Primo / Extra Special Connoisseur / Night Queen (+ Original), Patchouli (+ Original), Ruh Khus, Sandalwood (+ Original), Spice, Yellow Rose + Original / Kashmiri Rose, Lavender, Magnolia, Saffron

Primo Part 1

It was very interesting to put two and two together recently and discover that the family who makes Primo Incense in India, Haridas Madhavda, is also responsible for the Pure-Incense and Jivada lines, in fact I’ll end up making this change in the category lists to the left at some point. It does make sense, though, given the similarity of the bases in all of these incenses, but it’s also quite interesting to see that there are still not a lot of true duplicates across these various companies. Clearly Madhavada create incense from different specs, despite using similar bases.

However, while I’ve not tried Jivada yet, I think it’s safe to say that Pure Incense’s blends are definitely made at a much higher quality level than what we’re seeing from Primo, and, of course, the price does reflect these differences. Primo incenses are very basic and unfortunately this does not bode particularly well for their charcoal florals and in the case of very similar incenses like sandalwood, frankincense and the like, the Pure Incense versions are nearly always recommended as being the better buy, that is, even the Absolutes are more potent than any of the Primos.

But even in Primo we do see a two level difference in some of the aromas. For example with Night Queen there are both Extra Special Connoisseur and Original formulas, although I’d doubt many would be able to tell the difference between them, being that both are floral perfumes on a charcoal and vanilla base. In both cases the vanilla leaks through far too much and the floral oil is either gentle enough or dissipated to really have much of an impact. However, the oil is fairly powdery and pretty and somehow it ends up not being too much of a disaster (particularly in the Extra Special Connoisseur version where it’s a little stronger), although when you realize you can get the Shroff version without paying much more, there seems to be little reason to settle for either of these two.

The differences between the two versions of the Patchouli are a little more pronounced. The Original version is nearly a wash, with the oil so faint you’re almost left with just the base, the only impression being a rough earthiness mixed in with vanilla and charcoal. The Extra Special Connoisseur is far more intense, with the typical dry earth and clay mixture, but even though the scent is noticeable, the charcoal and vanilla base still causes quite a bit of conflict in the scent. In fact these days it’s almost inexcusable to produce a patchouli that doesn’t work given it’s relative affordability and sure enough, even the Pure Incense version is much more refined than this one.

Strangely enough, the Extra Special Connoisseur Ruh Khus is a lot closer to the way you’d wish the patchouli would smell. The charcoal here has been reduced to more masala-like levels and even though there’s still a noticeable vanilla subnote in the mix, the Khus is still well defined: earthy, pungent and green, with even a faint menthol touch and that bit of sweetness common to the herb. As a green and earthy aroma it’s quite similar to some green patchouli masalas, but this is quite a bit more special. Not perfect, but definitely in Primo’s upper echelon (I have to admit to looking forward to trying Pure Incense’s version, which given their track record, must be better).

I’m almost to the point where reviewing this type of masala Sandalwood is something of an exercise in tedium, being that it’s so common along many Indian lines, a masala with a hit of lower quality sandalwood oil in the mix. Perhaps the differences are intensity, with the oil being the best in the Pure Incense Connoissuer line, coming down a bit in the Absolute and then perhaps the Triloka and Original/Extra Special Connoissuer versions might be right after. In Primo’s case I thought maybe the Original had the better formula, with a small bit of spice in the mix and a slightly more intense oil, but at this point I think the differences are virtually trivial. Sandalwood incenses are often so similar that one’s advised to go for the Pure Incense Connoissuer if you want an Indian stick, or better yet, to try one of several Japanese incenses for something a bit more authentic to the real wood.

Spice only exists in the Extra Special Connoisseur range and you’d expect that anything with such a name should pop off the stick in a mix of cinnamon and clove, but unfortunately this one’s quite a bit duller. The base seems more herbal than spicy and the top notes only seem to have the lightest cinnamon-like aroma to it. Perhaps the mix with the base is what weakens the whole, but at the same time there’s some hard to place notes in the middle that keep it from becoming unpleasant and therefore it’s more bland than offensive.

