The best scents do more than make the world a more fragrant place – they tell a story. Study them closely and there, bottled and aromatic, is our social history. For real perfumery is an art form and what all proper art does is capture a moment and reflect it back to us. Since Chanel’s No 5, which perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the modern, emancipated 1920s woman during the tumultuous war and postwar years, the best perfumes have tracked the tale of our times.
So now, as perfumistas sniff the scented air, what do they find? Bold whiffs of incense, myrrh and frankincense that speak of churches, the divine, the search for something “other”. Inside these bottles there is more than a touch of mysticism, and plenty of these perfumes hint at celestial inspiration. Some of the names alone are potent pointers to the religious narratives that lie behind their creation. Caron’s Parfum Sacré (Jean-Pierre Bethouart’s 1990 version has been sublimely re-envisioned for the 21st century by Richard Fraysse, £105 for 100ml eau de parfum) and Frédéric Malle’s scented candle, Notre Dame (£60), are just two among the many arrivals landing in the aromatic halls of the world’s department stores. All are powerful reminders that scented oils and balms have their roots in religions and that these deep associations still touch us today. The Buddha himself linked virtue with fragrance. “The perfume of the good person pervades all directions. The scent of virtue is the best perfume,” he stated. Smelling beautiful mattered. Something of this feeling seems to have caught the attention of those perfumers whose business it is to bottle the zeitgeist long before more ordinary mortals have sensed it.
Speak to an insider such as Odette Toilette (the nom de parfum of Lizzie Ostrom), who dreams up what she calls “olfactory adventures” that persuade people to approach perfume from a cultural and artistic perspective. She believes there is a fatigue surrounding the notion of using scent simply as a means of sexual attraction. “The niche companies seem to want to encourage contemplation in the wearer, to use scent as a means of inspiring sensory reverie or attentive thought as opposed to spraying it on and forgetting about it – which goes back to the original application of perfume as a means of religious experience.” She finds that at the moment people become “thrilled”, as she puts it, “whenever they try a fragrance that has any suggestion of incense and places of worship”.
Ruth Mastenbroek, a perfumer with her own range of highly regarded scents (from £60 for 50ml eau de parfum), also believes that “people are seeking comfort that resonates with them subliminally, on a spiritual level. Some of the most holy ingredients in the perfumer’s repertoire have had a resurgence lately. The warm peppery tone of olibanum (frankincense) combines beautifully with woody and resinous notes. It works brilliantly with oud, which could be partly responsible for the trend.”
Kilian Hennessy’s In the Garden of Good and Evil collection perfectly encapsulates this new fascination with the mystical, the religious, the occult. As James Craven, perfume archivist for that fine niche retailer of scents, Les Senteurs, says: “For Kilian, olfactory harmony always begins with a story. In this collection it is the myth of original sin that is found at the heart of the narrative.” He sees the collection as “a promise of forbidden pleasure, one that invites us to succumb to our most secret desires, breaking through time back to the entrance in the garden of Eden… the place of shadowy sensory delights that tantalises and seduces us”. The latest in Kilian’s series is Playing with the Devil (£160 for 50ml eau de parfum; can be refilled for £75), which comes in a beautiful white casket with a gold snake curling its way round the case. “For this,” says Hennessy, “I wanted a dark, very sexy perfume that was full and rich. I wanted to make it the way we used to build perfumes. So we used 20 per cent sandalwood and 5 per cent patchouli: quantities not used in perfumery for a long time. Some people add 1 per cent patchouli and call it a ‘chypre’ – we don’t work like that.” Smell it and you’re carried to a garden, a dark and secret one, richly scented with overladen fruit trees.
Meanwhile, Canadian-Indian Ben Gorham, founder and creative director of Byredo, sought to “echo the incense wafting from Hindu temples, which takes me back to my childhood”, in his Encens Chembur (£130 for 100ml eau de parfum). His 1996, new this winter (£105 for 50ml eau de parfum), was inspired by “a photograph of a girl being transported – I thought it must be by a fragrance – to a state of serenity or even ecstasy”, says Gorham. “Her face reminded me so much of Bernini’s statue of St Teresa of Avila and her visions – a woman raised to a state of grace. I play with light and dark – the crisp, cold serenity of juniper, ethereal and otherworldly, which flows into the incredibly fiery spirit of the black amber that is both more emotional and more human, yet still conjures images of a more peaceful and contemplative existence.”
A new arrival on the fragrance scene, Thameen, founded by Saudi Arabian Basel Binjabr, has in its first collection Carved Oud (£125 for 100ml eau de parfum), a scent inspired by the ritual of Solah Shringar (the 16-stage wedding process for Hindu brides, involving adornment with fragrance and jewellery). It is an angular, edgily sweet scent with notes of guaiac and cedarwood, while at its base lie patchouli and musk, which convey depth and warmth.
