna patterns painted onto her hands and face.  Henna on the arms and face; Gul Hina on the wrists and neck.  A synchronicity of henna for good health and a happy marriage.

 

First, Gul Hina smells vaguely candied, but indirectly so, like floral gummies rolled in dust and lint.  Then you notice the magnolia petals floating in a pool of cream.  Unlike in other takes on magnolia, there is no lemony freshness and no juicy, metallic greenery at its heart.  Here, the petals feel impregnated with the cream in which it floats, like biscuits or croissants dipped into condensed milk before baking a bread pudding.  These sweet, milky notes mingling with the clearly floral elements of magnolia remind me of some aspects of Remember Me (Jovoy).

 

The jasmine is next to break free of this creamy mass.  Clear as a bell, this is a naturalistic jasmine, like jasmine petals dropping and wilting off a vine in high summer.  Petals fully open, a ripe smell, with something fecund and though not quite clean, not exactly indolic either.  Still, it is enough to give the pretty magnolia some much-needed kick.  A little funk in your cream.  The rose, when it emerges, is extremely subtle.  Rose rarely plays such a back seat, but here it plays nicely in floral tandem with jasmine and magnolia that it approaches that ‘mixed floral bouquet’ effect that Creed puts in all its older feminines, like Vanisia and Fleurissimo.      

 

To be honest, I am not sure what to think about the far drydown.  With the white musk and the sandalwood, there is a nice element of perfumey, musky bitterness that creeps in.  On the one hand, this sort of drydown is always very pretty (think Coco Mademoiselle, without the patchouli), but on the other, it doesn’t sit well with the magnolia cream pudding aspect, which in consequence begins to smell a little less like a milky dessert and more like that fake croissant scent they pump around the supermarket to get shoppers moving towards the baked goods section.

 

But even if it is ultimately not quite my thing, I can’t imagine why Gul Hina wouldn’t be a huge success with brides to be, women who like pretty florals, and fans of milky floral gourmands in general.  Overall, I admire Gul Hina for being a symbolic scent pairing to the more pungent smell of henna ink painted onto a woman’s body on her wedding day.  It doesn’t smell like any mehndi attar I have ever smelled before, but my experience with mehndi is limited and I fully expect someone who is fully familiar with it to smell this and say, but of course, this is pure mehndi!

 

 

Source of samples:  My samples were sent free of charge by the brand.  This does not affect my review.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Fahrul Azmi on Unsplash 

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

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews K-T

7th June 2022

 

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

 

 

 

Kalemat Amber Oil (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

 

Little Egypt (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Honeyed myrrh and sweet flag

 

 

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

 

 

 

Luxor (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mabrook (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Minister (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

 

Morocco (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mughal Amber Oud (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mukhallat Maliki (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mukhallat Saif al Hind (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

 

Nankun (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Osirian Purnima Bastet (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Oud Absolute (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ozymandias (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

 

Petrichor (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Prince Bandar (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Pure Incense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Pyramid of Khafre (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

 

Pyramid of Menkaure (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Regolith (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Resine Precieux (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Rouh al Amber (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash

 

Sahraa Oud (Fragrance du Bois)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Salem (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Scrying Smoke (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Smenkhare (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Tim van Kempen on Unsplash

 

Sorcière Rouge (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Still (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Tabac Oranger (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Tinderbox (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Cristi Ursea on Unsplash

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

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews B-I

4th June 2022

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Basilica (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend Supreme (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

 

The Cat (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Chypre Profund (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Conjure Dark (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Kier In Sight on Unsplash

 

Dukhan (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

L’Encens à la Vanille (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Enheduanna (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Enigma Intense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Eve (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

fallintostars (Strangelove NYC)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

FBI.17 (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

Geisha Amber Rouge (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Geisha Noire (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Holy Terror (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

HopHead (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Incense Oud (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

 

Incense Royale (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Incensum (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Inferno (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Inquisitor (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cover Image: Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

 

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

The Attar Guide to Resins

30th May 2022

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Andriy Tod on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Review Round-Ups Sandalwood Single note exploration The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Sandalwood Reviews 0-M

24th March 2022

 

Hello fellow sandalwood freaks!  Remember to read the introduction here and the sandalwood primer here.

 

 

2016 Mysore Special Reserve (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Opening with the milky peanut shell aroma characteristic of Mysore, complete with gluey, solvent-like topnotes, the 2016 Mysore Special Reserve quickly segues into a heart of aromatic sandalwood with zero sweetness or creaminess.  Imagine a log of sandalwood split open with an axe, the air suddenly fizzing with camphor, mint, and red dust.

 

Later, there are hints of sweet milk and yoghurt, as well as green rose petals.  Its general character is clean, aromatic, and tending more towards camphoraceous-minty than creamy-sweet.  Sinewy, therefore, rather than voluptuous.  2016 Mysore Special Reserve also smells undeniably young.  Its minty rawness will likely gain more depth and creaminess with careful aging.  However, there is tenderness in its sedate, peanutty milkiness, which is what makes it a beautiful choice to wear right now.  Subtle and fresh, 2016 Mysore Special Reserve is a great option for those who want the luxury of wearing a Mysore oil every day without the fuss or distraction of a more aged oil. 

 

 

 

2017 Deep & Buttery Mysore (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This is a result of a very interesting experiment whereby JK DeLapp wondered if sandalwood could be treated or distilled to smell like an oud.  He gave the sandalwood chips a good long soak in water before distilling, a method usually reserved for Hindi-style oud oil distillations.  Disturbingly, the experiment works.

 

What started out life as a blameless sandalwood has been pressed and massaged into the shape of a particularly feral oud oil distilled from wood that has been soaked for over fourteen days.  The fermented flavor is exactly that of Hindi, and indeed, this oil could easily be mistaken for one were it not for the fact that, behind the initial wave of funk, there is no hay or smoke, only the aromatic blondness of Mysore sandalwood.

 

Despite the name, this oil is not particularly creamy, deep, or buttery.  Rather, it is all freshly-stripped bark and crushed pinecones.  With an undercurrent of bile duct secretion.   

 

Further on, the oil develops a leathery facet, like the cured leather of horse saddles in a tack room.  Mingling with the piney, silvery freshness of the wood, the outcome is one of green leather with a camphoraceous undertone.  But there is a lingering pungency that never lets you forget about that long, moldy soak.

 

A Mysore sandalwood that smells like a Hindi oud oil, huh.  The phrase ‘who asked for this?’ comes to mind.  This is definitely worth testing if you want to see what is possible when you experiment with different soaking times and distillation methods (not to mention different woods).  However, if you are looking for the classic, buttery Mysore sandalwood profile, then look elsewhere.  For my personal tastes, this is an interesting experiment but also a waste of perfectly good Mysore sandalwood.

 

 

 

2017 Royal Reserve Mysore (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

The 2017 Royal Reserve Mysore begins in much the same vein as the 2016 version, with a gluey, peanut-shell delicacy that is all silvery topnotes and little else.  But it soon develops a robust heart that diverges sharply from the 2016 version by way of a phenomenal myrrh note that smells like wet, loamy earth, freshly-sliced mushrooms, and resin.  The age-old loveliness of the typical Mysore aroma – aromatic dryness tugging against creamy sweetness – follows on the heels of this myrrhic wave.

 

Oddly enough, for a younger oil, the 2017 version does not smell as green or as minty-fresh as the 2016 batch, but rather, earthy, rich, and spicy.  Whether you prefer one over the other will depend on whether you favor fresh and green over earthy and ‘red’, or vice versa.  My preference is for the 2017 batch.

 

 

 

Absolute Sandalwood (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Absolute Sandalwood combines an ashy tobacco note with aromatic sandalwood and a whole pain d’épices worth of rich spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and clove) for a result that splits the difference between Egoïste (Chanel) and Journey for Men (Amouage).

 

If you are looking for sweet and creamy a la Bois des Îles (Chanel) or Samsara (Guerlain), then know that this is not that.  But if you like a spicy, rugged masculine take on sandalwood, then Absolute Sandalwood is a winner.  With the Coca Cola richness of Egoïste coming to play, and a touch of warm resin flirting around the basenotes, this is the sort of stuff that might reasonably be described as ‘handsome’.

 

It is rich, warm, and thoroughly satisfying.  Absolute Sandalwood remains true to the Clive Christian approach with this line of concentrated perfume oils, which is to say it is relatively sugar-free and tending towards the masculine side of the spectrum.

 

 

 

Photo by Marion Botella on Unsplash

 

Alec d’Urberville (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The profligate essence of an aristocratic libertine. Amber resin, charred Madagascar vanilla, French cognac, clove, sandalwood, and dark musk. Limited Edition.

 

 

Alec d’Urberville is a turbo-powered fist bump of sweaty-metallic clove and rugged sandalwood, with a thick, gooey molasses accord tucked into its trunk.  The interplay between sour, sweet, and burnt spice gives it an interestingly smoky char.  It continues on in this vein for most of the ride before quieting down to a dank sandalwood with liquor and vanilla bean paste rubbed into the grain.

 

For fans of spicy-woody perfumes, Alec d’Urberville is an interesting proposition.  Understand that you must be able to tolerate clove notes in order to make it past the first hour or so.  To me, it reads like an easy-going perfume oil version of Diptyque’s cinnamon-and-opoponax masterpiece, Eau Lente.  I recommend it highly to people who spend a lot of time outdoors, because, when mixed with the musk of one’s own body after physical exertion, it forms a halo of fiery woods and golden vanilla around its wearer that is sustenance onto itself.

 

 

 

Arabesque (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: An exquisitely spiritual blend of beautifully aged Arabian sandalwood, Mysore sandalwood, precious Egyptian kyphi, sweet orris root, benzoin resin, cassia, and blessed spikenard.

 

 

Despite the initial blast of clean, terpenic wood, Arabesque is not an especially sandalwood-forward blend.  After the blond woodiness of the topnotes fades, it develops into a powdery benzoin-driven amber with the glitter of iris and lemon sugar on top.  This is Alkemia’s most popular blend, and I can see why.  It is sweet, sparkling, and soapy – a freshly powdered Siamese kitten in scent form.

