Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11

Gold, frankincense and myrrh have been venerated since antiquity and their importance often exceeded their monetary value. Many know the Biblical story of the adoration of the Magi, but you can find mentions of these materials interspersed in Hindu, Islamic and Judaic texts. Since perfumery reflects trends in art, fashion, and society at large, I have always wanted to explore the three gifts of the Magi in the context of fragrance. I thought that it would be a fascinating exercise.

While the value of gold may be self-evident, its ability to hypnotize and dazzle is even more prized. The pursuit of such an irresistible sensation has deeply influenced perfumery, despite the fact that gold does not have an obvious olfactory profile. After all, just as gold is an exquisite adornment, so too is perfume.  Although every perfumer might interpret the gilded idea differently, many gold fantasy accords fall in the realm of rich oriental notes—spice, amber, balsam, tobacco, vanilla.

Perfumer Ralf Schwieger names Guerlain Nahéma as a fragrance that evokes an image of molten gold given its warm oriental accord of tonka bean, sandalwood and vanilla. When Isabelle Doyen considered the gifts of the Magi as an inspiration for a fragrance trio in the Annick Goutal collection, she rendered gold as a voluptuous amber accord in Ambre Fétiche.  Floral notes can also suggest a luminous, golden effect. In Christian Dior J’Adore, Calice Becker turned to flowers to evoke gold’s captivating glow. The intricately woven accord of different floral notes, from rose and violet to freesia and orange blossom, ingeniously recreates the iridescence of a jewel.

The dry balsamic scent of frankincense, a resinous material obtained from a Boswellia tree species native to the east, readily conjures visions of golden censers, sonorous chants and burning candles. In fact, both Eastern and Western religions share the use of frankincense in their ceremonies as it is believed to aid prayer and meditation.  As a perfumery note, frankincense is remarkably versatile, being as naturally suited for the dark heft of an oriental fragrance as for the effervescent sparkle of citrus cologne. In the latter, a frankincense note can lend a nice lift, like the fizz of champagne bubbles, due to the natural affinity it shares with citrus and green herbal notes. As Schwieger explains, “it contains both cold and warm elements: a citrusy, peppery top note and a dark, balsamic finish.”

Atelier Cologne Bois Blonds is an example of a fragrance that pairs the brightness of incense with citrus, resulting in a bright composition free from liturgical associations.  Similarly, Hermès Eau de Gentiane Blanche uses frankincense to support an accord reminiscent of green stems and ivy leaves. In the darker register of oriental fragrances, frankincense lends a soft glow to opulent accords of spices, vanilla, and patchouli. And so the luminous quality of Caron Parfum Sacré is derived from the manner in which its spicy roses are modulated by the balsamic dryness of incense. The result is a sophisticated fragrance that is as appropriate for wearing to the office holiday party as it is for a candlelit romantic dinner.

On the other hand, for those who prefer to be transported to midnight mass, Comme des Garçons Incense Series Avignon offers a journey through a frankincense note made dark and somber by amber and woods.

The scent of myrrh, a gum resin obtained from Commiphora myrrha trees native to Yemen and Somalia, is a surprising mélange of licorice, burnt wood, and warm bread. In antiquity, it was prized so highly as perfume and medicine that its value by weight was equal to that of gold. As a raw material in a perfumer’s palette, it is a demanding note because of its tendency to wrap a fragrance in a heavy, warm embrace. As Becker describes the effect, myrrh for a perfumer is like butter for a chef, it enriches the flavors. Sometimes this is precisely the quality needed to convey a languorous sensuality. Thus, the myrrh wrapped white lily in the sadly discontinued, but marvelous Donna Karan Gold possesses a dark, opulent aura.

A hint of myrrh in Annick Goutal Grand Amour likewise transforms the sunny radiance of mimosa, jasmine and honeysuckle into a seductive darkness. 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. Yet, not all myrrh interpretations are heavy lidded, exotic creatures. Despite an unusually generous dose of myrrh in Serge Lutens La Myrrhe, the composition retains an astonishing radiance. Through the careful balance of myrrh and a bitter almond note, the balsamic darkness of myrrh is rendered as transparent as the finest of silks.

