Based on my sampling of three perfumes from the Argentinian brand Frassaï, I can say that this is exactly the kind of thing that one hopes to see from modern niche perfumery but rarely does, i.e., perfumes that are unusual but not too much, and rendered in a soft, lovely manner that gives them wearability and ease.
Consider two points on that scale, for reference – the earlier perfumes of Serge Lutens, which offered bold new ideas but presented them in often luridly syrupy forms that made them challenging to wear as a personal scent outside of a grand occasion, and the perfumes of Parfums de Marly or XerJoff, which are mostly recycled ideas and tired old tropes rendered loud and muscular with über-radiant woody ambers that smash their way through more delicate accords like a bull in a china shop.
The Frassaï perfumes, on the other hand, appear to have been carefully and sensitively art-directed (by Natalia Outeda, a designer who had previously art-directed perfumes in NY for companies such as Bond No. 9, Proctor and Gamble, and Kiehl’s). Though the perfume reviewed here are all in different styles – one essentially a soliflore, one a spicy fruity scent, another a woody gourmand – and some of perfumers who composed them have usually easily-identifiable signature ‘moves’ (Rodrigo Flores-Roux, for example), there is a common thread of harmony and softness that links them all. Is it possible that the female gaze in art directorship for fragrance is just as much a thing as it is in literature, or essays, or film?
Tian Di (by perfumer Olivier Gillotin) is the most original of the three perfumes I sampled, and my outright favorite. It is really quite odd – a smoked-out peach skin nestled in a dusty ‘brown’ accord that remind me alternately of loose (peach-flavored) tea in those triangular nets sold by Dammann Frères, coffee grounds, or even cocoa – but also unexpectedly lovely. I am particularly charmed by the marvelous effect it produces on the skin, where it is all burnt peach licorice on the inhale (similar to the burnt anise-iris at the base of Guerlain’s Attrape-Coeur, albeit in dust form rather than apricot jam) and spearmint gum on the exhale. It is as gingery and as cooling as a tisane drink, yet as granular and coarsely-textured as the dry material before the hot water hits it.
Tian Di eventually deepens – or perhaps ‘spreads out’ – into a smudgy, smeary mint butterscotch and floor wax accord, with a hint of trampled grass and even beer, but never loses the malted, almost smoky graininess of the incense and tea. There is something about this that tugs a memory chord for me, making it difficult for me to evaluate objectively beyond the rather gormless ‘It’s odd but I love it’ review I’ve given it here. I think there’s either a loose connection to the peach of Trèsor (Lancôme) or to the sandalwoody, salty-minty, peony-esque weirdness of Dune (Dior), both of which I wore as a teenager, but again, this is all probably a Pavlovian response playing out in my mind and my mind only. Tian Di is special and unique. I’d buy this one in a heartbeat because I don’t have anything like it in my collection.
A Fuego Lento (by perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux) is a soft jasmine soliflore that smells like a wall covered in jasmine whose petals have started to dry a little in the late June sunshine, giving it a sweet hay or alfalfa dimension. There’s a tangy orange blossom note at the start that reads a little rubbery, like hot tarmacadam, so for a brief time, the scent gives off a pleasant sensation of being in a hot Southern city where the exhaust fumes of cars and hot pavement mingle with the sudden wafts of white flowers tucked away behind tall, patrician walls. But really, A Fuego Lento is all about that jasmine. A nutty, milky amber holds it all in place without interfering with the purity of the flowers.
I’m always moved by the simple but awe-inspiring beauty of a flower whose smell has been so faithfully recreated in scent form. This is, I recognize, no small feat in and of itself, unless you are willing to rely on the floral absolutes to do all the heavy lifting, in which case you have to deal with the more pungent, less pleasing aspects of the absolute – but Rodrigo Flores-Roux certainly knows his way around jasmine. That said, I’m a little surprised at the lack of accoutrements from a perfumer who produced both the complex, salty jasmine that is Ella (Arquiste) and the plummy jasmine chypre that is L’Âme Perdue (Le Galion), but I’m guessing that Outeda asked specifically for a pure, lush jasmine soliflore, and that is precisely what she got.
Personally, I don’t wear soliflores (preferring to smell flowers in nature than in the bottle) but if I were on the hunt for a great jasmine-dominant perfume, this would be a prime contender. The only other jasmine soliflore that matches the quality of A Fuego Lento is, in my opinion, the limited edition Diptyque Essences Insensées 2015, which is however far more syrupy and intense a smell.
Teisenddu (by perfumer Roxanne Kirkpatrick) is, in many ways, the most familiar-smelling perfume in the bunch, in that it mines a vein that many indie and niche perfumes before it have tapped into, i.e., that toasty-dry, caramelized scent of a working sauna, complete with all its spicy-fresh facets (juniper, conifer) and its dried fruit ones (cumin, caramel, prune, brandy). I quite like this toasty wood smell, even though it doesn’t really deviate from the pattern cut by scents such as Woodcut by Olympic Orchids or Bourbon by Hans Hendley.
Where it does innovate, however, is by pairing it with a full-blown movie butter popcorn accord with which I am only too familiar (unfortunately) thanks to my year-long exploration of the American indie oil sector. Every single perfume oil with the words ‘cake’ or ‘freshly baked bread’ or indeed ‘caramel’ featured precisely this note. Due to overexposure to this awful pyrazine-y aromachemical – whatever moniker it actually goes by – whenever I smell it, I think not of caramel or bread but instead of that awful fake butter popcorn flavoring they put in jellybeans. Because of its proximity to the hot, dry wood accord, the note emits a claggy ‘moistness’ that reads like warm, sweaty socks.
Now, it’s entirely possible that everyone else who smells this will smell what the perfumer intended, i.e., caramel, and that it is my particular sensitivity or over-exposure to this material that’s skewing the picture. I hope so. In any case, I hate this particular material with a passion and always wonder how Pierre Guillaume managed to pull off the toasted nuts and caramel in Aomassaï without resorting to it. (Part of me always thinks, well, if he can do it, why can’t everyone else?)
Mercifully, this note burns off quickly enough, and my patience is rewarded by a remarkable (and really quite unusual for a toasty, spicy wood scent like this) plant milk accord that smells like coconut milk, lotion, and something green and crunchy, like agave, fig leaves, or aloe vera. What this does is add a cooling, lactonic finish to the scent that effectively rehydrates the wood, balancing it so that it never tips over into outright aridity – typically the natural end of spicy indie wood scents. I really love this surprising element, and it’s enough to compensate me for any butter popcorn trauma I might have suffered previously.
It’s worth mentioning that, even when this milky lotion component fades away, we are left with a gently-spiced, gently-resinated, and gently-ambery wood accord that never pushes the envelope too far in any one direction. It’s all quite gentle. Which suits me just fine. In this last stretch, Teisenddu reminds me a lot of Gaiac by Micallef (and its twin, Dark Horse by Dame Perfumery), as well as Wenge by Donna Karan – all scents I’d describe as soft takes on the amber-incense-wood category, a popular and rather densely-populated intersection in niche perfumery. Scents like this are the fuzzy blanket of the perfume world (or ‘woody puddings’, as NST calls them), and while not entirely a novel form, Teisenddu innovates just far enough with that green, juicy plant milk accord to carve out a space for itself.
Source of Samples: I purchased samples of these Frassaï fragrances from Neroli Hungary, a Budapest-based niche perfume store here. I have purchased samples from Neroli multiple times since 2014 and am very happy to recommend them to my fellow European fumeheads.
The indie perfume brand Neandertal boasts some of the most achingly cool bottles I’ve ever seen, one of the hottest talents on the indie perfumery scene (Euan McCall), and several glowing Luca Turin reviews – and yet, surprisingly little hype. I’m going to hazard a guess that, for some, ‘achingly cool’ + bottles that look like ice sculptures = intimidating.
That includes me, by the way. I am the least cool person in the room at any given time, so it’s likely I’d have continued to ignore Neandertal to infinity and beyond were it not for the fact that I recently purchased some samples of Euan McCall’s work (for his eponymous brand) and wanted to compare/contrast against his work for another brand to get a fuller picture of his style. When a perfume contact who does some PR for Neandertal (Brooke) offered to send me samples of the line, I figured it was kismet.
I’m really glad I got to smell these. All of them were interesting – unique even – and none of them were the paint-by-numbers type of jobbie we’ve come to expect from the more upmarket niche brands. One was marred by a heavy hand with nose-burning aromachems, but even that was redeemed by a beautiful and unusual central section. Matching the bottles, the perfumes draw on the jolie laide nature of raw, elemental things – metal, earth, leather, salt. The effect is often jarring, and sometimes (one senses accidentally rather than deliberately) even pleasant. But we all need a little intellectual roughage in our diets, don’t we?
Oh, the grappa and Fairy washing up liquid sting of pure orris root tincture! I love how, when used in more generous quantities than the standard dribble tapped out with a fingernail into niche perfumes to justify an obscene price tag (Floretiiiiinnnnne irisssssss), this buttery but bleachy rhizome always manages to bring in the desaturated cool grey-pink colour canvas of Scandinavia – even if what the perfumer had been going for was Italian sunshine or Russian leather. Orris will out. Luckily, we have a Northern European perfumer (Euan McCall, a Scot) going for a cool, foggy interpretation of orris root, so the Scandi colour palette works just fine.
Orris root is an interesting material because, to me, it is a mixture of high and low, which means that it smells in equal parts like a fine leather glove and like the rooty sting of moonshine brewed by a Polish potato farmer. An elevated root cellar smell. Part of the reason that Them works because the perfumer understands this element of the material and surrounds it with other high-low accents. So, we have a green, scratchy salt note rubbing up against an ambrette material that feels luxuriously cloudy (a drop of Pernod in water), and a vaporous leather note slowly losing its initially screechy, toxic edge as it is folded into a much finer, softer ‘cuir’ along the same lines as Cuir d’Ange (Hermès) or Cuir X (La Parfumerie Moderne).
It is also an outdoors-to-indoors kind of perfume. It starts in the cool, foggy outdoors (Iris Silver Mist territory even) before slowly switching the scene to a posh art gallery full of spot-lit ‘found art’ sourced from nature, like long, silvery hunks of hollowed-out driftwood, polished stone, dried seaweed, salt, leather – the type of beach-cast objets that a collector might pay thousands for. There’s an awkward moment in the transition that smells a little bit sweaty or BO-ish, but it’s brief enough for me to pass it off as my imagination (or perhaps a momentary concentration of something evil in the iris material used). The small flashes of furry warmth and leather underbelly briefly bring to mind Slumberhouse Sibet, but no, Them is green, salty, and almost aqueous in a way Sibet is not.
Us is one of those atmospheric indie scents that are more like exhibitions than perfume – experiments not really designed to survive beyond the walls of the lab but to be held up, admired, and put back down again. It smells like boot polish, tanning agents, and the soot-streaked insides of a kipper smoking house. And also like wet eucalyptus branches thrown onto an open fire in a sauna. While I admire the phantasmagoric summoning of the La Brea tar pits, I’m not sure that something this extreme is for wearing.
In the drydown, it calms down enough for me to spot the relationship to the hoary old seagrass vetiver (burnt, whiskey-ish) of Vetiver by Annick Goutal Vetiver or Arso by Profumum, but I would rather wear the Goutal than a version that’s been amped up by a factor of ten. I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of stuff anymore. If you’re just getting into niche or indie, however, and you are chasing down all the ‘burning tire’ scent experiences you can find, then Us is gripping stuff indeed.
Light is a jarring but ultimately thought-provoking fragrance. There is an opening blast of some aromachemical so vile and toxic I can feel it at the back of my throat, and for a moment or two, before this thing rights itself, I have to fight the urge to scrub it off my skin. I suspect a noxious brew of Ambroxan and the milky-metallic shriek of violet leaf, with a pronounced ‘curdled milk’ effect.
However – and you know that the ‘however’ has to be a good one in order for me to get past the teenage body spray thing at the start – Light surprises me by settling into a weird but interesting accord that I can only describe as a tart but creamy ‘rhubarb and custard’ floral that gets me in its headlights and refuses to let go. Yes, I understand that nothing in the notes list would explain this. Yes, it is possible that I’m going crazy. I have worn Light several times now, and each time I grimace my way through the opening (hairspray! licked metal spoons! teenager deo!) and each time I wind up in the rhubarb and custard place.
And if it only stayed there, I would be enthusiastic. However, after an hour or two, the scent begins a slow fade into a chemical marshmallow drydown with an unpleasantly dusty ‘wheaten’ undertone – a sort of stale, chocolate-less smores accord – which reminds me a bit of that Godawful Rouge Smoking by Parfums BDK (which is cherry cough medicine + pleather + bubblegum + stale, wheat-dusted marshmallow) and of Sangre Dulce by Strangers Parfumerie, which is actually pretty good. I’m not keen on this indie ‘protein bar’ accord, to be honest, so this is a mark against it. But that weird salty-floral-creamy rhubarby midsection – oh man. What I’d do for a flanker that excerpted that part.
Aptly named, Dark is one of those oily, industrial-smelling concoctions that get you thinking both of (a) the fuel spills, rubber, tarpaulin, and black oil of a car repair shop, and (b) the oily black infestation at the cire of a freshly-felled agarwood tree, i.e., the natural and unnatural intertwined so densely that one is undistinguishable from the other. It smells dank and oddly savory (umami), perhaps due to the seaweed note, which is more reminiscent of miso paste than of salt. Unlike Light, Dark is, well, the smell of closed-up spaces, of rot, of time v. infection.
