Nombril Immense by Etat Libre d'Orange

Questo e l'ombelico del mondo! Anyone remember that Jovanotti song? It's what I start singing whenever I see this tiny bagged sample that I was excited to receive in 2014 and then never fished out of my patchouli sample box, distracted as I was by other shiny things to smell and think about. Seems it was enough for me to see its name to be fond of it, this huge bellybutton that is the bellybutton of the world.

But its time has finally come. The beginning caused me some mild excitement, with its silky burp of gripe water - cushioned cottony musk, lavender, the plush dillwater billow of sweet, laundered air, a hint of sticky booze. Kind of like Helmut Lang EDP or Annick Goutal's Musc Nomade but less carnal. But the sweet, cozy-powdery mastic incense scent soon slides into something a little earthier and rotty-smelling, like orange peels left to decay on a wet log. The patchouli doesn't smell at all like Angel, but there is something of Mugler's famous 'moldy dishrag' accord that lingers here. Possibly, it is the slightly dirty 'orange and clove pomander' aspect of opoponax that is producing and urging along this unfortunate effect. Perhaps it is the old age of my sample that is at fault. I do sense a teeny, tiny bit of the intense, aftershavey lavender-and-clove spiciness that opoponax always brings (a wee drop of Old Spice) and a midge of sweat, but none of its golden, baby-powder-ish Shalimar-ness, which is a pity because that's the part of opoponax that I really love. Anyway, the upshot of all this is that Nombril Immense turned out to be infinitely more enticing to me while it was still trapped in its sample and swimming around aimlessly in my sample box than on my skin.

Crimes of Passion: Inevitable Crimes of Passion by 4160 Tuesdays

Well, this is odd but good-odd, not bad-odd. Not sure when I'd ever wear such a thing but get past the unpleasant rubber-starch-wood stripper notes up top, and you stumble upon the true (but hard to achieve) ambient smell of coffee grounds in the air, the volatile compounds of the freshly crushed beans mingling companionably with bursts of citrus peel and wood esters. This is all very dry and papery, but anchored by the fungal darkness of water you've just washed woodland ceps in. The anisic properties of the coffee and the sodden earthiness of the mushroom note conspire to make you think of black licorice vines or myrrh oil. And yet, Inevitable Crimes of Passion never feels wet or turgid. It achieves this high, sweet dryness and airiness that only thoughtfully-designed woodsy perfumes possess. All the heavier materials are diffused out into a spacey sound cloud that accompanies you on your day but never once threatens to choke you out or weigh you down.

Bodhi Sativa (Patchouli project no.1) by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

An interestingly grungy take on patchouli, full of the murky, vegetal shade cast by the rotting stems of lovage, fenugreek, and celery plants that have gone to seed in the stagnant water pooled under huge canopies of trees. The tenebrous gloom is pierced in the drydown by a most magnificent cedar note - dry fecal matter and sawdust - and what smells to me like the boozy, golden fenugreek sweat off the brow of a person who inhaled a ferocious methi chicken curry the night before. This greasy-sweet-savory, yet herbal, funk of what I think must be immortelle is not actually immortelle at all but some unholy combination of patchouli and tolu balsam, mirroring some of the magic that makes Patchouly Boheme so addictive to me (minus the smutty baby powder and minty geranium, of course). But I can't help feeling that Bodhi Sativa promised to bring the cannabis and then arrived at the party with some pungent, brown, honeyed stems of things that were once green. It may be the age of my sample (at least five years) but as it stands, Bodhi Sativa reads more as a bathtub gin version of something infinitely more complex and worked out, like Patchouli by Comme des Garcons or The Afternoon of a Faun by Etat Libre d'Orange than as its own animal. And for that alone, it earns a neutral rating from me.

Laetitia by Rancé 1795

A soft, smudgy swirl of cocoa (patch) and vanilla, with a velvety drydown that recalls the ambery, floral powderiness of Shalimar but not its sharper, smokier facets. Though I find Laetitia to be incredibly pleasant, the spot for a vanilla-patch in my collection has already been filled by Le Couvent's Nubica, which does pretty much the same thing as Laetitia for about one third the price.

Earth Mother by Dame Perfumery

I am beginning to wonder about Dame. So many of his fragrances are popularized, smoothed out riffs on perfumes he himself has composed for other brands (for example, Dark Horse is a note-by-note copy of his Gaiac for M/ Micallef, only a little rougher around the edges) or abbreviated takes on the perennial favorites of people who only have one foot in, one foot out of the wider perfume world to begin with (for example, his chocolate fragrances are all nice but pretty one-note and perfume-oil-y, kind of similar to the super popular Choco Musk by Rehab).

