Since the days of ancient Egypt and Rome, incense has been used for purification, ceremony, devotion and pure pleasure. Today, with 5,000 years of tradition and aesthetic refinement at its core, the use of incense is reaching new levels of popularity.
It's hard to measure global incense sales, in part because incense buyers cross the boundaries of the booming home fragrance market, including the aromatherapy, spa and spiritual and devotional goods and services markets—a total U.S. market estimated at $2.2 billion in 2000, according to Kline & Co., a Little Falls, N.J.-based consulting firm. Buyers might be using incense to support a practice of feng shui, yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, massage, Native American purification, Catholic Mass or creating their own sacred space. They may simply love beautiful fragrances or wish to mask unpleasant smells.
In short, whether a sensual luxury or a religious necessity, the right incense can enhance almost everyone's environment. But like other "New Age" trends, popularity can also mean diluted, compromised or modified tradition to meet the needs of mass production and mass consumption.
Quality Ingredients Key
Though incense comes in many forms, all are essentially an aromatic blend of ingredients designed for a controlled burn that will disseminate the fragrance through the air. Today, synthetic fragrances, chemical binders and factory production often replace natural ingredients and the hand-blending of natural resins, gums, oils, flowers, wood, roots and leaves, which impart subtle and complex fragrances that reached the level of fine art in many cultures. Yet handmade natural incense blends are enjoying a resurgence as consumers continue to seek out products that offer the benefits and purity of nature.
"The incense available in India and exported from India is mostly manufactured in factories," says Sita Sharan, managing director of Surya Trading Co. in Lyons, Colo., importers of Indian incense made completely by hand with traditional natural substances. "Instead of using flowers and essential oils, the factories use synthetic fragrances and petrochemical binders because it's less costly." While Surya incense is bound with natural gums and resins such as benzoin and honey, commercial factories may substitute motor oil or even animal blood, Sharan says.
Customers who've tried incense and found it irritating, headache-inducing or allergenic may have been victims of these synthetic or lesser-quality ingredients, says Jeff Banach, sales manager for Shoyeido Corp., based in Boulder, Colo., which distributes traditional Japanese-made incense containing natural ingredients, in the United States. Natural foods stores are Shoyeido's biggest U.S. market, Banach says, and the company is growing at about 20 percent annually.
Yet the very qualities that make Shoyeido incense desirable also make consumer education a necessity. "Some incense uses what's called punk sticks—bamboo sticks dipped in batter that smell strong before they're even lit," Banach says. "Shoyeido has no core on the inside, no stick in the middle. We use an extrusion process, so when you light it you're burning pure incense. It's all natural and has hardly any fragrance when unlit." In the store, Banach explains, shoppers might put the package to their nose and think the product isn't good because there's no strong aroma, when in fact just the opposite is true. "We give out a lot of samples and people are always pleasantly surprised; it's a subtle, clean fragrance."
Generations Of Refinement
The mysteries of quality natural incense have been refined for many centuries. "The same family has been making the Shoyeido product for 12 generations," Banach says. "There are traditional Japanese incense ceremonies, just as there are tea ceremonies." Banach estimates that as much as 90 percent of Buddhist temples in Japan use Shoyeido incense, while in this country, its uses vary from a vehicle for relaxation to use in spas and salons during body therapy.
The traditional incense blends of India were similarly developed by families in small villages over the centuries, says Shurya Trading's Sharan, with variations in production method to suit the region. To achieve authenticity and honor these traditions and the people of India, the product is made by hand in every detail. "The incense is rolled by hand, the paper for packaging is handmade and hand-silkscreened, and the incense is counted and packaged by hand," Sharan says. She also donates 10 percent of profits to the widows in the village, who help produce the incense, and pays her workers in India fair wages, she says.
The use of incense in the ancient world was not limited to Asia and Africa. In the Americas, Native Americans from the Mayans to the Aztecs used incense for purification and ceremonial rituals. Today, the traditional Native American practice of smudging, or purification using smoke from sticks of sage and other plants, is increasingly popular among the spiritually and environmentally aware.
"It's amazing how much of the middle class knows about smudging," says Alfred Savinelli, founder of Native Scents of Taos, N.M., a co-op network of Native American wildcrafters that sells traditional and ceremonial products and "tools for empowerment" in 25 countries. In addition to natural products retailers, Native Scent's customers are as varied as the Smithsonian Institution and the Book-of-the-Month Club, and the company gives product to children's hospitals. Ceremonial herbal smoke is also an important aspect in the sweat lodge movement, Savinelli notes, which he says is strong in communities all across the country.
A Growing Market
So many factors coincide in the incense market that it's no surprise that it quietly continues to grow. Increasing interest in aromatherapy, in creating sensual and serene environments, and in spiritual traditions all support the popularity of these small but potent products. Natural products retailers are well positioned to introduce new customers to the world of incense and increase the satisfaction and knowledge of existing incense buyers.
"There is a worldwide awareness of aboriginal spirituality that people find meaningful in a modern post-industrial society," Savinelli says. Sharan of Surya Trading agrees. "Incense is a mental stimulant that transforms the ordinary into the very special, and it can be done very easily without great expense," she says. "People are looking for ways that they can engender that transformation into the sublime, the sacred or just the pleasant. The sense of smell is hard-wired in us."
And, Savinelli reminds us, it may be hard-wired in other spirits as well. "In the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the cosmology was that the gods liked certain things, including sweet-smelling things," he says. "When the gods were happy, there was harmony and balance in the universe."
Elaine Lipson ([email protected]) is a Colorado-based writer who has written about natural health and spirituality for Yoga Journal, Delicious Living!, Gaiam.com and other publications; she is the author of Organic Foods Sourcebook (Contemporary Books, 2001).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 32, 35-36