2016 has been a bad year for celebrity deaths and an even worse one for celebrity presidential elections, so I’ve found myself craving and wearing mostly woody, resinous perfumes that perform like one long howling basenote, working my tired neck muscles like a Russian massage therapist. This year, no roses, no leathers, and no ambers – just a long line of calming, resinous woods that make me feel like I’ve slipped into the Nirvana of a silent forest, isolated from all the problems of the world around me.
Sandalwood is particularly good – but so are smoky resins such as frankincense, or precious woods such as oud. For these woods and resins to be calming, there can be no jagged edges or jutting-out elements that grab the attention. One long basenote, remember. Here are my top 15 recommendations for smoke, woods, and resins for the Fall/Winter period. Let me know what your picks would be in the comments.
Miller Harris La Fumée: It’s funny how sometimes it’s the fragrances you love and wear the most are the ones you never bother to write about. I’m on my second bottle of this elegant woods and resins concoction, and yet now when I sit down to put pen to paper, I realize I’ve never really analyzed the notes. La Fumée performs quietly in the background of your day, like smoke from incense or oud embedded in the fabric of your clothes. It starts off on a greenish frankincense note, like crushed pine needles, pepper, and lemons, and that fresh, masculine vibe continues for much of the scent.
Wafting in and out of the composition is a light smoke note from a combination of the cade and birch tar, but there is also a dry labdanum in the mix, performing its teetering act between tinder-dry paper that’s about to catch fire and liquid tar. Creamy sandalwood takes over from the piney, terpenic facets of the frankincense, nudging the scent into a faintly sweet-and-sour sweat direction. But none of that describes how easy this scent is to wear, or how pleasurable in its humming-in-the-background way. Whereas other resin scents hit you over the head, this one wears like an elegant, transparent veil that exists only at the corner of your field of vision. It’s small but perfectly formed.
House of Matriarch Blackbird: Blackbird has been re-branded as No. 1 now, which is fine with me because that name still describes what it is to me – my all-time favorite fragrance. In the world. Yep, it’s rare for a perfumista to nail her colors to the mast like that, but in my case the love is definitive and long-lasting. I don’t own No. 1 and probably never will for reasons of cost and difficulty of access, but I am lucky to have a decant. Even sniffing the top of the bottle makes me happy.
The main notes are leather, oud, resins, and woods. But this is a perfume that transcends its notes and creates an entire atmosphere. When I wear No. 1, I am walking through a damp forest beside the sea, the cold air teaming with the smell of seaweed, leather, ozone, hemp, tree sap, and the far-off smoke from a joint, perhaps a bunch of kids out in the forest for a night of mischief and relaxation. One of the chewiest, most satisfying perfumes I’ve had the pleasure of smelling and wearing. Full review here.
Sonoma Scent Studio Winter Woods: Winter Woods wraps the smells of the forest – wood, resin, humus – in animal pelts. Its smoky, sweet labdanum is furred and thickened with castoreum, making me want to howl at the moon every time I wear it. One of my favorite woods fragrances ever, Winter Woods balances deep comfort with unsettling, animalic touches that keep you on the edge of your toes. Full review here.
SAUF Contre Bombarde 32: If you loved UNUM’s LAVS for its towering, cathedral-sized incense but wished for something slightly less soapy or cold, then Contre Bombarde 32 is as close to a sure thing as you can get. Cool, herbal incense at the start gains thickness and sweetness from assorted resins, amber, and the same dried-fruit richness one gets in Arabie and Amber Absolute, minus the syrupy sweetness that sometimes cloys in those scents. Contre Bombarde 32 might not look like much at first, but it neatly occupies a blank space in my resins collection that I didn’t even know was there until I smelled it. Full review here.
Le Labo Patchouli 24: It’s true that Patchouli 24 smells like smoking tar pits and the aftermath of a chemical fire in a tire factory, but that doesn’t fully explain why it’s sexy. I remember the first time I wore this. I had been swimming in a city pool with my husband and young son, and my skin still smelled of chlorine when I sprayed it on. Somehow, the combination of pool chemicals with the burned, smoky “electrical fire” facet of Patchouli 24 and the thin, poisonously sweet slick of vanillin pooled at the base of the scent made me smell like a total badass, like Lisbeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, chasing a bad guy down on her motorcycle. Even though I was wearing jeans at the time, one spritz and I felt like I was dressed in a black rubber cat suit and heavy black eye liner.
Patchouli 24 makes me feel like I always thought Piquet’s Bandit would make me feel but didn’t – powerful, but also female. There is a salty-sweet “glazed ham” quality to the smoke note here that just sends me over the top. The dreaded fir balsam (or could it be vetiver?) sweat note makes an unwelcome appearance in the far drydown, but idly enough it’s not the deal breaker it is to me in other scents such as Baccarat Rouge 545 or Encens Flamboyant. The only reason I don’t wear it more often than I do is because every time I am in the car with my family, my husband stops the car to check for an electrical shortage or fire of some sort.
Tauer Au Coeur du Desert: Au Coeur du Desert possesses 95% of the genes of the original, including its hard-to-define magic, but rearranges the pieces so that the lingering impression is of soft, earth-brown woods and indoor comfort, rather than the sun-bleached desert tundra landscape of its predecessor. The woods and spices glow softly, like coals in a log cabin fire. Full review here.
Papillon Anubis: The more I wear Anubis, the more I crave it. Multiple wearings become part of a obsessive compulsive cycle – it’s a fragrance that whispers “Wear me again, you know you want to” most insistently from the bottom of my decant drawer. It is the perfect smoky woods and resin scent if you are scared of the more hard-hitting examples in the genre, because it leavens the smoke with a sourish, saffron suede and some syrupy jasmine, making it far more sensual and pleasing to wear than a straight-forward smoke or resin bomb.