Earth Mother belongs in the latter group. It is extremely pretty – fruit and chocolate patch whipped into clean, buttery-oily scads of white musk – but also an almost exact copy of Narciso Rodriguez Musk for Her EDT (the black bottle) and SJP Lovely. You get used to the copycat-ism of certain tropes in perfumery if you’ve smelled your way around a block or two. It’s just a shame that Dame Perfumery engages in it too, because everyone seems to adore Jeffrey Dame himself, who comes across as a kind, charming man. My advice, though, is to steer clear of anything that gets clear ‘smells like’ ratings on Fragrantica and to invest instead in his incredible range of soliflores, all of which are true renditions of their source material and well worth seeking out.

Patchouli Nosy Be Eau de Parfum by Perris Monte Carlo

Perris Monte Carlo fragrances all seems to riff off a common base accord, an opulently rich, padded welt of labdanum resin, vanilla tonka bean, sandalwood, and a smattering of spices that oozes across rooms like an overripe Brie. And honestly, if you don’t love this kind of thing, then there is something seriously wrong with you. Always tremendously warm and likeable, in Patchouly Nosy Be, this thicc double-cream base comes dressed with enough iris to give it a sharp, dove-grey powderiness, and of course, there is a bit of shading from the bitter cocoa and patchouli up top. But if you love Absolue d’Osmanthe, as I do, and you are willing to invest in only one bottle of Perris Monte Carlo, then know that the same generously upholstered amber mood is guaranteed in both, so you only need to decide which of the top dressing notes – osmanthus, patchouli – you want grafted onto that. This is lazy, paint-by-numbers niche perfumery at its best and for once, I couldn't care less. Give the people what they want.

Isvaraya by Indult

What a difference a few years make! When I first smelled Isvaraya, composed by Francis Kurkdjian, I thought it was a surprisingly dark, almost animalic gothic stew of dusky purple things – plums, liquor, night-blooming jasmine, earthy patchouli. I remember it as a half-cousin of the brooding Un Parfum Cheri, Par Camille (Goutal), only not as forbidding or dry. Now, smelling it again years later, I still smell the indoles of the jasmine and the plumminess, but gone is the general air of seductive darkness, replaced by a pervasive cloud of sugary molecules, as if everything, patch included, has been spun into a huge ball of candy floss. It remains vaguely funky underneath (which I attribute to the halitosis honk of unneutered jasmine absolute) but it is as glittery as a disco ball on the surface. My daughter sprayed it this morning before I could warn her, but she loved it, telling me it smelled fizzy and powdery, like the sherbet powder you dip licked lollies into. And actually, I agree. Not sure if it is me or the perfume that has changed but Isvaraya is now child-safe. Still the best Indult fragrance, in my opinion, even if it is not quite as distinctive or as darkly sexy as I remember it.

Female Christ by 19-69

Female Christ is a bold and artistic take on patchouli. The opening is a huge, romantic sweep of damp, earthy patchouli, vanilla, and flowers that makes me think I know where this is going, except that instead of chocolate, the lingering impression is that of high-roast coffee, mixed with heavy cream and rhubarb compote. It is heavy, aromatic, and fruitily sour, with the eucalyptus note providing a sharp greenness that might be camphor but might also just be crushed spearmint leaves. The effect is so blown out with the musky grey-whiteness of cashmeran that you get flashes of the notes rather than a clear picture.

Very quickly though, things start to fall apart and as soon as you start to make out the individual components, the overall effect is immediately less charming. The fruitiness of the rhubarb and the vague creaminess of the white flowers conspire to create an insistent tuberose note that dominates the entire mid-section of the scent. Rubbery, florid, and overblown, this is where Female Christ smells more like Café Tuberosa (Atelier Cologne) mixed with Tyger Tyger (Bianchi) and Fracas (Piguet) and less like a cool Danish art experiment.

Yet, the traditionally feminine and sweet-plasticky-fruity-floral layers of this fragrance are stretched over a framework of an extremely dusty, hoary patchouli (think Vierges et Toreros) that smells like the small cupboard under our stairs at home where our coats, old toys, unused files, and assorted knick knacks went to die, so you have the conventionally pretty uneasily mixed with something old-mannish and dusty. The vanilla is very sweet and blooms all over the drydown, but that too clashes with the sourness and air of neglect created by the aromatics and patchouli. Female Christ is appropriately confrontational. It gives me the originality I crave but not the cohesiveness of design I need to wear it on the regular. It is a good mile marker, however, on this patchouli journey I am on. It shows me where my hard stops are.

