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The Areej Le Doré History of Attar Collection Thoughts and Reviews

16th September 2022

 

Thoughts

 

Don’t buy the Areej Le Doré History of Attar collection of attars if you are looking for another Walimah or Russian Musk attar by Russian Adam – a regular perfume composition, in other words.  Instead, buy the History of Attars collection if you value having a reference library for traditional distilled attars, made by artisans using pretty much the same equipment (a deg and bhapka) and distillation techniques practiced in India since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, 3300 BCE-1300 BCE. 

 

It takes enormous skill and knowledge to make an attar in the traditional way, and having practiced it for over five thousand years, Indians are the masters of this art.   Although the attar maker behind the History of Attar set of attars has not been revealed by Russian Adam, the traditional seat of the attar-making world has long been Kannauj, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.   Kannauj-based attar-makers supplied the princes of the Turkish-Mongolian (but culturally Persiatic) Mughal Empire with attars for more than three centuries and have a long history of trading with the Middle East (the word ‘attar’ is Farsi in origin but due to the boundary-crossing nature of attar making, the word is pretty much the same, with minor changes, in Urdu, Hindi, and Arabic).   Surrounded by silt-rich fields and valleys that grow an extraordinary range of exotic flowers, aromatics grasses, roses, and herbs, Kannauj is justifiably called the Grasse of the attar world.  Read about the most famous single-material Indian attars here and complex Indian attars here.

 

However, the traditional attar distillation industry is under threat.  Though you can read more in detail about why here, the main reasons are (1) the depletion of genuine santalum album oil, the traditional carrier oil into which the fragrant material materials – rose, jasmine, etc. – are distilled, (2) the high costs and labor intensity attached to harvesting, sourcing, and distillation of the raw materials to the standards expected in traditional attar distillation, and (3) the changing perfume tastes and buying power of the market that buys attars.

 

It is no wonder, then, that many of the small, independent attar-making houses have gone out of business.  At its height, approximately sixty percent of the population of the 1.7 million-strong city of Kannuaj was employed in the attar industry.  Until the restrictions on sandalwood oil production came about in the nineties, there were over seven hundred distilleries operating in Kannauj, for example.  Now there are only a hundred and fifty.  The traditional attar making industry has shrunk by almost eighty percent over the past three decades.

 

Sandalwood is perhaps the biggest issue, as it is responsible for about 50% of the aroma of a traditional attar (sandalwood being both a great-quality carrier that only improves with time but also deeply fragrant in and of itself).  Read more about why sandalwood is such an amazing material here.  Materials such as rose and jasmine have always been expensive to produce, because they are labor-intensive, and a great quantity of their petals required to produce even a small amount of a ruh or attar.  A ten milliliter bottle of genuine rosa damascena oil (ruh gulab) costs approximately $250 in Kannauj, but the same amount of synthetic rose oil costs only $8

 

You might think that all this preamble is a lot of bla, bla, bla.  But since the History of Attar collection of traditionally distilled attars is such a different product for Areej Le Doré to offer, it is worth spending a little time on clarifying why and how these products differ.

 

Russian Adam does not distill traditional attars himself.  Although he does distill his own ouds and some sandalwood oils for its sister outfit, FeelOud, Adam outsources distillations of specific materials to local artisans.  These oils are then used in the Areej Le Doré perfume compositions, both spray-based and oil format.  When these oils are mixed together with an oil carrier, these make what Areej Le Doré calls ‘attars’ but are technically ‘mukhallats’.  

 

Most perfumes in oil format called ‘attars’ are actually mukhallats.  See for example the 2021 Amouage ‘attars’ discussed here, as well as Ensar Oud’s ‘attars’.  This is partially because the word ‘attar’ originally meant anything fragrant or good-smelling, and has therefore become synonymous with ‘perfume’ – and specifically oil-based ‘perfume’ – to most people.  There is, however, some critical differences between the construction and artistic intent of a distilled attar and that of a mukhallat.  Unlike traditional attars, which are distilled, mukhallats are mixed, using already distilled or compounded materials, with a focus on raw materials culturally significant in the Middle-Eastern perfumery, such as ambergris, oud oil, musk, resins, and amber accords.   Mukhallats are definitely more perfumey and ‘finished’ in form – closer to what most would consider a real perfume. Traditionally distilled attars are far simpler and focused on praising the spiritual bounty of nature – closer to an ‘essence’ or ‘enfleurage’ than to what most people think of as a perfume.  Mukhallats tend to be easier to make because it involves mixing materials that have been distilled elsewhere, and the labor is all in the composition (rather than in the distillation).

 

Because traditional attar distillation is an extremely complex operation involving many people, weeks, complex procedures, etc., Adam commissioned an attar maker (attar wallah) to make these attars.  Despite some disappointment about this expressed online, this is basic quality assurance.  If you want a Chanel tweed jacket, you don’t buy a pattern and try to make it yourself.  Leave it to the experts. 

 

Yes, the History of Attar set of distilled attars is expensive.  But traditional distilled attars – genuine ones – are expensive, due to the labor and materials involved.  For example, a traditionally-distilled hina or shamama attar with the full whack of natural raw materials starts at a minimum of $2,000 per kilo.   And it takes over one month of uninterrupted distilling time to make a real shamama attar. Even in India, where labor in cheap,  that adds up to over 700 man hours.  Some will argue that you can buy an Indian attar for $5 on eBay or IndiaMart, and indeed, you can.  However, it will not be a genuine distilled attar.  It will contain a synthetic solvent (like IPM or DPG) or a substandard natural replacer (like Moringa oil) instead of Indian sandalwood.  Most, if not all of the other raw materials will also be likely synthetic.  And it most certainly will not have been distilled in a deg and bhapka but knocked up in someone’s back office masquerading as a lab.

 

It is ok if you are not interested in traditional distilled attars or if you are interested but don’t want to spend this much.  This collection isn’t for everyone.  (Also, attars themselves aren’t for everyone).  Only buy these if you are the type of person who values having a reference library of top-notch examples of a genre or raw material, against which you can judge the quality of other perfumes or oils.  I would compare this collection to the oud sampler you can get on Ensar Oud’s site.  It is handy as a baseline.  If you are content to limit your investment to the spray perfumes that Areej Le Doré will soon release based on these very attars and are only mildly curious as to how the spray fragrances relate back to these attars, then skip ahead to the reviews below.  They should tell you everything you need to know.

 

If you do buy this set, however, and are new to attar perfumery, be prepared for the fact that traditional Indian distilled attars are not perfumey-smelling.  Think of traditional distilled attars more as essences than perfumes per se, simply suspended in sandalwood oil.  Traditional attars are simple in structure; they start with the scent of the fragrant raw material that has been distilled, and end with the famously buttery-peanutty aroma of real sandalwood.

 

If Indian attars ever do smell complex, it is for one of two reasons.  First, some fragrant materials, like vetiver root, are complex-smelling materials in and of themselves, and so lend the attar the illusion of a more fully worked out ‘perfume’.  Vetiver root, when distilled as a ruh khus, for example, can stretch from hazelnut and grass to rose, earth, and smoke.  Second, there is a category of traditional attars known as complex attars, which are not single distillations of one material but co-distillations (for example, rose, jasmine and vetiver root in one still) or mixed with other attars and choyas after distillation.  Attars such as majmua and shamama fall into this category. 

 

The History of Attar attars are not complex-smelling attars.  They are single distillation attars, meaning that only one fragrant material was loaded into the deg and then distilled over the base of sandalwood.  This was an intentional choice on the part of Russian Adam, I believe, as he wanted customers to experience the raw materials in their purest form possible.

 

Traditional distilled Indian attars present the raw material in a way that will surprise people used to their portrayal in commercial perfumery.  For example, jasmine – motia in attar speak – does not smell as clean, bright, or creamy as is commonly portrayed in commercial perfumery.  In motia attars, I notice that jasmine can smell dusky and a bit dank, with some gasoline or plasticky nuances that tend to get filtered out for the commercial perfume experience.  If you buy this collection of attars, therefore, expect some olfactory surprises!  Do not adjust your TV set; this is all perfectly real.

 

The History of Attar attars all end up in exactly the same place, which is a base of real santalum album sandalwood.  As a bonus, Russian Adam has added a quarter tola of sandalwood  oil distilled by FeelOud from vintage Mysore sandalwood from 2000.  This is to give people an idea of what good quality santalum album smells like. The length of time it takes for each attar to get to the Mysore sandalwood base differs, with the more ephemeral materials like rose (Gulab) reaching their destination in an hour and the more tenacious materials like tuberose (Champa, Tuba) taking slightly longer.  But the end destination never changes.  If you love the scent of real, honest-to-goodness Indian sandalwood, you are in for a rare treat.  If you don’t have a particular yen for it, then it will be like being served the same dessert six days in a row.  (Honestly, the people in the latter group don’t deserve good sandalwood at all).     

 

 

The Reviews

 

 

Champa

 

Photo:  Vinayaraj, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

 

Champa attar is the most famous floral attar ‘type’ from India, possibly popularized beyond the borders of India by its use in nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks), shampoo, and soaps.  Distilled from the champaca flower, a bright yellow flower revered across the Indian subcontinent and much of tropical Asia as a symbol of sacred femininity, champaca tends to smell rich and creamy, similar in profile to magnolia, but with a denser, muskier body weight, and hints of bubblegum, green apple peel, mint, and apricot. Though champaca can be quite musky at times, it is traditionally associated with cleanliness.   In fact, the word ‘champa’ gave rise to the word ‘shampoo’ by way of the Sanskrit word for champaca, ‘champo’, which means ‘to massage’.  

 

This particular Champa attar smells (typically for champaca) headily botanical, with a sharp green tea element freshened with pops of mint, grass, wood, and something akin to furniture polish.   You can tell that it is a floral – something about the heady, steamy atmosphere – yet it doesn’t smell particularly fruity, bright, or feminine in the way you think an attar squeezed from a yellow flower is going to. 

 

I pick up on an intense ‘darkly stewed tea’ element, with a sweet, powdered incense quality in the background, although this impression could be the automatic linking my brain does between the scent of traditional agarbatti[1] and actual champaca.  Although this doesn’t make much sense, since most Nag Champa on the market these days haven’t been within 100 km of real champaca, the association lingers, rendering this attar distinctly Indian in character.

 

The most interesting part of Champa is when it starts to degrade on the skin.  By which I mean the yellow flower itself begins to wilt into a damp, almost fetid organic soup of crushed stamens and soggy stems.  It smells musky in a very natural, attractive kind of way – like a young woman, freshly washed head to toe in Timoteí, rolling around in wildflowers and chamomile buds, only to emerge hours later stained with plant juice and soaked in that fresh-sweet-salty sweat that only the very young seem to produce.  This ‘decaying at the edges’ aspect – the slight tip of the hat towards the barnyard floor – smells freakishly sensual, mostly because it is so clearly natural in origin.  Whoever thinks that flowers can’t smell anything other than sweet or clean should smell this.

 

After this, there is a brief detour into jasmine-like territory, with a sour, plasticky edge I associate with Sambac at the end of its natural life.  Sometimes champaca can smell a little like jasmine, though, only a bit coarser and not as ‘clear’.  If you’ve ever smelled the underside of your wrist after removing a rubber watch at the end of a hot day, you’ll know what this stage of Champa smells like (only mixed with something vaguely floral).    

 

Champa winds up, about two hours later, in pure sandalwood territory.  Because all of these attars end with the same sandalwood finish, it is worth describing this once and then moving on.  If you want to study this basenote in isolation, Areej Le Doré has provided a whole quarter tola of vintage sandalwood in the set, called ‘Sandal’.  I describe it below.

