Tag Archives: frankincense

The Chill, Paradoxical Hand of Heat

-       a review of Serge Lutens’L’Eau Froide’

Among perfumistas, the degree of dedication is often delineated by our love of…’skank’, that handy catch-all phrase of all that is animal, dirty or even sexy in perfume. Civet, castoreum, musk and even cumin have all been used in perfumes for hundreds of years to denote a frisson of ardor and heated sensuality, something to bring out the inner animal hiding within. Many immortal pre-reformulation perfumes and even a few modern ones are testaments to ‘la bête sensuelle’, the sensual (if human) beast: Jicky and Shalimar, Bandit, the original Miss Dior and Bal à Versailles or even Francis Kurkdjian’s recent and audacious Absolue pour le Soir, all of them not so innocent at all!

Yet in the mainstream world since the Nineties, clean reigns supreme. Clean as in white musk, clean as in freshly laundered clothing, newly showered bodies…anything that elevates the human animal above its baser self into some rarified, intellectual level of being where we are all whiter than white, nearly abstract concepts, dreaming only the purest and most salient of dreams. It simply wouldn’t do to sully our surroundings with salacious, sexy scents, it was impolite to advertise any seductive intent in our scent trails, to blatantly lay claim to our own…bête humaine.

So while the world continued its love affair with hygiene and perfumes that accented the aquatic, ethereal and non-offensive, the alchemist duo of Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake were meanwhile creating fragrant, fevered odes to the Orient, the very antithesis of trends and fashions, all of which celebrated that inner animal we took such pains to conceal. Perfumes that were difficult and challenging, journeys to far and distant places under foreign heated suns, phantasms that always took you by surprise, that delivered the unexpected.

I’ve since come to discover that M. Lutens likes few things more than the element of surprise unless it would be olfactory puns, and should he be able to combine the two, then so much the better!

That became very clear (all puns intended) when L’Eau was released in 2010 to more or less universal disbelief in the perfume community. It seemed almost an act of sacrilege and betrayal – from the house that gave us so many outrageously opulent creations with all their many convoluted twists and turns of evolution came this ode to The Clean Machine, the very antithesis of all fumes Lutens.

One thing I will say – it got the perfume community talking! About such mundane banalities as laundry detergent, soap, spray starch – all those defining elements of ‘clean’ we tend to take so much for granted in our quotidian lives, and for a Lutens/Sheldrake creation, that was likely the worst sacrilege of all. Motives were discussed on perfume boards and blogs, howls were heard on all sides, and redemption didn’t entirely arrive until the release of the Palais Royal exclusive Boxeuses.

It was not that it was bad, not that it was generic (although many begged to disagree), but that it was a Lutens, and, so the mindset went, as such surely above such mainstream clichés?

I liked it so much, I drained both my samples. You see, I suspected – apart from M. Lutens’ definite sense of mischief in pulling out that Persian rug beneath our perfumed feet – that those outraged perfumoholics were missing a rather valid point – some days, sometimes, all you want to do is be clean and presentable and wear a perfectly ironed shirt, and let them think what they will. Life is quite complicated enough, thank you.

L’Eau to my unsophisticated nose was long-lasting, citrus-y and mint-inflected. It smelled like the very best quality soap you can imagine, a thick towel, and a perfectly ironed linen shirt you don after a long and wearing day and in one simple gesture, your sense of well-being returns. No thrills, no spills and no surprises, unless it was that flinty, mineral drydown that added a little extra steel to my spine. It got me compliments. More than anything else, it got me out the door in a lot less time, since I didn’t have to think which impression I wanted to make. It would be good. The rest – as even the concept behind it – was…immaterial.

Two years on, right when I’ve become accustomed to Oriental carpet rides in bottles and scented journeys through time and space, here we are again with ‘L’Eau Froide’, another angle on ‘clean’, only this time, those perfumed waters are so very, very cold…

With ‘L’Eau Froide’, the focus is on frankincense. Frankincense – one of my most favorite notes in perfume – is surely one of the most astounding materials known to man. The scraggly, unkempt tree of deep desert and rocky crags known as Boswellia comes in several varieties that are literally nothing at all alike. The same species of tree – say, Boswellia carterii – will be richly floral and lemony in Oman, resinous and pine-like in Yemen. Boswellia serrata, the frankincense of India, has an earthy, spicy, slightly patchouli facet.