Fruitchouli Flash by Tauerville

This is probably an in joke by Tauer, playing around with the tried and true fruitchouli formula of fruit + flowers + clean, musky patchouli to see if he could make it less conventionally ‘pretty’. Joke’s on him, though, as Angel, available at every perfume counter, had already nailed the ugliness of matching a dishcloth-sour patchouli with neon fruit and vanilla. I recoil at Fruitchouli Flash in the same way as I do Angel, but my question as a reviewer is if there is a twist or innovation here that would justify the jump to niche? It depends on how you like your patchouli. Fruitchouli Flash displays the same rotty-garbagey foulness of the patchouli in Angel, the same aspect that makes me think of dirty dishrags moldering in the wet sink of a lonely incel who has never learned to take care of himself or his house. The perfume does innovate somewhat by introducing a distinctly vegetal tone to the rot, like stewed celery. The neon peach note is not particularly natural-smelling, but provides a momentary relief to the sludgy darkness of the vegetal rot, like spraying a peach-scented deodorant all over the room to mask unholy odors. Overall, though, Fruitchouli Flash is a strange and borderline unpleasant experiment, the point of which ultimately escapes me, unless you have a particular kink of wanting to smell like leathery peaches sweating under a cellophane wrap.

Horizon (new) by Oriza L. Legrand

To be perfectly honest, I am not sure that my nose is detailed enough to pick up on all the minute differences between one classic ambery patchouli and another. To me, Horizon has precisely the same woody, boozy, cocoa-dusted, tweed-suited gorgeousness of Reminiscence Patchouli, Mazzolari Patchouli, Patchouli Leaves, Inoubliable Elixir, Psychédélique, and so on and so forth.

The brief twinge of orange upfront is an innovation but then, Bohemian Spice by April Aromatics did that too, and more distinctively. There is this over-ripe fruit note in patchouli that gets drawn out with whiskey notes time and time again in fragrances like these. Invariably, there will be cocoa powder or dark chocolate because these flavors are so naturally simpatico with patch. And the result is never not amazing-smelling (to me anyway), especially when all that golden-brown earthiness is padded out with amber.

Yet what on earth would entice me to spend three or even four times the amount of money on Horizon over the jeroboam of Reminiscence Patchouli I can buy for €30 from Mes Origines during the Christmas sales? Believe me, I am willing to spend more for better. But I have to be able to spot the difference with my own eyes first. When the end state of satisfaction is exactly the same no matter the vehicle, you begin to understand that, sometimes, in perfume, it can be like insisting on buying Waitrose’s chocolate biscuits even though they’re three times as expensive than the ones in Asda (which are made in the same factory) just because the presentation is posher.

Bohemian Spice by April Aromatics

Bohemian Spice is a juicy pomander orange studded with shards of black pepper, rolled in the earthy, almost chocolatey darkness of patchouli and vetiver. Its genius lies in its balance of light and dark. I notice a lot of dry, smoky labdanum in the eau de parfum that is neither listed nor noted in most reviews. (It doesn’t show up at all in the perfume oil). Its effect is marvelous, merging with the frankincense to form a hulking amber-incense backdrop that reminds me of Amber Absolute and Sahara Noir, both by Tom Ford. Most find Calling All Angels to closely resemble Sahara Noir, but with its sour orange and resinous frankincense-amber duet, Bohemian Spice is arguably the closer match.

Bohemian Spice is a touchstone of natural perfumery for me, because even though it doesn’t contain any synthetic musks or woody ambers, it manages to be rich, complex, and long-lasting. If you’re a Doubting Thomas on the whole natural, crunchy-granola perfumery scene, then roll the dice on a sample of Bohemian Spice. Smelling Bohemian Spice as an introduction to the all-natural scene is like reluctantly trudging along to a vegan dinner at a friend’s house and finding yourself completely satisfied (not to mention quasi-converted) by the end of the meal.

Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi

Sticky Fingers is not going to ruffle any feathers. It is a cosy, feel-good diorama of Francesca Bianchi’s back catalogue with most of the hard edges sanded down and its already duvet-thick volume fluffed up by a mille-feuille of chocolatey patchouli, resins, amber, tonka bean, and vanilla.

My own sticky fingers hover over the ‘buy’ button on Sticky Fingers mostly for the last two thirds of its life, which is when it turns into that combination of smells perfume lovers know as ‘sweater mélange’ – that sweet, lived-in aroma of a fabric like wool or coat collar or seatbelt exhaling, like a sigh, the breath of multiple perfumes last worn God knows when. Or that lovely and as-individual-as-a-fingerprint nuclear cloud that rushes up at you when you open a box of your favorite perfumes or cosmetics.