 

 

Sandal

 

Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash

 

This is the essential oil of pure santalum album (meaning ‘white sandalwood’), the species of sandalwood rightly prized for being the most fragrant sandalwood of all.  Sandal was distilled from a vintage, well-aged batch of real Mysore sandalwood (22 years old at the time of writing).   Due to current restrictions on Mysore sandalwood, this is a genuine rarity.  

 

How does it smell?  Well, to paraphrase Teri Hatcher in Seinfeld, it’s real and it’s spectacular.  But lean in, folks, because real Mysore sandalwood is actually very quiet.  A fun fact is that, when you first smell Mysore sandalwood – or indeed any santalum album at all, whether it is grown in Mysore or not – you have to make a physical effort to shake off any association with the loud, buttery, incensey scent familiar to you in commercial perfumery, because that’s an association largely formed thanks to widespread use of sandalwood replacers like Javanol or Ebanol.  Commercial perfumes pre-1980s might have contained a certain quantity of real santalum album, but after that, you have been raised on the alluring lie that is sandalwood synthetics.  Therefore, a person’s first sniff of real Mysore sandalwood oil can be disorienting.   

 

At first, Sandal smells like freshly-felled lumber, with that slightly vaporous, high-pitched tone that all wood esters emit.  This is a clean, soft, slightly peanutty aroma, with only the faintest whisper of rose and milk stirring in the undercarriage.  Later on, it develops, in small tonal waves, into a warm scent that is typical of all s. album oils in its savory, milky-but-also-arid warmth.  It smells rugged but also weirdly flat, like the surface of cream, with a musky, spicy element that reads sometimes like ambrette or carrot seed, and sometimes like cumin or black pepper.  It remains extremely quiet and tonal, however, a gorgeous beige-blush-buff thing you instinctively want to drip-feed into your amygdala.  There is none of the deep incense or amber tonalities that Mysore oils sometimes boast, but it is fairly rich and sturdy. 

 

 

Tuba

 

Photo: Jayesh Patil, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Now this will be a surprise to anyone used to tuberose in the commercial perfume context.  In traditional Western perfumery, tuberose tends to be one of those white floral notes you either love or hate.  I, um, have my issues with it.  It is just so strong and sweet, with this overlay of bubblegum, melted butter, candy, and cream that tends to suffocate.  It is just not my style.  It smells aged and ladies-who-lunch-ish and hotel lobby-ish.  There is a handful of tuberose perfumes that I love, but these have to be either so odd that its psychotic quirks suddenly become playful rather than annoying (Daphne by Comme des Garcons) or so green and medicinal that it tips over into bitterness (the opening of Carnal Flower, Tubéreuse Criminelle).  

 

But Tuba doesn’t smell like any of these iterations, let alone anywhere near the big classical, shoulder-padded versions that haunt my nightmares.  The opening is earthy but delicate – small tart green leaves, clay, an earthy Rooibos tea, and mint, all suspended like mist droplets in a curtain of camphor.  It smells dun-colored rather than the hot pink synesthesically associated with tuberose.  In fact, it is less flower than a newly opened jar of that Borghese Advanced Fango Active Purifying Mud, full of Siberian ginseng root and chaga mushroom extract.  Earthy, quasi-medicinal smelling things like this give me far more pleasure than a bouquet of flowers.  

 

Yet, there is also a small but still clearly tuberose character in all of this, which I find extraordinary.  It is as if someone took the freshest, softest leaves at the center of Carnal Flower’s evergreen box hedge opening and washed them in this creamy greige mud until soft, limp, and almost denuded of color.   Leaning savory rather than sweet, the slow fade into the equally savory sandalwood gives the impression of a barely set bread pudding, its layers wobbly to the point of collapse, flavored with miso paste rather than vanilla.  Tuberose must be tenacious even in attar form because Tuba takes more than two hours to disappear entirely into the sandalwood base.  Color me charmed.    

 

 

 

Genda

 

Genda attar is made from marigold (tagetes minuta), which, for a flower, smells uniquely herbaceous, bitter, and spicy.  Its astringent tonality has something in common with saffron, and indeed, the two make for good bedfellows.  Genda attar is uncommon outside of India, but marigold itself is used quite cleverly in some other mukhallats and perfume oils, one example being Aroosah by Al Rehab.

 

This Genda attar is – again – a shock to the senses if you are expecting something recognizably floral.   It smells distinctive without you being able to say exactly what it is that distinguishes it.  But if you relax your nose (like your eyes when looking at one of those Magic Eye paintings), strange and not unalluring shapes begin to emerge from the fog.  First comes a slash of bitter herbs (unidentified, medicinal in purpose), followed by the tacky glucose coating on candy cigarettes, a wash of chamomile tea, a slight hay-like note, latex paint, and either mint or camphor, all wrapped up in an accord that can only be described as a first cousin once removed to nail polish remover.  It is slightly animalic, but mostly high-pitched and vaporous, with its individual nuances shifting around so quickly that it is hard to pin them down. 

 

The flightiness of this herbal-acetone ether makes me think of Borneo oud, which also smells minty, woody and slightly bitter, with a vaporous intensity that makes your head spin if you get too close.  In terms of floral-essence-to-sandalwood trajectory, Genda sits firmly in the middle of the pack, taking about an hour and a half to wind down.  Delightfully odd.

 

 

 

Motia

 

Photo:  Reprinted with kind permission of the photo author, Pranjal Kapoor

 

Out of the three species of jasmine most commonly distilled in attar making[2], motia (or mogra, as it is sometimes called) is the most popular, and is made from Jasminum sambac, the famous ‘Arabian’ jasmine.  Ruh motia itself is almost exclusively distilled in Kannauj these days (whereas solvent-extracted Sambac absolutes and concretes can be found elsewhere).

 

Now this is where things get really strange.  If you know your Sambac jasmine, then you walk into Motia having a pretty good idea of what this is going to smell like – minty, fresh, a bit coarse (in a good way), sexy, slightly sour-leathery in the lower register, etc.  Good ole Sambac jasmine, in other words, and yes, quite recognizably distinct from the classical, sweet grandiflorum type.

 

However, for much of its lifespan, Motia doesn’t smell much like jasmine of any species at all.  You do get a floating layer of green floral soap that may or may not be jasmine, but this nuance is far more wax than flower.  There is a strong aroma of propolis, as well as flashing hints of that grapey benzyl acetate high note that some jasmine materials push to the front, so the jasmine clearly is there, somewhere.  But, in passing through that dusky almond-green floor wax accord, the sound it emits seems to be muted.  It smells to me like what I imagine the pearly white fat remaining from a jasmine enfleurage might have smelled several hundred years ago, when enfleurage was discovered as an extraction technique.

 

I like Motia very much, perhaps because off-center approaches to floral essences as characterful (and recognizable) as jasmine are always more interesting to me than the standard soliflore treatment.   I get a real kick out of the fact that this smells more of cream of wheat and wax and propolis than of jasmine itself.  In fact, Motia reminds me that there is this strange alchemy that occurs when jasmine meets sandalwood that transmogrifies the flower and the wood into something that smells like a warm, silky bowl of porridge.  This wheaten, nubby cream accord strongly recalls other jasmine-sandalwood accords such as that found in the central axis of Dries Van Noten (Frederic Malle) or in Feromone Donna (Abdes Salaam Attar). 

 

Motia is a real education for the nose.  In the ‘strange but true’ category, I also have samples of the Areej Le Doré spray perfumes that are based on these attars, and the one based on this motia attar most definitely smells like Sambac jasmine. 

 

 

 

Gulab

 

Photo:  Reprinted with kind permission of the photo author, Pranjal Kapoor

 

When rose petals are distilled into pure sandalwood oil, the result is an oil known the world over as ‘attar of roses’, or sometimes even Attar Gulab, as here (Gul means rose in Hindi, although the word is sometimes also loosely interpreted as ‘flower’.)  Attar of roses production takes place over nine months of the year, mostly using Bourbon roses (Rosa bourboniana) rather than rosa damascena (which, technically, is used to produce Ruh Gulab, or rose otto, i.e., an essential oil distilled in much the same manner as an attar, only not into a base of sandalwood oil or another solvent. Ruhs are 100% pure essences, rather than 50% fragrant hydrosol, 50% sandalwood oil)

 

Anyway, technicalities aside, describing what rose smells is probably as redundant as describing what coffee or chocolate smells like.  These are smells hardwired into our core memories.  But if I told you that while rose itself has over 300 compounds, the main ‘flavor’ compounds you are smelling are citronellol, geraniol, and eugenol, does that at least help you decode a bit of the mystery of what makes a rose a rose?

 

For me personally, learning that roses can be broken down into the main building blocks of lemon-lime (citronellol), green-minty (geraniol), and clove-pepper-spicy (eugenol) was critical to me understanding what I was smelling when I sampled my first rose outside the cannon of commercial perfumery eight years ago, which was Al Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous from ASAQ.   Now with more experience, I know that the chances of Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous being a pure rose otto are slim to none, but still, this particular oil upended my set-in-stone idea of roses as being soft, sweet, and feminine.  In contrast, the ASAQ smelled like freshly peeled lemons and spicy black peppercorns.  Smelling it slapped me awake.

 

I mention this as preamble to describing this Gulab attar.  If you go into it expecting a big, rich, or sweet affair, you’ll be disappointed.  This is a very traditional rose attar scent, its noise undistorted by the oil format.  It smells high-toned and delicate, with undertones that split off into tart-lemony and peppery-minty directions (without getting sidetracked).  Not surprisingly, due to the citronellol and geraniol compounds, the rose itself is a volatile creature that flares brightly and then immediately begins to soften away into a barely there smudge of rosiness.  When it reaches melting point with that beautiful sandalwood base a scant hour later, it smells very close to what most people’s fantasy of what an attar might smell like, in other words a rosy sandalwood scent with a very simple yet moving beauty to it.  

 

 

 

Source of sample:  Areej Le Doré kindly provided me with the attar set for free.  It normally costs $375.  I paid a small customs fee.

 

Cover Image:  My own photo.  Please do not use or distribute without prior permission.

 

 

[1] Champaca was used in the old, traditional way of making nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks) that prevailed in India before the formula was cheapened in order to satisfy foreign demand for cheap incense.  In addition to champaca, the original formula for agarbatti included some very expensive naturals such as Assamese agarwood, Mysore sandalwood, expensive floral essences such rose, kewra, saffron, henna flower, and spikenard, an aromatic Indian herb.  These aromatic materials were bound by honey and halmaddi, a fragrant gum from the Ailanthus triphysa tree.  Important yogi would traditionally use nag champa in rituals, and it is still the prime component of any major Hindu event.  Therefore, nag champa was originally a highly prized sort of incense.  Mass production and cost-cutting over the years has meant that the Indian pan masala incense you buy these days is usually very low quality and, indeed, possessed of that hippy vibe that tramples on any cachet the original nag champa once enjoyed.

 

[2] The other two species are Chameli and Juhi.  Chameli attar is made from Jasminum grandiflorum, the type of jasmine grown in India and in Grasse and used in classic French perfumery.   Juhi attar is made from Jasminum auriculatum.  The auriculatum variety (Juhi attar) is simply a three-petalled subset of the sambac jasmine, and so the differences between them are negligible.  The differences between sambac and grandiflorum, on the other hand, are more significant.