The Yellow Rose is fairly typical of low quality floral charcoal disasters, the oil seems very cheap and the base is as much a part of the bouquet as the perfume is. That’s not to say the base overwhelms, after all the oil here is quite strong, but the mix of all the poor elements is quite offputting to say the least. I’m assuming the Pure-Incense version is far superior, as this is the sort of incense that almost made me swear off Indian florals at one point (which would have no doubt been to my detriment). The Original Kashmiri Rose fares no better. Perhaps the only difference is that one does get the impression the perfume oils are different enough to warrant the names, but I think I liked the Kashmiri even less than the Yellow. Or perhaps the base is even harsher here, way too much charcoal and vanilla in the mix.

The Original Lavender continues the issue from the roses, charcoal and vanilla bases but with an oil that barely resembles any sort of lavender you might be familiar. I should reiterate at this point that all my samples came fresh directly from Primo itself and that I’d tried all of these not far after purchase, so it’s difficult to even assume these might be too old, but the lavender is so faint in this one it barely seems present. Definitely one to avoid.

You’d think the same issues would exist with the Original Magnolia but it’s definitely more pleasant than the Night Queen, roses and Lavender even if the red color of the stick hides the fact we’re still dealing with a roughly similar base. It would be difficult to blame the Madhavada family entirely, after all the Pure Incense Absolute Magnolia is amazing, missing entirely the sort of sour middle note the Primo stick manifests. But clearly cheaper materials were used in this one.

At least I can leave this write up on a higher note, as the Original Saffron is a much better incense, different in quality from either the Shroff or Pure-Incense versions and probably more traditional in that it’s a masala with a noticeable sandalwood-heavy base that helps to drown out the usual charcoal and vanilla notes in so many Primos. In fact this is probably one of the line’s standout scents, with a sweetness in the mix that reaches a bit further in the champa direction that most of the line. It burns pleasant throughout even if one gets the impression there’s probably very little true Saffron here.

This covers just about the entire Primo line, although I see in both samplers there’s no Vanillatopia, but given the wallops of vanilla in nearly all the Primo scents it seems like it might end up being a pretty redundant and thus it’s not a stick I’m in a hurry to try. Overall, it seems that Pure Incense has more or less superceded Primo in quality, with much finer incenses from the same original and venerable incense making family, so there’s really no need to waste any time on this group, although I did end up coming out of the appraisal with positive opinions of the ESC Cedarwood, ESC Ruh Khus, Original Musk and Original Saffron mixes. It’s interesting to realize that for a long time Primo was very much considered one of the better incenses available in the US, so while we’ve lost quite a bit of quality in champas and durbars, it seems that we’re seeing much better product in the masala family.

Primo / Extra Special Connoisseur / Amber (+ Original), Cedar, Frankincense, Champa, Jasmine (+ Original), (Nepal) Musk (+ Original)

Primo Incense has been around as long as I can remember buying incense, indeed when I think of standard Indian masalas I may be subconsciously thinking about Primo sticks. In fact over the years this company’s scents have remained largely the same recipes, give or take a scent or two (one in particular that seems to be missing is one called Herbal Essence). The company is unusually transparent about how they create their incense with an informative description on their site, although I’d add that like many Indian masala companies, there are some sticks closer to pure charcoals and some that are more in the masala style.

Primo, however, appear to not work in the wet masala or durbar style, making a comparison to a company like Pure Incense somewhat relevant. In quality I’d rank them close to that company’s Absolute range or perhaps just under it in some cases. One comparison is that Primo also uses two different lines with some scents that cross over to both. They have an Original line which appears to be just under their Extra Special Connoisseur (ESC) line in quality, although both don’t tend to vary much from each other in price, in most cases Primo is fairly inexpensive. This particular write up covers perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 of the line incenses and at least two more installments are forthcoming.

In both the Original and ESC lines, Primo’s Amber is the classic pink colored masala that most will be familiar with from companies like Triloka, Mystic Temple, Incense from India and Blue Pearl. In all incense cases Primo do, however, have their own distinctive tilt to the style which becomes more apparent on trying their incenses. In the case of both ambers, they’re missing the better sweeter qualities of Triloka’s version, although those who prefer drier ambers might prefer either Primo for that very reason. The Original is slightly more dry and less concentrated than the ESC version, but the differences are really barely more than a hair. Ambers of this sort are rarely unpleasant in any way and even the differences from company to company aren’t severe, but if I was new to the style, I’d probably go with the Triloka or Mystic Temple (Amber Essence if my memory serves me right and recipes haven’t changed) as a starter.

