Top Favorite Incense Fragrances and Poll

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I fell asleep on a fall day colored crimson and burnished gold. I woke up on a winter morning veiled with snow. I can hardly make out the familiar landscape of parked cars, white houses and old trees through the graceful dance of snowflakes. We skipped fall and jumped straight into winter, or perhaps we will go back to summer given our completely bizarre meteorological record this year. So, I decided that I will take advantage of the cold by lighting up the fireplace, making a big pot of tea and wrapping myself in my favorite red blanket with Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Yet, once this fantasy materializes, I immediately want to get up, put on a warm coat and step out into the shimmering, dancing whiteness. As I walk through the empty streets, it all feels new and surprising—the black arabesques of tree  branches, the occasional splash of a red maple leaf, a snowflake that touches my cheek like someone’s surreptitious kiss.

In the cool, crisp air, the fragrance that I love the most is that of incense. Its contrast between citrus like brightness and warm smokiness is very dramatic, but the character is serene and calming. I wear incense year round, but once it starts to cool down, it becomes a staple in my wardrobe. My favorite incenses are airy and bright, rather than heavy and resinous, particularly since they lack the obvious liturgical associations. Incense accented blends are also very elegant, and their intimate sillage makes them good daytime perfumes when one needs to be conscious of other people in close quarters. Below is a selection of my favorite incense (and incense accented) fragrances, from the lightest to the richest.

Poll: What are your favorite incense fragrances?

Serge Lutens De Profundis

Bitter green florals and a splash of cool incense create an airy, bright composition in which incense plays a supporting but very crucial role by evoking a dream-like, ethereal image.

Atelier Cologne Bois Blonds

Soft woods and green citrus become more sparkling and crisper through the addition of peppery incense. A superb summer cologne that can certainly work year round.

Hermès Eau de Gentiane Blanche

Another incense accented composition that lacks any church associations. The green, rooty notes are layered over incense for an elegant twist on a green citrus cologne.

Chanel No 22

The newest reformulations of No 22 favor the incense notes, which is something I like very much. The smoky veil of incense wraps the lush accord of jasmine, rose and ylang ylang, thus, creating a dramatic, glamorous character. The incense notes are even more obvious in the parfum formulation.

Etro Shaal Nur

Shaal Nur is a modern version of Guerlain Shalimar—transparent, bright and playful. As such, it is a refined composition that can easily suit both men and women. The incense notes are played by the spicy sweetness of cinnamon and cardamom, while vanilla softens the smoky darkness.

L’Artisan Fragrances Passage d’Enfer

The incense notes are dark and rich, but the orchestration makes them light and soaring. Like a whiff of incense clinging to someone’s fur collar after a Christmas mass.

Armani Privé Bois D’Encens

A minimalist composition that is nevertheless of the incense gold standards: cedarwood, frankincense, citrus and pepper. Perfect!

Ormonde Jayne Tolu

A baroque twist of incense, where the cool, smoky notes are richly embellished with vanilla, sweet spices and luscious amber.

Donna Karan Black Cashmere

The dark backdrop of incense and woods makes Black Cashmere sonorous and opaque; however, it has plenty of twists and nuances to be memorable: the delicious richness of cedarwood and sandalwood, the dazzling brightness of peppery top notes, the honeyed softness of rose.

Sonoma Scent Studio Incense Pure

A fragrance that evokes the scent of bonfires in the cool winter air. Lacking the obvious sweet notes, this incense composition has an uplifting, bright character, while it retains its mysterious darkness.

Comme des Garçons Incense Series Kyoto

All of Comme des Garçons fragrances from the Incense Series are worth exploring, but Kyoto is particularly interesting for its contrasted quality. The cool richness of incense plays up the intoxicating warmth of roasted coffee beans, with the dryness of juniper, vetiver and patchouli lending the fragrance a polished finish.

Photograph © Bois de Jasmin.

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53 Comments

  • Suzanna: So beautifully written, V.

    Incense can be tough for me to wear, but I do have a couple of firm favorites in this category: Black Cashmere and No. 22 (current). Although I find the opening of No. 22 to shimmer as brightly as the glare of sun on snow, the incense drydown is a serene joy.

    Not an incense frag, but Un Bois Vanille comes alive in chilly, crisp weather and is in my mind the color of browned maple leaves. I am taking it along for Thanksgiving in the Blue Ridge Mountains. November 1, 2011 at 6:45am Reply

  • Persolaise: Thanks for this.

