Fearless and plenteous is how she approached her perfume creation of ca. 1982: Incense. Norma Kamali in essence, created the quintessential incense fragrance against which all others might be measured... hers is Yggdrasil; the World Tree around which all others revolve. I can't think of any other incense scent - be it old or new - that wouldn't be drawn into its orbit like a bug to a mosquito light, and dispatched with a satisfying little bzzzt! But to make intelligible why would take some explaining, as anyone who has ever lifted a blotter or wrist perfumed with Norma's creation to their nose, can attest. Simply stated, it is just big.
Bigger than anything your mind can conjure.
Lets take a time out for a moment to define 'incense', as according to how it is represented in perfume. To my mind, there are two basic styles... those that are smoky and/or ashen, ie: incense being burned; and those that are resinous and 'sappy', ie: those redolent of both the raw tree sap and petrified 'tears'. Each of these two styles have been re-rendered time and again by perfumers the world over, but Norma Kamali's creation is perhaps the purest. All told, it feels closer to the latter. Composed of bountiful labdanum, frankincense, myrrh and copal, Incense is a perfumed cornucopia of rich, ambery resins. From the bottle, it is simply titanic... a profusion of odours rush to the back of the nose and not all of them read on the receptors as they do on paper. For beginners, my earliest perception is one of dark fruits steeped in alcohol... those dried wrinkly raisins and fragrant peels reconstituted with a dark rum or a dry woody whiskey. Fortified dessert wines from South-West Australia, crushed leaves of tarragon, and an almost dough-like facet that feels slightly creamy and glutinous... they are all in there and they register well before a mountainous wave of labdanum washes over you.
A few years ago I blogged about Labdanum - a sticky resin harvested from shrubs of the Cistus variety - and it is indeed a major protagonist here. It's deeply balsamic quality floods this perfume with a rich ambery facet... one that carries with it subtle nuances of sun-soaked pollen and leaves. It serves as the monolithic backbone to this scent, to which yellow-brown kernels of myrrh, copal and frankincense affix themselves... each one of them redolent not only of the hardened sap, but also the unique characteristics of the tree they've been plucked from; some pine-like and coniferous, and some slightly woody. This openhanded layering of dense resins has erected what feels much like an impenetrable wall of perfume. This is precisely what makes Incense such a prototype for the genre... it is ceaseless and inexhaustible!
Only recently, a scant handful of 500ml flacons from 1982 were unearthed at NK HQ and offered for sale for $1200 USD a piece. At the time of writing this article, there is reportedly one flacon left... just one. Sadly, it seems this once-brilliant shining star is now on the verge of collapse. And perhaps truer still to cosmic form, the light from this supernova will reach our eyes long after it has gone... alas, with that light may come the unsettling cognizance that we have lost one of the most important perfumes of our time.
Smell it while you can.