Mandala, the second recent release from Masque Milano, has a very different geographic focus than its New York sister. This one is centered on a monastery in Tibet or Nepal where the sound of Buddhist monks’ overtone singing rings out in the rarefied air, “two notes chant[ed] in perfect, peaceful harmony.” The fragrance is meant to have the same duality, as well as the same meditative serenity, according to Masque’s official scent description: “A myrrh and incense fragrance – light and delicate. A contemplative atmosphere. Vibrating at two levels at the same time.”
I was eager and excited to try Mandala. The note list was right up my alley with its myrrh, spices, resins, amber, and woods, and Masque always does interesting things. Unfortunately, things did not turn out as I expected, so this isn’t a proper, full review but, rather, a short, purely personal account of my experience. I don’t expect it apply to most of you, for reasons that will become clear in due course.
Mandala is an eau de parfum that was created by Christian Carbonnel, and it was released in June 2017 along side Times Square. According to a Fragrantica editorial review, Mandala was inspired by Alessandro Brun’s journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway and a day in Ulan-Ude. “There he was present for the ceremonious mandala creation and ritual dismantling, a Tibetan Buddhist tradition that symbolizes the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.” Masque Milano describes the fragrance as follows:
Light, rarefied air. Utter silence. Cows lazily lying on the grass stare at you, while you start spinning the prayer wheels. From the monastery comes the monks’ overtone singing – two notes chanting in perfect, peaceful harmony.
A myrrh and incense fragrance – light and delicate. A contemplative atmosphere. Vibrating at two levels at the same time.
The official note list is:
Frankincense, Nutmeg, Angelica, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Cistus [Labdanum], Cedar, Incense, Myrrh, Sandalwood, Oakmoss, Tincture of Natural Ambergris.
Mandala opens on my skin with a cloud of woody-amber aromachemical smoke that smells like the powerhouse Amber Xtreme, which Luca Turin once described as “nuclear.” I’ve written to Masque to ask the name of the precise aromachemical used here but, whatever it is, it’s an intensely arid, abrasive, and intrusive wood smoke with undertones that smell like ISO E, rubbing alcohol, hospital disinfectant, ammonia, and Norlimbanol. It’s the exact same aroma that made Puredistance‘s Sheiduna so difficult for me. (Malle‘s Monsieur also had Amber Xtreme, although never to the same levels and in much, much milder fashion than Sheiduna.)
Luca Turin once wrote about the strongest of the strong woody-amber aromachemicals on his blog, Perfumes I Love. In a post entitled “Power Tools,” he began by explaining that woody-ambers “have seen an extraordinary arms race in recent years” and have grown increasingly forceful in strength. He then explained their progression, culminating with mention of the most “nuclear” of them all, Amber Xtreme:
With a smell character memorably described to me by Charles Sell as “glorified rubbing alcohol” —Ponk’s own description, Power Tools, is no less apt—woody ambers are now everywhere, mostly in masculines but also used as a sort of fluorescent black light to illuminate feminine fragrances from the inside. The old materials (by old I mean twenty years ago) were not shy. Cedramber, Amberketal and Spirambrene were solidly powerful stuff. Then the chemists got busy and Karanal came along, discovered accidentally by Karen Rossiter at Quest. Karanal took no prisoners, and smelled wrong to a fraction of the people. Edouard Fléchier, a brave man, used it memorably in Malle’s Une Rose, recently reformulated. Then came Ambrocenide from Symrise, one of the most scarily powerful materials in memory, the sort that you can easily smell on the outside of the sealant around the cap of a never-opened bottle. By then every Guido on earth was strutting around smelling of Godzilla isopropanol, and it seemed things just could not get worse. Then IFF released Amber Xtreme, a nuclear-powered woody amber chemically related to Galaxolide that outguns them all. [Emphasis and links in the original.]
I don’t know what exactly and precisely is in Mandala, so I will go with “Amber Xtreme,” in-between quotes, for now, until the company gives me a precise name or confirmation after checking with their perfumer, and then I’ll update this post. In the meantime, I’ll use “Amber Xtreme,” not only because Mandala’s note smells just like it but also because the material made me as intensely, physically ill as Sheiduna, which does have Amber Xtreme in it. As most of you know by now, I’m very sensitive to strong aromachemicals but nothing, and I do mean nothing, impacts me with the severity and force of Amber Xtreme. And, unfortunately, the note in Mandala had the same effect.
[UPDATE 10/9: Alessandro Brun has confirmed that, yes, Mandala contains Amber Xtreme.]
