Even if you’ve never smelled myrrh, a gum resin obtained from Commiphora myrrha trees native to Yemen and Somalia, its aroma contains so many familiar hints that it is not likely to seem exotic. Strange, maybe, but not completely foreign. Imagine the scent of raw mushrooms and black licorice, then add a bit of smoldering damp wood and bakery exhaust fumes. For some people it is also reminiscent of cool church stones, since myrrh is often used in liturgical incense blends.
Among the notes in the perfumer’s palette, some materials have a reputation of being challenging. Myrrh is one of such difficult, but exciting notes. It has so much character that unless a perfumer is a skilled technician, myrrh ends up smothering the fragrance. As perfumer Calice Becker observes, myrrh for a perfumer is like butter for a chef; it enriches the flavors. A proper balance of myrrh with other ingredients results in a sensual, haunting character. The dose can range from a delicate accent to a heavy-handed stroke, but in all cases, myrrh indeed deepens the composition.
A Grain of Myrrh
One of my favorite myrrh accented perfumes is Donna Karan Gold. Its name always reminds me that in antiquity, myrrh was prized so highly as perfume and medicine that its value by weight was equal to that of gold. In Gold, myrrh lends a dark, opulent aura to a sparkling lily and jasmine dominated floral accord. A hint of myrrh in Annick Goutal Grand Amour likewise transforms the sunny radiance of mimosa, jasmine and honeysuckle into a seductive darkness. Another surprising myrrh discovery for me was Estee Bronze Goddess. The myrrh is only a minute element in its structure, but it provides an exotic accent.
Other unusual myrrh accented florals: Amouage Gold Woman, Ormonde Jayne Orris Noir, Estee Lauder Beautiful, Aftelier Candide, Jo Malone Vintage Gardenia with Cardamom and Myrrh, Diptyque L’Ombre Dans L’Eau.
A Bold Touch
The brooding side of myrrh is best explored in Etro Messe de Minuit, an incense fragrance that calls to mind the crumbling pages of antique books and snuffed-out candles. The myrrh is a bolder accent in this oriental blend, sharing center stage with peppery frankincense, amber and patchouli. Serge Lutens Arabie uses myrrh to further enrich its high-calorie accord of dried fruit, spices and tobacco. The cool green facet of myrrh is an important supporting character in Frédéric Malle Vétiver Extraordinaire, a rich-as-chocolate-fudge vetiver fragrance. Those who love myrrh should also explore perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour’s work. Whether used as an accent note as in Penhaligon’s Sartorial or a dramatic flourish as in Eau d’Italie Baume du Doge, myrrh is a haunting leitmotif in many of his fragrances.
Gold Standard of Myrrh
Serge Lutens La Myrrhe is a marvel from an artistic and technical standpoint. It has an astonishing radiance, especially considering that it is a rich oriental blend. La Myrrhe’s luminous quality is especially surprising considering that it contains an unusually generous dose of myrrh. Perfumer Christopher Sheldrake was experimenting with different proportions of myrrh when he came up with the idea of contrasting it with a cocktail of aldehydes (aroma materials that give lift and effervescence.) I have yet to smell another myrrh rich perfume that is as transparent as La Myrrhe.