Painting: The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423.

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60 Comments

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,
    Lovely article.
    I just thought how the scent of these 3 gifts, worn around Christmas, would be a trancendental experience l.
    I have La Myrrhe by Serge Lutens, Encens Mythique d’Oriens by Guerlain, and plan to buy Woman in Gold by Kilian. This third one even may refer to Virgin Mary and her pivotal role in Christmas celebration of Christian religion. December 18, 2020 at 8:42am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m curious about Woman in Gold. December 22, 2020 at 9:53am Reply

      • Nora Szekely: It is similar to Rochas Tocade, a bright scent that evokes golden sunlight. Not the most original creation but I love how it makes me happy to get a whiff. December 31, 2020 at 7:36am Reply

  • Carla: I do think that La Myrrhe is yet another example of how inventive Lutens and his perfumers are with their creations. Other perfumers have a talent for creating their own perfumery imprint (Ellena) or strong pure beauty every time (Ropion) etc etc but Lutens and his perfumers make the most interesting things by experimenting with different elements like myrrh.
    Of course I’m sure there are others, my experience is rather limited…but Lutens has always been one of my favorites for his artistry December 18, 2020 at 9:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Very true, Christopher Sheldrake is a talented perfumer, but together with Lutens they really do magic. December 22, 2020 at 9:54am Reply

  • Mercedes: Hello, Victoria. Gorgeous article. Love Grand Amour, I feel great when I wear it. Ambra Nera and Sandalo by Ortigia are in this oriental-bizantine profile. Do you know them??? December 18, 2020 at 9:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t tried it yet. December 22, 2020 at 9:54am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this detailed and lovely post.

    I would agree with Schwieger that Nahéma evokes an image of molten gold. I can hardly believe that I don’t yet own a bottle of J’Adore.

    I remember the first time I heard of a perfume named “Frankincense”. I was at a birthday party for one of my school friends in about Grade Nine. I asked one girl to tell me the name of the sweet and rich fragrance she was wearing. No doubt it smelled very little like real frankincense; I suspect it was one from the Spiritual Sky range that was popular during the seventies. I later bought a bottle of that myself.

    I was fascinated to read about the versatility of frankincense, and that it can add a lift to a citrus scent.

    I was also intrigued to read that Calice Becker holds the view that “myrrh for a perfumer is like butter for a chef, it enriches the flavors”. Perhaps it is in more of my fragrances than I realize.

    The above-mentioned Nahéma is the only scent that I own of those you mention in the post. I’d like to try all of the others eventually, especially La Myrrhe and Parfum Sacré. I smelled the latter when it was first released, and recall the sales assistant telling me that it contained a pepper note. Perhaps I can track down a bottle of Donna Karan Gold on eBay.

    Speaking of Caron, two days ago, my 163ml (5.75oz) bottle of Nuit de Noël arrived, and it is divine. When I read your great June 1 2005 review of it, and saw the sentence in jimmyfresno’s comment, “I must say that what struck me most about this fragrance was not the floral or wood aspect but the deep, rich brandied fruit, wassail, dried fig and caramel and nut with toasty wood and moss,” I had to agree. There is a definite smell of Christmas cake about it! And although no spices are mentioned in any discussion of it that I’ve read, I seem to smell a clove note. Surely it has that in common with one of its sister fragrances, Bellodgia – the divine carnation scent. In any case, I shall wear it on Christmas Eve. Much as I would like to wear it on Christmas day, it is likely to be too hot and humid here in Brisbane. I might opt instead for Aqua Allegoria Pamplelune.

    Thank you again for a wonderful and timely post. My list of “Perfumes To Try” has just grown longer! December 18, 2020 at 9:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I can imagine! 🙂 Yet given your large collection, I am sure you have no lack of interesting perfumes. December 22, 2020 at 9:55am Reply

  • KatieAnn: What a gorgeous post, Victoria! I loved reading every word of it. Now I have more perfumes to explore. The art is also beautiful.

