Friday, 7 March 2014

Norma Kamali Incense: A Star on the Brink of Collapse

American designer Norma Kamali flung open the doors of her first Manhattan boutique in the late 60's and has helped define the course of American fashion ever since. Known for producing that red bikini worn by Farrah Fawcett in her 1970's Charlie's Angels promos, and for popularising the use of shoulder pads in womenswear in the 80s, Norma Kamali has always done everything with an bold sweeping gesture.

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!

True to form, it is to the disappointment of the author and a great number of faithful perfumisti to learn that Incense is no longer in production. Several years ago, it was announced that a packaging redesign would transpire before Incense and a selection of other Norma Kamali creations would be restocked. But this has since been rebuked in perfume circles as heresy.

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.

8 comments:

Henrique/Rick said...

I was able to get some mls of one of those 500ml bottles that were purchased and splitted. It's indeed the queen of incenses, a very beautiful and thick incense. I think that Black Cashmere has something in common with it, altough it's no equal. Too bad it was discontinued, altough i think that my decant will last, it seems a very strong scent.

Suzanne said...

This perfume does indeed sound amazing. I wonder, have you ever tried April Aromatics Calling All Angels? It's one of the thickest yet most sophisticated of incense fragrances I've ever tried. I've not smelled the Norma Kamali, but your description of it is similar to the way Calling All Angels registers with me.

Francesca Belanger said...

A most eloquent and apt review. I am delighted to have quite a nice amount of this. Love it to bits.

fmc said...

what is NK HQ..is it in UK?

Blog Author said...

NK HQ = Norma Kamali Headquarters.
See normakamali.com

Cytherian said...

Given the praise this fragrance has garnered, you'd think that either the owning interests of Norma Kamali would revive it... or they consider it too much of a cost risk. It sure would be great if some enterprising perfumer might secure a sample and seek to replicate it. :-)

Anonymous said...

i wore norma kamali's both perfume and incense for twenty years and was devastated when she stopped making it. It was my signature scent and nothing has the staying power these two scents combined did. It is a shame it is no longer in production. Bring it back Norma, please!!!!!

Lucy said...

I think Roja Dove aims to claim this territory but I find so far that what he has done has a level of sweetness that this austere and elegant perfume does well without. I can imagine this was a hard sell, for all its virtue. Beautiful piece on this, I have it on today, from my decant. Indeed its power is such that I think it will last me the rest of my lifetime. One spray is a force field and source of warmth that more than holds its own against this grey cold day.