Intentional Inhalations: Why Natural, Handmade Incense Stands Apart
January 27, 2023
Written by JEFF GREENWALD
Incense has been around for millennia, and is relatively simple to make. It can be purchased at any gift shop for a few dollars, so why spend more for the handmade, whole-plant version? Mike Paré, one of very few traditional incense makers in the U.S., explains to our author why his craft still matters.
My personal history with incense began when I was 11. I lived near an import store on Long Island, and became infatuated with the mysterious scents nestled inside the red-and-blue boxes of Rani brand cone incense. This passion reached its apex in 1968, when I heard sitar maestro Ravi Shankar play live at the Westbury Music Fair. After the show, I snuck up to the stage to recover what was left of the intoxicating stick incense he’d burned during the concert. As I was picking still-smoldering stubs out of the incense bowl, Ravi Shankar himself appeared behind me. “What are you doing, young man?” After I stuttered my explanation, he told me to wait, and went backstage—returning with five sticks of hand-rolled incense as a gift.
For Zouz Incense founder Mike Paré, the fascination grew more gradually. Born in 1969, the child of teenage parents, Paré studied art and printmaking. He became obsessed with the cultural touchstones of the 1960s, and tried his hand producing T-shirts and posters. “I would make work about specific subculture events and people,” he recalls, “like the Altamont Rock Concert, and Rajneesh. And I loved doing the research.”
In 2016, Paré began researching and crafting another icon of ‘60s counterculture: incense. It was a revelation. “The incense I made did so well; it spoke for itself and was successful. People actually wanted it. So all the energy, all the intellectual work and research I’d put into my studio art, went into incense.”
The history of incense is ancient, going back to Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations at least 6,000 years ago. But its three primary uses have remained the same through the ages: ritual (which includes intoxication), ceremonial cleansing or purifying (aka “smudging”), and medicine. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, to our modern minds, that smoke is something that would heal you,” says Paré, “but it’s true. Inhalation is actually a great delivery system for some medicines. Yerba santa, for example, a California herb we use, opens your bronchial passages when inhaled. The medicine goes right where it needs to go. The same is true of many of the pine-based scents—like juniper, white sage, and frankincense.”
Today good incense is “an inexpensive luxury” says Vicki Hinz, the owner of Incense Sampler Works in Salt Lake City, Utah. One of the largest and oldest distributors of quality incense in the U.S., the company, founded in 1968, ships more than a million sticks in a good year. Zouz, in comparison, sold about 20,000 handcrafted incense cones in 2022.
The price of incense varies dramatically as well. While low-quality incense might sell for about 10 cents a stick, a box of eight handmade Zouz incense cones retails for $16. “And there are much more expensive brands on the market,” says Paré, “both natural and artificial.” For example, 35 sticks of Sho-kaku incense, sold by Kohshi in San Francisco’s Japan Center, will set you back $849.95.
As with perfumery, much of Paré’s craft lies in the sourcing and blending of its base materials [for more about perfume-making, see Craftsmanship’s story, “Led by the Nose”]. Historically, Paré explained, the incense trade mirrored the spice trade. The ingredients were transported across great distances, accompanied by fairytale lore.
Cloves, for example, which came from Indonesia, were rumored to be guarded by tigers…”
“Cloves, for example, which came from Indonesia, were rumored to be guarded by tigers. This was totally false, but kept the price of cloves high.” There was an aura of mystery around where the ingredients came from, and how they were cultivated and harvested. There was also incense counterfeiting: substituting costly ingredients for cheaper, sometimes toxic ones.
Many of the incense cones and sticks available commercially are suspect. Like processed foods, they’re rife with synthetic ingredients—such as DPG, a solvent which is also used in low-end vape pens—and unethically poached herbs, like white sage. Zouz is among the very few incense makers in the U.S. that sells handmade, whole plant incense, using only the oils present in the plant materials themselves.
