Opoponax : Velvet and Smoke Perfume Ingredient

I never fully appreciated the beauty of a material with a funny name like opoponax (also spelled as oppoponax or opopanax) until about a year ago when I had to test a large batch for quality. A huge vat was unloaded on my desk and as I took off the lid and leaned over to dip a testing strip into the molasses-like liquid, the wave of warm, sweet scent washed over me. It smelled of aged scotch, mahogany shavings and bitter caramel, but it was also velvety and powdery. It was overwhelming to smell opoponax in such a way, but the tactual, almost tangible presence of its scent made a strong impression on me.

Of course, you don’t need a vat of opoponax to appreciate its suave presence in perfumes. Opoponax is sometimes called the sweet myrrh, because both myrrh and opoponax are derived from the bark of the Commiphora species (in case of opoponax from Commiphora opoponax/Commiphora erythraea). Its relationship to myrrh is mostly botanical, because opoponax smells sweeter, warmer, more powdery and smoky. Myrrh makes me think of damp stones; opoponax brings to mind the smoldering embers of a fireplace. Myrrh is a somber Gregorian chant, and opoponax is a joyful madrigal.

What makes myrrh and opoponax similar is the challenge they present to perfumers. Creating a beautiful balance and harmony with a buttery, dense material is complicated, and it’s essential to dose opoponax carefully. Often, this material is used not in its pure form, but as part of the Opoponax base, which includes bright notes like lavender, bergamot, and lemon as well as creamy nuances from sandalwood and vanilla, among others. Based on the 19th century perfume Bouquet Opoponax by Septimus Piesse, the opoponax bases have a voluptuous heft.

As part of a base or on its own, the effect of opoponax is glowing and sensual. Whenever I spray on Shalimar, even as I enjoy the shimmer of bergamot and lemon, I already anticipate its drydown of amber, leather and vanilla. The powdery, but luminous note that gives this Guerlain classic such a special velvety impression is opoponax. Without it, the Guerlinade accord that forms the core of Shalimar wouldn’t be the same. As it lingers on my skin for hours after the cool citrus accents vanish, its warmth comforts me.

Must de Cartier, which was inspired by Shalimar, is another fragrance that any opoponax lover—or anyone interested to smell this material in action—should try. In Must de Cartier, the drydown is much more animalic and lusty, with the opoponax teasing the sweetness out of civet and musk. If you love the retro, bombshell perfumes as much as I do, I also recommend Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles. Wearing this heady fragrance is a bit like playing dress up and acting out a period drama, as it doesn’t skimp on the dazzling effects, but in the late stages, a whisper of opoponax gives a pleasant powdery softness to its animalic basenotes. Chanel Coco, Yves Saint Lauren Opium, and Dior Poison are a few other bold and sumptuous examples, where the opoponax plays a distinctive role.

Opoponax need not be reserved for the perfume equivalents of ball gowns; it can give an intriguing dark streak to a summery floral. Nevertheless, being a dark and exotic creature, opoponax loves to be in the company of other oriental notes. In Aftelier Secret Garden, the opoponax and incense wrap the honeyed petals of jasmine and rose to create a suede-like effect. The cashmere on bare skin sensation of Flower by Kenzo is likewise due to a touch of opoponax as well as plush musks and vanilla. In Les Parfums de Rosine Poussière de Rose I love the way the resinous notes echo the smoky richness of tea, incense and amber. The rose forms the heart of the fragrance, but it’s a dark blossom found pressed between the pages of an old book, rather than a dew drenched flower.       

Image: Anthony van Dyck, Flemish, 1599-1641, Portrait of a Lady (detail), 1619, Art Institute of Chicago, photo by Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved. This painting from my Scented Trail Through the Art Institute of Chicago smells of Poussière de Rose.

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44 Comments

  • Olfacta: Most Myrrhs I’ve smelled remind me of dust and dirt, but opopanax is sweet and smooth.

    Btw I recently saw several Cartiers — 100 ml bottles of Must, Must for Men, Eau De Cartier and Declaration — for sale at TJ Maax. I’m wondering what this might signal. May 31, 2012 at 8:03am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, no, I hope that it’s just old stock or something like that.

      I love myrrh, but I find opoponax even more compelling–warm and comforting. May 31, 2012 at 8:52am Reply

  • Suzanna: Wonderful article, V.! I love your series on perfume ingredients. They are always so accessible, with a great balance of the practical and the scientific.