    Have you ever tried Sideris by Maria Candida Gentile? Someone here recommended it to me a couple years ago. I think it’s beautiful. What is interesting is how differently the people around me experience the myrrh note in this. My husband says the perfume smells like chocolate. My brother says it reminds him of cream soda. My mother says it smells woody. Lastly, my daughter says it smell like honey. It definitely has somewhat of a gourmand quality.

    Merry Christmas! December 18, 2020 at 9:45am Reply

    • Nina Z: I love Sideris! I just checked the notes and it has both frankincense and myrrh in it. Yet it has a sheer and light quality that makes it very wearable for me. December 18, 2020 at 12:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t tried it, but I am curious about it. It sounds wonderful. December 22, 2020 at 9:55am Reply

  • Klaas: What a wonderul article, Victoria, and your writing……nobody describes fragrances quite the way you do!

    I love Eau de Gentiane Blanche! My favorite incense perfume however is Andy Tauers Incense Extreme. It is very dry, woody (cedar), very rich in frankincense and there’s a whiff of smoke in there as well. I find it very evocative and mystical…..primitive, almost……perfect for this time of year! December 18, 2020 at 10:57am Reply

    • cornelia Blimber: I agree. Beautiful post and the descriptions of fragrances are splendid. And informative.
      But Andy Tauer….oh no! not for me. Too primitve, maybe. December 18, 2020 at 12:05pm Reply

      • Klaas: Hahahaha, Cornelia! Funny how different people have different tastes. I really do like Andy Tauer, though his fragrances are very bold and quite loud sometimes and maybe not everybodies cup of tea. Very light application is required. I don’t like all of his creations, but to me there are a couple of gems in his collection. Incense Extreme being one of them.

        Fijne dagen en beste wensen! ;-)) December 19, 2020 at 8:01am Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: Fijne Kerstmis! December 19, 2020 at 9:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Klaas! 🙂 December 22, 2020 at 9:56am Reply

  • Michele: Yes a lovely article.
    Through your posts I have found myself in love with the fragrances created by Bertrand DuChaufour.
    Neela Vermeire’s Trayee is a beautiful soft but exotic fragrance. I wear it when I cannot sleep and the Myrrh is exquisite. December 18, 2020 at 11:03am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s so relaxing, isn’t it! December 22, 2020 at 9:56am Reply

      • Michele: Indeed yes. December 22, 2020 at 10:02am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Beautiful post and beautiful photos! Finally I feel some Holiday Spirit. You are a beautiful person and I look forward to your posts and videos. They have been a shining light especially during this dark and scary year. Merry Christmas to you Victoria! December 18, 2020 at 12:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Phyllis! Your words mean a lot to me.
      Happy holidays to you too! December 22, 2020 at 9:57am Reply

  • Nina Z: What a beautiful article! It has made me revisit some perfumes I own with a new point of view. I love vintage Nahema and next time I wear it I will envision its golden-ness. And I just got out my bottle of Parfum Sacre and sprayed it on. So gorgeous it gave me a shiver. I used up my decant of Donna Karan Gold a long time ago, but now I’ve craving trying it again so I may have to work on that. I’ll only add that my most wearable incense fragrance is Sideris by Maria Candida Gentile, which has both frankincense and myrrh. It’s warmer than many incense fragrances and somehow reminds me of being out in nature on a sunny day in the hills, where astringent scents mix with the sweet, rather than in a dark cold church. December 18, 2020 at 12:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: Your description of Parfum Sacre as beautiful enough to make you shiver is so apt. December 22, 2020 at 9:58am Reply

  • John Luna: It’s so appealing at this time of year that is so polarized between tying up loose ends at work, issuing communiqués and buying gifts, that is to say, shifting gears, hopefully, from thinking of others to promote oneself and thinking of others to enlarge a common love aimed at all love, to sort of sink into luxuries of sensual projection like imagining the smell of myrrh.

