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Casablanca by St. Clair Scents

13th June 2022

 

 

I don’t wear fully floral perfumes very often, but when I do, I swing wildly between two extremes – the dependable, if sedate, beauty of established classics like L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) or Farnesiana (Caron) and the odd but thought-provoking experiments that are indie-made perfumes, like Cornaline (Anatole LeBreton), Quasi Una Absurdia (Chris Rusak), Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery), Romanza (Masque Milano), or Mardi Gras (Olympic Orchids).  When I wear perfumes from the first group, I miss the element of surprise (and often discomfort) that indie perfumes bring.  When I wear perfumes from the latter, I miss the polish and reassuring solidity of construction represented by the classics.

 

Casablanca by St. Clair Scents blows me away because it bridges the divide.  The buttery, vegetal tuberose and other white floral notes never get a chance to weigh the perfume down because they are lifted in the short term by a fizzy, spicy medicinal note that smells like a vaporization of Clovis toothpaste and Epsom bath salts, and over the longer term by a bright citrus accord that smells like someone peeling an orange through a dense thicket of white flowers, spraying its petals with volatile peel oils.

 

The effect is extraordinarily rich, voluptuous, and delicious, yet fizzy and upbeat in a way that I rarely find white flowers to be.  To me, white flowers usually smell solemn and ‘posh’, their natural environment seemingly more that of an achingly hip vase in a luxury hotel than anything that grows in actual soil.  But Casablanca takes white florals out of the hotel environment and into the boudoir.  It is both artificial and natural.  By this, I mean that while Casablanca smells very natural, with several expensive floral absolutes clustered together for effect, there is no way one would mistake its naturalness for an absence of design.  

 

The minty-spicy Listerine effect upfront, for example, is a klaxon sounded to jerk the white flowers out of their creamy stupor, and the sexy civet-laced minerals running through the base have been deliberately placed there to give it a retro feel.  And though I suppose there are parallels to similar effects achieved in other non-mainstream perfumes  – the toothpasty mothball vibe in both Tubéreuse Criminelle (Serge Lutens) and Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery) for one, the dusty floral civet floor of both Mardi Gras (Olympic Orchids) and Lost in Heaven (Francesca Bianchi) for another – there is not much out there that replicates the total effect of Casablanca, which is to say its rich, warm density that holds all elements (rich white flowers, civet, Listerine, blood orange soda) in balance for so long and with such grace.  It has this slightly smudgy, smeary texture that I love, like flowers seen through glasses steamed up and knocked askew by an illicit embrace. 

 

I am late to the Casablanca party, but better late than never, right?  My only regret is that St. Clair’s Scents perfumes do not seem to have a distributor outside of the United States, and so, a large part of the perfume-consuming market will probably miss out on getting to know it.   And that’s a shame, because I think anyone who loves full-blooded, smutty but still slightly edgy white floral bombs would love Casablanca.

 

 

 

Source of Sample:  My sample was sent to me by Diane St. Clair free of charge.  I understand my privilege as a EU-based perfume journalist, believe me, and am very grateful for the chance to smell perfumes that would normally be out of reach to consumers living where I do.  

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Joeyy Lee on Unsplash 

 

 

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Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi

8th June 2022

 

 

Over the years, I have built a scent library in my head, where I keep extensive files on all the different smells I have smelled.  So when I smell a new perfume, I can usually dip into the shelves of this library and pull out a reference or two that helps me put it into context.  Smelling Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi makes me realize that there is a huge gap in the shelves where the classics of masculine perfumery should be.  I am able to tell you what Libertine Neroli smells like to me – fresh, dark, bitter musky-woody – but will be rather useless when it comes to placing it in the broader context of masculine classics.  Sorry.

 

I only hope I can do it the justice it deserves, because Libertine Neroli is fantastic.  My husband, who wore the sample three or four times (I wore it twice), said it reminded him very much of the old school, masculine grooming products men used in the Balkans back when he was growing up.  These were mostly Italian brands of colognes, shaving creams, or talc like Felce Azzura and Pino Silvestre.  Old Spice even (yes, yes, not Italian – don’t be pedantic).

 

But while there is certainly some retro-styling going on here  (I knew I was on the right track when, after testing and writing the bones of this review, I finally checked the promo materials and saw photos of 1950s Italy, all Anita Eckberg prancing around in the Trevi Fountain and Marcello Mastroianni living his best, most suave life), Libertine Neroli is determinedly modern.

 

For every 1950s move this scent makes, therefore, there is a sly, sexy Francesca Bianchi ‘made-in-2022’ move to counterbalance it.  The topnotes are classic neroli cologne – fresh, balmy, redolent of the waxy emerald leaves of the orange tree.  But immediately under this there is an animalic, leathery thickness that is pure Bianchi.  It smells bright and clean, but also murky and therefore a bit sinister.  Water clouded with dirt.  

 

And while Libertine is as musky and as soapy as you’d expect a neroli fragrance to be, the bitterness of the ‘fern’ (oakmoss) note has been bulked up in the basenotes by what smells to me like a bit of Ambroxan or some other woody musk.  This creates the same drift-in-drift-out effect noticeable in other fragrances with a slightly Ambroxinated drydown, like Jubilation XV (Amouage).  What this means is that sometimes you can smell Libertine Neroli on yourself, and sometimes you suspect it is ghosting you.  But rest assured that others around you can still smell it.  It seems to become part of your pores, so you smell great but not necessarily like you are wearing fragrance.       