Though unusual, its grungy industrial bent is not entirely unique – there are elements of what I am smelling here in both Nooud by Baruti and Black No. 1 by House of Matriarch. But in the drydown, Dark takes a very different turn, and this is where the paths diverge. The scent sees itself out on a long tail of pure, blinding metal. You know the metallic scent of orange juice that’s been spilled and left to dry? This is precisely that, minus any scent of orange. I don’t know if this is saffron, coriander, rose oxide, violet leaf, or some other metallic material, but the flash of metal provides a link to Light that I find interesting. Dark mixed with Light, by the way, provides for a compelling experience – the tart, metallic rhubarb and (salted) custard sparks against the oily, savory dankness of Dark’s oudy leather to yield a scent that feels as bright as an over-exposed photo and as grungy as mold.
Source of samples: Samples of the Neanderthal line were kindly sent to me by Brooke, who does some PR on social media for the brand. I disclose where my samples came from so that you (the reader) can decide for yourself whether my review is unbiased or not.
I keep trying to sum up Spell 125 by Papillon Artisan Perfumes for myself in one of those snappy two-liners that Luca Turin excels in, but it is a testament to the perfume’s shape-shifty-ness that I can’t settle on just one. Some days, I think, hmm, definitely Limey Smoke, but then there’s also Ashy Frankincense, Foresty Green, followed later by Balsamic Salt, Sour Honey, and Chewy Leather. Spell 125 just feels like a scent that’s been put together in thin, crisp layers that peel off into the atmosphere, like smears of organic matter hissing on hot volcanic rock. It smells acid-bright – neon almost – but also dry, like a nubbin of frankincense whittled to ash.
Papillon perfumes run the gamut from pretty (Angélique) and sweetly comforting (Bengale Rouge) to dirty-sexy-money (Salome) but what connects them all is that deep richness of finish that some have called Guerlainesque. Spell 125 marks something of a departure in style. Though it is as seamlessly constructed as the rest, Spell 125 actually smells far more environmental than it does classically perfumey – a clutch of green resins, blackish gums, and saltwater dripping from trees in some primordial forest, immediately evaporating into smoky ether as they hit the hot minerals beneath.
In a way, Spell 125 smells almost more like a Tauer or a Sonoma Scent Studio (think Incense Pure) than a Papillon, in that it smells both funkily organic, i.e., ‘ripped from nature’, and preternaturally airy, a whole diorama of sky, forest, and wind filling your lungs as you draw breath.
Spell 125 starts out with the lemon-and-limeade fizz of Siberian pine, sluicing everything in an acid-green halo of antiseptic fluid that might feel a little challenging at first until you realize that we all need something this invigoratingly bright to disinfect our lives of the bullshit that is life under COVID-19. An earlier mod of Spell 125 was more confrontational in its piney-ness – almost saltily urinous – but the final version turns the pitch just right, so that it feels more darkly balsamic than high-toned, with just enough residual volatility to make you think of fingers in electric sockets and lime-scented soap and ion-charged air.
But anyway, though the pine certainly is first out the gate, you immediately sense a myriad of other layers shifting, separately, and lifting into place. Most notable is a tremendous frankincense material, which is at first slightly green and waxy-balsamic-raw but grows increasingly ashy and ‘burned out’ in feel, until finally, everything feels like it is coated in a thin layer of white ash (but one that is not, thankfully, acrid).
Counteracting the vegetal coolness of the incense is the creeping mammalian funk of ambergris, with its hints of saltwater, warm tar, and loose tobacco flakes in a paper pouch. This is soon joined by other similarly resinous, gauzy layers of organic matter misting up through the scaffolds – the honeyed spicy-sourness of opoponax, dried lime peel, and a lightly chewy leather dimension that I feel sure comes from labdanum. Spell 125 is never quite animalic – but there is the suggestion (just the merest hint) of something grimy or unclean lurking beneath the ashy-resinous brightness. A Barbour waxed jacket clinging to warm, clammy flesh.
Spell 125 will be launched on the 7th July 2021, to mark the 7th anniversary of Papillon, closing the circle started by Papillon’s first fragrance, Anubis. The name is significant – Spell 125 describes the ceremony known as the “Weighing of the Heart” in The Book of the Dead (usually presided over by Anubis) where the deceased soul is asked to weigh their purity against their sins, before being led by Anubis before Osiris and their eternal reward. Incense and leather are the two accords that connect these perfumes, but they run in such opposite directions, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect the two. Anubis is a dark, incensey leather fueled by a jammy jasmine absolute that smells a bit like gasoline spilled on a forecourt; Spell 125 is a dry, effervescent incense that smells like a wash of smoky crystals in the air.
I appreciate both, but Spell 125 is the one I feel in my bones, if you know what I mean. In the midst of the busiest time of the year for me, with multiple deadlines and lots of stress, coupled with a return to the ‘joys’ of home-schooling for what feels might be the next twenty years, Spell 125 has acted as a little talisman of calm ten times more powerful than Bach’s Rescue Remedy drops and yet not quite as numbing as Xanax. I find it to wear very lightly (more vellum than velvet in tensile weight) but it is also immensely durable, with no discernible sacrifice to naturalness (of feel) made to the chemical Gods of Longevidee.
Listen, I f***ing love it. I’d carry this stuff around with me in the pockets of my pants if I still wore pants and I would definitely wear it for yoga were I ever to find a yoga video on YouTube that wasn’t intensely irritating (what do these people mean by ‘breathe into your spine’?). But just because Spell 125 happens to be exactly my kind of thing these days doesn’t mean its ascetic, modern ‘spaciness’ will be for everyone. It is not a people-pleaser like Bengale Rouge, for example, and it might challenge those who’ve come to love Papillon for its richer, more classically-styled output. But if a fresh, diaphanous, almost airy-sparkly coniferous incense sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and you already love stuff like Zagorsk (Comme des Garcons), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) and the hemlocky green amber of Woman (Ormonde Jayne), then Spell 125 by Papillon will likely be a safe bet.
Source of Sample: Smuggled to me by Liz Moores of Papillon Artisan Perfumes in (Mod A) a small box of chocolate shoes filled with salted caramel and then (Mod B – the final version) a Papillon t-shirt, size XL to fit my capacious boobage.
Each of the gifts of the three Magi carried a special symbolic meaning – gold representing kingship, myrrh foreshadowing the death of Jesus (myrrh being commonly used as an embalming and purifying ointment in the final sendoff of a soul), and finally, frankincense for divinity. In other words, if gold represents earthy wealth and influence, and myrrh represents the suffering associated with death, then frankincense is the most spiritually elevating of all resins – and arguably the most important – as it turns the gaze upwards, towards God.
a more prosaic level, some believe that frankincense might have been brought
along because of its medicinal qualities. In 2011, due to longstanding cultural
links between Wales and Somalia (who knew?), researchers at Cardiff University decided
to investigate whether there was any medical evidence to support the ancient
Somali tradition of using frankincense extract as a traditional herbal remedy
for the aches and pains associated with arthritis. And indeed, the scientists
were able to demonstrate
that treatment with an extract of Boswellia frereana (one of the rarer
frankincense species) inhibits the production of key inflammatory molecules, effectively
slowing down the disintegration of the cartilage tissue which causes the
So, maybe the three wise men were actually…..wise? (Though, rolling up to the bedside of a woman who had just given birth in a stable without so much as a pack of Paracetamol, nappies, and a stack of gossip magazines would seem to contradict that.)
In fact, most resins used in attar and commercial perfumery have long been as prized for their cleansing or purifying properties as for their spiritual or ritualistic ones. Arabs chew frankincense tears as chewing gum to freshen the breath and aid digestion, for example, while Papiers d’Arménie owe their existence to a Frenchman by the name of Auguste Ponsot, who, after stumbling across benzoin resin during his travels in Armenia in 1885, decided to make benzoin-infused strips of paper to cleanse the air in stuffy rooms all across Paris. Both Arabs and Persians have long traditions of burning incense to fumigate their rooms, clothes, places of worship, and hair. The word perfume itself comes from the Latin per fumus, which means ‘through the smoke’, making it more than likely that the first rudimentary form of perfume was, in fact, the fumigation of a dwelling with incense. So put that on your burner and smoke it!
Frankincense, for many people, lies at the very tippety-top of the incense chain – the thoroughbred of the resin family. Deriving from the old French word franc encens – meaning ‘high quality incense’ – frankincense is a gum produced by the Boswellia genus of trees which grows in Somalia, Sudan, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. The bulk of frankincense, called luban or loban in Arabic, comes from Somalia. However, the finest quality of frankincense is called Hojari (alternatively referred to as howjary) or silver frankincense, and this comes from the arid Dhofar region of Oman in the United Arab Emirates.
steam-distilled oil of frankincense resin gives attars and perfumes a fresh,
coniferous resinousness, with a bright lemon-and-lime topnote. Some grades of
Omani frankincense smell like oranges or tangerines in their topnotes, with a
soft-ish, creamy quality in the lower register. The house of Amouage, based in
Oman, was founded around the use of local Hojari frankincense, and indeed, most
of this house’s output showcases the silvery beauty of Omani frankincense.
an interview with me for Basenotes
in March 2018, Trygve Harris, a frankincense distiller in Oman, talked
about the different aromas associated with the different types of frankincense.
“Somali has a lemony note, and a warm dryness, an austerity. It makes me
thirsty — it smells vast and dry. It reminds me of Palm Springs when I was a
kid. The Omani has a richness, an opulence, like a treasure box. Regarding the
differences in the Omani frankincense oils, I like to say the white (howjary)
has more a green, herbal, butterfly note while the black has an orange floral
is the note that many people, including me, tend to lump in with the larger
category represented by the word incense. Technically, incense is any
hard-ish material – be it a wood (sandalwood, oud wood) or a resin or gum (like
myrrh, benzoin, copal, frankincense) – that can be slowly burned or smoked on a
coal to produce a purifying but fragrant smoke. Fragrances classified as
incense fragrances typically feature some ratio of frankincense to other
resins, balsams, and gums (most typically myrrh, but also benzoin, labdanum,
etc.), so many of the frankincense-themed fragrances on the list below are
actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something
Now, for someone’s who just written an 8,000-word essay on it, I feel compelled to tell you that I am deeply ambivalent about frankincense. For anyone who was born Catholic – or worse, Irish Catholic – the scent of frankincense is less an actual aroma than it is an emotional trigger, dredging up all the complex, long-buried feelings about an entire culture that revolves around the Roman Catholic Church. Or, as we refer to it in the hood, the RCC. All incense matters to us, but frankincense matters the most. It alone is the Proustian gun that fires straight into the Catholic hippocampus.
when it came to exploring the different categories of fragrance, it is perhaps
not surprising that I set off merrily down along the High Mass path, blundering
under the assumption that incense would be the bread and butter of my
collection. I had, after all, spent most of my childhood downwind of a censer.
But it turns out that – shocker – I much prefer a vision of High Mass filtered
through a romantic, hazy vision of half-remembered holiness over anything too
authentic. It is more than I am an incense lightweight than a lapsed Catholic,
although I am certainly also the latter.
Ironically, in the Before Times, despite me being a terrible excuse for a Catholic, I was living in Rome, in an apartment so close to St. Peter’s Basilica that my kitchen window could be spotted every time the camera panned out in The Young Pope. I am tempted to trot out a tired line about being able to throw a stick and hit the Pope, only in the case of Papa Francis, I think we’ve established that he is pretty cool with anything as long as you don’t try to grab his hand.
Anyway, this enormous building and its Holiest of inhabitants set the pace for much of my life in Rome. I used the gleaming, opalescent curves of its imposing colonnade to guide me through the darkness of pre-dawn runs. I crossed the square (more of a circle) most weekend days, ducking and weaving my way through the tight knots of tourists, street hawkers, and selfie sticks in a mindless, amoeba-like daze. You can’t buy an espresso or a gelato in this neighborhood without elbowing your way past a priest, nun, or monk.
But you can get used to anything, and when you live right next to something like St. Peter’s Basilica, you get used to that too. It just becomes part of your day-to-day life. Mostly, I orbited St. Peter’s in a friendly, non-Catholic way and felt it to exist as an almost secular building in my line of vision, sometimes obstructing where I needed to go, other times making me pause to marvel at its sheer size or the way it glowed like a rose gold beacon in the evening.
But every now and then, there would be a religious procession, either from a local parish or a visiting church from Latin America, and I would smell the incense pouring off the censer again, and I walk straight into it, seeking it out the way your finger finds an old scar to worry at. I like to think that I am alert to the dangers of being pulled back in by the ancient Catholic drugs of knee-trembling beauty, architectural grandeur, and the straight-to-the-heart punch of frankincense. It is pure mind-fuckery. But sometimes, I just can’t help myself.
enough of my pontiff-icating (I’m here all night, folks) – here are a
few frankincense-dominated compositions to chew over.
Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense
have owned bottles, decants, and samples of the some of the biggest players in
the High Mass corner of the incense genre, and my personal favorite is Cardinal
(Heeley). Compared to Avignon (Comme des Garcons) and Full Incense
(Montale) – the two other High Mass scents with which Cardinal is most often
grouped – Cardinal smells like incense from the priest’s censer wafting at you through
shafts of sunshine, fresh air, and white sheets fluttering on a brisk breeze.
it is very dry, it is not tremendously dark or smoky, and therefore, not
forbidding. The aldehydes lift the spirits as well as the scent itself, and the
papery-sweet benzoin makes me think of vellum sheet music soaked in vanilla,
strung out over a line to dry. I appreciate the elegantly-slanted, sideways
approach to church incense that Cardinal employs because it gives me the vague
whiff of spirituality without dragging me back to Mass.
