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 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 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.