The Kremlin in the snow, warm ambered light shining into the darkness of incense from a cathedral, and a dry wind that carries the faintest hints of pine trees on the Siberian steppes. That is one aspect of Benjoin 19, an incense and amber duet from Le Labo that I sometimes enjoyed to the point of surprise, though the perfume also ended up presenting a very different version of itself as well, one that was significantly less appealing.
Benjoin 19 is an eau de parfum that was created by Frank Voelkl, and inspired by Tolstoy‘s famous novel, Anna Karenina. The fragrance was released in 2013 as a City Exclusive for Moscow, sold only in that city, and unavailable anywhere else except during Le Labo’s annual one-month celebrations. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Le Labo’s practices, they have a number of fragrances made solely for a particular city, but one month a year (often in September, but sometimes in November), Le Labo makes their creations available world-wide. The prices are substantially higher than for the fragrances in Le Labo’s regular line, but there is one small compensation, I suppose: you can have your bottle refilled for life if you take it to any Le Labo counter anywhere in the world, regardless of the month. You still have to pay the high City Exclusive price (which is almost $300 for a small bottle), but you’re not locked out for the scent once you have it. For those who truly adore a particular City Exclusive, it may be worth it.
This year’s Le Labo global fest begins on September 1st and lasts until September 30th, so it seemed to be a good time to try Benjoin 19. I was motivated primarily by the fact that the word “benzoin” (or “benjoin”) is usually a short-hand reference to a wonderful, dark, balsamic resin that comes from the styrax tree, and which is frequently used in amber or incense fragrances. I love styrax with its smoky top notes, and almost leathery undertones. It is the darkest of all the resins, and used in a lot of my favorite scents. However, I think it’s important to mention that “benzoin” by itself can also refer to something completely different: a white, crystallized compound that apparently has a light “camphor-like” odor and which has absolutely no relation to an amber, smoky resin. In the case of the Le Labo fragrance, the company has not specified “benzoin resin” or actual “benzoin,” but I suspect that both were used.
In fact, Le Labo tells us little about what is actually in Benjoin 19. Its number indicates 19 ingredients are involved, but Le Labo’s official list (as quoted by Luckyscent) says simply:
Olibanum [frankincense], amber, cedar, musks, benzoin, and more…
Le Labo’s full description of the perfume is long and spends a lot of time talking about Anna Karenina. Specifically, about a single moment in the book, “the moment when everything changes, when your life topples over, when nothing will ever be the same.” Le Labo then grandiosely adds, “Benjoin 19 is that moment.” I rolled my eyes profusely at that, but I agreed somewhat with the company’s summary of Benjoin 19’s essence:
Benjoin 19 is a comforting blend of resins, soft incense, warm balsamic undertones, never overwhelming but truly addicting.
I disagree with Benjoin 19 being “truly addicting,” but the perfume can be very enjoyable. If you experience the right version of it, that is….
Benjoin 19 opens on my skin with a heft amount of incense, along with a dash of what I suspect are aldehydes. The incense is very clearly myrrh with its cool, stony, Church vibe, and it’s trailed by a light amount of sweet myrrh (opoponax) with its toasty, nutty nuances. The aldehydes provide a light shimmer of soapy whiteness, but they last only for a moment before the myrrh overtakes them completely. Its aroma evokes images of a priest swinging an incense censer as he walks on cool stone floors, past the wooden pews and icons of an old Orthodox Church. A fine patina of dust lingers in the air, along with a quiet earthy mustiness, as if the mysterious soul of a church’s darkened alcoves had been bottled together with the incense of a hundred Russian Orthodox masses.
Underneath them all lies a layer of labdanum which first presents itself as a mere breath of warmness. However, less than 10 minutes into Benjoin 19’s development, it starts to creep up from the base, slowly washing over the cool myrrh. Eventually, the labdanum turns the incense’s somberness into something warm, toasty, and crackling, but, for now, it is only a gentle touch. Small flickers of caramel underlie the resin, but it generally feels like something dark, toffee’d, resinous, and balsamic.
