Myrrh : Sensual, Haunting Perfume Note

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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.

Other dark myrrh enriched compositions to explore: Guerlain Myrrhe et Delires, Eau d’Italie Bois d’Ombrie, L’Artisan Méchant Loup, Neela Vermeire Créations Trayee, Serge Lutens Vétiver Orientale.

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.

Other excellent myrrh dominated compositions: Caron Parfum Sacré, Annick Goutal Myrrhe Ardente.

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47 Comments

  • Suzanna: Rouge Hermes put me off this note for a long time, until I smelled La Myrhhe, which I love. It’s an interesting note that works well in both “classic” and modern treatments. Its use in Gold was inspired. January 20, 2012 at 8:46am Reply

  • rosarita: Many of my favorite scents listed here today! I will wear Messe de Minuit & try to identify the myrhh. Also, could you please explain the difference between myrhh and opoponax? Are they the same resin? Thanks so much! January 20, 2012 at 8:46am Reply

  • Victoria: Myrrh and opoponax are both derived from Commiphora species, in case of opoponax from Commiphora opoponax/Commiphora erythraea. Opoponax smells sweeter, warmer, more powdery and also smokier. I get weak in my knees smelling it… so good! January 20, 2012 at 8:58am Reply

  • Victoria: Rouge Hermes does use a whopping dose of it, but it is not one of my favorite perfumes.
    La Myrrhe is such a beautiful fragrance. I will wear it tonight. January 20, 2012 at 9:01am Reply

  • robert t: A big thank you from a longtime reader of your blog! Love your posts on these unusual notes. January 20, 2012 at 11:34am Reply

  • maggiecat: I’ve been exploring myrrh lately as a ote and find I love it. Thank you for giving me more scents to try! January 20, 2012 at 11:37am Reply

  • mals86: Love DK Gold and Parfum Sacre, adore La Myrrhe! January 20, 2012 at 11:50am Reply

  • Erin T: I knew of the prominent myrrhe in La Myrrhe, of course, but I appreciate that you have prompted me to notice how myrrhe is a key accent ingredient in so many of my favorites: Donna Karan Gold (think I’ll put on some EdP today!), SL Arabie, Messe de Miniut and Candide. I guess this bodes well for the split of Trayee I just bought into, too. Great article – thanks! January 20, 2012 at 12:02pm Reply

  • Victoria: Have you tried Parfum Sacre Intense? It is so beautiful–warm, dark with a delicious chocolate like richness in the base. January 20, 2012 at 12:05pm Reply

  • Victoria: You are welcome! It is such a beautiful note. I love the richness it adds to perfumes. January 20, 2012 at 12:08pm Reply

  • Victoria: Trayee and Mohur are my favorites from Neela's line. I love the dusky quality that they have–smoky, incense like, but also elegant in the spirit of grand parfums of the past.

    The myrrh accents can add something very unusual. It is fun to see how it lends such a seductive murmur to a sunny blend like Candide. Sounds like you enjoy this note a lot (and orientals.) I am a fan too. 🙂 January 20, 2012 at 12:16pm Reply

  • Elisa: Very interesting! I’ve never given much thought to myrrh, but DK Gold and L’Ombre dans L’Eau are some of my favorite perfumes, and Vetiver Extraordinaire is my favorite vetiver. I liked Messe de Minuit the one time I had an opportunity to sniff it, too. Sounds like a note I should explore more. January 20, 2012 at 12:23pm Reply

  • Victoria: Sounds like you are a myrrh fiend! 🙂 But seriously, when I had to learn this note and how to use it, I was taken aback at how much I loved it. And then I found that some of my favorite perfumes contain it, so I'm even more attuned to it! January 20, 2012 at 12:29pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, and have you tried Lutens' vetiver + myrrh take–Vetiver Oriental? It is sharper and spicier than Vetiver Extraordinaire, but it has a wonderful dried fruit sweetness. Unexpected and beautiful. January 20, 2012 at 12:38pm Reply

  • carmencanada: V., you, me and Serge Lutens La Myrrhe have a history! Since I told you I didn’t like it at all, it’s become one of my favorite Lutens; in fact I consider it one of the best of the collection.
    Dunking my face into a vat full of myrrh was nearly a mystical experience, so I absolutely understand your attraction to it. You might want to add to your list Pierre Guillaume’s Myrrhiad in his Huitième Art line: it is a characteristically rich, almost gourmand blend but I find it quite delicately balanced. January 20, 2012 at 1:07pm Reply

  • johanna: Thank you for another wonderful article. I really think this series is excellent.