 

But it is not sandalwood.  Instead, it is the interaction between the iris (dusty, silvery) and the benzoin (vanillic, lemony, cinnamon-spicy) that really drives this car.  Kyphi, the ancient Egyptian version of barkhour – compressed incense blocks of powdered sandalwood, resins, and aromatics – contributes a vaguely gummy, incensey sweetness that underpins the benzoin and iris.

 

It is a lovely perfume.  But the whole ‘aged Arabian sandalwood’ backstory makes my palms itch.  Arabian sandalwood, aged or otherwise, does not exist because sandalwood trees do not grow in the Middle East.  There are, of course, Arabian sandalwood perfume oils.  These are largely cheap sandalwood synthetics mixed with other oils to achieve a certain ‘Arabian’-flavored exoticism.  Although most of the fragrance world is driven by fantasy and make-believe, indie companies like Alkemia and Nava – another serial offender – really ought to stop flogging the idea of exclusivity or rarity in connection to materials bought off the rack at The Perfumer’s Apprentice.  

 

Of course, as consumers, we should also try harder not to fall quite so hard or so fast for marketing guff like this.  Given the current cost and rarity of real Mysore sandalwood oil, we should all assume that a blend costing about twenty dollars for fifteen milliliters will not contain any of it. 

 

And to be fair, for Alkemia, and most of the American indie oil sector, sandalwood is more a fantasy of a precious raw material than the precious raw material itself.  Which, by the way, is fine.  It is the premise of the World Wrestling Entertainment, i.e., if we are all willingly involved in the suspension of disbelief, then nobody gets hurt. But sprinkling the word ‘Mysore sandalwood’ in the notes list willy nilly like that?  Quit your bullshit, Jan.

 

Rant aside, Arabesque is a thoroughly loveable perfume oil and will please fans of soft spicy-ambery scents that purr rather than roar.  It shares some ground with Iris Oriental (Parfumerie Generale), Fleur Oriental (Miller Harris), and even Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile), albeit far simpler than any of these.

 

 

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

 

Arrival of The Queen of Sheba (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Mysore sandalwood, suede, frankincense, patchouli, 4 vanillas. This blend is tough and tender at the same time, like the queen herself. This one makes vanilla turn tricks as an oriental ingredient and all of the fabulous elements get along so well. It is an instant sex classic.

 

 

Let’s be clear.  Not a single drop of Mysore sandalwood oil was harmed in the production of Arrival of The Queen of Sheba.  Like many fragrance fans, I care more about the magic a talented perfumer can pull off in a composition than whether the materials they use are natural or synthetic.  The most stunning perfumes in the world – Mitsouko, Shalimar, Chanel No. 5 – are a mix of synthetic and natural materials, but blended in such a complex, abstract manner that you only notice their overall beauty.

 

I do not have a particular fetish for all-natural perfumes, or perfumes that mythologize one of the constituent raw materials.  But I do not particularly agree with the widespread practice of being disingenuous with customers over the naturalness or source of certain materials.  None of the American indie oil perfume houses can afford to import or buy genuine Mysore sandalwood oil in the quantity or price required to make perfumes that sell at twenty dollars per six milliliters.  One might argue that the Mysore sandalwood narrative so frequently used in the American indie sector is a harmless piece of fiction – a social pact between company and customer.  Still, the fake sourcing narratives rankle with those who have smelled the genuine materials or know even a little about the difficulty of obtaining them.  

 

Marketing shenanigans aside, Arrival of The Queen of Sheba opens with a blast of photograph-drying chemicals, momentarily catching me off guard and making me wonder if I am in for a bit of a wild ride here.  But no.  While Sheba boasts four types of vanilla, one molecule less or one molecule more makes not even the slightest bit of difference to the creamy blandness of the outcome.  Don’t get me wrong – The Queen of Sheba is genuinely very nice, drying down to a pale woodsy affair with soft milky suede accents.  But for the price, it is not doing very much.

 

I think the main problem in Arrival of The Queen of Sheba is that it features the signature Possets vanilla (or four different variations on it) in a starring role instead of relegating it to the back where it can do no harm.  When pushed to the fore, you can see plainly that it is the sort of vanilla that smells a bit plasticky, like melted ice-cream or a vanilla candle at the Yankee Candle store.  It is not offensive or jarring, but it does smell slightly cheap.

 

 

 

Bois Exotique (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Bois Exotique is a puzzle.  It features a sharp, almost rooty sandalwood note (surely synthetic) over an amber and patchouli base that reads as creamy, soapy, and vaguely minty.  The balmy mouthfeel of the sweetened patchouli is close to the waxy white chocolate texture of Hiram Green’s wonderful Arbolé Arbolé.  (In terms of overall aroma, however, they are nothing alike).

 

There is also an attractive Coca Cola note at the beginning, common to many superb sandalwood fragrances such as Bois des Îles and Egoïste, both by Chanel.  Yet, undeniably, the quality and density of this scent places Bois Exotique in the same category as other indie perfume oils rather than alongside those belonging to classic perfumery.  There is both a handmade quality and a loose, casual structure to Bois Exotique that reminds me of popular ‘sandalwoody’ indie oils, such as Alkemia’s Arabesque or Nava’s Santalum.

 

Still, no shade intended.  There is something deeply pleasing about the dichotomy in Bois Exotique between the bitter, woody facets and the sweet waxy-milky facets.  Powdery incense notes shift in like a sprinkling of crystallized sugar on top of plain bread.  The combination of bitter and sweet adds a frisson to the scent.  At points, it is as moreish as chocolate.

 

It is this clever counter-posing of notes that helps me to finally settle the overall place of Ava Luxe in the pecking order as somewhere between the American indie oil sector and niche.  Her work is more nuanced than most indie oil companies, and she is deeply beloved by her loyal customer base.  Yet the uneven quality and low quality of some of the raw materials rank her output at just slightly below other American indie perfume brands such as DSH Perfumes, Aftelier, and Sonoma Scent Studio.  Still, when something works, it really works.  And on balance, Bois Exotique works.

 

 

 

Dabur Chandan Ka Tail (Oil of Sandalwood)  

Type: essential oil

 

 

Dabur sandalwood oil is pure Santalum album from India, though not from the Mysore region.  It is sold as an ayurvedic medicine rather than a perfume, a fact many sandalwood fans (including me) choose to ignore, using it as perfume instead.  It comes in a small glass container with a rubber cap to allow penetration by a syringe, but for perfume purposes, it is highly advisable that, once opened, you decant the oil into another container so as to avoid contamination from the rubber cap.  Personally, I am not that meticulous, so my bottle of Dabur oil sits happily in its original bottle, and if there is a little rubbery taint to the topnotes, well then I do not mind.  It adds character.

 

Dabur is a solid Santalum album oil, as equally unpretentious in aroma as it is in price.  The topnotes are tainted with a bitter, smoky rubber overtone, which I genuinely enjoy.  Once past that, the oil settles into a sweet, buttery sandal aroma with miles of depth.  Like all s. album oils, it is not loud, but it is certainly a great deal more robust than more delicate artisanal oils.  It is also not as linear, thanks to those notes of rubber, smoke, and fuel exhaust.  I do not know if the supply of this oil is sustainable, so I am planning to stock up.  Though it works brilliantly under commercial perfumes that need a sandalwood boost, it is also a thoroughly satisfying wear on its own.

 

 

Photo by Laura Mitulla on Unsplash

 

Khaliji (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Khaliji is the most daring fragrance in the Al Rehab rollerball line-up.  In pairing a fresh, aromatic lemongrass with an armpitty cumin, it arrives at a compromise between a good Southeast Asian curry and the undershirt of a Cairo taxi driver in high summer.  It is equally repellent and attractive, which is, of course, precisely what makes it interesting.

 

Its vegetally-green cardamom note momentarily recalls the water-logged ‘figgy’ sandalwood of Le Labo’s Santal 33.  But in truth, the strongest point of comparison is to the aromatic, cumin-flecked woody notes of Le Labo’s Rose 31.  In case that comparison got your hopes up, let me equivocate.  First, there is no rose in the Al Rehab (some will not miss it).  Second, the scratchy synthetic wood aromachemical that defines the Le Labo is absent, replaced by a smooth, featureless sandalwood accord.  Third, the curried-armpit nuance is stronger in the Al Rehab. 

 

I find Khaliji to be a striking fragrance, with a deeply aromatic drydown that lasts forever on the skin.  Get past the shock of the cumin-and-lemon tandem in the opening and you are good to go.  It would make for an excellent masculine, its swampy, spice-laden woodiness blooming beautifully on sweaty male skin in summer.  The juxtaposition between the fresher aromatic notes (lemongrass, cardamom) and the warmer, dustier ones (cumin, sandalwood) is very well handled, especially for a low-budget oil perfume such as this.  The final impression it leaves is that of savory bread pudding made entirely of creamed woods.

 

 

 

Majan (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Majan is a sort of twin to Molook, except where Molook is a duet between Hindi oud and ambergris, Majan is a duet between sandalwood and ambergris.  As in Molook, the quality of the ambergris used in Majan is sublime – softly fecal, marine, warm, deep, and with tobacco and leather tonalities for depth and vigor.  Something about it feels aged, like the pages of an old manuscript, but there is a feathery sweetness there too.  The vintage feel is enhanced by the slight civet-like undertone of the ambergris.  Wearing it may remind vintage lovers of older ambergris- and civet-heavy fragrances such as Patou Joy parfum and Dioressence.

 

Working backwards from the base – ambergris – to the top, the first half of this attar is almost purely sandalwood, with a side of musky rose.  The sandalwood used in Majan is very high quality.  There is quite possibly some amount of Mysore sandalwood here, although it is might also be oil from the newer Santalum album plantations in Australia mixed with a sandalwood synthetic or two to get it to sing.  Whatever the material, the opening is a joyously creamy sandalwood affair that will tug on the heartstrings of any sandalwood aficionado.

 

The prevalent aroma, to start with, is slightly oily, peanut-like, and raw, like a freshly-split log of wood, which is typical of genuine Mysore sandalwood.  The lumberyard notes soon soften as they melt into a warm, rosy, milky aroma associated with fine sandalwood.  Rose adds a flush to the cheeks of the wood, and vanilla a sweet creaminess – but these are bit players, there just to help flesh out the aroma of the sandalwood.