(Robert Piguet) – Spicy
incense field is so crowded by giants (Cardinal, Avignon, LAVS) that it is
difficult to carve out a spot. Casbah manages – just about – by clothing the
hollow, Coca-Cola-ish effervescence of Avignon in a peppery fog akin to dry
ice. It is much richer than Cardinal and much drier than the fizzy soda-soap
that is Montale’s Full Incense.
down into the details, Casbah also has a curiously antiseptic thread running
through it, but a subtle one – more the rubbery squeak of a hospital gurney
against a freshly-sluiced floor rather than full-out disinfectant. This is not
due to any ghost ‘oud’ note, but to an organic fudge of angelica and nutmeg. I
like its medieval darkness and grunginess because it makes no apologies for
being the curmudgeon of the pack. In fact,
Casbah reads more like one of Santa Maria Novella’s older, less photo-ready
concoctions than a Piguet.
Armani PrivéBois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense
minimalistic, airy, and remarkably boring concoction of frankincense over a
polished cedar or Iso E Super base. Despite critics and bloggers writing a paeon
of praise to this bellwether of bellwethers of the incense genre, I was never
able to ‘get’ its supposed complexity. To my nose, it is a micro explosion of
black pepper and frankincense e/o inside a very small (but perfectly chic)
black vase. Though perfectly formed – well, everyone keeps saying it is anyway –
it is too featureless to leave much of an impression on me.
Czech & Speake Frankincense and Myrrh – Honest Frankincense
straight-forward blend of frankincense and myrrh that unites the dusty, waxen
‘old wooden furniture’ mien of myrrh to the lemony-piney detergent freshness of
frankincense, and pretty much calls it a day. It smells unimpeachably natural
and clean, more like an eau de cologne with a resinous backdrop than the
smokier, heavier takes on incense that modern niche specializes in. It smells
like a church floor rigorously cleansed after Mass with buckets full of hot
water (there is a hissy steam or mineral note), lemon-scented detergent, and
bunches of minty, rooty herbs like lavender and clary sage stirred in for good
drydown is much better than the opening; the strident lemon high notes of the
frankincense drop off, allowing the fragrance to swan elegantly into a
protracted finish of clean, unsmoked resin and wooden bannisters polished to a
high shine. Absolutely no smoke, no sugar, no Eastern mysticism, no Catholic
High Mass. Czech & Speake’s Frankincense and Myrrh strips the two headliner
resins back to their core, demonstrating that you don’t have to bathe resins in
orientalia for them to smell good.
Mad et Len Noir Encens – Amaretto Frankincense
Encens is not noir or, indeed, particularly encens. Rather, it is
a cozy gourmand in the hazelnut-amaretto-over-iced-milk vein of Hypnotic
Poison, only much less loud. It manages that very chic, very French balance of
edible and semi-poisonous notes. Its milky, anisic softness in the drydown
reminds me somewhat of Gucci Eau de Parfum, the one with the brown juice in the
clear glass bottle.
Paul Schütze Behind the Rain – Wild Frankincense
the Rain is one of those wild, freeform bag of ‘smells’ that the perfumer seems
to have corralled in from his atmosphere – a liquid message from his world to
ours, a bundling up of the collected smells of the woodshop and the painter’s
studio. It is green-brown, vegetal, sharp, and more than slightly weird. But it
is also deeply invigorating. Something in it electrifies me.
the Rain is nominally a modern incense perfume à la Comme des Garcons. Yet from
within the sleek lines of its minimalist architecture emanates the smells of
Olde World Europe – oil lamps, liniment, centuries-old wood, glue bindings,
turpentine, anise-scented toothpaste, and horsehair brushes idling in glasses
of solvent. A dusty frankincense turns the polished wood and oily aromas of the
workshop into a (homey) place of worship.
might be an indoor scent entirely were it not for the wet rootiness of fennel,
mastic, vetiver, and all manner of violently-uprooted vegetation sweeping gusts
of air into closed rooms with their strange prairie outdoorsiness. The scent
has one foot inside, one foot outside, ready to bolt in a Heathcliffian huff.
Behind the Rain is imagined along the same lines as Marescialla by Santa Maria
Novella and Olibanum by Profumum –more a summoning of the elements than a scent.
Thank God perfumes like this still exist.
is the third point on the triangulation of what I like to call the ‘powdered
sugar incense’ category, between the rose champagne fizz of Maria Candida
Gentile’s Sideris and the doughnutty yumminess of Reve d’Ossian (Oriza L.
Legrand). I am drawn to the gently edible edge to these incense perfumes,
because they calm the naturally sharp angles of frankincense by filtering it
through the haze of powdered sugar that rises off a sweet bun when you bite
is thickly dusted with the double powder whammy of iris and benzoin in its
topnotes and made slightly sherbety with the addition of rose or lemon. As
others before me have pointed out, this combination of iris and incense is
reminiscent of the Tauerade present in both Incense Rosé and Les Années 25
(Tauer), although far less powerful or astringent – Rosarium is softly, sweetly
bready, rather than battery acid radiant.
what really makes Rosarium special is the carrot seed accent, which gives the
powdery incense sweetness an unusually earthy-rooty depth. This smells like
metal slicing through upturned earth, but also like a warm, mealy pulp made of
sawdust and rainwater. The carrot seed effect makes my mouth water, although
technically there is nothing edible about it. I notice that the carrot seed
present in Santal Blush (Tom Ford) has a similar effect, except for the
addition of cumin, which makes it even wheatier.
combination of sweet incense dust, milk-soaked Easter bread, and metallic earth
or hazelnuts in Rosarium is pretty wonderful, and if my ‘powdered sugar
incense’ needs weren’t already being met by the brighter, more natural-smelling
Sideris, I would seriously think about putting it on my putative ‘To Buy’ list
(whereupon it would likely languish for years).
Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense
It sounds explosive, which is strange, because it smells explosive too,
especially when it tumbles out in that first, aldehyded rush of sugared pine
needles, frankincense, and cinnamon-dipped red fruits. The pine ‘flavor’ in Wazamba
is the connecting dot (for me) between the coniferous notes and the naturally
piney facet of frankincense. As with its close relative, Filles en Anguilles by
Serge Lutens, the pine notes read as something sunlit and Mediterranean, rather
than snowy and Northern, a feeling cleverly underlined by a tangy cypress note.
Wazamba, the umbrella pines are bent sideways by a Bora or a Sirocco, the soil
beneath them is springy with orange-brown pine needles, and everything is warm,
dry, and aromatic. It is an extremely fruity scent, if you stand back and look
at it from a distance – dried plum and cranberries, I think, more than apple.
But up close, the piney-coniferous freshness of the woods proves an effective
bridle, slowing the roll of the fruit and sobering it up. There is also quite a
lot of clove or cinnamon, which manifests as a dustiness or chalkiness of
texture in the gradient of the wood rather than as a hotly-spiced standalone accent.
I think Wazamba proves that, in the right hands, heavy-duty stuff like plum or myrrh
and frankincense can be manipulated to take up the shape of light filtering
through sea-leaning pine trees. Nice (but non-essential).
Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense
the past ten years or so, as supplies of it dwindled and the secondary market
dried up, Norma Kamali Incense has attained legendary status approaching that
of the 1804 Bust Dollar for coin collectors or the Pikachu Illustrator Card for
Pokémon fans. Only the original Djedi (Guerlain), Iris Gris (Jacques Fath), and
Chypre (Coty) top it for rarity and collector value, though modern tastes
probably lean more towards the Norma Kamali. But how much of the appreciation
for Norma Kamali Incense is due to its unavailability and how much to its
intrinsic qualities as a scent?
bought and sold a 10ml decant of the later edition and tested two sample vials
of it – one a cognac brown from (presumably) the early edition and the other a
yellowy gold (later edition) – I suspect that it is the former. Norma Kamali is
striking, but perhaps not as unique as people assume. I smell echoes of it in Amber
Absolute and Sahara Noir (both Tom Ford), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio),
the original Messe de Minuit (Etro), Calling All Angels (April Aromatics), DEV#4
(Olympic Orchids), and 03. Apr. 1968 (Rundholz).
connects all of these to Norma Kamali Incense is the bittersweet, smoky quality
of the labdanum material used, maybe due to a touch of Hydrocarboresine, a
Biolandes-owned natural derivative of cistus-labdanum, which lends perfumes a
rich ‘High Mass’ incense effect that lurches between the bitterness of
buckwheat honey and the sweetness of toffee. Aside from the Hydrocarboresine,
it seems to lean heavily on a nexus of copal – a South American resin that
smells herbaceously bitter (burnt bay leaf) – a rubbery myrrh, and a hulking
block of super-dry labdanum that smells like a leather saddle smoldering in the
grate of a fire. The Hydrocarboresine is instrumental to creating that oddly
animalic, stale, waxy awfulness that is half holy, half-demons-summoned-from-the-depths-of-hell.
Kamali Incense is undeniably characterful, but you have to be up for that
particular brand of gloom when you put it on. This is a scent that demands the
commitment of the whole day – God help you if you think you’re just going to be
able to dab on a bit, test it, and then wash it off again. It has a strange way
of making you feel as if you are choking on the ashy fumes of a censer swinging
directly over your head (with you desperately wishing the priest would move on
so you can breathe again). Phenomenally burnt, colossal in stature, and more
than a bit overwhelming, Norma Kamali Incense would be, I feel, slightly a bit
too over the top for confession, unless you’re confessing to the Devil himself in
the ashes of Notre Dame (in which case it would be perfect).
Incense Flash (Tauerville) – Frankincense Haiku
what it says on the tin, Incense Flash presents a somewhat abbreviated but
nonetheless satisfying picture of incense resins half-smoked on the censer. It
leads the charge with a piney frankincense and quickly adds in the tarrier,
bootstrap molasses nuances of myrrh for heft. It is smoky, but this is due to
the resins themselves rather than the addition of birch tar, so there is still
air to breathe and it never quite tips over into acridity.
is some rubber and fuel detritus floating around in the frankincense accord,
but that is just the nature of frankincense – anyone’s who has ever bought or
burned any will recognize this aspect immediately. The dry woods and Ambroxan
in the base are less satisfying to me. I am never sold on the ‘clean starched
shirt taken off an aftershave-doused male body’ accord this tandem births like
a malevolent serpent into the world. Yet it is never as aggressively
‘soap-powder-shot-into-your-nostrils’ as Incense Extrême, a small mercy for
which I am very grateful.
main issue with this scent is that it smells like something I could knock
together myself. There is a lazy, homemade edge to this that disappoints.
Incense Flash is very fairly priced, but it is one of those products that make
you aware of the mark-up exactly at the point you’re consuming it, like the
store-bought apple tart that tastes fine, but you can taste that they cut a few
corners and just knocked it out onto the production line in time for the 5 o’
clock rush, so you’re kind of questioning even the measly €6 you spent on it.
Sombre Negra(Yosh) – Frankincense Fougère
world’s first frankincense fougère? Someone is going to write an angry letter
contradicting me on that. I don’t care. Listen up, ladies, because I am writing
this for you. Sombre Negra is written about as one of the standout incense
fragrances of the genre. I have no issue with the incense part of the equation.
The promised ‘blackness’ is all there – a gorgeously sooty, dusty frankincense
seemingly swept out from under the censers and grates of Europe’s most commanding
cathedrals with the sole purpose of putting the fear of God in you and making
you repent. It is dour. It is suitably sturm-und-drang.
and really, women, listen up because I am slowly but inexorably getting to the
point – the other half of this fragrance is your brother’s shirt collar circa
1985. Remember the male aroma of shirts soaked in enough Drakkar Noir to scour
the bath? Remember the posturing and the putting on of that older male ‘skin’
to be able to face the world in all their pimpled, trembling glory? Have you
ever had to lie in the bed of a young male relative while a-visiting and known
the horror of those clammy, Brut-soaked sheets that made you wish you could
disassociate from your own body? Ladies, I have three brothers and four male
cousins. I do not mock. I am merely reminding you.
Flamboyant opens with a peculiar note of stale fag ash, like clothes after a
night out in a disco, its breath freshened up a tiny bit by a fir balsam or
pine note. There is nothing particularly joyful or uplifting about the frankincense.
It creates instead a cool, flat grey-green aura that reminds me of mold
crumbling into dust on a piece of bread.
There is a dry, metallic tinge to Encens Flamboyant that makes it quite similar
in feel (if not scent) to Tauer’s Incense Extrême – they share a certain
austerity and ‘bareness’ of structure. It also shares that notorious stale
cigarette note with Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette, though that is a
fragrance I like much better because the fag ash is balanced out by a minty
green (and surprisingly cheap-smelling) jasmine note that makes it feel like
someone covering up the scent of a sneaky cigarette with a drugstore ‘floral-ish’
cologne. Encens Flamboyant, lacking that little quirk of humor, feels a bit like
wearing a hair shirt.
Tinkerbell and the Archangel Gabriel got together to make a perfume, Sideris is
what they would come up with. Two things are important to mention here –
radiance and scale. Radiance-wise, Maria Candida Gentile has somehow managed to
take the heaviest and stickiest substances in perfumery – French labdanum, frankincense,
myrrh, beeswax – and infuse the whole thing with light and air. This is a
perfume that radiates. It glows. In fact, what hits you first, when you spray
it on, is this incredible note of powdered sugar, the result of a diffuse mix
of frankincense and rose. This powdered sugar note coats the entire perfume
from head to toe, a sort of fairy dust sifted over the heavier resins. A gentle
shake of the spice jar – pepper and ginger – add to the sprightly,
nose-tingling effect. The dust is finally anchored and settled at the base by
is nothing synthetic in feel or reach of the incense here. And yet, Sideris
achieves an unearthly radiance that would normally only be possible with Iso E
Super or another woody amber material. Incredible.
important to me, however, is the fact that even in the crowded field of incense
scents, Sideris manages to distinguish itself as a completely different beast.