    Maybe this is defensible along the lines of Byzantine orthodox mysticism’s linking the smell of incense, the semi-precious stones of a mosaic or gold of an ikon to a meditation on transcendent things?

    I always feel a bit shabby commenting on this blog because my experiences are so limited, but here are a few impressions:
    – The fragrance that reminded me of both gold and precious resins (though I’ve only worn it once) was Guerlain Héritage EDP, which felt gilt-edged and sticky; somehow demanding one’s focus (not on itself, but something else?) in a way that made me think of church incense.
    – I always thought that the covert, low-key thrill of Yatagan was the moment that the strange (and seemingly forbidding, other-place-other-time) herbal bitterness of Yatagan gives way to a smouldering hum like old speakers when just the preamp’s turned on with the volume high; what reminds me, anyway, of real midnight mass incense. It smells like New Mexican piñon pine-based incense, but is it frankincense? Its arrival seems to offer a prelude of the low animalic retro-electro-magnetism that clings to the skin in the drydown musk.
    – The fragrance that was myrrh for me from start to finish was the much-mourned first formulation of Eau Sauvage Parfum…ostensibly based on a bergamot-myrrh-vetiver continuum, it was all about the myrrh in all kinds of permutations: chalky, chewy, dusty, cream-soda-like, deep and, in voluptuous shifts, both smotheringly opaque and sensually skin-like. I’m not at all surprised that its been discontinued, but the experience was an indelible part of my fragrance education. December 18, 2020 at 2:47pm Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hello John Luna! I always enjoy reading your thoughtful comments, so not sure why you feel they don’t add richness to the words shared here. Also, I very much relate to the comment in your first paragraph. Today has been just such a day – finalising work, and getting ready for a break and chance to relax.

      I have never come across Yatagan, but your description has conjured up a fascinating image of it. I shall try to locate it, because I really want to smell it now. December 18, 2020 at 5:01pm Reply

      • John Luna: Oh thanks! I appreciate that thought…but also feel some urgency to tell you that you must try Yatagan when you have a chance… There are other things of the same ilk from that period (Aramis Devin, for instance), but Yatagan really is distinct in a way that, in my opinion, transcends era & genre. It always reminds me of the compressed tannic mulch that you find when shovelling deep snow off of the ground, but also has a surprising bitter freshness (artemisia and basil creating what some people call a ‘celery’ accord, but which feels more to me like cress); the ‘incense’ may just be some trickery involved in the pine overlapping with other notes, but I certainly think it’s there. The musk really does feel sweaty… sour and earthy but not acrid, sweetish in a castoreum-like way despite being really very transparent. The whole thing reminds me of both autumn bonfires and jägermeister…certainly seasonally appropriate! December 18, 2020 at 5:25pm Reply

        • Silvermoon: Well, now I am going to have to chase it down. Not sure where, but maybe once Covid restrictions ease/end, I shall head to London (after checking where it can be found). Or I might need to order a sample online. I will keep your description in front of me as I test it (to make sure I don’t miss its many nuances. I assume it is a perfume best smelled in cool weather. December 18, 2020 at 5:39pm Reply

          • John Luna: London! Wow, wonderful (I write this in the rainy gloom of a small town on an island off the coast of western Canada.) Please let me know if you run across a sample of Caron’s new Aimez-Moi Comme Je Suis, as I’d love to hear firsthand reflections on its blend of hazlenut & vetiver…
            As for Yatagan, I will say that paradoxically, it is very appealing to me in summer as an entirely different animal (so to speak). Its arid herbal notes, dried pine and barely-there, wear (were?)-and tear leather commute a kind of parched high desert accord that reminds me forcefully of the area around California’s Mojave as redolent with piñon pines, cottonwood and Russian sage. I’m not always in the mood to smell this way in the summer, but the effect in very hot weather is striking. December 18, 2020 at 6:36pm Reply