 

The oakmoss note in Libertine Neroli is stunning.  Inky, woody, and astringent as hell, it has the effect of sucking you into the grey-green shade of an oak tree.  Now, don’t hear oakmoss and think of the damp, lush green moss clambering over trees in Northern European forests.  This is the scent of desiccation – the melancholic, sun-bleached dryness of Balkan forests by the Adriatic, dotted sparsely with reedy umbrella pines and Holm oaks, bent over sideways and battered by the Sirocco or Bora gales.   This makes sense, as much of the world’s oakmoss comes from lichen scraped off Balkan oaks. 

 

The only modern oakmoss fragrance I think Libertine Neroli’s oakmoss reminds me of is New York (Parfums de Nicolai), but that one is far more formal, more French.  If this were a Mills and Boon novel, New York would be the stern, slightly stuffy (but absolutely hot) CEO-slash-Daddy, while Libertine Neroli is the sexily louche younger brother who runs off to the Italian Riviera with your heart and half your fortune. 

 

But this is not a Mills and Boon novel.  This is Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the epitome of the type of male beauty that is both charming and arrogant in its unassailability.  It is dapper from top to toe and yet is by no means a simple retread of the old school masculine trope.  This is 1950s masculine perfumery as seen through a female gaze in 2022, and that is what makes it feel so right for right now.

 

Interested in oakmoss?  Read my essay on oakmoss and a round-up of excellent oakmoss fragrances here

 

 

Source of sample:  Sent to me gratis by the brand for review.

 

Cover Image: Still from the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf (courtesy of The Rakish Gent)

 

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Aquilaria Blossom by Areej le Doré X Agar Aura

26th May 2022

 

 

Aquilaria Blossom is an exciting new collaboration between Russian Adam of Areej le Doré and Taha Syed of Agar Aura, both oud artisan distillers and perfumers of repute in the oud and mukhallat community.  Russian Adam is something of a pioneer for the oud community in that Areej Le Doré was the first brand to make a commercially successful breakthrough from pure oud distillation into the bigger market of niche spray perfumes.  In doing so, he opened new doors for the rest of the oud artisan community.

 

And now it seems that Russian Adam is once again forging new market pathways both for his own brand and others, this time with a marketing strategy known as collaboration, a partnership-based strategy that expands the commercial reach of both partners, cements reputations, and deepens the customers’ feeling of engagement and authenticity associated with the brand.  Areej le Doré’s first collab was with Sultan Pasha Attars on Civet de Nuit (review here). 

 

For us consumers, the important thing is to understand what we are getting in terms of value added.  How are the two styles of the two collab partners different, or similar?  Why does a collab between them make sense, both for them as artisans and for us as the people who end up buying and wearing this perfume?  For readers who are perhaps unfamiliar with the respective styles and signature ‘moves’ of Taha Syed and Russian Adam, let’s take a closer look at them individually before examining the end result of their collaboration, i.e., Aquilaria Blossom.   

 

Taha Syed of Agar Aura is a famous artisan oud distiller, with a reputation roughly at the same level of Ensar Oud (they are fierce competitors).  Though unfamiliar with his mixed media work, I have tested and reviewed two of his pure oud oils for my oud series here and here (I purchased both samples directly from Taha).  The common thread I found in both ouds was that his style is deceptively clean and minimalist, eventually revealing very complex substrata.

 

But Taha is also famous for his support for the idea of using fractionated compounds of oud oil to ‘build’ a more complete or compelling aroma.  In oud distillation, as in any essential oil distillation, the quality of the aroma of the compounds in the distillate varies according to many different factors (read here for more detail), one of which is the timeline at which the distillate is ‘pulled’ out from the still. 

 

For example, in ylang, the distillate produced in the first hour of distillation is known as Extra, with the grades of First, Second, and Third following in sequential order.  The descending order is generally thought to correspond to a descending quality, though lack of standardization in the essential oil distillation business makes this extremely difficult to verify and is often purely conjecture.  I am not sure that fractioning is that precise or quantifiable a tool.  But what it does allow for is a bit more room to play for the artisan who is distilling the oil.  

 

The upshot is that at each stage (or ‘pull’) of the oud distillation process, the distillate possesses some characteristics that customers find desirable and some that are less so.  The artisan’s job is to figure out how to amplify the desirable traits and weed out the less desirable ones.  What Taha Syed is known for doing is separating out the oud distillate into individual compounds and then putting them back together in a way that fits with the idea he holds in his head.  If the customers love the smoke and leather notes of a particular style of oud oil, but not the more sour, abrasive ones, Taha can separate them out and discard what he doesn’t need.  A retrofitting of sorts[1].  Apparently, this is now a quite common approach in the pure oud distilling world. 

 

Russian Adam, on the other hand, is probably best known for the Areej le Doré perfumes, many of which I have reviewed here on this blog.  His perfume compositions tend to be baroque, retro-styled florientals that lean hard on rare raw materials (oud oil, real deer musk, genuine ambergris) but stop short of making them the entire point of the exercise.  The result is often as pungent as its constituent raw materials, but you would never mistake it for a simple distillate; these are clearly perfumes.

 

Interestingly, his pure oud distillation work under the Feel Oud banner tends to be far more experimental.  Read through my pure oud oil reviews (grouped and alphabetized here: 0-CD-KL-O, and P-Y) to see reviews of Russian Adam’s pure oud oils and you’ll see what I mean.  From runny Brie to green curry oil and jasmine, his oud oils are perhaps the quirkiest and most playful I’ve seen in what can be a very po-faced genre.   