 

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The New Generation Amouage Attars: Thoughts and Reviews

13th September 2022

 

 

Thoughts

 

Reception of the New Generation Amouage Attars has been mixed, the reasons for which are not exactly rocket science.  First, in order to explicitly associate these new perfumes with the OG attars that had garnered such praise for the brand prior to their discontinuation in 2015, Amouage called these perfumes ‘attars’.

 

Reader, the New Generation Amouage Attars are not attars.  But then, neither were the Old Generation Amouage Attars.  The word ‘attar’ refers to a specific (and specifically Indian) manner of production, i.e., the steam distillation of a fragrant material, like rose or vetiver roots, over a base of pure sandalwood oil.  These are not that.

 

Rather, these perfumes are ‘luxe’ concentrated perfume oils along the lines of Alexandria II (Xerjoff), Absolute Amber (Clive Christian), Cardamusc (Hermès), Parfum Fin (Nabucco), Patchouli (Jalaine), or any one of those Henry Jacques oils sold in Harrods.  Of course, there is prestige attached to the notion of an attar, so some of these are (erroneously) referred to as ‘attars’ in the marketing materials. 

 

Not to get too technical about it, but it is worth knowing that niche CPOs are not distilled (as in traditional Indian attars) or mixed (as in mukhallats) but instead made to a precise formula in a laboratory in one of Europe’s big oil factories, like Givaudan, IFF, or Symrise, by a perfumer working to a brief.   Just like any other perfume, in other words, only instead of being mixed with perfumer’s alcohol and sent off in pallets of 500 units to Sephora or Douglas, these particular formulas remain in oil format, are poured into dinky little bottles, and get sold at terrifyingly high prices as ‘attars’.

 

The OG Amouage ‘attars’, while not attars at all from a construction perspective, were still definitely authentic mukhallats rather than luxe CPOs.  They employed a distinctly Middle Eastern approach to perfumery in both manner of construction and artistic intent.  In terms of construction, the OG oils followed a Middle Eastern tradition of mixing (‘mukhallat’ meaning ‘mix’) already distilled attars with oud oil, musks, and resin oils.  In terms of artistic intent, the OG oils existed to draw the world’s attention to the glories of an Eastern tradition of perfume making and a wholly Eastern set of raw materials, from the silvery Omani frankincense and peppery Ta’ifi roses to lusty Sambac jasmine, Hindi oud, and Egyptian orange blossom.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Amouage branded the OG oils as ‘attars’ and hard to blame them for doing it.  By the time of the original launch, the word ‘attar’ had already come to exemplify – for Westerners – the exoticism, whether real or imagined, of the East.  Amouage is an Omani brand with a proud tradition of mukhallat perfumery rather than a Kannauj distiller.  But Amouage, being a corporation, has a right to segment its market according to what is deemed to be profitable.  So ‘attar’ it was.

 

Sadly, the OG Amouage ‘attars’ were discontinued and are now largely unobtanium outside of the UAE or the secondary market.  But now we come to 2021 and Amouage, seeing the rising popularity of oil-based perfumery, wants to claw back its rightful share of the ‘attar’ market.  This time around, they want to position themselves in the high-end consumer bracket, which has been steadily growing.  To cut a long story short, that means niche perfume oils that correspond to the luxury consumer’s idea of a perfume rather than maintaining authenticity or fidelity to the Eastern manner of perfume making.

 

The brand must have been aware that while the OG ‘attars’, in being mukhallats, were one step removed from actual distilled attars, these new oils were now two steps removed – not attars, not even mukhallats, but concentrated perfume oils.   In other words, no different than Alexandria II by Xerjoff or even the oil version of Santal 33 by Le Labo.  But the wheels had been set in motion for this particular fiction decades ago, so Amouage deciding to go all in and call these 2021 attars too was probably the only logical move.  And naturally, the brand would want to cash in some of that OG fairy dust for the 2021 release.  Thus, the word ‘attar’ front and center, expectations were raised.

 

Which begs the question – what did Amouage think would happen when these expectations were not met?  

 

My guess is that the brand simply hoped that their positioning of the 2021 oil releases at the luxury consumer market would circumvent the small but vocal group of true perfume (and attar) aficionados that had bought the OG stuff.

 

You see, the people who will be interested in buying these newer Amouage ‘attars’ are not the same as those who were buying the OG ‘attars’.  The folks who bought the OG Amouage Attars were investing in the authenticity of a Middle Eastern or Indian raw material, like oud or sandalwood, whereas the folks who will buy the New Generation Amouage Attars are mostly looking for the prestige of dabbing on an oil out of a tiny, exquisite bottle.  The first is a desire for art, the second a desire for luxury.  

 

Amouage likely looked at the market and decided that they could generate more revenue from the people who view a bottle of the newest attar from Amouage in the same way they view all other luxury consumables like, say, an Hermès handbag or a Lisa Eldridge lipstick or the latest iPhone – opulent, high-spec things that give the pleasure of an object well made, none of which will scare the horses – than from the much smaller group of fragrance enthusiasts who stay up until 4 am, sweatily gripping their computer mouse, to secure 3 mls of the latest sandalwood oil from Areej Le Doré or the newest Hindi drop from Ensar.

 

It goes without saying that one group is not morally inferior (or superior) to the other.  Their buying parameters are just different.  Some folks long for the authenticity and artistic derring-do of some of the original Amouage attars, while others will much prefer these smoother, more Westernized pleasantries. And from a marketing perspective, it is perfectly legitimate for Amouage to decide to switch lanes for the 2021 release.  

 

Where Amouage might have messed up was in not communicating the differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ as clearly as they might have to the group of people still intensely loyal to the artistry of the brand’s original oil output.  Sure, from a business perspective, no corporation has to go the extra mile to explicitly explain a change in direction, manufacture, or artistic intent such as this.  However, some of the most pointed criticism about these oils may have been averted and some goodwill created amongst the very community that helped raise and maintain Amouage’s reputation for excellence.  Instead, the brand done took a match to a couple of bridges.  

 

Surely, for example, the brand could have explained their rationale for using Western perfumers to compose these ‘attars’.  In an age where awareness about cultural misappropriation and decolonization has scaled new heights, the brand might have anticipated that its clumsy pairing of the word ‘attar’ – traditionally an Indian art – with ‘master’ European perfumers such as Dominique Ropion would create some uncomfortable associations or even take some of the shine off the brand. 

 

Amouage has always kept schtum about who composed the original ‘attars’.  It is likely that they used Middle Eastern perfumers with experience in mukhallat perfumery but didn’t name them (the company did name, however, the Western perfumers like Guy Roberts and Bertrand Duchaufour who worked on their spray-based fragrances).  For this new release of ‘attars’, Amouage’s strategy was to hire Western perfumers experienced in composing formulas for niche and designer perfumes, like Cécile Zarokian, Julien Rasquinet, and Dominique Ropion.  Now, to me, this makes perfect sense.  If you are creating a line of luxe perfume oils that are basically supposed to be a haute luxe or niche fragrance, just in oil format, then it makes sense to hire perfumers who are used to producing this sort of formula for other high end niche companies.

 

However, the brand didn’t explain that these new attars weren’t really attars at all (probably because this particular bit of fiction is now decades deep and it’s too late to walk it back), and therefore left itself wide open to accusations that it was aiding and abetting Western perfumers to misappropriate a traditionally Indian art of perfumery.

 

Now that you (yes, you Dear Reader!) understand that these oils are not attars but simply posh niche perfumes in oil format, I bet you don’t care if the formula was composed by a perfumer in Grasse or by one in Delhi or Dubai, do you?  Right.  It ceases to be an issue.  But the brand didn’t or couldn’t communicate this, thereby running straight into the fire that any 19-year-old social media manager worth their salt would have been able to predict was coming their way.  

 

More accurate than the cultural misappropriation (which is itself based on a misguided belief in the fragrance community is that only Indian or Middle Eastern perfumers can or should be involved in the creation of attar, oud, and mukhallat perfumery*) is the accusation that, in naming the 2021 oils ‘attars’, Amouage was cynically cashing in its previous reputation for authenticity and ‘realness’.  There is no real comeback to this.  The 2021 oils are, at best, a good ole cash grab, and at worst, a thumb in the face of loyal perfume fans who believed that Amouage anything was special, not to mention one of their vaunted attars.  While the general specialness of Amouage is less true today than it was ten, fifteen years ago, the 2021 ‘attar’ release still feels like a line in the sand between the brand’s proud artistic past and its now far more glossily commercial future. 

 

Whether or not this is a successful strategy from a business perspective is something only the Amouage CPA can tell us.   

 

 

Reviews

 

Now onto the actual reviews.  Spoiler alert: I enjoyed each and every single one of these new CPOs from Amouage, and as long as you go into it expecting luxe perfume oils rather than genuine distilled attars from India or authentic mukhallats from the Middle East, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t either.  Are they groundbreaking or original?  No.  But they are all extremely pleasant, smooth, and yes, luxurious-smelling perfumes.

 

Of the six that I have smelled, two oils didn’t smell at all Middle Eastern, pursuing instead traditionally Western (read: French) perfumery themes such as vanilla and orris.  Two of the ‘attars’ smelled straight up like an oil version of existing Amouage spray perfumes.  But they are all extremely nice and well executed, and thankfully (mostly) subtle in their use of modern woody ambers like Norlimbanol or Amber Extreme.

 

Are they $540 good?  Again, nope.  That’s my annual car insurance.  To be fair, I’m not the target market, and unless you’re the rare Birkin bag buyer whose SEO somehow re-routed you to this blog, then it’s safe to assume that neither are you.  The only reason I have to review these is that (a) I am currently publishing a Guide to Attars (which covers attars, mukhallats, essential oils like oud, and concentrated perfume oils) so this release kind of is my business, and (b) a very dear friend sent me her sample set free of charge.  So, there you go.

 

 

Photo by Veronika Nakhtman on Unsplash

 

Orris Wakan, composed by Julien Rasquinet, focuses on the famously cool, rooty aroma of orris butter to the exclusion of all else.  In fact, it smells suspiciously close to an ionone-rich orris butter dilution I have in my collection, which is to say a heady blend of the following: parsnip roots pulled from the soil on a freezing December morning, spermicidal jelly, a silver spoon, soap, and freshly-poured concrete or latex paint.  Why all of this should add up to a scent that Chandler Burr once described as ‘liquid good taste’ is a mystery, but God knows it does.

 

Orris Wakan is unusual for an ‘attar’ or oil-based perfume in that it manages to capture the very nuances of orris butter that normally get ‘squashed’ by other, heavier materials in oil format.  This is all rhizome, no flower.  In fact, in keeping the structure simple, Rasquinet has managed to produce something that briefly reproduces the opening of Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens). 

 

This is quite the achievement until you remember that orris butter itself is so lovely and complex a material that all the perfumer really had to do here was set it in place and leave well enough alone.  To Rasquinet’s credit, he didn’t overstuff the composition with any shouty materials that might detract from the orris.  It just fizzles out quietly into an ether of soft, frothy musks.  Like your first roll in the hay, Orris Wakan is poignantly beautiful for all of the thirty minutes it lasts.

 

It is worth noting that Orris Wakan is one of the two 2021 perfume oils that are completely Western (read: French) in both theme and construction.  I imagine this being a big seller for the luxury leather goods crowd, because the scent of orris has a natural affinity with creamy leather, suede, and hawthorn accords.              