It is not one of those soaring High Mass perfumes like Avignon by Comme des
Garcons or LAVS by UNUM, scents which take incense, blow it up into
cathedral-sized places of worship, and instill a sense of gloom and awe into
Sideris is an incense-based perfume scaled to infinitely more humble
proportions. You can tell that a woman made this. It is a quiet moment of
reflection over a cup of tea. It is the private rolling out of a prayer mat in
your bedroom as dawn approaches. More than anything, it is a priest sweeping
out the steps of the church as he opens up for the day, the mica from the dust
glittering in the sun as he gives you a grin and a lusty ‘Buongiorno!’ on your
way to get an espresso.
don’t have to be a Catholic or go to church to like this. I put this on, and no
matter what kind of bad day I am having, I feel like I am floating around in my
own personal cloud of magic fairy dust, protected by all the bad juju around
Fumée (Miller Harris) – Fresh
is funny how sometimes it’s the fragrances you wear the most are the ones you
never bother to write about. I am on my second bottle of this elegant woods and
resins concoction, and yet now when I sit down to put pen to paper, I realize I
have never really analyzed the notes. La Fumée performs quietly in the
background of your day, like smoke from incense or oud embedded in the fabric
of your clothes. It starts off on a greenish frankincense note, like crushed
pine needles, pepper, and lemons, creating a fresh, masculine vibe that continues
for much of the scent.
Wafting in and out of the composition is a light smoke note from a combination
of the cade and birch tar, but there is also a dry labdanum in the mix,
performing its teetering act between tinder-dry paper that’s about to catch
fire and liquid tar. Creamy sandalwood takes over from the piney, terpenic
facets of the frankincense, nudging the scent into a faintly sweet-and-sour
sweat direction. But none of that describes how easy this scent is to wear, or
how pleasurable in its humming-in-the-background way. Whereas other resin
scents hit you over the head, this one wears like an elegant, transparent veil
that exists only at the corner of your field of vision. Like a former boyfriend
of mine, it is small but perfectly formed.
frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is central to its
aroma, and this is precisely the characteristic that Absolute Frankincense has
chosen to highlight. The scent extends the silvery bite of the resin by
flanking it with a lime-like bergamot and some very natural-smelling coniferous
notes. The result smells clean and high-toned – an expression of frankincense
oil itself, as opposed to the burnt, smoky notes of the resin as it bubbles on
who love the more severe takes on frankincense such as Annick Goutal’s Encens
Flamboyant will appreciate Absolute Frankincense. Just be aware that this oil
is monastic in its approach, and that the green purity of the resin has been
prioritized far above the smoky, resinous, or sweet notes that usually flank
frankincense. This is the cold, smooth smell of the unburned resin itself, an
almost exact match to the aroma of the resin when you rub it between the palms
of your hands. My criticism is that Absolute Frankincense is almost too simple
– too close to the aroma of good quality frankincense oil itself – to be worth
the cost of entry.
All Angels (April Aromatics)
– Butter Caramel Frankincense
All Angels is perhaps one of my favorite incense compositions, and although it mostly
centers around a tremendously complex, bittersweet labdanum material (helped
along, I suspect, by a dose of the Biolandes Hydrocarboresine, a natural derivative
of cistus-labdanum that gives both Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali their utterly
toothsome burnt honey/cinder toffee quality), there is a huge dose of sooty
frankincense in the opening half that firmly establishes the holy side of the
holy-slash-edible equation that this scent has going on.
All Angels smells like incense smoking and spluttering to a halt inside a stone
jar of chestnut honey so ancient it’s become a stiff brown paste. I can never decide
if it is is the kind of thing you slather yourself in when you want someone to eat
you or the kind of thing you wear to commune with a Higher Power, but maybe that’s
nel Vento (Bois 1920) – Frankincense
Dior’s Mitzah, April Aromatics Calling All Angels, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, Contre
Bombarde 32, and Bois 1920’s own Real Patchouly, Vento nel Vento blurs the
lines between amber, incense, spices, and woods, making it rather difficult to
pin down. Which is exactly what I like about it. It’s not pure frankincense –
its frankincense plus all the other stuff I like (probably a lot more
than straight-up frank).
nel Vento is not, to be clear, ground-breaking stuff. But it is a good
kitchen-sink of a thing that’s perfect for when you feel like wearing something
warm and resinous without condemning yourself to a full day of enough
straight-up amber to put you in a sugar coma or an incense so monastic that it turns
into a hair shirt by dinnertime. The opening is all about balmy, dark
frankincense paired and smoky labdanum resin, lifted by a thyme or rosemary
note that makes me want to bite my arm. The herb is phenolic, like smoke rising
off a tar pit – akin to the burnt thyme note atop Interlude Man.
Although it is not sweet, the smoke and herbs are balanced out by a smooth, round edible quality. Perhaps it is the lemony cream of the elemi resin or, again, that Hydrocarboresine material from Biolandes. Whatever it is, it reads like soft black licorice vines, the mild ones perched precisely between sweet and salty and whose major selling point is their satisfying yield as you bite into them. The slightly tarry, smoky labdanum stretches out into the heart, and as the thyme and frankincense taper off, it is joined by a smooth amber and patchouli.
There is a small touch of oud in the heart, enough to give it an interesting
sourness that smacks of wood chips and herbs soaked in water before distilling.
Often, incensey ambers or ambery incenses ruin the effect by having one element
stick out too much, such as a too-sharp herbal note, an overly piney
frankincense, or an overload of vanilla. In Vento nel Vento, the whole is
perfectly round, smooth, and integrated. No one note catches at your skin like
a forgotten clothes pin.
Vento nel Vento starts off with immense volume (sillage) but does a surprisingly gentle fade-out, becoming very quiet after 3-4 hours. In the base, an ambergris note contributes a musky, salted caramel glaze to the finish. It is subtle – not so much the smell of ambergris tincture itself with its usual marine and earthy funk, rather the effect of white ambergris, which has little scent of its own. White ambergris, the finest grade, acts instead as a magnifying glass held up to the other notes in the composition. Here, it adds a sensual, skin-like glow that animates the resins, amber, and sandalwood like blowing onto hot coals.
Noir (Tom Ford) – Frank
inexplicably discontinued as its sibling, Amber Absolute, Sahara Noir is for
many the standout of the frankincense field. It has the advantage of being both
familiar and novel at the same time, essentially dusting off the black pepper
frankincense core of Black Cashmere (Donna Karan), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford),
and even Black (Comme des Garcons), before adding cinnamon and tobacco to
highlight the authentically dusty-sooty texture of the frankincense, and burnt
sugar and orange rind for a sweet-n-sour brightness that illuminates its
darkness. Though quite sharp at first, once it settles in a bit, what you
notice about Sahara Noir is just how smooth and high-gloss it actually is (a
sort of Tom Ford signature, I think).
objectively speaking, this is obviously a really solid fragrance – well made,
with good quality materials, rich and warm, yet true to the chilly coniferous
sting of frankincense. However, since I have owned and then sold or swapped
away two whole bottles of this monster, there is obviously something about
Sahara Noir that isn’t doing it for me at a personal level. The best I can come
up with is that it is two-thirds the way to Amber Absolute, which only serves
to remind me that I’d much rather be wearing Amber Absolute instead.
Holy Terror(Arcana) – Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens
the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product
description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk,
thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord. The myrrh and
frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather
than as accurate representations of their natural selves. So, for example,
there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as
frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to
myrrh. Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular. Indeed,
they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.
point out that Holy Terror smells more resin-like or ‘generically resinous’ is, by the way, not a criticism but an
observation. Some people blind buy incense or resin scents because they are
trying to find something that accurately represents the aroma of a specific
resin, like, for example, unlit frankincense, oud wood (rather than the oil),
myrrh, or copal. Incense freaks tend to be very specific about the effect they
are looking for. Therefore, my note about the nature of the resins in Holy
Terror is simply for clarification.
Terror is more about the homely smell of incense-scented things than High Mass.
It is not dark or massively smoky or acrid. It is not a literal incense or burning resin scent like Avignon (Comme
des Garcons). It is sweet herbs, tree sap, and woodsmoke wrapped in a
just-snuffed-out candlewax accord. It is slightly musky, which creates a tinge
of intimacy, like the skin of someone pressing close to you in church. This
gives the scent a human aura that is enormously inviting.
ÂmeSombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute
The Âme Sombre series (Âme Sombre Oud Infusion, Âme Sombre Grade 1, and Âme Sombre Grade II) was conceived as a tribute to, well, Tribute – the landmark frankincense-cedar attar from Amouage that has such a cult following that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a tiny squib of it. Naturally, when Amouage discontinued its line of attars, the desire for Tribute increased even further. Nothing enhances Holy Grail status for a scent like scarcity and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it. Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha stepped in with his take on the original.
Âme Sombre variations revolve
around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like
smoke from the censer at High Mass. This frankincense is surrounded by a very
good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine. The florals never quite succeed in
speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense –
they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like light
through a stained glass window. In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco,
ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky
bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres. The bitterness is alleviated
somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies
Infusion Oud is the most expensive and
opulent version of Âme Sombre.
It rivals or even surpasses the cost of the original Tribute, due to the
time-consuming and messy task of infusing a small quantity of Âme Sombre Grade I with smoke from
sinking grade oud wood chips, which Sultan heated on a burner directly
underneath the attar itself.
Infusion version therefore contains the uniquely clean, resinous aroma that
comes from heating oud wood (as opposed to the fermented, ‘overripe’ aroma of
pure oud oil). The oud infusion doubles down on the rich smokiness of the
frankincense, but also offers a slightly green sweetness that serves to soften
the essentially bitter character of the scent. This version, although expensive
and now also possibly discontinued, is the most balanced version of Tribute,
and my personal favorite.
Grade I and Âme Sombre Oud
Infusion both relate closely to the original Tribute (albeit with a bigger
emphasis on rose), and either would be an excellent substitute for the now
discontinued attar. Âme Sombre
Grade II differs quite dramatically from both the Oud Infusion and Grade I, but
I like it a lot as a standalone scent and wish it had been marketed
Grade I begins with an incredibly lush,
lemony rose that has the effect of flooding the gloomy church corridors with
light and air. Rose is usually added to oud to give it a sweet juiciness to
counteract its sour, stark woodiness, and here it plays that role both for the
austere, pine-like frankincense and
the sourish cedar. Then a clutch of dark, balmy resins and leather notes moves
in to draw a black velvet cloak over the bright, sourish rose, rendering the
tone of the attar somber and serious. Grade I is slightly darker, more
phenolic, and more sour-rosy in feel than the Oud Infusion, which draws sweet
woodsmoke notes from the agarwood infusion. Grade I also employs more of a
focus on balmy leather notes than the other versions.
Âme Sombre Grade I feels more
Northern in tone than Middle-Eastern. There is a fresh juniper note in the
background that further bolsters this ‘Orthodox Church in a chilly Northern
forest’ tonality. In terms of overall approach, Âme Sombre Grade I is perhaps the closest to the original Tribute
with its stark, smoky cedar-frankincense combination. It is also intensely
powerful, lasting on my skin all day and well beyond a shower.
Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) – Pure Frankincense
frankincense as taut and as vegetal as a piece of freshly-peeled silver birch. The
vin jaune of the incense genre, Incense Pure does not smell of High
Mass, but of the bright, sticky sap weeping from the tree itself, softened by the
powdery green smell of living wood. Plenty of fresh air swirls in and around
the frankincense molecules here, cutting and lifting them without (interestingly)
adding any the citrusy ‘lime peel’ nuances normally associated with
frankincense. It smells like an outdoors cathedral, its roof formed by a
closely-knit canopy of wiry spruce and oak saplings. Extremely dry and bright,
I always feel like I need a glass of water when I wear Incense Pure. An ambery
warmth in the lower register – intermittent
at best – adds a relieving warmth, if not any real sweetness.
those looking to get into incense perfumes, Basilica is a great starting point.
Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense,
this blend smells purely of High Mass. It is not complicated or indeed complex,
but its straightforwardness is part of its charm. In particular, the
naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky –
makes this an absolute pleasure. Soft and soulful, Basilica is like Comme des
Garcons’ Avignon in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it
should come with a trigger warning.
(Profumum) – Polished
skips the high-pitched lime peel notes of most frankincense renditions, instead
focusing almost entirely on the material’s rooty, medicinal sootiness. There
are some very fine Omani frankincense varieties, like Hojari, that display a
soft creamy-tangy orange note up top instead of the usual lime leaf, and this
is what Profumum has cleverly chosen to mimic here with its brief splash of
orange in the topnotes.
Rather than resin, I get the impression of dark, shiny, polished woods, an
ancient armoire maybe, carved from a single trunk of pine felled in some cold
North clime. It smells like what I imagine wenge smells like – the hidden
underbelly of wood, closest to the core, where no light penetrates. A
particularly mineralic, earthy myrrh deepens this impression. This one stirs
me. I might have to get a travel bottle.
Al Masih(Mellifluence) – Messianic Frankincense
Masih means Messiah in Arabic, one of the many names for Jesus. And to a
certain extent, Al Masih’s incense is
more Catholic High Mass than Islamic cannon. Al Masih opens with a frankincense
note as piercing as freshly-crushed pine needles, its citric edge underscored
by a lemony tandem of elemi resin and petitgrain. The total effect is of a
Mediterranean church with its doors thrown open to allow the soft breeze
brushing over mastic to mingle with the scent of unburned resin. Cypress,
cedar, and hyssop all add to its fresh, outdoorsy air, confirming that churches
are not the only places where communion with a Greater Spirit takes place.
drydown is a surprise. The sharp brightness of the herbs and resins softens, before
collapsing entirely into the sensual creaminess of sandalwood. The sandalwood
lends a golden, wholesome texture to the scent, recalling the bounty of the
harvest and all the good things to eat stored in the cellar. This series of
transitions has the effect of shifting the scene from the wildness of the maquis
to a soft and homely devotion scaled to domestic proportions. At once evocative
and pleasing, Al Masih might strike a chord for lovers of outdoorsy incense, as
well as those who love the ‘medicinal unguent’ bent of modern Italian artisanal
perfumery – think Bogue and O’Driu, albeit far, far simpler.
Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense
pine needles (frankincense) and juniper berries whipped into an egg-white
vanilla froth. Eau Duelle is really good and really simple – an essay on the
duality of two opposing elements of a cool, spicy frankincense-black tea accord
and a warm, woody vanilla. To non-French speakers, the name could also be
suggestive of a duel, an old-fashioned fight to the death between two forces.
Everything about Eau Duelle just clicks right into place. The opening is cold and aromatic, fizzy with a spray of pink pepper and juniper berries. Hiding behind the aromatic spices and black tea is a robust vanilla that is sweet enough to give pause, but – at least in the eau de parfum version – thankfully made a little bitter, rough, and woody with the addition of Ambroxan. Yep, you read that right. I praised a perfume that has Ambroxan in it. Don’t get too used to it. Eau Duelle happens to be the rare example of a fragrance that’s greatly improved by a dollop of Ambroxan.
It is worth pointing something out about the frankincense note here. It presents as not the freshly-lit, High Mass kind of frankincense, but rather, the waxy, almost herbal scent lingering in the air of incense long since extinguished. The vanilla is sharpened by the slight evergreen edge of a frankincense hangover. The texture is something special, with a starchy, papery feel to it that makes me think of freshly-opened books.
Like most Diptyques, Eau Duelle wears lightly and unobtrusively but has a presence substantial enough to surprise you in fits and bursts throughout the day. I love the idea of a non-cakey vanilla paired with a green, effervescent frankincense, and though admittedly quite plain and non-charismatic, Eau Duelle just floats my boat.
On a personal note, in January 2015, I contracted a serious virus that made me anosmic for about six weeks, and Eau Duelle was the first perfume that I was able to smell again as I was recovering. Therefore, whenever I smell it now, those feelings of gratitude and euphoria come flooding back. Like Parfum Sacre, Eau Duelle will always be something I love almost absent-mindedly, in that fuzzy, all-love-no-logic way we love our children.
Arturetto Landi has done with 03.Apr.1968 is to take the minimalist structure
of church incense and flesh it out with a gaudy array of rich, bitter, and
tooth-rottingly sweet flavors. It smells like a fat wodge of Christmas cake
doused in brandy and set to burn on a priest’s censer alongside a hulking lump
of frankincense. Underneath these smoky, soiled-fruit aromas, there is an
enticing whiff of heliotrope, a huge purple chunk of marzipan charred at the
edges. Smoke fights with burned sugar, and we all win.
The fruit, in particular, is what makes this incense smell unholy, so unclean. It is supposedly lychee, but really it could be any fruit – apples, raisins, dates – because the fruit is so close to collapse that all you can smell are the high-pitched alcohol fumes of decay that belong exclusively to fruit. Joined by a dry frankincense that flits queasily between clove and bay leaf, the fruit is anything but wholesome. Luca Turin was the first to point out that the appeal of Amouage’s Lyric Woman lay in its ‘plangent, overripe note, the exhalation of forgotten fruit in a sealed room.’ The rotting fruit note achieves a similar effect for 03.Apr.1968, at first coming off as a little stomach-churning, but then working to moisten and plump up the bitter, austere incense.
Many people have compared 03.Apr.1968 to the late, great Norma Kamali Incense, and yes, there is most certainly a kinship. The frankincense used here is similarly dry and almost stale, lacking all the citrusy, pine-like nuances usually associated with it. Reacting with the fruit, booze, and sugar, the frankincense takes on the spicy bitterness I associate with copal resin, which along with smoky labdanum is what gives Norma Kamali its unique character.
But in truth, 03.Apr.1968 occupies the same general category of incense as Norma Kamali rather than smelling exactly like it. They are both fatty and overstuffed, the very opposite of the crisply tailored haikus of Comme des Garcons. They are both rather unwholesome – the type of thing to wear to a bacchanalia rather than to church. In truth, though, although traces of it are present in the ‘bones’ of several other incense perfumes, nothing really smells precisely like Norma Kamali Incense. However, for my money, the puffy, burned sugar heliotrope makes 03.Apr.1968 the easier wear.
Well, I say easier, but it is by no means easy. This is a potent fragrance that takes commitment to wear, and even then I would only attempt it when the barometer goes below 10 degrees Celsius. Only three notes are listed: frankincense, lychee, and heliotrope, but the overall effect is so rich and multi-dimensional that I wonder if that’s really the notes list or if the perfumer is so skilled that he was able to wrangle a wealth of detail out of these raw materials.
Sources of Samples/Bottles:All reviews above are based on samples, decants, or full bottles that I have purchased with my own money, swapped for with friends, or tested in store – with the exception of the sample of Absolute Frankincense, a sample of which was kindly sent to me free of charge by Clive Christian at the beginning of 2017. My blog is not monetized, I make no money from my content, and if you want to quote me or a piece of my writing, go right ahead (just please credit me as the source). I am neither a shill nor an unpaid marketing arm of a brand, i.e., I do not accept free bottles or samples in return for a positive review.
Mining the same marshmallow-meets-campfire vein as By the Fireplace by Maison Martin Margiela, albeit only about a hundred times more pleasant and natural-smelling, Blackmail captures that exciting feeling of anticipation your tummy gets at a country fair, the promise of something deep-fried and sugary vibrating on the air like a wind chime.
The luscious berry-tipped incense topnote is a cruel tease – smell it once and then it’s gone, but not before introducing the central block of fruit-over-smoked-oakwood that hangs around for the rest of the ride.
Though distinguished by a wonderfully sour streak of sodden, fermenting oud chips, Blackmail eventually settles into a shape not a million miles away from Broken Theories. They don’t smell alike note for note, but make no mistake – these guys happily fill the same gap in a well-curated wardrobe.
My own personal preferences lean more towards sandalwoody woodsmoke than burnt marshmallow, so I’m currently only tempted by Broken Theories. But, honestly, either would do in a pinch for when I am craving something sweet n’ smoky in that slightly blocky style of Kerosene. And that, really, is my one bone to pick with Blackmail and all fragrances like it. They are always more set pieces – big wooden panels you move around in each scene to achieve a specific effect – than the kind of thing that sets the imagination alight. Mind you, that’s not to say, as we limp across the finish line of 2020, that there isn’t value to walking around with your own personal country-fair-meets-campfire soundtrack playing on a constant loop over your head.
R’Oud Elements is a total wow for me – just wow! Pairing a bitter orange note (itself lurching charmingly from the naturalness of a freshly-peeled orange to the artificiality of a vitamin C drink) with a savory sandalwood standing in for oud, it has much the same effect as Many Aftel’s Oud Luban, in that it throws open the windows and floods a dark material (oud) with citrusy light.
Elements turns the traditional treatment of oud – almost reverential, lengthening
the shadows of its dankness with similarly deep, brown flavors, or countering
them with truffled rose notes – on its head, making it sing out in hot
orange-gold tones. R’Oud Elements is so bright it’s blinding – fizzy, zesty,
and slightly mineralic. It smells like someone spilled freshly-squeezed orange juice
on a grungy old brown leather sofa, which is all the better for it. The scent
stops just short of achieving maximum creamsicle, the bitter orange never quite
bridging it all the way to the creaminess set free by the sandal in the base.
But feel good? God, yes.
Many people on Fragrantica say that this smells like M7 (Yves Saint Laurent), one of the first commercial fragrances in the West to feature oud. And I suppose that’s fair, though it is the sour, nutty mealiness of cedarwood (or even vetiver), rather than amber, painting an exotic picture of oudiness here. But what this reminds of the most – in effect, if not smell – is that low-high contrast between the aromatic, fizzy ‘dustiness’ of Italian herbs and the satiny, sour-cream umami-ness of sandalwood that runs through much of Lorenzo Villoresi’s work, particularly that of Sandalo and Musk. Something about the rub of something sharp or aromatic (saffron, lavender, orange peel) against something tartly lactonic (musk, sandalwood), fleshed out by an intensely powdery cedar, creates in all three scents the impression of cream lightly curdled by a squirt of lemon juice.
I didn’t already own Musk (Lorenzo Villoresi) and vintage Sandalo
(Etro) to satisfy my aromatic tart-sour-creamy woody needs, I would be setting
my cap hard at R’Oud Elements. As it is, I’m still thinking about
R’Oud Elements long after my sample is gone.
of Sample: I purchased my
Kerosene samples from the wonderful Polish website Lulua. I have used Lulua many times over the
past five years to sample American or Canadian indies, such as Slumberhouse,
Zoologist, Olympic Orchids, and now, Kerosene, which can be extremely difficult
for European customers to track down and smell. I am 100% happy to recommend
Lulua, because they provide a terrific service for not too much money, have the
best packaging I’ve ever seen for samples-only orders, and they always throw in
a few extras too.
you want a silky pâté that rolls around velvetily in your mouth for a few
seconds before dissolving into perfumed air, and sometimes you want the thick,
meaty savor of a butcher’s organic pork sausage slathered in fried onions and enough
hot yellow mustard to guarantee a ruined shirt. Copper Skies is the pork
sausage of the amber genre.
balancing the gooey resinousness of amber and tobacco with a close-fitting
sheath of basil that splits the difference between mint and black licorice, it scratches
my itch for the kind of big, gutsy flavors that make my mouth throb and my
heart sing. The amber smells more like incense to me, with a rich, deep sort of
bitterness that probably originates with the tobacco leaf. Worth noting that Copper
Skies doesn’t smell particularly like tobacco leaf to me per se, probably
because the usual cinnamon and dried fruits aspect is missing, replaced by that
surprisingly fresh, anisic topnote. But there is a chewy, toasty quality to
Copper Skies that certainly hints at tobacco.
Skies is not what you’d call refined, but that’s the point. Its flashes of industrial
rubber wiring, sharp incense, and hot metal are what keep my salivary glands
pumping and the juices running unchecked down my chin. It turns on a coin; sometimes
it smells like just another rich, sweet incensey amber (quite Amber
Absolute-like), and other times like a herbal, leafy thing that has more in
common with licorice root tea than resin.
is one of those accords that smells so good in and of itself that that it is
difficult to innovate on the theme without losing the plot somewhere. The more of
them I smell, the more I appreciate the ones that retain the affability of
amber while doing something quirky and original to keep us all from slumping
over into that over-stated torpor that follows a rich pudding. Copper Skies is not
particularly subtle or ‘worked out’, but to my mind, it absolutely succeeds in
giving you the full satisfaction of amber without sending you to sleep.
Theories speaks directly to my fantasy of trekking home through snowy woods towards
my rustic-but-architect-designed log cabin, in Fair Isle leggings that
miraculously don’t make my legs look like two ham hocks in a sack, a
Golden lab at my side, and the pink-tinged winter sky above my head tilting slowly
towards indigo. A thread of sweet, tarry woodsmoke – from a far-off campfire,
perhaps, or even the wood burning stove lit by my husband, Mads Mikkelsen – hangs
in the cold, crisp air.
Pause and there is the heady scent of scattered forest homes gearing up for the night. Someone is revving their jeep to check if the winter tires are ok. Someone else is smoking a cigar while peeling an orange. Someone is smoking vanilla pods in their shed for some fancy artisanal market niche I’m not aware of. There’s an illicit coal fire in the mix too – not terribly environmental, the neighbors bitch, while surreptitiously gulping in lungfuls of the familiar charred scent of their childhood like junkies.
But the best thing about these aromas in that they are too far off in the distance to distinguish as one thing or another. Sandalwood, leather, oud, tobacco, vanilla, woodsmoke, burning sugar, dried kelp, and tar all melt down into one delicious aroma that is definitely more a collective of environmental ‘smells’ than perfume.
I love Broken Theories and really want a bottle. But the sweet woodsmoke-campfire genre is a crowded one, and bitter experience compels me to be clear-eyed about where this fits in the pecking order. First of all, let me admit that Broken Theories smell very, very indie, and by indie, I mean it smells like a number of popular woodsmoke perfume oils from companies such as Solstice Scents (especially Manor, Manor Fire, Grey’s Cabin, and Inquisitor) and Alkemia (especially Smoke and Mirrors and Fumé Oud à la Vanille). I’m fine with the association but all the same, the indie vanilla-woodsmoke theme (a) does tend to smell a bit samey from brand to brand, (b) is gummily (albeit enjoyably) indistinct, like several woodsmoke stock oils or ‘house notes’ thrown into a jerrycan, and (c) doesn’t carry quite the same degree of elegance as a masstige or luxury perfume featuring woodsmoke, e.g., Bois d’Armenie by Guerlain or Bois d’Ascèseby Naomi Goodsir. That I smell this type of ‘indie-ness’ in the vanilla-woodsmoke aspect of Broken Theories makes me hesitate.
However, I can think of many other perfumes – some of them luxury, some of them prestigious indies -that Broken Theories beats into a corner with a stick, and on balance, that tips the whole decision into the yes direction. For example, while I like Fireside Intense (Sonoma Scent Studio), it is too bitter-smoky for me to wear on the regular without me feeling like I am wearing a hair shirt. Bois d’Ascèse has a similar problem, in that there is a harsh woody aromachemical in the base that makes wearing it a chore – there is no such problem in Broken Theories, which beds down the tougher smoke and oud-leather notes in a balmy vanilla softness that feels as comfy as those fantasy Fair Isle leggings. And Broken Theories is infinitely preferable to the popular By the Fireplace (Marson Martin Margiela), a perfume whose sharp, burnt sugar and viscous campfire or wood aromachemical makes me physically nauseous.
