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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.

Aromatic Cult of Raw Materials Independent Perfumery Musk Oakmoss Round-Ups Single note exploration

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

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Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris

15th November 2018

 

In autumn 2018, Areej Le Dore released its 4th generation of fragrances. Russian Adam very kindly sent me a sample set, which I’ve been playing around with for a while now. Without further ado, here are my reviews of Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris.

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DSH Perfumes Series: Japanese Haiku

25th September 2018

 

Welcome to Part 4 (Japanese Haiku ) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.

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DSH Perfumes Series: Gourmand

21st September 2018

 

Welcome to Part 3 (Gourmand) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.

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DSH Perfumes Series: Orientals & Chypres

12th September 2018

 

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is an American indie perfumer based in Colorado, much loved among American perfumistas for her warm, engaging personality and prodigious talent. Her perfumes have long been a point of curiosity (and even obsession) for perfume fans outside of America, but as with indie houses like Sonoma Scent Studio and Parfums DelRae, distribution outside of the States has been an issue. Thankfully, Dawn now sells her perfumes in an optional Voile de Parfum format, which is  IPM (Isopropyl Myrastate)-based and can thus be safely shipped internationally without, you know, blowing up the plane and stuff.

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