“But what makes Zouz unique,” says Paré, “is that I draw from a lot of different cultures and histories to come up with my blends.” Zouz’s “Copalo” incense, for example, combines white copal, red cedar, and Palo Santo. “These plants are all found in the Americas—mostly South America and Mexico. So they go together regionally, in my mind. They make sense together as a blend.”
Of the 10 incense formulations crafted by Zouz, all but one—sandalwood—are blends. Crafting their recipes is high art. “Sun Smoke” marries star anise, cinnamon, and clove; “High Desert’ brings together lavender and white sage. And the lavender used in “Sunol”—a blend inspired by Paré’s childhood hikes in California’s Sunol Regional Wilderness—is cultivated near the park itself.
The biggest challenge for Paré is one that has bedeviled incense makers for six millennia: sourcing pure, high-quality ingredients. A few—like incense-grade cedar powder (from China), and frankincense and myrrh (both from Oman) are relatively straightforward. Others, like sandalwood, are trickier. Most of the world’s sandalwood is cultivated in India, where it’s tightly controlled and regulated by the state. “As a result,” observes Paré, “there’s a lot of poaching of sandalwood trees. And if it comes in a powdered form, it’s likely to be adulterated. So when you buy sandalwood on the open market, you don’t necessarily know where it came from, or what might be in it.”
It’s been an adventure to find reputable sources of sandalwood,” Paré says.
“It’s been an adventure to find reputable sources of sandalwood,” Paré says. “But what’s new, in the twenty-first century, is that there are now sandalwood cultivators in Australia. These companies have been investing in plantations of sandalwood that is traceable, lab-tested, graded, and sold on the open market. It’s much more expensive, but it’s also accountable and sustainable.”
White sage is another example of how complicated the sourcing of ingredients can be. The fragrant herb grows wild throughout the American West and is sacred to many Indigenous cultures. As a result, the collection of “wildcrafted” sage has led to overharvesting on public and private lands. “It’s a huge problem,” says Paré. “So I get my white sage from an herb dealer in Oregon. They deal only in organic, sustainably cultivated plants. But it costs twice as much as wildcrafted, because there are so few cultivators of white sage today in the U.S.”
The most interesting material Paré sources may be labdanum, also known as rock rose: a very sappy, sticky bush, native to the Mediterranean, that provides the basis for the fragrance called “Amber.”
“Traditionally,” Paré recounts, “it was gathered by goats. They would be herded through the rock rose bushes, and get the sappy goo stuck on their hair. Then the shepherds would come with these special combs and comb the goo out of the goats’ hair.”
All Zouz incense is made and shaped by hand, and Zouz offers online classes in rolling your own cones (materials are provided). Paré sent me one of their incense-making kits for “Moon Mix,” a blend of sandalwood, myrrh, and orris (i.e., iris) root. Included were the dry incense mix, binder (makko powder, a tree bark), a pipette, and an instruction booklet. I supplied a mixing bowl, water, and cutting board.
It was a simple, rewarding process, straightforward even for a klutz like myself. About 25 drops of water are added to the mix, which is then “wedged”—squeezed and kneaded—until it reaches the consistency of Play Doh. Once the mix is prepared, blueberry-sized balls are pinched off and rolled between the palms. The classic shapes are sticks and cones, which are arrayed on the cutting board to dry. “The incense can be any shape,” Paré instructs, “but it won’t burn properly if it’s thicker than the diameter of a pencil.”
For me, one kit made 20 cones and sticks; it took about 30 peaceful, fragrant minutes. Paré makes as many as 180 at a time. “For me, it’s like any craft,” he says. “Even drawing. It involves body memory, muscle memory. The act of rolling incense allows me to work with my hands in a way that’s both meditative and enjoyable.”
By the next morning my cones were dry, and surprisingly resilient. I cued up Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Bhimpalasi” and lit my first handcrafted incense cone. It had only taken me 50 years.