The Boswellia sacra of Somalia which is highlighted in ‘L’Eau Froide’, unlike its siblings and cousins elsewhere for all it grows in similarly arid, hot locations, is the frankincense of… paradox. Its scent is literally glacial.

I’m lucky enough to have five different versions of frankincense to compare and even a small censer to burn them in. To make sure, I burned all five at different times: Hojari and Silver from Oman, Serrata from India, Carterii from Yemen and Sacra from Somalia. All were glorious, but only the Somali made my seven-year-old complain that it was ‘cold’.

I have no notes for ‘L’Eau Froide’ and so no expectations of trying to find elusive elements that may or may not be there. Instead, there is that same airy kick of citrus, a herbal element that could be rosemary and pine, a cool kiss of eucalyptus to wake you up and make you breathe it deeper. As it develops – which it does, slowly and stealthily – that chill frisson of frankincense comes forward on my skin, and it becomes far less soapy and much more mineral, with an earthy, pine forest feel that reminds me of the background taste of spring water, filtered through layers of stone and bubbling out its icy secrets for you to discover. That frigid frankincense is very much present throughout, and never loses that deathless desert chill until very much later, when musk finally manages to wrap its own warmth around it.

To my idiosyncratic nose, ‘L’Eau Froide’ is nothing like its more aquatic sibling, nor even anything like those many generic aquatic scents that pass for ‘masculine’ perfumes these days. It’s denser and richer and far more unique, definitely unisex.

Perfect for those days you need a little extra resolve, some added high grade steel in your spine, a touch of bright distance to let you concentrate on those all-important abstract tasks of your day, wrapped in that chilly, perfect paradox of heat.

I predict it will be used often precisely for those days I would prefer the world at a slight remove, the better to observe ‘la bête humaine’ in all its many guises and myriads of scents, the days when life becomes quite complicated enough, those days the writer watches life unfold around her for inspiration.

I also predict that not everyone will like it. It is indeed strange, it is indeed cold, it is a deep, deep breath by a hidden, secret spring, and not all secrets are always…appreciated!

As for the mischievous M. Lutens, we can only guess at his intention. But as he stated in the press release:

“I’d say it’s crystal clear.”

I have a giveaway! Leave a comment by midnight CET, Sunday the 26th of February for your chance to try ‘L’Eau Froide’ for yourself. A winner will be chosen by random.org.

L’Eau Froide is now available from the Serge Lutens website, and will be available worldwide in March.

Disclosure: My sample was provided for review by Serge Lutens.

The Gold Wreath of Gorgeous


- a review of Ormonde Jayne’s ‘Tolu’
Does it ever happen to you…that you read a description of a perfume, a list of notes, and somewhere inside, something stirs and moves and sighs? Do you ever have an intuition that no matter what, you know it in your bones…this will be fantastic?

This past spring, I was lucky enough to receive a Discovery set of perfumes from one perfumer whose work intrigued me no end by description alone. The perfumer was Linda Pilkington, the house was Ormonde Jayne, and call it a hunch or a sense of foreboding, but somehow, some way, I knew it would be good.

With one exception, every one of them was so delicious and so compelling, I loved them all with a passion all spring and well into the summer. I loved them so much in fact, I couldn’t write about them. I’d look at that elegant black-gold Discovery set and sigh…sigh with regret over the size of my microscopic bank account, sigh that these perfumes could be so stunning, and sigh that I just knew I had to write about them – and a few dozen others, too.

The precarious thrills of a perfume blogger! So many perfumes, so many words to find, so little time…

This is why I’ve decided to nip my burgeoning sense of guilt in the bud and write about one of my favorite Ormonde Jaynes…‘Tolu’.

