Changes

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!

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10 Comments

  1. ted said,

    December 20, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    …and the major news outlets are reporting tonight that frankincense production could be halved in the next fifteen years and tree numbers could decline by 90% over the next fifty years.

  2. Sam said,

    November 24, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    It’s a good time to contemplate impermanence, that’s for sure. Perhaps in the future we may need to content ourselves with simpler and more sustainable fare. Juniper, sage, mugwort and its related Artemisia species, the three myrobalans that make up triphala, saffron (still the world’s most expensive spice, but widely and painstakingly cultivated), cardamom, camphor, cinnamon, sweetgrass, cedar, pine: these are all still available. The Himalayan incenses many of us love have always used the rarer imported ingredients in small quantities to enrich their incense formulae, anyway.

  3. doctordruidphd said,

    October 24, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    “In this country we assume everything is standardized in quality and will stay that way, no matter where it comes from. ”

    I think we also have come to assume that things that are available now, will continue to be available forever, and that just is not the case. Particularly with the more exotic and high-end incenses, we may find that some of them are just going to be disappearing, because the ingredients used to make them will no longer be available. I am thinking specifically of the higher-end Japanese aloeswoods and kyaras. I can see where one could probably make many aloeswood blends from cultivated, maybe even something like sho ran ko. But sho kaku, or koh shi boku, or musashino — forget it.

    I don’t mean to disparage the cultivated woods — I happen to like Scented Mountain, and burn it quite often. It has a much fresher, almost floral scent than many of the wild-cut woods. But then again, I’ll choose grape juice over wine any day, that’s just me. As already mentioned, part of the skill of the blender is manipulating the formula to accommodate the variations in natural products. But that process can only go so far, and the subtleties of the more exotic woods just can’t be duplicated. So unless they decide to divvy up Ranjatai (and even if they do, eventually…) we may see products that depend on those woods disappear.

    Then again, Seijudo did a pretty good job of fooling even the experienced with their Shiragiku — it really does small a lot like a certain kind of kyara. I don’t think it was their intention to fool anyone, but it does show just how far the envelope can be pushed. Much can be done in the lab, but I don’t see the traditional Japanese incense makers going the synthetic route. Given that no one seems to fully understand the maturation process that produces kyara and its aroma, my guess is that if the incense makers can’t get the scent right, they will pull their products, and some things will just be going away when the supply runs out.

  4. Jacob Holmes said,

    October 21, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    “it is not something that can be cultivated (at least not yet).”

    This simply isn’t true. Cultivated aloeswood has been available for some time. For example, take a look at Essence of the Age’s page for Scented Mountain.

    • clairsight said,

      October 21, 2011 at 11:32 pm

      There is a big difference between old wild agarwood and the cultivated, which is what i was referring to. But you will be seeing a lot more of the cultivated in incense from now on.

  5. Tiger said,

    October 21, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Very well said Ross,

    I have been buying essential oils, resins, herbs, woods, and Incense for about 15 years now. Every bottle, herb, even incense I buy is different from the last. I always try to save a little from each batch to compare and see what I like or don’t like from the last. After all they are all natural, and all natural things change from plant to plant, season to season, and batch to batch. And price also plays a big part in it all to when you are doing blends. Just because something doesn’t seem the say, doesn’t mean it isn’t the same. It is natural so will very.

    That being said, I am sure their are some that are changing their recipes for what they can get. And it is a sham if they are not saying that they are doing it. But that is why a place like ORS is so important. So that we may help each other.

    Oh and Ross, I added your bag of Jinko to mine so I have a good stash going 🙂

    • clairsight said,

      October 21, 2011 at 11:43 pm

      I think all the makers are really worried (well, most, maybe not NK).
      No matter how big their stock piles were/are they will be going through them.
      This is a lot like the big, old line perfume makers who have had to change formulas due to regulation or cost but do not say anything.
      If it came down to having to pay more for quality I would rather go that route then get something that is a faint shadow of itself.

    • Arisan said,

      November 6, 2011 at 12:35 am

      I find myself sometimes in the state of paranoia with this.

      I just opened a new box of Nankun by Shoyeido. It has always been my favourite, kind of earth-scent combined with heavenly overtones. Now with this new package I find the overtones quite flat, and the overall impression reminds me more of their series Shun, a bold experiment to create premium-like world with domestic Japanese ingredients (not very successfull, though, pricey and a bit vulgar, IMHO).

      This leaves me of course thinking could they really have changed the formula (no, I don’t think so, they just couldn’t, can they?) or should I give it a new try with another stick…

      I am also aware of the changes in my nose as my perception may and quite probably does vary from time to time. But as far as I can remember the elements in all my former packages are somehow flattened with this one, and I am more than confused…

      So quite likely from at least now on I have always to doubt is it them or my nose changing the formula… ; )

  6. Gregg King said,

    October 21, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Yes, I have noticed changes even in Ross’s Ocean mix. For some reason it seems to be getting better but at the same time, the same amount doesn’t seem to last as long. Do you think this is a plot by Ross to drive the price up? 🙂

    • clairsight said,

      October 21, 2011 at 11:36 pm

      Yes, I plan on becoming an incense baron. The Ocean blend goes through changes almost every time it gets made. At least of its ingredients are a real crap shoot to get quality material. Which means my garbage can sometimes smells really good 🙂


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