    The few I’d add are:

    Amouage Epic Man
    Tauer Incense Extreme
    CdG Avignon

    and I also really love the incense note in Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, although it isn’t an incense perfume, strictly speaking. November 1, 2011 at 6:46am Reply

  • hongkongmom: So many perfumes to love….so little time! I like many of the above, no 22 and kyoto mostly. Christian Lacroix Tumulte, encre noir and nu are others I enjoy wearing. Crazy weather for you. My sister had electricity failure in New Jersey. In HK, we are still in t-shirts and sandals! Need to pull out Shaar Nur and black cashmere! November 1, 2011 at 8:19am Reply

  • Cristine: I am loving Tom Ford Amber Absolute right now. To me, it’s like Donna Karan Black Cashmere with a warm amber background. I love BC, but sometimes long for the smooth warmth of amber, so AA is like the best of both worlds. November 1, 2011 at 8:33am Reply

  • Victoria: Mmmmm, Un Bois Vanille has such a wonderful incense note. It is one of my SLs I wear that often, but whenever I do, I enjoy it very much. November 1, 2011 at 8:43am Reply

  • Victoria: Great additions! Especially agree on Avignon, which is one of my favorites from CdG, along with Kyoto. The darkest that there is of incenses, no doubt! November 1, 2011 at 8:44am Reply

  • Amer: Still searching for the perfect incense I guess. The smell of pure incense is so intriguing and arouses the perfumer’s imagination. It has so many contrasting facets that reveal themselves unexpectedly in different occassions and contexts. The same incense extract or essential oil can take a whole new form depending on what the perfumer chooses to pair it with. (I’m still waiting for someone to explore the liquorice facet in an inovative way). It is also a powerful influencer that affects the performance of other star-quality ingredients. De profundis is definitely the next on my to-try list. I realy want to like it and have been postponing the experience as a treat I’m saving for myself. November 1, 2011 at 8:45am Reply

  • Victoria: Lucky you! Not that I mind the cold and snow, but I am just unprepared for it to come to early.
    Nu is another favorite, but it is discontinued, so I did not include it. I hear that it might be re-released this fall/winter though. November 1, 2011 at 8:45am Reply

  • Victoria: I love the dark chocolate note in Amber Absolute. It really add such an interesting animalic note to the drydown. November 1, 2011 at 8:46am Reply

  • Victoria: It is a very interesting note–pair it with citrus, and you have a sparkling and fresh composition. Pair it with smoky, woody notes, and incense becomes somber and dark. I also love the way it was used in classical fragrances, where it is merely an accent, but its effect very obvious. November 1, 2011 at 8:48am Reply

  • kjanicki: My favourites are CdG Avignon, Tauer Incense Rose and AbdesSalaam Attar Mecca Balsam. Right now I am also really tempted to buy By Kilian Incense Oud. November 1, 2011 at 9:08am Reply

  • Maja: I’ve recently discovered Eau d’ Iparie and so far I’m lovin it. The colder it gets the more I enjoy it. November 1, 2011 at 9:39am Reply

  • Delfina: My love to Black cashmer, Shaal Nur and Tolu

    I’d add:

    Tauer L’air du désert marocain
    Tauer Incense rosé
    L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzongkha
    Comme des Garçons 2 Man
    L’Artisan Parfumeur Timbuktu November 1, 2011 at 10:53am Reply

  • Elisa: Incense Rose is a favorite of mine too! Many of Andy’s fragrances have a beautiful incense note. Now, to go put on some LADDM…. November 1, 2011 at 11:23am Reply

  • Le critique de parfum: I’m _obsessed_ with the Durbanos again.

    Rock Crystal and Black Tourmaline are such POWERHOUSE incenses ❥ November 1, 2011 at 11:49am Reply

  • Vishishta: I love pure sandelwood oil and my favorite DSH “Cardamon and Khyri”, which was originally Egyptian temple incense, the recipe written on the walls of the ancient temples. Dawn Hurwitz has done an amazing job of creating this. Added to a luscious body lotion, it is the most sensuous thing imaginable. November 1, 2011 at 12:11pm Reply

  • Nikki: My absolute favorite incense is Creed’s Angelique Encens made for Marlene Dietrich in 1933…I feel it is the non plus ultra of incense perfumes, complete with fascinating history, background, beautiful heroine and alas, discontinued which makes it even more desirable. November 1, 2011 at 12:27pm Reply