Broken Theories is, however, not as good as Jeke (Slumberhouse) or Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch), other perfumes with a strong campfire or woodsmoke element. But it is cheaper, lighter, and easier to obtain. It is roughly similar – both in quality and execution – to the wonderful Winter Woods by Sonoma Scent Studio, and by process of elimination, I guess I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between this and that.
Conclusion: Broken Theories is one of the best woodsmoke scents on the market today. But it only makes sense if you don’t already have a plethora of other woodsmoke scents to fill that particular niche. My fantasy self and I will be having words.
of Sample: I purchased my
Kerosene samples from the wonderful Polish website Lulua. I have used Lulua many times over
the past five years to sample American or Canadian indies, such as Slumberhouse,
Zoologist, Olympic Orchids, and now, Kerosene, which can be extremely difficult
for European customers to track down and smell. I am 100% happy to recommend Lulua,
because they provide a terrific service for not too much money, have the best packaging
I’ve ever seen for samples-only orders, and they always throw in a few extras
The challenge for any reviewer in reviewing the Areej Le Doré releases is that (a) either you’re late and the perfumes you’re writing about are no longer available to buy, or (b) you’re on time for a full bottle release, but you are talking only to the group of three to six hundred people that are buying them, a tiny circle of devotees that seems to get tighter and more closed-off with each successive release from the house.
I can certainly see why many people in perfume-land might be attracted by the fantastic raw materials on offer by Areej Le Doré but turned off by the feverish fandom that has sprung up around the brand. If you’re not willing to set your timer to bumfuck o’ clock Thailand time or duke it out with the scalpers, then the whole thing can feel like the most fearsome clique from high school. And when anyone feels excluded, there is the natural tendency to grumble to yourself, “Well, if I’m not in, then I’m sure as hell out…of this hot, culty mess.”
While this is certainly not a problem for Areej Le Doré itself – selling everything you produce is the dream, after all – I wonder if the lack of new entrants into the inner circle of devotees represents a problem over the longer term. Fresh perspectives on your work are essential whether you are making a car or a perfume because they stop you from drowning in the reflecting pool of constant and uncritical adoration. They also safeguard the perfumer against the danger of becoming essentially a private label or custom outfit dancing to the whim of a small but intimidatingly vocal group of buyers, none of whom I’d particularly like to meet in a dark alley. Just kidding, just kidding (sort of).
Anyway, this review goes out to anyone who has an interest in Areej Le Doré fragrances but has, for one reason or another, avoided actually buying them, either in sample or full bottle form. This might be someone who loves natural raw materials, for example, or someone who loves and misses the rich orientals of yesteryear that boasted real sandalwood or expensive floral absolutes. Or it might be people who are into perfumes in general and have the money to invest in the really good examples, but zero stomach for the clusterfuckery around the brand itself. If that’s you, and you’re reading right now, then let me tell you that this particular Areej Le Doré collection is the one to dip your toes into, if you were reluctant before.
Here’s why I think this
collection is a good entry pointfor newcomers to Areej Le Doré.
First, the perfumes in this collection are noticeably lighter and more refined
than previous cycles, making them easier and more pleasant to wear, especially
Second, none of the perfumes in this collection are marred by the heavy, almost seedy animalic undertone that has dogged other collections. For example, I loved Plumeria de Orris from one of the previous collections, however, once the buttery orris and frangipani burned off, the fragrance was dragged under the gutters by a honeyed civet or musk that smelled disturbingly like dried saliva. Koh-i-Noor was my absolute favorite of a previous generation, but a greasy costus-laden musk gave it an old-man’s-crotch vibe that I couldn’t quite shake. But in this collection, even the musk- and oud-heavy perfumes are not overly heavy, greasy, or saliva-ish.
Third, and probably the most
important one: I think that this collection is Russian Adam’s best yet. If you
don’t know already, each Areej Le Doré collection usually contains variations on a
basic line-up of a (i) musk (usually natural deer musk-based), (ii) an oud,
(iii) a humongous mixed oriental floral, (iv) a ‘soliflore’, (v) an ambergris,
and/or (vi) a leather or sandalwood. Although there doesn’t seem to be an
ambergris-focused scent this time around, the others are all either superlative
or really good examples of their respective ‘theme’. If you love natural raw
materials like oud and sandalwood, then pull up a chair: brands like Areej Le
Doré are the last holdout for exquisite raw materials in a world that is
increasingly sanitized and lab-molecule-dependent.
Rather confusingly, Santal Galore is the kaleidoscopic floral nag champa extravaganza this time around, rather than the sandalwood you might be expecting (which is actually to be found in the equally-confusingly-named Musk Lave). My vial leaked in transit, but after smashing it open and swabbing the gooey remnants onto my skin with a Q-Tip, I can tell you that this is the one I’d crawl over hot coals to smell again. Oh God, grant me the unlimited funds to buy the few perfumes that smell as good as this. It opens with a big, creamy swirl of aromas that you imagine emanating from a Persian carpet or a well-oiled antique from a souk, soaked in multiple generations’ worth of glossy, fruity Cambodi oud oils, rosy-sandal attars, and the sweetness of smoke from decades of burning Indian Chandan sticks and barkhour.
This perfume carries that full romantic sweep of Orientalia in its bosom that Westerners like me find so irresistible but that usually come out mawkish and kind of cheap-smelling. Santal Galore deftly matches the slightly gummy-floral sweetness of nag champa with a savory cream cheese background that seems to encompass the smoked Easter Ham aroma of guaiacol and a salty-minty oakmoss. Eventually winding down to the lovely smell of a freshly-struck match, Santal Galore performs the same trick as Santal de Mysore in that it is suggestive of the spiced warmth of real sandalwood without smelling directly of it.
For my personal taste, this is the best floral/woody/musky thing that Areej Le Doré has ever done. There are no analogs in the commercial or niche world, so it’s difficult to draw comparisons that will make sense to those new to the brand. But if pushed, I would mention Le Maroc Pour Elle(Tauer Perfumes) or Daphne (Comme des Garcons) as scents that occupy the same scentoverse ideologically speaking. Less helpfully perhaps for newcomers, but more so for people who have bought into the brand since its inception, Santal Galore is roughly in the same ballpark as Ottoman Empire, with which it shares a similar nag champa floral richness, and Koh-I-Noor, for that same almost claustrophobic rush of dense, heavily-packed-in floral notes and that texture that is both creamy and powdery (although Santal Galore is not as animalic or as costus-laden). It has been a while, but there could also be a line drawn to the sharp, almost oily Flux de Fleurs, though Santal Galore is a far gentler, rounder affair.
Musk Lave has one of the best real sandalwood finishes I have smelled outside of attar and mukhallat perfumery. For fans of real sandalwood, the real treasure lies here, and not in Santal Galore. But be aware that this is the type of musky, spicy, masculine-leaning sandalwood that used to feature in high quality ‘barbershop’ fougères before Indian sandalwood became generally unavailable to commercial perfumery in the late eighties, and before entire carpets of beige, sweetish tonka bean were conscripted to fill the gap.
In other words, though it certainly smells rich and incensey, like all good sandalwood should, this sandalwood is the handsome, rugged version that smells more like good wood and bay rum spices than a creamy dessert that will send you into a stupor. The invigorating sparkle of the sandalwood is beefed up by a nice lump of labdanum, so you get the full balance of aromatic-dry and sweet-incensey that the very best examples of sandalwood possess, e.g., the Mysore 1984 by Ensar Oud, which, because it is aged, has developed that rich, incensey sonic boom ‘loudness of voice’ that would be most unusual for a pure sandalwood more freshly distilled.
Winding back to the start, Musk Lave opens with a fresh, powdery lemon and lavender accord, which would be a naturally lean kind of thing were it not for the immediate upswell of an unctuously buttery musk or tonka that adds richness, like a pat of yellow Irish butter melted over a salad. Think Jicky but with real sandalwood and musk dialled in for that naughty ‘skin musk’ feel, writing over the rather sharp, sometimes foul-smelling synthetic civet of the Guerlain. Given that Jicky is my favorite fragrance in the world, hopefully you’ll take my word for it that Musk Lave is the upgrade nobody knew was in the wings but immediately presses the install button on.
Agar de Noir (can’t you just feel Luca Turin squirming?) is the oud in the collection and is quite the departure for Russian Adam for two reasons. First, although the oud is the real deal, it does not smell like any one particular terroir or style of oud (as opposed to Antiquity, which smelled almost entirely of the beautiful Cambodi oud oil used) but rather presents as a generalized picture of ‘oudiness’ that’s been cleaned up for public consumption. So, you get the characteristic smell of damp, fermenting wood chips and the dusty scent of old wood varnish, but not the shriekingly sour hay and leather highnotes of a Hindi, or the hyper-treacly stickiness of a Trat, or the wolf-fur wooliness and ambergris-saltiness of a Chinese oud. The oud is there merely as a signpost planted in the scent to suck you deep into the shadows, where the equally dusty darkness of ground coffee is waiting, deepening the gloom.
The opening reminds me more of Borneo 1834 (Serge Lutens) than any of the other Areej Le Dore oud-dominated fragrances, due to that ‘brown’ dustiness; Oud Luwak also used coffee as a note, but it felt much more like an oud-focused affair than Agar de Noir, which feels more floral. It does share with Oud Luwak that dark, airy elegance of structure – like an expensive bar of chocolate that makes a satisfyingly clean ‘snap’ noise when you break it. The gloom of these brown notes has been lifted by the chalky brightness of violets, which create a sort of pastel-colored clearing in the Agar de Noir forest. I like the civilizing effect the violets exert on the oud: they add an unexpected foppish lightness that could be read, in some lights, as ‘dandified’. This tangy, balmy oud-and-violet accord makes what is essentially a floral leather sort of thing – like Jolie Madame (Balmain) with an oudy twist.
The second way in which I find Agar de Noir a departure is in its overall lightness of feel. The light-on-dark, violet-on-oud-leather thing is super elegant while it lasts but after two hours, the show is essentially over, save for the cinder toffee-like sweetness of the labdanum that brings up the rear.
The labdanum persists for hours beyond this, of course – it is a traditional basenote for a reason and has been the finish of choice for Russian Adam in all his oud blends after Oud Zen. But compared to Russian Oud and Oud Piccante, the labdanum absolute used here is of a much lighter weight – a judicious smear of incensey, golden toffee, but unencumbered by the sheep fat unctuousness of the labdanum in Oud Piccante or the chocolatey amberiness in Russian Oud. Personally, this ‘middle’ weight of labdanum suits me just fine; Oud Piccante is too savory-fatty for my tastes, and Russian Oud too gourmand. Agar de Noir is lighter, shorter, more attenuated, and is all the better for it. However, oud heads who want their oud to be perceptible past the third hour mark, Agar de Noir might be one sacrifice too far in the name of elegance.
For anyone not already inducted into the Areej Le Doré oud hall of fame mentioned here, just picture an oudified Jolie Madame and you’re on the right track. I think this would also be a particularly friendly oud for beginners, and because of its soft, ‘thin’ floral mien that restrains the brutishness of the oud, it may also be a better pick for women. Dark, dapper, and mysterious in a Victorian gentle-person kind of way, Agar de Noir is my pick of the Areej ouds, barring Oud Zen, which was similarly minimalist and ‘legible’.
Grandenia suggests that it might be going big on the famously creamy, mushroomy lushness of gardenia, but this is not the case. Rather, this is a tightly-wound, stiffly-starched green floral that starts out at the data point of a citrusy-piney frankincense – a resin that here smells like a freshly-stripped piece of Silver Birch – and winds up in Chandrika soap territory.
I find this pinched, freshly-scrubbed sort of floral a chore to wear, but it may appeal to people who like Antonia by Puredistance. I also want to acknowledge that this would be a good white floral for men, as it is completely devoid of the soft, candied creaminess and tinned-fruit syrupiness of most white florals. It is clipped and pure; the sort of thing to stiffen the spine. A very good wood accord develops in the base that smells more like sandalwood soap than oud or sandalwood per se. And then, finally, in the last gasps – a ghostly imprint of gardenia, with that slightly glassy, freshly-cut-mushroom quality it shares with myrrh.
Cuir de Russie is a scent to spray on fabric rather than on your skin, but I have done both to no ill effect (if you have sensitive skin, just obey the damn instructions). This is not the Chanel kind of Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather), but rather, a leather-ish note in a minor key nestled inside a massively cheesy and then baby-powdery deer musk. On the skin, the chalky, innocent pallor of violets peeks out shyly, but not to the extent where you would define the scent as floral (or feminine, or soft, or indeed any of the usual descriptors used for flowers). On fabric, it is the rude, smeary honk of deer musk that dominates, stepping firmly down on the neck of any floral note that threatens to make a break for it.
Given that Cuir de Russie has real deer musk in it, it stands to reason that it is very, very powdery and clings to the inside of the nostrils for days. If you want to know what real deer musk smells like, by the way, please read my article ‘The Murky Matter of Musk‘ here. Many people think that real musk smells foul or fecal. It does not. It does smell intimate, like the morning breath of someone you love, or a clean perineum, but it is more often than not quiet, powdery, and quite sweet, its odor clinging to skin, hair, and fabrics for many days (deer musk was one of the four great animalic fixatives of perfumery).
The musk in Cuir de Russie is somewhat similar to the musk in War and Peace, which I loved for the way its musk was so dry that it smelled like smoke from a just-fired gun (some people interpreted the dryness as baby powder). But Cuir de Russie also doesn’t have the almost pretty smuttiness of the musk in War and Peace, nor its sultry sweetness; it is more butch and a bit rough around the edges, despite the inch-thick layer of powder.
I like Cuir de Russie but wouldn’t particularly recommend it to a newcomer seeking an entry point to the brand. There’s always the danger that leather fans might roll up and expect leather (crazy, right?) and right now, before the full whack of aging and maceration, Cuir de Russie is mostly musk. Birch tar fans, of which I am one, might be disappointed at its subtlety in CdR – there is zero BBQ meat or ‘just threw a leather jacket on a campfire’ smokiness here. Cuir de Russie is primarily a very rich, powdery musk that ultimately leans a bit too hard on the intrinsic complexity of its naturals to fill in the olfactory blanks.