To wit, Sticky Fingers smells like the heady, third-day fug imprinted on my bathrobe after several days of wearing some of Francesca Bianchi’s other perfumes; especially The Dark Side with its honeyed resins, The Lover’s Tale with its sharp leather, and Lost in Heaven for its simultaneously urinous and sherbety civet-iris accord that is practically the Bianchi DNA. Yet Sticky Fingers is much softer and gauzier than any of these. It’s like all of these perfumes mingling together and blown in at you through an air vent from another room.

Digging down into the detail, there are muffled echoes of something of the choco-wheat-cereal notes from indie perfumes of the last few years (like Ummagumma by Bruno Fazzolari, Café Cacao by En Voyage, or Amber Chocolate by Abdes Salaam Attar), but also a spicy tobacco gingerbread (Tan d’Epices), and a thick ‘white’ note like sandalwood creamed with benzoin (Santal Blush perhaps). I sprayed some Ta’if (Ormonde Jayne) over the tail end of Sticky Fingers once and could have sworn to the presence of smoky, caramelized marshmallow (Amber Absolute by Tom Ford). To be clear, Sticky Fingers doesn’t smell like any one of these perfumes. It’s just a delicious, jumbled up funk of rich woody or resinous orientals that have been worn at some point in the past two or three weeks, and have left an indelible, if undefined, impression.

In essence, Sticky Fingers is a patchouli perfume. But through a glass darkly. Think of the patchouli as the soloist leading the charge in a huge orchestra, drawing in supporting riffs from the strings and the bass until the music swells up from a hundred different sources, creating an incredibly rich, harmonious sound that fills all the air pockets in the room. The patchouli starts out solo, a musty, stale, and fruity rendition of pure earth. But almost immediately it calls in the high notes of the string section, in the form of those acidulated orris-leather tones of the Bianchi DNA, and to counter that, the bass tones of grainy tobacco leaf, shredded into tiny pieces and soaked in a glass of cold, floral-anisic Chinese tea. This combination of notes and ‘sounds’ has the effect of roughing up the patchouli, turning it into a hessian cloth accord of earth, stewed tea, and tobacco, back-lit by the yellow streak of ureic civet-iris that runs through Bianchi’s work like battery acid.

This opening act is attention-catching but, focused on two or three accords that ride bullishly over everything else, it feels like we are all waiting this part out until the quieter, richer sound of the rest of the orchestra can spot an opening and rise to fill it. Eventually this happens, a whole chorus of dusty spices and sandblasted resins and micas ‘blooming’ in unison, softening the sharp edges of the Bianchi iris and blurring the outline of the patchouli. If I like the scent thus far, then I start to love it now, just as the central accord thickens up like a custard with the addition of tonka, sandalwood, vanilla, and tons of sparkly resin. This is when the perfume becomes a comforting ‘sweater mélange’.

Hongkong Oolong by Nez

What a beautiful and refreshingly to-the-point fragrance. In the tinderbox of nowtimes where the fuse is short and the flashpoint just a meter downwind of someone having a bad day on Twitter, Hongkong Oolong by Maurice Roucel for the autumn/winter 2019 issue of Nez, the Olfactory Magazine is a welcome respite – a meditation room off the main thoroughfare, filled with soothing white noise.

Hongkong Oolong is a very clean, almost simple scent, which of course means that it’s a bit abstract and therefore not so straightforward to describe. It is almost easier to say what it is not than what it is. So, let’s start there. Though it is a musk in the hands of Maurice Roucel, it doesn’t smell like anything in the delightfully slutty doughnut musk triptych of Musc Ravageur–Labdanum 18–Helmut Lang EDP. Though it is gently spiced with powdered ginger and cardamom, and in the latter stages, there is a savory note that reads as cumin, it doesn’t smell particularly like chai.

Stripping it back even further, though a minimally fermented-smoky nuance develops midway through, and the composition focuses on a variety of tea (oolang) reputed to be milkier and more floral in tone than other teas, Hongkong Oolang doesn’t even really smell like tea. I mean, it does if you’re highly suggestible to the official description. But otherwise? Not so much. Think instead of Roucel’s lighter, more playful work centred around his signature magnolia and magnolia leaf – honey, cream, and lemon, sliced through with a flash of metal and tart greenery – like the entire midsection of L’Instant Pour Femme (Guerlain) or the teeny tiny part of Tocade (Rochas) that is not rose lokhoum or really loud butter cookies.

Hongkong Oolong is therefore really just a dense but silky cloud of honeyed, milky musk molecules pierced by the succulent greenery of a Hosta or Monstera and the green apple peel nuance of magnolia. There is something lightly leathery, tannic almost in the lower registers, which, again, I’d describe as a nuance of tea rather than a courtroom sketch. A Bvlgari tea fragrance this ain’t.

