It’s twilight, a few stars shimmer in the horizon, and the skies’ purple hues are tinged by the slowly seeping, oncoming wave of darkness. The forest already feels blackened, and the tall trees stand guard like sentinels at Nature’s chapel. They surround the campsite where a large bonfire crackles and hisses. There is the driest of black smoke, and the scent of charred trees with an almost tarry, leathered edge. From the ground to the trees, the drought has struck; everything is so dry, there is fear that an errant spark would set the whole forest ablaze. And, in fact, the smell of the cade tree logs burning in the bonfire would probably alarm Smokey the Bear. Yet, amidst the scent of a forest burnt to a cinder, there is a subtle ambered sweetness underlying the dry smoke. It’s subtle, but it’s there — a tiny, golden ember at the heart of the forest’s smokiest bonfire.
That’s the aromatic, nutshell essence of Bois d’Ascese, a woody-incense perfume from the Australian milliner, Naomi Goodsir. Bois d’Ascese was one of two fragrances released in 2012 by the house in its first foray into the aromatic arts, and both are eau de parfums created by Julien Rasquinet. Like its sibling, Bois d’Ascese (or Ascetic‘s Wood) was received with great appreciation and praise, but I’m afraid I’m a little underwhelmed. Bois d’Ascese is a well-crafted fragrance with intentional starkness and almost sculptural minimalism, but it never really moved me. I tried it twice because I really wanted to love it, but I’m afraid it was far too severe. I tend to be a sybarite in my perfume tastes, not a monk who seeks extreme austerity.
Naomi Goodsir’s description of Bois d’Ascese is beautifully evocative:
a secluded CHAPEL,
by Julien RASQUINET
Incense woody (2012)
A captivating & reassuring smoke. Notes of tobacco & whisky, are supported by cinnamon, amber & cistus labdanum. Oakmoss, smoked cade wood, almost burnt, prolong the incense of Somalia with power & elegance.
Bois d’Ascese opens on my skin with smoked cade and charred wood, infused with dry incense. It’s the scent of campfires taken to the extreme, with singed trees about to go up in flames or that have already burnt to the ground. Cade is an interesting note which is sometimes used in leather fragrances. It comes from prickly juniper shrubs, and the essential oil is often called Juniper Tar as a result. It has an intensely dark, smoky, and tarry aroma, due to something called phenols and creosol. On occasion, cade oil even has a turpentine-like undertone. Here, with Bois d’Ascese, the cade — in all its various manifestations — is the fragrance’s dominant note from start to finish. It’s austere, intense, blackened, tarry, stark, and with a smoky nature that is underscored even more by the dry incense.
However, Bois d’Ascese also has other touches, subtle though they may be. Underneath the burning cade, there is a tinge of dry sweetness, but it’s infinitesimal in the opening minutes. Also lurking in the base are light flickers of tobacco, though they feel charred like everything else. After about five minutes, there is a subtle touch of burnt wax which I assume stems from the labdanum, infused by the burning campfire smoke, but it quickly fades away. Eventually, after about forty minutes, the fragrance turns a little less severe. The tobacco grows a tiny bit stronger, the ambered warmth starts to rise to the surface, and Bois d’Ascese feels a little richer. It’s all relative, however, and a question of degree.
All these changes are but mere blips in the overall landscape which, by and large, is that of a forest set on fire. Yet, despite the scent of burnt wood, the overall dryness of the scent is such that I keep visualising a parched, dry desert. In specific, I see Georgia O’Keeffe paintings with their bleak, stark, barren, desiccated beauty. There is a dryness to Bois d’Ascese that feels like the subject of her paintings, as well as the way that certain notes are presented in sharp, unrelieved focus. Unlike the paintings, however, there is no light to offset the dark smokiness at the perfume’s core, though the Bois d’Ascese is very airy in weight. In fact, in its dark severity, the fragrance takes on an aesthete’s harshness that is almost medieval in nature and quite evocative of a monk. I realise that I’m mixing metaphors and genres, but the fragrance conjures up both things for me. The bottom line is an austere dryness that is both artistic and, for me, off-putting.
At the end of the second hour, the incense shifts a little, taking on a subtle, soapy aspect in the undertone, much like myrrh, but not quite as High Church as olibanum can sometimes be. That tiny, brief hint of myrrh’s soapiness fades in and out, however, never dominating the main type of smoke from the incense and campfire wood. There is a slight increase in the amber sweetness, but on a scale of 1 to 10 with “10” representing bone-stark woody dryness, Bois d’Ascese has merely dropped down to a 8.95. Eventually, around the end of the sixth hour, it drops down further to about a 7.5 on the numeric scale, as the incense grows slightly warmer and a touch sweeter. I smell no whisky, oakmoss or cinnamon, and the tobacco was a minor touch that largely faded after the first hour.
Bois d’Ascese lasts for hours and hours on my skin. Its core nature of burnt wood with campfire smoke never, ever changes, not even after 11 hours. All that really happens is that the incense gets a microscopic hint of amber, and that the smokiness eventually overtakes the tarry, slightly turpentine-like, slightly leathery cade as the primary note around the end of the seventh hour. All in all, Bois d’Ascese lasted 11.5 hours on me with a small dose, and well over 13.75 hours with a larger quantity. It is generally somewhat thin and gauzy in feel, without an opaque heaviness or richness, and its projection is moderate.
Bois d’Ascese is perfectly nice, and absolutely elegant in its minimalism, but it’s not for me. Judging by Naomi Goodsir’s description, it seems as though Bois d’Ascese was intentionally meant to be austere, severe and sternly smoky, so I certainly can’t blame it for that. I can only blame my own tastes for needing something more nuanced, complex, rich, deep, and warm. I love incense fragrances, but nothing quite so severe and puritanical. Apart from visions of a burning forest, Smokey the Bear having a fit, and campfires, Bois d’Ascese also conjures up dark, Flemish 17th-century art and Georgia O’Keeffe desert paintings. The actual smell of the perfume may belong in the first group, but the spartan, monastic, completely desiccated feel of the fragrance visually evokes the second category for me. In fact, I suspect that Anthony van Dyke’s medieval monk (along with many of the Spanish Inquisitors) would have greatly appreciated Bois d’Ascese. That said, the fragrance is well-done, and I think those who love hardcore smoke or incense fragrances should absolutely check it out.
Bois d’Ascese is generally appreciated by men and women alike. The reviews on Luckyscent, on Fragrantica (even the opening one referencing mesquite smoke), or on various Basenotes threads are largely very positive in nature. Bloggers seem to feel the same way. Take, for example, Kevin from Now Smell This whose review I stumbled upon after writing my comparison to Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, and who, I was delighted to see, also thought of New Mexico. (Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are set in New Mexico). His review reads, in part, as follows:
Bois d’Ascèse conjures one of my favorite places — northern New Mexico; the fragrance creates a dry, austere, pungent scene. Willa Cather was on my mind as I wore this fragrance (I’m reading her letters) and […] Santa Fe, Ranchos de Taos, and Acoma, Isleta and Laguna pueblos.
… As Bois d’Ascèse develops, quickly, it begins to smell like an outdoor scene: a dry valley full of baking stones and adobe houses, junipers oozing sap. The aroma of incense (or a piñon-fueled campfire) is on the wind. Up close Bois d’Ascèse is intense (and long lasting); but its sillage is sweeter and gentler. In the extreme dry-down, a malty note emerges with some amber.
Within ten minutes of application, Bois d’Ascèse settles into a linear, smoky wood/incense perfume…where it remains for hours. I enjoy the fragrance, but I would have liked more layers of development and some unexpected “pops” from that campfire. Bois d’Ascèse’s main ingredient is either one helluva tenacious accord or a super-powerful single ingredient. A flower, strong, assertive, would have been welcomed somewhere in Bois d’Ascèse: a lily blooming in the adobe’s court yard, perhaps? Marigold would be heavenly. A fistful of pungent desert herbs/leaves? I layered Bois d’Ascèse with a mimosa fragrance oil I own and love the result. Bois d’Ascèse reminds me of Boadicea the Victorious Explorer, but it’s even more “bleak.” (That is not a put-down by the way!)
I agree with almost every part of his assessment, though I don’t like Bois d’Ascese the way he does. But, yes, for me, the fragrance absolutely needs something a little more to alleviate its severe linearity and its arid, New Mexico desert feel.
Despite the general praise for Bois d’Ascese, a tiny minority find the scent is too much like a smoking campfire or charred woods, and really dislike it. For example, on Fragrantica, some of the extremely rare, critical reviews read, in part, as follows:
- I’ve tried both fragrances from this house and I am impressed with the creativity and the longevity/projection. However I also found them to be disturbing. As in please get this off me now. [¶] This One: Industrial smelling. Like freshly greased tools picked from a tool box. Cold with no sweetness and nothing to comfort you. [¶] This is unique but not elegant in anyway. I can’t believe someone would even try to dress this up.
- I have a neighbor who burns crappy wood (like pallets), often wet, and garbage in his damned outdoor fire pit. That’s what this stuff smells like. The few spices and other notes are overwhelmed by wet smokiness that’s astonishingly persistent. I’ve washed my hands repeatedly and still can’t get rid of the scent. If you want to smell like you spent the night sweating next to a bonfire you’ve found your perfume. If you don’t, there are a million really good incense perfumes out there–keep looking. A suggestion to the brand: perhaps change the name from Ascetic’s Wood to Flagellant’s Wood? Seems more like the experience.
I had to laugh at the description of “Flagellant’s Wood,” because I think there is great truth in it, as my repeated monk references demonstrate. (Some of Opus Dei’s numeries might want to give Bois d’Ascese a go….) Though there are a handful of other comments similar to those quoted above — and all involving a struggle with the charred cade smoke — the bottom line is that they’re outweighed at least 3:1 by those who absolutely adore the fragrance. One person even calls it “meditative” in its smoky beauty, and, on some levels, he’s right.
In short, Bois d’Ascese is a very particular kind of fragrance, and it may not be for everyone. However, if you enjoy woody scents that skew somewhat masculine and that are completely dominated by a very elegantly severe, austere, dark, tarry smokiness, you definitely should give it a sniff. If you love campfire scents, Bois d’Ascese may even be true love for you. I shall stick to something a little more sybaritic and luxurious in nature.