  • Victoria: I like Incense Extreme best of all for its unusual fresh character. SSS’s Incense Pure is likewise fresh and bright, which is interesting in a such a dark and rich incense composition. November 1, 2011 at 12:49pm Reply

  • Karen: Apart from those already mentioned above for me Fille en Aiguilles by Serge Lutens has a strong incense note along with the pine resin. It reminds me of burning frankincense resin over charcoal. Also Incense Oud By Kilian. November 1, 2011 at 1:31pm Reply

  • Victoria: Some fragrances just do not work as well in the warm air. For me, Ambre Russe is a classical cold weather amber-incense. I cannot bear it on a warm day. November 1, 2011 at 3:06pm Reply

  • Victoria: All of your choices are great, and Timbuktu is so unique. I might wear it later today. Thank you for reminding me of it. November 1, 2011 at 3:07pm Reply

  • Victoria: I need to try them. The more niche houses pop up, the longer it takes me to explore all of them. November 1, 2011 at 3:07pm Reply

  • Victoria: Sounds delicious! Adding it to my to-sample list. Thank you. November 1, 2011 at 3:07pm Reply

  • Victoria: Ah, the story behind is so good. I am very disappointed that Creed selected to discontinue it. It was really one of their best fragrances. November 1, 2011 at 3:08pm Reply

  • Victoria: I also love incense in Fille en Aiguilles, which smells like Christmas to me–candied fruit, spices, mulled wine and fir tree… November 1, 2011 at 3:09pm Reply

  • rosarita: Such a lovely, evocative post, thank you. I love this time of year and I love incense in fragrance! Black Cashmere and Kyoto are two of my favorites. Some others, in no particular order:

    Lutens Encens et Lavande, calm in a bottle
    Parfums d’Empire Wazamba
    Bond 9 Silver Factory, effervescent incense
    a spritz or two of Calvin Klein Obsession, on a cold winter walk
    YSL Nu
    Les Nereides Imperial Opoponax is my gold standard opoponax scent, heaven for those who love deep & resinous. Also Shalimar, of course.
    Parfums de Nicolai Vanille Tonka
    Dawn Spencer Hurwitz Inner Sanctum is my HG rose/incense combination. November 1, 2011 at 4:07pm Reply

  • Mare: Gorgeous writing. Thank you for a wonderful post. November 1, 2011 at 5:28pm Reply

  • julie: I have a hard time with incense in real life and in perfumes as it often gives me a headache. My favorite incense is also a very cheap thrill – Pacifica’s Tibetan Mountain Temple. November 1, 2011 at 5:33pm Reply

  • minette: the photos of that early snow have been so lovely! and i’d be right there with you – vascillating between a pot of tea and a good book and a walk in the snow. i’d want to do both.

    as for incenses, i’ve been burning a lot of indian incense lately – a new favorite brand – ramakrishnananda – they are all really, really good! if you’re looking for a sexy incense, you can’t beat their lalita, which is sandalwood and musk. really great stuff and at a great price. (find at http://www.ramakrishnanandastore.com.)

    on my skin, i love to wear ambre sultan (it’s incense to me, not so much an amber), ysl’s M7, revlon ciara, and, of course, no. 22 with its incense at pascha note. November 1, 2011 at 8:14pm Reply

  • minette: oh, and i just remembered that i have been wearing an oil called indian temple oil by song of india – it is incensey, too – though in a bright, happy way. and someone above mentioned creed’s angelique encens – also a favorite. must dig it out of the fridge soon! (keep all my creeds in there, since they tend to go off quickly otherwise – those horrible nozzles.) November 1, 2011 at 8:21pm Reply

  • sweetlife: Mmmm, lots to scribble down here. (And now I am dying to try the Profundis since it went straight from release to your best of!) Black Cashmere is at the top of my list and in my top ten overall, I think. Also love CDG Ourzazate, Guerlain’s Bois de Armenie (though I only have a tiny decant) and would Let Me Play the Lion count? Can never decide if it’s incense or just dry, dry woods. November 1, 2011 at 8:55pm Reply

  • sweetlife: P.S. Love picturing you in that red blanket with your cup of tea. Maybe you need a Vera photo of that. November 1, 2011 at 8:57pm Reply

  • carter: One of my favorites is IUNX L’Ether. November 2, 2011 at 1:17am Reply

  • Amer: I am working on a green-woody incense for personal use only. Most people who’ve been exposed to it so far find elements they like but the whole feels weird to them (not a bad thing in my book btw). However, sourcing a long-lasting boswellia serrata extract is proving quite difficult November 2, 2011 at 3:40am Reply