 

At some point in the life of the attar, the sandalwood and rose drop away completely, revealing the warm saltwater taffy of that wonderful ambergris.  The switch is complete, leaving very little overlap between the first layer (sandalwood-rose) and the second (ambergris).  However, when the two main players of any attar are as incredible as natural sandalwood and ambergris, then it matters not if they aren’t seamlessly knitted together.  Majan is first rate work, and my personal favorite from the older Amouage line just behind Badr al Badour.

 

 

 

Memphis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sandalwood, Spicey [sic] Berries, Egyptian Musk, Citrus, Heliotrope

 

 

I am beginning to suspect that the strangely waxy-gluey nuance at the top of most NAVA blends is their version of sandalwood.  Pitched halfway between furniture polish and vegetable oil, it casts an unattractive layer of sealing wax over the other notes, obscuring and muffling their sound to such an extent that one sometimes smells very little indeed.  I am at a loss to name what natural or synthetic sandalwood smells like this, but its blond, pale nature does indeed suggest a sandalwood note of some derivation.

 

As with most NAVA blends, the muffling wax ladled over the opening of Memphis eventually dissipates somewhat to reveal something of the underlying structure, which here consists of sharp fruit, citrus, and an accord that I would describe as ‘generic men’s aftershave’.  Mixing with the blandly oily sandalwood, this forms an accord that is both fresh-bitter and milky-gluey.  This might have been a better perfume had the dial been moved more definitively towards one or the other, but as it is, Memphis is the epitome of ‘almost there-ness’.  I don’t think Elvis would have been particularly moved by this either. 

 

 

 

Mysore 1984 (Ensar Oud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This oil, a vintage Mysore oil unearthed and verified by Ensar Oud himself, was allegedly stored for decades in a rusty old tin by a guy who had no idea he was sitting on a pot of gold.  (Maybe it is true, I don’t know. In the artisanal sector, swallowing a bit of guff comes with the territory).  Anyway, in what seems to be an almost predictable piece of good fortune, the same vendor managed to unearth a second tin of the same oil, sold it to Ensar, and is now once again available for purchase.  As ever, once it is gone, it is gone.  Perhaps by the time this Guide finally gets published, it is already a relic.

 

Griping about implausible backstory aside, the 1984 Mysore from Ensar Oud is, for me, the epitome of what a Mysore sandalwood oil should smell like.  Most people smelling Mysore sandalwood for the first time are surprised at how distant it is from the fantasy version presented in commercial perfumery, where a cocktail of sandalwood synthetics and vanilla are used to fluff out its proportions to stadium-filling volume.

 

Having said that, Mysore 1984 smells more like the fantasy of Mysore sandalwood long held in my head than any of my other Mysore samples, meaning it skips completely over the blond “peanutty” and terpenic portions of Mysore to get straight to the meat of the aroma.  It is boomingly sweet, indecently rich, red-brown in aroma, and possessed of an incensey depth suggestive of resin and amber.

 

In fact, this oil does not possess any peanut-shell rawness at all, displaying instead a gouty roundness suggestive of maturity.  It teeters between sweet and salty, perhaps tipping the scales a little more towards sugar than the salt.  But it contains just enough resin and wood notes to counter the sweetness, and so everything is held in perfect balance.   Later, the oil develops that dry-creamy push-pull effect so characteristic of fine Mysore – the buttery, sour cream facets pushing back against the dry, aromatic dustiness inherent to sandalwood.  I love it in the wistful, quasi-resentful way one loves any non-renewable resource.  

 

 

 

Mysore Sandalwood (Gulab Singh Johrimal)

Type: essential oil

 

 

At first, this oil is quite sharp, green, and bitter.  It also smells smoky, as if the oil has crossed paths with a campfire. Immediately detectable are the keenly terpenic, head-spinning rawness that sandalwood shares with industrial glue, which makes me think that the oil is genuine but just needs to settle a bit.

 

The next stage is more characteristic of Santalum album, with its salted peanut savor and cloudy milkiness.  However, it lacks the fatty, double-creamed body of the other samples, and comes across as a sort of de-fatted version of the real thing.  With its brusque, astringent woodiness, it reminds me more of the inside of a wood carver’s workshop than a true Mysore.  It is perfectly nice, but not worth the price I paid for it, which was $25 for one milliliter.

 

 

 

Mysore Sandalwood (via Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Josh Lobb very kindly included a sample of Mysore sandalwood oil in an order I made with him in 2017, presumably the same sandalwood he uses in Slumberhouse blends that feature it prominently, such as Grev.  It is always interesting to smell the oils and absolutes that artisanal, small-batch perfumers use in their perfumes, because if the customer is not going to be wearing it neat, then the raw material or essential oil itself does not have to display the same range of nuances or subtleties – it just has to be strong enough to make its voice heard over a cacophony of other materials.

 

This is the case here: the sample smells rather pungent and cheesey, like a Laotian plantation oud oil with lots of stale, dusty ‘off notes’ that might make wearing it neat a bit of a trial.  However, in a blend, it is potent and creamy enough to broadcast a message of ‘sandalwood’ in large neon letters, which is all that is really required of it.  Worn neat, the drydown of the oil smells furry and slightly foul, as if cross-contaminated with deer musk or ambergris.

 

 

 

Mystery Indian Oil

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Kindly included in a care package of attar and oil samples sent to me by an American-Indian friend, this oil seems to be a no-name oil picked up in one of the perfume shops in Mumbai or Delhi, of which there are hundreds.  I include it here because, although its provenance is murky, its aroma is somewhat typical of what one might expect of an oil like this, and therefore my description might be of use.

 

The topnotes smell tainted, as if it has encountered heavy metals, rubber tubing, and smoke, before being filtered to remove most – but not all – of the impurities.  Many sandalwood oils, especially the cheaper ones, smell contaminated in this manner, but with a bit of patience, one can learn to tolerate and even appreciate the odd little bits of detritus floating in and around the pure sandal aroma.  Similarly, one of my favorite Western niche sandalwood perfumes – Etro’s Sandalo eau de cologne – smells like an industrial accident at first but ultimately manages to frame it as an elegant quirk rather than a defect.

 

What makes the mystery Indian oil a bit different, however, is its strong current of sour, greenish terpenes and nail varnish, making me suspect that the oil has been cut with paraffin, D.O.P., or a low quality santalum spiccatum.  This ‘inferior wood’ impression dissipates after a while, allowing us to glimpse the smoky, buttery sandal aroma lurking underneath.  It is more sandalwood-ish than truly sandalwoody, but again, I have smelled far worse.

 

The best way to describe the sandal oils one buys in Indian shops is that they put on a good impression of real sandalwood oil, but only in fits and bursts.  This oil is no exception.  Its smoky-creamy midsection is genuinely pleasing, but when a sharp, aftershavey base arrives to obscure the sandal, it gives up any pretense of being real sandalwood.  Still, the fresh, almost bitter shaving foam finish to this oil would make it a good option for men who prefer barbershop-style sandalwoods over the sweet, creamy version that women instinctively prefer.

 

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

 

Source of samples: I purchased samples from Ava Luxe, Oil of Sandalwood, Arcana, NAVA, Possets, Alkemia, Amouage, Al Rehab, and Gulab Singh Johrimal. The samples from Ensar Oud, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, and Clive Christian were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor. Other samples were kindly donated to me by Josh Lobb and Basenotes friends. 

 

 

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

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Attars & CPOs Independent Perfumery Round-Ups The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

The Attar Guide: Concentrated Perfume Oils (CPOs)

15th November 2021

 

The final category of oil perfume is that of concentrated perfume oils.  You might get to this section and groan.  After all, are attars and mukhallats not concentrated perfume oils?  The short answer is that while all attars are, by their very nature, concentrated perfume oils, not all concentrated perfume oils are attars.  For example, BPAL’s beloved Snake Oil, while most definitely an oil-based perfume, is not an attar.  Neither is Sballo by Bruno Acampora, Café Noir by Ava Luxe, Santal 33 perfume oil by Le Labo, Choco Musk by Al Rehab, or meltmyheart by Strangelove NYC.  Cheap oil dupes of popular Western fragrances like Aventus or Sauvage are not attars either, even though many people call them that.  In other words, while many perfumes come in oil form, it is not the oil format that makes an attar an attar.

 

 

Ok, so how do Concentrated Perfume Oils differ from Attars?

 

 

First, the intent behind CPOs is substantially different to that of attars.  Attars primarily exist to exalt the beauty of certain raw materials and notes, and by doing so, turn the wearer’s thoughts inwards, towards the soul and towards God (or indeed, Nature).  In other words, attars evolved as an adjunct to the spiritual life of a person rather than something that makes you feel like Charlize Theron shimmying through the Louvre in a gold dress.  

 

The intent behind concentrated perfume oils, on the other hand, is artistic rather than spiritual or exalting.  They do not exist to help you praise God or pay tribute to precious raw materials.  Instead, they exist to spin you a fantasy.  They want you to feel like Charlize Theron shimmying through the Louvre in that gold dress.  They correspond more closely to the Western idea of perfume – that just happens to be in oil form.

 

The range of quality and themes in the concentrated perfume oil category is far more diverse than that of attars, mukhallats, or pure ouds.  But in general, it is fair to say that someone who seeks out a perfume oil is looking for an effect – a fantasy of how they want to smell – rather than a single-minded essay on one or two raw materials.

 

For example, if your desire is to smell like a pampered Persian queen, and you have the money, then you can indulge yourself with luxurious perfume oils from high-end niche perfume companies that cost over $250 for a tiny bottle, like Nabucco’s Parfum Fin, or even an oil from Henry Jacques, which start at $500 for fifteen milliliters and climb into the tens of thousands.  In this bracket, the quality of the raw materials tends to be as sublime as the artistic result.

 

On the other hand, if you just want to smell freshly-showered even when you are not, you can pick up a roll-on of Kuumba Made Persian Musk for less than fifteen dollars at Wholefoods while you are queuing to buy cereal.  Or perhaps you are a young woman who wants to smell like the library at Hogwarts or a scene out of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which case there is a whole back catalog at BPAL for you to explore.  Because the nature of desire is as individual as a fingerprint, there is an endless array of perfume oils to match its specificity. 

