Does the intent of the perfumer when making a perfume matter to us? If so, do we subconsciously allow it to color the way we experience the perfume? These are questions I ask myself whenever I put on Balsamo della Mecca, by La Via del Profumo.
The intent here of the perfumer was clearly to imply devotional pilgrimage. The very name of the perfume (Mecca Balsam) suggests that this is an ancient salve to weary pilgrims on a religious mission. Somewhere, I read that Dominique Dubrana, or Abdes Salaam Attar as he is better known, wanted Balsamo della Mecca to capture the scent roiling in the wake of the hundreds of thousands of dusty pilgrims circling the sacred Ka’aba on their hajj in Mecca, chief among them the smell of frankincense, labdanum resin, and tobacco.
And yes, it does capture those smells. In fact, Balsamo della Mecca is a veritable monolith of ancient resins, balsams, smoke, and incense, swallowing up any trace of delicate florals (tuberose) or vanilla in its composition. But, although there is frankincense here, it is not the type of frankincense that makes me think of High Mass. For someone raised Catholic, like me, the smell of frankincense usually points in one direction only – to the church pew. That’s why I can’t wear the most straight-forward of the devotional frankincense perfumes out there, like Comme des Garcons’ Avignon or Heeley’s Cardinal – they’re all a little bit too literal for me. But the genius of Dubrana’s treatment of the note here is that Balsamo della Mecca sidesteps any references to liturgical worship and goes directly to a warmer, quieter, more human-scaled place.
So, despite the devotional connotations attached to this perfume (both professed and implied), Balsamo della Mecca does not strike me as a straight-ahead, literal rendition of worship (and it is all the better for it, in my opinion). It does, however, successfully introduce a thrilling element of ‘The Other’, by which I mean a glimpse at a culture or environment that is so utterly alien to ‘The Self’. There is a dusty foreignness to the feel of this that is addictive and enthralling. Cultural tourism without the risks. Timbuktu by L’Artisan accomplishes this trick too.
This perfume is about the type of human warmth that transcends cultural, religious, and language barriers. When I wear this, the image I get is of a man who, while performing his hajj with the other thousands of dusty souls around the Ka’aba, decides to break away from the mayhem in the Grand Mosque for a while and into a small, dusty bookshop. Balsamo della Mecca smells like this moment, the stepping out of the heat and noise into somewhere dark, cool, and welcoming. The owner of the bookstore, who prints books for the Grand Mosque, invites the pilgrim to sit and rest for as long as he likes.
The opening of the perfume, with its hoarse roar of smoky, dirty/tarry labdanum and hot, woody cinnamon or cloves, represents the overwhelming swell of noise and humanity outside. Once the initial onslaught dies down, frankincense and precious woods come to the fore. Abundantly spiced, it is warm, woody, and inviting. The frankincense presents a different face here than it usually does – there are no lemony, astringent, or herbal qualities at all, instead it is the pleasantly stale, sourish air of a place where frankincense is burned all the time, just not right now. Joining this is a dry, smoky smell of oud wood chips, ancient books, resins kept in ornate little tins, and the pipe tobacco in the old man’s leather pouch. It is austere, dry, and smoky, but at the same time, filled with a basic human warmth (tonka, amber, resins) simmering just underneath the surface.
The dusty, strange human warmth of Balsamo reminds me that the best conversations you have with God are not the ones you have on your knees in church or in the mosque, but the ones you have with Him when you’re alone. Or maybe with a kindly bookstore looking on, your hot, dusty feet resting on the cool flagstones, your eyes closed against the dark, and holding a most welcome cup of tea in your hands. That, for me, is Balsamo della Mecca.