  • Ruta: Another one which seems yet unmentioned: Joseph Statkus by Joseph Statkus. Great incense, just not readily available November 2, 2011 at 6:12am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for these fantastic suggestions! Some of them are new to me, such Imperial Opoponax, so more discoveries to be made! November 2, 2011 at 10:00am Reply

  • Victoria: Some incense like sweet Indian kind is too much for me too. I mostly like burning pure frankincense and myrrh. November 2, 2011 at 10:01am Reply

  • Victoria: Mmmmm, nice choices! Shalimar has a great incense note. November 2, 2011 at 10:03am Reply

  • Musette: I never considered myself an incense lover – then I met Amouage Epic. I didn’t like the perfume at first but fell in love with the bath and body stuff…that was the gateway to the perfume, which I now ‘understand’ and love. Interestingly, though, I do NOT love it on its own. It only works for me with the ancillary products – but when all 3 (gel, cream and perfume) come into play, it is phenomenal.

    would you consider vintage (original) Ubar to be an incense? If so, that is my Number One. gorgeous sandalwood and roses, the emphasis here is on the sandalwood, where in the current formulation the focus is on the rose. I love them both but if I had to grab a bottle as I was fleeing a zombie horde, it would be the original Ubar.

    beautiful post, btw. You all are having SUCH weather!

    xoA November 2, 2011 at 11:54am Reply

  • Victoria: That's a good idea. I keep some of my AG perfumes in the fridge too. It prolongs their freshness. November 2, 2011 at 12:08pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you so much, Mare! November 2, 2011 at 12:08pm Reply

  • Tara: I am a major incense lover, and all my favorites have been mentioned. The ones I reach for most frequently are Andy Tauer’s Incense Extreme and AG Encens Flamboyant when I want that intense frankincense hit. November 2, 2011 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Victoria: I think that it is a dry wood, but I haven't smelled it recently. Love your choices.

    I took my mom to SL recently, and she fell in love with De Profundis from first sniff and bought a bottle. She called me the other day and said, "I read reviews only. Is it true that it is meant to symbolize death???" I assured her that it can symbolize to her anything she wants. 🙂 November 2, 2011 at 2:03pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, it is a good one!! November 2, 2011 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Victoria: Sounds great! Have you tried to anchor frankincense with a dry woody or a dry ambery note? November 2, 2011 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Victoria: 🙂 we will work on it! November 2, 2011 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Victoria: There are so many interesting incense compositions today, one really can make plenty of great discoveries. Encens Flamboyant is another favorite. I'm actually wearing it today. November 2, 2011 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, A! I just came back, and the snow is my welcome back gift. 🙂 I would not have minded to wait a bit longer for it. November 2, 2011 at 2:36pm Reply

  • Amer: Amber is a bit obvious so I’m trying to avoid that. I am using a fresh wood bouquet as a spine and vegetal musk to smooth it out. I am avoiding all spices for a minimalist effect. I realy don’t want to temper the bitterness so I am not including any of the sweet balsams that would be the usual choice of natural fixatives. My plan is to iclude natural ambergris or civet in the mix but since I don’t have any available and my budget is quite limited for now, I will have to make do with what I have. Finding samples of expensive materials is always so frustrating November 3, 2011 at 3:45am Reply

  • Paeonia9: I have to say that if anything deserves a second chance, it’s Nu. I got my fist bottle last week and I’m totally smitten.
    Also adding props for Chanel #22, CdG Avignon and Kyoto, and OJ’s Tolu… November 3, 2011 at 10:33am Reply

  • Olga Bodnar Talyn: I combine essential frankincense oil with spicy carnation oil. The combination is so delicious and always gets compliments. I would love to see someone create a perfume combining these two. November 8, 2011 at 4:16pm Reply

  • ida: Still in love with the Giorgio Armani Mania from 1999. Impossible to track down, but sooo smooth and creamy… and no one has accused med of smelling like a dude lol! I’ve been in love with this fragrance since I was 12 years old. January 25, 2012 at 6:40pm Reply

  • Incense Accolade: I think Asian Dream by Save On Scents is an awesome Incense-y blend. I ordered it couple months ago and I am wearing it right now. I bought the weakest strength and it is quite strong! I imagine the Extreme concentration would be Dynamo! Its so mysterious, sweet and spicy. December 13, 2014 at 10:56am Reply

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