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Friday, December 21, 2007

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: The Gifts of the Magi in Perfumery

By Marla

The gifts of the three wise men have a long and hallowed history in perfumery. Few ingredients are more romantic and mysterious. Myrrh is a notoriously difficult resin to work with- it is bitter and medicinal, a wonderful antiseptic, in fact. Yet used correctly it adds a grounding balance. Peppery, sweet, and pungent, frankincense absolute is easier to work with, but can easily overwhelm. And gold has recently appeared in the Ormonde Jayne line in the form of gold-dust-spiked body creams. I’ve got a little red velvet bag full of samples of various incense-dominated perfumes that have debuted in the past couple of years. Incense is my favorite scent category, and I’m thrilled to see more of these entering the market. Some are very cold scents, others warm and cuddly. I’ll start with a few of the cold ones.

Olivier Durbano is a French jeweler who is working on a series of scents to go with particular stones. So far he has three: Amethyst, Rock Crystal, and Black Tourmaline. The notes for Amethyst are listed as follows: bergamot, pepper, grape, raspberry, incense, palisander, jasmine, orris, amber, sandalwood, musk, and vanilla. I pick up the pepper and bergamot, the palisander and sandalwood dominate the incense, not a lot of jasmine or orris here, and a synthetic fruit note which jars just a little. Though the notes sound fairly soft, it’s actually a strong, quite masculine scent, and reminds me a bit of 10 Corso Como.

I prefer Durbano’s Rock Crystal, however. This one is almost medicinal, but in a good way. Incense/wood resin scents can go the way of turpentine, bug spray, and things your mommy made you take when you were sick. This one stays just on the correct side, with strong, in-your-face, yet intriguing resins. Notes are listed as frankincense, benzoin, orange, pepper, coriander, cardamom, cumin, cistus, sandalwood, cedar, vetiver, everlasting flower, oakmoss and musk. I mostly get the pepper, woods and incense, with vetiver wafting softly in the background, and just a hint of coriander, which adds a nice herbal touch. I don’t detect any warm benzoin, everlasting or cardamom here at all, and thankfully no cumin, either. This is an elegant, masculine scent and could easily take its place in the CdG Incense line. Durbano’s latest, Black Tourmaline, is very similar, but a bit sharper and smokier. I can’t wait to see what he does with rubies and emeralds.

Now on to soft, warm, cuddly incense. Heeley’s Cardinal is delightful, just pure, warm, high-quality frankincense absolute, warmed with a little this and that, without any other notes dominating. There’s a little soapiness in the finish, but not much. I love Avignon but I actually like Cardinal better because it is so pure and simple. The notes list incense, cistus, patchouli, amber, and vetiver, but I don’t pick up any patch at all. Messe de Minuit (Etro) has a strong mildew note to my nose, but not Cardinal. Crazy Libellule and the Poppies make the lovely solid perfume Encens Mystic, very similar to both Avignon and Cardinal. It retails for around $16US, a great deal. If you’d rather your home smelled like frankincense, Lorenzo Villoresi makes a wonderful home scent called Incenso. Pure church. Another home-scent option is actual incense. Shoyeido, the centuries-old Japanese incense house, makes a western-style, frankincense-based incense called Diamond. It’s sold in most Whole Foods and new age stores in the States. The adventurous can order pure frankincense resin (I recommend the Aden variety) online from a variety of retailers and burn it at home.

Now on to the most obscure, the most economical, and loveliest myrrh in existence, L’Erbolario’s Myrrhae EdT. It’s sold mostly in Italy and retails for around 17 euros for 50ml, so it’s a good deal. Frankincense and myrrh (several types of myrrh, so far as I can make out) dominate, with a little sage and ginger to add interest, and a drydown of musky vanilla. The body oil has a very lovely toasted cumin note; I usually can’t bear cumin but it’s gorgeous in this case. There’s an odd juxtaposition in these with the warm incense and vanilla edging up against the bitter sage and piquant myrrh; the effect is unusual and very refreshing. This is a great one for the holidays, and also works very well in hot, humid weather, unlike many incense scents which can be unbearable in the heat. Therefore it might be a good choice for those who celebrate the holidays during their summertime or in tropical latitudes. I haven’t found any other myrrh-based perfumes I really like; they either come out musty or horribly oversweetened and soapy. A good clean myrrh is hard to find.

