Ardent Frankincense. In your smoke the prayers of the faithful rise. Native of the Arabic Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, you are since the beginning of time linked with the rituals and religions of the cradle of the World. The Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans, calling you Olibanum, have burnt you on sacred altars before you became forever linked with Abrahamic religions. You were offered to Jesus by one of the three Magi, as a symbol of His willingness to become a sacrifice, in the same way as frankincense is offered to the flame. Much later, you took the roads and seas to Europe where you embalmed the cathedrals and churches from your mystical scent. For centuries, Muslim pilgrims have brought back home frankincense from Mecca as a memory of their Hajj. Ardent Olibanum, how many prayers have you carried with you in your fragrant smoke?
There are four main species of Boswellia trees producing the aromatic resin known as frankincense. Boswellia Carterii and Boswellia Sacra are actually the same species of plants, the term Carterii used for the Somalian tree and the term Sacra for the South-Arabian (Oman, Yemen) plant. Both species can be regarded as the same on a chemotaxonomic and a botanical point of view. The Indian tree is called Boswellia Serrata. Boswellia Papyrifera is primarily growing in Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and is often mistaken with the species Boswellia Carterii from Somalia. Each tree exudes a resin which differs in appearance, and chemical composition and its odor profile also varies when burning or extracted for perfumery. I recommend an excellent report (click here) to the most curious or passionate among you. All trees are unfortunately endangered today, as they grow in war zones or where the significant population growth results in the conversion of woodland into agricultural fields. As a result, frankincense is getting rare and expensive.
Besides its use in incense or perfumery, frankincense is highly valued for its healing benefits. The Ayurvedic medicine recognized Boswellia Serrata extracts as a cure for arthritis and bronchitis. Frankincense, in general, is also known for its anti-inflammatory properties and applied for external and internal uses. Frankincense resin is commonly chewed or infused as a tea by local people in the producing countries. Recently, Boswellia Serrata supplements are getting popular to prevent and cure arthritis and joints pain. Boswellia is a miracle plant!
Frankincense is not the most common note in perfumery, as it gives a strong bias to the perfume. Instead, when frankincense is used, it appears usually in the forefront of the fragrance, with a presence in the top, heart, and base. This note is very mystical and reminds us of our great religions and their accompanying rituals. I am personally a strong addict of frankincense, certainly because of my childhood memories of Sunday Mass. My pick of the week are all among my favorite fragrances:
I would like to start first with the sublime incense fragrances from Comme des Garçons. This line, called Incense Series 3, comprise five different variations, each matching with one of the five great religions of the World. For example, Avignon is the Christian Catholic version of incense, very balsamic, with a clear opening of frankincense and myrrh. Vanilla and Roman chamomile soften the resin notes and perfect the accord. Avignon is really for the unconditional of frankincense and maybe not for everyone. Jaisalmer represents Hinduism with more dry woods and spices, Kyoto brings us to the Buddhist and Shintoists temples of Japan, very delicate and subtle with a vetiver-patchouli base, Zagorsk stands for the Christian Orthodox Church with some powdery notes of iris and violet, and a bold woodsy base. At last, Ouarzazate represents Islam, in a more musky, sweet and ambery version of frankincense than the others. I love them all, with a slight preference for Jaisalmer maybe. Try them all to appreciate how the note of frankincense can be decorated in such subtle and attractive variations. Another wonder from the iconic Japanese fashion house!
Andy Tauer with Incense Extrême (V) just decorated a beautiful frankincense with a minimum amount of woods and spices. Andy used a very high concentration of Indian frankincense, Boswellia Serrata, extracted with CO2. I particularly love this fragrance which I bought last summer in Italy. For Andy, the scent captures the roughness of the arid climate where the tree survives. For me, this was just the perfect and logical consecration of our visits to Vatican and other marvelous Italian Churches.
Cardinal by James Heeley is another superb blend of frankincense with amber notes, myrrh, pepper, and linseed. We are again here in the atmosphere of the Catholic Church, wealthy, mystical and sometimes dark like the frescos of the Masters. Eau Sacrée, by the same house, is a more recent fragrance launched at Pitti 2016, with a hyper-intense balsamic heart of frankincense and myrrh decorated with spices and labdanum. This fragrance is more powerful and “dark” than Cardinal and perhaps too throbbing for me to wear, but you might love it.
Incense and Cedrat, by Jo Malone, is a much easier fragrance to wear than the former ones. Cedrat is also known as true citron or citrus medica. This citrus note matches perfectly the top note of frankincense, lying on a light ambery note, sweetened by some benzoin. I love this accord of balsamic notes with a sharp and clean citrus at the top. As expected, this fragrance is not very long-lasting and with a moderate sillage, but this is a good summer choice.
Acqua di Parma launched last year a new set of three fragrances in a line called Note di Colonia. The third one called logically Note di Colonia III is an oriental unisex juice with a strong balsamic and ambery heart, sweetened by tonka beans, and opening with a ginger-mandarin accord. The typical Colonia base of this house is still recognizable here, as much as the frankincense and myrrh, until now not typical of Acqua di Parma. I tested the fragrance on me during a long intercontinental flight, and it did perform very well, but the memory of the price tag was still a bit sour.
That’s it for this week, my friends. I could indeed still write much more about this wonderful resin, but that would be abusing of your precious time. Thanks for having read this article until the end. Have a great week.