 

So, without further waffling on, how does Aquilaria Blossom – as a collab between two oud artisans who also happen to be self-taught perfumers – fare both as a fragrance and as a representation of two quite different artistic styles?

 

Let me start by saying that Aquilaria Blossom surprised me by its lightness and its simplicity.  Now, never were two words more guaranteed to make the Basenotes boys sweat than these, so let me clarify.  When I say ‘light’, I mean that texturally, it wears as thinly and elegantly on the skin as an Hermès silk scarf (compared to, say, an Aran sweater).  This isn’t the bulky ‘stacked to the rafters’ scent experience we are used to from Areej le Doré.  It wears on the skin in the same way as Dehn Oud Ateeq (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi) does, which is to say a sheer but durable wash of scent on the skin.

 

And when I say ‘simplicity’, I mean that this isn’t a perfume that crowds in so many notes and accords that all you smell is a thick mud of absolutes.  It remains legible, uncluttered  – no squinting required to make out what it is that you’re smelling.

 

Don’t know about you guys, but those are both positives in my book.  It certainly makes the scent easier to describe.

 

The TL;DR:  Aquilaria Blossom is a fresh, spicy scent that pairs a juicy floral-tart citrus accord with a fine-grained, horsey leather (most likely the result of that ‘touch of oud’ promised in the notes list), bracketed by an ambrein-rich resinousness that seems to build from nowhere about six hours in.   

 

The feature-length movie version: A one-two punch of a tarry citrus and a pop of (briefly) gamey oud opens the scent with a dramatic flourish, holding court in that vein for quite some time.  The citrus accord, pithy with bergamot and aromatic-woody with yuzu, is bitter but also balmy, with a waxy perfumeyness that brings to mind orange blossom.  If you’ve ever had those strange Japanese gummies that taste both citrusy and floral in the mouth (think Diptyque’s Oyedo), then you have an idea of what this smells like.  For the record, this is the only even vaguely floral part of the scent, for me at least.  

 

A note on the oud (or ouds) used.  They are not specified and maybe not even the point.  But I do wonder if Taha Sayed use compounds of different ouds at various points of the perfume’s composition to highlight an effect he wanted and discard the rest.   For example, the briefly animalic pop of oud at the start might be a fractionated compound of a Hindi oil, because we get the spicy hay and leather notes of a Hindi but none of its depth or range.   And while the faint undercurrent of sour berries and stale radiator dust that soon develops under the skin of this opening might point to a Cambodi, who really knows, because there sure ain’t any caramel. 

 

Whatever it is, the main effect of oud is to start building a lightly gamey leather accord that stretches all the way from the top of the scent to its basenotes.  The citrus notes eventually fall off, as they do, but when they do, you don’t lose any of the freshness initially created by them, largely because the leather that the oud whips up is so elegantly thin.

 

Ambergris sometimes adds this wonderfully silty, horsehair muskiness to a composition.  Combined with the oud in Aquilaria Blossom, I find this produces the impression of being in a tack room, the air thick with the scent of saddles freshly taken off heated horseflesh.  A touch of castoreum (beaver butt) adds to the soupy animal warmth.  Yet, the doors of this putative tack room have been flung open to let the fresh smells of flowers and hay in from the fields.  And maybe someone peeled an orange an hour ago, its volatile skin oils still staining the air.   

 

‘Aquilaria Blossom’ is so-named for what both Taha Syed and Russian Adam imagined what a flower growing out of an Aquilaria tree might smell like.  But despite the listed magnolia and neroli, the only floral touches I perceive are brief and upfront, worked into the perfumey bittersweetness of the citrus notes in the opening.  Thankfully, the neroli doesn’t go soapy on me, or perhaps it does and all I end smelling is saddle soap, which is the only way I take my soap in perfumery anyway.

 

The ending really does come as a bit of a surprise.  It shows up right when everything else is winding down, but unlike that one drunk guy who shows up at 3 am, it is most welcome.  One by one, all the other notes seem to get siphoned off into a golden cloud of glittery resin particles, anchored by a rubbery licorice myrrh, and thickened only slightly by a subtle (thin) vanilla.  The ending, like the rest of the scent, feels deliciously sheer.  This is a scent where all the molecules are spread out and have ample room to breathe. 

 

In the end, how much of Taha and how much of Russian Adam actually got into Aquilaria Blossom?  I think the light, minimalistic structure is more Taha than Adam, but then I haven’t smelled any of Russian Adam’s fresher, more citrus-forward perfumes, like Chinese Oud (though his Limau Hijau under the Feel Oud banner is very citrus-forward) and I only know Taha’s work through his pure oud oils.  All I can say with confidence is that Aquilaria Blossom has none of that heady, musky floriental thickness of body that we are used to in Areej Le Doré releases.

 

Is it possible that two oud greats came together and created….a freshie?  Maybe!  Russian Adam is an innovator and this is possibly him shaking things up.  Aquilaria Blossom is fragrant and aromatic, woody and bright.  It lingers on the skin and in the air but feels like no weight at all on the skin.  But that’s not to say that its simplicity is, well, simple.  I’m reminded of the line in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” where he says “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / I am large, I contain multitudes”.  Aquilaria Blossom is relatively simple and straightforward.  But it too contains multitudes.  Multitudes of hay, ambergris, spice, citrus peel, and wood rot all tucked away neatly into one long thin line of leather.