Indeed, as a floral musk with the oblique suggestion of tea, rice milk, and greenish white floral notes, I suggest that Hongkong Oolang forms the third point of a triangle stretching between Champaca (Ormonde Jayne), with which it shares a nutty-toasty note that splits the difference between basmati and wheat, and Remember Me (Jovoy), for that cardamom-steeped milk note that comes on hot n’ heavy in the basenotes. They also all three have a light floral presence that is noticeable but not dominant (jasmine and magnolia in Hongkong Oolang, frangipani in Remember Me, and champaca in Champaca), though Hongkong Oolang is far milkier than Champaca and much fresher than Remember Me.

But still, it’s the milkiness and their milkiness that’s the point here. I love the milkiness in these fragrances because it feels almost wholesomely natural, as if hand-cranked out of brown rice or sandalwood or those huge, waxy-leaved tropical plants that cry plant sap tears when you snap them in half. Though admittedly quite plain, this kind of milkiness is infinitely preferable to the claggy popcorn butter/moist socks stink of off-the-shelf milk aromachemicals used tiresomely often in the indie perfume oil sector.

And so, I love Hongkong Oolong. Though far cleaner than I usually like my musks, I find peace in the scent’s unshakeable center of balance between freshness and that milky sandal-rice-plant-milk undertone. At a time when nothing seems stable or constant, its restful simplicity is a cure.

Broken Theories by Kerosene

Broken Theories speaks directly to my fantasy of trekking home through snowy woods towards my rustic-but-architect-designed log cabin, in Fair Isle leggings that miraculously don’t make my legs look like two ham hocks in a sack, a Golden lab at my side, and the pink-tinged winter sky above my head tilting slowly towards indigo. A thread of sweet, tarry woodsmoke – from a far-off campfire, perhaps, or even the wood burning stove lit by my husband, Mads Mikkelsen – hangs in the cold, crisp air.

Pause and there is the heady scent of scattered forest homes gearing up for the night. Someone is revving their jeep to check if the winter tires are ok. Someone else is smoking a cigar while peeling an orange. Someone is smoking vanilla pods in their shed for some fancy artisanal market niche I’m not aware of. There’s an illicit coal fire in the mix too – not terribly environmental, the neighbors bitch, while surreptitiously gulping in lungfuls of the familiar charred scent of their childhood like junkies.

But the best thing about these aromas in that they are too far off in the distance to distinguish as one thing or another. Sandalwood, leather, oud, tobacco, vanilla, woodsmoke, burning sugar, dried kelp, and tar all melt down into one delicious aroma that is definitely more a collective of environmental ‘smells’ than perfume.

I love Broken Theories and really want a bottle. But the sweet woodsmoke-campfire genre is a crowded one, and bitter experience compels me to be clear-eyed about where this fits in the pecking order. First of all, let me admit that Broken Theories smell very, very indie, and by indie, I mean it smells like a number of popular woodsmoke perfume oils from companies such as Solstice Scents (especially Manor, Manor Fire, Grey’s Cabin, and Inquisitor) and Alkemia (especially Smoke and Mirrors and Fumé Oud à la Vanille). I’m fine with the association but all the same, the indie vanilla-woodsmoke theme (a) does tend to smell a bit samey from brand to brand, (b) is gummily (albeit enjoyably) indistinct, like several woodsmoke stock oils or ‘house notes’ thrown into a jerrycan, and (c) doesn’t carry quite the same degree of elegance as a masstige or luxury perfume featuring woodsmoke, e.g., Bois d’Armenie by Guerlain or Bois d’Ascèse by Naomi Goodsir. That I smell this type of ‘indie-ness’ in the vanilla-woodsmoke aspect of Broken Theories makes me hesitate.

However, I can think of many other perfumes – some of them luxury, some of them prestigious indies -that Broken Theories beats into a corner with a stick, and on balance, that tips the whole decision into the yes direction. For example, while I like Fireside Intense (Sonoma Scent Studio), it is too bitter-smoky for me to wear on the regular without me feeling like I am wearing a hair shirt. Bois d’Ascèse has a similar problem, in that there is a harsh woody aromachemical in the base that makes wearing it a chore – there is no such problem in Broken Theories, which beds down the tougher smoke and oud-leather notes in a balmy vanilla softness that feels as comfy as those fantasy Fair Isle leggings. And Broken Theories is infinitely preferable to the popular By the Fireplace (Marson Martin Margiela), a perfume whose sharp, burnt sugar and viscous campfire or wood aromachemical makes me physically nauseous.

