Sahara Noir (Tom Ford)

A great incense perfume has the advantage of boasting a material with its own olfactory polarities, which are in equal measure both smoky-cold and dusky-warm. Incense has a crisp, spicy, balsamic odor, which in some ways is similar to the world's greatest sneeze-inducer, black pepper. There's a flinty aspect to it (and frankincense in general) that always feels mysteriously cool and aloof, but also paradoxical, thanks to its warmer, ambery edge. In perusing the blogosphere, you would think Sahara Noir is an ode to Africa and the Middle East, a cultural nod via scent. I want to feel like Lawrence of Arabia when I wear it, but I was raised a Roman Catholic, and for many years attended mass in cathedrals across the U.S. and Ireland. Despite a searing awareness of frankincense's true geographical origins, Sahara Noir strips me of my tunic and keffiyeh, and drops me via scent memory right into Sunday morning mass at Sligo's Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception. Let's drop the exotic references in speaking of this latest Tom Ford signature release, for here there are no camel treks across arid desert sands, or carpet shops in Moroccan souqs. Sahara Noir smells of Catholic church incense, which is fairly common (and inexpensive) on the international market. Does that suck the air out of Tom Ford's sails? Not quite.

Tom Ford's fragrance conceptualization is typically hum-drum and a little tawdry, but in sniffing past Black Orchid, Gucci Rush, and Violet Blonde, I'm definitely smelling a serious, high-quality perfume in Sahara Noir. Its secret weapon isn't incense, but the shimmering accord produced by its pairing with cistus labdanum. The latter material exhibits its own internal scent polarities, with bright top notes of freshly-hewn wood pulling at earthier base notes of raw leather, sweet spice, and honeyed amber. It lends the composition a deeper warmth and creates a smooth amber over which the church smoke can waft. It also skilfully reinforces the brighter, almost citrus-like qualities of fresh incense. Sahara Noir utilizes both materials by putting them parallel to each other, with their convergent evolution yielding hyper-realistic solemnity. By replicating the smell of church incense, it offers something more: the suggestion of a spirit lurking in the smoke. In a stroke of genius, Ford seems to have demanded the integration of floral notes with a few drops of vanilla, as I often get little whiffs of rose, and an almost-edible sweetness under all the resins. It's really great stuff, really potent, and bound to satisfy even the most jaded incense lover.

It helps to be somewhat familiar with a few Amouage fragrances while wearing Sahara Noir, because their compositions are a bit less obvious about the use of incense. Amouage doesn't try to offer incense reconstructions. They simply use quality incense as a coherent bond for what are typically relatable materials, like wormwood, cedar, and ambergris. Because the perfumes are of such high quality, and because their noses are cognizant of incense's many facets, Amouage fragrances manage to make what little incense they contain sing out and sweeten the air. Ford's more literal interpretation goes for photo-realism by relying on the accuracy of memory, relating real-time experiences to thematic associations. Since incense is used in religious ceremonies, there's no shame in associating Sahara Noir with the imported oak pews in a Celtic country. I'm grateful to this perfume for eliciting those memories - I really love that cathedral. It's an architectural marvel, and whenever the priest waves the burner, its looming spires fill with the scent of a thousand sins gone unpunished. Now all of that mystery comes in a gaudy faux-gold bottle with matching gold tassels. Thank you, God!


  1. Nice review! I enjoy incense fragrances both with incense as the main element (Loewe 7) and as a peripheral element (Kouros, Balenciaga, Oscar for Men etc.). Hence, I will be looking to sample this one along with some of the Amouage, CdG incense series as well as others.

    Much like yourself, incense (particularly frankincense) takes me back to church ceremonies. I like it for the many qualities that you mention. We as westerners enjoy it for different reasons than near eastern peoples. There is some chatter on the boards that this incense scent would not be appreciated in the Arabic world because it is associated with a gynecological medicine. More specifically, a type of medicine which tightens the vagina/cervix immediately following pregnancy. Hence, it would be associated with women who just gave birth. I guess that it is more or less the same with Oud. While westerners seem to associate this with mysterious/sexy/unusual, arabs associate this scent in a different way. So, if arabs would perceive someone wearing Sahara Noir as post partum, I wonder how they would perceive someone wearing YSL M7?

    1. That's interesting, I didn't know they viewed this type of incense that way. They might like M7, because my understanding is the oud note is synthetic, and may or may not replicate natural oud exactly (I've never worn it). I agree though that Sahara Noir doesn't feel especially exotic - more ceremonial/religious. Makes me wonder if I want to smell like this all day/night long.

  2. Just found your site and am enjoying it a great deal! Your comment about Amouge using incense as an ingredient as opposed to an olfactory target is very interesting. Makes me reconsider the use of category and how our first impressions tend to stick. Have I ever thought of Fracas as anything but a tuberose or more generally a soliflor?

    I'm a retired Catholic and yeah, I have the church association as well. For me it started with CDG Avignon. And no, when I was a kid we didn't have camels in our church in New England either.

    Surprisingly uninformed on my cultural heritage, I've never heard Sligo mentioned outside my family as a child. My mother's mother is from Sligo. best, jtd

    1. I've heard good things about Avignon. There are a few in the CDG range that get tied to religious ceremonial incense in various regions of the world, I think Zagorsk is another with some Eastern European influences, if I'm not mistaken.

      Your grandmother is a native of Sligo? That's great! It's really a terrific city and the county is beautiful. Highly recommend visiting if you haven't already.


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