 

The composition of concentrated perfume oils also differs from that of attars or mukhallats.  While attars, ruhs, pure oud oils, and mukhallats involve processes such as distillation, maceration, extraction, blending, and compounding, a concentrated perfume oil is largely composed by mixing a variety of pre-packaged naturals and synthetics together according to a precise formula in a neutral carrier oil.  The ratio of naturals to synthetics will depend on budget.  At the higher end of the market, with the Henry Jacques and Nabuccos, the content load of natural raw materials is very high, with less synthetic intervention.  At the lower end of the scale, the mix is tilted firmly towards the synthetic, with few to no natural materials. 

 

Another key difference between attars and concentrated perfume oils is verisimilitude.  While the raw materials used in attars and mukhallats usually smell like the source material, the raw materials referenced in indie or concentrated perfume oils often do not.  For example, if an attar contains or references sandalwood, then you will experience something that is close to the aroma of the raw material itself, even if synthetic sandalwood has been used.  But in the concentrated oil sector, a sandalwood note is more often a fantasy of sandalwood than something that is faithful to the smell of sandalwood essential oil.

 

Lastly, there is a difference in the type of exoticism represented in attars and concentrated perfume oils.  Attars, ruhs, and mukhallats are an expression of Eastern perfumery, and, as such, use traditional materials used in attar and mukhallat perfumery, such as oud, sandalwood, musk, and ambergris.  If they are ‘exotic’, it is simply because they use ingredients perceived to be exotic to our (Western) noses.

 

In the concentrated perfume oil sector, on the other hand, any notion of exoticism is stage-managed.  For example, a concentrated perfume oil might want to recreate a fantasy of what the grave of Ra smells like, meaning configurations of accords designed to conjure up the ‘feel’ of stone, dust, old paper, and kyphi incense.  Such a perfume would use a complex formula of synthetics, some naturals, and carrier oils to achieve the fantasy.  The result smells exotic purely because the hand of a perfumer steers it in that direction, not because its raw materials or its expression are themselves intrinsically exotic.  In short, concentrated perfume oils supply you with half of the fantasy – the rest is up to your imagination.

 

The Different Types of Concentrated Perfume Oils

 

 

High-end niche perfume oils

 

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Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash

 

The definition of ‘niche’ in perfumery is an ever-shifting target. The term has become largely meaningless in the march of big corporations to gobble up small, independent ‘niche’ brands in the attempt to capture downstream markets.  Read my article on this here.  However, in the contest of oil-based perfumery, niche can mean anything from a larger niche brand like Le Labo diversifying into the perfume oil niche to capture a different kind of customer to the small, Etsy-based business making products for a tiny corner of the market, with very limited batch production and little to no distribution in retail outlets.  At the risk of generalizing, we understand niche as a business model that caters to a long tail of quirks – no matter how obscure – whereas mainstream fragrances are designed to appeal to the taste of a broader audience.

 

Companies such as Nabucco, Henry Jacques, Bruno Acampora, Fragrance du Bois, Strangelove NYC, Le Labo, Clive Christian, Aroma M, Ava Luxe, April Aromatics, and Olivine belong in the niche category of perfume oils for several reasons.  First, limited distribution.  Niche oil perfumes are not usually available in retail spaces but must be ordered from online retailers, or in the case of Henry Jacques and Fragrance du Bois, bought in person at one of their exclusive stores.  Second, craftsmanship.  The quality of artisanship and raw materials in the niche perfume oil segment is considerably higher than, say, the bulk of the American indie oil sector.  And despite the common format (oil), niche oils have zero in common with cheapie roll-ons and dupes. Third, diversification.  Most of these niche companies also produce perfumes in formats other than oil, and indeed, for companies such as Le Labo and April Aromatics, their perfume oils are simply an extension of their main line of business, i.e., fragrances in eau de parfum or eau de toilette concentration.  Thus, for these companies, oil perfumes are themselves a niche within a niche.

 

A further line of demarcation is artistic focus.  Niche perfume companies tend to be tightly focused when it comes to overall theme or brand aesthetics.  The Bruno Acampora brand, for example, focuses on a specifically Italian heritage of exquisite raw materials and a certain seventies aesthetic espoused by the (now deceased) Bruno Acampora himself.  Aroma M has built up a curated collection of perfumes around the theme of Japan and Japanese forms of poetry, art, incense, and ceremony, because its perfumer, Maria McElroy, is a devoted Japanophile and studied art in Japan for over seven years.  Olivine is a brand that has devoted itself to white flowers in all their guises.

 

Under the lens of such tight thematic focus, these companies do not churn out thirty new releases each year, preferring instead to add slowly to their core collection of perfumes. Brand integrity and aesthetic control are more important to these brands than capitalizing on the hunger for something new and shiny. (Though there is certainly some of that.)

 

Within the collection of niche oil perfume companies, there are many perfumes that might at first seem attar-like in their single-minded focus on one or two stunning raw materials such as jasmine or musk.  But while these perfumes do, like attars, express the beauty of natural flowers, musk, and plants, they do so in a classically Western ‘abstract’ tradition of composing a perfume, which makes them a concentrated perfume oil rather than an attar.

 

 

American indie perfume oils

 

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Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

 

The world of American indie perfume oils is a specific, self-contained segment of the perfume oil market.  Produced in small batches by independent artisan perfumers and self-taught perfumers, mostly in North America, these oil perfumes seek to achieve end results that are largely imagination-driven. They chase a fantasy, such as the smell of a witch’s love spell, Ancient Egypt, or reproduction of the wild, wet greenery of a forest after a rainstorm.

 

As one might imagine, the perfumes in this segment are far more complex and evolved than in the simpler roll-ons or dupe segments at the lower end of the perfume oil market.  Quality-wise, however, they do not measure up to the niche oil segment, either in terms of raw materials or perfumery skills.  There is often an amateurish, homemade quality to the perfumes.  Brands in the indie perfume oil sector are almost too many to list but names the reader might be familiar with include Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, Alkemia, Possets, NAVA, Solstice Scents, and Sixteen92.

 

Olivine, Ava Luxe, and Aroma M are also American indie oil brands, but straddle that awkward middle ground between niche and indie. In addition to being more invested in quality and naturalness, these companies also produce non-oil perfumes, such as eau de parfum and parfum-strength sprays.

 

The prices, quality, and artistry of indie perfume oils vary from company to company.  The sole unifying element is a folksy ‘handmade’ approach at odds with the conveyer-belt aesthetics of mainstream, commercial perfumery.  It is set apart from other segments of oil perfumery through the use of highly individualized, artistic marketing and bottle imagery, extending to hand-drawn labels, and newsletters for fake towns.  The prevailing aesthetic is that of the witchy, gothic, and artsy.  Indie oils are also, to a large extent, anti-luxury, preferring the hand-mixed approach to perfume over the high-gloss one of professionals.

 

Consumers in this segment of oil perfumery tend to be young women who value an individualistic lifestyle over the corporate, mainstream one.  Given that the indie perfume makers are often one-person shows, there is often direct communication between the company and its fans, with none of the traditional distance between the perfume house and consumer.  If American indie oils vary in quality, their basic construction does not, being mostly a proprietary mix of synthetics and naturals in neutral carrier oil.  

 

 

 

Dupes and Roll-Ons

 

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Photo by Yogandha Oils on Unsplash

 

Lower down the scale, we come to dupes and drugstore roll-ons (roller-balls).  Customers in this segment care neither about the naturalness of raw materials nor their ethical status.  They care only that a specific effect has been achieved, such as an oil that smells like Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather at a fraction of the cost, or a drugstore cheapie (Auric, Kuumba Made, Al Rehab) that gives the wearer a quick jasmine or amber fix for the price of a pack of gum.

 

For every aspirationally-priced niche or designer perfume out there, there exists an oil dupe that costs a fraction of the price.  India is particularly adept at producing oil dupes for popular Western perfumes – there is now a sizeable CPO industry in places like Mumbai dedicated to churning out these oils for a couple of hundred rupees a pop.  The advantages to dupes are obvious.  They cost a few dollars compared to the hundreds of dollars for the real thing, they provide a reasonably close facsimile of the duped fragrance, and they contain no alcohol, making it halal for Muslims and easily exportable across national borders.

 

However, a dupe will never faithfully reproduce the exact aroma and texture of a more expensive fragrance.  For the purposes of this Guide, I procured only dupes for fragrances I myself own either in decant, sample, or full bottle form, because the only valid way to test the accuracy of a dupe is to wear it side by side with the original.  I discovered that while many of the dupes can be up to 98% similar to the original fragrance, there is often a vital textural component or depth that is missing. 

 

The thorny issue, of course, is ethics. Since dupes copy another perfumer’s hard work rather than creating something new, they cannot ever really be considered ‘real perfume’.  Their mere existence, though an economic reality, shortchanges the work of the original perfumer.  But it is difficult to begrudge the existence of a low-cost option in a sea of over-priced fragrances.  If I wanted an expensive Western fragrance like Tom Ford’s Oud Wood but was unable or unwilling to pay the hefty price, then Surrati’s Tom Oudh gets me most of the way there for a fraction of the cost.  And for most people wanting to smell good on a budget, that is good enough.

 

Drugstore roll-ons, on the other hand, are not intended to dupe mainstream fragrances (though some do) but to be simply a ‘good smell’ in a handy roll-on tube that you can throw into your bag for a quick picker-upper at some point during the day.  In general, the perfume oils in this category are inexpensive, do not have the cachet of attars and mukhallats, come in a rollerball, and often pursue Western perfumery themes such as gourmand or chypre styles. They are also proudly synthetic in construction, unpretentious, and terrific fun to wear.  For example, Kuumba Made’s Amber Paste is a smoky-sweet amber that might satisfy a fan of the far more expensive Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens. Auric Blend’s Egyptian Goddess musk oil is a subtly sexy skin musk that is favored by many celebrities, including Sarah Jessica Parker (indeed, it was part of her inspiration for Lovely).  

 

 

The question of authenticity

 

 

The companies that produce concentrated perfume oils do not usually make any great claims with regards to the naturalness or authenticity of the ingredients of the oils.  To be fair, customers are not buying them for that reason anyway.  It makes sense, therefore, that concentrated perfume oils are vaunted more for their ability to achieve an artistic effect than the intrinsic qualities of their ingredients.

 

There are exceptions, of course.  High-end perfume oil companies such as Nabucco, Henry Jacques, Strangelove NYC, Aroma M, Olivine, April Aromatics, Fragrance du Bois, and Bruno Acampora place an emphasis on the high quality and naturalness of their raw materials.  Their market is slightly different to the market for most concentrated perfume oils, in that the customer for this type of oil is invested in top-notch quality and is prepared to pay the price that entails.