 

 

Source of sample:  A 2ml sample sent to me free of charge by Russian Adam (I paid customs).   

 

Cover Image:  Photo, my own, of Aquilaria Blossom sample next to piece of Wild Thai agarwood for scale.  Please do not distribute, circulate or use this photo without my permission.

 

 

[1] For example, on the Agar Aura website, Taha describes his technique for Berkilau Hitam, a discontinued oil, as follows: ‘Berkilau Hitam is the pure isolated base-note fractions of the agarwood extract (and approximately 6 times higher in quality: Berkilau raw materials). This is pure wood, resin, and smoke. These are the same aromatic fractions that most people associate with actual burning agarwood, Fractions which are either missing altogether in many oud oils, or extracted using inferior distillation techniques. Scientifically speaking, this oil literally consists of only the heaviest, densest, richest aromatic compounds found in agarwood (read: darkest smelling)[1].’ Interesting, no?

 

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Hera by Papillon Artisan Perfumes

22nd May 2022

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cover image:  Photo by Łukasz Łada on Unsplash  

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Anamcara by Parfums Dusita

6th October 2021

 

The fact that something as weird and borderline confrontational as Anamcara by Parfums Dusita was workshopped in a Facebook group known for its strict ‘say something nice or don’t say anything at all’ policy is hilarious to me.  This is a humongous, syrupy fruity-floral that lurches at you with a pina colada in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.  Though striking, it is more feral than pretty.  Think less Juliette Binoche and more Béatrice Dalle.  

 

If you are familiar with the pungency of some floral absolutes in the raw, like jasmine, with its grapey nail solvent highnotes, or ylang, with its banana fuel-spill aspect, then you’re going to love Anamcara, because it features a massive overload of natural orange blossom.  If you’re unfamiliar with just how jolie laide naturals can smell or are new to the more artistic corners of niche-dom in general, however, Anamcara could be something of a shibboleth.

 

Because this is not the polite orange blossom of, say, Orange Blossom (Jo Malone) or Eau des Sens (Diptyque).  Rather, this is the weirdly medicinal gunk of cough syrups, hard-boiled orange throat lozenges, and vitamin C gummy bears sold in rickety little apothecaries all throughout Provence.  It reminds me very much of a holiday in Uzès, where everything from the ice-cream, honey, and chocolate to the bread (gibassier) seemed to be expensively infused with orange blossom or lavender essences and hyrosols.  I think of this perfumey oddness as distinctly French.

 

In Anamcara’s opening notes, I smell a dense ‘brown’ floral syrup diluted with a pour of carbonated water for an uplift that reminds me of the orangey Coca Cola fizz of Incense Rosé (Tauer). This is shot through with the fresh, lime-green bite of petitgrain, which also smells very French to me, recalling the openings to both Eau Sauvage and Diorella (Dior) as well as the later Mito (Vero Kern).   I can’t think of anything that smells quite like Anamcara in its totality, though.  I suppose that Rubj (Vero Kern again) in eau de parfum format is the fragrance that comes the closest, in terms of a shared focus on the medicinal ‘boiled sweet’ aspect of orange blossom.  But where Rubj piles on the sensuality with a shocking cumin seed note, Anamcara focuses on the weirdness of orange blossom alone.  There is also a savory or umami element to Anamcara, possibly from the sandalwood, that reads as more Asian than European.

 

If I had a criticism, it would be that Anamcara is overdosed (on something) to the point of being oppressive, a monolith of floral muck so densely muscled that it’s hard to make out the shape of any of the tendons or veins.  This will be somebody’s idea of floral bliss, no doubt, just not mine.  I can’t wear fragrances like this – they wear me down, defying my attempt to parse them out.  I do, however, respect the hell out of Pissara Umavijani’s refusal to color inside the lines on this one.  Despite the ‘rainbows and unicorns’ vibe of its origin story, Anamcara will push buttons as well as boundaries.

 

 

Note: As widely reported, Anamcara translates roughly to ‘soul friend’ in Irish (and Scots Gaelic, which is similar), though ‘soul mate’ is probably closer in modern parlance. As an Irish person (and Irish speaker) myself, I can tell you that the vocative form of ‘cara’ is used very often in day to day speech, i.e.,  ‘mo chara’ to say ‘yo my fine friend’ and ‘a chara’ to mean Dear Sir/Modom when writing a letter to the Irish Times complaining that last week’s crossword puzzle was wrong or that the banks are running this country into the ground, etc. So it’s funny to see these words appear on a fancy French perfume. 

 

Source of sample: Sent to me free of charge by the brand. My review and thoughts are my own.

 

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

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Three by Mellifluence: Hellicum, Spirit of Narda II, and Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

1st September 2021

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Abdullah’s work at Mellifluence, which was about his amazing Tsuga Musk mukhallat featured in my Basenotes article, ‘The Murky Matter of Musk‘ (1 September, 2017).  Four years might have passed since then, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been dipping into Mellifluence’s wares in the meantime. Last summer, I placed an order with Mellifluence for some raw materials and mukhallats, and Abdullah generously included some samples of stuff he also wanted me to smell. I’m getting to them only now, which unfortunately means that some of the scents I talk about are now unavailable.