On my skin, the “Amber Xtreme” is the primary and driving note in the fragrance, but there are other elements layered within. The voluminous nuclear mushroom cloud is infused with dusty, woody myrrh and a really lovely spice blend which is dominated by nutmeg but which also includes a beautiful cardamom note, cinnamon, and a hint of cloves. Bringing up the rear in this procession is cedar and piney frankincense. When taken as a whole and viewed in its broadest and simplest terms (and probably in the terms that everyone else will see it), Mandala is primarily a spiced, dusty, and woody incense-myrrh bouquet, albeit one that is blanketed by a mushroom cloud of dry, intensely smoky woody-amber.
I enjoy the myrrh and spices, but the powerhouse aromachemical is too much for me. Within minutes of applying the scent on skin, I got shooting pains through my right eye which quickly blossomed into a full-on migraine. My throat also swelled up, there was a ringing in my ears, and I felt somewhat dizzy. 15 minutes in, I felt nauseous, and had to scrub. (It took almost 2 hours to get every trace of Mandala’s “Amber Xtreme” off my skin. I repeatedly applied a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, acetone nail varnish remover, rubbing alcohol, concentrated Tide H/E laundry detergent, Joy dishwashing liquid, and baby oil. When that failed, I had to take two hot showers while using that mixture on a hard loofah. When Luca Turin says that some of these woody-amber aromachemicals are “scarily powerful,” he isn’t exaggerating.)
I tested Mandala a second time, on a scent strip, because I wanted to have something useful to impart to you, but that wasn’t a success, either. Even though I stayed a small distance away, the black cloud of ultra-smoky, ultra-dry, rasping woody-amber extended across the room, wafting its powerhouse aromas (and its hospital rubbing alcohol). The aromatic myrrh was noticeable from a distance as well, then the soft, fragrant exoticism of its spices. After 15 minutes, I had to move the strip into the corridor outside, then into another room entirely.
I ventured there intermittently, usually every 20 minutes, to see if there were any major changes during the fragrance’s evolution, but Mandala really is driven by two overlapping, primary chords — even on paper: 1) smoky woody-amber, and 2) dusty, woody, meditative, myrrh-centric incense. Initially, both of them are sprinkled with the lovely spice mix, Mandala’s third central strand, although it’s a lesser one relative to the other two. After roughly 75 minutes, the spices turn amorphous — a simple, brown, fragrant, quasi-Chai-like oriental exoticism that is subsumed within the primary bouquet. The latter is an increasingly hazy blur of woodiness, smokiness, dusty incense, and five-alarm-fire, smoky, rubbing alcohol “Amber Xtreme.”
Roughly every 20 minutes after that for the next two hours, I gave the Mandala scent strip a sniff. There was no change in the notes or bouquet. The fragrance simply got smokier, drier, and darker. By the end of the 3rd hour and the start of the 4th, even the passing, occasional sniffs became too much, and I ended up vomiting.
I’m sorry, I tried my best, but I know this is the most hopeless, useless quasi-review ever. I also know the vast, vast majority of you either can’t detect aromachemicals or aren’t bothered by them in the slightest. I don’t expect you to perceive or to react to Mandala in the same way. You undoubtedly won’t. However, a small group of readers suffers from the same painful sensitivity and a number of them have told me that it is, in fact, one of the very reasons why they follow this site. To them, I say, “be careful.”
For everyone else, particularly Masque fans who love incense fragrances, I suggest reading the reviews for Mandala elsewhere in order to have a more normal or typical account of the scent experience. On Fragrantica, there are three comments at the time of this post, and all three are favorable. Mandala’s Basenotes entry page has only one review at this time; it bears a “neutral” rating. On Luckyscent, there are three reviews: one is a 2-star rating, the others are 5-stars. (One of the latter mentions an “antiseptic cleaner / medical facility smell,” but she attributes it to the cloves.) Not one of these people, on any of the sites, had an experience like mine, so, again, you probably won’t either.
Despite my personal difficulty with Mandala, I’m still a fan of Masque Milano, and I still look forward to seeing what they come up each time. I continue to believe that it is one of the better and more interesting niche brands out there, and always worth a test sniff.
Details/links: $165 or €138 for 35 ml of EDP; Masque Milano; Luckyscent; First in Fragrance; ParfuMaria; Neos1911; Jovoy (does not currently have Mandala listed on its Masque page at the time of this review); and Surrender to Chance.
Disclosure: I received a sample of Mandala with the purchase of an unrelated fragrance from Luckyscent. I received another sample from Masque Milano. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.