For many, the idea of incense evokes nothing so much as college dorm rooms and hippie shops that smell more like car air freshener than exotic spices. But lately that stigma has started to lift, as fragrance artisans and boutique brands offer new variations that leave Nag Champa up in smoke.
Historically, incense was used to communicate with the spirit world. Whether burning a bundle of sage or lighting a finely crafted stick of rare resins, one was sending offerings and prayers to the heavens in the form of smoke. This ritual remains a part of daily life in countries all across Asia and the Middle East — a tradition that today’s Western makers have taken inspiration from, adding modern touches via packaging or unusual scent profiles.
For the L.A.-based artisanal perfumer Persephenie Lea, a 1999 trip to India, where incense is lit for any and every occasion, opened her senses to the aromatic world. She returned with sandalwood from Mysore and herbs from the Himalayas, but it wasn’t until last year that things came full circle with the launch of her own all-natural line. She notes that while it once got a bad rap along with cigarettes, customers have been responsive to the “clean burn” of her incense blends and finer brands in general. “It seems like people are opening themselves up to the mystery of it,” she says.
Self-described “nature freak” Hall Newbegin, who began selling wildcrafted Juniper Ridge incense 15 years ago in Berkeley, credits the maker movement with his brand’s taking off. “The whole marketplace has changed,” he says. Now incense is the “entry level product” in a fragrance line entirely sourced from the wilderness.
Nicole Miller, who added incense to her popular Seattle lifestyle brand Blackbird three years ago, saw an opening with the explosion of the luxury candle market. “It’s a really nice other way to do home fragrance,” Miller says, adding that it’s fun to offer guests a selection of scents to choose from.
Here are some our favorites, from wild to refined:
Persephenie’s hand made sandalwood and palo santo cones are pure and powerful, but the real fun is to be had with her “incense trail” kit. Layering the azure rice ash, herbal “smolder” powder and potent, resinous blends of agar wood, patchouli and cardamom (Koukoku) and copal and frankincense (Gold), you feel like an alchemist, connected to magic by the strike of a match.
Black bamboo cones, letterpress labels and incantatory names like Sepulchre, Muru and Izba transmit a darkly sophisticated, unisex vibe. Scents are also non-traditional: Blackbird’s top seller is Blood Countess, whose main ingredient is dragon’s blood resin from Yemen. “I didn’t want to make incense that everyone has smelled before,” Miller explains. Her directive? “Don’t use sandalwood, use licorice.”
ASTIER DE VILLATTE
The light blue-and-gold boxes marked “Encens” whisper of elegant Paris interiors, but the contents are as exotic as they come. All hand made on the Japanese island of Awaji by masters of aroma, scents include the popular Delhi, a sensuous, spicy blend of musk, myrhh and smoked vanilla. Grand Chalet, the latest addition to the line, is a conceptual floral inspired by the painter Balthus’ Alpine home.
“Real luxury is the beauty of the thing itself,” asserts Newbegin. He has roamed mountains, deserts and forests from Canada to Big Sur to Santa Fe, harvesting pine, sage, sweet grass and more to make Juniper Ridge’s 100% natural “campfire” incense. “It all comes back to, is it true to the wilderness experience, is it true to the place?”
Saying that Fornasetti’s incense is all about the ceramic box/burner is missing half the point. These covetable cases by the Italian decorative arts brand hold 80 sticks created by Nippon Kodo, maker to the Japanese Emperor. The signature scent, Otto, was inspired by the Fornasetti family home and gardens, with warm, woody notes of lavender, cedar and styrax.