Because here’s the thing you need to know about Mellifluence before you invest – Abdullah works in small batches, using naturals he has sourced elsewhere, and when that material runs out, so too does the mukhallat featuring it. That means you need to work fast, with a speedy turnaround time from sample to full bottle (well, tola) purchase if you’re going to snap up the thing you love. The house style is light, clean, and delicate, which is no mean feat considering the ofttimes heaviness of some of the naturals involved. In general, Abdullah excels at work involving rose, green herbaceous notes like lavender, tuberose (which he is able to render quite masculine), oud, and vetiver. 

To the best of my knowledge, Abdullah works only with naturals, because of certain sensitivities he experiences when dealing with synthetics. But worry not, while the all-natural focus does give his work a certain ‘crunchy granola’, aromatherapy-adjacent flavor, I haven’t personally experienced any of the muddiness you sometimes get with all-natural perfumery. The flip side of all this lightness and clarity is, however, a certain lack of projection and longevity. But people seeking out the authenticity of raw materials above all else are already mostly prepared for this trade-off.   

The other things to be aware of are that these are mukhallats, not attars, though people (and brands who make them) tend to use the word ‘attar’ to describe any perfume in oil. Strictly speaking, however, though mukhallats and attars are both oil-based (i.e., they do not contain alcohol), attars are defined by their manner of production, which is the distillation of raw materials into sandalwood oil in the traditional ‘dheg and bhapka’ method (named for the copper piping and leather receptacle involved in the method) used in Kannuaj, India. A mukhallat, on the other hand, is the term used to describe a mix (mukhallat is simply Arabic for ‘blend’ or ‘mix’) of any already distilled essences, absolutes, attars, ruhs, and oud oil (and sometimes even synthetics, increasingly so in modern times) with a carrier oil, which used to be sandalwood oil but for reasons of both cost and availability these days is more likely to be something like moringa, jojoba, or even good old vegetable oil. For those of you who don’t care about the pedantry of this, your main takeaway should be that these are oils, and often highly concentrated ones, and therefore need to be dabbed onto the skin (or beard, if you have one) in judicious amounts. A dab will do ya. 

 

Hellicum

 

Hellicum’s opening is both medicinal and animalic – fresh lavender and sage dipped in something lasciviously scalpy, like costus. There is also a brief flash of something sweet, like vanilla or honey, but this is gone almost immediately. Oud emerges from a mist of sinus-clearing eucalyptus or mint, and it is almost outrageous to me that a wood oil so deeply thick, so animalic, can be stretched out and massaged into something so airy. Flanked by those soft, camphoraceous herbs and pinned in place by a waxy amber accord that smells like a minty version of a Werther’s Original, the oud reads more as a light, clean leather than the stable filth that we are sometimes asked to grit our teeth through in the name of oud.

 

And this is precisely the kind of sleight of hand that Abdullah of Mellifluence excels in. Heavy, animalic substances tweaked until they are transformed into something clean, and delicate, qualities more suited, perhaps, for the soothing of frayed nerves than for the purposes of seduction or for projecting an image of yourself onto the world.

 

It is not a slight to suggest, by the way, that Hellicum, like many Mellifluence mukhallats, is more Rescue Remedy than perfume. Sometimes, that’s what life calls for. I rarely wear fragrance during the day, choosing instead to aromatherapize myself off the stress ledge by rubbing a Mellifluence mukhallat or one of his naturals onto a knuckle, or massaging some of my Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin body oil into the ends of my hair. These quiet, subtle whiffs of aroma as I type, gesticulate, or turn my head are what propel me through my workday, a friendly hand at the small of my back. Hellicum is really good at this. I especially love the hidden thicket of patchouli tucked into the tail of the scent, there to please anyone who’s been paying attention. 

 

Spirit of Narda II

 

Part of the risk of falling in love with any Mellifluence mukhallat is returning to the brand’s Etsy page and realizing that it no longer exists. I hope that Abdullah finds some way to bring this back, though, because to my nose, it is one of the best things he has ever made. It reminds me of a long lost love of mine, which is the sadly discontinued Bohèmians en Voyage (Alkemia), which had a similar pastoral quality to it, like a stroll along countryside lanes, past fields of wheat and sunny hedgerows full of wild barley and small wildflowers.

 

The ‘Nard’ in the title refers to spikenard, or jatamansi, an intensely aromatic herb native to India not a million miles away from lavender in overall scent profile, but featuring a uniquely fatty, animalic undertone, like beef tallow or the yellow subcutaneous fat under the skin of an organically reared piece of mutton. In Spirit of Nard II, the herbaceous aspects of the spikenard are sharp and spiky, like a thistle, but there is also a milky element to the it that’s relaxing to the point of inducing sleepiness. This is bracketed by medicinal woods – an antiseptic sort of oud material, no doubt – and a soft, vegetal muskiness.

 

Spirit of Narda II feels complex and multi-layered, a haze wherein herbaceous, woody, milky, floral, and musky molecules advance and recede in such a crazy loop that you are never sure what it is all supposed to be, category-wise. Each time I wear it, I’m stumped. Is it an oud masquerading as a Spanish leather? A herb that’s secretly a sheep? A plant revealed by those meddling kids to be a medicine? No idea. But two things it is not are (a) available to buy, and (b) aromatherapy rather than a fully-realized perfume.

