Making Armenian Paper Incense and Revisiting Bois d’Armenie

As a graduate student I always loved the serendipity associated with research–when a random reference leads to an Aladdin’s cave of fascinating information. It’s been years since I left the halls of academia, but I’m still a student (read, a geek!) at heart. So when I spotted a mention of E.J. Parry’s Encyclopedia of Perfumery in Nigel Groom’s The New Perfume Handbook, I made it a point to check it out. My reward was a recipe for Armenian paper, which I would like to share with you and to add to Bois de Jasmin’s collection of antique perfume recipes. Armenian paper is a home scent created in the 19th century by entrepreneur Auguste Ponsot and pharmacist Henri Riviere and sold as a natural air sanitizer. With its exotic and mysterious cachet Armenia was a perfect marketing spin for the incense based on benzoin, a resin redolent of sweet vanilla and spices.

Papier d’Arménie is still popular in France, where it is sold as small booklets of deliciously perfumed paper. “Tear out a page, light it up and feel your worries melt away,” I was told by a pharmacist in Grasse. On our shores I’ve spotted Papier d’Arménie at Aedes and Beautyhabit, but by and large I wear it on my skin in the form of Bois d’Arménie. When perfumer Annick Menardo was working on a modern Guerlain perfume, she turned to Armenian paper for inspiration. Bois d’Arménie smells of vanilla beans, incense ashes and dried roses petals. For a warmer vanilla incense veil I don Ormonde Jayne Tolu, a fragrance that plays up the spicy facets of benzoin with cinnamon and amber.

Parry’s recipe for Armenian paper is not hard to duplicate, provided you have the necessary balsamic materials as well as the thin absorbent paper. I’ve skipped potassium nitrate, figuring that if it’s used for such disparate ends as food preservation and the making of gun powder, I better have something more precise than “sufficient” quantities before I plunge into my experiments. My paper burned well without it, although it turned to ashes much faster than commercial Armenian paper. The perfume was perceptible, if soft and ethereal. However, the mixture of frankincense and balsams smelled beautiful enough to be worn as perfume, and that experiment I’ll be sure to revisit.

“Make an alcoholic solution from 2 parts of each of frankincense, styrax and gum benzoin, and 1/2 part each of balsam of Peru and balsam of Tolu, with 5 parts of 90% alcohol. Add to this sufficient of a solution of potassium nitrate in water to enable the paper to burn freely. Soak the absorbent paper in this mixture, drain, allow to dry and cut into convenient strips.” From E.J. Parry Encyclopedia of Perfumery, 1925 as quoted by Nigel Groom in The New Perfume Handbook, 1997.

Recommended reading: about styrax, benzoin, Peru balsam and Tolu balsam. Most of these materials can purchased from Enfleurage, a reputable essential oil supplier based in New York.

Photograph of Incense Smoke by Vanessa Pike-Russell via Flickr, some rights reserved.

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21 Comments

  • Katherine: I love Papier d’Armenie. Whenever I pass by Santa Maria Novella I want to splurge I grab one of their tiny little red boxes of Carta d’Armenia that makes my apartment smell heavenly for at least a day. Amazon also sells the less expensive books that come in tear off sheets, but the SMN version is so much richer. March 21, 2012 at 8:41am Reply

  • Maja: I have never heard of Papier d’Armenie. thank you! 🙂 March 21, 2012 at 9:17am Reply

  • Victoria: SMN’s version is my favorite too, because the fragrance is quite strong and lasts well. Papier d’Armenie brand’s scent is weaker, but still very pleasant. I discovered that burning benzoin on its own also makes for a deliciously scented incense. But it’s still better with some frankincense. March 21, 2012 at 10:33am Reply

  • Victoria: You’re welcome! It’s an interesting home scent. Something different to try, I suppose. March 21, 2012 at 10:35am Reply

  • Amer: I just realised that email notifications about your articles come a day late. Just received news of the Bronze Godess draw only to find it closed. Usually I am not lucky enough to win. This time not even lucky enough to enter? Hahaha March 21, 2012 at 11:22am Reply

  • Victoria: Sorry! I don't control my email notifications, so can't change the date when they arrive. I'm upgrading soon, so I hope that I will have more ability to change my subscription lists then. March 21, 2012 at 11:32am Reply

  • Kym: Where does one buy these items and what kind of alcohol? Also is the recipe by weight or volume? Thanks! March 21, 2012 at 12:14pm Reply

  • zazie: Very interesting recipe!
    After reading an old article on Now smell this (by Kevin) I became very curious about this scented paper… the first of the kind I tried was Santa Maria Novella’s “carta d’armenia”.
    I fell in love with the scent and was surprised that the original papier d’armenie, while similar, is so much duller (but also cheaper) than the SMN version. The SMN strips have almost a floral smell when they are not burning. When they burn, 180° turn, all balsamic, benzoin-infused goodness.
    I find that the Guerlain perfume succeeds brilliantly in translating the scent of the burning strips into a “spritz”… but it is too literal for my tastes: perhaps I read it more like a room fragrance than a fine perfume? March 21, 2012 at 12:18pm Reply

  • Victoria: Kym, I interpreted it by weight and used 40 proof alcohol (vodka would work), although the recipe recommends a much stronger grain alcohol. If you have Everclear available to you, use that instead.

