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The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews K-T

7th June 2022

 

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

 

 

 

Kalemat Amber Oil (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

 

Little Egypt (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Honeyed myrrh and sweet flag

 

 

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

 

 

 

Luxor (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mabrook (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Minister (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

 

Morocco (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mughal Amber Oud (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mukhallat Maliki (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mukhallat Saif al Hind (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

 

Nankun (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Osirian Purnima Bastet (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Oud Absolute (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ozymandias (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

 

Petrichor (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Prince Bandar (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Pure Incense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Pyramid of Khafre (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

 

Pyramid of Menkaure (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Regolith (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Resine Precieux (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Rouh al Amber (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash

 

Sahraa Oud (Fragrance du Bois)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Salem (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Scrying Smoke (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Smenkhare (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Tim van Kempen on Unsplash

 

Sorcière Rouge (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Still (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Tabac Oranger (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Tinderbox (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Cristi Ursea on Unsplash

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

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews 0-A

31st May 2022

 

 

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

 

 

 

020 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Absolute Amber (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo: My own, Omani silver frankincense 

 

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Al Masih (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Nazar Strutynsky on Unsplash

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Musc (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Andrea Donato on Unsplash

 

Amberosia (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Oud (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Oudh (Rasasi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Amber Paste (Kuumba Made)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash

 

Ambre Cuir (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ambrecuir (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ambre Narcotique (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Ambre Sauvage (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

 

Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Anubis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Attar al Kaaba (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Krystal Ng on Unsplash 

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

The Attar Guide to Resins

30th May 2022

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Andriy Tod on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Ambergris Ambrette Floral Independent Perfumery Iris Myrrh Orange Blossom Review Smoke Spice Spicy Floral Violet White Floral Woods Ylang ylang

Hera by Papillon Artisan Perfumes

22nd May 2022

 

 

Two fragrances do not an evolution make, I’m aware.  But I can’t help feeling that Spell 125 and now Hera mark a departure for perfumer Liz Moores, away from perfumes that either reference classical styles (Dryad – a green chypre in the fashion of Vol de Nuit, Bengale Rouge – a spicier, more balsamic take on Shalimar or Emeraude) or espouse a particular trope like leathery incense (Anubis) or rose (Tobacco Rose).  Rather, Her and Spell 125 seem to be a bold move towards abstraction, wherein the perfumes are much more than a good smell – they are an expression of an idea.

 

Take the complete lack of literalism in Hera, for example.  You look at the notes and the description, and you think, ah, ok, a wedding bouquet perfume.  Lush, creamy white and yellow florals spilling over a whale-boned corset of puffy marshmallow musk.  Romantic, serene and beautiful in that conventionally feminine manner expected of brides.  But you don’t actually get any of that from Hera.

 

The first surprise is an atomic cloud of spicy violet-iris powder, a diffusive ballooning of molecules powered by what feels to me like aldehydes but is actually ambrette, a natural musk derived from the musk mallow plant.  The apple peel and grappa facets of the ambrette sharpen the violet sensation of the opening and feathers the whole thing into an ethereal mist.  But in no way does this smell pretty or candied or like face powder.  No dainty bridal pastilles here, no Siree.

 

There is also – immediately – the tarry benzene edge of Extra or First Ylang, announcing the first of the floral absolutes that don’t really smell like their usual floral representations in perfumery.  Ylang is always painted as banana-ish or custard-like, but in truth, the natural stuff (essential oil) often has this surprisingly creosote-like smokiness that most often gets smothered by perfumers with sandalwood or vanilla, in the hope of squishing it into a more banana custard shape.  Here, the ylang is uncut and unsweet.  And it definitely doesn’t smell like banana custard. 

 

The surprisingly true ylang in Hera is soon joined by a spicy Sambac jasmine – again, not the creamy, sweet white jasmine of conventional perfumery, but more the authentically leathery-sour twang of Sambac absolute.  The florals do not smell lush, sweet or traditionally feminine.  In fact, Hera does not even smell particularly floral.

 

The central surprise of Hera – its abstraction – is the way in which this tug of war between potent floral absolutes takes place inside this smoky cloud of iris-mimosa-violet powder, stacked one on top of another like a matryoshka doll.  It is an incredible feat of construction that turns florals as heavy as jasmine, orange blossom, and ylang into a fizzy, violet-colored ether.

 

With time, another layer of the matryoshka reveals itself as a murky accord that smells like tobacco but is probably ambergris.  This lends the perfume an aura of salty, powdered skin, like the glow on healthy young skin after mild exertion.  Momentarily, the interaction between the purplish dry-ice florals and damp, tobacco-ish ambergris produces an impression of Caron’s Aimez-Moi (which itself smells like a pouch of moist, tobacco leaves dotted with anise and dried violets).  But this impression is fleeting.

