On The Beauty of Fresh Incense

Incense is one of those materials that changes its character depending on what else is present in the formula. It can be bright and peppery or dark and smoky. It can even evoke the verdancy of spring buds. Incense is one of the most incredible ingredients used in perfumery. Before I describe a few fragrances to illustrate how incense is used as a fresh note, first a few words on what we mean by incense. Typically, perfumery incense is frankincense or olibanum. It’s sourced from the Boswellia species, most commonly found in countries like Sudan or Ethiopia. In its raw form incense comes as opaque lumps of resin that are called frankincense tears, and the tears need to be further processed into essence.

The scent of raw frankincense is peppery and vivid, and one of the easiest ways to enjoy it is to put one tear into a glass of water and leave it to infuse. The taste of such incense water is refreshing and bright, with a spicy edge.  The closest equivalent in fragrance is Serge Lutens’s appropriately named L’Eau Froide, which explores the bright nuances of frankincense.

Aedes de Venustas Copal Azur is similarly effervescent right at the start, where cardamom and salty notes are allayed with incense to create a dazzling effect. It’s almost icy cold and crisp, but as the fragrance develops, a warmer layer of incense appears. Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour created this sensation by pairing incense with amber and myrrh, and the play of contrasts is beguiling.

For me, a discussion of incense fragrances has to include a fragrance from Comme des Garçons’s incense series, and this time I will select Zagorsk. This town in Russia dates to the fifteenth century when it developed around the Trinity Lavra established by St. Sergius of Radonezh. Zagorsk is the Soviet-era name of the town now called Sergiyev Posad, but the Trinity Lavra still remains one of the largest and most important monasteries in Russia and it is associated with the use of sweet-smelling incense. This forms the inspiration for the fragrance. Cool pine resin and iris complete the etude. Incense retains its brightness, becoming warmer as the composition develops.

Another fragrance that breaks incense stereotypes is Hermès Jardin sur le Nil. It’s not an incense-dominated fragrance like my other choices, but a touch of frankincense woven through an accord of green mango and blond woods adds a beautiful twist, amplifying the crisp sensation. A delicate touch of warmth is likewise present, coloring the shadows of the composition deeper, and the contrast remains obvious as the fragrance dries down.

Finally, I decided to find an incense fragrance that was a classic and offered a dark but luminous interpretation of frankincense. My choice fell upon Narcisse Noir, a 1911 creation by the venerable French house of Caron. Incense is used liberally to set into relief the softness of petals and blossoms as well as to highlight the sensuality of the composition. It’s a fin de siècle fragrance fantasy, lavishly evoking brocade and candlelight. Incense shimmers and dances throughout, revealing its fresh and languorously warm facets. As with all Carons, the extrait de parfum is marvelous, but the modern version of the Eau de Toilette is still beautiful. You only need to be patient to wait for the interplay of incense to appear.

What are your favorite incense perfumes?

P.S. In my video, I talk about incense as a fragrance note and bring up the sustainability issues around this material.

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20 Comments

  • Alityke: My favourite incense fragrance in Armani Prive Bois d’Encens with its brooding Roman Catholic cathedral smell. I can almost feel the cold, almost damp stone, the over polished pews & see the censer being swung to purge the warmth of humanity from its hallowed halls.
    I bought did a split of it almost a decade ago & still have a lot left. Contemplative rather than beautiful.
    My other incense was from the CDG range too. Another Roman Catholic Church fragrance. Some how this was the smell of a small RC church, less grand, where the rotund, pink cheeked priest kept breath mints in his pocket to stop the tiny congregation from noticing his red wine breath at morning mass. This I released into the wild for all it was of a more human scale & had more warmth I want austerity in my incense fragrances September 5, 2022 at 9:58am Reply

    • Victoria: I also love that fragrance for the same reasons you mention. It smells of church, but also of something else, and this something else changes every time–driftwood, Oman incense market, Indian temple, etc. September 10, 2022 at 7:09am Reply

  • leathermountain: Years ago I bought No. 22 from Chanel and wore it on very particular occasions when I was happy to carry its sense of authority. Then our apartment was burgled, and the burgler selected only that bottle among a number of choices. Truthfully I haven’t missed it, unlike, say, the winter coats he also took. I do wonder what became of it. Idk if there’s a resale market for stolen perfume, so I imagine my thief trying it on, or offering it as a gift despite the obviously reduced quantity of liquid inside. Eithet way, can that possibly have gone well? It’s hard to imagine. In a completely different mood, I love Lucid from House of Matriarch. That leads me to think that the most enduring appeal for me of frankincense in perfume is along medicinal lines, and that the conversation between frankincense and musky notes is of interest to me. September 5, 2022 at 10:33am Reply

    • Victoria: What a story! I wonder why they took that particular perfume, especially since it was well used. September 10, 2022 at 7:10am Reply

  • Tara C: L’Eau Froide is my favorite summer incense. For winter I like Tauer Incense Extreme, Profumum Olibanum, Josef Statkus and Armani Encens Satin. September 5, 2022 at 12:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Your list is pure inspiration. Thank you. September 10, 2022 at 7:10am Reply

  • Hamamelis: We brought back some olibanum tears from Oman, quite a few years ago. They still smell very fresh and lovely. I will never forget how often incense is burned in Oman. The lobby of the hotel we stayed in always had incense burning.
    I haven’t found the freshness of raw olibanum in a perfume.
    Favourite incense is Calling all Angels by April Aromatics. I like incense mostly as a note in a fragrance, not so much as a soliflore. I love its note in Hiram Green’s Lustre, sadly discontinued. September 5, 2022 at 1:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Neither have I. Or not fully. It’s such a unique scent. September 10, 2022 at 7:11am Reply

  • Karen A: Absolutely love incense fragrances in summer! After swearing off blind buys, I caved and bought Copal Azur when it was back in stock after a long time of not being available. It did not disappoint!

    And sadly discontinued but maybe one of my favorites is Sahara Noir by Tom Ford. A fellow BdJ gifted me with a decant and I treasure it! Potent stuff but gorgeous. September 5, 2022 at 1:40pm Reply

  • Debby: Lovely selection, Victoria, I’ve not tried Copal Azur, but I am a massive fan of Duchafour’s work so am very eager to. My favourite of his that I’ve tried is L’Artisan’s Seville a l’Aube, the depth the incense brings to the orange blossom is extraordinary.
    My skin amplifies wood notes horribly so I can’t wear a lot of the darker incense perfumes, but they work beautifully on my husband who loves CDG’s Avignon. September 5, 2022 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Marvin: The title of your post, and then reading it too, reminded me immediately of a fragrance I only recently came across: Basilica by Milano Fragranze. When I first smelled it, without knowing its notes, I loved how fresh and spicy and summery it felt. Have you sniffed it and if yes, what do you think of it? September 5, 2022 at 11:45pm Reply

  • Daniel Paterson: Great selection and overview, as always, Victoria. The much-maligned L’Eau Froide has always been a summer incense favourite. Another I enjoy is L’Artisan Parfumeur, Passage d’Enfer. Recently, Basilica from Milano Fragranze has become a fixture in my rotation. It’s a herbal incense punctuated with an interesting milky note. September 6, 2022 at 4:07am Reply

  • Emily: Contre Bombarde 32 Filippo Sorcinelli is difficult to resist, autumn is coming & its carmelized church pews call to me, but one of my great loves is Oriza L. Legrand’s Relique d’Amour. So odd & elegant & transportative. The incense is subtle but essential. September 6, 2022 at 4:11am Reply

  • Sebastian: You selected my two favorite incense fragrances in your discussion – Copal Azur and Zagorsk are both truly wonderful. If you fancy the thought of an incense perfume that is not quite so bright, but rather austere and dark green, you might like Spell 125 (Liz Moores, Papillon Perfumery). The incense in it is excellent quality, as that in Copal Azur. These three from my holy trinity of incense perfumes.

    I also sometimes burn pure incense tears as a room scent. The variety of types, from honeyed and mellow to lemony or sharply mentholated is so rewarding! September 6, 2022 at 7:54am Reply

  • Aurora: I was so pleased you included Un Jardin sur le Nil, yes, we often focus on other aspects but incense brings depth to this perfume.

    Two I love are Etro Messe de Minuit for its mysterious damp note and Annick Goutal Encens flamboyant like a small chuch with its door opening on a field of aromatic herbs. I am in Drôme Provençale now so my description is influenced by the wonderful pine and wild thyme and rosemary I smell everywhere. September 6, 2022 at 11:03am Reply

    • Aurora: *church September 6, 2022 at 11:07am Reply

  • Kamila: Fresh incense for me is Etro Shaal Nur, I love it❤️ September 7, 2022 at 9:18pm Reply

  • a.: i LOVE incense in fragrances. i don’t have a large collection and i’m still trying to sample more widely, but recently i’ve been enjoying the incense note in sisley’s soir d’orient (i’m really loving sisley’s fragrances these days, i guess!). i also love love LOVE narcisse noir — i sampled it recently, swooned, and added it to my to-buy list — but i didn’t realize it had an incense note! that would just add to the list of reasons why it *got* me so. September 10, 2022 at 4:59pm Reply

  • Manish kumar: Incence parfume September 14, 2022 at 11:34am Reply

  • Frankie: Chaos by Donna Karan. Beautiful,elegant,intoxicating,always gets noticed and increasingly difficult to find. September 25, 2022 at 11:50am Reply

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