Today I am talking about two incense fragrances that rock my world. I almost lost my chance to experience these with you on camera, because one of them is already empty and the other is almost gone. Very thankfully, I took the precaution of decanting them when I first got them some years ago, so I have wee backups.
In the year 2000, The Comme des Garçons fashion brand launched the the project Parfums Series. They started several lines of perfumes that united around a common theme. The brand’s Incense series 3 fragrance collection was released in 2002, and the idea was to showcase five spiritual teachings of humanity, each encapsulated in a fragrance. All five are named after cities historically significant for those teachings.
So we have Ouarzazate in Morocco for Islam, Jaisalmer in India for Hinduism, Kyoto for both Buddhism and Shintoism (and I think it’s a stretch grouping these two religious philosophies together, but hey, I live in Japan, and there are indeed animistic, polytheistic shrines built around nontheistic Buddhist temples of the Japanese flavour – in order to protect them, apparently. My current country of residence is a fascinating land of contrasts). Anyway, there is also Zagorsk, north-east of Moscow, Russia for Orthodox Christianity, and finally Avignon in France, which is my personal favourite and one of the two scents featured today, for Catholicism. So they’re got two main branches of Christianity in the lineup, but where is Judaism. Not fair! But perhaps there is no incense tradition in that influential and important world religion. If this to be untrue, comment below and we’ll have to have a word with the Commes des Garcons people.
Avignon was a influential Catholic centre in the 14th century located in the south of France, the Provence region. I was born and raised in French Canada, so this to me is definitely the smell of old churches and cathedrals. Of course, Canada is a young nation, so there are fewer gothic goblins to be found, but when I smell this, I can see all the wooden pews, the flickering candles as well a few that are recently snuffed, stained glass perhaps, old leather-bound bibles and other books of thick crumbling paper, and arrays of saintly statues. I get memories of creaky floorboards from experiences in smaller, local old churches, as well as those of the tapestries and grand halls from bigger places, such as Saint Joseph’s Oratory or the grand dame of Old Montreal – the Basilica Notre-Dame. There is enough of a frankincense and myrrh vibe in here to knock out any old malignant spirit that might be unwelcome in your space. You can almost see the dark and solemn smoke wafting into the air with balsamic notes. That nasty spirit next to you is choking. And meanwhile you are in heaven as you sniff in the dry vanilla and French chamomile notes. To me, this is the quintessential church incense scent. It’s perfect. Not surprising, perhaps, as Pope Bertrand Duchaufour is the nose behind this heavenly scent.
- incense, myrrh, olibanum, labdanum, elemi, chamomile,
- vanilla, patchouli, rosewood, spices, ambrette, oakmoss, musk
And there is definitely Iso E Super in here. That’s what gives it the lift. But otherwise Incense Avignon is a very austere, solemn, sacred, and ceremonial incense scent chock full of heavy resins, pencil shavings, and earthy patchouli all smeared out on cold stone and lit with a match to slowly burn. It smells like not only church incense, but also of all the other bits and pieces than one might find in a church. And I mean this very much in the abstract sense. What do sunbeams pouring in through scriptorium windows smell like? Avignon is a Viaticum Sick Call Box in a bottle, if you will. Or the Holy Grail of incense burner perfumes (if there is such a category; there likely is). It’s truly a remarkable olfactory illusion – if you could smell a Gregorian chant, this might be it.
Don’t wear this if you’re going for fun, upbeat, frilly, or sexy. What it is cosy, comforting, and meditative. It is, appropriately, radiant and devine. It’s got it’s contrasts, too: The church element is serious and deep, yet there’s also an optimistic and simple connotation. Duchaufour has allowed enough light and air into the fragrance so that you don’t feel heavy and can easily breathe. The quality it lacks, however, is longevity… and perhaps projection. Others may disagree, but for me, it doesn’t seem to want to hang around for long. The smoke lifts quickly, so to speak, but it might live near the skin for a few more hours if you’re lucky.
Avignon is a very literal fragrance, meaning it smells more like the actual thing than a memory of the think in a more deconstructed sense. But personally, I’m often a fan of scents that are sometimes more like odours than perfumes. By the Fireplace by Maison Margiela is photorealistic in that way, too. Avignon is more a scent that you wear for yourself when you’re in a contemplative mood and not for socializing, seducing, or impressing. If you would prefer something less literal, try one of the arguably more wearable and versatile in the series from Comme des Garcon, like Jaisalmer. If you like yourself a nice churchy incense fragrance, I hear that Heeley’s Cardinal, Montale’s Full Incense, Tauer 05 Incense Extreme, and Jovoy’s La Liturgie des Heurs may fit your bill. They’re certainly on my must-try list. Or perhaps Rêve d’Ossian by Oriza L. Legrand. I had a wee vile of that. But you know, I really do feel like Incense Avignon has become THE reference incense, in the same way that Fracas by Robert Piguet is THE reference tuberose fragrance, you know?
One more caveat for this fragrances is that I think you won’t instantly love this fragrance if you don’t have positive associations or memories, however vague, with Catholicism or church going in general. To take words from a Fragrantica review, you don’t want Avignon punching you in the face, and then taking you behind the altar and doing unspeakable things to your nose.
Now we switch to my other favourite incense fragrance, at least at this time, which is Casbah, part of the modern collection from Robert Piguet – a house that has launched several amazing classics, like Fracas, as I mentioned earlier. This scent was launched in 2012 and concocted by perfumer Aurelien Guichard.
- Angelica root, black pepper, nutmeg,
- incense, tobacco, orris root,
- vetiver, cedar
Avignon and Casbah have obvious liturgical similarities. They’re both heavy churchy incense scents. Imagine you take the whole Avignon church, lift it up in a giant hurricane – a la Alice in Wonderland, magically transport it over to Morocco, then gently set down the shaken, not-stirred church atop a spice market in Marrakesh. Don’t worry, there are no people – they saw the church coming and evacuated. Also, any combustion that had taken place earlier inside the church – like with lit candles and burning incense – is now extinguished. Instead, all the colorful, fragrant, aromatic spices from the squashed market now filter though the old wooden floorboards of the ancient church, infusing the air with an almost edible quality. THAT, is Casbah.
Casbah has a much greener and ever so slightly bitter quality to it than Incense Avignon, and that is no doubt due to the Angelica root. It’s obviously spicier, but I’d say equally incense-y, in a less burned sort of way. The wee fires going on in the church were indeed put out during transport to Morocco, so we’re dealing more directly with the resins and saps of the incense. But the ghost of all the smokiness is still present. With the vetiver, you get a gritty and earthy texture with Casbah. You might also get the feeling that the pepper, nutmeg and black pepper were stirred into molten hot incense resins hundreds of years earlier, and the mixture was just waiting to be discovered for all that time in the old stone-walled church. Like Avignon, it’s cold and dry and macabre, but performs thankfully better.
Which one do I prefer? It’s a tough choice I’d prefer not to make. I’ll say one thing about Casbah, though – it’s slightly more wearable although still not exactly versatile, and lasts a bit longer, but once again not long enough, to be clear. It’s probably the better choice if you prefer not to smell perfectly identical to your favourite church. But therein lies a potential problem for you if you’re like me: I really like smelling identical to my favourite church or at least my conception of the ideal church! Avignon, then, is a scent that I tend to enjoy when I am at home. But actually, I wear Casbah at home, too. Get them both, I say, if your budget allows.