Passage d'Enfer was the first L'Artisan fragrance I fell in love with and purchased, and as the line eventually came to be a great favorite of mine, it would hold a special place in my affections even if only for that. As things go, quite a few of the fragrances I purchased in the early days of my perfume obsession now sit lonely and ignored in the back of my cabinet, but Passage d'Enfer, along with a few other old favorites (Diptyque Philosykos, Carthusia Mediterraneo) can count on regular wearings.
Passage d'Enfer was launched in 1999; the perfumer was Olivia Giacobetti and the notes include white lily, aloe wood, frankincense, benzoin and white musk. The name is variously translated as "rite of passage", "the gates of hell" or "passage through hell"; it is evocative no matter which you choose, and it loses only a little of its romance when you learn that it was named for the street in Paris where the L'Artisan offices were located. But if you are looking for the sort of deep, gloomy-churchy incense that might inspire such a name, you won't find it here.
It is a cold fragrance, to be sure, and could, I suppose, summon up the chilly stone interior of some ancient cathedral, but it is so light and airy and cheerful that I think only of the early spring, outdoors, with bright sunshine and the first bulbs just starting to peek up through the earth. The only other incense fragrance I can think of that has the same ethereal spring-time quality is Etro Shaal Nur, although the Shaal Nur is more obviously floral (I find the lily in Passage d'Enfer quite subdued).
The composition is quite simple, and while it is not quite linear, the whole is so sheer that it it seems very nearly so. There is a touch of soft white floral mingling with the incense on a base of woody musk, and that is pretty much the whole story. It is remarkably fresh for an incense fragrance, and very nearly soapy-clean. The dry down is often accused of smelling like pencil shavings, and it does, although not nearly so much as say, Serge Lutens Santal Blanc, or even L'Artisan Bois Farine. There was a time when I could be counted among those who did not think that a good thing, but those days are long gone. What could be lovelier than the smell of pencil shavings?
The lasting power is, alas, not quite all that one could hope for, but such is the way with transparent fragrances: they don't last. I am torn between wishing that L'Artisan would do an Extreme version and thinking that perhaps it is best not tinkered with.
L'Artisan Passage d'Enfer is an Eau de Toilette, and is available in 50 and 100 ml. Can I carp about the new bottle design one last time? I liked the old ones better. For buying information, see the listing for L'Artisan under Perfume Houses.
More incense perfumes: Josef Statkus, Giorgio Armani Prive Bois d'Encens, Donna Karan Black Cashmere, Comme des Garçons Series 3, Incense, Crazylibellule and The Poppies Encens Mystic, Heeley Cardinal, Aedes de Venustas Parfum d'Ambiance, Costes.