However when it comes to comparing another common masala scent, Primo’s Cedar, I think Primo probably marginally win the stakes on this one even if this same scent can be found in all the above mentioned companies lines. This is really an excellent and perfectly balanced cedar and compared to the other lines, by a hair, the actual qualities of the wood are a bit more pronounced in this one and the typical vanilla and cocoa side scents a bit more submerged than they are in, say, the Triloka version. Perhaps the reason this one stands out is there’s a lot of strength to the oils or perfumes here making the cedar scent stand out in a more evergreen or crystalline sort of fashion. I’ve always liked this type of masala in general and would recommend this version as a starter (although I say this with Pure Incense Absolute samples still on the drawing board so I could change my mind).

Primo’s Champa (this one also used to be called Champa Flower) is largely charcoal based and could be compared to Triloka’s Lotus Champa to some extent in that the aroma almost implies part of its creation comes from jasmine oil and there’s a sense of vanilla that probably comes from part of the  base. I don’t generally think charcoal champas work as the magnolia-like scent of the champa flower often seems to have to fight through the as-strong charcoal and vanilla base and thus seems adulterated in the end. And like many incenses with this constituency, it starts out fairly pleasant but wears on you by the end of the stick.

I don’t think I have a particular favorite Indian Frankincense masala, most of them are so close from company to company that it’s tough to make a call, and certainly Primo’s is a good version. The criticism as always on this type of stick is that in the end it doesn’t transmit the scent of frankincense resin down in any sort of purity, with subscents of sandalwood, cedarwood, vanilla and something sugary sweet coming through in just as much strength. That’s not to say it’s not a beautiful stick, like with the Cedarwood I’ve always found the masala to be quite nice, it’s just that frankincense is mixed in almost like an equal and it tends to show up as a more perfumed equivalent than the better resiny citrus notes that show up in good resin or even some Japanese sticks.

The next two incenses vary quite a bit in their Original and ESC versions and are definitely distinctly different incenses. The Original Jasmine is a light green-colored masala while the ESC version is a charcoal and very similar to other companies’ charcoal jasmines, even down to the same sparkly fixative. The jasmine perfume in the Original is particularly sublimated to the woods and bases creating a rather dull, slightly sour and indistinct incense. The ESC will likely be very familiar to jasmine lovers and it’s quite a well done charcoal jasmine with the oil at a strength to be dominant to the base (undoubtedly fading with age). It does have some similarities to the previously mentioned Champa, but is far more successful. Of course this makes it virtually identical to, say, the Triloka jasmine or any other you might run across created by different companies.

As to the two different musks, in this case the Original is just called Musk while the ESC is called Nepal Musk. These too are very different incenses, however they’re actually successful in both cases. In fact, the Original is quite a surpise, not necessarily because it succeeds as a musk per se, but because it turns out to be a very nice and somewhat nostalgic incense (for me it brings up slight memories of the masalas of my youth, scents I rarely seem to come across these days). It’s an evergreen sort of color and even sidescent and dry in a very pleasant way with only the slightest hint of a musk perfume. It’s not tremendously deep, but manages to strike quite a chord with me. The Nepal Musk, on the other hand, is a very different but yet analagous masala to that found in the Pure Incense line. It’s not actually comparable to either Absolute or Connoissuer in that line, but it still uses a similar base with a potent musk perfume on top, just one very different and not nearly as deluxe or fabulous as Pure Incense’s.  But had you not tried those, the comparison wouldn’t create as much of a negative association as this too is quite a nice incense. Perhaps if one was to marry the earthier, clay-like aspects of the general patchouli masala style to a Pure Incense stick you might come up with something like this, although like lesser patchouli’s there’s a slight bitterness and legume/pea pod like snappiness to it that takes it down a hair. But ultimately if one likes herbal musks, green incenses or patchouli it’s probably worth a try in a sampler.

Many more Primos coming up in the near future. The attempt as in this write up will be to tackle every scent, comparing two line versions when they exist. In most cases the existence of Primo as a standard Indian masala/charcoal company will make comparisons to other company’s incenses somewhat necessary so it wouldn’t hurt to check back through the archives for articles on Triloka, Pure Incense, Mystic Temple, Incense from India and others if one is shopping for certain standard styles, something I’d indeed recommend as in these cases the tried and true really are worth checking out.