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.
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 Myrrh – Honest 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.
Mad et Len Noir Encens – Amaretto 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 Rain – Wild 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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