Incense, Frankincense : Fragrance Notes

Incense1

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. 

Incense

Image credit: “smoldering incense” by JanneM via flickr. Second image: frankincense grains via mountainrainbowark.com

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12 Comments

  • Carla: I recently compared several incense perfumes, and Bois d’Encens is now on my wish list. I contacted Armani and was told they are re-issuing it this fall. I hope it won’t be much changed. June 1, 2011 at 8:09am Reply

  • sweetlife: Love. Thank you for this.

    Bought some freshly harvested Oman frankincense from Enfleurage not so long ago that was still sticky! Incredible stuff. And Trygve does her own distilling on the spot, so their oil is equally good. June 1, 2011 at 8:50am Reply

  • Victoria: I'm also glad that it is reissued. One of the best incense fragrances.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile June 1, 2011 at 9:06am Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, then definitely try the incense drink! It is very refreshing.
    In Oman, to this day frankincense is used to cure pretty much everything.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile June 1, 2011 at 9:07am Reply

  • Alexandra: The first time I encountered frankincense was in Dubai, when I was in the Madinat souk Jumeirah, drawn literally by the nose by that mesmerising smell, coming out of an Arabian perfume boutique! It was such good quality! I bought both the frankincense to burn and the equivalent perfume to wear in an exceptional glassy bottle ornamented with oriental patterns, and I treasure both! June 1, 2011 at 9:55am Reply

  • Mandy Aftel: I often scent water with frankincense and it is so lovely as a flavored water. June 1, 2011 at 11:06am Reply

  • Victoria: Sounds like my own experience! I still have the frankincense I bought there, and I burn it whenever I want to be reminded of the wonderful time I’ve spent there. June 1, 2011 at 3:39pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, I also loved your frankincense scented tea. What a special treat! June 1, 2011 at 3:39pm Reply

  • Lavanya: I don’t think I’ve ever tried frankincense scented water- does it taste anything like the thirtham/holy water that is served in temples? June 1, 2011 at 8:26pm Reply

  • Victoria: It is simpler, more like black pepper and pine sap. Very refreshing!
    The temple water smells a bit of rose and sandalwood based on my memories.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile June 1, 2011 at 9:57pm Reply

  • Amy: Do you know if actual frankincese/olibanum is used, in general, in niche perfumery, or is it suggested by other means? I’m most curious to know if it is actually used in Avignon, Heeley’s Cardinal, and Montale’s Full Incense. June 20, 2013 at 11:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: In many fragrances with incense notes, olibanum is used. Sometimes it can be pepper or elemi that gives you an incense effect, but for true incense, that’s the note. Not sure about Montale and Heeley, but Avignon definitely uses frankincense essence. June 21, 2013 at 7:28am Reply

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