 

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

 

Rose Aqor, composed by Cécile Zarokian, well – let me just stop right there.  Even without looking it up, it is clear that this is a Cécile Zarokian creation.  I love her work, but this central accord of soda fizz rose, sparkling ‘white’ incense, piquant black or pink pepper, doughy benzoin, cinnamon, and radiant golden ambers is as identifiable a fingerprint as anything done by Bertrand Duchaufour.  Rose Aqor is very lovely, as it should be, as it is a near note-for-note recreation of Zarokian’s 2009 Epic Woman (Amouage) in oil format.  Epic Woman is my most worn Amouage perfume, so I know her.

 

Like Epic Woman, Rose Aqor tucks a sweet-n-sour, heavily peppered rose inside a powdery incense-amber accord that is part pickles, part sherbet.  As roses go, Rose Aqor is a complete meal in and of itself, from the lip-smacking savor of kimchi to the meaty, peppery rose and a thimbleful of thin crème anglaise to sweeten the tongue at the very end.  It diverges slightly from the Epic Woman template in some parts, most notably with a touch of the slightly doughy bubblegum-benzoin accord and zesty cardamom ‘fuzz’ borrowed from Fêtes Persanes (Parfums MDCI), another perfume by – you guessed it –  Cécile Zarokian.

 

I am predisposed to enjoy Rose Aqor because I also enjoy Epic Woman and Fêtes Persanes.  But unless you have a very small collection and you’re specifically in the market for this type of rose (spicy, ambery, incensey), then it is likely you already own something very like this.  For me personally, Rose Aqor is redundant.  But remember, neither you nor I am the target market for Rose Aqor.

 

It is in Rose Aqor, by the way, that the key differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ emerge most clearly.  Smell Rose Aqor and immediately the closest equivalents that jump to mind are themselves niche perfumes that pursue a vaguely ‘exotic’, Middle Eastern theme albeit via the heavily filtered lens of a Western luxury buyer.  Contrast this with OG Amouage rose-centric ‘attars’ like Ayoon Al Maha (rose and sandalwood) or the infamous Homage (Taifi rose, frankincense) and, straight away, you can tell the difference.  Rose Aqor smells like a niche perfume in oil format; Homage smells like the fiercest distilled attars of Taifi rose and frankincense oil mixed together.  The first is a complete perfume composition, clearly made under temperature-controlled conditions in a lab, while the second smells like something violently wrested from this good earth.   And that right there is largely the difference between a concentrated perfume oil and an attar (or mukhallat).    

 

 

Photo by allison christine on Unsplash

 

Vanilla Barka, composed by Dominique Ropion, is guilty of what Luca Turin named the ‘one-liner tendency’ in today’s niche perfume market, which is the fashion for composing a perfume around one of two headlining materials and allowing that be the whole artistic point of the fragrance.  Imagine a scale of compositional complexity with L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) at one end and Vanille Benjoin (Affinescence) at the other, where the closer you move towards Vanille Benjoin, the more ideas your perfume sheds.  Vanilla Barka is positioned right at the Affinescence point on that scale. 

 

After one thrilling note of frankincense, in all its silvery-lemony severity, this devolves very quickly into the plain white sugar + vanilla-tonka bean sludge you see everywhere from Tihota (Indult) to Vaniglia (Mazzolari) and even, to be honest, Vanille (Molinard).  It is slightly plasticky, albeit in a nice way, like Vanyl (Bruno Acampora).  You can even get reasonable versions of this accord from indie oil perfume houses, like Solstice Scents, and have it work out at $18 for a 5ml bottle.  Vanilla Barka costs $540, for scale.  

 

Vanilla Barka is far from unpleasant, just to be clear.  There is a not insignificant amount of hygge to be mined in its deeply doughy, almost almondy dollhead embrace.  But let’s be honest.  Wearing Vanilla Barka is the scent equivalent of eating white frosting or raw cookie dough straight from the packet, while mindlessly binging Netflix in your slouchiest sweatpants.  Yeah, it’s insanely comforting.  But you also kind of know it’s not good for your teeth or your IQ.  Not to mention that, for $540, you can pick up two whole bottles of Tihota.  Of course, Amouage is counting on Dubai mall foot traffic not to know about Tihota.  So, there’s that.

 

 

Photo by volant on Unsplash

 

Incense Rori, composed by Julien Rasquinet, is the standout of the 2021 line for me.  No wonder, because it takes as its starting point the wonderful Omani silver frankincense that Amouage made so famous throughout the world.  The opening note is marvelously fizzy, dark, and sooty – picture the smoked out remains of an open fire in a traditional stone church.  It smells like handfuls of charcoal dust dumped into Schweppe’s Bitter Tonic, with this clean edge that frank fans will find utterly addictive.  Cedar and I think a good deal of unlisted amber join forces to lend the soaring frankincense some basso fondo, creating a rich, resiny background that swings between ashy (pipe tobacco) and sweetly whiskey-ish (amber, immortelle).

 

This darting contrast between achingly dry smoke and ‘wet’ booze is incredible, reminding me variously of a mash-up between the original Vetiver (Annick Goutal), Jeke (Slumberhouse), Tobacco Oud (Tom Ford), and Black (Comme des Garcons).  The drydown lays out a rich, salty oakmoss for our consideration, which is the precise point at which Incense Rori does a fabulous impression of the latter stages of L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), where all that funky oakmoss dries out on a bed of halitosis.  Incense Rori isn’t at all animalic, but it shares something of the scalpy moss funk of the Miller Harris – likely that same metallic, musky, slightly cheap suit shininess of Evernyl Prunastri.  Add a rubbery, saline myrrh (deflated latex condom and all) in the far reaches, and you have the complete incense madness that is Incense Rori.

 

Incense Rori is the perfume that I imagine most appealing to the Old Guard of the perfume community, i.e., the ones who bought the OG Amouage attars.  It smells pure and smoky enough to grab the attention of the most ascetic of luxury buyers’ tastes, yet complex and different enough to capture the interest of even the most jaded of incense (or indeed oakmoss) freaks in our tiny corner of Fragcomm.  Also, is Incense Rori possibly the 2021 Amouage apology for dropping Tribute?  A very small, scaled down tribute to Tribute, mind, but better some Tribute than no Tribute at all.     

 

 

Photo by marlik saffron on Unsplash

 

Saffron Hamra, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is the most traditionally ‘attar’-like of this collection, due to its clever use of a spice – saffron – that, as part of the age-old triumvirate of rose-sandalwood-saffron, will not fail to evoke a Pavlovian response.  I smell saffron, I smell attar.  Even if you think you don’t know attars, you have certainly smelled some variation of that rosy-saffron attar scent in your local Asian supermarket, round the back where the incense sticks and chunks of bakhoor and gaudy perfume oils are stocked.

 

On its own, saffron is piercingly medicinal, like gauze bandages soaked in iodine or the rawest piece of cowhide you ever saw, a quality that aligns the material surprisingly enough with natural oud oil.  Indeed, on the lower end of the scale, you will find that all the big attar or mukhallat houses – Ajmal, Arabian Oud, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, and so on – pad out their ‘oudy’ compositions with saffron in order to create that subliminal link in our smelling receptors to natural oud, even when none is present (the same may be said for cypriol, which is smokier and far less medicinal than saffron).

 

In Saffron Hamra, Zarokian allows the medicinal properties of saffron to play out in full, but wraps a soft, sweet rose around it to cushion us from its sharper edges.  The result is a sort of vanilla custard tinged with iodine and dirty bandages.  I assure you that this is delicious and unsettling in equal measure, which is what makes it such a successful and balanced accord.  Imagine Safran Troublant by Olivia Giacobetti for L’Artisan Parfumeur but removed from the utter comfort of the Parisian salon to the harsh planes and arid environment of the Rub’ Al Khali desert in Saudi Arabia.

 

At this stage, Saffron Hamra strikes me as being authentically attar-like, and even worthy of being included in the original Amouage attar line-up. (It reminds me somewhat of a smoother Al Siraj by Arabian Oud, one of my favorite saffron-forward mukhallats).

 

However, it is worth noting that the far drydown of Saffron Hamra introduces an unpleasantly metallic note that gives me a headache.  Cade oil, listed in the notes, might be responsible for this element, as it is a dirty green, smoky material that can be quite pungent.  To my nose, though, it reads like a trace of some woody aromachemical.  A disappointing end to a perfume that started out smelling absolutely wondrous, therefore, although it also reminds me that sometimes, just sometimes, the normally thoughtful Zarokian can go ham on the woody aromachemicals (Sheiduna for Puredistance being an example).   

 

 

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

 

Oud Ulya, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is very similar to Zarokian’s own Silver Oud for Amouage, only not as earthy (there is little to no patchouli felt here).  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that, as with the Rose Aqor/Epic Woman parallel, this is Cécile Zarokian translating the formula of another of her Amouage spray perfumes to oil format.

 

Similar to its parent, Oud Ulya wraps a pungent oud oil (which smells authentically feral, aided no doubt by a lascivious touch of civet) in a syrupy amber-vanilla glove designed to make the medicine go down.  The opening resembles Trat oud oil, which is to say, soiled hay plunged into a hot, bubbly strawberry jam.  Now imagine this pungent oud-date jam spread across a huge chunk of pain d’epices and left to smolder and char at the edges on a censer, the air filling with the intense scent of burnt sugar.  The point here is that the ferocity of the animalic oud is equal to the ferocity of the syrupy sweetness of the vanillamber.  Add in the haunting smoke of birch tar and you are halfway to the delicious second half of Patchouli 24 (Le Labo).  

 

It might be the equivalent of showing up to church in full drag if the whole thing wasn’t so ergonomically velvety.  You see, Zarokian has managed to wrap all of this up in the most buttery of buttery leather accords, so even while part of your brain flashes on the barnyard, you also keep making that involuntary crooning sound you make whenever you see a picture of those Ritz-Carton lodges in the Maldives or when your hand brushes against the 500-count sheets on display in Harrods.  Oud Ulya is a mish-mash of things for sure – there is a bit of Amber Absolute, Patchouli 24, Prive by Ormonde Jayne, among others – but it is a charming and well-balanced mish-mash, and that counts for a lot.

 

But again, compare Oud Ulya to the towering oudy masterpieces of Badr Al Badour (my favorite OG Amouage ‘attar’), Al Molook, or Al Shomukh, and the differences in style are immediately laid bare.  Though Oud Ulya certainly contains an authentic-smelling oud, it is framed against a backdrop of sweet and smoky notes artfully arranged to evoke a fantasy of the East as expected by a Western gaze.  Like Shalimar.   Oud Ulya is deliberately exotic, because the perfumer has arranged the amber accords, the leather, and the smoke to create just that effect.

 

In Badr Al Badour, on the other hand, the combination of the oud, the rose, the ambergris, and the frankincense smells exotic because the raw materials themselves are exotic and because the perfumer has simply mixed these exotic smells together in the most pleasing way he knows how.  Badr Al Badour cares not if it pleases our Western nose or not; it is wholly agnostic to our comfort.  In contrast, Oud Ulya brings you on a magic carpet ride but keeps checking over its shoulder to make sure we’re still on.

 

 

 *This is largely true for traditional Indian attar perfumery since genuine attar distillation is now mostly limited to Kannauj, India, but we have established that neither the old nor the new Amouage ‘attars’ are actually attars.   Still, many of the most prolific and creative perfumers or distillers working in the field of oil perfumery (oud, sandalwood, and mukhallat perfumery) are themselves Western by birth or upbringing.  Ensar is American, Taha Syed is Canadian, Sultan Pasha is a Londoner, JK DeLapp is from Atlanta, and Russian Adam is…well.   You see where this is going.   A gentle suggestion: as fragrance writers, let us put down the pitchforks and try to see the perfume sector for what it is rather than for what we think it ought to be.   

