In the beginning there was only… incense; it’s where all scent began. Although these days we mostly use the word to refer to the intense, evocative aroma that comes from burning herbs, plants, tree bark, roots and resins – literally per fumus, “through smoke” – strictly speaking, it refers to the raw materials themselves.
Incense takes many forms – from Mexico’s copal and South America’s sacred palo santo to the Buddhist incense from China and Japan, and Indian and Greek Orthodox varieties – and it has its roots deep in ancient cultures, almost always associated with religious ceremonies, rituals and purification rites. In Egypt, its fragrant, ascending smoke was considered to be the pathway that linked earth and heaven, and it was found around the mummified body of Tutankhamun. Guests of the ninth-century caliph Al-Ma’mun were offered an incense burner to perfume themselves before meeting with him. As James Craven, perfume archivist at Les Senteurs recalls, the Song of Solomon is suffused with erotic longing and references to the power of incense, spices, perfume. And of course, the Magi brought gifts of frankincense and myrrh to the child Jesus.
For most of us, incense has spiritual connotations that are intertwined with childhood memories – hence its deep resonance. Its use in perfumery in the western world is relatively new. Caron Parfum Sacré, £105 for 100ml EDP, launched in 1991, was partly inspired by kyphi, the Egyptian incense, but recently, says Craven, it has “run riot in niche perfumery”.
Why a sudden fascination with incense in scents? “Culturally, there is a need for a spiritual life in a secular world and people use fragrance to search for that,” says Michael Donovan, the owner of Roullier White, who “adores incense” and “managed to sneak it into almost every fragrance” when he launched his own collection, St Giles (£130 for 100ml EDP) in 2017. “I loaded frankincense through the heart of ‘The Writer’ because, for me, it is the scent of inspiration. It hints at something mystical and ancient; and when writing well, it makes one feel like a conduit receiving the information from elsewhere.”
Craven agrees. “Incense is the link to our remote collective past, our link to the divine. It is psychotropic, mind-altering. It makes you step outside yourself, reflect and meditate.” Perhaps those who no longer regularly experience incense in their churches and temples now crave it in scent. But whatever the reasons, its evocation of powerful memories seems to have a natural synergy with Christmas – and this year there are some wonderful new scents to experiment with.
Some of the newest incense-based perfumes come from the east, in particular from Pryn Parfum, a house founded in Thailand by Pryn Lomros, who studied film direction before a visit to the Cannes Film Festival fired up his passion for perfume. He went to Grasse to learn the art of structuring scent and upon returning to Bangkok began an apprenticeship at a perfume company. He takes his creative themes from both ancient and modern cultural history.
“With subtly nuanced storytelling, Pryn Parfum uses sacred Buddhist incense to open an olfactory window onto eastern culture, combining it with rare ingredients of extraordinary beauty,” says Donovan, who specialises in tracking down niche fragrances and discovered Lomros while in Bangkok. Mogao (£115 for 50ml EDP) is a citrus/incense scent named after the caves of Buddha in the Kobe desert that house Buddhist art dating back a thousand years. This is the spiritual oasis of ancient China, where the caravans of the Silk Road encountered the temples of the faithful. Sweet orange and osmanthus blend with Sichuan spices and Chinese tea leaves over a serene base of intense incense, wood and leather. Ayothaya (£115 for 50ml EDP) was inspired by the golden age of Siam’s kingdom of Ayuttahaya. Here, sacred temple incense, spices, gunpowder and oolong tea conjure up the excitement and magnificence of this ancient hub, which was a global centre of commerce and cultural sophistication as well as a focal point of Buddhism.
Self-taught perfumer Spyros Drosopoulos, who founded Baruti – which takes its name from the Greek for gunpowder – is a neuroscientist by profession, who likes to push at perfume’s traditional boundaries. He takes his clients on what Donovan calls “an emotional journey”. His Indigo fragrance (£98 for 30ml extrait), for instance, takes an ancient ingredient – frankincense – and blends it with chios (mastic oil), hyacinth, amber and roses, with sandalwood and cedarwood at its heart.
Niche perfumer Andy Tauer – also self‑taught – has what Les Senteurs’ Craven describes as two “peerless” incense perfumes. Incense Extreme (£105 for 50ml EDP) is “an oriental fougère with a green top accord of coriander and petitgrain developing into deep clouds of ambergris, orris and incense… the whole becoming a vast enveloping cloud of fragrance”. The darker and more bitter Incense Rose (£105 for 50ml EDP) is rich with myrrh, cardamom and patchouli, softened with Bulgarian rose oil.
Myrrh, a natural resin extracted from commiphora trees, is said to have been named after the ancient city of Myra, in Asia Minor, where the tomb of St Nicholas – not only our Santa Claus but also the patron saint of perfumers – is said to have once stood and wept tears of myrrh. Mona di Orio’s Myrrh Casati (£140 for 75ml EDP) is a rich, complex perfume with an incense heart of dark myrrh wrapped in cardamom, liquorice and saffron; it’s layered with more incense, sweet benzoin, patchouli, smoky guaiac wood and cypriol oil, making for an utterly addictive combination.
San Francisco-based perfumer Bruno Fazzolari, who famously “sees” scent as colour due to his synaesthesia, paints with frankincense in his extroverted scent Ummagumma (£95 for 30ml EDP), named after the Pink Floyd album. Resinous labdanum is blended with incense as well as stimulants such as tobacco and chocolate, all washed with fine vanilla and tonka to create a sumptuous, supremely indulgent fragrance. It’s a great scent for cooler weather, as it really glows.
From uplifting to transporting – the French fragrance house Liquides Imaginaires aims to create perfumes that spirit the wearer into “imaginary worlds”. Its soulful Sancti and Fortis fragrances (each £160 for 100ml EDP) use robust woody incense oils in the raw. Meanwhile, Tom Daxon, a British father and daughter team making fine fragrances in Grasse, uses a modern, warm incense blend in Resin Sacra (£155 for 100ml EDP) – as peaceful and comforting a rendition of incense as could be.
Etat Libre d’Orange is a wonderfully provocative perfumery launched by South African Etienne de Swardt. The brand’s innovative, genderless perfumes include Rien Intense Incense (£145 for 100ml EDP), with powerful incense accords to give it “a deeper darkness and drama,” says Craven. “[The perfumer] Antoine Lie has emphasised the spicy notes of pepper, caraway and cumin, and dramatised the incense base with added doses of frankincense, styrax, labdanum and patchouli for fabulous tenacity and sillage.”
When it comes to the darker, more mystical arts, Kilian Hennessy’s By Kilian is always making its presence felt. The brand’s woody Incense Oud (£285 for 50ml EDP) is darkly sweet with a base of oud, which is often burnt as an incense oil. Anubis by Papillon (£128 for 50ml EDP) is also laden with incense, wafting the wearer aloft on the heady scents of ancient Egyptian burial rituals and their promise of eternal life.
For those who prefer a clean, modern iteration, Craven believes James Heeley’s Cardinal (£125 for 100ml EDP) is the ultimate scent. “It’s a perfume of perfect purity with a soaring, angelic incense,” he says. The brand’s Eau Sacrée (£170 for 50ml EDP), on the other hand, offers a take on incense that is more full‑blown, pagan, rich and golden.
Described by Donovan as “achingly beautiful, slightly melancholy and contemplative”, Timothy Han’s The Decay of the Angel (£160 for 60ml EDP) uses frankincense to symbolise a fall from grace. Inspired by the novel by Yukio Mishima, it’s a rich and exotic burnt floral with rose and sambac jasmine and a touch of oud at the base.
Each of British perfume house Gallivant’s fragrances is a sophisticated insider’s guide to a city, and with its incense base the newly launched Tokyo (£65 for 30ml EDP) takes the wearer on a spiritual, sensual route that celebrates the kodo ceremony – the Japanese art of incense burning. “I am trying to evoke that very special feeling of early morning in the city,” says its creator Nick Steward. “The air is humid and misty; wandering the quiet back streets, everything is tranquil. It’s refined, spiritual, with sandalwood and smoky incense: there’s a calm elegance amid the big-city neon energy.”
Densa (£120 for 50ml extrait) by niche perfumery Nebbia paints an altogether greener – albeit similarly tranquil – picture: “The depths of an ancient forest, completely forgotten by man, where, undisturbed by human footsteps, crumbling temples and fallen trees are swallowed up into the earth by carpets of emerald-green moss”. The earthy, damp moss, intensely rooty vetiver and hints of pulped sandalwood evolve into a smokiness “reminiscent of the scent of palo santo and sandalwood incense being burnt in an Indian temple”.
Whether rooted in one of these new and adventurous, spirit-lifting olfactory flirtations or in a more classic concoction such as Caron’s wonderful Parfum Sacré, these ancient, evocative, aromatic incense ingredients just keep on giving – and are a joy to receive.