Twelve Smells of Christmas – Day Three: The Gift of the Magi

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.

Now they are to be found in the Montale line and the Comme des Garçons and the by Killians, not to mention the Amouages, part of the whole merging of Middle Eastern with French perfume movement.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Twelve Smells of Christmas – Day Three: The Gift of the Magi

  1. Oh, you know I love me some Vanille Tonka… it was actually the first of the niche samples I fell for, and the first decant I ever bought. Lime and carnation and spiced rum, a giggly romp through a vanilla forest. Such a happy perfume! I don’t know when it was leaving ashy smoke on your winter coat, but I first smelled it in 2009. I get less of the frankincense in the base than I do tonka bean; the frankincense I notice earlier. So is it that it’s changed, or that you and I notice different things, or that, depending on what you’ve smelled recently, the frankincense is less prominent to you than it used to be? An interesting puzzle.

    I’ve been discovering all kinds of frankincense perfumes lately, such as CdG Zagorsk (hey, that one smells wintery/snowy to me too!), L’Air du Desert Marocain, and DSH Three Kings (didn’t like that one) I still have yet to smell Avignon.

    • VT was what I wore in 2006/7 so it might have changed. Dunno, people do smell/perceive things differently, and actually I wish I had gotten more of the tonka beans and the vanilla back in the day, because the frankincense became such a monster. Did it cling to the wool? One day I’ll try it again.
      Three Kings I didn’t like either, Zagorsk, don’t know, and Avignon smells like Catholic Mass to me, and me yelling that as I was the only protestant in the class in parochial school I DIDN’T HAVE TO CONFESS!

      You know, I don’t think Luther kicked up as much of a stink about being a Protestant as I did back in the day. L’Air du Desert is too Tauer-ish, too strong.

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