 

Hera feels spicy but remains utterly air-filled and diffuse, as if someone has tried and failed to plug cinnamon sticks and clove buds into an ever shifting dust cloud of wood molecules.  There is also something like myrrh, with its dusty, minty-latexy bitterness.  But Hera never gets bogged down in the thick, sweet thickness of resins, thus neatly sidestepping any effort to pigeonhole it as an incense.  Yet, the spices and the myrrh do give Hera a hint of what I imagine medieval candy might have smelled like, a sort of salty-herbal-fizzing concoction that, when ingested, banishes all evil.    

 

The perfume seems to deepen, but the overall sense of its construction – a complex whirligig of chewy florals and tobacco inside a bright, acidic haze of floral high C notes – remains consistent.  I picture Hera almost synesthesically, a violet-greige cloud of molecules that spark off each other like electricity.

 

It is an abstract experience, similar to the hard-to-define Spell 125 or even Seyrig (Bruno Fazzolari), but that’s not to say that Hera doesn’t also meet the original brief, which was to honor Liz Moores’ daughter, Jasmine, on her wedding day.  Indeed, Hera feels fizzy and bright and sensuous.  It smells optimistic.  

 

What Hera absolutely is not is a re-tread all the tired tropes of traditional bridal perfumery, so if you’re expecting something conventionally feminine or sweet, then park your expectations at the door.  Hera feels made for a lifetime of marriage – interesting, complex, wistful, packed with all the bittersweet moments of a relationships that morphs over time – rather than for one single shiny, glittery, picture-perfect day.  And in my opinion, it is all the better for it.  

 

Source of sample:  Sent free of charge to me by Liz Moores, with no expectation of a review, let alone a positive one. 

 

Cover image:  Photo by Łukasz Łada on Unsplash  

Amber Floral Fruity Scents Gourmand House Exploration Incense Independent Perfumery Jasmine Review Scent Memory Smoke Spice Tea White Floral Woods

Three by Frassaï: Tian Di, A Fuego Lento, and Teisenddu

16th March 2021

 

 

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?

 

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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.

 

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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?)

 

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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.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash                       

Ambergris Ambrette House Exploration Independent Perfumery Iris Leather Oud Review Smoke Vetiver

Neandertal: Them, Us, Light, Dark

8th March 2021

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? 

 

Them

 

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).  

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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

 

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.

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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

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Dark

 

 

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.

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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.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

Ambergris Balsamic Frankincense Green Incense Independent Perfumery Leather Review Smoke

Spell 125 by Papillon Artisan Perfumes: Love in the Time of COVID

25th January 2021

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. 

 

Cover Image: Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

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Gifts of the Three Magi: Frankly Frankincense

11th December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Lisandro Garcia on Unsplash

Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense

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

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

Casbah (Robert Piguet)Spicy Frankincense

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

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

Armani Privé Bois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense

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

Czech & Speake Frankincense and MyrrhHonest Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Vladimir Šoić on Unsplash

Mad et Len Noir EncensAmaretto Frankincense

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

Paul Schütze Behind the RainWild Frankincense

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

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

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

Rosarium (Angela Ciampagna) – Icing Sugar Frankincense

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

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

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

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

Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense

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

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

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

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

Incense Flash (Tauerville)Frankincense Haiku

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

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

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

Sombre Negra (Yosh) Frankincense Fougère

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

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

Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal) Fag Ash Frankincense

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


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

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile)Fairytale Frankincense

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

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

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

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

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

La Fumée (Miller Harris)Fresh Frankincense

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


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

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian) Frankincense Absolute

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

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

Calling All Angels (April Aromatics)Butter Caramel Frankincense

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

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

Vento nel Vento (Bois 1920)Frankincense Plus

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

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

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


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


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

Sahara Noir (Tom Ford)Frank Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Joshua Davis on Unsplash

Holy Terror (Arcana)Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens

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

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

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


Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Anup Ghag on Unsplash


Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio)Pure Frankincense

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

Basilica (Solstice Scents) Starter Pack Frankincense

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

Olibanum (Profumum)Polished Frankincense

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


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

Al Masih (Mellifluence)Messianic Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense

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

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


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

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

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

Apr.03.1968 (Rundholz)Jamaica Cake Frankincense  

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


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


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


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


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

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

Cover Image: Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

Aromatic Balsamic Citrus Herbal Incense Independent Perfumery Masculine Review Sandalwood Smoke Woods

Kerosene Part 2: Blackmail and R’Oud Elements

16th November 2020

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.

Photo by Dominik Martin on Unsplash

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.

R’Oud 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.

If 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.  

Source 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.

Cover Image: Photo by Simon Zhu on Unsplash

Amber Aromatic Balsamic Herbal Incense Independent Perfumery Oud Resins Review Sandalwood Smoke Spice Tobacco Vanilla Woods

Kerosene Part 1: Copper Skies and Broken Theories

20th October 2020

Copper Skies

Sometimes 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.

Photo by Justin Lane on Unsplash

Cleverly 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.    

Copper 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.

Amber 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.

Photo by Graham Padmore on Unsplash

Broken Theories

Broken 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’Ascèse by 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.  

Source 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.

Cover Image: Photo by Siim Lukka on Unsplash