The dry balsamic scent of frankincense, a resinous material obtained from a Boswellia tree species native to the east, readily conjures visions of golden censers, sonorous chants and burning candles. In fact, both Eastern and Western religions share the use of frankincense in their ceremonies as it is believed to aid prayer and meditation. Frankincense can be burned on its own, or blended with other ingredients to create incense sticks. As a perfumery note, frankincense is remarkably versatile, being as naturally suited for the dark heft of an oriental fragrance as for the effervescent sparkle of citrus cologne. The smell of frankincense oil in its pure state is fascinating. At first, it is reminiscent of freshly ground black pepper, with a twist of lemon peel in the background. As the oil dries down, it reveals its dry woody character, which lies halfway between balsamic richness and flinty mineral crispness.
Although incense tends to be associated with heavy, dark fragrances, it is actually a common note in fresh citrus and green fragrances. Paired with sparkling, effervescent notes, frankincense can lend a nice lift, like the fizz of champagne bubbles. It contains both cold and warm elements: a citrusy, peppery top note and a dark, balsamic finish. Atelier Cologne Bois Blonds is an example of a fragrance that pairs the brightness of incense with citrus, resulting in a bright composition free from liturgical associations. Similarly, Hermès Eau de Gentiane Blanche uses frankincense to support an accord reminiscent of green stems and ivy leaves.
In the darker register of oriental fragrances, frankincense lends a soft glow to opulent accords of spices, vanilla, and patchouli. Thus, the luminous quality of Caron Parfum Sacré is derived from the manner in which its spicy roses are modulated by the balsamic dryness of incense. On the other hand, for those who prefer to be transported to midnight mass, Comme des Garçons Incense Series Avignon offers a journey through a frankincense note made dark and somber by amber and woods. Another stellar dark incense fragrance is Armani Privé Bois D’Encens, an elegant orchestration of cedarwood and frankincense. Sonoma Scent Studio Incense Pure and Tauer Incense Extreme also explore incense accords in an interesting and memorable manner; they oscillate between fresh and dark facets.
Finally, frankincense can be used as a flavor as well. If you come across high quality frankincense tears, I recommend using it to scent water, the way it is done in the Middle East. Leave a small piece of frankincense in a bottle of water overnight and next morning it will become infused with a delicious peppery-balsamic flavor. In Oman, frankincense is also chewed as gum to freshen the breath.
Image credit: “smoldering incense” by JanneM via flickr. Second image: frankincense grains via mountainrainbowark.com