    I have decants of Vetiver Extraordinaire and of Orris Noir, and I love them both – in fact they’re almost empty. I’ll make sure to try to sniff out the myrrh notes before I finish them! January 20, 2012 at 2:47pm Reply

  • sunsetsong: Thanks for the enlightening article. It inspired me to spray L’Occitane’s Eau D’Iparie, which is the only fragrance I own with myrrh in the mix. Incense and I have a love-hate relationship, and while I like this particular scent a lot, many incense based fragrances just smell of head shop on me. Look forward to sampling some of your recommendations with just a grain of myrrh. January 20, 2012 at 4:42pm Reply

  • sweetlife: Ah, so glad to get that little extra explanation of the myrrh/opoponax/sweet myrrh business. It is opoponax (also spelled oppoponax, opopanx? I see it all three ways!) that makes me love Paestum Rose. January 20, 2012 at 4:44pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Robert! January 20, 2012 at 4:57pm Reply

  • Victoria: I have not tried Myrrhiad yet. I will add it to my next Luckyscent sample order. Since I am a myrrh fiend, any new myrrh dominated fragrance is worth seeking out.

    D, yes, I remember that! I am glad that you came around. La Myrrhe is worth giving a second (and third and nth!) chance, in my opinion. January 20, 2012 at 6:11pm Reply

  • Victoria: If you put VE or ON on a piece of paper and wait for a few hours, you will smell myrrh more clearly. It is that cool, heavy, licorice-like accent. Cool notes like vetiver or iris and myrrh make for a beautiful marriage! January 20, 2012 at 6:15pm Reply

  • Victoria: I also like Prada Myrrhe No 10, but it can be difficult to find. Despite being called Myrrhe, it is a blend, transparent and airy. January 20, 2012 at 6:17pm Reply

  • Victoria: Yes, it is spelled in all sorts of ways, all equally correct. 🙂 Another note I love!
    Paestum Rose has an amazing balance, and despite all of its rich notes, it is luminous and bright. I only wish Eau d’Italie had a different packaging. The metal canister just doesn’t feel right. January 20, 2012 at 6:21pm Reply

  • Musette: that sounds like a wonderful experiment and I love the idea of myrrh and iris – never thought of that combo.

    this is a gorgeous, instructive post – as always!

    xoA January 21, 2012 at 11:49am Reply

  • Victoria: It smells very good. Also, the new Guerlain Myrrhe et Delires explores the iris+myrrh pairing. January 21, 2012 at 1:04pm Reply

  • Elisa: No, I haven’t! I don’t think there’s a Serge Lutens counter in my vicinity currently (Denver) so I’ll have to order a sample. That does sound like my kind of vetiver. January 21, 2012 at 1:32pm Reply

  • Victoria: Please let me know what you think when you try it. 
    Lalique Encre Noire is another vetiver I love, but it is more of a woody vetiver, rather than a spicy oriental blend like VO. January 21, 2012 at 1:39pm Reply

  • Nikki: Kalimantan by Chantecaille smells like a myrhh scented temple in the jungle and I love the gorgeous flacon with crystal stopper, so gorgeous. January 21, 2012 at 2:00pm Reply

  • Victoria: You and I are on the same wavelength! I just sampled it at BG, and you are right, it is wonderful and very reasonably priced. January 21, 2012 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Is Diptyque’s L’Eau Trois myrrh based or not? In The Guide it says it smells of frankincense, but I have seen it reviewed elsewhere as containing myrrh. It’s a very interesting fragrance either way.
    I still need to smell La Myrrhe.

