While I sometimes burn pure frankincense in the kitchen downstairs, the smoke can be acrid. Getting the crystallised resin to light up is difficult ( it must be on fire from within, fully lit and self smouldering to produce the desired effect) – but then mushroom clouds of incense rise up, and fill the space with a stark, ancestral smell that can overwhelm.
Many of the recent incense perfumes also go for the choker: the incisive, sinewed dark wooden powerhouses, or else aim for the realm of the ether (see this post): but I myself prefer a more muffled shroud of tainted muslin, loitering quietly in sunlit winter window frames like the kisses of benevolent ghosts (………soft, memories of pluming smoke- not the hard, charred ashes of carbonized bitterness, the silent screams of Joan of Arc……..)
I crave an incense scent that is not quite as solemn. And the three lesser known perfumes I am looking at today are all ones I would like to own full bottles of, for the simple reason that they do the trick of cradling beautiful frankincense notes within other textures without making too much of an overstatement: if anything, some might find the following lacking in impact, even bland; too serene; but I myself like their subtle poise; the softness.
Encens D’Asakusa, by L’orchestre Parfum, is a very Franco-Japanese construction, ostensibly based on the mysterious smell of coiling o-koh as it drifts out from hidden temple precincts in the centre of Tokyo, but which is in truth too gentle, sensual, to truly capture the unsmiling severity of the finest religious agarwood incense – with its dark, camphoraceous inner strictness that is too forbidding on skin – and in my view is all the better for it. Frankincense itself is not in fact the main component of the majority of the products made by Japanese incense manufacturers (unlike the incense used in Christian ceremonies) but in Encens D’Asakusa, the note – very pure and relaxing – is fused with a dryness of myrrh, and a violet and cypress heart mellowed with iris over musky pink peppered rose that allures with layered simplicity and grace.
Italian perfumer and artist Filippo Sorcinelli has frankincense running in his veins. Employed directly by the Catholic church in Rome for the very purposes of perfuming the elect, I find that in his less extravagantly priced auxiliary line based on music – and more precisely, the specific sound of particular ‘stops’ on the full display of church pipe organs – the more subtle approach works well to the scent wearer’s advantage. Garmented in LAVS, the star of his line and the scent of the highest echelons of the church hierarchy- you may feel resplendent, righteous. In Plein Jeu, a soprano, citric-balsamic frankincense composition, there is a more gentle and earthbound kind of bliss. A heart of sheer frankincense over woods (patchouli, sandalwood, vetiver and balsam fir in quiet concentration) is sweetened and brightened with a celestially fresh lemon ginger mimosa accord – never too strident, just uplifting and clear as the musical key it is based on (at school for a while I was taught how to play the church organ, though the piano was instinctively much more my instrument) – and I recognise, in my chest, the way in which the perfumer has synaesthesically married the two senses quite intuitively and exactly in this unusual frankincense ‘cologne’ I sometimes suddenly feel like wearing on days when I am feeling more composed; more insular (all of the samples of the perfumes mentioned here today are now down to their last dregs).
Finally, another Italy-inspired frankincense perfume, and in some ways perhaps my favourite of the three: Baiser De Florence (‘a kiss from Florence‘), which, with its whispers of church interiors but also the scent of the well-dressed people within them, is an enjoyable fusion of a clear yet prominent frankincense note with a soft floral counterpoint that I find very elating and simultaneously soothing. A balm. Sensuous, heliotrope vanillic iris and cedary musk; powdery and clean; finished with an almost imperceptible note of clear jasmine that ties the whole together most pleasingly. If a touch linear, even bourgeois, this perfume does nonetheless satisfy the occasional need for a very wearable, quotidian frankincense perfume more in touch with common reality; a perfume for relaxation, and mooching about in town or at home in winter sweater. Alone. Sometimes you want to be in communion with yourself – not just the Holy Ghost.