Enjoy the gifts of the Magi this holiday season!

Image source, Wikipedia.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incense is one of my holy grails. I'm a fan of Ouarzazate, which just opens up on me. But I nearly fainted when you said L'Erbolario! I not only love their Myrrhe, but adore their Capriofoglio, a sunny honeysuckle that is just breezy summer in a bottle. Where, oh where can I get it?

11:02 PM EST  
Blogger Kelley said...

Marla (great review) and quinncreative, I did some research and found a US vendor for L'Erbolario at It's a cheesy website that has no descriptions about it's products and a strange little promo movie obviously made on someone's computer. I wrote to them because I didn't see the Myrrhae listed. We will see what happens. I too am an incense freak. I do have access to some of the best incense in the world...copal. They sell it at the market here on Tuesdays. I also buy some frankincense stick incense that is brilliantly blended with an aged patchouli that is out of this world (spiritual?) experience.

12:00 AM EST  
Blogger elle said...

What a wonderful post! Adore incense and am trying to remember if I've tried Heeley's Cardinal. Will definitely have to track down the L'Erbolario - sounds heavenly.

6:05 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another L'Erbolario BIG fan here, but never tried Myrrae. In Italy they do a line, which includes a scent, called Meharees. I remember it being a spicy amber with incense. Quite lovely and honestly priced.

8:46 AM EST  
Blogger Kelley said...

Sylvia, they have Meharees on the website I mentioned and it's $35 a bottle! How cool is that? I am still waiting for an email from them about Myrrhae.

9:57 AM EST  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

What a lovely job !
I love 'em all, 'cos I'm a closeted Jewish Carmelite.
After aspiring to be a sub-continental multi-armed goddess, that is...

10:55 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wear any of these. I tried many of them but even Cardinal went cold & sour on me. I can wear incense in a blend like Barbara Bui & on some days I can do Joseph Statkus, which I love. But mostly incense is a tricky note for me which I wish I could wear more easily but sadly, cannot.

10:58 AM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...


Great post- I am taking notes!

11:23 AM EST  
Blogger Ducks said...

Hi Marla, I just love the way you categorize your incenses. Makes me wish I weren't a myrrophobe... oh, but I am, I am! It hates my skin chemistry so much.

1:15 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i've embraced copal for centuries... and i greedily hoard those precious resin globs that drip off the pinons dotting the mesas of abiquiu new mexico

incense interpretations always wind up a dissapointment as they never are dark or swirling enough... i thought avignon was IT but it wound up turning yucky sweet a few applications later... even kamali's incense became predictable and black tourmaline's fast approaching the big toss-o

anyone try armani's bois d'encens? was it not like overly-saged thanksgiving dressing?... his idea of church incense is truly unusual

oh and how funny... i always thought it was aoud, frankincense and myrrh

1:35 PM EST  
Blogger Solander said...

Speaking of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I bought a chocolate bar at Liberty in London containing myrrh and frankincense essences and real gold leaf. It tastes mostly of strong, bitter dark chocolate but has a perfumey aftertaste. I've never thought of myrrh as bitter or medicinal, when I've come across it it has always had a mostly sweet scent, and that added taste in the chocolate bar is sweetish as well (I'm pretty sure the bitterness comes from the cocoa).

8:53 PM EST  
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8:31 AM EST  
Blogger Spiceman said...

Well, pure Myrrh is available in Oman and the far East, I could kick myself for not buying it when I visited there 4 years ago. I think I can get it here in Dubai thoug. I like it particularly in Memoire D'Homme of Nina Ricci, but it is not very long lasting. It is used in other perfumes but so far none is as predominant, in fact, I find it is blended to give a "soapy"effect rather than stand out (unlike Oud, Amber, musk or Petchuli).

9:32 AM EDT  

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