For many, incense evokes 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 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 incense makers take
inspiration from, adding modern touches via packaging or unusual scent
For the L.A.-based artisanal perfumer Persephenie Lea
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 of incense. She notes that while it once got a bad
rap, along with cigarettes, customers have been responsive to the “clean burn”
of her blends, and those of 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, California, credits the new "maker" trend with his brand’s taking off. “The whole marketplace has
changed,” he says. Now, incense is the “entry-level product” in his fragrance line sourced entirely 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. From wild to refined, click on for five of our favorite brands.