 

But even within this niche, the abstract goal of the perfume is still the most important factor.  Has Bruno Acampora’s Jasmin T conjured up a garden full of heavy jasmine petals turning brown and wilting off the vine and straight onto your lap?  Has Aroma M’s Geisha Noire succeeded in making you think of the warm scent of amber resins washed up on a beach on Osaka near to your onsen?  If yes, then that means that the creative vision of the artisan who made the perfume oil has succeeded.  The customer who buys these high end oils cares more about that creative end game than whether there is actual ambergris or pure jasmine oil in the perfume.  The common link between these high-end perfume oils and the rest of the oils in this category is fantasy.  The authenticity of the raw materials runs secondary to the fantasy.

 

In the rest of the market, it is fair to say that the hotter philosophical argument is not between natural and synthetic, but between vegan and non-vegan, ethical and unethical. In the predominantly American indie oil market, for example, customers rarely ask if their oil contains natural raw materials, but they do care  about the ingredients being vegan and/or cruelty-free.  A natural musk attar or mukhallat, for example, would not sell in the American indie perfume oil segment of the market.

 

What does vegan mean in the context of a concentrated perfume oil?  Quite simply, that the materials used to make the perfume do not derive from an animal.  Vegan alternatives to natural raw materials are prioritized in the American indie oil sector.  For example, a vegan ambergris note (in other words, Ambroxan) is preferred over natural ambergris.  Even beeswax is a problem, with perfumes containing it often red-flagged by the brand owner as fair warning to customers.

 

Although the word ‘vegan’ has come to be synonymous with ‘superior’ or ‘ethical’ in the indie perfume sector, what it really boils down to is that a lab-created synthetic molecule is being used to replace a more expensive natural raw material such as beeswax or ambergris.  This seems to be a trade-off that customers are happy to accept.

 

 

The final word

 

 

Are concentrated perfume oils inferior to attars or mukhallats?  No.  They just exist in largely parallel universes to each other. The people who buy concentrated perfume oils are generally not the same people who buy artisanal attars or pure oud oils, and vice versa.  Think of them as two circles of perfume lovers on a Venn diagram with little overlap.  They have different priorities regarding raw materials, different budgets, and different views on the role fragrance plays in one’s life. 

 

It is always a good thing to explore beyond our boundaries.  But be realistic.  Manage your expectations.  For example, if you are used to attars, do not expect concentrated perfume oils to be 100% faithful to their raw materials.  If faithfulness is what is most important to you, then stick to attars and mukhallats, especially the higher-priced ones.  But do not be dismissive either.  Some concentrated perfume oils summon a far more evocative portrait of a theme than some of the cheaper mukhallats and attars.  People crossing over to the indie perfume oil sector from a background of attars and mukhallats might be awestruck at the ability of oils to smell like gingerbread, coffee, or a seascape.  

 

Likewise, if you are turning to attars and mukhallats from a starting position in the indie sector, then you can expect the oils to be much stronger and more intense than you are used to, but also much simpler in structure and less evocative of a specific fantasy.  People crossing over into attars from concentrated perfume oils are often surprised to learn what real rose, ambergris, musk, and so on smell like.  For some, it can be a shock to the system akin to purging your body of sugar.   

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

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Rule Evernia: An (Ormonde Jayne) Essay on Oakmoss

22nd September 2021

Evernia by Ormonde Jayne takes its name from Evernia prunastri, the species of lichen from which oakmoss absolute – the star ingredient here – is obtained.   It is interesting that Ormonde Jayne, one of the rare fragrance houses to successfully straddle the sprawling No Man’s Land between the minuscule community of esoteric, quirk-seeking fragrance wearers and the larger group of ‘normal’ fragrance wearers who just want to smell great, has chosen to focus on oakmoss.

 

Not because oakmoss is particularly challenging for those outside the inner circle of perfume fanatics.  In and of itself, oakmoss absolute is a fantastic-smelling raw material.   As you might imagine for something distilled from lichen growing on oak trees, it smells earthy and bitter, like a forest floor distilled into a dark green sludge, but with a beguilingly velvety, almost creamy depth to it that has the effect of sucking you into its shadows.   Perfumery has long leaned on those properties as a fixative to anchor flightier, more volatile notes like bergamot, lavender, geranium, and carnation (while building a fougère) or to give the sweet, ambery parts of a chypre enough backbone to keep it standing straight.

 

But its value as the third leg to the triadic structure of a chypre or a fougère has meant that oakmoss has largely remained in the shadows, consigned to the role of a reliable basenote.   Bringing it out into the light is further complicated by the uncertain status in today’s fragrance regulatory environment.   As it turns out, oakmoss absolute contains two naturally-occurring molecules, or more accurately degradation products (i.e., substances produced or emphasized by the distillation process) called chloroatranol and atranol, which are allergens known to cause sensitivity in 1-3% of the population.   For this reason, the EU, on the advice of IFRA, the International Fragrance Association[1], has banned chloroatranol and atranol outright, while oakmoss as a whole (the absolute) is restricted to similar levels as other materials deemed a bit dodgy (like coumarin and geraniol) i.e., 0.001%.

 

Anything over that percentage is technically permissible, by the way – but manufacturers are required to include the full ingredient list, with the percentage levels of each material used, as a sort of ‘health and safety’ warning akin to the skull and bones images on cigarettes.   Since no perfume brand in their right mind wants to taint what is essentially a luxury product with an association – whether real or imagined – with the picture of skin breaking out in angry red boils or crumbling off our wrists in flakes the size of a small baby,  most major fragrance houses with oakmoss-heavy heritage perfumes, for example, Guerlain (Mitsouko), have simply reformulated using one or more of the commercially-viable alternative to oakmoss absolute, i.e., low- or zero-atranol oakmoss (first developed by Robertet), tree moss (which smells like a thinner, pine-ier oakmoss), or at the very least, some combination of a synthetic replacer like Evernyl Veramoss (an IFF captive) with some vetiver or celery seed to put back some of the oakmoss ‘flavor’.

 

That all raises the question: why oakmoss for Ormonde Jayne?  Why now?   After all, it is a material that has largely fallen from favor, both in the regulatory sense, and in terms of broader consumer tastes (there is a mustiness, or ‘old furniture and floor wax’ vibe to oakmoss that, though alluring to fragrance aficionados, can smell rather dated and old-fashioned to a modern nose raised on Ambroxan and that sweet, sweet tonka bean).   And how does Evernia compare to other notably oakmossy scents on the market?

 

Right away, you are able to tell that Evernia is quite recognizably an Ormonde Jayne take on oakmoss.   By which I mean that the oakmoss has been stripped out, pared down, and framed in an elegantly sparse structure featuring several of the brand’s signatures, for example, the fizzy brightness of cardamom and other ghost spices, a peppery-metallic lift in the topnotes, a touch of freesia or peony in the basenotes for that touch of clean rubber sneaker to push back against any creaminess that edges into excess.   And Iso E Super?   Sure – this is radiant, musky stuff.   But that’s all by the by. Because Evernia never lets us get distracted from the oakmoss.

 

In Evernia, Ormonde Jayne has highlighted the savory aspects of natural oakmoss rather than its more pungent or bitter facets.   Though the two perfumes are ultimately very different, the oakmoss in Evernia reminds me very much of the one used in Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, in that they both have that soft, earthy ‘slow-cooked greens’ element to them that calls to mind the vapors of celery cooked to the point of collapse, clinging to the fibers of one’s angora sweater in a warm, steamy kitchen.   While the Guerlain surrounds its oakmoss with heaps of animalic narcissus, piercing bergamot, and that plush Guerlainade of vanilla and balsams, the Ormonde Jayne emphasizes the vegetal savoriness of its oakmoss with a cardamom-tinged musk so buttery that it feels like vaporized Kerrygold.

 

I’m almost sure that low-atranol oakmoss has been used here rather than a synthetic replacer, but as Thierry Wasser, Master Perfumer of Guerlain, has pointed out, if “you make a fractional distillation and you pull out what the European Commission doesn’t want any more, then you create an olfactive hole.  So then you have to find a way of tricking the nose into thinking that it’s smelling real oakmoss.  You have to cheat by using other things”.   So perhaps the perfumer has leaned on other materials to fill this ‘hole in Evernia too’, something like jasmone (which often smells like a cross between immortelle and celery to me), or a touch of mastic oil to anchor the greenness and weigh it down.   It could even be the same supporting cast as seen in Ormonde Woman (or Man), i.e., that greenish, coniferous mélange of cardamom oil, juniper, and hemlock (though Evernia is far less sweet).

 

Unlike Ormonde Woman, Evernia doesn’t end in a gingerbread amber, nor does it wind up in the scratchy oud-wood place occupied by Ormonde Man (though it clearly belongs fits into the ‘core collection’ of Ormonde Jayne, alongside these stalwarts).   Instead, Evernia shakes off the deep, earthy-saline creaminess that dominates for much of its life, and takes on the pale, woody sourness of linen washed in rainwater and hung out to dry in a cold, sharp wind.  It is metallic and mineralic, the faint ‘freshly-poured-concrete’ scent of cashmeran whipping it dry.   Though I’m personally less enamored by the drydown than I am with the first 75% sprawl of Evernia, I recognize that in its absence of sweet amber, creamy sandalwood, or warming resins, the entire scent maintains this cool, modern spareness throughout that makes it an attractive choice for both sexes.

 

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Photo by Aidan Hodel on Unsplash

How does Evernia compare to some of the other oakmoss-centric fragrances out there?   Here’s a small selection of other mossy scents with which I am personally familiar.  (By the way, for some stretches of its lifespan, Evernia reminds me a little of a less weird Dzongkha by L’Artisan Parfumeur.   This must be because of the savory-cooked-celery aspects the two have in common.)

 

Encens Chypre by Sultan Pasha Attars:   Encens Chypre, compared to Evernia, is a less civilized take on oakmoss.   It doesn’t strip out any of the material’s bitterness or grunge, but rather, emphasizes it.   Encens Chypre is a formidably bitter, green smell, dominated by a pungent oakmoss absolute running right down the line from its fresh, herbal top to its smoky incense base.  I think what makes it work is the way the metallic, inky bitterness of oakmoss absolute has been matched with an equally pungent array of elemi and herbs.   The aromatics in the opening are themselves naturally bitter, with artemisia and clary sage providing a dark green herbal tone that sings in the same register as the oakmoss.   

