An Incense for Every Occasion
The American acid-rock band the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s 1967 song “Incense and Peppermints” inevitably recalls the pervasiveness of scents like …
The American acid-rock band the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s 1967 song “Incense and Peppermints” inevitably recalls the pervasiveness of scents like patchouli during the hippie era. “Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind / Incense and peppermints, the color of time,” the lead singer croons. But lyrics like these — co-written by John S. Carter and Tim Gilbert — also nod, if only accidentally, to the widespread use of incense in our own helter-skelter age.
In fact, as Ligaya Mishan writes in an essay for T’s fall Men’s issue, fragrant powders and resins have been used around the world for millenniums for both medicinal and mystical purposes. And though the notion that scents have the power to heal has been largely dispelled, incense’s ability to set the mood — whether of a person or a room — is as prized as ever. “It can totally define a space, so it is architecture, in our definition,” says Sarah Swartz Wessel, who co-founded the Phoenix-based multidisciplinary design firm Tennen with her husband, Ethan Wessel, 20 years ago, and who works closely with a small company in Kyoto to create the brand’s incenses, a number of which are meant to evoke a Japanese dry garden. For her, there’s “a different scent and shape for all kinds of occasions.” A short stick might be lit for a morning shower, a spiral can smolder in a corner before party guests arrive and a long stick is good for ushering in bedtime.
During the pandemic, in particular, when weeks and months often seem to blur together, the burning ritual “can really be transformative, and a marker of time,” says Alex Elle, a Maryland-based author and wellness facilitator who uses incense, frequently palo santo blends from the Tucson, Ariz.-based online store Rituals Incense, while writing and during moving meditation. “Burning incense is, dare I say it, a spiritual practice,” she adds. “By the time it burns out, it’s a new beginning.” Here, a rundown of some of the best blends on the market, in case you’re looking to start a practice of your own.
From left: Cinnamon Projects brass incense holder and 2AM incense; Costa Brazil Resina de Breu rock; Kühn Keramik brass dice incense holder and Catherine Rising sandalwood hand-rolled incense.Credit…Photograph by David Chow. Prop styling by Leilin Lopez-Toledo
Breu resin, extracted from the Almacega tree in the Amazon rainforest and sometimes referred to as Brazilian frankincense, has been burned for centuries in South Americato treat headaches and respiratory ailments, balance the sixth (intuition) chakra and ease anxiety. It’s a specialty of the Brooklyn-based brand Incausa, whose Brazilian-born owners, Carolina Vieira and Vinicius Vieira de Vieira, source ready-made breu incenses made from certified Brazilian and Peruvian harvesters. Its palo santo-scented wands ($16 for six) emit an earthy, woodsy aroma when lit.
“I thought it was the scent of the forest itself,” the designer Francisco Costa says of the first time he smelled breu — in 2016 while visiting the Yaminawá tribe in Acre, Brazil, where he attended cleansing rituals in which chunks of the oxidized resin were thrown into bonfires. “When I spoke with the chief of the tribe, he told me more about the spirituality of the ingredient,” Costa says. Now, it’s the core of his Costa Brazil product line of cold-pressed oils and mineral bath salts — even its Vela Jungle candle features the resin, which has been studied for its inflammation-reducing triterpenes. The brand’s Resina de Breu rock ($145), though, which is sustainably harvested by Acre locals, doesn’t behave like traditional incense. “Sometimes it ignites, sometimes it bursts, sometimes it doesn’t light at all,” says Costa, who recommends giving it a go either at the beginning or end of the day, when you can really focus. “Nature provided something that’s so special, and you have to make the time and engage with it.”
“You can’t replace the hundreds of years of history,” says Swartz Wessel of sourcing Tennen’s incenses directly from Japanese makers in Kyoto. When it comes to the brand’s Sonoran Desert series, the best sellers are the Spring Arroyo spirals ($38 for 10), which have a base of sandalwood and Japanese bay tree layered with essences of lily of the valley and freesia. “It’s a complex scent that changes as it burns,” Swartz Wessel says.
The Parisian fragrance house Astier de Villatte’s Yakushima sticks ($51) are created on the island of Awaji, where notes of black tea and tobacco are kneaded into a paste of resin, herbs and wood reminiscent of Yakushima’s lush rainforest. Alternatively, Kogado’s Sandalwood Incense ($20) relies on a single ingredient, with each stick releasing half an hour’s worth of pure sandalwood smoke that, given that the aroma is believed to be a natural sedative, makes it the perfect nightcap. And then there’s Bodha’s Smokeless Incense ($35), which is made using traditional methods by the Tokyo-based Nippon Kodo (a company that traces its origins back over 400 years, to Koju, an incense maker to the emperor) and has a novel style of release: Once a stick has been lit and the flame extinguished, a campfire-type aroma mingles with notes of petitgrain and violet leaf — no billowing plume in sight.
Established in Florence, Italy, 800 years ago, and one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, Santa Maria Novella celebrates an Armenian custom with its Carta d’Armenia burning papers ($28). Once lit, the strips, which are “soaked in a mixture of resins and spices” and meant to be folded like an accordion, last for just a few minutes, says Robert Gerstner, who carries them in his and Karl Bradl’s Manhattan shop, Aedes Perfumery. They burn without a flame, Gerstner explains, for a “classic, heavy incense smell, purifying the air.”
The fair-trade hand-rolled rope incense ($28) that Catherine Rising purchases from Nepal and sells online from Rochester, N.Y.,is also paper-based. She notes that no artificial fragrances are used to make it, and that the bundles are packaged in fabric sourced from a nonprofit shop that carries donated sewing supplies. Strands scented with Himalayan cedar can be dangled from a hook so that they look like a twisted chrysalis and lit from below — cedar is thought to be grounding, so consider setting one of these aflame after a long day spent in cyberspace. Elle is a fan of the Ha Ko paper incense leaves ($37) from Kunjudo, a company founded in 1893 on Awaji. “I love how the smoke rises and moves,” she says. Made from washi paper and shaped like the foliage of trees — including persimmon, with scents of white floral or smokey cinnamon, and zelkova, with scents of agarwood, spicy jasmine or green grass — they can either be lit and placed on a fireproof felt mat, or kept intact and treated as potpourri.
The incense cones from the Seattle-based fragrance design house Blackbird arrive in a cylindrical tin that, once the top is unscrewed, can double as a portable holder. “I thought that was really clever,” says Swartz Wessel, who discovered the line on a trip to the Pacific Northwest. “They feel very American,” she says of the brand’s robust scents such as Death ($35), which has notes of sage, marble and leather, and was created in collaboration with Cold Cave, the Los Angeles-based dark-wave band.
Another one of Elle’s favorite places to find incense stateside is the clothing and fragrance boutique Na Nin in Richmond, Va. She recommends the Sea Salt & Sand Dunes cones ($22) from its house line, which evoke the whiff one gets after walking past a body shop in a mall before they’re lit, and smell faintly beachy while burning. Elle likes to light one on a bed of white sifted ash set inside a soapstone holder (the ash protects the vessel). Being in the presence of beautiful objects, she says, “makes the ritual so much more enjoyable.” For that reason, she’s also drawn to the brass and precious stone burners and hour-themed incenses, including the 2AM blend ($30), which come in a corked glass vial, from Cinnamon Projects. The sticks are made in New York with powders and oils of honey, vetiver, cedar and, of course, cinnamon, the scent of which is said to improve memory — and enhance attention span.