There are so many incense fragrances out there now, it’s difficult to remember a time when incense was not thickly represented on perfume counters. But once upon a time it was so. You had forests of florals and thickets of ambers and, shrubberies full of citrus colognes but incense perfumes – they were rare.
My first real encounter with frankincense, however, was with none of these mono-note essays; it was with Parfums de Nicolai’s Vanille Tonka.
These days when reading the notes which seem to feature tonka beans and carnations and vanilla most prominently, I wonder if it has not been reformulated as so much of the line has been in the last five years. When I wore it, Vanille Tonka was first a twist of sharp lime, squeezed right under your nose, then a swirling floral note-carnation probably, then a very clear and very pleasing vanilla that lasted say about fifteen minutes, then more florals and some cinnamon and finally after the tonka beans burnt off, a strong smoky frankincense that burned off the skin like incense off a censor. It was the only de Nicolai I ever successfully wore past September.
Vaille Tonka was actually warm, and I wore it for a year and a half, until it dawned on me that the frankincense note was what lasted longer than anything else on my skin and that my skin was lending it a most unfortunately familiar odor. Where had I smelled it before…and why were all those people on buses giving me dirty looks?
Cigarettes, in a word. Smoke. The build up of old frankincense on my winter coats combined with a little body heat was convincing passers by that I was a die-hard smoker.
I’ve never been a smoker, though I envy smokers the ability to blow smoke, up or at anything, and I really like the idea of the smoke screen, but I now had all the stale stink of the dirty ash tray, and was collecting all of the opprobrium and displaying none of the chic. I didn’t want to be offered free nicotine patches by Smoke Out volunteers twice.
So, not without some regret, I surrendered Vanille Tonka to anti-smoking prejudices.
All this time later, I’m still not sure if the reason for giving up the perfume was conformism or whether I was simply a bit tired of it. Whatever the reason, I bailed.
A couple of years later, the Hub and I were in an Ethiopian restaurant and the ladies who ran it began burning grains of incense along with the coffee beans they were roasting for the after dinner cup. Prominent among those grains was – frankincense. I was instantly reminded of Vanille Tonka, that is how strong the frankincense note in the perfume was.
Now (I think) if I tried it again the perfume would have run to vanilla the way that most of us run to fat in middle age. The chic, the sharp edges, the smoke would be gone. Back when I didn’t need it, Vanille Tonka gave me smoke; and now when I wouldn’t want it, Vanille Tonka would gift me with vanilla.
Those are the trade offs of cowardice and conformism. You just can’t win, as my Dad used to say, for losing.