Tolu balsam, which is made from a tree native to Peru and Colombia, is a dark, tenacious resin that smells simultaneously sweet and woody-spicy with hints of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. It is one of my favorite base notes in perfumery precisely for that reason.

You can imagine that once I got my hands on Ormonde Jayne’s ‘Tolu’, I really did hope it would live up to that giddy sense of anticipation I conjured in my head from the notes. Please, let this be good, let it make my day brighter, let it make me swoon with its scented, sensual pleasures…

Reader, it was. It is. It did!

Tolu’ is, in a word – stunning. Ormonde Jayne lists it as a floral-oriental, and I can see why. It starts with a bracing little kick of juniper and a bright and mellow clary sage, before the orange blossom sashays in with promises of floral marvels to come – the orchid, which I can’t detect to be honest, the muguet, which adds a flirty, light-hearted note, and the decadent rose, which is most emphatically present, waltzing around the perfume in perfect step with the orange blossom just enough to intrigue me further.

Be still my beating heart, I thought the first time I tried it, be still!

My heart never listened. Instead, it beat faster.

So seamlessly, so stealthily, so imperceptibly did the drydown arrive about a half hour later while I was distracted by life and other hazards, that it was only in passing I noticed what has to be one of the most heartbreaking, breathtaking, faintmaking drydowns I’ve ever encountered in a perfume.

Time for the tolu that gives ‘Tolu’ its name, its spicy-woody-sweet aura whirling around and around tonka bean with its vanilla flair, golden frankincense (another all-time favorite base note) and what’s listed as ‘amber’ and I detect as a labdanum accord. I’m not a major amber perfume fan girl, but surely there’s amber and there’s this…amber. It wraps around the skin like a golden aura of cashmere and silk, spicy-sweet, ultra-rich and intoxicating, and I never, ever want it to come to an end.

‘Tolu’ in the eau de parfum is very long lasting and tenacious, unabashedly womanly but not frilly or ‘girlie’, and like not a few Ormonde Jaynes, sultry, sexy and deliciously seductive. I wore this a while ago to meet with a platonic male friend, and he asked me in no uncertain terms to move slightly away. He said my perfume gave him ideas…

That’s the kind of reaction I always hope for!

The more I’ve worn ‘Tolu’ – far too much if the diminishing level in my sample vial is any indication – the more I’ve come to see it as a golden perfume, not just in color but in terms of its aura. Linda Pilkington recommends it for autumn wear, and I can understand why…something about that golden, warm cashmere/silk aura that goes so beautifully with the cool, gold light of October. I’ve worn it for big presentation days, and I’ve worn it for evening wear, and I have to say – wear this wisely. It’s that…sultry. And that sexy!

I’m at that thankless age where I’ll do whatever it takes to amp up the oomph. With ‘Tolu’, it’s like donning that golden wreath of myrtle, sacred to Aphrodite, found in Philip II’s tomb in Vergina. I suspect it was worn by a woman – myrtle crowns were considered propitious for women in Hellenistic Greece – and I like to think that the woman who wore it put it on last to lend a little of Aphrodite’s irresistible beauty as well…one golden wreath of gorgeousness, as if to say…this way, a woman walks, leaving an irresistible aura behind.

I don’t have a golden wreath of myrtle, nor do I have any of Aphrodite’s beauty to borrow, but for a little while longer, I have Ormonde Jayne’s ‘Tolu’.

A golden wreath of gorgeous I can claim for my own!

Notes:
Top: Juniper berry, orange blossom, clary sage
Heart: Orchid, Moroccan rose, muguet
Base: Tolu, tonka bean, golden frankincense, amber

Disclosure: Sample provided by Ormonde Jayne for review.

Ormonde Jayne ‘Tolu’ is available in several permutations from the Ormonde Jayne website, and from Senteurs d’Aillleurs in Brussels. Ormonde Jayne ships worldwide.

Image: Gold myrtle wreath found in Philip II of Macedon’s tomb in Vergina, 4th century B.C.E, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

Devilscent – Part Two: The Samples


- a conversation with the Devil

Dev was waiting for me when I came home this afternoon feeling rather frazzled. Cool as anything, he pulled up a chair next to my desk and nodded toward a small black box.