    I also put this comment on your review of the Guerlain Myrrhe et Délices, but later realised it was better placed here. Feel free to delete it there if you wish to. January 21, 2012 at 6:27pm Reply

  • Victoria: I think that it contains both frankincense and myrrh. I have not smelled it in a while, so I do not remember off the top of my head which one dominates. I would guess that frankincense would, because it is lighter and more effervescent, esp on
    top.  January 21, 2012 at 6:46pm Reply

  • hongkongmom: Whoa, just today I decided to wear it. Love love love myrrh i love to burn the natural oil! Agreed on myrrh ardente. Would love to sample la myhrr, would probably blind buy. I have tried to love parfume sacre…i really donot like it! I do like grand amour and gold:-) January 21, 2012 at 10:45pm Reply

  • Victoria: I burn myrrh too, either alone or mixed with frankincense. It makes me feel serene as I burn it. My neighbor says that it makes me apartment smell like church, which I do not mind! January 22, 2012 at 10:58am Reply

  • hongkongmom: i also burn it with frankincense :-), but also sometimes with neroli. It is nice to combine it with a clary sage, rose geranium and spearmint as well!!! The rose geranium should be a tiny amount. in South Africa , Cape Town more specifically, growing up, we ate “sour figs” which myrrh reminds me of! They are a very unusual fruit, kind of like a tiny shriveled fig, brown in colour and the inside is tart and very jammy. We would bite the top off and suck out the inside. It grows on the ground and the leaves are the smae texture as aloe vera…i dont think they need much water! January 22, 2012 at 9:02pm Reply

  • Gloria LaRoche or (glorious1): I have found that most of my favorite fragrances have myrrh in them. I didn’t really realize how many until I started to take notice. Adore it. Am awaiting Serge Lutens La Myrrh to come to the U.S. for purchase. January 23, 2012 at 12:20am Reply

  • Victoria: Your description of sour figs sounds wonderful and so is your combination of myrrh and neroli. I now want to try both! January 23, 2012 at 11:11am Reply

  • Victoria: It’s fun to notice these things! When I pay attention to something, I also begin to see it everywhere. Plus, myrrh is so distinctive. January 23, 2012 at 11:12am Reply

  • Amer: This is my favourite raw material but so far haven’t tried a fragrance that features it as a prominent note. I used to make a cologne for myself that had myrrh, sandalwood, clove and orange blossom. I think I will go back to it for my myrrh fix January 24, 2012 at 2:57am Reply

  • Victoria: If you have a chance, do try Lutens’ La Myrrhe. It is impressive for its treatment of myrrh, with the myrrh overdose. January 24, 2012 at 11:01am Reply

  • Lynn Morgan: I have heard many wonderful things about Etro’s Messe de Minuit. Sounds perfect for an aging Goth chick like me! January 25, 2012 at 4:52pm Reply

  • Victoria: Ok, now I want to hear what think of it! I bet Scentbar must carry Etro. January 25, 2012 at 5:04pm Reply

  • Cassandra: What would be a recommendation for someone new to perfumes, if myrrh and jasmine are good scent choices? February 7, 2014 at 7:43am Reply

  • Surbhi: I smelled myrrh essential oil today. I loved it initially (Seems very familiar) Probably from temples in India. I put it on my hand but hours later I don’t like it any more. Seems sweet and over powering. And sometimes it smells like tooth paste. February 13, 2016 at 6:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t imagine wearing myrrh essential oil straight. I love the smell and all of its facets, and it definitely need something else to balance out its heft and richness. February 14, 2016 at 2:40pm Reply

      • Surbhi: Neither would I. I just wanted to see how it smells. An experiment gone wrong. February 14, 2016 at 5:09pm Reply

        • Victoria: In general, essences in their pure state shouldn’t be worn on skin. Apply them on a paper blotter and study them at intervals. If you’re using an undiluted essence, apply only a very small amount. This way you’ll get the best sense of what they’re alike and how their facets develop. February 14, 2016 at 5:13pm Reply

          • Surbhi: Finally figured it out. It is used in various religious ceremony like “havan” and “dhoop” BAsically a resin like substance is burnt with other woods etc. February 24, 2016 at 2:57pm Reply

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