 

 

Source of sample:  A very dear friend of mine passed on her set of official Amouage samples to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

 

Cover Image: Photo taken by me. Please do not re-print without my permission.

 

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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

Balsamic Citrus Coffee Collection Cult of Raw Materials Floral Fougere Green Floral Incense Independent Perfumery Iris Jasmine Lavender Leather Musk Oriental Osmanthus Oud Resins Review Rose Round-Ups Saffron Sandalwood Smoke Spice Spicy Floral Thoughts Violet White Floral Woods

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

28th September 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by DEZALB from Pixabay

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

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

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

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

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

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

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

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Pitsch from Pixabay

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

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

Image by HG-Fotografie from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Image: Thanapat Pirmphol from Pixabay

Aromatic Citrus Floral Fruity Scents Gourmand Green Green Floral Osmanthus Review Suede Tea Thoughts White Floral Woods

Ormonde Jayne Love Trio: Sensual Love, Passionate Love, and True Love

30th April 2020

I write a lot about indie perfumes. Partly because that’s where most of the derring-do of OG niche went once niche plumped for sales over ‘art’ (God, that sounds pretentious even to me, sorry), and partly because if you’re a writer, then writing about small artisans is a way to show support.

But I’ll be honest; I don’t own a whole lot of indie perfumes. Because most of my collection was built in 2014-2016, by the time I’d discovered the excitement and pleasure of the indie perfume sector, I’d run out of both money and appetite. These days, therefore, while I’m happy to sample indies and shine a light on them through reviews – for what that’s worth – I am rarely moved beyond admiration to shell out for them.

What I’ve found is that the older I get the more importance I place on polish. I am also increasingly aware of time and place. The fire in my belly for the grungiest of leathers, the nastiest of smoke bombs, and the swampiest of aquatics has abated in step with my dawning realization that it’s not nice to alienate your colleagues or family with all that raw-edged, ‘experimental’ stuff just because it’s your right to wear it. There are more important hills to die on than scent suffrage.

Therefore, when I know that I’m going to be out in ‘polite’ society and not just ruminating in my own 4-day old funk (working from home mid-COVID-19 in a Northern country has its benefits, one of which is that no one can smell me through Zoom), I turn to the predictable elegance of group of houses that never lets me down, namely Chanel, Guerlain, Hermes, and, in niche, brands like Ormonde Jayne, Heeley, and Papillon (though the latter is actually artisanal, it possesses the elegant, no-brainer smoothness I’m after here).

I’ve written about Ormonde Jayne before here. As the years passed, the brand branched out from their original core market (reassuringly expensive, classical but with a twist, always elegant) to exclusivity marketing (country or city exclusives) and an ever more aspirational audience (roughly the same target market as for Roja Dove and Clive Christian).

Correspondingly, though my appreciation for their perfumes continues unabated, I find myself a little out-priced by the brand. My pain level hovers around the pricing of the original collection: with a bit of saving and strategic Black Friday shopping,  I have allowed myself to buy and own Champaca, Orris Noir, Ormonde Woman, and Tolu. But I can’t afford to buy two big loves of mine, which are Black Gold and Nawab al Oudh – both more aspirationally-priced than the core collection. And I’m totally fine with that. I don’t have to own everything I love.

Anyway, despite me ‘ageing out’ of the original target market for Ormonde Jayne, I am still almost irrationally fond of the brand. Actually, I love Ormonde Jayne, I’m not going to lie. I’m going to spend the next couple of blog posts talking about fragrances they released after their core collection, so if there’s anyone out there like me who loved the original line-up but find their noses pressed against the store window of the brand’s now higher-than-one-would-like-to-pay prices, then read on.  

Let’s start with the Love trio of fragrances released in 2016: Passionate Love, True Love, and Sensual Love. I know nothing about these new releases, but given that Ormonde Jayne gets a lot of walk-in traffic from people who are not necessarily into perfume but are ready to invest in that one special fragrance to mark a special occasion or to gift to a special person, it’s safe to assume that this trio was designed to capture a portion of the bridal or just-engaged market.

This makes perfect sense. Special, privé, bespoke -all words you see over and over again in Ormonde Jayne’s marketing and perfume; all reinforcing the image of gently English exclusivity, the sort of velvety inner sanctum hush of a Saville Row tailor that seems to embody the Ormonde Jayne experience. And this is exactly what you want when you’re getting married. The Love perfumes are expensive enough to elicit a sharp intake of breath but not so expensive that you feel like the money would be better spent on a holiday.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Sensual Love

Sensual Love is an 100% embodiment of the Ormonde Jayne house style. It hits that sweet spot between novelty and beauty – i.e., exciting enough to make you think about the ideas that went into it, yet smooth enough to enjoy in an almost mindless manner. Something about the combination of tart citrus, micro-explosions of pink pepper, green leaves, and the misted spray of (largely indeterminate) fruits and flowers bypasses the ‘perfume’ signal in my brain and short-circuits to the fizz of freshly-poured rosé champagne.

Spraying again and again, I try to focus. What’s here, really? It’s so abstract it’s hard to tell. There is the sharp purple pop of cassis and a suggestion of something fruity that might be osmanthus, but really, to me the overall impression is of a fizzy cloud of crushed green leaves, pepper, and grapefruit. Grapefruit is, of course, not listed. But maybe I’m smelling grapefruit because it shares with cassis a fruity urinous quality.

The peppery, peachy rose note that appears briefly reminds me very much of Ta’if, and you know, perhaps it is Ta’if – but dipped in a sherbety lime powder and acid pink grapefruit. Something about the cool, tannic element here also makes me think of green tea, which of course makes me think of Champaca. But these perfumes are old friends, and I’m certainly not complaining about seeing their familiar faces round this joint.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but every time I smell the opening of an Ormonde Jayne fragrance, I feel first an intense upwards lift of my spirits (hesitate to call it joy, but it’s in that general direction). Then, once the effervescence of the more volatile notes have settled, I almost always get to thinking that Ormonde Jayne is the one of a tiny group of ‘commercial niche’ or ‘luxe niche’ houses whose perfumes consistently highlight the value of the perfumer’s talent in translating a brief over the value of the raw materials that go into them.

Sensual Love is good because Linda Pilkington asked for it to be made in a certain way and Geza Schoen has the talent to execute her vision, rather than because of any qualities intrinsic to the raw materials used.  

Sensual Love doesn’t do anything else much other than sparkle hard in that upliftingly tart grapefruity-berry-leafy way, but that’s ok, because she’s gorgeous and she knows it. It’s a June morning of a scent. A radiant bride’s face when the veil is lifted. The ‘white’ fruity effervescence of Sensual Love is no doubt shored up by the Iso E Super that Geza Schoen is so fond of, but honestly, in his hands, for Ormonde Jayne, it rarely gives the finished perfume a chemical feel. There are some exceptions to this rule of thumb, even within the Ormonde Jayne line-up, but in general, Schoen has been carefully directed by Linda Pilkington to keep the Iso E Super at a classy and unobtrusive level. The effect is radiance, but never at the cost of naturalness.

Sensual Love would be great for a summer bride, or indeed for a summer bridegroom. If you like Escentric 04 (also by Schoen), but would like a softer, slightly more floral take, then Sensual Love is worth looking into. I also can’t help feeling if that if you like Chanel Paris-Deauville, especially as a fresh, leafy ‘drencher’ in summer (I do), then Sensual Love would perform much the same function.

Photo by Sarah Gualtieri on Unsplash

True Love

True Love is a quirky gourmand floral that is nonetheless so flawlessly put together that it never feels less than grown-up. At the beginning,  there’s an interesting tarragon note to hold our attention – sort of woody, not hyper clean-smelling, more of a sludge grey-green than bright herby green – welded to a pink pepper and citrus framework that freshens its breath.

But underneath this, up swells a wonderfully stretchy bubble of something between honey-flavored Hubba Bubba and strawberry marshmallow whip. This very thick, chewy note elasticizes the fragrance, stretching it out in all directions like Elastigirl from The Incredibles. This is far more sophisticated than it sounds. It smells pink and tangy with strawberry gum, but also peppery and herbal. This is a very interesting way to bring what would normally be very girlish notes into the realm of adulthood.

And then! Oh boy, oh boy. The banana-flavored milk of my dreams. This is the oft-promised but rarely delivered banana pudding facet of ylang, present and correct. I am very excited to finally experience this in scent form. I have only glimpsed it once or twice in Tasnim (Abdes Salaam al Attar), though even that is more a delicate egg yolk custard faintly aromatized with nutmeg and ground almond flour than the full-on artificial banana custard or milk thing that I’m looking for. I quite like Felanilla (Parfumerie Generale) too, but with its gippy-textured saffron and starchy iris, that is far more the woody, inedible banana stem you accidentally get in your moth and spit right back out again than the lush fake banana of my dreams.

I am making this sound juvenile and trashy, but it’s really quite elegant. Let me be explicit: there is indeed a yellow banana-flavored milk accord in the midsection of True Love, but it’s been mellowed out with silky, spacey musks and florals to such a degree that anyone from a bride to a businesswoman could pull it off.

The wearer might think ‘banana milk’ and luxuriate secretly in this knowledge, but to everyone else, this will smell vaguely like a warm milky cloud of rosy, fluffy lokhoum (Turkish delight). Although the sweetness and white-muskiness of drydown is ultimately a little generic for me, I enjoy True Love as much as I enjoy Traversée du Bosphore (L’Artisan Parfumeur) or Niral (Neela Vermeire), which is a lot. If you love the idea of a fluffy pink cloud of marshmallowy loukhoum buffering against the harshness of the world like a force-field, then add True Love to your list. It’s exactly the kind of thing  I want to wear when I’m feeling delicate or in danger of eating my feelings.

Photo by Maša Žekš on Unsplash

Passionate Love

If you’re curious about osmanthus in general, or you Googled Passionate Love and came across this review, then let me tell you that (a) Passionate Love is all about the osmanthus, and (b) if you’re not sure what osmanthus is supposed to smell like, then smell this because it’s quite true to the scent of osmanthus absolute.

After an odd start composed of gin and tonic, and rickety old garden furniture, Passionate Love explodes into a gorgeously rubbery, pungent apricot-skin suede with the whiff of fermentation that both oud and osmanthus carry in their bones. It is not sweet, really, but somehow in the opening it manages to smell quite densely syrupy and full-on, kind of like the cheesy fruit leather of Miyako (Auphorie). In fact, Passionate Love is very like the other osmanthus perfume in the line, Qi (I don’t really count Osmanthus itself, as that is more of a citrusy white tea kind of thing), but its atmosphere is far thicker and throatier. It’s Qi with the lights turned down.

Soon, however, the fleshy assault of the osmanthus lightens up and dries out until you could (almost) call this fragrance airy or ethereal. Most osmanthus accords are accompanied by an undertone of black tea, a facet that is naturally present in osmanthus absolute (think dark, strongly brewed Chinese tea left to grow cold), and Passionate Love is no exception. The tangy, tannic tea in Passionate Love is not the milky-green tea or brown rice of Champaca, yet there is something similarly nutritious, like the wholesome cloudiness from washing pearl barley. Threaded throughout this singular accord is a nubbin of spice, perhaps something fiery and nutmeggy, like white pepper.   

Passionate Love manages to hold up in this osmanthus soliflore track for most of its midsection, and if we were to dwell here, I’d rank this and Qi up alongside the osmanthus greats, which for me include the minimalist tea-apricot of Osmanthe Yunann (Hermès), the civet-soaked, creamy-desiccated leather of Oud Osmanthus (Mona di Orio) and the gigglier, freshly-washed hair of Osmanthe Interdite (Parfums d’Empire).

