There seem to be quite a lot of changes going on in the incense world, which are becoming more and more apparent. A major one is that the cost of the raw materials to make incense (as well as natural based perfumes and ouds) has been steadily rising for the last few years. This year has seen drastic price increases in sandalwood and agarwood. Much of this is happening because the supply of “wild harvested” wood is becoming much more limited as it becomes harder to find. It has also become much harder to get any of the woods, at any price. There is a real limit to how much is still available; it is not something that can be cultivated (at least not yet). This same process is happening to many of the most popular ingredients, to the point where it is becoming impractical to use them in the quantities they were used in, in the past.
Recently I noticed at least a 30% bump in retail sandalwood and agarwood prices within Japan. It’s worse over the last few years. A fifteen-gram bag of SS grade Jinko that sold for 7200 yen in 2009 is now at 18,500 yen. There are lots of rumors that people or even countries are buying up stock, which will drive prices even higher. Logic would point to big price increases by all the incense makers, not to mention formula changes as a way to keep prices down or offering lesser amounts of sticks in a bundle at current prices. All this appears to be happening, although very few makers are talking about it, at least anywhere the average buyer can find. Which is where the importers are caught in the middle, once you order and pay for and then receive a large order getting a refund or replacement for incense (or rose, jasmine, etc)that is not up to the quality you expected becomes a very difficult task.
To add more fuel to the fire currency rate fluctuations are all over the board so (for the dollar) one’s money does not go as far. The dollar has fallen off about 50 points in the last two years to the yen. If you are an importer of incense right now that means your wholesale profit margin is pretty much gone, one might say, literately, up in smoke.
I notice in our site that there is mention of changes in the scents of a number of incenses from many manufactures lately. Mike’s recent piece pointed out some from a number of the Indian and Tibetan makers and I have seen mention of similar differences from some of the Japanese makers.
Incense, much of which use natural materials has always been subject to change as there are always differences between different batches of the woods or spices/herbs/etc. that go into them, this is very much what all people who work in the scent industry (at any level) go through when ordering a new, say, jasmine absolute or sandalwood or even just trying to restock from the same supplier. One can pretty much count on having to make some adjustments to achieve a similar scent profile for a specific perfume or incense. This goes on all the time; in fact I think that a lot of the training that an incense master (in any country) or perfumer goes through is based on being able to recreate a specific scent profile with the materials that are currently available. I think that this is becoming harder and harder and in some cases not even possible as supplies (especially high quality woods) become increasingly difficult to get at a price that is economically realistic.
There are a huge amount of reviews at ORS, probably more then anywhere else, yet I am starting to see where they may no longer be accurate given all the changes that are going on. I have seen people get upset because our reviews may no longer hold true, or their nose is not the nose or esthetic of the reviewer. I would like to point out that we are in no way “professional incense reviewers”. We do it because we like the stuff and are crazy enough to buy incense in the amounts that we do. Nor do we get subsidized or bank rolled by any of the makers or sellers. Sometimes we get samples, but then again we also buy a lot. Right now I would be hesitant to make large purchases, unless it was something I had just sampled. Even then it is going to be a gamble.
In this country we assume everything is standardized in quality and will stay that way, no matter where it comes from. That has never been true and is less so now. The people who bring incense into the country are taking huge chances with a lot of money. They are also the same people who took the time to put together the network of communication and trust to get the process rolling. I am quite sure they did so and continue to do so because they feel a commitment to their customers, it for sure is not because they are making any large profits, which have been cut even more of late.
So it is “buyer and importers beware” at the moment and probably for the foreseeable future. Enjoy what you have, be sensible in your purchases, life goes on.
OK, now back to looking for that 15 gram bag of Jinko buried in my closet!