Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review - Variations On A Theme

I've purchased and sampled quite a few fragrances this year so far, and one thing I keep coming back to as a theme for 2013 is incense notes. Traditionally I was never much of a one for spice and smoke (or leathers for that matter, as I wrote about the other day). I was always more interested in florals, citrus, marine notes and light woods. 

Tastes change, and also become more adventurous given exposure to new ideas and new brands. I've even grown to love elements I might have previously thought of as angular or harsh. Hot dry spices. The jute rasp of real vetiver. Intense smoky birch tar. Frankincense, patchouli, myrrh and other incense style notes are generally not as challenging, but can contain aspects of all of these sorts of notes. Perfumers can choose to smooth off this angularity, while still allowing the incense to give loft and richness to the composition, or enhance it's angularity with other spices, herbs or wood notes.

Three of the incense based fragrances I have purchased or sampled recently are Cardinal by James Heeley, and 2 of the 5 member Series 3: Incense collection by Comme des Garçons. The Comme des Garçons series really caught my attention, with each fragrance in the series being inspired by various world religions. Kyoto for Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism. Avignon for Catholicism. Jaisalmer for Indian Hinduism. Quarzazate for Islam. Zagorsk for Orthodox Christianity.
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Cardinal, by Heeley (2006). 
Eau de Parfum.
Notes: White Linen, Baie Rose, Black Pepper, Labdanum, Frankincense, Myrrh, Vetiver, Grey Amber & Patchouli
Nose: James Heeley
(Sampled as a 2ml EDP spray, courtesy of Peony Haute Perfumery)
"Incense enrobed in folds of white linen.

A timeless scent built around the traditional incense notes of labdanum, ciste, frankincense and myhr. An air of lightness and purity is portrayed by a note of fresh, clean linen. The association of grey amber, patchouli and vetiver, imparts this perfume with mysticism and a rare and contemporary elegance."
[Notes and description via Heeley Parfums]

Series 3. Incense: Avignon, by Comme des Garçons (2002)
Eau de Toilette.
Notes: Roman Camomile, Cistus Oil, Elemi, Incense, Vanilla, Patchouli, Palisander 
Nose: Bertrand Duchaufour

Series 3. Incense: Kyoto, by Comme des Garçons (2002)
Eau de Toilette.
Notes: Incense, Cypress Oil, Coffee, Teak Wood, Vetiver, Patchouli, Amber, Everlasting Flower, Virginian Cedar
Nose: Bertrand Duchaufour
"Incense, to make one dream of a spiritual journey across the world's historical centres. An evolution of time and space."
[Notes and description by Comme des Garçons Parfums]

5 Minutes
Cardinal, by Heeley
On first spray Cardinal opens with a surprisingly sharp, sour and fizzy note with a medicinal edge. While it's quite striking it is fleeting though, and almost gone by the time I tried to put my finger on what it reminded me of. What then becomes more noticeable is the dry spice-like notes of classic frankincense and myrrh church incense, the ambery labdanum and the heat from the two forms of pepper (the baie rose, or pink peppercorns, and black pepper). The effect is a little reminiscent of the hot dry angularity of spices like turmeric, cardamon or caraway. The herbal 'green jute' rasp of vetiver is also noticeable. What I don't really notice at all is the 'white linen' accord.

Incense: Avignon, by Comme des Garçons
Avignon opens with a warm blast of incense. The vanilla and palisander (Brazilian rosewood) add a warm woody backbone to the fragrance, which compliments the loft and spice qualities of the incense notes, the light floral/amber cistus, and the slightly herbaceous opening notes from the chamomile and elemi. Instead of the dry spice sourness of Cardinal by Heeley, the effect here is less angular and reminiscent of polished woods and church incense while still maintaining a hot, dry spice feel.

Incense: Kyoto, by Comme des Garçons
Kyoto opens with a beautiful green, cool, incense quality backed with light teak wood, and overlaid with a lofty blossom note. There is no mention in the official notes of anything especially floral, but to my nose there is a lovely aldehydic almost cherry blossom note. The brightness and feeling of volume in the floral note make me think that there are definitely some aldehydes at work here. The cypress and incense give the fragrance an almost menthol coolness, and this early the wood and vetiver are noticeable but not especially strong. This knocked my socks off at first sniff in the store, and it still does!

30 Minutes
Cardinal, by Heeley
The sharpness and austerity is largely gone, and in its place is a fairly light incense with a very slightly sour edge. Given the intense blast of the opening, only a half hour later this is surprisingly very light on my skin indeed. I'm not sure I could tell you what white linen smells like (clean laundry musk perhaps?) but I still don't get any impression of it.

Incense: Avignon, by Comme des Garçons
30 minutes in and there isn't a dramatic change. Some of the lofty opening notes have departed leaving in its place a warm spicy and woody incense accord with some smoke. Light spice, incense, balsam and wood. I don't have a church going background, but I have it on good authority that it is a very evocative sketch of a Catholic church. (In my mind I also can't help but compare it to Tauer's "Incense Extrême" which I reviewed here, and which is cold and flinty by comparison. Perhaps more echoey cathedral in that case.)

Incense: Kyoto, by Comme des Garçons
After 30 minutes some of the blossom note has softened, but that airy quality added to the incense and green, woody notes still gives that spacious, cool, forest feel. What has become more noticeable however is the warmth of the teak note, the sweeter and warmer notes from the immortelle ('Everlasting Flower' here) and amber, and the genius of the coffee note. Coffee! Coffee, teak and vetiver may just be one of my favourite accord ideas; warm, toasted, dry, and slightly raspy. I'm still prepared to gush about this, as you may have noticed.

2 Hours
Cardinal, by Heeley
Ok, pleasant but very subtle. 2 hours in and my impressions of Cardinal are very similar to the 30 minute mark, with a little less of the sour edge. A little less of everything to be honest, as the longevity on my skin has been quite poor. The effect is pleasant, as I said, but so barely there that I'm not sure I'd be prepared to invest in an eau de parfum this fleeting.

Incense: Avignon, by Comme des Garçons
By the 2 hour mark Avignon has become a calmer, gentler beast. One thing I sometimes notice with spice/incense fragrances is a bit of sourness (an edge which I can only think to describe as urinous, if you'll beg my pardon). Avignon largely escapes that at all stages, and especially by the 2 hour mark there is no sign of any sourness. At the 2 hour mark Avignon is a study in incense, wood, vanilla and patchouli.

Incense: Kyoto, by Comme des Garçons
After 2 hours Kyoto has softened and warmed up considerably. Much (but not all) of the floral note has departed, and what remains is a cool green fir edge over an incense/patchouli heart, and a teak, cedar, vetiver base. The warmer notes of amber, immortelle and coffee round out the composition without being especially dominant at this point.

While I quite liked Cardinal, my heart belongs to the 2 Comme des Garçons.

The two are studies in contrast, and reflect different aspects of incense. Avignon pushes the incense theme in a warm, dry, spicy direction, while Kyoto emphasises the airy, cool, floral possibilities. Avignon is rich browns and golds, while Kyoto is the pink of cherry blossoms and the deep forest green.  Both Kyoto and Avignon are striking in their own ways, very evocative of the religious theme of incense, and with a clear incense note that runs through the entire duration of the fragrance.

I also found the longevity of Kyoto and Avignon to be superior of the three, despite the fact that they are EDT formulations compared to the EDP Cardinal.

[For other incense related reviews see also my reviews of Incense Extrême by Andy Tauer and Cuir Velours by Naomi Goodsir Parfums, and coming up I'll also be reviewing "Mabon" by Fleurage Perfume Atelier.]

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