However, Passionate Love unravels a bit in the drydown, flattening out into that mineralic vetiver-and-Iso E Super-woods base familiar to me from many classic freshies, most notably Terre d’Hermès (Hermès) and Grey Vetiver (Tom Ford). Don’t get me wrong – there’s definitely a time and a place for this grassy, earthy-salty accord, but when it’s tacked onto the tail end of a glorious osmanthus soliflore, it feels a bit incongruous. But all in all, Passionate Love manages to really do it for this osmanthus lover, as least for two thirds of its useful life. Apply half an hour before walking up the aisle, and the bouquet will bloom right as the veil is lifted.

Source of samples: Very kindly gifted to me by the Ormonde Jayne PR way back in 2017, with no obligation or pressure to review them. However, the fact that I’m reviewing these samples in 2020 is probably why brands don’t usually send me samples. I am absolutely terrible. I’m sorry!

Main Photo by olivia hutcherson on Unsplash

Aromatic Green Independent Perfumery Review Rose Rose Oxide Thoughts

Douleur! By Bogue

20th November 2019

Douleur! by Bogue, a collaboration between Freddie Albrighton, a tattoo artist and erstwhile perfume blogger, and Antonio Gardoni, the beloved beardie of Bogue Profumo, has already garnered quite a bit of reaction on the fragrance scene. So, on a scale of one to Sécrétions Magnifiques, just how terrifying is Douleur? Well, it’s definitely quirky, but you won’t a fainting couch or anything. Actually, I kind of love it. And that’s coming from someone whose taste lies somewhere on the scale between ‘deeply conventional’ and ‘willing to experiment on occasion, albeit briefly, and in very small doses’. Last week, I allowed myself to be talked into attending a performance by the Armenian experimental jazz pianist, Tigran Hamasyan, at the Rome Jazz Festival. For the first hour, I sat in silent rage as he jabbed at the ivories like an unsympathetic gynecologist (the fact that he seemed to be wearing diapers didn’t help), but by the end of the performance, I had realized that, under his hands, the piano was not a piano after all, but an oboe. Mind, if not blown, then opened a crack.  

While I won’t be listening to experimental jazz or wearing Douleur! every day, I’m genuinely glad to have experienced them. The smell of Douleur! – strawberry erasers on crack mixed with toothpaste and sports aftershave, essentially – is both fizzily exciting and weirdly nostalgic for me. I’d never buy or use a bottle of it but I’d love to smell it every now and then. Does that make sense? A friend of mine mentioned that he’d like to smell it on a handkerchief or blotter rather than on the skin, and I get that. As it turns out, I managed to get a bit of Douleur! on the sleeve of my trench coat, so there it will live in perpetuity, sending up a nuclear cloud of sour, rosy toxicity every time I pull it on.

Mind you, you have to like rose oxide to like Douleur! I have a real thing for it. But you might not. With its uniquely high-pitched ‘castrato’ tonality, rose oxide feels more like a whine from an electric saw than a smell. Think pear-scented nail polish remover or geranium leaf or those hard-boiled rhubarb-and-custard sweets that people in Ireland and the UK will remember for their porny balance between the creaminess of fake custard and a bright pink streak so sharp it peels your taste buds back from your tongue. This sharp, metallic smell is as chemically exciting as a pure aldehyde. Have you ever smelled Opus X by Amouage? That’s rose oxide.

But stuff like Opus X wears on you very quickly – rose oxide can drone on somewhat unless you temper it with something. In Douleur! the rose oxide has been mixed with a seaweed note, which introduces an aquatic fougère note, a bunch of toothpaste-y mint, and a strawberry cotton candy accord that smells like, well, Maltol. All this makes for an admittedly grotesque opening. You smell everything separately at first – the metal, the candy, the mint, and the melony aftershave note – and the effect is jangly and cacophonous, like an orchestra warming up.

Past the opening, though, the notes jostle into place and the whole thing settles. The cloud of semi-poisonous rose oxide remains but softens into the smell of those strawberry erasers we girls used to huff at school. There’s also a rubbery cedar or oak note in the mix here that reminds me of the milky juices that you could work out of a pencil if you chewed on it long enough. I know that Freddie Albrighton is a fan of rose oxide and strawberry, but I wonder if the innocent, almost child-like air in Douleur is coming from Antonio? If he’s anything like me, then he spends a lot of his time trying to wrest those strawberry-scented, rubber knickknacks like Shopkins, LOL figurines, and My Little Pony from their packaging, and maybe this drydown is his smoke signal to other parents of girls. Or maybe a cigar is really just a cigar.

Anyway, all you need to know is that the minty, rosy bitterness of the acid rain opener eventually melts into a big, pink marshmallow, and there’s just something about this trajectory from unsettling to fluffy that is compelling. It makes me want to smell it again and again. There’s a nutty, rosy loukhoum accord in the drydown that smells like a cross-section of Sweet Oriental Dreams by Montale and that makes me smile. In execution, Douleur! reminds me of a limited edition indie oil from Arcana called Strawberries Crave Waterfalls, which features notes of rain, woodland strawberries, fresh water, petitgrain, osmanthus, clover, and smooth amber, and despite a more amateurish finish, arrives at a similar result, i.e., artificial strawberries over an aquatic fougère base. But Douleur! has something that the Arcana oil doesn’t have, and that’s a sense of humor. I don’t know how it’s possible for a perfume to have that, but Douleur feels very playful.

So, is Douleur! weird? Yeah. Quite a bit. But plenty of things are weirder to me than the smell of Douleur. Like, it’s weird that people talk about Xerjoff perfumes like they are blown into bottles by virgins in an Amalfi lemon grove when most clearly have more in common with an ‘after’ photo of Thierry Mugler than a piece of fruit. Dior Sauvage is weird and metallic but also vile-smelling, and bafflingly, men seem to love it. And it’s super weird that, more and more, people are praising perfume for being ‘inoffensive’ and ‘mass pleasing’ as if those are not both words that mean ‘blah”.

Fuck me. I’d much rather smell a charming little weirdo like Douleur! than 99% of the insta-niche I get sent to write about – and I hope I’ve conveyed just how normal and boring my personal taste is. Douleur! is an anachronism. Smelling it makes me realize just how much we’ve sanitized every corner of our perfume to drive out any sign of eccentricity or nonconformity. Modern niche perfumery seems locked in a race to the bottom of the aromachemical sludge jar to find that single, all-pleasing, common denominator scent that sends out the unequivocal signal that we are freshly plucked, powdered, and ready to be mated with.

I’m not interested in writing about the depressing and seemingly endless parade of $300 niche perfumes whose only provocativeness or shock factor is in their marketing. (Tom Ford is releasing a new perfume called – wait for it – Rose Prick. A dildo-pink bottle of (likely) ‘meh’ juice that you know in your heart of hearts is aimed at people more interested in penis-related double entendres than in perfume). But something like Douleur? Yes, now that is worth writing about. Something that wears its weirdness as an artistic badge of honour rather than a sales ploy always is.  

Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash

Blind Smelling Blogging Review Thoughts

Adventures in Blind Smelling: Rose et Cuir, the Fragrance Foundation Awards, & Other Stories

21st October 2019

I used to think that fragrances were like books, in that the more you experienced, the more your mental library expanded.  But that’s not true.  When I read a new book, the bookshelves in my mind reshuffle a bit and expand; when I smell a new perfume, I can almost always file it to a scent memory that’s already been logged.  The more I smell, the fewer ‘unique’ perfume experiences I have.  Little smells completely new.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why perfumistas eventually tire of, and move away from, this hobby?

Every now and then, I smell something that gives me a jolt.  But these days, I wait and see if my mind spits out a duplicate warning.  Rose et Cuir by Frederic Malle is a big geranium-ash-leather bomb that immediately smells arresting to me, chock full of the bitter, crushed-stem greenery of Mediterranean kitchen garden scents like Un Jardin en Méditerranée by Hermes, or the opening of L’Ombre dans L’ Eau by Diptyque minus that scent’s screechy, burnt-jam rose that ruins the rest of the composition.

It didn’t bother me that I was able to ‘scent match’ the front half of Rose et Cuir so quickly, because a) the green topnotes are, for me, an improvement over what had gone before, and b) an interesting overlay of record vinyl, condom rubber, and cigarette ash rescues the greenery from the sort of simple naturalism that’s always affecting at first but eventually boring.

Without looking at the reviews, the second half was a challenge to place, but place it I eventually did.  Cabochard de Grès.  Voila.  If you like the peculiarly ashy, meaty, acrid bitterness of that Cellier-esque leather (à la Bandit et al), then you’ll be in seventh heaven.  Me?  I can quite happily go without.  Interestingly, though, despite the clear references, Cuir et Rose doesn’t feel derivative or jaded.  It’s a gutsy fragrance that doesn’t feel particularly Ellena-esque (nothing ‘watercolor’ about it).  Actually, it’s downright grimy.

I’m glad I didn’t cheat and take a look at the reviews for Rose et Cuir first, because since everyone and their cat identified the main building blocks of the scent right away, I can’t be sure that my nose would have landed on the right reference on its own.  Because sometimes, you know, I see words like ‘ashy’ or ‘rosy’ or ‘metallic’ and I start to smell it that way too, even if my own nose says otherwise.  The truth is, I’m very open to suggestion.  And so are you.  

Sometimes I think that the riskiest thing for any perfume reviewer (or a reviewer of anything really) is simply to go first.  Because even if you have a list of notes at hand, you really only have your own impressions to go by for a full review, and you won’t know if you’ve diagnosed the major constituents correctly, or at all, until the other reviews come in.

I run into this fear-inducing scenario quite a bit, because I write product descriptions for Luckyscent and often the scent is so new that my description is the first one out there that tells you what a scent actually smells like, outside of the brand blurb which have all started to blur into one giant blob of ‘creamy Madagascar vanilla’ and ‘smoky Haitian vetiver’ and ‘buttery tonka bean’ in my brain.  I check the Luckyscent reviews often (maybe even a bit obsessively) to see if my description makes sense to anyone.  When I get it right, the relief is palpable.  But every so often, I’ll see a review that’s basically ‘WTF is up with Luckyscent on this description, like, lol, what are they smoking over there?’ and my confidence in my own smelling power dissolves like snow on a hot bonnet.              

Several degrees worse than this scenario, however, is the utter awfulness of having to smell something completely blind and then publicly pronounce your judgment on it.  I remember Luca Turin doing a brief blind judging stint for Women’s Wear Daily and thinking that I’d rather vomit up a whole garlic bread and then re-ingest it than do that.  However, a couple of years ago, I won a Jasmine Award, and as part of my ‘reward’, I was asked to participate in a blind judging of entrants for that year’s Fragrance Foundation awards.  I know – the horror.

But I’m glad that it happened, because first, it was a lot of fun (if nerve-wracking), and second, it helped me pinpoint one of the things that bothers me about writing perfume reviews, which is the issue of capacity.  Specifically, I came to the realization that unless you’re Luca Turin, with a background in science, or Victoria Frolova, with her classical training in perfumery, or Ayala Moriel, with her experience with natural perfumery, there’s nothing in particular that qualifies the average perfume writer to pass judgement on a perfume other than their breadth of smelling experience and an ability to put it into words.  And these days, you don’t even need a blog to get your opinion out there – if you have an Instagram account, you have the floor.  