    • Peter: Mahalo Victoria, for the glowing gilded Art. I liked the way that you tied the precious gifts to the other major religions. Your poetic imagery bridges the Ancient World to modern perfumery.
      I’d also like the echo John Luna’s beautiful Holiday message. December 18, 2020 at 6:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: It makes absolute sense to me. The Orthodox idea of thauma, of wonder, miracle, not explicable by natural phenomena and yet not completely in the realm of impossible, is something that’s close to me. I can relate to what you’ve mentioned–and to your descriptions. Which are wonderful, by the way. Your comments add so much to these discussions, so please never hesitate to share them. December 22, 2020 at 10:01am Reply

      • John: Thank you so much for your kind and welcoming thoughts. I get more out of this particular community each time I come here. December 26, 2020 at 3:33am Reply

  • Tati: Such a wonderful article! I, too, pulled out my Sideris by Maria Candida Gentile. I’m smelling it anew from all the wonderful descriptions here. My favorite “churchy” incense is Unum Lavs. Whenever I spray it on I’m transported to a small stone church in Italy, the burning candles, the censer. December 18, 2020 at 3:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: I need to Sideris! December 22, 2020 at 10:01am Reply

  • Silvermoon: What a beautiful Christmas themed article! Reading it puts one in the Christmas spirit (and it’s been a difficult year to invoke a festive feel). So, many thanks for doing that, Victoria. I immediately saw what you meant by Nahema being golden, even though I always think of it as an imagined perfect opulent rose. I really love Grand Amour too. I don’t know Sideris, but the comments here have made me very curious to try it. It sounds like it smells beautiful. December 18, 2020 at 4:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also became curious about Sideris after reading the comments. December 22, 2020 at 10:02am Reply

  • Nancy Chan: Hi Victoria, such an interesting article and beautiful painting. I currently do not have any perfumes in my collection that have notes of myrrh or frankincense. However, I am a fan of Aromatherapy Associates
    de-stress shower oils which contain essential oils of petitgrain, wild chamomile and frankincense. First time I have encountered frankincense as a perfume/aromatherapy ingredient. December 18, 2020 at 4:58pm Reply

    • Gabriela: Sounds wonderful, very tempted to buy this one! December 19, 2020 at 3:30pm Reply

      • Nancy Chan: Hi Gabriela, you have to check out the Aromatherapy Associates range of bath and shower oils, together with their body care products. There are shower oils to revive, uplift, de-stress, relieve muscle aches etc. December 20, 2020 at 9:55am Reply

        • Gabriela: Which smells best? December 20, 2020 at 11:43am Reply

          • Nancy Chan: I haven’t tried all their shower oils, but the Rose shower oil is currently my favourite. I suggest smelling before buying, as these have a mixture of essential oils such as geranium, palmarosa, patchouli (not that strong though) and more essential oils. The Rose is a very sweet, rich deep fragrance, very interesting not boring. Please smell before buying. December 20, 2020 at 12:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Have you tried burning frankincense? It gives such a wonderful, relaxing scent. December 22, 2020 at 10:03am Reply

      • Nancy Chan: No, but I should seek out a frankincense essential oil, just to familiarise myself with the scent. December 22, 2020 at 5:28pm Reply

  • Dina C.: Lovely essay, Victoria. Thank you so much. Now I want to search my samples chest and find a good scent to wear for Christmas Eve this year that reflects these Holy Gifts. Wishing you and your readers Christmas blessings. December 18, 2020 at 5:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! Happy holidays to you too. December 22, 2020 at 10:03am Reply