“You know we have some work to do here, right?” He tipped back his chair against the wall.

“Dude, I’m wiped. Toast. I’ve had a monthful of days. I need a vacation.”

“I know. You need better excuses. Later, baby.”

“You would say that.”

“I’m a fictional character, I can say whatever I please. And I say we have some samples to look at.”

“So you’re saying that Doc Elly took the bait?”

“Sink, line, bait and hook. This will be a hit. She can smell it, too. Open up the box.”

“Yes, Master.” Inside nestled neatly labeled small test vials of six different frankincense extracts, steam-distilled and CO2, four kinds of labdanum, and four other essences best described as “Hazardous To Your Fevered Imagination”.

I dug out my sample blotters. “Where do you want to start?”

“Hmm.” First, he stuck his entire nose in the box and breathed it in. “Holy…no, I can’t say that on a perfume blog. And you can’t write that, either. This is potent stuff.” He reached out for a vial labeled ‘labdanum absolute’. “Sexy! You were looking for a whiff of goat, right?”

“That’s the idea. Well, you know…it’s the animal thing. You’ve got to have a little…animal in there. You are.” I cast my beady, bleary eyes at those frankincense vials.

“Not nearly so much as you.”

“Shut up. I know I’m a 130 lb chimp with a bad attitude, OK? Dude, we’ve got a perfume to make.”

“So we do.” He tipped a drop or two of Boswellia sacra and serrata onto the blotting paper and waved it under his nose. “Ummm…it needs something.” Labdanum, a touch of CO2, and a mystery labeled with a name followed by ‘Givaudan’. “I hate having to watch my language, but…oh, yeah. This is great. This is sinful.” He dug into the box. “Here’s another Ingredient X. I was excited about this one, but it’s not what I expected.” He added a drop of it and jiggled it under my nose. “So whaddaya think?”

“I think I need coffee, is what.” That frankincense was so…relaxing. I’d curl up under that desert tree any day.

“Get a grip. We have work to do.” The most incredible aroma was wafting around the room. He added a little oud. “Needs more goat.” He pulled out a vial. “Not enough. There’s labdanum and frankincense in a catfight on that blotter, and I can’t tell which one is winning.”

“My money is on the labdanum.”

“It would be. You can’t get enough of that stuff.”

“Hush. You like it, too.” I added Boswellia neglecta. “Oh, baby. I just hit the oh-zone layer. So that’s why it’s thinning.”

“And fully dressed, too!” he laughed. “So…we’re getting something like a base going here. Neglecta…is lemony. Not what I expected.” He sniffed again. “We need more sin.” Another drop of Givaudan sin.

“Any more sin, and I’ll be burned as a heretic,” I heard myself say. Already, my senses were reeling. “How Doc Elly does this, I don’t know.”

“I do.” Green labdanum absolute dripped down. That blotter should be banned, I caught myself thinking as I sniffed. It was heady. It was dangerous. It was glorious. It was very nearly the drop-dead sexiest thing I had stuck my nose in since Boxeuses. I hoped he wouldn’t wear it. I didn’t have anything left to sell.

“OK. We’ve got the rhythm now. We’ve got the bass line.” The Devil waved the blotter under my nose, and I breathed it all the way in. Danger. Dark. Devil. Oh, yes.

“Now,” he said after a while, “all we’re missing is a melody line and a lead guitar…”

to be continued…

Devilscent – the Tauer edition


a review of Andy Tauer’s “Incense Extrème”

Imagine – a film noir Friday night in November, with rain-slick streets full of people out for a good time, the kind of Friday night you just know something will happen. You can taste the possibilities in the air.

Imagine a woman – not old, not young, disillusioned with her life and all the hopes she has been forced to leave behind her, sitting in a near-deserted blues café in Copenhagen over a glass of mulled wine near midnight, thinking about the one-knight stand she just left. She’s also thinking about the one thing that gives her any hope for a future of her choosing, thinking about making that hope a reality. But if she knows anything, she knows the deck is stacked against her. She’s too old, too jaded, too guarded against the vicissitudes of life to really, truly believe in that one, last hope.