As a whole, though, Benjoin 19’s main bouquet in the opening moments is primarily that of cool, slightly musty, slightly dusty, white myrrh incense atop a tiny sliver of amber. I must admit, I’m not keen on it. As regular readers know well, High Church fragrances don’t bowl me over. Black, Middle Eastern frankincense is my thing, not myrrh with its fusty ancientness and occasional soapy touches.
That is why I was fascinated by the version of Benjoin 19 that appeared on my right arm. I’ve occasionally had small differences in scent occur from one arm to the next, which is why I often test a fragrance on both of them, but I’ve rarely encountered a truly profound divergence. Yet, that is essentially what occurred with Benjoin 19, resulting in what was essentially a completely different opening and fragrance. This one I enjoyed.
In this version, Benjoin 19 opens with frankincense and a momentary touch of aldehydic soapiness, followed by a rich wave of warm amber that has a hint of caramel sweetness underlying it. The labdanum also wafts its usual, dark, chewy facets, like the ones evident in such fragrances as Mitzah, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, or Ambre Sultan and which differ so much from regular amber, ambergris, or the fluffier, softer benzoins in such fragrances as Ambre 114. Within minutes, the labdanum begins to display its characteristic toffee’d, masculine undertones, as well as tiny flickers of its darker, more animalic side. Smoky, black Middle Eastern frankincense is wrapped throughout every inch and seam of it in a way that is very appealing.
On the sidelines, the cedar casts its shadow, smelling both aromatically green and a bit darkly smoky in its own right. In addition, weaving in and out of the base, much like tiny, dancing fireflies in a dark forest, is a definite coniferous aroma that resembles pine or crushed needles. Within 10 minutes, the pine becomes more noticeable, creating a distinct winter woods undercurrent that far exceeds mere cedar alone.
This Version #2 of Benjoin 19 is clearly an amber fragrance from the start. It is infused with frankincense, then lightly flecked by tiny touches of cedar and pine, but the amber is the star of the opening hours. In contrast, Version #1 is all about the myrrh, and pretty much everything else is a substantially weaker element. I’ve tested Benjoin 19 about 3 times now, and it’s the same story each time, with each arm wafting a very different opening. I’d like to say that both versions eventually turn into the exact same thing after a while or at the end, but they don’t. They simply don’t.
In Version #1, the frankincense arrives after 20 minutes to lurk at the edges, but it’s a very minor note and the balance continues to be firmly skewed towards a very cool, Churchy, myrrh fragrance until the very end. There is a small, thin layer of dark, toffee’d amber in the base, an occasional suggestion of soapiness up top, and some vague woodiness on the sidelines, but this Benjoin 19 is really all about the myrrh from start to finish. In the final hours, there was a growing soapiness along with a seemingly clean musk that appeared next to the myrrh. And that’s all there is to it. As a whole, this myrrh version of Benjoin 19 is a simplistic fragrance that doesn’t feel very interesting, let alone special. And absolutely none of it feels cozy or inviting to me.
In Version #2, I barely detected the myrrh, and it is frankincense which eventually ends up dominating the fragrance. And this is the Benjoin 19 that I sometimes enjoyed. It is also the version which showed the most nuance and layers. Generally speaking, many of the Le Labo fragrances I’ve tried have been massively linear in nature with very few alterations from start to finish, and certainly none which are major. They don’t twist, morph, or change their core essence, and the Myrrh Version #1 followed that same pattern as well.
Yet, my Amber-Incense-Woody Version #2 showed greater depth and nuance. So, this is the one I’ll talk about in greater detail. After 45 minutes, the labdanum turns richer, deeper, and smoother. There is a growing streak of pine forest weaving throughout the notes, perhaps as a nod to Russia’s great forests. It’s only a small touch compared to the rest of the elements, and nothing about Benjoin 19 screams pine forest liturgies, but its subtle, quiet presence is very evocative. By the end of the first hour, Benjoin 19 is a soft custard of caramel, labdanum amber and smoky incense, drizzled with sweet myrrh nuttiness, dusted with a handful of pine needles, and then nestled inside a tiny Russian forest of pine and cedar. It’s cozy, evocative, and conjures up images of a warm cabin glowing with candlelight and tucked away in some very snowy woods.
Benjoin 19 continues to bloom, reflecting different facets to its notes as it grows deeper. Joining the sweet myrrh’s toasted nuttiness is a microdot of honey, perhaps from the labdanum or perhaps again from opoponax. The amber feels very rich, and coats the skin like something far plusher than mere cashmere. I keep referencing “warm custard,” but nothing about Benjoin 19 feels gooey, unctuous, particularly sweet, or thick. In fact, regardless of version, the perfume is always a very quiet, airy scent, but this version of Benjoin 19 feels wonderfully fluffy, warm, and rich. It may hover just above the skin after 90 minutes, and turn into a skin scent at the end of the 2nd hour, but it has depth and is compulsively sniffable.
Things change at the start of the 4th hour. The frankincense no longer trails behind the amber, but overtakes it fully, turning Benjoin 19 into a much drier, darker fragrance. At the same time, the labdanum loses most of its custardy richness, its caramel-toffee’d nuances, and its light sweetness. The woods feel drier and darker as well, and are now devoid of the earlier pine notes.
For the most part, Benjoin 19 is now primarily just incense smokiness infused with a dry amber and a largely abstract woodiness. Once in a while, the amber makes a valiant attempt to take back the lead, but it rarely succeeds. Occasionally, there is something vaguely resembling the cool, fusty, whiteness of myrrh which pops up its head in the background, but it is a muted, squashed note that never holds much sway. Generally, Benjoin 19 is centered almost entirely on black frankincense smokiness with dry woods within a wispy cocoon of equally dry amber. And it remains that way until its very end.
In both versions of Benjoin 19, the fragrance had generally soft sillage and good longevity. I typically used about 3 big smears or the equivalent of 2 small spritzes from an actual bottle, and Benjoin 19 opened with 2 inches of sillage, maybe 3 at best. The fragrance often felt as soft as dandelion fluff floating in the wind, though it consistently grew deeper and less translucent in feel after an hour. Benjoin 19 generally turned into a skin scent on me between the 2.5 and 3 hour marks, but it wasn’t hard to detect up until the start of the 8th hour. In terms of longevity, Benjoin 19 consistently lasted over 10.5 hours. In one case, it was just under 12 hours on my left arm, while, on my right arm, small patches actually wafted gauzy bits of the fragrance around the 14th hour.
The second version of Benjoin 19 is a rare exception to my feelings about Le Labo. I’m not generally a fan of the perfume house’s fragrances, and most leave me cold with their flimsiness, airiness, discreet nature, linearity, and sometimes synthetic foundation. However, Version #2 of Benjoin 19 was very nice, particularly in its first few hours when it was that truly enjoyable soft custard of amber and incense, with flickers of toasted opoponax nuttiness, pine, and cedar. I actually found it compulsively sniffable at times, and the drydown with its darker, drier, smokier qualities was generally pleasant.
I was obviously unenthused with the first version, given my issues with myrrh and High Church scents, but my greatest problem was something else. That version of Benjoin 19 felt wholly unremarkable. It was overly simplistic on my skin, linear, without depth, and lacking any distinctive character. Pleasant, I suppose, and a solid scent, but, ultimately, boring.
In all bluntness, I don’t think either version is worth the hefty price hike that Le Labo has for its City Exclusives. Luckyscent kindly provided me with this year’s American pricing for Benjoin 19: $290 for 50 ml and $440 for 100 ml.
