Mark Behnke wrote a very nice review of Incense Pure and a description of his experience as he tested the main iterations of the scent for me over the months that I worked on it. Thanks so much Mark, both for the review and for hanging in with me through a long testing process. I went through a lot of mods with this scent and only mailed a small fraction of those out to testers, but even with that approach I probably sent out too many and pestered a few people too much, lol.
People often wonder how the testing and creation process works, and several people have suggested in the past that I try to do a post that summarizes some of the changes I made as a scent went along. For me, the ideas and inspirations are endless and only bound by the amount of time I have to work on them and by my ability to bring the ideas to life, which slowly improves as the years go by. Ideas for scents come easily and the bulk of the formula often comes together fairly quickly, but the final details can take a long time. Even small changes of less than 1-3% in a formula can have profound effects.
When I first started to work on Incense Pure, I was trying to decide whether to do a literal translation of the old Encens Tranquille, and if not I needed to decide just how far afield to go. I soon realized that I wanted to change it significantly to add the new cistus fraction and to smooth it, but I hoped to keep the main notes and theme similar to the old ET (non-floral incense with lots of naturals and prominent sandalwood, frankincense, and labdanum).
The early mods: I started by doing a lot of experimenting and decided to change the sandalwood accord from the one I had made for ET and to soften the sandalwood note a bit. I also decreased the oakmoss (per regulations) and added cistus, angelica root, orris, and elemi. I kept working until I had the first two mods, 4 and 4b, the only difference being that 4b had elemi. As I went along from there, I continued to test later mods both with and without elemi and found that the elemi helped most versions quite a bit. It has an incensy quality to its drydown that works well with frankincense. It also has a slight lemon/citric facet, some spicy aspects, and some floral facets. It seemed to help smooth the overall composition, something that Mark noticed too. In this early phase I sent out one mod to quite a few testers for feedback, and although that was a popular mod, I discovered that the formula had a bit too much musk for some people (a few who were more sensitive to it wanted it lower to make the incense even stronger, and a few needed it lower because of anosmia problems). I wanted to reduce the musk but find an alternate way to smooth the incense. The more I thought about it the more I liked the idea of reducing musk because I wanted to keep the end result as natural as possible and I wanted to avoid musk anosmia issues.
The intermediate mods: In order to reduce musk, I needed to increase the vanilla a bit, but I didn’t want to add more vanillin. I ended up removing all the vanillin and increasing the vanilla absolute. The absolute I used is on the woodsier side as vanilla goes (not a boozy one) so I liked it with the incense. I also like how it is not as powdery as vanillin. I tried some other experiments at this stage too by adding other blenders/softeners to take the place of musk, but none seemed to preserve the natural incense feeling that I wanted. Although people think of frankincense as a base note, they are often surprised to see how easily it can be overwhelmed by other notes in the heart. By the end of this middle testing phase I had a balance of cistus, labdanum, musk, and vanilla that I liked, and the angelica root helped to carry a slight musky/spicy note to the base when the synthetic musk was reduced.
The final mods: I sent out one mod with my changes to a few people, and a couple of them, including Mark, said it seemed a bit dry. I was worried about increasing vanilla but gave it a try and was surprised that it seemed richer and less dry but not too sweet. Just to be sure I tried some alternate methods of making it less dry, but none of those seemed as good. I sent the final adjustment out to some testers and had a high approval rating, so that was the mod I picked. It’s hard to balance things to please everyone (there are so many differences in people’s preferences and chemistry that a single solution can’t be an exact fit for all), but I try to arrive at a balance that best fits a wide group of people. I don’t believe there is one correct answer for a blend, but rather a continuum with many possible paths that have good ending points.
The testers: Mark and two other testers followed mods of the scent from its earliest stages until the end, though Mark and one other felt the closest to it. Mark felt like a godfather, but there was a godmother too, lol. She is an aromatherapist who loves naturals and enjoyed this scent from the start because she is a frankincense fan. I felt she shared my desire to keep the scent natural and she, too, was a big help in the testing process. Both she and Mark have a way of very quickly cutting to the heart of the issue and evaluating key differences between mods. I appreciated their feedback very much. We all three agreed pretty much unanimously as we went through the main mods (I didn’t send them all the versions I did but sent the main choices I came up with as I worked), and that teamwork helped give me confidence that I was moving down a good path. Although it was teamwork from my vantage point, I don’t reveal tester names or reviews with each other because I want everyone involved to feel like they can give me their honest opinion without worrying about their comments being shared. I do generalize and tell testers the overall consensus.
I don’t have anyone here who can test for me, so it’s important for me to send out some samples to see how the scents do for others. Of course tastes will vary, but all feedback helps. I like to have a couple people follow the scent along the whole way and then at the end I like to send it out to more people to make sure it seems done. Sometimes I also send a mod out to more people in the middle stages, as I did here, to gauge how things are going. One other person tested this at its early, mid, and final phases, a fragrance friend who has tested a lot of scents for me in the past. She’s a busy mother of three but I value her input whenever we touch base.
That description of the process may be overkill for some (hope not too many eyes have glazed over), but it may be of interest to some people to hear how scents come along. They all take different routes and not many scents have had as involved a testing process as Incense Pure. Winter Woods was very fast and I only sent out a couple mods on that (partly because I’d already worked on that theme before with the Firesides and it was meant to be a softer take on the theme). Velvet Rose was also fast and easy without a lot of testing. Tabac took a long time and many mods. Bouquet Blanc is taking a long time and is what I should get back to now…
Many thanks to all those who tested various stages of the incense, and especially to Mark and my aromatherapist friend who followed it along the whole way. It’s fun to share the creation process with people — this is for the most part a solitary process I go through while testing and modifying blends, so it is very nice to have some people join me. It’s great when a few people who follow the scent feel excited by the creation process and by the materials and derive pleasure from seeing the end result unfold. That’s what makes this whole process addictive and keeps me at it, and I’ve been lucky to be able to share that with some really special people. 🙂