Anubis opens up on a very black, sticky tar note, reminiscent of both melting road tar and gasoline. But I’ve come to understand that this is the jasmine speaking – a hot, phenolic little madam of a thing. The tarry jasmine perches on top of sweet, sticky resin and leather/suede accords, granting a soft landing. The ending is softer and wispier than I would like, but the opening alone makes it worth the price of admission.
Bois 1920 Vento Nel Vento: Vento nel Vento is an addicting mixture of warm and cool elements, balancing warm, creamy sandalwood, honey, and ambery woods against cool licorice, smoke, and frankincense, and adding in a dash of intensely green oregano or rosemary to give the scent a savory, almost meaty aspect. An extraordinarily complex, pleasing piece of work, this rarely gets the attention I think it should. Full review here.
Mona di Orio Vanille: Mona di Orio’s Vanille stuns with a dark, almost burned wood aroma of a dried vanilla pod. Rum, bitter orange, and cloves ensure the fragrance stays close to its pirate ship inspiration, and wearing it, you can almost see the dusty caskets and glass jars packed densely with vanilla pods from Madagascar. To me, Vanille is less about vanilla and more about dark, charred wood, and in the drydown, a creamy, viscous sandalwood that always reminds me of Bois des Iles pure parfum. It is always an experience, putting this perfume on. I feel like it deserves black high heels and lipstick in fire engine red.
Aftelier Ancient Resins Body Elixir: I am currently addicted to the warming blend of Balm of Gilead (poplar bud resin), frankincense, elemi, and benzoin, essentially a hair and body elixir that is so rich one can wear it as a perfume oil. It was made for the late, great Leonard Cohen, who wore it every day of his life. I have been wearing it in my hair almost every day since mid-November and it truly is calming and gorgeous. Full review here.
Parfumerie Generale Cadjmere: Green cypress and pine sap sliding into a full-fat, perfumey sandalwood with brief hints of musky coconut, Cadjmere clings to sweaters and scarves like a second skin. At first glance, it is outdoorsy and girl-next-door in its charming folksiness. But its cool, lingering creaminess is grown-up, sensual. If you want to be cuddled, put this on. Full review here.
Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore: A fiercely spicy sandalwood, Santal de Mysore takes the Silk Route to a Mysore sandalwood destination rather than the straight road, and is all the better for it. It will please people like for whom Mysore sandalwood is better in its imagined, fantasized form than in the pure oil itself. My top Serge Lutens ever, and one of the ten fragrances I’d take with me to that much-mythologized desert island. Full review here.
Chanel Sycomore EDT: I specify the EDT because reports suggest that Sycomore’s signature harsh, smoky buzz has been toned down and made creamier with sandalwood in the new EDP. That’s not to say that a version that’s easier to wear (especially for women) is unwelcome. But I treasure the original EDT for its smoky, nutty vetiver and its, yes, harsh, austere pine chill. But it’s the sort of perfume I put on to straighten my shoulders and snap my spine into an upright position anyway, so its snappy gin and tonic brightness is needed here. A shame to think of all that smoke being drowned in double cream, somehow. Full review here.
The Different Company Oud for Love: Oud for Love is supposedly the feminine counterpart to The Different Company’s Oud Shamash, which I also love, but to my nose, both of these fragrances are completely unisex. Oud for Love is as beautiful as Oud Shamash, if that’s possible, but takes the (supposedly real, Laotian) oud note in a different, more gourmand direction than the smoke and woods of Oud Shamash. Here, the sour oud oil note is wrapped up in a gentle wheaten note, a hot breath of bread or cake coming from a baker’s oven. The cumin, saffron, heliotrope, and whiskey notes are probably what conspire to create this impression, a thread of sweet grains or powdered malt linking them all.
There is spice, too, in the heart, and an earthy, creamy ylang note. But the lingering impression is of gently caramelized, milky, breadiness that buffets the medicinal twang of the oud to perfection, bringing to mind long ancient wooden tables spread with sweetmeats, honey, and freshly-baked bread in drafty banquet halls in medieval castles. Still, the balance tilts more towards woods than food, and it is only very subtly sweet, in the way that bread and milk and whiskey are contain a natural, round sweetness of their own. Highly recommended to people who find most oud compositions to be too harsh, sour, or medicinal – this is an oud that’s been breastfed and wrapped up in a cashmere shawl.
Hiram Green Arbolé Arbolé: It is difficult to make natural materials behave as dynamically as synthetics or mixed media perfumes – without the lift and sparkle of stuff like Hedione and Iso E Super, all natural molecules risk compression into one long, muddy-smelling line of smell. That’s why when a natural perfume succeeds as wildly as Hiram Green’s new Arbolé Arbolé, it makes me want to stand up out of my chair and give a standing ovation. Without any little helpers at all, he seems to have created a woodsy patchouli perfume that reads differently to every single person who’s tried it – rose to some, heliotrope to others, green leafiness to others yet. It’s next to impossible to create a prismatic, shape-shifting natural, and especially in the woods category, but Hiram Green has done it with Arbolé Arbolé. The standout of 2016 new releases for me, hands down. Full review here.
Honorable mentions: Sarah Jessica Parker Stash, Donna Karan Black Cashmere, Chaos, and Wenge, Parfumerie Generale Coze, Miller Harris La Fumée Arabie. Maria Candida Gentile Sideris, Serge Lutens Chene, Chanel Coromandel, La Via del Profumo Balsamo della Mecca