    As for materials, I recommend Enfleurage. I will add a link in the post. They even carry the best grades of Omani frankincense. March 21, 2012 at 1:50pm Reply

  • Victoria: It’s literal, but most fragrance in L’Art et la Matiere line are like that. I don’t mind the simplicity as long as the character is distinctive, and this isn’t often the case.

    SMN burn much better. They also don’t have the sharp scent that Papier d’Armenie does initially when it’s burned. March 21, 2012 at 1:57pm Reply

  • Victoria/EauMG: I must try this! I have everything except for Everclear.
    Also, if you are in the Seattle area, you can get all of the ingredients at Tzing Momo in Pike Place. March 21, 2012 at 3:00pm Reply

  • minette: i love papier d’armenie! have always wanted to make it. so thanks for the recipe! although i am a little intimidated by it, i may use it one day.

    love the smn papers – they make wonderful, unusual gifts. but people with delicate senses might need to know to burn half a paper at a time – they overwhelmed my friends who weren’t used to incense! ha. not me! March 21, 2012 at 3:19pm Reply

  • Victoria: Tzing Momo is fantastic! And Pike Place Market is one of my favorite places in Seattle.

    Everclear is better for tincturing than vodka. I don’t do much tincturing for my little experiments, but I make flavored liqueurs. There is a world of difference in limoncello when Everclear is used instead of vodka. Also, the color is better. Try putting some tarragon or basil in Everclear–it turns it such a stunning pure green color. March 21, 2012 at 4:27pm Reply

  • Victoria: I just love old recipe books whether for perfume or food. Sometimes I follow the instructions precisely, but more frequently I just use them for inspiration. It’s fun to know what smells and tastes were enjoyed in the past.

    Yes, incense can be so strong to those who’ve never smelled it before. I took a friend to visit an Orthodox church, and she nearly passed out from the smell of frankincense. 🙂 March 21, 2012 at 4:37pm Reply

  • minette: the funny thing is, you can’t help inhaling more deeply when you smell frankincense – it’s like an autonomic response when i inhale the essential oil – my body wants MORE of it RIGHT NOW so it relaxes into a full, deep inhale. i love that. and i think it’s wonderful for people who need to relax. March 22, 2012 at 5:46pm Reply

  • Bela: I buy a booklet of Papier d’Arménie whenever I go to France. That gorgeous scent reminds me of my childhood.

    One word of caution, though: do not let any bit of burning papier d’Arménie fall on the floor. Even though it is only smouldering and there is no flame, it can burn a hole in your carpet or damage your parquet floor. It happened to me recently. 🙁 March 23, 2012 at 9:30am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, J! I didn’t mention this, but you’re right, it’s hot enough to make a mark. I had one of the special holders designed for it, but it was still very messy. I now burn Papier d’Arménie in a brass incense burner or else I put my small incense holder on top of a plate. March 23, 2012 at 12:40pm Reply

  • Victoria: Me too! Love the smell of frankincense and can’t get enough of it. March 23, 2012 at 12:40pm Reply

  • Sergey Moskalev: Thank you Victoria! Send to you recepy from Russian book 1915 about perfumery.

    “Soak filter paper throughput nitrate solution first, and then, when the paper is completely dry, soak it in the following mixture:

    250 parts orris (powder)
    100 parts benzoin (powder)
    12 parts myrrh (powder)
    10 pieces of artificial musk (powder)
    1000 parts of 95% alcohol or cologne

    This mixture is soaked in a full month, then filtered. Impregnated with large sheets of paper, and then cut into strips with the words of the company and the name. This paper is called French or Armenian”. December 5, 2012 at 11:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Sergey, spasibo bolshoe! I really appreciate you sharing this recipe, and it reads like it would give a rich, complex scent. Do you remember the title of the book, by any chance? December 5, 2012 at 6:46pm Reply

  • Tyler: Hi, all! Would somebody be able to provide more of a step-by-step instructions recipe that describes ingredient forms, times, heating, mixing, etc. I would really love to make this, I just don’t know where to start… Thank you!! March 31, 2014 at 1:25pm Reply

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