    I’ve got an old bottle of Les Nereides Opopanox that I use as baseline reference. May 31, 2012 at 8:45am Reply

    • Victoria: I just got a sample of Les Nereides’s perfume as well, so I would love to hear your thoughts too.

      Thank you, I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I work with these beautiful materials daily, and it’s such a pleasure to write about them. Many of these materials are like complex perfumes in themselves. May 31, 2012 at 8:54am Reply

      • rosarita: I love the Les Nereides scent, it’s one of my favorites that features opoponax, along with Shalimar. Thanks so much for this article; I’m glad for clarification on the myrrh/opoponax differences. Beautiful notes either way. May 31, 2012 at 11:43am Reply

        • Victoria: Ok, you’re an opoponax lover, as I recall, so another vote of confidence for Les Nereides makes me want to test it even more. May 31, 2012 at 4:24pm Reply

  • Nina Z: Great post! I love the opoponax in Diptyque’s Eau Lente. Even though fragrance is a spice bomb, I find it deeply comforting (as well as uplifting) and I think it’s because of the opoponax base. Not the most beautiful fragrance I own, but one of the most frequently worn. May 31, 2012 at 10:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I recall that Eau Lente had a wonderful drydown–so languid and enveloping thanks to all of its rich balsamic and resinous notes. I find it addictive even. May 31, 2012 at 4:31pm Reply

      • bluegardenia: i adore eau lente as well. the oppoponax-vanilla drydown is absolutely addictive. just happened upon some discontinued eau lente bath gels at a pharmacy in new york and enjoyed one of the most delicious bubble baths ever! June 5, 2012 at 5:22am Reply

        • Victoria: I loved those bath gels! I didn’t realized that they were discontinued. That’s too bad. June 5, 2012 at 5:30am Reply

          • bluegardenia: they’re still available in philosykos, do son, l’ombre dans l’eau, tam dao, and vetyverio (sorry for my spelling). but my two favorites, eau lente and olene, are no longer being made in any form except the eau de toilettes. and eau lente may be discontinued altogether…agh! June 5, 2012 at 5:36am Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you! That’s good to know, especially since I was hoping to get a back up for my almost finished bottle of Eau Lente. June 5, 2012 at 5:58am Reply

              • S.C.: I have been frequenting the new Diptyque store in Los Angeles and was amazed to see so many products which I had thought were discontinued in stock. With Eau Lente bath gels are nowhere to be found, the scent itself is in stock. Many of the rarer candles such as Cuir and Galliano are also stocked there. There website has most products, but the store stock is unrivaled by any other retailers. February 5, 2014 at 5:10pm Reply

                • Victoria: Good to know! I love Eau Lente bath gels and I regretted when I discovered the local store didn’t carry the stock. February 9, 2014 at 11:26am Reply

  • iodine: I’ve recently learnt to detect Opoponax in three fragrances I’ve come across: Diptyque Eau Lente, after the initial burst of hot spices; in the drydown of Farnesiana- in a particularly warm day it was almost the only note I could smell- and in Huitième Art “Ambre Cerulèen”, paired with a nice verbena. To me, opoponax has also a cool and kind of fresh quality.
    I’d love to work among fragrant vats of raw materials! May 31, 2012 at 10:52am Reply

    • Victoria: The opoponax base in Farnesiana is delicious! It really gives the fragrance a special quality. Now, I need to smell Ambre Cerulèen, since I like the other perfumes you mentioned.

      I don’t want to romanticize this line of work though–half of the time I end up smelling pretty awful things too. 🙂 May 31, 2012 at 4:35pm Reply

  • Cheryl: I love this and bezoin too. I remember sampling perfume in a Nordstroms in the Us about 5 years ago …I believe it was Parfum Sacre, Caron and being entranced…asking for the notes…when opponax was mentioned I asked what it was…but all the perfume ladies were stumped. Velvet depth is a good description. May 31, 2012 at 11:07am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with you. Old Carons used these kind of notes to suggest their dark undercurrent, and I love their drydowns for this reason. May 31, 2012 at 4:36pm Reply

  • Elizabeth: In Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel “The Custom of the Country,” she writes of French shopgirls “floating by in a mist of opopanax.” This made me become very interested in the note, and I pulled out my bottle of Shalimar! May 31, 2012 at 11:48am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for this! You made me want to go hunting for a copy of “The Custom of the Country.” May 31, 2012 at 4:37pm Reply

