August 27, 2020

Japanese Incense 101: Pungent Aromatics

Japanese incense is known for its masterful blending of fragrant materials, honed into an art form over centuries of practice. However, some fragrant materials are a bit more fragrant than others! Although two of the three raw materials below are no longer used due to protections, they still are well known for their fragrant contributions to the legacy of Japanese incense.

龍涎香 - Ambergris

Prized for thousands of years for its unique fragrance, Ambergris is a rare and pungent material produced in the bowels of sperm whales. A combination of the French words amber and gris (gray amber), Ambergris has been burned as incense throughout the middle east and Egypt, and also used as a medicinal ingredient for all manner of ailments from heart conditions to the common cold. One common belief in many cultures was that Ambergris was a potent aphrodisiac, which modern science's discovery of Ambergris' pheromone releasing properties may support. In fact, Ambergris was so sought after during the Spice Wars, that the Portuguese took the Maldive islands by force in the 16th century to gain control of the island nation's seemingly rich Ambergris supply.

During the height of the American whaling industry, Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick featured a potent description of Ambergris harvested from a dead whale:

“Dropping his spade, he thrust both hands in, and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soap, or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savory withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash color. And this, good friends, is ambergris, worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist.

Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!"

The eye-popping prices and the desire of "fine ladies and gentlemen" for the fragrance of Ambergris has changed little since Melville's time. Ambergris has been rumored to once form the basis of many fragrances by luxury brands such as Chanel, Gucci, and Givenchy.

Luxury is associated with Ambergris for a good reason: only one in one hundred sperm whales produce it making it quite rare and valuable. There are documented examples of high quality beach collected Ambergris fetching up to $15,000 a kilogram. Larger intact pieces which are even more highly valued have been sold for $70,000 to over one million dollars. The stuff of fine ladies and gentlemen indeed!

For centuries, the source of Ambergris was unknown. Once thought to be the remains of dragon spittle or the byproducts of mythological creatures, more recently Ambergris was thought to be whale vomit. But thanks to marine research, we now know that Ambergris is formed in the in stomach, intestines, and bowels of sperm whales and expelled as part of a fecal mass.

Why sperm whales produce Ambergris is still a matter of debate. The leading theory is that it is secreted in response to the sharp beaks of squids that are an important part of the sperm whale's diet. It is believed that Ambergris is produced to protect the whale's digestive tract as well as to bind the beaks together so they can be expelled in fecal masses. Squid beaks are commonly found in Ambergris, supporting this theory.

The fact that Ambergris is expelled in whale feces certainly paints a pungent aromatic picture. But "raw" Ambergris is considered the lowest grade and the least valuable. The fact that it is quite viscous, black, and stinks like manure or moldy cheese probably has something to do with this.

The whale may produce the raw material, but it is the sea that refines it into something sweet, uniquely aromatic, and highly sought after. The oily nature of "fresh" Ambergris allows it to float in water. Over time, the action of the waves, the salt water, and the sun oxidize the raw Ambergris, turning into silvery-white chalky clay-like balls that are sweetly aromatic. Generally, the greater the oxidation, the lighter the color, and the higher the grade of Ambergris.

The fragrance of oxidized Ambergris is just as mysterious as its origins. A complex fragrance that is difficult to describe, no two people will experience the scent the same way. Despite beginning as part of whale feces, aged Ambergris has a sweet pleasant fragrance, the fecal or animalic overtones having been processes out by the sun and the sea. Ambergris is often described as sweet, earthy, mossy, with hints of tobacco or leather, with a mysterious a musk-like sea scent that is completely exotic and unique.

The fragrance of Ambergris will vary greatly depending upon the level of oxidation. The lowest quality Ambergris is jet black with almost no oxidation - and accordingly is unpleasantly strong smelling of fishy manure. As oxidation increases, Ambergris takes on more of an earthy-brown color and begins to sweeten, losing the more offensive aromatic qualities. The highest quality Ambergris is silvery gray to all white and quite rare. Nearly completely oxidized, this highest quality Ambergris has the most sought after pleasant sweet scent.