  • John: One other thing I’m grateful for in this piece is the revealing of ways that a note like frankincense might perform a role within a composition without becoming conspicuous as a distinct identity…This seems a little counter-intuitive in a contemporary niche context in which single notes are often foregrounded and supported as both a showcasing of material qualities and a demonstration of minimalism with conceptual undertones. As a fan of old-school contrapuntal pyramids, I find it fascinating. Acknowledging that listings of notes or accords can be deceiving (especially post-IFRA), I’d be curious if anyone could address other examples of this kind of discreet support…For instance, both Chanel Antaeus and Aramis Aramis list myrrh as an ingredient, which makes sense to me as a means of helping to construct a sweetish castoreum accord, but I’ve never detected it in Guerlain Vetiver (which I’m wearing as I write this), despite seeing it referenced. Could this be some earlier, more ‘oriental’ base, long since replaced by Wasser’s light musks? December 18, 2020 at 6:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also don’t find it that prominent, but I recall that myrrh used to be in the formula at one point. I imagine that if they were to change the base, myrrh had to be adjusted, or else it would smother everything else. December 22, 2020 at 10:05am Reply

  • Ali: I love incenses so much, loved the smell of church. I develpied asthma sadly but still love these smells. December 18, 2020 at 6:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also love those scents, especially on a cold winter day. December 22, 2020 at 10:05am Reply

  • Aurora: What a beautiful seasonal post. I mourn the fact that in the UK Epiphany is not celebrated with the delicious galette des Rois. I love the quotes from Ralf Schwieger and you list many favourite perfumes, I would addd Encens Flamboyant, which evokes a church in Provence with its door open on the garrigue. December 19, 2020 at 5:50am Reply

    • Klaas: Bonjour Aurora, I just looked up Encens Flamboyant and wow, I must try! A foresty incense……thank you for the suggestion!

      In my family, we used to celebrate epiphany with home-made waffles, from yeast dough. The smell of yeast brings me back to our small kitchen, a big pan of fluffed up dough and the smell of freshly baked waffles…….

      My mum used to bake so many that we had them for breakfast for days and days to come 😉 December 20, 2020 at 4:13am Reply

    • Victoria: One of my favorite traditions and cakes. 🙂 December 22, 2020 at 10:06am Reply

  • Gentiana Craciun: Lovely post and exactly at the right moment. I really adore the Encens Flamboyant and Myrrhe Ardent – I forgot them in the comment of Christmas scents – I was focusing on the cozy, gourmand fragrances reminding of the home, sweet home. All perfumes you mentioned above are expressions of the spiritual fragrance of Christmas. Thank you for this article December 21, 2020 at 12:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! Thank you for reading. December 22, 2020 at 11:42am Reply

  • Nancy Chan: No, but I should seek out a frankincense essential oil, just to familiarise myself with the scent. December 22, 2020 at 5:26pm Reply

  • Lily: This post has decided me on my Christmas Eve perfume: Parfum Sacré. ❤️

    Though I will put on Fille en Auguilles this morning to run my last errands…but it will have worn down to nothing noticeable by early afternoon when it is time to shower and welcome our guests to an outdoor afternoon gathering rather than our traditional evening together.

    Happy holidays to all, whichever one(s) you celebrate! December 24, 2020 at 8:15am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Happy holidays and a merry Christmas, Lily. 🎄Hope you enjoy your Christmas gathering (outdoors seems the safest option this year, if one can do it).
    And also holiday greetings to all! 🎄
    So, my Christmas Eve fragrance is Noir Epices. The clove, nutmeg, cinnamon against the vanilla backdrop remind me of German Christmas cookies. A lovely festive and seasonal delight. Not sure about what I shall wear on Christmas Day, but maybe Anima Dulcis or Ambre Narguile. 🎄 December 24, 2020 at 9:07am Reply

    • Lily: Oooh, I love Noir Epices, too! You will smell lovely today/tonight! And tomorrow 😉 December 24, 2020 at 10:25am Reply

      • Silvermoon: Lily, do you have your Christmas fragrance sorted too? December 24, 2020 at 10:38am Reply

  • Perry: I highly recommend anyone interested in exploring burning (melting—no smoke involved) high quality frankincense and resins check out the frankincense sold at mermade arts. The owner makes blends and she has really exceptional, artistic sensibility.
    https://www.mermadearts.com/b/frankincense December 24, 2020 at 8:12pm Reply

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