Which is when the Devil arrives to make a deal, to make her dream come true. He doesn’t show up with horns and hooves in a cloud of sulphur and brimstone, he doesn’t look anything like those stereotypical monster images of ‘The Devil’. Instead, he’s dangerous bait – a dead ringer for one of her own favorite erotic fantasies, and even so, she knows…he’s the Devil. How does she know?

She can smell it.

The Devil, you see, emanates a scent. And the woman in that Copenhagen café is a diehard perfumoholic, so she knows to take that scent apart. There’s frankincense in it and labdanum, something dark and bitter, something highly erotic and very, very dangerous.

The perfect recipe for trouble!

When I wrote a nothing little short story called “Midnight at the Crossroads Café” some time ago, it happened by ghostly dictation. I sat down in front of my laptop with an itch to write, inspired by a picture that really got my motor running – and wrote. I didn’t think, didn’t analyze, didn’t weigh my words at all. Somewhere along the line in the two hours it took to write it, the Devil’s scent arrived and never left, weaving the seductive trail of its character in and out of the storyline that followed just as other perfumes did, because that’s the kind of woman the protagonist is and that’s the kind of woman I am, too.

I’ve been hunting for that scent ever since. In that quest, I came across Andy Tauer’s “Incense Extrème”. One of the ultimate incense scents along with the Comme des Garçons line, so the story went, and it went on the shortlist of Things To Try.

On a trip to Copenhagen, I drove my sister nuts by hauling her to a shop and proceeding to try out the Comme des Garçons incenses – Avignon, Zagorsk and Kyoto. I liked all of them, but they were too…orthodox in their approach, too literal in their interpretation. They are all exceptional incenses in each their own ways, but no Devil resides in those bottles, no intimations of taboo drip from those liturgical nozzles of sanctity.

Incense Extrème shares the same evocative sense of sacred space with its three cousins, but I’m delighted to say there’s nothing in the slightest liturgical about it.

In this cynical age, we’re all too likely to forget that for our ancestors, incense was what divinity…smelled like.

With that first, potent spray, Incense Extrème takes you…there. Not beneath the soaring Gothic arches of some venerable cathedral, but there, far out in the desert beneath the light of a million stars, the sands whispering their nocturnal secrets as an old, spiky Boswellia bleeds its fragrant tears.

This is no shy, retiring incense that flirts and hints before it retreats, yet neither does it bludgeon you with dogma as the CdG’s are apt to do.

Like the tree that is its focus, Incense Extrème is timeless. The cedar and juniper, the coriander and a suggestion of petitgrain leap out of the bottle shocking you awake and aware. Orris is listed as one of the notes, but if that’s true, this is no relation to any other orris I’ve been privileged to meet. No carroty, buttery iris, no suggestion of anything the slightest bit floral. Instead, that radioactive cedar/juniper blend evolves from an aria at the beginning to a low, vibrant thrum, underpinned by a bitter, smoky labdanum and ambergris that keeps the incense floating and weaving throughout the top notes all the way to the far drydown that doesn’t arrive until a good six to eight hours later.

It is linear but not boring, dry as a desert wind, and thanks to that cedar and juniper, the brittle green-brown of desert sage. Very contemplative and serene, in fact I’ll go so far as to say this is my kind of chill pill. Wearing Incense Extréme, I can handle nearly anything life might throw my way.

Yet it is not the Devil’s scent. It’s very clean, very refined, very…civilized. With a touch of animal, slightly less cedar and more labdanum, a faint but distinct whiff of, well, goat, it could have been.

I don’t care. For the days when I need stainless steel armor for protection, for an evening I need serenity, for the nights I need to focus, I need Incense Extrème.

Yesterday, if I can get it!

Notes according to Basenotes:
Orris, cedar, Indian frankincense, ambergris, myrrh, labdanum, coriander, cumin, lavender