  • Rina: Wonderful, as usual, V. Shalimar is my Mom’s signature scent, I’m forwarding this article to her to read. I’ve also been a Coco girl (original, please) as well as Poison and Opium, so I guess it must run in the family! May 31, 2012 at 12:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sounds like it, Rina! 🙂 My mom and I have discovered that both of us love iris and violet, and they are present in nearly all fragrances we enjoyed over the years. May 31, 2012 at 4:38pm Reply

  • Andy: Wonderful! I’ve been trying for so long to get a clear idea of the difference between myrrh and opoponax—I think I’ve got it now. I have also been wanting to ask you about Hedione, another “note” I have been having some confusion with. I recently got some Hedione to play around with in blends. I had expected a lush, citrusy jasmine note, but I’m not sure if I am anosmic to Hedione or if it just doesn’t have a very strong smell. Directly out of the bottle on a test strip, I smell nothing. A few hours later, I can smell a very faint fruity-citrusy note. It seems that if I come into a room where I’ve left a strip, there is a certain “feel” in the air, but not exactly what I would call a smell. I was wondering if this is typical of Hedione, or if I perhaps have a partial anosmia to it. It’s rather disheartening, as I had expected so much from Hedione. If you know a little more about this, I would love to know. Thanks! May 31, 2012 at 3:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: Andy, glad you’ve enjoyed it!
      Your impression of hedione is 100% on the mark. It’s very light, but it creates an amazing presence. Try playing with it in your blends and try making two formulas–jasmine and jasmine + 10% hedione. And then see what difference it makes. It has an incredible lift and radiance. May 31, 2012 at 4:40pm Reply

      • Andy: Thank you so much! I figured from my smelling that it added more of an effect to blends than an actual scent. But I wasn’t sure because “lemony jasmine” sounded so heady, rather than gossamer, as it is. May 31, 2012 at 4:47pm Reply

        • Victoria: You know, my reaction to hedione was identical to yours. I thought that there was something wrong with my nose, because I couldn’t smell it. But an interesting thing is that after you smell it enough, you begin to recognize it even when there is just a tiny amount in the formula. Now, I smell it so strongly that I find it hard to believe that at one point I couldn’t detect it. I heard this from others as well. I’m sure that you will experience the same thing.

          It’s naturally present in jasmine, but no, it isn’t heady at all. Definitely more of a feeling. You can almost use it as a solvent, and today it’s hard to find a fragrance that doesn’t use it in one way or another. It’s one of Jean-Claude Ellena’s favorite notes, I hear. May 31, 2012 at 4:52pm Reply

          • Andy: Thank you—I will continue to smell it every day, so that hopefully I can sharpen my sense to recognize it more easily. I just tried a crude version of the experiment you described on scent strips, and compared a duo of my jasmine blend and Hedione with the jasmine blend on it’s own. My blend is still somewhat discordant as I am learning slowly, but with the addition of the Hedione it smelled stronger, smoother, and more defined. Thank you again! May 31, 2012 at 5:20pm Reply

            • Victoria: My pleasure, Andy! Hedione rounds out the edges beautifully or else softens the impression. Such a great material! May 31, 2012 at 7:26pm Reply

  • Mandy Aftel: Such a wonderful & informative article Victoria, I admire your command of science, art, & history! I love what you say about how opoponax works its effect – especially in Secret Garden.
    
Mandy May 31, 2012 at 3:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Mandy! May 31, 2012 at 4:40pm Reply

  • Alyssa: Ahhhhh. One of my favorite notes. And yet another brilliant installment in this series, V. I want them compiled, with beautiful illustrations. Lucky us.

    Am I right in thinking oppoponax is at the dark heart of Paestum Rose, lending its smoke to the rose? Such a beautiful dry down after the crisp clear opening. May 31, 2012 at 6:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: Lucky me to have all of you, with whom I can share thoughts about these fragrant topics. 🙂

      Yes, the opoponax and myrrh are blended into Paestum Rose. I love all of these dark, opaque resins. As I mentioned to Nina, I find fragrances that use them well very addictive. May 31, 2012 at 7:29pm Reply

  • Amer: this is from wikipedia. Opopanax seems to be the right name and has been paraphrased to opoponax… all healing vefetable juice.