 

For the most part, Encens Chypre’s mossy timbre is actually far more reminiscent of a traditional fougère than a chypre.   The drydown adds in touches of jasmine, iris, and rose.   Ultimately, however, the shy floral presence stands no chance against the predominantly dark, mossy override of that oakmoss.   A thick brew of incense resins and balsams replaces the usual labdanum or patchouli for a fantastically dry and smoky finish.   An extremely well-done mossy chypre, Encens Chypre raises the middle finger to IFRA so openly that it makes me wonder if it’s entirely legal.

 

Chypre Siam by Rogue Perfumery:  Unlike Evernia, the whole premise of Chypre Siam (and indeed of Rogue Perfumery) is that it uses natural oakmoss absolute in contravention of IFRA recommendations.   Man, I am so tired of the overarching F%*k IFRA! narrative among some American indies.   To put things very plainly: since Rogue Perfumery is an American indie that doesn’t intend to sell its perfumes in the EU anyway and isn’t a member of IFRA, there is actually no requirement – legal, moral, or otherwise – for them not to use natural oakmoss, should they so desire.   In other words, Rogue telling IFRA to stick their oakmoss ban where the sun don’t shine is like a housewife in Madison, Wisconsin stoutly declaring that she will not be following the Taliban’s requirement for women to wear the hijab in public the next time she’s out for a pint of milk, thank you very much. 

 

Little rant aside, Chypre Siam is a pretty great perfume.  But less because of its real oakmoss than for its clever updating of the chypre model with Asian notes such as kaffir lime and basil.   Strangely, after the rivetingly sour opening of lime and oakmoss, I find that Chypre Siam settles very quickly into a soft, powdered-leather affair (more vegetal violet leaf than an animalic leather), the lime maintaining the bitterness of the chypre style when the oakmoss runs out of steam.   Though beautiful, I find Chypre Siam to be delicate to the point of being wan, which is odd given that it uses the unadulterated stuff (compared to modern Mitsouko, which uses low-atranol oakmoss and yet smells very rich in comparison).   As always with indies, I have to ask myself if Chypre Siam does something so different or so much more satisfying than a mainstream perfume that I will brave the extra time, international shipping, and custom fees involved in getting a bottle of it to Ireland.   And in the case of Chypre Siam, the answer is, regrettably, no.   Not when I can just buy a bottle of Mitsouko eau de toilette for €60 in full confidence that it will smell great, and despite its reformulation woes, also reliably oakmossy.

 

Sballo by Bruno Acampora:   Funnily enough, Sballo doesn’t list oakmoss in its notes, but that doesn’t stop this from being one of the most joyfully oakmossy fragrances I’ve ever smelled.   Unlike Evernia, the oakmoss in Sballo is dry, herbal, and hay-like, rather than creamy or earthy.  Sballo means ‘trip’ in Italian.   Not in the ‘trip to the seaside’ sense of the word, but in the ‘I ate some funny-looking mushrooms and now your face is a rainbow’ sense of the word.  (The name is appropriate when you consider how mind-bendingly 1970s the original Acampora aesthetic was).   Sballo goes heavy on the aromatics, hay, patchouli, and oakmoss.   It ain’t pretty or cleaned up, but it sure does smell authentic. 

 

The main thrust of this scent is a patchouli-rose chypre in the Bernard Chant style.   Think Aromatics Elixir and Aramis 900, but richer and rougher in texture.   An artisanal, homemade take on a commercially-fluted model.   The rose is brilliant and red, but quickly smothered by a wave of dry grasses, a rustic hay note acting in tandem with oakmoss and patchouli.   Some modern chypre scents fake the bitterness of oakmoss in the traditional chypre accord via other materials that share a similarly ashen dryness, like denatured patchouli aromachemicals (Akigalawood), hay, galbanum, or even saffron.   But although there is no oakmoss listed for Sballo, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t actually contain at least some.  To my nose, the shadowy dankness of the material is unmistakably present.   Sballo shores up this oakmoss effect by flanking it with equally dank or earthy-dry materials such as hay, clove, patchouli, and a material that smells like tobacco.  The overall effect is gloomy and dusty, but also abstractedly perfumey in the grand chypre tradition.   Saving it from a classic ‘ladies who lunch’ formality of the chypre structure is the rough, almost burnt-ashy texture of the moss and patchouli.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Attar:  Oakmoss is one of my favorite fragrances from Abdes Salaam Attar, but compared to Evernia, it is an altogether wetter, earthier, and more vivid scent – more an experience than a perfume.   It is also as much a vetiver scent as it is an oakmoss one, though, arguably, it conjures up the ‘forest floor’ aspect of oakmoss just as effectively as oakmoss absolute does.   Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire.  It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory – playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.   Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze.   It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees. 

 

The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest.  And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort.

 

Ayuthia by Mellifluence:  Ayuthia shares a similar forest floor effect with Evernia but deepens the shadows with an animalic oud.   The first note out of the bottle is most definitely the oud – a wave of wet, rotting wood, mixed with woodsmoke, camphor, and sharp fruit.   However, this settles quickly, segueing into a dry, woody heart with lots of grounding patchouli, green leaves, and bitter oakmoss.   Although never sweet, the earth and wood notes are made rounder with a hint of something soft and giving, like vanilla.   Not enough to make it sweet, just to sand off the edges.   The Chanthaburi oud oil vibrates thickly in every fiber of this mukhallat.   Lightly smoky, it sews a thread of fermentation through the fabric of the blend.   Though oud is the main driver, the base develops a velvety green dampness that is very forest floor-ish.   The inky oakmoss note expands to meet the mossy mintiness of a Borneo-style oud, completing the picture.   Hours later, the minerality of the oakmoss and the smoky woodiness of the oud melt away, leaving only the lively bitterness of camphor on the tongue.

 

Diaghilev by Roja Dove:   Diaghilev is often dismissed as a Mitsouko knock-off at five times the price, but Diaghilev is actually far heavier on the oakmoss than Mitsouko.   I don’t know if that’s simply because Mitsouko’s peach lactones have been stripped out, or if Dove simply used more oakmoss in the formula.   But the result speaks for itself – if Mitsouko is a brilliant rust-gold-brown, then Diaghilev is a deep forest green.   Furthermore, its opening of creamy, bitter oakmoss and tart bergamot is laced with enough cumin or civet to produce a sensual skin note that makes Diaghilev warmer and more human, somehow, than Mitsouko.   The heart of Diaghilev layers in a chorus of buttery floral notes such as ylang, peach, and rose, flanked by powdery musks, which emphasizes the velvety plushness of the moss.   Where Diaghilev dovetails with Evernia is mostly in the drydown, where it shares with the Ormonde Jayne fragrance a similarly matte, almost smoky marine ink (mineralic) note.

 

Givenchy III by Givenchy:   Luca Turin referred to Givenchy III as ‘good, honest earth’, and with its one-two punch of patchouli and oakmoss, I can see what he means.   I was lucky enough to find a jeroboam-sized bottle of the vintage stuff on eBay, and once you get past the slightly decayed, coffee-and-greasy-coconut hairspray vibes of the opening blast, it does settle into a smell that can be described as spray-on forest floor.   Earthy, grungy, and with quite a bit of that lank, mint-stems-in-vase-water aroma that denotes real oakmoss (it pops up in both my vintage Diorella and Dune by Dior too), my Givenchy III doesn’t seem to have held on very well to any of the softening florals (hyacinth) or the citrusy sharpness of bergamot, aside from a general fustiness that vintage chypres generally display.   But I value Givenchy III precisely for this slightly fusty, old-fashioned oakmoss vibe.   It is the direct opposite of the modern, streamlined version of oakmoss presented in Evernia.   I like the idea of these two fragrances forming neat bookends to the story of oakmoss, with one very traditional and one very modern.

 

Bergamoss by Aftelier:   Bergamoss – an all-natural solid perfume – consists of sweet orange, oakmoss absolute, antique civet, and clary sage suspended in beeswax.   Though the name cleverly suggests a marriage of bergamot and oakmoss, and therefore a chypre, this really doesn’t smell like a chypre to me.   Expecting the familiar, rich brightness of bergamot, I am momentarily disoriented by a sharp lemongrass note (from the citronellal facet of geranium or rose, I guess), overlaid on a very vegetal, savory-rooty oakmoss whose funk has been emphasized by real civet paste.   It smells more like a real forest floor than an idealized one, therefore, with hints of pungent hay, urinous herbs, the natural dankness of moss soaked in two feet of rainwater, and perhaps even the slowly-decaying body of a small woodland creature.   Unexpectedly, I rather love Bergamoss, though more for its artistic weirdness and refusal to be pretty than for the bucolic picture the copy (and most reviews) promise.   Its only intersection with Evernia is on the shared emphasis on the vegetal, savory nature of oakmoss.

 

Source of samples/bottles:  I purchased samples and/or full bottles of Givenchy III, Oakmoss EDT, Chypre Siam, Ayuthia, and Sballo.  Samples of Bergamoss, Encens Chypre, and Evernia were provide gratis by the brands, though with no expectation of a review.  The sample of Diaghilev was kindly given to me by the lovely Josie of Oswald NYC as a gift-with-purchase when I bought my bottle of Khôl de Bahreïn in October 2017.  

Cover Image: Photo by Alexx Cooper on Unsplash 

[1] IFRA not a regulatory body but a voluntary membership organisation along the same lines of, say, the Boy Scouts or the Rotary Club.  However, because it represents the interests of the fragrance industry as a whole, from raw materials producers to consumers of all things fragranced, it is a hugely influential body within the health and safety sphere.  When the EU passes anything into law under the EU Cosmetics Directive (products applied directly to the skin like fine fragrance, cosmetics, soap, and toothpaste), or under the Classification, Labeling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation (functional fragrance products such as laundry detergents and air care), it consults with various expert bodies, chief among them IFRA and the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS).   IFRA recommendations are therefore generally regarded as pre-law, a weird, pre-regulatory state of play you might sum up as a ‘it’s just a recommendation now but it’s likely to be a law later, so I’d better get my arse into gear’ kind of situation.  Any cosmetic product that comes into contact with skin, like fragrance, gets classified under the EU Cosmetics Directive, and in order for it to be sold or marketed in the EU, it must first earn an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate.  This certificate guarantees that each component of the formula is safe for contact with human skin.  Safety assessors request evidence that the company is IFRA-compliant as part of the assessment protocol.  Thus, being IFRA-compliant is a de facto requirement for selling fragrance goods in the EU market, whether one is an IFRA member or not.