Broken Theories is, however, not as good as Jeke (Slumberhouse) or Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch), other perfumes with a strong campfire or woodsmoke element. But it is cheaper, lighter, and easier to obtain. It is roughly similar – both in quality and execution – to the wonderful Winter Woods by Sonoma Scent Studio, and by process of elimination, I guess I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between this and that.

Conclusion: Broken Theories is one of the best woodsmoke scents on the market today. But it only makes sense if you don’t already have a plethora of other woodsmoke scents to fill that particular niche. My fantasy self and I will be having words. (Edit: I broke down and bought a bottle)

Copper Skies by Kerosene

Sometimes you want a silky pâté that rolls around velvetily in your mouth for a few seconds before dissolving into perfumed air, and sometimes you want the thick, meaty savor of a butcher’s organic pork sausage slathered in fried onions and enough hot yellow mustard to guarantee a ruined shirt. Copper Skies is the pork sausage of the amber genre.

Cleverly balancing the gooey resinousness of amber and tobacco with a close-fitting sheath of basil that splits the difference between mint and black licorice, it scratches my itch for the kind of big, gutsy flavors that make my mouth throb and my heart sing. The amber smells more like incense to me, with a rich, deep sort of bitterness that probably originates with the tobacco leaf. Worth noting that Copper Skies doesn’t smell particularly like tobacco leaf to me per se, probably because the usual cinnamon and dried fruits aspect is missing, replaced by that surprisingly fresh, anisic topnote. But there is a chewy, toasty quality to Copper Skies that certainly hints at tobacco.

Copper Skies is not what you’d call refined, but that’s the point. Its flashes of industrial rubber wiring, sharp incense, and hot metal are what keep my salivary glands pumping and the juices running unchecked down my chin. It turns on a coin; sometimes it smells like just another rich, sweet incensey amber (quite Amber Absolute-like), and other times like a herbal, leafy thing that has more in common with licorice root tea than resin.

Amber is one of those accords that smells so good in and of itself that that it is difficult to innovate on the theme without losing the plot somewhere. The more of them I smell, the more I appreciate the ones that retain the affability of amber while doing something quirky and original to keep us all from slumping over into that over-stated torpor that follows a rich pudding. Copper Skies is not particularly subtle or ‘worked out’, but to my mind, it absolutely succeeds in giving you the full satisfaction of amber without sending you to sleep.

R'oud Elements by Kerosene

R’Oud Elements is a total wow for me – just wow! Pairing a bitter orange note (itself lurching charmingly from the naturalness of a freshly-peeled orange to the artificiality of a vitamin C drink) with a savory sandalwood standing in for oud, it has much the same effect as Many Aftel’s Oud Luban, in that it throws open the windows and floods a dark material (oud) with citrusy light.

R’Oud Elements turns the traditional treatment of oud – almost reverential, lengthening the shadows of its dankness with similarly deep, brown flavors, or countering them with truffled rose notes – on its head, making it sing out in hot orange-gold tones. R’Oud Elements is so bright it’s blinding – fizzy, zesty, and slightly mineralic. It smells like someone spilled freshly-squeezed orange juice on a grungy old brown leather sofa, which is all the better for it. The scent stops just short of achieving maximum creamsicle, the bitter orange never quite bridging it all the way to the creaminess set free by the sandal in the base. But feel good? God, yes.

Many people on Fragrantica say that this smells like M7 (Yves Saint Laurent), one of the first commercial fragrances in the West to feature oud. And I suppose that’s fair, though it is the sour, nutty mealiness of cedarwood (or even vetiver), rather than amber, painting an exotic picture of oudiness here. But what this reminds of the most – in effect, if not smell – is that low-high contrast between the aromatic, fizzy ‘dustiness’ of Italian herbs and the satiny, sour-cream umami-ness of sandalwood that runs through much of Lorenzo Villoresi’s work, particularly that of Sandalo and Musk. Something about the rub of something sharp or aromatic (saffron, lavender, orange peel) against something tartly lactonic (musk, sandalwood), fleshed out by an intensely powdery cedar, creates in all three scents the impression of cream lightly curdled by a squirt of lemon juice.

If I didn’t already own Musk (Lorenzo Villoresi) and vintage Sandalo (Etro) to satisfy my aromatic tart-sour-creamy woody needs, I would be setting my cap hard at R’Oud Elements. As it is, I’m still thinking about R’Oud Elements long after my sample is gone.

Blackmail by Kerosene

Mining the same marshmallow-meets-campfire vein as By the Fireplace by Maison Martin Margiela, albeit only about a hundred times more pleasant and natural-smelling, Blackmail captures that exciting feeling of anticipation your tummy gets at a country fair, the promise of something deep-fried and sugary vibrating on the air like a wind chime.