    “from Ancient Greek ὀπός ‘vegetable juice’ + πάναξ ‘panacea’ (all healing)”

    Panache by DelRae has the same root wonder if it has it as an ingredient. There are several very interesting literary references in the article.

    “In the novel Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon, the child mobster “Plug” Loafsley runs a club that smells strongly of opopanax, vervain, and bodily ejecta.”

    ddoes anyone think that this might have been the inspiration behind Secretions Magnifiques? June 1, 2012 at 5:08am Reply

    • Victoria: Thanks, Amer! Your mention of Against the Day made me realize that I completely missed the opoponax reference in the novel when I read it last year. Will go back and re-read that part.

      The inspiration behind Secretions Magnifiques was really just the body fluids, from what I recall. June 2, 2012 at 10:02am Reply

  • Ariadne: Bal A Versailles has been an all time favorite of mine for years! I mostly wear it in the summer and never fail to get compliments that ALWAYS include “WHAT is your perfume!!!???”. BaV is a voluptuous one but I have yet to find anyone who finds it too much and whose nose is not very intrigued by how different it is from other lush ones. BTW, and probably off- ingredient topic…, my newly added summer scent is A. Goutal’s Ce Soir ou Jamais…. all manner of roses, wild & hybrid alike. June 1, 2012 at 3:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: You must smell amazing in Bal A Versailles! Like many complex perfumes, once it works for you, it feels like a second skin–sensual and comfortable.

      The roses in Ce Soir ou Jamais are so luscious. I can see how it can be a perfect summer fragrance; it blooms so well in the warm weather. June 2, 2012 at 10:03am Reply

    • bluegardenia: i’ve never worn bal a versailles, but my therapist wears it (sorry if that’s too much information)! she is a well dressed lady in her 60s, and on her it smells both delicious and dirty. so indolic as to almost be fecal. but, strangely, not in a bad way! sort of like the animal note in SL cedre. June 5, 2012 at 5:29am Reply

  • Brian Shea: Maybe I just have a bad batch, but the opoponax I have doesnt’ smell rich, powdery, balsamic and certainly not sweet! It smells strange and rather chemical-like. I was rather disappointed when I got the sample, it sounded so wonderful, I ordered it anyway thinking it was one of those ingredients that aren’t so great on their own but might be great in a blend(it is ok in a blend). After reading this I think I might want to shop around for some more!
    I must say I’ve become rather fond of myrhh; it’s really grown on me. I have both the essential oil and the CO2 extract. I never used to care much for it,not on it’s own anyway, I thought it smelled like rubber. I do get a bit of the rubberiness still, but not very much. I’ve noticed much more to it. There is a bittersweet aspect to it, but it’s nice like dark chocolate or espresso(I’m not saying it smells like chocolate or coffee though). But I’ve noticed that it’s smooth, balsamic, and has sort of soft, suave powdery aspect, like baby powder. It goes great with styrax just for this reason. It’s also wonderful with rose and saffron. June 8, 2012 at 6:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: What do you have, the oil or the absolute? They smell differently, but even so, the chemical, strident note isn’t right for any opoponax. I would definitely shop around and compare samples. The quality of what’s commercially available can differ dramatically. June 9, 2012 at 4:20am Reply

      • Brian Shea: I have the essenital oil. I’ve been conversing with Mandy Aftel about it and after finding that she offers the absolute, which seems to be the one that has the smell you and her describe, I ordered some of it. June 22, 2012 at 11:38pm Reply

  • Annette Reynolds: Well, I guess I’ve finally discovered the note I love the best… Thank you, Victoria, for all this wonderful information. I realize this is an older post, but I’m just now finding it.

    Question: can you recommend a body lotion to “go with” either Bal a Versailles or Les Nereides’ Opoponax? I like to layer and am always stumped by how to find just the right match. February 9, 2014 at 3:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s such a wonderful, rich note! I also love it, whether as an accent or as a major star.
      As for the lotion, perhaps something with vanilla, amber or woods could work? I don’t really use many scented lotions, so I don’t have specific brand recommendations, but I wonder if Les Nereides may not have matching body lotions. I know for sure that they have one for Patchouli Antique and it smelled great out of the tube. I didn’t try it on skin, though. February 9, 2014 at 4:35pm Reply

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