 

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Gifts of the Three Magi: Frankly Frankincense

11th December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Lisandro Garcia on Unsplash

Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense

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

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

Casbah (Robert Piguet)Spicy Frankincense

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

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

Armani Privé Bois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense

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

Czech & Speake Frankincense and MyrrhHonest Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Vladimir Šoić on Unsplash

Mad et Len Noir EncensAmaretto Frankincense

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

Paul Schütze Behind the RainWild Frankincense

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

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

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

Rosarium (Angela Ciampagna) – Icing Sugar Frankincense

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

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

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

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

Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense

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

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

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

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

Incense Flash (Tauerville)Frankincense Haiku

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

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

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

Sombre Negra (Yosh) Frankincense Fougère

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

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

Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal) Fag Ash Frankincense

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


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

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile)Fairytale Frankincense

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

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

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

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

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

La Fumée (Miller Harris)Fresh Frankincense

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


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

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian) Frankincense Absolute

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

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

Calling All Angels (April Aromatics)Butter Caramel Frankincense

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

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

Vento nel Vento (Bois 1920)Frankincense Plus

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

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

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


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


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

Sahara Noir (Tom Ford)Frank Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Joshua Davis on Unsplash

Holy Terror (Arcana)Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens

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

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

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


Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Anup Ghag on Unsplash


Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio)Pure Frankincense

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

Basilica (Solstice Scents) Starter Pack Frankincense

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

Olibanum (Profumum)Polished Frankincense

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


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

Al Masih (Mellifluence)Messianic Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense

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

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


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

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

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

Apr.03.1968 (Rundholz)Jamaica Cake Frankincense  

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


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


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


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


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

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

Cover Image: Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

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

28th September 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by DEZALB from Pixabay

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

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

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

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

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

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

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

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Pitsch from Pixabay

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

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

Image by HG-Fotografie from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Image: Thanapat Pirmphol from Pixabay

Amber Aromatic Balsamic Chypre Citrus Collection Floral Floral Oriental Green Floral Herbal House Exploration Iris Jasmine Musk Orange Blossom Resins Review Rose Round-Ups Spicy Floral Summer Violet White Floral Woods

The Ormonde Jayne Core Collection

15th June 2020


Ormonde Jayne set out its mission and values in its original core collection, and to this day, it remains the standard bearer for the brand. I’ve written about some of the perfumes in the Ormonde Jayne core collection before, but since I’ve been reevaluating much of my collection recently, I thought it might be useful to update or expand upon my thoughts.

In general, my unscientific belief that Ormonde Jayne is the English Chanel bears out. This is solidly-built, almost classical perfumery with a modern elegance derived from strong artistic direction and an admirably no-nonsense approach to the valuable role synthetics play in elevating naturals.

One thing I have noticed this time around is that the literal names – Champaca, Ta’if, Frangipani, and so on – are a Le Labo-ish piece of misdirection, suggestive of a soliflore-ism that simply isn’t there. Words have power, so there will always be those disappointed if the titular ingredient isn’t headlining the whole show. But on the flip side, newcomers to the brand who are able to park their expectations at the door may find their minds blown by the beauty arrived at via more circuitous routes.  


Photo by Maurits Bausenhart on Unsplash

Champaca

Champaca is a scent whose appeal eludes many. But you know what? Half the time it eludes me too. On its bad days, many of the slurs thrown its way worm their way into my head and nag persistently at me with the worry that they might be true – that Champaca is nothing special, that it’s too champaca or not champaca enough, that it’s nondescript, that it’s a dowdy green floral that Calvin Klein’s Truth did better and cheaper. Then there’s its musky loudness, which I always forget until I get called out on it by a colleague who is never backward about coming forward on the subject of my perfume.

But on good days, Champaca is the gently starched air from a bowl of Chinese greens and the damp, permeating nuttiness of brown basmati rice. It makes me think of stepping in from a cold, rainy afternoon in Cork or Limerick into the wood-lined hush of a traditional Japanese restaurant, slightly steamy from condensation and humming with low conversations.

I don’t understand the accusations of tropical yellow flowers or heady ambers in relation to Champaca. It is not even a particularly floral experience. To me, Champaca smells more like the fresh green peel of a Granny Smith apple rinsed with rainwater than a flower. Yes, technically, this all might be unexciting. The scent of an upscale Japanese onsen or spa is never really going to raise the barometer on anyone’s passion. But when I am feeling delicate, or in need of a friendly hand at the small of my back, then Champaca, with its gossamer-light bloom of starchy musks, rice steam, apple peel, watery bamboo, maybe mint, and the environmental exhalations of clean, blond wood, is what I find myself reaching for.


Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

Orris Noir

I originally invested in Orris Noir as a poor man’s substitute for the far more expensive Tsarina, having identified a creamy-milky, anisic iris as the underpinning to both. Now, after taking the time to study both at leisure, I can say that while Tsarina is by far the creamiest, more luxurious ‘white’ leather scent I have ever smelled, in retrospect it doesn’t turn me on as much as Orris Noir, which, although less ‘beautiful’ than Tsarina, has more conversation.

Orris Noir has three or four distinct layers. The first is a doughy iris as dense as under-proved bread dough studded with dried fruit. A couple of years on, I now smell this as a rosy iris bread that’s been soaked in sweet milk, like the egg-rich Easter crown baked once a year in the Balkans. The second layer is an anisic myrrh with the same crystallized texture as found in other myrrh scents such as Myrrhe Ardente, albeit more golden and less overtly itchy-scratchy. The third layer is a minimally smoky cloud of wood or incense that lifts the perfume and makes it radiant (probably a combination of the Iso E Super and the Chinese cedar). Last but not least, there’s a bright, fruity jasmine that fizzes as sweetly as a glass of freshly-poured Coca Cola. Somehow, all of these elements hang together as naturally and as lightly as a silk shawl.

Orris Noir is a fantastic advertisement for the Ormonde Jayne style of building a fragrance, in that it is composed of many different layers, all of them as light as air, but which when laid one on top of another become a dense, velvety mass. I love Orris Noir for what it is – a beguilingly soft spice oriental – rather than hate it for what it is not, i.e., noir or even orris.  Indeed, if Ormonde Jayne had named it something else, Orris Noir might have gained the respect granted to other similarly soft, hazy resinous-floral orientals such as Bois d’Argent (Dior) or Jasmin de Nuit (The Different Company). This is one perfume in my collection that has improved greatly upon (re)acquaintance.


Frangipani Absolute

Frangipani Absolute is at least accurately named, given that it smells more like the absolute than the living flower. The absolute smells green and waxy, like a nubbin of beeswax rolled in matcha powder; the living flower, which I had the opportunity of smelling for the first time in Colombia last summer, smells a bit like jasmine but without the indole and grape, and there is a buttery undertone that I associate with gardenia, minus the heavy bleu cheese aspects.

Frangipani Absolute freshens the waxy-green heft of the absolute by filtering it through lime and linden blossom, creating the impression of hothoused tropical flowers drenched in ice water and the glass partitions thrown open to salty sea air. The brightness of this topnote is undercut later on by the lush creaminess of the living flower, embodied by an accord that smells like a dairy-heavy rice and coconut pudding made out of tuberose petals, with pools of yellow Irish butter rising to the surface. A subtly salty musk and clean cedar hum in the far background, mainly there for support in case the almost unrelenting brightness of the lime-drenched white flowers falters.

Cleverly, the perfumer has made the floral component very peachy, to mimic the peachy jasmine-like aura of the living flower. Frangipani is therefore blessed with a suede-skin note that smells charmingly like the back of a rubber watch on a sweaty child. The scent shifts between these three main accords – green-aqueous-fresh, peachy-rubber, and creamy-buttery-tuberose – without ever getting pulled too far down in one single direction. That’s some balancing act.

Frangipani Absolute is an undeniably beautiful scent, and an interesting take on a flower that often plays second fiddle to more powerful headliners such as gardenia or tuberose. My hesitation on whether it stays in my collection or not stems from several different quarters.

First, the salty, quasi-aquatic musk in the drydown reminds me very much of Lys Méditerranée (Malle), already a wardrobe staple for me, which makes me wonder if it’s not duplicative to have two scents that represent largely the same ‘feel’, i.e., heady white flowers drenched in dew and the salty air rolling in off the ocean. The occasions when I feel the need for this precise combination are few and far between, therefore surely it is redundant for me to have two separate fragrances at the ready when this tight little niche corner of my ‘need’ rears its head.

Second, Frangipani is so pretty and well-presented that it makes me feel slightly uncouth in comparison. Worse, the prettiness reminds me of the golden, solar fruity-floral ‘glazed eyes’ affair that is J ’Adore (Dior), which is fine if you’re wearing something you can pick up from any Sephora or Douglas, but not great if you’re special ordering from a classy niche brand like Ormonde Jayne.

Third, the brightness of the lime-and-peach-hued white flowers feels a little too sharp and insistent at times, like when you neck that syrupy but metallic juice from a tin of canned tropical fruit. In other words, absolutely gorgeous at first but perhaps wearing a little on your nerves towards the last? Along the same lines of complaint (minor, but still), the vanilla tuberose pudding base flirts with heaviness; it clashes a little queasily with the citric acid of the lime, to the extent that it teeters on the precipice of a curdle.  

Out of all the Ormonde Jayne scents I own, Frangipani Absolute is the one I agonize over the most. Do I need it? No. Does its classical (but slightly mainstream) beauty justify me keeping it? Maybe. But the fact that I swing between a yes and a no on this scent, personally, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rank among the top tier of tropical floral perfumes I’ve had the pleasure of smelling.


Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash

Tolu

Despite not being wowed at first sniff, I have come around to the pleasures of Tolu. It has a bitter, spicy broom note that slices through the golden, balsamic sweetness of amber to create something that is both fresh and heavy, like a flourless chocolate torte that dissolves into fennel dust on the tongue. The kind of thing that invites you to take a second slice, even in summer. I can see this working as a sort of upmarket Dune. In that sense, this is definitely a floral oriental rather than a straight up ‘golden’ amber. It certainly doesn’t maintain a strict tolu balsam fidelity. Rather, Tolu has that sophisticated French floral-sandy feel to it that I associate not only with Dune (Dior) but also with 24, Rue Faubourg (Hermes), albeit with the innovation of a sweetly resinous base to tilt it ever so slightly in the direction of Morocco rather than Paris.

The more I wear Tolu, the more I appreciate its subtlety. I used to prefer the caramelized full frontal of one-the-nose resin bombs and ambers to the almost too quiet, too ‘mixed’ cloud of balsams, orange blossom, and musks represented by Tolu. But Tolu is, I realize, a mood. It is very perfumey meaning it’s been worked and reworked to the same point of abstraction as Coco (Chanel), Dune (Dior) or even Alahine (Teo Cabanel).

Tolu is the quintessential going out perfume for nights along the Riviera, where women and men are beautifully dressed and the warm air smells like a mixture of flowers, salty skin, and the balsamic twang of Mediterranean herbs and umbrella pines lining the promenade. It’s easy to argue that there’s nothing very unusual about Tolu, but what it does, it does extremely well. I will always have space in my wardrobe for this perfumey, French-smelling take on the warm, golden balsams I love rinsed out with flowers, salt, and herbs.   


Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

Tiaré    

For a while, my interest in Ormonde Jayne stopped with OJ Woman, a perfume I’d struggled with for years before finally falling in love with it. That was, until one day a couple of years ago, I fished around in my sample box looking for something crisp and green to go well with a planned walk in a nearby castle grounds with my children and stumbled upon Tiaré.


Its lack of anything truly tiaré-like or tropical puzzled me at first. But I remember marveling at the champagne-like quality of the lime and green notes fizzing gently around the oily but fresh white flower petals. The damp, mossy drydown proved to be a perfect reflection of the elegance of the castle lake and grounds. There is something pinned-up and Victorian in its mien – not entirely me, but rather someone I aspire to be. It was the first sample from the Ormonde Jayne sample set that I drained completely. Whereupon I forgot about it entirely.


Fast forward to Summer 2017, which is when, while sweating our way through the forests and fields of the Sologne and Loiret, I decided that, really, nothing was more French or more crisply elegant than Tiaré, and that I desperately needed a bottle of it. Tiaré would be, I’d decided, my entry point to a new life in France that, although it never actually materialized, was the Big Plan in our family at the time, to the point of flying the kids out to various French cities in an attempt to decide where we would settle.

The firm belief that a life in France calls for a thoroughly ‘French’ perfume (as if my collection wasn’t already 75% made up of so-called French perfume) is why I am now the proud possessor of a totally unnecessary 120mls of Tiaré. (I am perennially guilty of daydreaming my life forward and allowing my purchases to lead the way. In 2018, I was so convinced that I was going to be hired by a British not-for-profit to manage their programs in Myanmar that I got emotionally invested in Indochine by Parfumerie Generale, a perfume based on Burmese thanaka wood. I didn’t get the job, but you bet I bought a bottle of Indochine. I don’t even want to say how many ‘Roman’ perfumes were necessary for me to settle into a new life in Italy.)


Anyway, back to Ireland in these early, post-Coronavirus times and Tiaré, like Cristalle (Chanel), doesn’t really suit the damp, cool conditions. Yet I am loathe to get rid of Tiaré, because, God knows, I will probably need it for when we finally move to France. In which case, I will also need the quintessential cognac-colored leather shopper, very pointy ballet flats, a chic haircut, and a perfectly-cut navy blazer. So, I guess I’d better start shopping now….


Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

Ormonde Jayne Woman

Woman occupies a place in my personal pantheon of greats, but the route to loving her has not been easy. In fact, I have struggled with this perfume on and off for years. I imagine that, for people like me, with biological sensitivities to certain materials, getting past Woman’s many thorns is like loving someone who is beautiful but difficult.  

Initially, my nose was so sensitive to the combination of woody ambers, sticky pine, and Iso E Super that the only notes I could smell were acrid, burnt, metallic – like burnt fuses and the La Roche Posay medicated acne cream. These unfortunate associations, plus the physical sensation I had of an ice-cold shiv driving into the tender recesses of my brain, are what made me keep my sample of Woman at a safe distance from my nose, wrapped twice in cling film and double-bagged.

Every so often, over the years, I would take out that sample of Woman and tentatively sniff. Now, here’s the strangest thing. As my exposure to the violent woody ambers and brutal Iso E Super used increasingly in niche increased, so too did my tolerance. I don’t mean that I started to like them, but rather that their presence no longer obscured large parts of a composition for me. This meant that perfumes such as Indochine (Parfumerie Generale), Musc Nomade (Annick Goutal), and Ormonde Jayne Woman were now ‘unlocked’ for me. I could smell all parts of these perfumes rather than slivers.

Having said that, progress was gradual. For example, for about six months, although I could smell all parts of Woman, all depth perception dropped off after about an hour or two, leading me to believe (mistakenly) that the perfume had simply stopped in its tracks. I now believe that this was due to the type of woody ambers used, some of which have a curious side effect of making a scent seem to disappear and then come back, over and over again, throughout a day’s wear. Ambroxan can have this odd ‘receding and resurging’ effect too; I sense it most keenly in Amouage Jubilation XXV, which my husband says he wears for other people because he himself cannot smell it after an hour (to his family, it seems quite big and room-filling).

Anyway, the reason I’m waffling on about this odd facet of Woman is that reviews are the little markers we drop along our journey, in the hope that they serve as clues to fellow travelers years down the road, right? I remember smelling Indochine and doing a Google search for something along the lines of ‘Why does Indochine smell like an ice pick to my brain?’ and stumbling across Kafkaesque’s review, which was the first source of answers for me as to why some materials were physically obtrusive to my nose yet imperceptible to others. I felt seen. I hope that someone struggling with Ormonde Jayne Woman finds their way to this review and gets comfort from knowing that they’re not alone, and that there might be a rational explanation for not immediately jiving with one of the most renowned perfumes in modern niche.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, folks, there really is. Now when I smell Ormonde Woman, I smell the whole forest, the sugared smoke of gingerbread crumbs thrown onto the fire, and the inky mass of woodland violets and hemlock rolled out underfoot, and Scarlett O’ Hara’s dark green velvet gown made out of curtains and fury.

At heart, Ormonde Woman is a nugget of amber surrounded by tall conifers and hemlock, but its mysterious appeal can’t be explained by its notes or even how we think they all hang together. Woman is one of those perfumes you submit to, body and soul, without much hope of ever picking it apart. It took me years to be able to smell all parts of it but now when I wear Ormonde Jayne Woman now, I smell it all, and what I smell makes me breathe deep and easy.


Photo by ORNELLA BINNI on Unsplash

Osmanthus

Osmanthus is not my favorite osmanthus-themed scent in the Ormonde Jayne stable (that would be Qi), but it is surely the prettiest. Osmanthus explores the softly soapy, ‘clean linen’ side of the bloom that marks it out more as vaguely cherry blossom than the pungent fruity apricot suede trope often plumbed in niche.

In fact, aside from a vaguely peachy or apricotty tinge in the topnotes, Osmanthus sidesteps its namesake ingredient and goes for pomelo peel and white petals plunged into ice water and polished to a high shine by radiant aquatic musks. It smells pleasantly cooling, like a tall glass of lemonade or the feel of fresh cotton on hot skin.

Think of it this way; if Qi is an apricot-colored suede pouch filled with green tea, then Osmanthus is a white broderie anglaise sundress and a pair of straw espadrilles strung over one perfectly tan shoulder.

All very nice but running a little too close to one of those Atelier Cologne citrus-and-cotton-musk scents for comfort. I always thought that Osmanthus would smell more ‘at home’ in the form of a body care product than a perfume, and it turns out I was right; the Osmanthus Hair Mist is lovely. Warmer and peachier than the perfume – to my nose at least – the pert, perfumey prettiness of Osmanthus makes more sense to me when spritzed through second day hair. It is still much girlier than I am, but at least in this form, it just creates the manifest lie impression that I am freshly bathed and impeccably groomed.


Photo by Valerie Blanchett on Unsplash

Ta’if

Ta’if is one of those fragrances where I seem to be experiencing something completely different to everyone else. People use the words ‘rich’, ‘dark’, and ‘exotic’ to describe it, which suggests a texture as heavy as velvet – close to Lyric Woman (Amouage) or Portrait of a Lady (Malle). But reality is miles removed. On my skin, Ta’if reads as a sheer peppery mixed floral layered over a musky, dried-fruit base. Neither the advertized dates nor Taifi rose show up for me, or at least not in any form I recognize (when I see ‘Ta’if’ rose, I expect a pop of fiercely spicy, green lemon-and-lime sharpness announcing a tannic rose).

In fact, I’d rank Ta’if alongside Rose Noir (Miller Harris) and Tobacco Rose (Papillon) as rose fragrances that bill themselves as one thing and then deliver another. Clearly, the sheer amount of admiration and positive reviews out there for Ta’if and Tobacco Rose demonstrates that it is possible not only to get over any cognitive dissonance related to their names, but to love them wholeheartedly for themselves.

On me, Ta’if is mostly a blowsy peach and orange blossom chiffonade, interspersed with brief flashes here and there of something that might be interpreted as a tart, green rose. The peachy-powdery feel of the fragrance makes me think of something functional I used to use when I was a teenager, like the Impulse O2 body spray. The dry down is a slightly powdery musk with a streak of dates running through it, which doesn’t tilt too literally in the direction of any one particular note. Rather, one is bathed in a fluffy miasma of musk, fruit, orange blossoms, and caramel that reminds me of some of the prettier ‘pink-smelling’ dry downs in designer perfumery, such as Coco Mademoiselle, or Elie Saab.


Source of samples: Based on a sample set generously gifted to me in 2015 of the niche perfumer store in Dublin, ParfuMarija, I subsequently bought bottles or partials of most of the above. The Osmanthus Hair Mist was kindly gifted to me by Ormonde Jayne PR a couple of weeks ago, along with a Petits Fours box of samples of four of the La Route de la Soie collection sent to me for review (review is upcoming). My opinions are firmly my own.   


Cover Image: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash