An olfactory “hymn to the Spirit” lies at the heart of Lavs, a fragrance that wants you to get in touch with your spiritual side, and to feel uplifted and purified with the beauty of church incense. Lavs is a creation of Unum, an Italian perfume house founded in 2013 by Filippo Sorcinelli who is also the nose behind its three fragrances.
What is truly fascinating about Unum is that its original mission seems to have been liturgical garments or priestly robes, and its e-shop has a coolest gallery of the most elaborate Catholic robes I’ve seen outside of my television. From what I’ve read, Unum actually creates vestments for Pope Benedict and Pope Francis XVI, which has to be the most unique background to any perfume house around. Regular readers know my passion for history, so this alone caught my attention, but it was the even more interesting story behind the actual Lavs fragrance that made me want to try it. Apparently, it was originally a room spray used to scent the two popes’ ecclesiastic robes! You can read all the cool details at Alfarom‘s review for Lavs on his Nero Profumo blog site (which I’ll be quoting later on), but, suffice it say, there probably isn’t a single incense fragrance in the world today which comes with papal approval except for this one.
Lavs may originally have been the popes’ room or clothing spray, but it was re-worked for fragrance wearing purposes, then released in 2013 as an extrait de parfum. Meticulous care and thought seems to have gone into every single aspect of the scent. Unum’s detailed description on its website about Lav’s inspiration and compositional structure is in Italian, but a translated English version is available on Neos1911, one of Unum’s handful of retailers. Though it’s too long to quote here, the nutshell version is that Lavs is meant to inspire spirituality “through Beauty and [the] mystic.” It seeks to do so through resins, woods, spices, and ingredients that have either a symbolic, historical, or spiritual significance, and that were combined to create a “hymn to the Spirit.”
For example, Unum’s translated version talks about how Lav’s key foundational note, opoponax or sweet myrrh, was first used by the Egyptians because the golden resin produces “balsamic and purifying notes that prevent negativity.” By the same token, labdanum was chosen because it was known as Gilead Balsam in the Bible, and its scent is “very complex, ambered with a sort of ancient power. The smell of an old chest full of dusty clothes with undertones of leather and musk, sweet and both woody and smoky.”
There is even significance and a famous historical theorem behind the perfume’s packaging:
It was conceived and developed using the measuring methods of the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci sequence. The Golden Rectangle or “Divine Proportion” is reproduced also in the boxes and caps. The bottle is made of golden decorated wood and the box is covered with a parchment that reminds of ardesia stone. All of them were fundamental materials during the hystorical period from which UNUM has taken inspiration for its first creations. [Emphasis to named added by me. Sentences formatted into one paragraph by me also.]
Based on the translated version of Unum’s description and on the note list on Twisted Lily, Lavs appears to contain:
Jasmine, Cardamom, Black Pepper, Elemi, Coriander, Clove, Carnation [mentioned by Unum but not included in other lists] Labdanum, Opoponax [sweet myrrh], Palisander Rosewood, Amber, Oakmoss, and Tonka Bean.
It’s a wonderful list but, to be honest, I don’t smell a number of those notes in either a significant way or in any way at all. On my skin, Lavs is first and foremost a High Church or liturgical incense fragrance, one that is centered primarily on white smoke from myrrh and sweet myrrh in the Avignon style, rather than the more oriental black frankincense. (Technically, frankincense or olibanum emits white smoke, too, but it visually skews black to me with my synaesthesia and has a very different, more oriental, olfactory feel in my mind.)
Lavs opens on my skin with white myrrh smoke and nutty opoponax, laced with lemony woodiness from the elemi, and then dusted with a generous heaping of black pepper and a pinch of more amorphous spices. Moments later, more incense billows out, white and pure, but it feels as though a flicker of blacker frankincense were hovering in the background as well. None of it smells synthetic; all of it feels smooth and high-quality.
There is something else too that is a little harder to describe: a pristine quality that goes beyond the olfactory purity of the notes to feel innately pure as well. And, yet, the incense has actual cleanliness to it as well, even if it isn’t precisely “clean” in the usual sense of the word. Quite often, myrrh or sweet myrrh skews quite soapy on my skin, but it doesn’t here. At least not at first. It’s simply clean in a different way, one that truly does conjure up images of white priestly vestments that bear the scent of an earlier Mass. Heeley‘s High Church scent, Cardinal, sought to recreate the actual scent of priestly linens in addition to the white smoke of liturgical ceremonies, but it simply smelled like cheaply synthetic cleanness infused with white musk and soapiness. Here, somehow, for reasons that I can’t explain, Lavs actually makes me think of church linens.
It’s at this point that I should confess something upfront: I don’t like liturgical incense. At all. I love frankincense, but not High Church myrrh or opoponax scents because most of them are soapy on my skin, which is pretty often a deal-breaker for me. It’s why I avoid Avignon like the plague and don’t review it, along with some other popular incense fragrances. But there is another problem as well: a number of High Church scents bear a musty, fusty quality that evokes old wooden pews, even more ancient crypts, and the dust of ages. It’s a scent that I love in old Catholic or Orthodox churches when I visit, but it’s not something that I would ever want to waft myself. It’s one of the reasons why I didn’t enjoy Jovoy‘s Liturgie des Heures, Profumum‘s Olibanum, or La Via del Profumo‘s Hindu Kush. Whether it’s pure myrrh, opoponax, or some combination thereof mixed with woody accords and olibanum, I simply don’t enjoy the coldness, the dusty woodiness, and the ancient mustiness, particularly in conjunction with soapiness.
To my great relief and surprise, Lavs isn’t musty despite its woody underpinnings and it doesn’t evoke a dusty church, though the myrrh resin’s soapiness does suddenly emerge 10 minutes into the fragrance’s development. It’s tolerable, though, because it isn’t unbearably intense or synthetic in feel. Somehow, it just works here, and I think a big reason why is because there is far more going on with the incense, several counterbalancing elements which ultimately create a different focal point. Instead of being primarily dusty, musty, woody, or soapy, Lav’s incense is spicy and wee bit fiery, thanks to the black pepper. It works beautifully here, adding a bit of an unexpected kick to the billowing purity. The actual spices themselves are generally indistinct on my skin but, once in a while, a tiny pop of cloves bursts out from amidst the clouds. Equally quiet are the opoponax’s nuttiness and the labdanum’s golden warmth, neither of which are present in a clearly delineated, strong manner, but both of which seem to work indirectly to provide subtle curls of sweetness to prevent Lavs from ever skewing too cold, too barren, too austere.
Much more noticeable, though, is the elemi which smells like lemony pine sap rather than pure woodiness or even the quiet smokiness that elemi can sometimes impart. You may not think that lemony tree sap would work so well with strong black pepper, billowing white incense, a linen-like cleanness, a pinch of cloves, and a dash of darker, woodier, brown spices, but it does. One reason may be because a number of actual incense resins have an lemony aroma in their hard form. Another is the fact that Lavs retains a subtle suggestion of woodiness that ties everything together.
Lavs changes extremely slowly and in the most incremental degrees. At the end of the 1st hour and the start of the second, the black pepper seems to melt into the myrrh, becoming part and parcel of it. The incense itself is so pure and strong, I feel as though I were in a Catholic mass. It’s a little sharp for my tastes, and the soapiness is definitely excessive by my standards, but at least there is no mustiness. I like the hint of nuttiness sweetness that comes more from the sweet myrrh than the amber, but I can feel the latter stirring in the base, emitting out a subtle warmth. Even better is the streak of quiet creaminess from the tonka that appears at the 2.5 hour mark, replacing the lemony elemi and turning Lavs smoother and softer. The elemi sap may be gone, but a subtle suggestion of woodiness remains. As a whole, Lavs is primarily clean, soapy High Mass incense laced with creaminess, muted spiciness, and small slivers of woodiness.
Lavs remains that way for quite a while. At the end of the 6th hour, it becomes a skin scent that is simply incense with cleanness and a bit of spice. Yet, an hour later, the amber suddenly emerges, seeping upwards from the base, adding a quiet sweetness and a definite golden glow. By the end of the 9th hour, Lavs has turned into sweetened, vaguely ambered incense. Let me be clear, though, the labdanum is absolutely undetectable in any solid, concrete way, but there is no denying the warmth and golden feel. The result is much less High Church, and significantly more rounded, if that makes sense. The tonka’s creaminess has faded away, but hints of the opoponax’s nutty sweetness remain. Once in a blue moon, a suggestion of woodiness passes as if on a breeze but, generally, that aspect of the scent has faded away as well. In its final hours, all that is left is sweet, nutty incense with a touch of golden warmth from the labdanum.
Lavs had good longevity and moderate sillage, but it is generally a soft fragrance on my skin after the first two hours. Using 3 smears equal to 2 good sprays from an actual bottle, Lavs opened with 2 to 3 inches of projection, but a surprising 6-7 inches of sillage. At the end of the 2nd hour, the projection dropped to 1 inch above the skin, but the scent trail was roughly about 4 inches. Lavs became a skin scent after 5.75 hours, but was still easy to detect up close and without much effort for a while to come. It finally died away 10.75 hours from the start.
People who love liturgical incense fragrances seem to think Lavs is one of the best ever, possibly arising to the level of perfection. “Alfarom” is a Basenotes/Fragrantica reviewer whom I frequently quote because I think he is extremely knowledgeable and I often find myself agreeing with his astute assessments. On his Nero Profumo blog, he wrote about Unum’s history and its three perfumes, rating Lav as a 9.5 out of 10, and calling it an “instant classic” that he’d never want to be without. I encourage you to read his review in full, but I’ll quote a small part here:
It’s not a secret I’m a frankincense freak but, honestly, LAVS is a concrete step forward in its genre and a very substantial one for countless reasons. For starters, it’s tremendously striking for its incredible evocative power. Its uniqueness, its ability to get so close to the main theme while skipping being too simplistically literal and, last but not least, the quality of the ingredients involved. […] Forget the usual cedarwood, forget the typical mono-dimensionality of most incense-soliflores, forget those exhausting woodyambers. LAVS is incredibly alive, vibrating and vivid as only this biblical resin can get. Addictive, introspective, dark and deep as well as spacious, airy and yes, even epic.
For Patty at The Perfume Posse, Lavs was “incense perfection” and the best incense she’d ever smelled. She describes herself as a hardcore incense addict, and her review provides an assessment of how she thinks Lavs compares to other fragrances in the genre:
CDG Avignon is more reality (deep in the church with rosary beads) and Armani Bois d’Encens is a cold, chilly incense that is calming. [¶] Unum Lavs is some hybrid that takes in both Avignon and Bois d’Encens qualities and then infuses it with breath. […] I’m thinking it’s the jasmine, tonka and spices that make it soar, pulling in parts of life into the reverence. Incense, much as I love it, is often too pristine. Unum Lavs is not that. It’s also not a THOT either, so don’t be going down that road. It’s “church tongue.” If you ever saw “The Wedding Singer,” you know what I mean. Romanticized contemplation. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
To my disappointment, I didn’t experience any jasmine or generalized floralcy of any kind, and neither did several others on Fragrantica. There, Lavs generally receives great praise, but there is one exception. As a counterbalance to the adoring reviews quoted above, here is the less enthused take from “The Little Prince” who bought Lavs blindly and is now seeking to swap it for something else:
… It has this ecclesiastical workshop vibe, a wax and ash one a smoky wood accord that vaguely resembles a church’s repository room. The incense feels stale and there is a herbal metallic undertone and a burned smell reminiscent of snuffed out candles and matches. At the beginning it feels harsh but winds down in a balsamic amber drydown with a floral airy aspect, which envelops the wearer beautifully. The settling takes time since this is an extrait de parfum. There everything feels more refined and properly in place. However the construction feels a tad primitive, a short of a rough draft, with all the angles unpolished. Furthermore, the metallic undertone, although fleeting is somehow annoying and the fragrance is a bit more aggressive than I would have normally liked. According to the background story I was expecting not only to experience THE meditative experience but more of a sacred awe. As it is, the fragrance has elements that I like but it neither strikes me as the best incense perfume around nor as the most complete and balanced composition.
For “Arabian Night,” Lavs was “100% frankincense” with little opoponax, not much discernible labdanum, and no jasmine, though he did love the end result and thought that it was one of the best incense fragrances along with Tom Ford‘s Sahara Noir. His review reads in part as follows:
“Lavs” to my nose is 100% frankincense. Sharp, piney, lemony, herbal, sweet, smoky frankincense. I don’t smell much oppoponax here. Perhaps in the dry down, when the sweetness really takes over, it could be perceived as such, but to me it smells more like dill, not the honeyed molasses tones which I would associate with oppoponax oil. However, palisander does have a dill-like quality to me, so perhaps this would explain it?
I don’t get prominent labdanum either, a note which I am normally very sensitive too. It doesn’t have that tangy medicinal quality (thank god). As for jasmine, I can’t pick up on anything remotely floral, at any stage.
Regardless, I have to say that along with “Sahara Noir” this is probably the purest church incense I’ve ever experienced. It has an invigorating freshness, but unlike “Avignon” or “Cardinal“, it doesn’t have that transparent and synthetic ‘laundry’ type vibe. It feels so natural, as if you crushed the resin into powder and clapped it into the air. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
For others, Lavs was pure High Church incense. One chap, “rp6969,” described it as “what CDG’s Avignon might want to be when it grows up,” finding Lavs to have a “rich, fulsome 3D presence” in comparison. He concluded by saying: “For incense lovers Lavs is like dying and going to heaven, with a stopover at the Vatican for the funeral. Gorgeous.”
Since the whole Avignon-worship gene passed me by, I can’t talk in depth about how Lavs may compare. My memory of it was a soapy, very cold, unpleasantly musty, High Church fustiness with a very synthetic feel, but I no longer have my sample to do a side-by-side analysis. I’ve never tried Armani‘s Bois d’Encens. However, I did try Heeley‘s Cardinal, and hated it for its synthetics and its soapiness. One thing I can tell you is that Lavs has zero similarity to Sahara Noir on my skin. Nor is there any resemblance to Profumum‘s Olibanum which some people think is a strong alternative to Avignon, despite being primarily frankincense-based. For me, Olibanum has strong herbaceous, pine, and fruity aspects which separate it from purely liturgical scents. A slightly closer comparison might be to Arte Profumi‘s Ecclesiae which starts off as myrrh High Church incense before turning warmer, spicier, ambered, and sweeter, with creamy opoponax as well as frankincense. Still, the two fragrances ultimately smell nothing alike, and Lavs is more monolithic, less of a hybrid, and purer in aroma, as well as richer, deeper, and stronger in nature.
The one area where I think Lavs well and truly stands out is something mentioned by Alfarom and some of the Fragrantica posters: quality. This smells like really high-end incense with enormous smoothness and naturalism. Actually, all the materials smell rich, deep, and like absolutes. There are no obvious synthetics to muck things up or to cheapen the scent. The fragrance as a whole is seamlessly blended, though perhaps a little too much so since I couldn’t detect the jasmine at all and the spices were generally quite faceless on my skin. Still, it’s an impressive scent that is very nicely done.
I may not like High Church fragrances, but I strongly recommend trying Lavs for yourself if you love liturgical incense. Unum is not carried at a lot of places and almost none of those offer samples, but America’s Twisted Lily does and they ship worldwide. As a side note, you may want to consider their customizable sample set where you choose the fragrances, because Unum has two other parfums or extraits as well: a rose one (Rose Nigra) and a jasmine one (Opus 1144). I hope to have a review for Opus 1144 at the end of the week, perhaps after covering another fragrance, because I want more time to make up my mind. All I’ll say now is that it is a very old-school spicy jasmine-vanilla floriental with syrupy sweetness, smokiness, and strong echoes of both Shalimar and L’Heure Bleue, combined together with a touch of acridness. If you’re a fan of either vintage Guerlain or florientals in general, you may want to put that one on your sample list as well. [Update: the full review for Opus 1144 has been posted.] As for Rose Nigra, I don’t go out of my way to cover rose scents if I can help it, but you can read Alfarom’s assessment on the Nero Profumo website if you’re interested. He calls it a “transparent fruity woody concoction” with a classical profile.
All in all, Unum is a house worth checking out. Plus, Pope Francis and Pope Benedict would approve, which is something I never ever thought I’d say in a perfume review.