That’s why I think that perfume blogging is getting kind of stale. While websites and blogs require huge amounts of maintenance, planning, and all that SEO stuff, you can publish a review to Instagram or Twitter in minutes.  The immediacy of the medium feeds the modern hunger for fast information.  It’s not permanent, but hey, neither is anyone’s opinion on a fragrance.  The reviews I see popping up in random Basenotes threads (the Areej Le Dore and Slumberhouse ones are the definitive source for reviews on these pricey artisanal brands), on Instagram (among those to watch are gunmetal24, scentosaurs, lucy_loves_ivo, Bangkok_hound, Houdini_sotd, armadilloscookiequeen and enchantefragrance – although the latter two also blog), and from certain Fragrantica reviewers (like Roge’ – that guy both knows his stuff and expresses it in a unique way, ditto FruitDiet and Houdini) are far more immediate, incisive, and, importantly, outspoken than those I see on the blogs I follow.  Even Kafkaesque’s Twitter reviews reveal a sort of gleeful relief of being set free from the burden of 5,000 words on a perfume s/he doesn’t even like very much but feels duty bound to readers to be as detailed about as possible.

Don’t get me wrong.  I will always value long-form writing above a tossed-away snippet on social media, but when it comes to wanting to know exactly what a perfume smells like without having to wade through the miles of brand-approved guff on backstory, perfumer, and inspiration that seems to invariably has to precede the review, or dodging that ‘social engagement trigger’ question that bloggers have been trained to trot out as rote, I am not really turning to blogs for perfume reviews anymore. (Oh, the irony, I hear you mutter – yes, I know).  The ones I love, I love either for the sheer quality of the storytelling – like Neil Chapman’s The Black Narcissus – or for the joy of feeling like you’re part of a close-knit gang of friends, gossiping over tea, like NST and Australian Perfume Junkies.  Katie Puckrik has recently re-joined the fray, which is exciting, because if she can’t revitalize this tired old format, then no-one can.  But while I don’t see any of us old school perfume writers quitting our blogs anytime soon, we should recognize that much of our audience has already moved beyond our borders into the more nimble, interactive, and mostly visual media of Instagram, Facebook groups, Reddit communities, and Twitter.      

Anyway, before I turn any more paragraphs into one long run-on sentence and irk my WordPress editing software, which always rates my posts as Red for Unreadable, I am going to lay bare exactly how my nose stood up against the challenge of blind-judging the perfumes entered in the Fragrance Foundation awards of 2017.  Some notes I got (yay!), some ones I miss completely (boo!).  Really, all that separates me from anyone else with a working nose and an opinion is my willingness to shell out $10.99 a month for a web hosting package.

Each sample sent to me by the Fragrance Foundation was numbered, following either a M for Male or F for Female (depending on how the perfume was classified by the brand), and mostly provided in plain decant bottles or sample vials containing anywhere between 1ml and 10ml. The lack of consistency on the quantity and type of decant vial provided bothered me a little, because it meant I was able to draw conclusions about multiple scents belonging to the same brand without leaning on my nose to identify to commonalities of style or texture. But ok, minor niggle really.

I’ll first give you the number of the vial, my initial testing notes (unaltered), what the scent was later revealed to be, my re-evaluation of the scent once I knew the perfume name and notes, and the score I give my nose out of ten.  I’ll be offloading the first lot of scents in this post, and the second and final one in December, because I spend much of the year cut off from my collection.  Aventus for Her is in the second lot, and believe me, that one’s so horrific I’m not looking forward to the re-match.  Send thoughts and prayers.            

M510

My Notes:  Nice woody scent, smells like straight-up cedar, with a side of some herb that is both warm and dirty, like tarragon.  It is a little spicy; I smell cardamom, cumin, and clove.  The base is a dry amber, with a hot, gunpowder feel to it, possibly due to eugenol in the form of a clove or carnation note.  Pretty straight-forward, smooth, nice, unexciting woods.

The Big Reveal:  Atkinsons The Big Bad Cedar

What it’s supposed to smell like:  Fragrantica defines this scent as a woody chypre for women and men (unisex).  The scent officially features the following notes: cardamom, sage, broom, Virginia cedar, oakmoss, cashmeran.

Upon Re-Testing:  This is very nice indeed – easily identifiable as cedar, but unusually for a cedar, it manages to smell quite natural, as if the perfumer eschewed the use of those Iso E Super and Cedramber aromachemicals that so often stand in for cedar these days.  The cedar smells damp and mealy, with that armpitty cumin nuance characteristic of natural cedarwood.

There is a cool, watery greenness at the beginning that I correctly identified as cardamom, but none of the other spices I picked up on are actually on the notes list.  The animalic-smelling herb was sage, not tarragon, but upon re-smelling, neither is particular evident to my nose.  What is obvious to me now, however, is the fuzzy, freshly-poured-latex-paint smell of cashmeran in the drydown.  I can’t believe I missed that.  It gives the scent a smooth industrial vibe that works very well against the rugged naturalness of the cedarwood.

Scanning the reviews at Fragrantica, I see that some reviewers find The Big Bad Cedar to have a Comme des Garcons aesthetic, and I agree.  This scent could easily be a flanker to Wonderwood and Blue Santal.   

Score for my Nose: 7/10.  I think I did ok on this one.  I’m deducting three points for missing the cashmeran, which forms a crucial part of the scent’s quasi-industrial Comme des Garcons vibe.

M504

My Notes:  Argh!  Ambroxan overload.  Or Cedramber.  Just kill me now.

The Big Reveal:  Jack Piccadilly ‘69

What it’s supposed to smell like:  A fresh, woody-spicy scent. This fragrance is by Richard E. Grant, the actor. His inspiration was this: “In May 1969, I was 12 years old and flew from Swaziland to London on a trip with my parents. Emerging from Piccadilly Circus tube station, I was wide eyed in wonderment seeing the Eros statue and fountain, whose steps were people-crammed with Patchouli perfumed hippies.  The combination of Patchouli oil and petrol from all the traffic, proved an indelible inhalation!”  The scent officially features the following notes: bergamot, ginger, green leaves, nagarmotha, mate, petrol (gasoline), cedar, amber, leather.

Upon Re-Testing:  I get more of the citrus notes now, but my nose is still assaulted by a massive wave of woody aromachemicals, which obscures the rest of the notes.  It is physically painful to smell.  Upon re-smelling it, the posterior part of my skull tightened and started to throb.

Score for my Nose: 9/10.  My nose missed the citrus the first time around but correctly identified this for what it is, which is a stew of modern woody aromachemicals.  

F504

My Notes:  Coconut, tuberose, peach, wheat-porridge (sandalwood?), beachy, suntan oil, creamy, milky, luxurious, benzoin, definitely fruit, tinned peaches.  Smells expensive.

The Big Reveal:  Armani Privée Rouge Malachite

What it’s supposed to smell like:  An oriental floral.  The scent officially features the following notes: tuberose, clary sage, pink pepper, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, jasmine sambac, cashmeran, benzoin, tuberose, amber, tuberose.

Upon Re-Testing:  Count how many times tuberose appears in the notes list – yep, three times.  But this is no Amarige or Fracas.  In fact, the outcome is gentle and creamy, the tuberose restrained by a peachy ylang note and the milkiness of what still feels to me like sandalwood or vanilla.  The white tropical floral plus cream-of-wheat note gives it an oddly familiar character, and I suspect I’ve smelled this perfume under a different name before.  The closest thing I can think of is that this is Armani showing Tom Ford how Orchid Soleil could have turned out if the volume had been turned down a bit.

Beachy and tropical this certainly is, but it was a little unfair of me to throw in the references to suntan oil and tinned fruit.  Rouge Malachite is much better constructed than your average greasy suntan oil scent, and on close inspection, it doesn’t bear much similarity to Montale’s Intense Tiaré, a scent whose tinned peach note gives it an unfortunate cheapness that mars the overall experience.

Wearing Rouge Malachite now, I can acknowledge that it is a beautifully-done, rich, tropical white floral that is nowhere near as loud or as overbearing as it might have been.  It’s much better than most of the examples of its genre, in fact.  And yet, it’s not something I’d personally invest in as long as Manoumalia (Les Nez) or Songes (Annick Goutal) were still around.  Well, maybe only Songes is left standing.  I’m never too sure about the status of Manoumalia.   

Score for my Nose: 9/10.  I did ok on this one.  I’m deducting one point out of shame for trotting out a line as hackneyed as ‘smells expensive’.

F510

My Notes:  Grapefruit, herbs, vetiver, green-fresh in aesthetic.  It is lightly leathery in the base, although this could be a by-product of a leathery floral or vetiver.  In the drydown, I pick up on a slightly spicy note, like carnation.  It’s linear, unsentimental, simple, and unfussy.

The Big Reveal:  Yardley English Dahlia

What it’s supposed to smell like:  English Dahlia is a green floral.  The notes are: green notes, citrus, neroli, apple, dahlia, rose, peony, patchouli, cedar, and musk.

Upon Re-Testing:  The re-testing phase of this project has seen me wearing and re-wearing many rich fragrances stuffed to the gills with sultry musks, fruit, and ambers.  Yardley’s English Dahlia smells like a break for my nose.  It is admirably uncluttered; really just a smattering of green notes over a crisp white musk.

Dahlias are famously unscented, which is why they are so vividly colored – they have to attract the bees someway.  So, this scent is an abstract imagining of what their scent might smell like were they to possess one.  If this is anything to go by, dahlias smell like the color green with a streak of red dust coating the inside of their stamens.  Upon re-testing, I don’t pick up on any light leather notes, but it still reads as slightly spicy in a carnation fashion.  The floral notes are slightly more sugared to my nose this time around too, but not in an obnoxious way.  What really stands out to me now, however, is the scent’s gentle soapiness in the drydown.  I don’t know how that didn’t register with me the first time I tested the scent.  

Score for my Nose: 5/10.  I got the general scent profile right, but I also get a spicy facet that’s not accounted for anywhere in the official notes breakdown.  I also misdiagnosed the drydown as ‘lightly leathery’ when, in fact, it is nothing short of soapy!

F409

My Notes: Sheer forest berry, fizzy sweeties, rose, damascones, backed by Ambroxan, mint, camphor, iris, and perhaps patchouli coeur (denatured patchouli, very dry).  This smells like a fruitchouli, with a dose of scratchy-dry Tauerade.  Could this be Tauer’s Fruitchouli?  (Never smelled it, but the notes sound about right).  Blackberry, brandy, very sweet, with a fizzy candied edge (Sweet Hearts).  It kind of reminds me of the strange contrast between winey fruit and ultra-dry, resinous woods in Del Rae’s Bois de Paradis, but fainter, and far less densely-saturated.  On paper, the scent is fresher, greener, and fruitier than on the skin.  There’s a soft, marshmallowy drydown, featuring a mixture of milky musks, vanilla, and Pez candy.

The Big Reveal:  4160 Tuesdays Mother Nature’s Naughty Daughters

What it’s supposed to smell like:  A juicy, berried chypre.  The scent officially features the following notes: black currant, pear, malt, praline, rose, strawberry, broom, ambergris, cedar, cedarmoss, and opoponax.

Upon Re-Testing:  This smells both sweeter and less complex than I’d originally thought, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.  What comes across most clearly is that juicy blackberry or blackcurrant note, buoyed up by Ambroxan, providing for a hint of mossy, foresty bitterness at the back of the bone structure.  It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite fruity attars, which is the Ambergris White Blackberry by Agarscents Bazaar.

