Thursday, 9 February 2012

Incense part 1

Kicking off the second in my series on perfume notes, I thought I would collect a few of my thoughts on incense. I should make it clear that while in most cases when I refer to incense, I generally mean Frankincense, the term incense is quite encompassing and can refer to any number and combination of resins, wood, leaves, and gums, including some of the more well-known ingredients such as myrrh, labdanum, benzoin, opoponax, sandalwood and oud. 

Like my posts on roses, I am not remotely an expert on the use of incense in perfume or anything else. For example, I know that there are numerous different incense burning ceremonies, used to different effect in Japan, China, Tibet, India, Russia, North Africa and the Middle East, to name a few. Also, incense is used in many religions and for Westerners like me, I first encountered incense in the Roman Catholic Church. I was very familiar with incense, being an altar boy, where part of my duties would entail lighting the incense in the thurible, which is a kind of censer and later on swinging it about as the fragrant smoke would envelope me and all those around me. That is really my first memory of incense, and probably the one that is most impressionable and enduring. Actually, it was not until much later in life that I realised you could find different types of incense, many of which smell totally different to that strong church incense. I can remember going into an Indian shoesmith and smelling the most intense, sweet smoky smell, which I later learned was Indian incense, or more commonly thought of as the smell of joss sticks. To this day I don't personally like the smell. No offense to anyone of Indian origin or anything, but I just find the smell a bit overbearing and too sweet.

One thing is certain, while incense has a definite meditative use and to me does make me feel quite relaxed and focused, there is no mistaking incense, whether burned or used in perfume. 

There are so many perfumes out there that contain incense as a note. In many cases, incense is just an accent note, lending a subtlety or nuance to the overall composition. I could name scores of perfumes that are constructed like this. The perfumes I aim to focus on in my next article though will tend to be quite incense-dominant, where incense is the main aim of the composition. 

As a general thought, it is difficult to explain what incense smells like. If, like me, you were brought up a Catholic, for example, you will have a very good idea what church incense smells like, which is heavy on the Frankincense. However, there are so many variations, as I mentioned above, that it is hard to give a general description. I think incense perfumes on the whole tend to be quite smoky, some more than others obviously, a bit peppery, certainly woody and with Frankincense, certainly citrusy in the top notes. I know everyone is different, but for me, incense is possibly my favourite note in perfumery. I love almost all incense perfumes I have tried and I am constantly in search of new ones to try.

Join me next time when I explore some of the incense perfumes that 'light my fire'. (sorry, I couldn't resist!


  1. I'm soo jealous - I always wanted to be an altar boy - wanted so badly to swing the censer, but back then, they wouldn't allow girls.

  2. Ha ha. Like that. It had its perks. Getting half high on incense fumes was quite nice. Would have been better having a few altar girls around too!!

  3. Totally second BF's motion on altar boy fun = how my sisters & I wished that role could be open to us! All we were allowed to do was sit in the pews like good girls and breathe in those rich incense fumes... and that's why we're perfumistas. Oh, and heretics, too. :)

  4. I often apply samples of perfume to the backs of each hand for testing right before sitting down at the computer to catch-up with my favorite blogs. Today I happened to be trying an incense one called Grisens from the fairly new line Phaedon, so it was fun to see you were featuring incense also :)

    I wasn't raised in an incense-using religion so of course I love the stuff - no prior associations to weigh me down - and am fascinated by swinging, billowing thuribles! Does being an altar boy mean you get to load and light the incense? and what does the incense look like(what form) before burning?

  5. Olenska, I must admit I don't really know why girls couldn't participate. I guess its that age-old thing called sexism. At least these days they can, certainly in my country.

  6. Cym, I've seen the Phaedon line mentioned here and there but haven't really paid much attention to it so far. I'll see if I can get hold of a few samples.

    When I was growing up, altar boys had various roles and it was usually a more senior boy who was trusted with handling the thurible and lighting the incense. The incense we used looked like a pitch black charcoal hockey puck, I kid you not. Once lit, it literally does burn like charcoal, turning white hot before gradually crumbling to dust as it burns out.

  7. Cym, correction, correction, correction. The hockey puck was charcoal and I remember now that the priest used to spoon the incense (which looked like a variety of small stones, but in fact were resins) on top of the lit charcoal, which in turn would heat the incense so it smoked. My memory is getting hazier by the day - too much inhalation of incense fumes I suppose...



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