 

Miel Pour Femme (Almond)

 

This is an odd one. Not honey at all, but rather, a pale wodge of barely set beeswax poured into a polished oak mold and wrapped up in rustling layers of that edible paper they roll candy cigarettes or torrone in. It smells varnishy, waxy, and ever so slightly stale, like printer paper or Holy Communion wafers left open in a wooden chest. I suppose all this is also very much almond – not the syrupy cyanide (benzaldehyde) tones of most almond accords, but the grassy tannins of raw almond that you get in fragrances such as L’Amandière (Heeley). The overall effect has been achieved with a combination of benzoin (for that communion wafer aspect) and beeswax (for that waxy white honey aspect). The scent thickens up, over time, into a blanched, stodgy sweetness that is never as animalic or as thick as real honey, but still quite a distance away from the beeswax-paper-almond of the first half. Miel pour Femme (Almond) is fine, if a little odd. It just doesn’t set my world on fire quite as effectively as Spirit of Narda II.

 

 

Source of sample: I purchased 3mls of Miel Pour Femme (Almond) from the Mellifluence Etsy page, and 0.2ml samples of Hellicum and Spirit of Narda II were included as a gift with purchase.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

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Ormonde Elixir by Ormonde Jayne: A Review

31st August 2021

Ormonde Elixir is 45% Ormonde Woman, 45% Ormonde Man, and 10% oud oil.  I’m not mad at those percentages. The oud smells like the real deal has been used, and in more than holistic quantities too. The notes say Cambodi, but it smells like a hyper-smooth blend of Cambodi and Hindi oud to me, with the hot, bilious pleather of a Hindi (Hermès saddles buried under dirty straw) rubbing shoulders with the honeyed, berried undertone of a Cambodi (undiluted cranberry cordial) until the platonic ideal of the aroma profile that most people would think of as ‘oudy’ emerges. The oud imbues Woman’s lovely face with a menacing five-o-clock shadow, which is no mean feat given that Woman was already a moody black-green to start with. It punches Woman up a few notches, giving it a pungent, almost feral depth, without sacrificing any of the original’s gym-honed sleekness or its distinctive treacle-tart amber base.

In short, Ormonde Elixir is the Platinum card upgrade to the Gold of the original Woman. And it is absolutely beautiful. If you’re starting out and you want to own just one of the Woman/Man series (and have the money to spend), then this right here is the smoothest, deepest, and more luxe version of the series. However, if you already own either Ormonde Woman or Ormonde Man, then you own 90% of Ormonde Elixir. Personally, I’ve reached the ‘more sense than money’ stage of this hobby, so a sample of Elixir is enough to satisfy the itch. 

 

Source of Sample: A 1ml sample purchased from Neroli, Budapest.

Photo by Sleep Music on Unsplash

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

16th March 2021

 

 

Based on my sampling of three perfumes from the Argentinian brand Frassaï, I can say that this is exactly the kind of thing that one hopes to see from modern niche perfumery but rarely does, i.e., perfumes that are unusual but not too much, and rendered in a soft, lovely manner that gives them wearability and ease.

 

Consider two points on that scale, for reference – the earlier perfumes of Serge Lutens, which offered bold new ideas but presented them in often luridly syrupy forms that made them challenging to wear as a personal scent outside of a grand occasion, and the perfumes of Parfums de Marly or XerJoff, which are mostly recycled ideas and tired old tropes rendered loud and muscular with über-radiant woody ambers that smash their way through more delicate accords like a bull in a china shop.

 

The Frassaï perfumes, on the other hand, appear to have been carefully and sensitively art-directed (by Natalia Outeda, a designer who had previously art-directed perfumes in NY for companies such as Bond No. 9, Proctor and Gamble, and Kiehl’s). Though the perfume reviewed here are all in different styles – one essentially a soliflore, one a spicy fruity scent, another a woody gourmand – and some of perfumers who composed them have usually easily-identifiable signature ‘moves’ (Rodrigo Flores-Roux, for example), there is a common thread of harmony and softness that links them all. Is it possible that the female gaze in art directorship for fragrance is just as much a thing as it is in literature, or essays, or film?

 

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Tian Di (by perfumer Olivier Gillotin) is the most original of the three perfumes I sampled, and my outright favorite. It is really quite odd – a smoked-out peach skin nestled in a dusty ‘brown’ accord that remind me alternately of loose (peach-flavored) tea in those triangular nets sold by Dammann Frères, coffee grounds, or even cocoa – but also unexpectedly lovely. I am particularly charmed by the marvelous effect it produces on the skin, where it is all burnt peach licorice on the inhale (similar to the burnt anise-iris at the base of Guerlain’s Attrape-Coeur, albeit in dust form rather than apricot jam) and spearmint gum on the exhale. It is as gingery and as cooling as a tisane drink, yet as granular and coarsely-textured as the dry material before the hot water hits it.

 

Tian Di eventually deepens – or perhaps ‘spreads out’ – into a smudgy, smeary mint butterscotch and floor wax accord, with a hint of trampled grass and even beer, but never loses the malted, almost smoky graininess of the incense and tea. There is something about this that tugs a memory chord for me, making it difficult for me to evaluate objectively beyond the rather gormless ‘It’s odd but I love it’ review I’ve given it here. I think there’s either a loose connection to the peach of Trèsor (Lancôme) or to the sandalwoody, salty-minty, peony-esque weirdness of Dune (Dior), both of which I wore as a teenager, but again, this is all probably a Pavlovian response playing out in my mind and my mind only. Tian Di is special and unique. I’d buy this one in a heartbeat because I don’t have anything like it in my collection.  