This is probably going to mature into something stunning, along the lines of Koh-i-Noor. But it is a high risk investment for a bottle of something whose materials might veer off into directions that not even its perfumer can predict with 100% certainty. For those signed up to the rare natural materials pledge, this is is part of the thrill; for the rest of us, contained within the unfixed, mutable nature of these raw materials is the warning that the perfume might also change for the worse.
Source of Samples: Kindly
sent to me free of charge by the brand. My opinion are my own.
The topnotes of Serge Lutens Serge Noire‘s smoky, dried fruit incense draw me in every single Goddamn time, like a mermaid’s song. And then I am dashed cruelly against the rocks that are this scent’s downfall – the unmistakably oniony sweat of unwashed (male) armpits.
Ask me how I know. No, really. I first smelled this when I was visiting Mont San Michel with my family when I was seven. The children had sat down in a grumpy, sun-beaten heap on the doorstop of the nth church, refusing to indulge our parents any further in their unquenchable thirst for the various religious icons and tchotchkes of French medieval churches, which seemed to us to be identical to the ones we had back home, only a little older and grimier.
From our vantage point, we got to study the interiors of everyone’s nostrils, skirts, and armpits. People passed over us; we were ignored, perhaps not even seen. A middle-aged man stopped under the mantel and leaned against the cool wall for a moment to gather himself, and in that moment, I understood that dried sweat could smell like onions and black pepper and celery – the makings of a mirepoix, practically – when suspended in droplets in the thicket of a man’s armpit hair.
The onion sweat accord can be parsed out later as clove, cumin, black pepper, and incense. While I love clove in stuff like Eau Lente (Diptyque) and the Eau de Parfum by Commes des Garcons, I admit that it can come off as sweaty and metallic to an almost objectionable degree. But the operational word is almost. There’s always something in those fragrances to reign it in – herbaceous oppoponax, a bit of honey, some sandalwood. In Serge Noire, the clove business simply goes too far. It sidles up to the breaking point of human endurance and then waltzes brazenly past it, lurching unchecked into pure onion sweat territory whence it cannot be redeemed.
I keep trying it, hoping I am wrong or that my perception will loosen up, allowing me to glimpse the true beauty of this scent as others describe it. But as of May 2020, and upon my 14th attempt, I have to admit defeat.
Source of sample: Purchased over and over again from Notino.uk to no avail, because I do not and will never ‘get’ this scent.
Cover Photo By photographer Jens Karlsson, Creative Director at Your Majesty, NYC, available here via Stockpholio.net
I’m fascinated by the individuality of the models at play in the indie perfume sector. Some houses, like Diane St. Clair and Papillon work slowly, releasing an average of one perfume a year (if that), willing to wait until every single detail is ‘right’ before releasing what is a highly-finished work to the public. Others, like Prin Lomros, work gonzo style – restlessly creating, releasing, and then wiping out whole perfumes, like an artist furiously rubbing out a sketch he is suddenly unhappy with.
What this boils down to is the notion of risk. Just how much risk is Prin Lomros willing to take? In my opinion, a lot. This is a guy who has had quite a few brands and sub-brands in a very short period of time (I count three, including one disappeared, one prestige, and one diffusion, although in the last few days, I think a fourth might have been sprung upon us), populated with perfumes that appear and then disappear, never to be seen again. Other perfumes get the chop, only to return a year later under a different name.
Sure, this all sounds like Prin Lomros is having a lot of fun – but what about us? Though there’s nothing permanent in perfumery these days – Penhaligon’s glorious Ostara came and went in the space of two years, despite its critical success, and half of the 13 Gucci Flora flankers will probably have been removed from the shelves by the time I finish this sentence – expecting even the most committed of indie perfumery supporters to lay down $160 on a 30ml bottle of liquid that might be axed on a whim four months later is an exceptionally big ask.
Generally, a perfumer can only bet on their customers accepting this level of risk if one of two conditions have been met. Either a) the raw materials are of such rarity or unusual quality, like vintage Cambodi oud oil from the 1970s or a hunk of white ambergris from the Western shores of Ireland that customers buy out of the fear of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or b) the compositions themselves are so artistic or clever that customers are inspired to invest wholesale in the creative real estate locked inside the perfumer’s head.
For the former, you only have to look at the success of Areej Le Doré, Sultan Pasha, and Ensar Oud to know that the feverish fanboyism around the cult of raw materials is more than adequate to keep the ship afloat. Brands, if they are clever, might seek to co-opt a bit of this market for themselves by introducing special one-off editions focused on rare, limited run materials; Eris Parfums did this recently with Mxxx. (review here) to great effect, using a fantastic piece of white ambergris to turn their regular Mx. from a silky white cotton t-shirt into a $1,500 cashmere wrap.
Prin Lomros’ perfumes lean a bit on the precious raw materials thing, but really rely more on the perfumer’s artistic vision as the hook with which to reel customers in. He takes quite a few creative risks – which makes sampling his work huge fun (but blind buys ill-advised). What this means for me is that although roughly 60% of what he turns out doesn’t work for me, the ones I do like I really, really admire and find myself thinking about long after I’ve put the sample away. Heck, even the ones I wouldn’t wear to save my life linger in my head.
worked my way through 18 – count them, 18 – samples from both Parfums
Prissana and Strangers Parfumerie during a time of great stress this January,
when multiple deadlines and the arrival of a new management team at work meant
that I survived on crisps and wine for nutrition and rarely got more than five
hours of sleep a night. Normally, conditions like these would taint my
perception of whatever I’m testing or wearing; but, a grosso modo, the
Prin Lomros stuff still emerged with a big fat thumbs up from me.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t a few problem areas. For one, the perfumes are all a little front-loaded, with drydowns that, while long-lasting (lots of ‘beastmode’ performers here), are a little wan compared to the richness upfront. Two or three of the perfumes I tried were marred with an overdose of noxious ‘power tool’ aromachemicals – Ambroxan, maybe, Norlimbanol, and a few of those ‘new wood’ captives; these ones were an immediate line in the sand for me. But even in those, I was able to find little pockets of something interesting or playful that kept me plugged into the experience. To say that his perfumes surprised me and challenged my preconceptions is really quite something, only because I am jaded as fuck.
I think Mandarava (Prissana) is utterly horrific but many people whose opinion I respect think it’s a masterpiece. While clearly well made, its dense cloud of indeterminable flowers, incense, and musk is unbearable to me, because note for note, it smells like someone emptied an entire aerosol of nag champa-scented room deodorizer into a small room and closed all the windows. It has the same overwhelming stuffiness and cheap, greasy-powdery musk overload as Koh-I-Noor by Areej Le Doré but lacks that scent’s more fine-tuned sense of balance that somehow keeps everything in check; Mandarava is unhinged in a way that sets my teeth on edge. But, you know, people other than me love it.
I don’t normally review so negatively, so you have to know there’s a redeeming angle here. And here it is – the drydown is weirdly good. I’ve worn this three times in the name of science, and each time the drydown takes me by surprise in a good way. Unfortunately, I never quite managed to make it to my notepad in time to write down what it is that I think almost redeems Mandarava, so you’ll have to believe me that the texture of the scent changes about six hours in, emerging from the cardboardy fug of nag champa to become sharper, woodier – more interesting somehow. If I ever subject myself to Mandarava again – which, to be honest, is unlikely – I’ll come back and update this review.
If you’re skimming this post for an entry point, then Ma Nishtana is probably the easiest and most immediately likeable perfume in either the Prissana or Strangers Parfumerie line. A judiciously-spiced church incense scent, Ma Nishtana splits the difference between the soapy, aldehyded, Coca-Cola-ish airiness of Cardinal/Avignon and the warmer, breadier, more caramelic-ambery thickness of Contre Bombarde 32 by SAUF or Samharam by Arte Profumi. The drydown drones on a bit, thanks to an application of the dreaded Norlimbanol, but even as a No-Limbs-Left-At-All-hater I have to admit that it’s applied with an unusually subtle touch here.
I don’t know that Ma Nishtana distinguishes itself so much from the stalwarts of this rather cramped incense genre to be worth the price, but of course, this is a deeply personal thing. The most innovative or unusual thing about Ma Nishtana is really that faint whiff of armpitty cumin or turmeric that’s half under-proved doughnut and half curry-sweat, but if you own either Grimoire by Anatole LeBreton or Al Oudh by L’Artisan Parfumeur, I think you’re covered. Ma Nishtana is very nice, very good – but not entirely necessary, at least in my opinion.
Tom Yum is a thing of beauty! A fantastically fresh and sour take on the classic French eau de cologne, it is something like Eau Sauvage or Ô de Lancôme flushed with the mouth-stripping aroma of lemongrass – half lemon, half rooty grass – and freshly-squeezed limes. These tart, aromatic topnotes are all under-pinned with a gorgeously sweet and dusty galangal note that stands in for musk and serves an a pillowy extension cord for the citruses well into the drydown. Although Tom Yum doesn’t smell as authentically hot, sour, or herbaceous as a bowl of Tom Yum itself, and is therefore not nearly as exotic as the notes list wants you to believe, it is still the rare ‘update’ to the eau de cologne model that actually works (and lasts).
Yum is just sour enough in the topnotes to refresh, herbaceous and soapy enough
in the midsection to offer that essential coolness, and sweetly spicy enough in
the tailbone to avoid that throat-catching sourness of laundry musk that tires
my palate in most modern takes. For me, Tom Yum competes head-to-head with the
basil leaf-inflected blast of air conditioning that is the bottle of Paris-Deauville
(Chanel) I keep in the door of my fridge as a substitute for, you know, actual
air conditioning. If you have the money to spend on an eau de cologne-style
perfume and want it to last a fair amount of time without having to choke on
nasty woody ambers or oceans of white musk, then I highly recommend Tom
Somewhat along the same lines, if you love neroli and want a complex, natural-smelling version, then Natsumeku is very good. In keeping with its Japanese inspiration, it smells quite like a Di Ser perfume in that its tingly, orangey citrus notes (neroli in this case) tinged with the wintergreen finger snap of camphor and silvery, refined hinoki wood. In other words, neroli filtered through a Japanese sensibility rather than through the regular ole channel of an Amalfi citrus grove. It is fresh and sharp, and quite medicinal, like the cool, steamy air in a Japanese onsen on Hokkaido island, where you are getting rubbed down by a masseur with unpronounceable Japanese herbs, damp sea mosses, and yuzu-style citruses that probably only exist within 2 miles of the onsen and nowhere else. It smells like, for want of a better word, the “Other”.
I am less enthused about the solid-but-plain-Jane drydown of Natsumeku, because I am not a huge fan of neroli, and this does get very ‘neroli’-ish in the end. It might be just me who has this issue, but I always tire of the incessantly cheerful soapiness of neroli. In this instance, if I am choosing to smell soapy and clean, then I’d much rather be wearing Tom Yum, above.
Thichila is an interesting one indeed. Sorry to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral, incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things. Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.
The Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is starting.
At some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin. I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore, for a very specific taste.
Maruyama smells to me like a richly vegetal cis-jasmone or immortelle scent, i.e., floral notes with clear overtones of burnt hay, maple sugar, or strange exotic herbs like lovage that smell half like a white flower, half like celery. It reminded me at first of Comme des Garcons’ Sequoia and then of Cardamom Rose Sugar by Solstice Scents. There’s always a point at which this sort of thing smells pleasantly like a glazed maple-cider doughnut to me, and then slightly but ever so insistently of curry and caramelized brown sugar mashed together, at which point I don’t really want to smell it at all. If you don’t hit that plateau quite so quickly as I do, then I highly recommend Maruyama as an exotic Eastern take on the classically French ‘Sables’ (Annick Goutal) territory.
Mohragot is the nouveau fougère of the line, kind of analogous to the place that Mousse Illuminée holds for Rogue Perfumery, or Eiderantler for January Scent Project, but with a thrillingly damp earth accord that whips us away from that lavender shaving foam ‘daddy’ picture and plunges us instead deep into the bowels of a violent thunderstorm in a forest, the rain and wind ripping up the soil and hurling broken branches, leaves, and air molecules into each other.
It took me forever to work out why I love the wet, dark, green ‘mustiness’ and soil-y ‘moldiness’ of this opening, until I realize that it replicates the same ozone-in-turmoil atmosphere ofSupercell by Sixteen92, and to a lesser extent, the ‘old’ and ‘clay-like’ green earthiness of Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Al Attar.
Someday, I’ll figure out what it is about this sort of scent that moves my black soul, but right now, all I can think of is that this kind of mossy vetiver smell is alive and dead in equal measure. The mold and the dustiness, the ‘aged’ browny tint of the earth smell, its overall murk and gloom – this reminds me of the ‘newly-opened tomb’ dead air that billows out of Onda parfum (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain).
But here and there, there is the juicy rudeness of new plant life poking its way through, the air crackling with ozone. So yes, though the hummus-rich, brown-green earthiness is all-encompassing at first, soon you notice that it is pierced here and there with the minty vase water of oakmoss.
On balance, however, this is not a particularly fresh or herbal example of a fougère. Pandan leaf, or screwpine, is mentioned in the notes list, so perhaps the gentle sweetness of those screwpine ittar they use to flavor syrups, tobacco, and cosmetics in India is what is relieving Mohragot of that tiresomely ‘Brut’-like, aftershavey bitterness that usually makes fougères such a bore to wear (as a woman). The pandan leaf note gives Mohragot an interestingly milky, nutty tonality, yet it is not as piercingly sweet or as fruity as an actual screwpine ittar. I find Mohragot one of the more interesting perfumes in the Prissana line, because it takes a while to pick apart, and even after three or four wears, parts of it remain impenetrable to me. I do appreciate that the ubiquitous 21st century finish of dopey tonka bean has been swapped out for a softly musky tobacco accord that smells like an idealized vision of an autumn walk. Unfortunately, Mohragot disappears from my skin within three hours. Now, I’m no longevity bore, but for $160 for 30mls, that’s just taking the piss.