The luscious berry-tipped incense topnote is a cruel tease – smell it once and then it’s gone, but not before introducing the central block of fruit-over-smoked-oakwood that hangs around for the rest of the ride. Though distinguished by a wonderfully sour streak of sodden, fermenting oud chips, Blackmail eventually settles into a shape not a million miles away from Broken Theories. They don’t smell alike note for note, but make no mistake – these guys happily fill the same gap in a well-curated wardrobe.

My own personal preferences lean more towards sandalwoody woodsmoke than burnt marshmallow, so I’m currently only tempted by Broken Theories. But, honestly, either would do in a pinch for when I am craving something sweet n’ smoky in that slightly blocky style of Kerosene. And that, really, is my one bone to pick with Blackmail and all fragrances like it. They are always more set pieces – big wooden panels you move around in each scene to achieve a specific effect – than the kind of thing that sets the imagination alight. Mind you, that’s not to say, given the greyness of the past few years, that there isn’t value to walking around with your own personal country-fair-meets-campfire soundtrack playing on a constant loop over your head.

Armani Privé Myrrhe Impériale by Giorgio Armani

Yes, Myrrhe Impériale is impressively loud and rich and voluminous. But once you get past the clattering noise of the opening – oiled galoshes, radiating resin, treacly licorice – you realize that it is not much more than a powerful fruitcake amber dressed up with so much Amber Xtreme or Norlimbanol that even a knuckle daub’s worth is unbearable. It is like a large, expensively dressed man whose braying laugh and physical volume seems to swell to fill the entire room, impregnating all the available air pockets until you feel you will still be able to hear/smell/taste him from two countries away. These niche behemoths are designed to be impress you at ten paces, steam-rolling over any distinguishing features other than its own powerful, magnetic radiance. An olfactory Charles Atlas. Meh.

Iranzol by Bruno Acampora

Iranzol is a perfectly-preserved time capsule of a time in perfumery when perfumers were free to use the stinkiest of floral absolutes, plant oils, and resins in their perfumes. Iranzol smells like the seventies, which makes perfect sense because it was launched in the seventies. What is extraordinary is that the formula seems to have remained unchanged since then; this is the perfume in its original form. In a day and age when brands reformulate every few years to keep up with IFRA recommendations, it is a small wonder that something like Iranzol can and does still exist.

The opening is as damply mushroomy as Acampora’s own Musc, brimming with wet soil, freshly-cut mushrooms, raw patchouli oil, and possibly some salty Italian kitchen herbs, like dried lavender and fennel root. There is definitely myrrh in the blend somewhere, helping those wet earth notes along.

Clove is also suspected, because there is an accord here that is half-claggy, half-dusty, like the sour, unwashed smell of sheets folded away while still damp. This accord is both medicinal (clean) and animalic (unwashed, dusty, stale), which, although not entirely pleasant to my nose, is effective at creating an atmosphere of gloomy, faded grandeur. One imagines a dusty chaise longue in an abandoned mansion by the sea somewhere.

The drydown diverges from the central accords found in Musc by finishing up in a dry amber and sandalwood base. It retains, as most of Acampora’s oils do, that brusque connection to the earthier, more aromatic smells of the seventies, when men wore either Jovan Musk or barbershop fougères and shaved with proper soap. In other words, the sandalwood is dry and astringent, and the amber vegetal. No cream, sugar, or butter anywhere in sight. You might have to adjust your television set when attempting Iranzol for the first time – it is neither modern nor easy. It is an anachronism, an earthy scent for those who like the pungent, untouched smells of nature and their fellow human beings.

La Myrrhe by Serge Lutens

Pairing the fatty, soapy aspect of myrrh with a spray of fatty, soapy aldehydes is genius because, like any solid marriage, they compensate for each other’s failings. The fizzy aldehydes lift the heavy resin up into space, exploding it into stardust, while the bitter, rubbery characteristics of myrrh add depth and drama to the lower register of aldehydes, lending it a rooty, sub-woofer substance just as the champagne bubbles begin to fade away. In the base, a creamy jasmine and sandalwood turn up to mitigate the ‘rubber ball’ astringency of the myrrh, essentially taking over the reins from the sweet, effervescent aldehydes.

Because the aldehydes in La Myrrhe smells very much like the kind used in Chanel No. 5 (fatty, soapy, waxy, slightly rosy), many people find it to resemble No. 5, though to my nose, it smells rather like Chanel No. 22 with its Fanta-and-incense-on-steroids mien – with one key difference. La Myrrhe has a lurid almond-cherry-ade aspect to it that reminds me of Cherry Coke, rather than Fanta. Picture a single candied cherry lifted from a jar of (cough) syrup and dropped into a bag of pure white soap powder, causing the powder to explode outwards and upwards like a cluster bomb.