There is a dusty, effervescent texture to the scent that recalls the fizz of vitamin tablets dropped into water or Pez candy.  The slightly sticky resinous woods accent is possibly the praline note, because it gives me the same sensation as Shalimar Parfum Initial, a sort of catching, resinous texture that I feel at the back of my throat, akin to necking homemade lemonade too quickly.  I don’t pick up on the pear, strawberry, broom, malt, or oppoponax notes at all.  This is an example of a very well done fruity scent for young girls – it is not screamingly sweet or syrupy, nor is it sophomoric.  It’s just a bit of innocent fun picking berries in the forest and looking cute while doing so.   

Score for my Nose:  6/10.  I got the berries, Ambroxan, and fizzy candy bit, but failed to pick up on any of the more complex notes, such as pear, malt, or broom.  The broom only came out on paper for me.

F507

My Notes:  A Peau d’Espagne type of leather with pressed flowers and herbs.  Doughy, bitter, rooty heart of clove and iris like L’Heure Bleue or Cuir Cannage.  Fruity, ripe peach, with a thick, velvety, syrupy texture.  It is incredibly medicinal.  My guess on notes: camphor, menthol, clove, ivy, orange blossom, tuberose, eucalyptus, intense, poisonously rooty notes that pack a punch.  Old-fashioned, big-boned scent, kind of 1980’s ‘Giorgio for Women’ in style.  Could clear a church.

Reminds me of a French toothpaste my father used – labial pink, medicated, sort of perfumery in the mouth. Tons of buttery orris.  Waxed leather jacket.  Not my kind of thing, a bit cloying, but indisputably complex, high quality, and probably top of the line.

The Big Reveal:  Roja Dove Britannia

What it’s supposed to smell like:  The official notes are citron, bergamot, mandarin orange, tangerine, rose de mai, jasmine, champaca, heliotrope, cassia, violet, peach, cinnamon, cloves, patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, cacao, musk, orris root, ambergris.

Upon Re-Testing:  My testing notes indicate that I found this to be intense, with a spicy, medicinal heart and leathery-floral character (like L’Heure Bleue and Cuir Cannage).  I don’t think that my reading was too far off, but embarrassingly, I completely missed the huge cacao note that lurks around the opening, as well as the doughy almond nuances of the heliotrope.

Smelling Britannia now, I can clearly smell the cacao and the heliotrope, and the whole scent seems softer, less intense to my nose than previously.  I wonder if that’s because I’ve now read the notes and the reviews?  Or is it the more relaxed, leisurely pace of testing?  Either way, it’s clear that my nose is tipped off to the presence of some notes only when I see them written down.  

Score for my Nose: 5/10.  I correctly guessed the essential character of the scent (leathery, peachy, medicinally-spiced floral with 1980’s feel) but failed miserably when it came to identifying key elements like heliotrope and cacao.  The fluffy almond doughiness of heliotrope and the rich bitter-sweetness of cacao are so obvious to me upon re-smelling that I feel like whacking myself in the head with a mallet.  Must do better in class!   

F514

My Notes:  Fruity suede with a sweet and creamy undertow.  Smells like Maltol was involved somewhere along the line.  It has a lot of that berried, candied patchouli that’s popular in fruitchouli fragrances.  As it develops, it gains an interestingly ashy texture, like a pudding strewn with cigarette ash. It could be a modern fruitchouli like Visa (Piguet).  Or a mall version of the contrast between candied citrus and ashy woods in Soleil de Jeddah (SHL 777).

The Big Reveal:  Michael Bublé By Invitation

What it’s supposed to smell like:  A fruity-floral.  It has notes of red berries, bergamot, lily of the valley, peony, rose, sandalwood, musk, praline, and vanilla.  Folks at Fragrantica think it’s similar to Decadence by Marc Jacobs, a perfume I haven’t smelled. 

Upon Re-Testing:  The topnotes are both creamy and fruity, like a scoop of strawberry ice-cream dropped into a glass of Fanta.  It’s very sweet and very young.  I can’t see anyone over thirty wearing this and expect to be taken seriously.  My initial feeling that this was a fruitchouli was incorrect: By Invitation simply supplied the sharp sweetness of praline and my nose immediately made the leap to that modern, syrupy-sweet patchouli used in modern fruitchoulis.

Upon re-testing, I do not pick up on any ashiness, but the woods in the base do have a rather interesting (and probably unintended) urinous tint that gives the scent a little edge to work with.  The Fragrantica designation is spot on – this is a fruity floral, with a ‘blurred’ soft focus muskiness that makes it very modern.  

Score for my Nose: 5/ 10.  I got a lot wrong here.  But I’m giving myself a few points for nailing its grimly modern gourmand-floral bent.  

M409

My notes: woodsmoke, sweet incense, a big like.

The Big Reveal:  4160 Tuesdays Captured by Candlelight

What it’s supposed to smell like:  This is supposedly a big, boozy gourmand vanilla that reminds people of Christmas pudding.  The official notes are cognac, cinnamon, toffee, fruity notes, beeswax, and oak.

Upon Re-Testing:  Everyone seems to get something very complex from this: booze, melting candlewax, raisins, and tons of Christmas spice.  Although I do really like this scent, I don’t get any of that complexity.  What I smell is a very pleasant, linear accord of quasi-burnt, sweet woodsmoke and incense, with a lick of spiced vanilla underneath and that’s it.  It even smells a little synthetic and bare-boned after a while.

Aroma-wise, Captured by Candlelight is pitched somewhere between the papery Communion wafers of Atelier Cologne’s Vanille Insensée and the candied chestnut/woodsmoke accord from Maison Martin Margiela’s By The Fireplace. It’s also quite like Alkemia’s Smoke and Mirrors, or more accurately, its limited edition spin-off, Bonfire Toffee and Woodsmoke.

Pleasant and comforting, yes, but not groundbreakingly original.  This is one case where I think reviewers are writing under the influence of the notes list.  It’s easy to see how this happens: you read all these delicious notes like cognac, toffee, and beeswax, and subconsciously believe the scent to be more complex than it actually is.  Smelling it blind allowed me (for once) to remove myself from the tempting romance spun by the notes list or the back story, and just write down plainly what it is that I smell.  Forget the boozy dried fruits and melting candlewax – this is simply a very nice toasted woodsmoke scent to curl up with by a fire.     

Score for my Nose:  9/10 for my nose, 2/10 for everyone else who writes about boozy Christmas puddings and dripping candles.

M502

My Notes:  Clearly masculine, this scent is aromatic, herbal, and woody, with a fougère-ish twist that involves lavender, coumarin, and something crunchy and bitter-green, possibly artemisia.  Then a crystalline heart of chilled iris, powdery and still fresh, like a laundered napkin folded into a square and tucked into a well-groomed man’s suit pocket.  It’s hugely radiant in that modern masculine manner (Ambroxan?).  Faintly cedar-ish in parts.  An anisic vanilla drydown featuring a blond patchouli, orange, and musk, similar to 1826 by Histoires de Parfums.

The Big Reveal:  Penhaligon’s The Tragedy of Lord George

What it’s supposed to smell like:  A boozy oriental (seriously?).  Notes include brandy, woodsy notes, tonka bean, and amber.

Upon Re-Testing:  Although the notes say ambery oriental, my nose still says aromatic fougère, of the nostalgic shaving soap variety.  It opens with a burst of gin and tonic brightness, owing to some mix of citrus and juniper, before segueing into a long-drawn-out herbal-woody heart.  Bright green herbs, Ambroxan, and cedar are, for me, the main building blocks of the scent, but I misdiagnosed the sawdusty texture of the cedar as coumarin the first time around.

It is very much a masculine scent, but in a gentlemanly style that recalls old school fougères rather than the sweet, aromachemical-driven blare of modern masculine designers.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t have that synthetic twang, because it definitely does, with Ambroxan in particular providing its usual starched-shirt buzz.  But if it smells a little scratchy-synthetic, then it is at least not overly sweet.  

Amber?  No, unless you count Ambroxan, which I don’t.  That has to be the biggest switcheroo that brands pull on us.  We didn’t use to have to be so careful when we saw amber listed in the notes, but now we are on high alert, because you never know when that listed amber turns out to be the salty steel-wire radiance of Ambroxan.  There’s a deeply powdery tonka operating in the background, but it’s barely enough to soften the fougère-ish aspects, let alone add sweetness.  There’s no booze, except for in your imagination.  For a quick and dirty frame of reference, think of this as Fougère d’Argent (Tom Ford) on top and 1899 Hemingway (Histoires de Parfums) down below.      

Score for my Nose: 7/10.  I think I got the basic outline of the scent correct, but neither the brand nor Fragrantica agrees with me, insisting that this is a boozy amber scent.  I took a quick peek at the Basenotes reviews for this when I’d finished writing the description, and oh wow, The Tragedy of Lord George gets hammered.  Well, I’m not nearly as down on this scent as Basenoters are.  To me, this is pretty darned good for a modern masculine.  It certainly smells better to me than Fougère d’Argent, which winds up leaving a bitter synthetic feel at the back of my throat in the far drydown.    

M503

My Notes:  Lots of dusty resins, smoky cedarwood, cumin, frankincense but the star here is labdanum, specifically the dry, leathery kind of labdanum (as opposed to the sultry saltwater taffy ‘wetness’ it can sometimes display).  It is spiced with either cloves or cumin, adding a softly bready or sweaty undertone that adds interest.  Resolving in the airless, papery quality of a hot stationary storeroom, this scent is linear but so pleasantly rich that it’s difficult to find fault.

The Big Reveal:  État Libre d’Orange Attaquer Le Soleil

What it’s supposed to smell like:  Huh. Just labdanum.

Upon Re-Testing:  I don’t believe the notes list – there’s no way that there’s just labdanum.  At a bare minimum, I smell the searing sharpness of resins burning, singed cedar, and some hot spices, and that’s in addition to the labdanum.  In particular, the opening displays a remarkable note of burning cedarwood, vividly recreating the precise aroma of the moment a piece of wood touches the flame.  But true enough, the star is that dusty but sweet labdanum.  Studying it now, I pick up on a faintly boozy quality, as well as an animalic facet, both inherent to labdanum absolute.

My general opinion of this remains the same – a nice, rich labdanum scent that will thrill passionate devotees of labdanum and probably bore the pants off everyone else.  I am glad to have a sizeable sample of this, as I do love labdanum and find this to be a very well-worked-out version. And I do adore that topnote of smoky, singed wood or resin.

Score for my Nose: 8/10. This is a labdanum-plus scent, not a labdanum-only scent as the brand insists.  I’m calling it for my own nose.

Floral Fruity Scents Gourmand Green Independent Perfumery Review Saffron Sandalwood Spice Spicy Floral Thoughts Vetiver Woods

Concept versus Execution: I Am Trash, But Not Today, & Vetiverissimo

8th November 2018

 

It might seem to regular readers of this blog (all 23 of you) that, for a fragrance writer, I write very infrequently about perfume. In fact, I write about perfume every day. But since it’s either copy for big fragrance retailers or work on a book that I’m not sure will ever see the light of day, most people will just never come across it.

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Review of Perfumes: The Guide (2018) by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez

26th October 2018

 

Takeaway for the casual browser

 

To the casual browser who’s wandered in here because the SEO on my site is working – yes, you should buy Perfumes: The Guide (2018) by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Heck, buy the original Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (2008) too. Because whether your interest is casual or professional, there’s always space in your life for a book that explains a subject with equal parts erudition and bitchiness. Reading this book is like being seated next to a scientist who whispers hilarious put-downs in your ear about the hostess’ bottom all night and then gets up and explains Chaos Theory so elegantly you wonder if you’d ever not understood it.

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