If I’d been dipping my toes into Strangers Parfumerie to test the waters and encountered Aroon Sawat first, I’d have turned 180º on my heels toute suite. Its clumsy mish-mash of woody ambers and big, syrupy fruit is bathed in a chemical radiance so powerful and all-reaching that my eyeballs hurt even to remember it now. It is a perfume whose finer points are wasted on me completely, obscured as they are by this big, thick gloppy blanket of amber-wood-syrup-resin-fruit aromachemicals. It’s just atrocious. A crime against perfume.
Thank God I operate a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, because all the other Strangers Parfumerie perfume turned out to be either memorably quirky, or charming, or at least interesting enough to redeem the utter horror that was Aroon Sawat. In fact, in general, I liked the Strangers Parfumerie as much as, if not more than, the perfumes in the more upmarket (and more highly priced) Prissana line. The fact that they represent much better value for money is almost beside the point.
SM Café is possibly one of the most successful coffee-based perfumes out there, and I say that as someone who rarely thinks that coffee-scented anything works (apart from the real thing itself of course). The SM in SM Café stands for sado-masochism, but there’s nothing really risqué about this nicely-balanced dance between the intense, burnt flavor of freshly-roasted coffee beans and the clean sweetness of wood, musks, and amber resin. The coffee does smell undeniably dirty and grungy, but it’s more the funk of damp coffee grounds you’re cleaning out of the pot than anything S&M or leather related, and anyway it all gets balanced out by the milky ambers and beeswax in the base.
Although not terribly fruity, the sour morello cherry accent and the coumarin add a certain pipe tobacco angle to the concoction that I find broadly handsome – it also makes SM Café the indie synonym for Close Up by Olfactive Studio. But truth be told, SM Café is far more austere and masculine-leaning; in overall orientation, far closer to the dusty, burnt, 1970s character of Coze by Parfumerie Generale than to the sweetened coffee-tobacco of Close Up.
I’m confused by just how much I enjoy the gourmand perfumes in the Strangers Parfumerie line-up. Gourmand perfumes are not generally my thing. The designer ones are gloppy glucose bombs with zero distinguishing features, the niche ones use higher quality or more interesting sugar-choco-frooty aromachemicals but unfortunately tend to arrive at much the same place as the designer ones (and cost about $200 more), and the indies, well, in their effort to be all weird and ironic and indie about it, push the gourmand notes into ever-increasingly grotesque forms just for the sake of it (with few of them very wearable in the long run).
So Fetch, for example, has a protein bar accord and is based on a phrase from Mean Girls, so you’ll forgive me if I say I was ready to automatically class this with the third category. But I WAS WRONG. This stuff is just delightful. It has sass. It opens up on a huge whoosh of cherry-flavored fizz, as if someone dropped a whole packet of Love Hearts into a 2 liter plastic bottle of 7-Up and shook it all up until it exploded like a trailer park Prosecco.
So Fetch makes me feel young. It makes me imagine what Bendelirious by État Libre d’Orange might smell like if cross-pollinated with the rubbery tennis balls of The Soft Lawn (Imaginary Authors). There are, at points, beguiling little whiffs of rubber tires, fuel exhaust, and lemon-scented sherbet powder. In the drydown, notes of pink lemonade, strawberry erasers, and marshmallow fluff float into the picture – basically the same soft, billowy lokhoum fun of Douleur! by Bogue, minus the enamel-stripping rose oxide. Really, really good stuff.
Sangre Dulce is darker in tone than So Fetch, but no less weird or interesting, or ultimately, wearable. Immediately on application, there is something here that reminds me of something Lush or BPAL would make: burned sugar crossed with the headshop murkiness of amber cubes and dragon’s blood incense, or some mysterious dried herb concoction in a burlap sack. It smells very indie – not in the super-fancy artisanal sense of the word, but more in the sense of the Etsy crowd dropping a Solstice or Hexennacht release of perfumes honoring the Moon or witches or something. Not saying that to knock it, by the way – many of my favorite perfumes are indie oils from the latter category (I am just not into the witchy side of things).
I smell in Sangre Dulce a whole host of confusing but really pleasing notes that seem to hang together very well – burned sugar, rubber galoshes, sugar mashed into dirt, bathtub booze, and in the far drydown, something that smells like over-baked wheatgrass and granola bars (maybe this is where that protein bar ended up). If Luca Turin were to smell this, I’d imagine he’d find a way to praise Prin Lomros for his off-the-wall thinking, in the same way he (almost wistfully) loves the Constantine father and son duo at Lush for having the guts to just throw everything into a pot as a mad experiment and see what works (“Someone seems to be having a lot of fun over there” as he might say, in that impish way of his).
A basic way to describe Sangre Dulce is to say that it smells like sugar cubes and burned wheat that took a wrong turn somewhere and fell down a dark cellar into a pot of hooch, dragging with it some Converse sneakers and a vial of herbal folk medicine. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the creative brief for Lush’s All Good Things.
Cigar Rum seems to be one of the most popular scents in the Strangers Parfumerie stable, probably because the handsome, complex aroma of tobacco absolute never fails to please. This is a good but hardly unique take on tobacco leaf – most of the heavy lifting is done by the tobacco absolute, but there’s a flash of warm, boozy rum up top to dress it up, and it skips over the heavy vanilla or dried fruit stickiness of Tobacco Vanille.
That said, it does nothing special or new above and beyond the real baseline for indie tobacco perfumes, which remains Tabac Aurea by Sonoma Scent Studio. Cigar Rum is also one of the Prin Lomros scents that falls flat in the base – there’s very little there to hold it together once you get past the richness of the tobacco opening. If you’re thinking of investing in an indie tobacco, I’d still go for the best-in-class of Tabac Aurea.
Rum Intense is the same,
but is obviously a concession to the bros, who always want something more
chemically radiant and beastmode. Anything nice-smelling or natural about Cigar
Rum has been wiped out by the heavy woody ambers in the Intense version. Honestly,
I’d steer clear and leave this one to the bros, because God knows those poor
guys are under-catered to/s.
Burning Ben is so, so good. You definitely need to love phenolic scents to like it, but as long as your fetish is smelling like beef jerky on a campfire, then Burning Ben will really do it for you. It runs along the same lines as Le Labo Patchouli 24 or Slumberhouse Jeke – basically big, billowing bombs of birch tar, cade, and lapsang souchong smeared over a sweet or boozy baseline. But it features an innovation so good-smelling and so damn right that I can’t believe nobody’s thought of before now: coffee! The burnt, aromatic ‘fresh roast’ coffee bean note lifted out of SM Café and grafted right on top of the burning cade-birch heart of Burning Ben makes for a smoky, tarry coffee darkness that smells fantastic.
At first, as you might imagine, it’s a bit too intense, like a billycan of coffee that’s boiled over on a campfire and is now sizzling meanly on the embers beneath. The addition of the coffee gives the birch tar leather a more masculine bent, and for part of this ride, I feel like I’m wearing my boyfriend’s leather jacket, infused with his scent of aftershave, manly musk, and general ‘maleness’ – this I find sexy in a cross-dressing way, and for people who find Patchouli 24 not masculine or butch enough, well, voila Burning Ben.
But before all of these intensely burnt, roasted flavors can run over into harsh or bitter, an oriental-ish and sweetly nutty base arrives to soften the edges. The basenotes are vague and amorphous in a way that makes you think, ‘Mmm, that smells good’, but also leaves you at a loss to define any one particular note or accord that’s making it so.
The best I can do is to say that it’s more like a texture than a taste, like those firm salted toffees whose pleasure lies mainly in the chew. Salty-sweet amber, toffee, beeswax, crushed hazelnuts – a sensuous mélange of silky, warm ‘brown’ flavors that are the perfect accompaniment to the sharper, smokier ‘brown’ notes of birch tar and coffee up top. Burning Ben is one of the Strangers Parfumerie scents that smells ever better the more it goes on – perhaps the forceful nature of phenolic scents in general is what ensures the richness doesn’t attenuate as quickly. Anyway, I love this category of scents, so it follows that I love Burning Ben. Beyond my general bias, I think that Burning Ben manages to pull off a bit of innovation in a genre that I suspect is rather a self-limiting space.
As good as Burning Ben is, I’ve left the best for last. Salted Green Mango is, for me, the standout of the Strangers Parfumerie line. The mango note is not really the point – it’s just a momentary swelling of something syrupy and green-tropical behind the avalanche of musk and vetiver, subsiding into the ether far too quickly to be a feature.
The thing to pay attention to here is the salt. Salted Green Mango is basically a huge, spacey cloud of sparkly vetiver-musk molecules that mimics the invigorating scent of salt air. It smells clean, but despite the probably industrial amounts of white musks or Iso E Super used here, also quite organic, like what I imagine the air around the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah smells like on a breezy day. And yet, there is something clearly lab-made about the scent; it feels engineered, ergonomic, and therefore a bit more chic or more modern than just a simple clustering of naturals.
I’m in love with how this (really quite simple) scent of white, clean, salty woods and musk gives me that ‘my-skin-but-better’ aura; it’s effortless and sensual. I’m willing to bet serious money that people who love those modern, shape-shifting floral-woody musks made to smell like 50% cyborg, 50% warm human skin – stuff like Glossier You, Diptyque’s Fleur de Peau, and Le Labo Ambrette 9 – will love Salted Green Mango. For me, it knocks all those modern skin musks, as well as Jo Malone’s (really excellent) Wood Sage & Sea Salt, right off their perches. This one goes straight on the full bottle list.
Mxxx. by Eris Parfums is an almost embarrassingly
sexual scent – the result, I imagine, of an experiment to cross breed the silvery,
driftwood aroma of a far-off beach bonfire with the boudoir-ish scent of smoked
butter, incense ash, and the baritone subwoofer of 88% cocoa powder.
I really liked the original Mx., which, with its creamy-spicy-woody character (à la Cadjméré by Parfumerie Generale), was a bright and casual affair. The innovation here, with Mxxx., is that Barbara Hermann and her perfumer for Eris Parfums, Antoine Lie, decided to up the stakes by adding a large dose of 7% natural ambergris tincture, cacao from Trinidad, and hyraceum tincture to the formula. The difference this has made to the bones of the perfume is striking. It’s not just that the natural ambergris has made the perfume warmer, siltier, more animalic – which it has – but that the furniture has been rearranged in a way that makes me think it’s another room entirely.
Each time I wear Mxxx., it overwrites my memory of the original a little bit more. I remember the original smelling like sandalwood, if sandalwood was made of pine, milk, hazelnuts, and chocolate oranges – sexy in a tousled, white cotton t-shirt kind of way. Mx. was firmly unisex, or just ever so slightly feminine-leaning, and clearly a perfume for daylight hours.
Mxxx., by contrast, is a smeary creature of the night and more emphatically masculine. The bright chocolate-orange sandalwood of the original has been replaced with a smoky butter note, which is held in place by an quasi-fecal cedarwood with bitter, chocolatey undertones.
In its total effect, Mxxx. still smells like sandalwood to me, but a much earthier, more aromatic version than the milky ‘saffron orange’ sweetness of the original. The butter-cacao undertone here is unctuous but roughened with a kitten’s lick of grey sea salt that catches at your throat and stops the scent from smelling overtly gourmand. The incense, subtle spices, and the musky cedarwood give the scent a dry, gauzy texture, like ash from a wood fire blown into the air.
Animalic? Technically, yes, I suppose it is. But Mxxx. isn’t one of those fragrances that sacrifices smoothness or wearability at the altar of animalic authenticity. I think we’ve all smelled scents where castoreum smells like the pissiest, driest, most urine-soaked piece of leather imaginable, or where their natural ambergris smells alarmingly like halitosis, horse dander, and low-tide harbor. While I admire those kind of scents for pushing boundaries, and for testing our tolerance for the unabridged ‘realness’ of animal secretions at their rawest, they sure as hell can be a trial to wear.
Give me something like Mxxx. any day. It smells great, and sexy in a skin-like kind of way, but never like something that’s playing a game of chicken with me. It really isn’t any more challenging or animalic than, say, the full-bodied, all-original-woods-and-civet-intact lasciviousness of 1980s-1990s perfume, like Samsara (Guerlain) or Ubar (Amouage) or Creed’s fantastic Jasmin Impératrice Eugenie (not that Mxxx. smells like these, particularly; I’m just referring to a similar ‘generosity’ in their proportions of thick, pongy-sandalwoody-French-perfumeyness).
The smoked butter note is, for me, the primary animalic element. It smells a bit fatty and skin-like, at first, before the smoke and ashy woods arrive to dry it all out. The smoke here is subtle, rising in curlicues up from the bottom of the scent, and sifting its way lazily through the salty, melty cocoa-butter of the topnotes. This is not the strong smoke of cade or birch tar, but rather the rubbery, sweet smoke of the tire leather in (vintage) Bvlgari Black.
It’s a genuinely sexy perfume, this minxy Mxxx., but not in an immediately obvious way – far more Hot Priest from Fleabag, let’s say, than the knowingly calculated (and boringly obvious) head-tilt of George Clooney.
Source of sample: Barbara Hermann very kindly sent me a sample to test (with no obligation to write about it), for which I am very grateful. I believe that wearing it has increased my sexual attractiveness by about 156%, but I work with scientists, so I should say that there’s no real evidence to support that figure outside of my own imagining.