Facets of: Frankincense and Myrrh
Of all the resins used in perfumery, frankincense and myrrh are particularly well-know, with the mention of one calling to mind the other.
Smoke & balm
The sweet and heady fragrance released when burning these resins as incense was a scent that came to fill religious spaces, with smoke being the intoxicating link between the earth and the skies, the living and the gods. ‘Incense’ comes from the word for ‘that which is burnt’, from incendere, ‘set on fire’ from candere, to glow.
Smoke became an important carrier for perfume – itself meaning through smoke, therefore coming to be a symbol of communication. In Japan too, Kodo (the way of incense) was a ceremony of enjoying incense together, a tradition of refinement to both awaken and calm.
Resins have also been also used in balms, with certain resins also coming to be associated with death. The astringency of frankincense and myrrh oil is effective as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and resins were also used to embalm bodies, particularly as part of the mummification process in Ancient Egypt. Both frankincense and myrrh are still used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems.
‘Tears’ of Olibanum
The Dhofar region of Oman is the most verdant land on the Arabian peninsula. Catching the end of the Indian monsoon season, the region’s green valleys lie just beyond mountains adjacent to the so-called Empty Quarter, a seemingly endless stretch of desert. Here the perfect conditions are created for the Boswellia sacra tree to thrive, from which the highest grade of frankincense, or olibanum, is extracted.
Olibanum is a precious resin release by piercing the bark of the trees from the genus Boswellia, tapping into the gum reservoirs within the trunk. The first cut produces a milky-white sap that is discarded as it is thought to release the impurities in the wood. As subsequent cuts are made, more sap slowly begins to ooze from within the tree – this time in darkening colours of yellow, green, brown or even black (the highest grade, however, is clear with a slight greenness). Known as ‘tears’ because of their shape, these globules are left to harden on the tree, before being collected and dried.
Aromatic, animalic & peppery
Olibanum oil is extracted from this ground up hardened resin, and has a spirited, camphoraceous and aromatic quality. Some perceive a metallic quality in olibanum oil, which is often interpreted as a kind of coldness.
There is an altogether richer and more balsamic odour to olibanum resin, which, due to its heaviness, sits lower in a fragrance composition and therefore appears softer than the oil. It is warmer than the oil too, with leathery facets that are also animalic. Frankincense is often listed as ‘incense’ in a fine fragrance, and often provides mysterious accent to a scent. But its lighter, colder facets mean that it also blends well with other woody notes.
One particular facet noted in both olibanum oil and olibanum resin that of pepper. Whilst the olibanum resin possesses a black pepper odour, the fresh ‘feel’ of this peppery quality is in fact more present in the oil with its more aromatic nature, largely due to a group of ingredients known as sesquiterpenes. But rather than smelling of black pepper, the peppery side to frankincense oil is in fact closer to the odour of green pepper. When olibanum oil dries down, a pepper note reappears once more – but this time with a feel of white pepper.
Due to its aromatic and antiseptic properties, frankincense has a long history of use in cosmetics, being charred and ground into a powder for use within eyeliner in Ancient Egypt, and has been found too in Anglo-Saxon cosmetics.
Myrrh was known for its astringent qualities too, being used for medicinal purposes thanks to its wound-healing, antiviral and anti-fungal properties. Known as the bitter resin, myrrh’s name comes from the Hebrew word for bitter. Its sweet counterpart is the balsamic opoponax resin. Both myrrh and opoponax are tapped from the Commiphora genus.
Dark fruits, black licorice & charred rock
But myrrh is both bitter and sweet. The dark brown myrrh resin has a rich sweetness and darkly fruity scent reminiscent of treacle, plum and figs. Myrrh oil is also warm, yet drier than the resin, with earthy, woody, and faintly sweet facets. The sweet yet spiced facet found within myrrh is often described as that of licorice – reminiscent in particular of eating licorice, when its aniseed top notes give way to a sticky, candied aroma. Myrrh resin finds a comparison here with benzoin and its caramel-like odour.
The resin’s black licorice odour is reflected in the oil too, alongside a mineralic feel that becomes almost volcanic given myrrh’s warmth, with a charred effect developing softly as the oil dries down. With this blackened feel, both myrrh oil and resin have a brooding and evocative darkness that can overpower a fragrance composition – and can therefore signify richness and luxury. Its deep and warming scent is often described as meditative yet somewhat disturbing.
Of the gifts that the Biblical magi brought to baby Jesus, gold was for earthly wealth, frankincense stood for the mediator between heaven and earth, and myrrh for embalmment – a symbol of death, but also healing.