Incense (frankincense and myrrh primarily) fragrances are some of our favorites. Given how many of them there are, it's not a suprise! If you want a comprehensive review of many (nobody can get them all) incense fragrances, there are a lot here, and the category with individual reviews is here.
Frankincense & myrrh perfumes inhabit a unique space in the perfume pantheon – a scent that can be deeply meditative, warming, comforting and sometimes disturbing.
Frankincense and myrrh have been used since ancient times for many things. They are probably most known for being two of the three items brought by the wise men (the other being gold). In fact, the Bible mentions frankincense around 50 times and myrrh around 20. They have been used as aphrodisiacs, sachets, incense, kohl for eyes, for fever reduction and many other ailments (especially arthritis), embalming, insect repellent, offerings, aromatherapy, as a popular trading item, for food and, of course, in perfumery.
Myrrh comes from a tree in the form of resin. When it is harvested the tree bark is punctured and the tree bleeds the resin. It hardens and is then harvested. This is done twice a year. The trees are native to Yemen, Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia as well as Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula. It is referred to in the Bible as the Balm of Gilead and is also known as the Balsam of Mecca. A lesser quality myrrh is bled from another species of tree and that resin is known as opoponax. Even though there is a close connection, myrrh and opoponax are quite different in their aroma. Myrrh is bitter while opoponax is sweet and perhaps more pleasing to the nose. Opoponax is also referred to as sweet myrrh.
Myrrh is mixed with frankincense and used in almost every service of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and traditional Roman Catholic churches. Myrrh is also used to prepare the sacramental chrism used by many churches of both Eastern and Western rites. In the Middle East, the Eastern Orthodox church uses myrrh scented oil to perform their sacraments.
Frankincense is also referred to as olibanum. It is an aromatic resin the comes from a tree. There are four main species of Boswellia which produce the frankincense and each type of resin is available in various grades. It depends on the time of harvesting and the resin is all hand sorted for quality. It is harvested like myrrh where the bark is slashed (called striping) and the resin bleeds out and hardens. These hardened pieces are called tears.
If you have never seen a Boswellia tree you would be surprised that something as gorgeous as frankincense comes out of something so “unpretty”. They are very scraggly looking but extremely hardy and can grow straight out of solid rock (Boswellia sacra). The tears from the trees that grow out of the rock are considered superior to those that grow in rocky soil or gravel as they are more fragrant. They are native to the Dhofar region of Oman and historically this very high grade frankincense was reserved just for kings and queens. The trees start producing resin when they are about 8 to 10 years old and are harvested two to three times a year with the final taps producing the best quality resin. Sadly, due to overexploitation, the frankincense tree population has been declining. The trees are native to Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Oman and countries around the Red Sea and India.
Both frankincense and myrrh have long been used for trading. There is a mural depicting sacks of frankincense on the walls of the temple of ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut who died circa 1458 BC which means more than 5,000 years ago. The lost city of Ubar in Oman is believed to have been the center of frankincense trade along the recently rediscovered “Incense Road” (now under archaeological excavation).
Frankincense and myrrh have long been used in perfumery and aromatherapy. The resin crystals are crushed into powder and an essential oil is obtained by steam distillation of the dry resin; the absolutes by alcohol extraction. Frankincense and myrrh are used together in a number of fragrances and these notes work beautifully in deep, warm incense scents.
Frankincense and myrrh are often used in Oriental fragrances as well as incense scents. There are quite a few fragrances that feature one note or the other or both of them combined. Finding the right one will depend on what you are looking for. Scents range from light to dark but all fragrances in this category highlight frankincense or myrrh as the main note. There are also great frankincense and myrrh sample sets so that you can try a variety of fragrances.