Those numbers are a little less than what Amouage and SHL 777 generally charge for 50 ml of their perfumes, and just under Serge Lutens’ American pricing for his exclusive bell jars. In the case of those brands, however, the fragrances usually have opulence, full-bodied depth, great richness, complex layers, distinctiveness, and/or originality. Absolutely nothing in either version of Benjoin 19 would qualify for any of those terms. The $160 that Le Labo charges for 50 ml of its regular fragrances would be great for Benjoin 19, but $290?! The perfume can be enjoyable at times, but, contrary to Le Labo’s belief, it is most definitely not “the moment when everything changes, when your life topples over, when nothing will ever be the same.”
I’m not the only one who has tested Benjoin 19, and found it to be a flawed fragrance that is massively over-priced. Actually, I was a little surprised to see just how many people on Fragrantica dismissed Benjoin 19 with a shrug, and just how simplistic a fragrance they experienced. There is not a single, wholehearted, unqualified rave for the scent listed there thus far. Not one. A sampling of the comments:
- First impressions of Benjoin are not good. It smells like a base of something I’ve smelled before. The price it’s being charged for is ludicrous [….][¶] I get that it smells like benzoin, a favorite note of mine, but Le Labo is usually not literal, and for the price I wish they weren’t. If it’s a soliflore I would just buy an essential oil, some perfumer alcohol, mix it and I would save a crap load of cash.
- although nice, it doesn’t stand out from all the other amber musks on the market. The drydown is all cedar. I think this is more masculine than feminine.
- I liked it from the start, but thought what other reviewers think: nice, but does not stand out. However, by the third wearing I find that this perfume grows on me. It is all about resins and woods. It is a smooth coniferous scent, warm and cosy.
- Really, not one of the Le Labo Highlights, but at least it smells like the name implies, but doesn’t go beyond it. A standard cozy/sweet/ambery benjoin fragrance with musk and something incensed. Nothing that you really need to know.
The most positive comment comes from someone who actually seems to prefer other fragrances!
Wow, I really like this one! Of course, being a city exclusive it’s not available too often but had I smelled this first, I may have bought this and not Wonderwood by Comme des Garcons. They smell very similar but Wonderwood doesn’t have the smoky vibe that I don’t like, so in that way, I prefer Wonderwood. Still, I do like Benjoin 19..so I guess I’m ok about not having a bottle of this one ….yet….
I think if I get some money to burn I’ll pick up a bottle but if not, oh well…I have my beloved Wonderwood….and my Gaiac 10 which also bears a small resemblance to this one….but only small.
Bottom line- if you have anything similar, take a pass. If you love woods, get Wonderwood. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
I haven’t tried either of those scents to know how they might compare, but Gaiac 10 with its musk and woods is discussed in the Basenotes‘ entry for Benjoin 19. And absolutely no-one there seems thrilled about the Moscow Exclusive, either:
- For me it’s vaguely similar to Gaiac 10 (which I wear) with amber thrown in, making it slightly warmer. I was hoping for a phenomenal new scent of incense and amber, being that I love incense frags, however you are correct. I wanted it to be stellar, but it just doesn’t quite reach those heights for me.
- After receiving mine I applied it and sadly it does seem very flat.(a hint of Amber Sultan though) Theres no real development over time. Longevity is really good, up to 8 hours with no let up.
- Ugh. So it wasn’t just me? [¶][…] Honestly, when I smelled the compound I thought something was wrong, and that it perhaps would spring to life when blended. In fact, I was surprised by how flat it felt. [¶][…] I’d still love to wear it sometime to really get a sense of what’s going on, but my initial impression of it was that it was a dry musk (similar to their falsely named labdanum 18), with a slightly lactonic benzoin, and something that almost smelled like flour or paste glue. I’m still intrigued, but it doesn’t sound like it lives up to the concept, and certainly not the laughable pricing. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
At the end of the day, pricing is always a very personal, subjective valuation, and Benjoin 19 has enough appealing attributes (in one of its versions) that I could see a few people falling for it. I certainly enjoyed it more than some other Le Labos, and I think it has a polished, uncomplicated character that might also be incredibly cozy on the right skin. If you get Version #2 with its moments of ambered richness, I suspect you might enjoy it quite a bit.
Whether or not you think it’s worth the cost, however, is a whole other matter….