 

A Fuego Lento (by perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux) is a soft jasmine soliflore that smells like a wall covered in jasmine whose petals have started to dry a little in the late June sunshine, giving it a sweet hay or alfalfa dimension. There’s a tangy orange blossom note at the start that reads a little rubbery, like hot tarmacadam, so for a brief time, the scent gives off a pleasant sensation of being in a hot Southern city where the exhaust fumes of cars and hot pavement mingle with the sudden wafts of white flowers tucked away behind tall, patrician walls. But really, A Fuego Lento is all about that jasmine. A nutty, milky amber holds it all in place without interfering with the purity of the flowers.

 

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I’m always moved by the simple but awe-inspiring beauty of a flower whose smell has been so faithfully recreated in scent form. This is, I recognize, no small feat in and of itself, unless you are willing to rely on the floral absolutes to do all the heavy lifting, in which case you have to deal with the more pungent, less pleasing aspects of the absolute – but Rodrigo Flores-Roux certainly knows his way around jasmine. That said, I’m a little surprised at the lack of accoutrements from a perfumer who produced both the complex, salty jasmine that is Ella (Arquiste) and the plummy jasmine chypre that is L’Âme Perdue (Le Galion), but I’m guessing that Outeda asked specifically for a pure, lush jasmine soliflore, and that is precisely what she got.

 

Personally, I don’t wear soliflores (preferring to smell flowers in nature than in the bottle) but if I were on the hunt for a great jasmine-dominant perfume, this would be a prime contender. The only other jasmine soliflore that matches the quality of A Fuego Lento is, in my opinion, the limited edition Diptyque Essences Insensées 2015, which is however far more syrupy and intense a smell.

 

Teisenddu (by perfumer Roxanne Kirkpatrick) is, in many ways, the most familiar-smelling perfume in the bunch, in that it mines a vein that many indie and niche perfumes before it have tapped into, i.e., that toasty-dry, caramelized scent of a working sauna, complete with all its spicy-fresh facets (juniper, conifer) and its dried fruit ones (cumin, caramel, prune, brandy). I quite like this toasty wood smell, even though it doesn’t really deviate from the pattern cut by scents such as Woodcut by Olympic Orchids or Bourbon by Hans Hendley.

 

Where it does innovate, however, is by pairing it with a full-blown movie butter popcorn accord with which I am only too familiar (unfortunately) thanks to my year-long exploration of the American indie oil sector. Every single perfume oil with the words ‘cake’ or ‘freshly baked bread’ or indeed ‘caramel’ featured precisely this note. Due to overexposure to this awful pyrazine-y aromachemical – whatever moniker it actually goes by – whenever I smell it, I think not of caramel or bread but instead of that awful fake butter popcorn flavoring they put in jellybeans. Because of its proximity to the hot, dry wood accord, the note emits a claggy ‘moistness’ that reads like warm, sweaty socks.

 

Now, it’s entirely possible that everyone else who smells this will smell what the perfumer intended, i.e., caramel, and that it is my particular sensitivity or over-exposure to this material that’s skewing the picture. I hope so. In any case, I hate this particular material with a passion and always wonder how Pierre Guillaume managed to pull off the toasted nuts and caramel in Aomassaï without resorting to it. (Part of me always thinks, well, if he can do it, why can’t everyone else?)

 

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Mercifully, this note burns off quickly enough, and my patience is rewarded by a remarkable (and really quite unusual for a toasty, spicy wood scent like this) plant milk accord that smells like coconut milk, lotion, and something green and crunchy, like agave, fig leaves, or aloe vera. What this does is add a cooling, lactonic finish to the scent that effectively rehydrates the wood, balancing it so that it never tips over into outright aridity – typically the natural end of spicy indie wood scents. I really love this surprising element, and it’s enough to compensate me for any butter popcorn trauma I might have suffered previously.

 

It’s worth mentioning that, even when this milky lotion component fades away, we are left with a gently-spiced, gently-resinated, and gently-ambery wood accord that never pushes the envelope too far in any one direction. It’s all quite gentle. Which suits me just fine. In this last stretch, Teisenddu reminds me a lot of Gaiac by Micallef (and its twin, Dark Horse by Dame Perfumery), as well as Wenge by Donna Karan – all scents I’d describe as soft takes on the amber-incense-wood category, a popular and rather densely-populated intersection in niche perfumery. Scents like this are the fuzzy blanket of the perfume world (or ‘woody puddings’, as NST calls them), and while not entirely a novel form, Teisenddu innovates just far enough with that green, juicy plant milk accord to carve out a space for itself.

 

Source of Samples: I purchased samples of these Frassaï fragrances from Neroli Hungary, a Budapest-based niche perfume store here. I have purchased samples from Neroli multiple times since 2014 and am very happy to recommend them to my fellow European fumeheads.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash                       

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Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi

2nd February 2021

There are three types of tuberose fragrance and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Category I is Photorealistic Tuberose, which is where you find the dewy ‘ripped from nature’ takes like Carnal Flower (Malle), Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), and yes, even Tubéreuse Criminelle (Lutens) after it shimmies through that Listerine bead curtain up front.

Category II is Nights in White Satin tuberose, where you find all the aging Baby Janes sweating naked but for a fur coat on a hot Southern veranda, waiting to pounce on the mail boy, her left buttock making a slurping sound as she propels herself off her lounge chair – stuff like Amarige (Givenchy), Giorgio (Giorgio Beverly Hills), and Number One Intense (De Nicolai).

