10 November 2011

Incense Three Ways

Come the cooler days of the year, there are certain fragrance families and styles I gravitate toward -- dark, masculine woods; sweet amber; warm spices; and balsams and resins. It's the last group that I've been particularly focused on this fall, and in my search for a new incense-prominent perfume I sought out three perfumes (one a few years old, the others pretty much brand new) that I thought might fit the bill.

Byredo Encens Chembur:
Meant to evoke a sunny afternoon in the Mumbai neighborhood it’s named for, Encens Chembur (formerly sold as just Chembur) brings me instead back to my parents’ upstairs den in Texas where, at a small makeshift altar, my mother lit pungent yellow incense sticks between plates of fruit in offering to the Buddha and our ancestors.

But that unexpected olfactory flashback only occurred a few hours after application, and thankfully, Jerome Epinette (author of almost all the Byredo scents, including the excellent Sunday Cologne, née Fantastic Man, as well as three of the Atelier Colognes) crafted some exquisite layers through which the incense emerges: golden lemon and bergamot, sharpened even more by piney elemi resin, and a warm, vibrant pairing of nutmeg and ginger. The ambery drydown is warmer still, with a quietly comforting labdanum note and very soft musk. There’s not much sillage on my skin, but it’s beautiful enough as a close-wearing scent and has very decent longevity.

Olivier Durbano Citrine
Paris-based perfumer/jeweler Olivier Durbano has named all of the perfumes in his collection after gemstones, with each fragrance designed to match the symbolic identities of the stones. His seventh, Citrine, is named for the gold-to-amber-colored quartz variety that is traditionally thought to absorb and dissipate negative energies.  The press materials that accompanied Citrine’s release this fall included words and phrases like “pure joy,” “inner fire” and “glowing celestial energy.”

Okay, sure. Citrine, at least for the first hour or so, certainly has some ‘glow’ to its sweet citrus opening and warm woody heart. But the note list (which has a number of commonalities with Encens Chembur, interestingly enough) makes a lot of promises that, on me at least, the juice doesn’t keep. The ‘ginger’ has no zing; the elemi has had all its teeth removed; and the spiciness of carrot seed is frankly nowhere to be found. Beeswax, amber and musk make the drydown quite comfortable, even luxurious, but not much more than that.

This is the first of Durbano’s fragrances I’ve tried and I had high hopes for it, given the relentlessly positive things I’ve read about Black Tourmaline and about the quality of his perfumes in general. If you can’t tell, I’m unconvinced -- especially at $190 for 100 ml.

Huitième Art Parfums Myrrhiad
Far more than just a clever portmanteau, Pierre Guillaume’s take on myrrh is easily the most accomplished of these three and one of my favorite fall releases. The Huitième Art perfumes (a separate line from his signature Parfumerie Generale line) aren’t constructed as traditional perfume ‘pyramids,’ which are designed around the different evaporation rates of the various raw materials. Instead, they are explicitly linear, exceptionally well-blended compositions with very few components.

In the case of Myrrhiad, the starring note is accompanied by just three others: black tea absolute, licorice and vanilla. The black tea contributes a beautiful smokiness that alludes to the practice of burning myrrh, like incense, as a spiritual offering (for an excellent discussion of this perfume’s symbolic intention, see this piece on Grain de Musc); the licorice adds just the right amount of anisic sweetness to the bitter myrrh, and also turns a bit leathery; and the understated vanilla gives depth to the entire composition.

The aspect I find most refreshing and enjoyable, however, is what Guillaume left out. I love that I don’t have to endure 15 minutes of boring citrus top notes to get to the interesting part, and I love how interesting this scent can be with just four notes.

Encens Chembur is $220 for 100 ml at Barneys, or $145 for 50 ml directly from Byredo. Citrine is $190 for 100 ml, available at Luckyscent. Myrrhiad is $135 for 50 ml, also at Luckyscent.