La Myrrhe is a sensational myrrh fragrance, and unfortunately hard to find these days unless you live in Europe and can order direct from les Salons du Palais Royal in Paris. It is worth the effort and expense, though, especially, if you prefer the gauzier, more light-filled creations of Serge Lutens over the stickier, fruitcake-and-incense ones, like Arabie, Fumerie Turque et al. With the anisic, rubbery bitterness of the resin perfectly juxtaposed against the sweet, frothy soapiness of aldehydes, La Myrrhe will appeal enormously to lovers of Douce Amère, Chanel No. 5 Eau Première, Chanel No. 22, Guerlain Vega, Rêve d’Ossian by Oriza L. Legrand, and Miriam by Tableau de Parfums (Tauer).

L'Eau Trois by Diptyque

Most of the older Diptyques smell like ancient medicinal salves made out of crushing various barks, spices, and unguents down into a fiery yellow paste and applied to an open wound (Eau Lente, L’ Eau). L’ Eau Trois flips the trope a little, taking it outside to the sunburnt hillsides of Greece or Southern France where the healer combs up tufts of wild rosemary, pine needles, and mastic from the maquis, and uses his cocaine fingernail to dig out sticky yellow globules of myrrh and pine sap from ancient, shrubby trees bent over with age and wind, before singeing it all over a fire so that greenery takes on a burnt, bitter flavor, and mashing it all down to a paste in a pestle and mortar.

Smoky, wild, and herbaceous, L’Eau Trois this is myrrh at its most confrontational. It smells of incense, yes, but also of bitter greenery that will either kill you or cure you if ingested. Less like a perfume than something born of the bowels of the earth.

Myrrh & Tonka by Jo Malone London

A stodgy almond Battenberg of a tonka bean cups a chewy licorice lace myrrh in its sweaty clasp, and they both drown in the disappointing chemical buzz that is the standard Jo Malone base. Pro: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day. Con: it is stronger than most Jo Malone scents and will last all day.

1000 Kisses Deep by B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful

For once, Lush’s strategy of unceremoniously dumping a vat load of bolshy, untrimmed raw materials into a scent and letting them all duke it out actually works. The osmanthus takes the form of a cooked apricot jam spiced heavily with almond essence and cinnamon, making me think of boozy Christmas fruitcakes slathered in apricot jam and carefully wrapped in a layer of rolled-out marzipan. But if there is cooked citrus jam, then there is also something nicely fresh here, in the form of that metallic, juicy brightness that stains your fingers for hours after you’ve peeled a mandarin.

These layers of both juicy and jammy citrus interact with the dusty but headily spiced myrrh to accentuate the Coca Cola-ish aspects of the resin, complete with its dark ‘crunchy’ sweetness and joyful, nose-tickling fizz. If I could spread 1000 Kisses on a slice of toasted panettone, I totally would. A uniquely cheerful take on myrrh.

Avicenna Myrrha Mystica by Annette Neuffer

America has Mandy Aftel, Australia has Teone Reinthal, and Europe has Annette Neuffer. I’m not sure why Annette doesn’t get the kind of attention that the other natural or indie perfumers do, but I suspect it has less to do with her natural talent than with her reluctance (as with many indie perfumers) to engage with the quid pro quo sleaze involved in the social media marketing and self-promotion that these days goes hand in hand with making and selling perfume.

If you want to see what Annette Neuffer can do, though, I beg you to try something like Avicenna Myrrha Mystica. She has a way of turning this rubbery, dense, semi-bitter resin into pure ether. Applying a balmy orange peel note to make the dusty myrrh bright and juicy, and surrounding the resin with a puffer jacket of velvety cocoa powder for comfort and depth, Neuffer feeds us a myrrh that’s been massaged into its most agreeable shape yet.

Mid-section, it develops a wonderfully damp (almost soggy) cardboard sweetness that reminds me a lot of Cocoa Tuberose by Providence Perfumery, and in fact, both scents share a soft, smudgy feel that is as sexy and endearing (to me) as the idea of Jeff Goldblum breathing on his spectacles to fog up the glass and clean them with the corner of his wooly sweater. Part cocoa powder, part flat Coca Cola, backlit with a dry hyraceum note that adds a faintly musky, funky quality to the myrrh.

But that orange peel persists, and that is what wins out in the end – a fresh, resinous orange (or perhaps a fresh, orange-tinted resin?). Either way, I find Avicenna Myrrha Mystica both utterly engrossing and a breeze to wear, and it is not often that you can say both things about myrrh, especially in an indie or all-natural take.

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