Category III is Tuberose Messed Up Beyond All Recognition, the hangout room for perfumes that drown out the objectionably fruity bubblegum bullshit of tuberose until you’re smelling as much hay, leather, incense, or patchouli as tuberose itself. Tubéreuse III (Histoires de Parfum) and Daphne (Comme des Garcons) are good examples.

I have little use for perfumes from Category I. I wear Carnal Flower about once a year, swooning at its limpid green beauty only to cheerfully bench it again for another twelve months. Category II, in all its “The Eighties Called and Want Their Shoulder Pads Back” glory, is triggering, for me, and therefore a hard no. (Even some really modern perfumes, like Mélodie de l’Amour (Dusita) and L’ Eau Scandaleuse (Anatole LeBreton), released in 2016 and 2014 respectively, accidentally fall into Category II due to the man-eating nature of their tuberose). Category III is really the only space in which I can enjoy tuberose, because, as you might have guessed by now, tuberose needs to be so heavily masked with other notes that I can get it down without gagging.

Because Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi is fruit, tuberose (and ylang, to my nose) over smoky woods and uncured leather, it would seem to fall effortlessly into the third category. Right? And yep, it mostly does. However, the sticky peach jam note coaxes out all of the unfortunate bubblegum tendencies of tuberose, which means that it tips its rather cartoonish Jessica Rabbit sunhat just enough in the direction of the Nights in White Satin category to make me uncomfortable.     

Which is my long-winded (even for me) way of saying that Tyger Tyger is not for me, but that is due entirely to my own personal issues with tuberose rather than the way in which the perfume is constructed or wears. The perfume itself is blameless. Lovers of the spicy 1980s floriental style of Big White Floral will rejoice in this juice. It starts off with a hugely sweet peach bubblegum note that might as well be tuberose candy – and at this point, I’m all #thanksifuckinghateit.

But this is Francesca Bianchi, y’all. She’s not going to leave those great, big honey-dripping white flowers out there on their own for long. Almost immediately, in fact, the familiar Bianchi accord of ‘stony, smoky, slutty iris leather with a side of licked skin’ (that’s how I refer to it anyway) rises up to infuse the floral candy with an attractive smokiness, kind of like hay, leather, and woods being smoked in a far off barn.  

So, yes, by the mid-section, I’m starting to come around. There’s enough going on here to reduce the tuberose to something I can just about glimpse at the corner of my eye. Think Pèche Cardinal (Parfums MDCI) – minus the tropical coconut – sleeping with a stable boy, their sticky sex juices mingling with the grimy but healthy aroma of leather riding tack and hay. It shares something with the utterly mad, bubblegum-on-steroids tuberose incense of Daphne (Comme des Garcons), a bit of that fleshy peach sweetness of Pèche Cardinal, and quite a lot of overlap with the retro butter-caramel-leather-hay-filtered smut of Tubéreuse III.

The drydown smells curiously like the peach-scented floor wax of Chinatown, the tuberose boiled down until its bubblegum and peach juice juiciness evaporates, fading out into a gently smoky Crayola finish. But tuberose wax is still tuberose, and man, even a little bit of it is nigh on too much for this gal. As it flattens out slightly at the end, more of the scent’s candied tuberose-ness – and thus also its essentially 1980s floriental character – is laid bare. Don’t get me wrong – Tyger Tyger is a beautifully made, and surprisingly softly spoken white floral that will please many. It’s really no fault of the scent that it happens to brush up against one of my personal triggers.  

 

Source of Sample: PR sample, provided gratis by the brand. 

 

Cover Image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Gifts of the Three Magi: Frankly Frankincense

11th December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Lisandro Garcia on Unsplash

Cardinal (Heeley) – High Mass Frankincense

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

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

Casbah (Robert Piguet)Spicy Frankincense

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

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

Armani Privé Bois d’Encens – Boring Frankincense

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

Czech & Speake Frankincense and MyrrhHonest Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Vladimir Šoić on Unsplash

Mad et Len Noir EncensAmaretto Frankincense

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

Paul Schütze Behind the RainWild Frankincense

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

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

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

Rosarium (Angela Ciampagna) – Icing Sugar Frankincense

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

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

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

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

Wazamba (Parfum d’Empire) – Fruity Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Incense (Norma Kamali) – Holy Cow Frankincense

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

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

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

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

Incense Flash (Tauerville)Frankincense Haiku

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

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

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

Sombre Negra (Yosh) Frankincense Fougère

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

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

Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal) Fag Ash Frankincense

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


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

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile)Fairytale Frankincense

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

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

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

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

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

La Fumée (Miller Harris)Fresh Frankincense

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


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

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian) Frankincense Absolute

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

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

Calling All Angels (April Aromatics)Butter Caramel Frankincense

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

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

Vento nel Vento (Bois 1920)Frankincense Plus

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

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

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


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


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

Sahara Noir (Tom Ford)Frank Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Joshua Davis on Unsplash

Holy Terror (Arcana)Frankincense through a Vaseline Lens

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

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

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


Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars) – Frankincense Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Anup Ghag on Unsplash


Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio)Pure Frankincense

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

Basilica (Solstice Scents) Starter Pack Frankincense

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

Olibanum (Profumum)Polished Frankincense

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


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

Al Masih (Mellifluence)Messianic Frankincense

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

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

Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

Eau Duelle (Diptyque) – Vanilla Frankincense

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

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


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

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

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

Apr.03.1968 (Rundholz)Jamaica Cake Frankincense  

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


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


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


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


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

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

Cover Image: Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash