FRANKINCENSE, EAST AFRICA’S MILLENARY GEM — PT.1
One of the world’s oldest aromatic raw materials, Incense, also called Frankincense or Olibanum, was born in the nowadays sultanate of Oman and more precisely the Dhofar governorate (its southern region at the border with Yemen).
Trees from the Boswellia genus, especially Boswellia sacra and serrata, have gifted humans with this gum-resin exudating from its trunk since the beginning of times!
Long before the three kings brought Incense to baby Jesus along with Myrrh and gold, it has always been a sacred ingredient: many ancient civilizations employed it during their religious rituals, as Incense’s holy smoke was seen as a way to reach the gods.
Once considered worth more than gold, the story tells the Queen of Sheba transported the precious resin by caravan from her land (today’s Ethiopia) to hand it to King Solomon.
Incense essence and resinoid both possess woody, resinous, balsamic, and spicy facets which have made such mythical scent a leader of oriental perfumes. Olfactive Studio’s fragrances such as Woody Mood, Chambre Noire, Ombre Indigo, and Autoportrait all feature this powerful ingredient.
Dive into the olfactory universe of a thousand and one nights with this legendary raw material…
AN INTENSE RAW MATERIAL SINCE DAY ONE
When we say Incense is intense, we know what we’re talking about! Come on, do you know any other ingredient that’s been around since forever?? So, saying since day 1, isn’t merely accurate, we should say since day -2000.
Let us explain: Egyptians used it, the Greeks used it, the Romans used it, every religion from Christianism to Buddhism uses it, even atheist meditation enthusiasts use it, and we obviously still use it in perfumery today! Not convinced of such intensity yet? An ingredient shared by human cultures for millennia and still one of the strongest in the game! That’s pretty intense.
Do you know what’s crazy? Incense continues to be part of the five bestselling essential oils sold on the international market, out of the over 90 distinct kinds that are available. And it’s obviously the most quoted of them all throughout litterature! Once more popular for its resin, its essential oil has now taken over and leads the sales worldwide.
PARDON MY FRENCH
Incense as you may know is also called “Frankincense”. Where does this alternative word come from, frankly? It turns out in old French, “franc encens” translated into “frank incense” was used to refer to first rate Incense, of the highest quality. Back then the word “franc” meant “not mixed, pure”.
This raw material was obviously used before the French nation even existed. In ancient Greek, Incense was called λίβανος (líbanos) which has the same linguistic derivation as the word “lebanon” and in Latin as well (lĭbănus). This common etymology comes from the fact the spice trade passed through Mount Lebanon.
Later on, during medieval times, the word Olibanum emerged in Latin from libanus. The word “incense” also originates in the Latin word incendere, meaning “to burn” (in reference to its ceremonial usage).
A BARK TREASURE CHEST!
You must wonder what is exactly this extraordinary product, and how is this well-hidden gem extracted from its case? First of all, the resin is exclusively produced by male trees, and the collection method is named “tapping” or “pruning” of the tree. To do so, an incision is made in the bark of the tree to reach the gum-resin kept underneath which exudates from the tree in the shape of thick drops.
White incense, of higher quality, is collected in the following fall after the tapping has been done in the summer. Red incense, of lower quality, is harvested in the following spring after the tapping has been done in the winter. The fragrant drops are harvested only when dry during the succeeding weeks.
Just like us humans become wiser as we age (some of us at least), the tree’s resin becomes better as it gets older.
Despite their Omani origins, Incense trees’ cultivation and harvesting takes place mainly in Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Ethiopia nowadays.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF INCENSE
BEFORE THE COMMON ERA…
Let’s take a trip into the past and allow us to take you back to Antiquity, in 5000 BCE, during the spice trade that took Incense from South Arabia (Dhofar) to Mesopotamia and Egypt by land and sea.
The most ancient Incense burner, dating from 3500 BCE, found until now was discovered in a temple close to Mosul in today’s Iraq – though no traces of Frankincense were found inside.
In the year 2000 BCE throughout the Silk Road period. Incense was therefore already traded across the Arabian peninsula (Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen) and the Somali peninsula (Horn of Africa in East Africa). The incense route took the resin by caravans from south to north along the Red Sea’s coastline.
The ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut built around 1470 BCE a temple surrounded by Incense and Myrrh trees, and the oil was also found in the pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb from 1323 BCE. Surprising? Not so much as the Egyptians ruled the Mediterranean for almost 3000 years and were absolutely fond of this aromatic raw material. They used it to cleanse the corpses during the mummification process, and as an offering to Ra, the god of sun.
Olibanum reached its golden age in 500 BCE during which the Romans, the Greeks and the Persians held a colossal demand for the raw material. It is believed up to 3 million kilograms of Incense were imported by Rome from South Arabia! The treasurable merchandise crossed the ancient city of Petra, home to the Nabateans, and its neighbor desert Wadi Rum.
…AND DURING THE COMMON ERA
It is none other than the delicate Omani Incense which is believed to have been gifted to the Christ by the Three Kings on his birthday.
Incense is quoted in Naturalis Historia written by Pliny the Elder in 77 CE (the biggest writings which remain from the Roman Empire). It made its way to western Europe with the help of the crusaders (like many fragrant spices) among other European travelers, who were in charge of bringing it back to the Catholic church.
In the far east and China, Man had been using incense for millennia as well, but they initially employed an incense of their own composed of plants such as cassia, cinnamon, styrax, and sandalwood. Frankincense would have reached Hong Kong by 695 CE. Its usage was and still is directly linked to Buddhism.
Want to hear a fun fact? The etymology of the city’s name means "fragrant harbour" or "incense harbour", and referred to the coastal factories which processed the imported product.
At the end of the 13th century, Venetian explorer and merchant Marco Polo visited the ancient city of Zafar, a flourishing port at the time, located on the present archeological site of Al-Baleed (Dhofar region). He writes "Strong and good white incense is born there, and in abundance." in his notable book The Travels of Marco Polo.
In modern ages, the demand for Olibanum has never stopped as it occupies an important place in most cultures around the world, and is a multipurpose ingredient which can be applied to many fields (perfumery, aromatherapy, kitchen, medicine, spirituality).
INCENSE IN OLFACTIVE STUDIO’S PERFUMES
Woody Mood has a citrusy and spicy start, with the tangy freshness of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia). Very spicy and aromatic, we can sense the peppery side of Ginger (Zingiber officinale), and the fruity side of Saffron (Crocus sativus). The Clary Sage’s (Salvia sclarea) lavender notes are responsible for the aromatic facet of the top of the perfume. The top notes of Woody Mood quickly fade, leaving room for a heart full of mellowness.
In its heart, the fragrance is very woody! Incense (Boswellia carteri) is clearly present with its woody-resinous facet, the Sequoia accord evokes the forests of these huge conifers, which grow in Northern California, with a woody-resinous scent (close to cypress) offering earthy and aromatic notes. It goes without a say that the Black Tea (Camellia sinensis) provides the tea aspect, enhanced by the earl grey facet of Bergamot at the top. The Nard Jatamansi accord brings to the heart an herbaceous-aromatic and earthy note (Nardostachys jatamansi’s rhizomes are rarely distilled to obtain the essential oil).
The combination of all these raw materials creates some volume, and we quickly notice the base, as the notes present in the fragrance are mainly base notes. In the latter we perceive the dusty-earthy side of Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), as well as Styrax (Liquidambar orientalis). This balsamic raw material has cinnamic and floral facets, participating in the opulent floral side that we sense from the heart. Note that Styrax is used in leathery notes for its facet of the same name, thus it embellishes the Leather accord which recalls a beautifully smooth leather.
Woody Mood is a very balmy fragrance (in reference to balms such as Styrax), this facet developing over time due to the low volatility of balsamic raw materials. The association of the floral heart and the balmy-leathery base gives a vintage effect, intensified by the animalistic aspect of Styrax and the Leather accord. The Cocoa Powder accord adds to the dusty effect of Patchouli, and the powdery facet of Styrax evokes the texture of powder itself.
At once citrus-woody-balmy-leathery, Woody Mood's construction is reminiscent of oriental fragrances, and its scent provides a comforting sensation.
There are no words other than "delicious" to describe Chambre Noire! From the top of the perfume comes the peppery Pink Berry (Schinus molle), with its slight zesty edge. An expensive raw material, it blends well with the woody facet of the perfume, which it enhances thanks to its floral-spicy side. The latter ingredient acts as a junction between the head and the heart.
Base perfume (due to its components), Chambre Noire, quickly reveals its heart with the Egyptian Jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum) both floral and animalistic, reminiscent of jasmine tea. Papyrus (Cyperus scariosus), from which the fragrant rhizome is extracted (like Vetiver) brings a spicy facet to the woods of the perfume, while matching them with its earthy facet reminiscent of Vetiver (a woody ingredient). Allied to Jasmine is the Violet accord with its floral-powdery side and its little fruity-strawberry note.
Incense (Boswellia carteri) is clearly sensed, emphasizing the sensual woody character of the fragrance. It is a very balsamic Incense, a facet supported by the Vanilla Absolute (Vanilla planifolia), itself sweet and creamy. Its spicy side matches perfectly with Pink Berry, and Papyrus, which each have characteristic spicy notes. Rounded by Vanilla, the Prune accord is fruity and sweet, and echoes the fruity side of Violet.
In the base we have the Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) and Sandalwood (Santalum album) couple. The yellow flower facet of Sandalwood resonates with Jasmine (white flower) and its lactonic facet with Vanilla and Musks. The woody-earthy Patchouli and its dark chocolate note combines with the sweet facet of Vanilla to awaken our taste buds through gustatory notes! The association of these two woody raw materials to Incense accentuates its woody-resinous power and gives an Oud effect (Aquilaria malaccensis).
The Musks have a creamy facet that matches the milky Sandalwood, as well as a fruity side reminiscent of red fruits, combining with the Prune accord at heart. Vanilla, with its spicy side, joins the head of Pink Berry, and makes the spices persist in the base. The Leather accord offers an opulent and bewitching base, whose animalistic facet matches that of Vanilla and Musks.
With Chambre Noire, we have a woody-balsamic fragrance, providing a real sensation of vanilla warmth. The ensemble has very oriental aspects with vanilla accents and evoking notes of Oud (a raw material with animal-woody-amber-smoky facets).
The perfume Ombre Indigo has a subtle top because it is mainly composed of heart and base notes. Nevertheless, we perceive a discreet sour-citrus side given by the Petitgrain Bigarade (Citrus aurantium) with its aromatic facet reminiscent of lavender (given by their common component linalyl acetate).
This fragrant composition is immediately sensed as spicy and incense-like, characterized by strong base notes. The predominant facets, which mark the perfume since its first notes are the woody, amber, and leathery facets. However, we do not escape the floral-opulent side given by the Tuberose Absolute (Polianthes tuberosa), a heady Tuberose, typical of white flowers, slightly honeyed, and with its singular side reminiscent of vegetables. The Tuberose goes perfectly with the fruity facet of the Plum accord through its sweet honey facet, as well as with the Leather accord it embellishes.
The spicy Saffron (Crocus sativus) matches the Plum accord through its fruity side, which has a liqueur-like facet reminiscent of fruit liqueurs. The latter accord recalls the “prunol” base, both fruity, lactonic and balmy, which gives complexity to Ombre Indigo (famous base used at the beginning of the 1900's for plum notes).
Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanoide) is distinguishable by its smoky side that accompanies its woody-mossy main facet with earthy notes. Papyrus (Cyperus scariosus), from which the fragrant rhizome is extracted (like Vetiver) brings a spicy facet to the base of the fragrance, while matching Vetiver by their common earthy and smoky facets. The Leather accord has a very pronounced animalistic facet underlining the base dominated by Incense.
Incense (Boswellia carteri), the star of the fragrance is very resinous, woody, and omnipresent because it is sensed from the top! It is also bewitching by its so pronounced smoky facet, underlined by the smoky Vetiver and Papyrus. The mystical effect given by Incense transports us to an "old church".
Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis) appears through its gourmand facet with caramel notes. Its ambery side goes hand in hand with the amber notes of the fragrance. Together with Musks, it gives depth and volume to this powerful fragrance. The result is a woody-floral-incense scent with a truly striking smoky and ambery aspect!
Ombre Indigo is a fragrance combining the opulence of a flower of character, Tuberose, with a sweet Plum accord, and a bewitching Incense whose woody and smoky facets keep fascinating us.
In Autoportrait we discover a reassuring Incense, soothed by raw materials which make the fragrance so addictive. In the perfume's discreet and subtle opening, we can distinguish the zesty facet of Bergamot essence (Citrus bergamia) and the peppery-fresh facet of the Elemi essence (Canarium luzonicum), a spicy raw material whose woody and resinous facets can be sensed already.
The structure of Autoportrait allows the woody-balsamic heart and base to reveal itself very quickly.
The spicy facet persists in the heart of the perfume with the Benzoin Siam (Styrax tonkinensis), which also possesses a spicy-cinnamic aspect. As for the gourmand facet of Benzoin, with its vanilla and caramel accents, it wraps us in a warm and sweet haze. We also perceive the Incense (Boswellia carteri), with its powerful woody facet, it feels resinous and reassuring.
This rich woody aspect of Autoportrait is highlighted in the base of the fragrance by several raw materials. Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) in all its naturalness with its woody-dry side reminds us of pencil lead, the elegant Vetiver brings a refined smoky note and an earthy facet.
The Oakmoss Absolute (Evernia prunastri) with its woody-mossy facet and its earthy aspect accompanies the Cedar and Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanoide) while giving a chypre dimension to the fragrance. As for the Musks, they bring a smooth creamy effect.
Autoportrait is an elegant, deep, truly carnal fragrance with a mesmerizing trail.
ONE BIG BURSERACEA FAMILY
As mentioned before, the Boswellia genus belongs to the Burseracea family, and within this genus composed of about 20 species, many produce the precious resin.
Apart from Boswellia sacra and Boswellia carteri from South Arabia (Arabian peninsula), and B. seratta from India, two other species are commonly used: Boswellia frereana from the Horn of Africa and B. papyrifera from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia.
In 2019, Boswellia occulta, a new species endemic to Somalia was discovered after being long mistaken for B. sacra. It possesses a different chemical profile rich in methoxyalkanes, and a completely different scent. B. frereana has a less powerful scent than B. sacra.
Incense trees are bold to live in such extreme conditions but aren’t insensitive to their overexploitation. Just like their far away cousin Elemi (January’s article on our blog), an over-solicitation of the trees has heavy consequences on the prosperity of the species. In fact, studies have shown that the population of trees is dropping because the overworked ones generate seeds out of which 16% sprout, compared to 80% of the other trees’ seeds…
Two other factors threaten Incense’s future. The first one is an insect called the longhorn beetle (Idactus spinipennis) which attacks the trees, and is directly linked to the lack of resting time after the trees’ tapping, making them more vulnerable to the beetle damage. The second one is the transformation of the species’ lands into agriculture fields, therefore reducing its habitat.
A 2019 report foresaw the disappearance of 50% of the Boswellia papyrifera for these same reasons. This species essentially found in Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea flourishes on desertic land affected by conflict and poverty, where collecting the resin appears as one of the rare sources of revenue of the region.
OMAN'S MOST PRIZED GOOD
And now back to the homeland! In Oman, the birthplace of all Boswellia, Incense plays a huge part in the nation’s history and culture. It appeared in the Dhofar region in 6000 BC, where extremely arid conditions replaced the monsoon rains (a seasonal reversing wind accompanied by corresponding changes in precipitation).
It’s no wonder the country probably offers the finest Incense, since the limestone cliffs of the Dhofar mountains (southern region) grant it with the perfect conditions for the trees to develop and prosper.
The Land of Frankincense in Dhofar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, and was a strategic place on the medieval incense road. It represents an area of no less than 850 ha!
Using the same methods for the past 5000 years, Omani farmers carry on with the traditions of their ancestors. One of the main rules: an Incense tree can solely be exploited once a year.
The resin is more popular than the essential oil up to this day, and is burned to relax the body and mind, and repel annoying insects. Because of its powerful woody and spicy scent, it is commonly incorporated in oudh bases (reproducing the expensive scent of Aquilaria malaccensis) or mixed in aromatic sprays called “attars”.
INCENSE IN MODERN PERFUMERY
One of the products of perfumes’ earliest origins, and of the famous “papier d’Arménie” (Armenia paper) Incense was employed before distillation even existed. Nowadays it is used in the base of oriental fragrances, along with woody, leathery and spicy notes.
Because of its magical aura and scent, Incense is also a much-appreciated ingredient in niche perfumery.
ESSENCE VS RESINOID
Incense resinoid is first obtained when using the volatile solvent extraction method. Using the hydrodistillation process on this resinoid leads to a light brown liquid consisting in Incense essential oil (also called essence).
Incense essence has a price per kilogram of 150€ on average. Its resinoid, is cheaper and costs about 50€ per kilogram.
Luckily the resinoid isn’t regulated by the IFRA (International Fragrance Association), despite containing some allergens in very small quantities (D-limonene). The essence didn’t benefit from this advantage as its thujone content (alpha and beta) has it regulated by the same organization…
SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT!
If both the essence, and resinoid belong to the balsamic olfactive family and share their leading terpenic, resinous, and woody facets, the first one is considered more of a heart/base note whereas the second is a heart note!
The resinoid is more used than the essence because of its rounder, warmer, more resinous and balsamic scent. The essential oil possesses a spicier and fresher olfactive profile. As for their usage in fragrances, the latter is appreciated in floral notes as well as in woody, coniferous and spicy notes, whereas the resinoid is preferred for adding a natural touch to woody and coniferous notes, and in the formulation of ambery perfumes.
THE CHEMISTRY WITHIN THE TREE…
Incense is a gum-resin, meaning gum is one of its main components. The gum part is odorless but makes up for 30-36% of the chemical composition. Acid resin represents about 6% of the content along with boswellic acids which can make up to 30% of the total molecule percentage, this is the case of B. serrata.
Out of all Boswellia species, only B. sacra, B.serrata and B. papyrifera contain significant quantities of boswellic acid. It is also believed only the resinoid has significant amounts of the latter.
In terms of aromatic molecules, Incense is mainly composed of terpenes and phenols. Incense essential oil, contains about 45% of alpha pinene, 9% of limonene, 6% of sabinene, 5% of para-cymene, 4% of alpha-phellandrene and 0,5% of cembrenol. Despite its presence in low proportions, the last molecule is what we call a “plotter” because it acts as a marker of Incense since it is only found in this raw material. Incense resinoid, on another hand, has a similar but more complex chemical composition.
…AND AMONG THE SPECIES
Remember the five Boswellia species we mentioned earlier? Well, they can be classified in two groups based on their chemical profile! First we have the incensyl acetate group consisting in B.sacra, B.carteri, B.frereana, and B. serrata, and then we have the octyl acetate group made of B. papyrifera whose chemical analysis shows about 50% of the latest compound.
A FEW EXCEPTIONAL INCENSES
There also exists a commonly used “specialty” incense called Olibanum heart. Specialty raw materials differ in their chemical composition, highlighting one or another facet of the ingredient, in Olibanum heart’s case, it emphasizes the heart notes of Incense.
Another interesting type of Incense in perfumery is Old Church Incense, which is a pyrogenic Incense. Pyrogenic you’re probably asking yourself? It means it’s been produced by combustion or the application of heat, because for this type of Incense the wood is first burned then extracted.
Incense essence has a long list of health properties, and Mankind has known this for a good while. It is at once an anti-inflammatory, and acts as a digestive, diuretic, expectorant, antiseptic, disinfectant, and astringent agent. Moreover, it’s recommended to boost the immune system, fight tiredness, and to treat anxiety and tension.
SENSE INCENSE THROUGH FRAGRANCE
This overlook on Incense as a perfumery ingredient wouldn’t be whole without mentioning the delightful fragrances that have trusted its mysterious scent!
When our senses come across Incense, we are almost moved by some higher power or some sensual presence. Everything this marvelous raw material involves from its history throughout times, omnipresence in the ancient and contemporary world makes it a very special ingredient for mankind.
In 2004 Armani privé launched Bois d’encens, a woody-spicy fragrance with a simple composition full of elegance as only five ingredients were employed. The dark Incense is uplifted by the smoky Vetiver and spicy notes of Pepper and subtle Pink Berries.
Among niche perfumes, there are at least a couple Incense followers you should introduce to your nose! Encens Flamboyant by Annick Goutal was created in 2007 by Camille Goutal and Isabelle Doyen. It is a women and men’s woody-spicy perfume containing fresh notes of Pink Berries, spicy Pepper, Cardamom, and Nutmeg, resinous Incense and Fir Balsam.
La Religieuse by Serge Lutens is a fragrance composed by perfumer Christopher Sheldrake. Launched in 2015, its contrasting structure of bright Jasmine balanced by dark notes of Incense, Musks and Civet is an ambery floral must!
The fabulous oriental classics Shalimar by Guerlain (1925) and Opium by Yves Saint Laurent (1977) both feature Frankincense in all its splendor. Nevertheless, the new version of Opium (2009) isn’t marketed as containing Incense anymore!
With such enigmatic powerful scent, Incense is full of depth and reveals each time distinct spicy, camphory, fresh, woody, and balsamic facets! East Africa’s millenary gem will have us hypnotized eternally…
Anna Grézaud-Tostain for Olfactive Studio