Another divine new brand is 777: its O Hira (£580 for 50ml extrait) was inspired by the cave near to Mecca in which Prophet Muhammad had a revelation. It uses ambrette to evoke the smoky cool of the depths of the cave and speaks of retreat, contemplation, tranquillity and self-examination.
Aedes de Venustas’s Iris Nazarena (£185 for 100ml eau de parfum), created by Ralph Schweiger (who made Lipstick Rose for Frédéric Malle), came out in September and uses Iris “Bismarkiana”, called Nazarena because it grows in the mountains east of Nazareth. This is a sacred scent, plump with vetiver, patchouli, smoky ambrette, leather and mystic iris.
Meanwhile, the Buddhists are not overlooked. Kyoto Jinko by Florascent (£50 for 15ml eau de parfum) was created to echo the contemplative nature of this religion as its followers strive for enlightenment. It is rooted in resinous oud, with incense, cedar and cloves at its heart, and opening to sweet jasmine and cassie flower.
Roja Dove, founder of the Haute Parfumerie at Harrods, has turned his highly sensitive nose towards China. January 2014 sees the arrival of his NuWa (£750 for 100ml eau de parfum), inspired by the “goddess” famous in Chinese mythology for creating mankind, and containing several Chinese ingredients, most notably osmanthus. This oriental scent is filled with sandalwood and moss and uses heady spices to take us to exotic lands.
Comme des Garçons could be said to have started the trend when it brought out its Series 3: Incense range in 2002, in which each perfume was designed to pay homage to one of the world’s five most important spiritual teachings, including Avignon for Catholicism, and Kyoto for Buddhism and Shintoism. In July, it brought out Blue Encens (£75 for 100ml eau de parfum), fusing incense, Indian cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon and amber-mineral crystals with a touch of gin and tonic (yes, really) to make a lighter, more sparkling variation on the theme.
The range of mystical scents is, as you can see, large and varied – and if you love the genre, there are plenty of older fragrances to explore. Their greatest charm is that, while rich and complex, most have something a little dark or earthy about them, reminding one of musty crypts and damp wood. But there is a certain majestic serenity to them. Some of the oldest are those originally created by monks – often made by hand and based on old recipes – such as Carthusia, Santa Maria Novella, Caldey Island and Farmacia SS Annunziata, although there are lots of newer ones, too. You could try James Heeley’s Cardinal (£120 for 100ml eau de parfum), which came out in 2006 and is like an olfactory sketch of a prince of the church – think Mazarin or Richelieu. Full of frankincense, myrrh and labdanum, Craven describes it as “ambiguous, troubling yet outwardly serene”. Then there’s Etat Libre d’Orange Fils de Dieu (£60 for 50ml eau de parfum) from 2012 – “mysterious and delicate”, says Craven, “darkening to something more dangerous and animalic” – and Etro’s Messe de Minuit (£90 for 100ml eau de toilette), 1994, a wonderfully evocative combination of smoky incense, cinnamon, myrrh and galbanum wood, bringing to mind the soaring arches of grand cathedrals. The vision behind Jovoy’s La Liturgie des Heures (£100 for 100ml eau de parfum), launched two years ago, was, according to Jovoy’s owner François Henin, “to evoke the image of an old monastery where the scent of incense fills the air just like the chanting of prayers”.
Lovely as these backstories sound, how do the perfumes themselves live up to the narrative? All I can say is, I love most of them. Parfum Sacré has now joined the select group of perfumes I like never to be without, along with Edmond Roudnitska’s Le Parfum de Thérèse (£160 for 100ml eau de parfum), Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue (£76 for 75ml eau de parfum) and Jicky (£202 for 30ml extrait), and Chanel No 19 Poudre (£67 for 50ml eau de parfum). Parfum Sacré is, as the blogger on Olfactoria’s Travels puts it, “a heavenly scent, with both feet firmly on the earth. Its sacredness is not ethereal and floating, but grounded in humanity.” It’s opulent and complex, powdery and spicy, with the scent of rose unfolding as it opens up.
And come Christmas, I cannot think of any candle (other perhaps than Rigaud’s sublime Cyprès, £65, or Cire Trudon’s Spiritus Sancti, from £60) that I would rather be lighting than Frédéric Malle’s Notre Dame. As the notes of frankincense, myrrh and cedarwood begin to curl their way around the room, I am back in the little church by the Dominican convent of my childhood; the priest is in his vestments; the choir boys are singing; and the incense is rising. These are profoundly stirring scents. They won’t be for everybody, but if they are, you’ll love them to bits.