Ambergris is soluble in alcohol and most forms of oils, making it easily used in fragrances. Just as with perfume, Ambergris role in incense is often as an amazingly powerful fixative and preservative, extending the life of other fragrant ingredients. Ambergris also has the ability to expand and enhance the fragrant notes of other ingredients, much in the same way spices enhance the flavor of other foods. In this way, Ambergris adds a long lasting and softening quality to an overall fragrance.

Given that Ambergris is increasing rare and costly, many of the various chemical compounds that make up Ambergris fragrance have now been synthesized. Scientists have discovered a gene from Balsam Fir tree that is quite efficient at producing many of the same biological compounds, making the synthesized fragrance less expensive and more sustainable.

Ambergris is rare not only because it is produced by only approximately one in one hundred sperm whales, but because of the hunting of these whales to near extinction. The sperm whale was declared an endangered species in America in 1970 under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969. Significant international hunting continued until the 1980s, further decimating sperm whale populations globally.  As a result, in 1985 the International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium on commercial whaling of sperm whales essentially ending all sperm whale hunting.

The sale of Ambergris from commercial whaling is now prohibited by law. The only source of Ambergris today is beach harvested, making it a rare, significantly expensive, and an unreliable source for commercial fragrance use.

麝香 - Musk

Used medicinally and as a fragrance for over five thousand years, true musk is one of the most rare and luxurious animal commodity known to exist. Displayed in pouches to ward off evil, Musk was carried into battle by samurai, added to ink by scholars to create fragrant works of calligraphy, and worn by royalty as an aphrodisiac. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Musk is believed to increase circulation, create alertness, and relieve pain.

Chinese lore contends that Musk was discovered as a father and son hunted deer. During the hunt, the son was injured and rendered motionless. The father noted an intoxicating scent upon the breeze, and after encouraging his son to inhale it deeply, the son began to recover. The source of the reviving fragrance was traced to a deer's egg-sized fur sack that resembled a scrotum. The hunter took the sack home and with it healed his son, then went on to treat the sick and the poor in his village with the miraculous and mysterious fragrance.

The origin of the word "Musk" comes from the ancient Indian "muskah" which means testicle, referring to the assumed source of this fragrant material. Although "musk" today generally refers to a wide range of animalic fragrances derived from plants materials or animal secretions (or more often a synthetic approximation of them), Musk originally was the name given to the secretions from a glad of the Musk deer.

Musk deer are in fact not actually deer, but seven distinct species of Moschus of the Moshidae family. Standing only twenty inches tall and weighing in at a scant twenty-five to thirty pounds, Musk deer live primarily nocturnally in the mountainous alpine regions of southern Asia, primarily in the Himalayas. They differ from true deer in several anatomical ways such producing tusk-like canine teeth instead of antlers, and most distinctly, the male's musk gland. Only mature male Musk deer produce musk which is stored in a hairy sack about the size of a golf ball. Although resembling a testicle, the gland is located directly in front of the penis and used to secrete a pheromone to attract a mate.

Raw musk is quite unpleasant and strong smelling and requires processing before it becomes usable. Resembling a sepia colored paste, once dried the contents of the musk gland are referred to as "musk grain" due to the black and granular consistency of the dried musk. The musk grain is then powdered and soaked in grain alcohol for several month to several years.

At this point, Musk takes on a extraordinary and unique fragrance that is surprisingly light, powdery, and sensual. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Musk is not heavy or dark, but sweet, complex, and earthy. Often described as the fragrance of "baby skin," even in small quantities true Musk possesses an extremely powerful aromatic presence that is at the same time subtly light, completely contradictory to its dark and overbearing reputation.

As a fragrance, Musk is treasured for both its fragrance and superb ability as a fixative. Used to provide depth and a warm base note, Musk is believed to provide relaxing qualities. As a fixative, Musk enhances other aromatics into long sustaining fragrances.

Today, genuine Musk from Musk deer is rarely used, and sale of "wild" musk is illegal. Due to hunting and poaching, Musk deer were driven to the brink of extinction, with its populations nearly vanishing from its original habitat across the Himalayan range. Musk deer are now listed as an endangered species and conservation of the species is strictly controlled under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

Natural musk was used as a fragrance extensively in the 19th century. However, due to astronomical price of natural musk, a synthetic alternative was sought after well before concerns for the preservation of the Musk deer began. Today, nearly all musk fragrance used is collection of synthetic musk, known as "white musk."

Given the exotic and unique fragrance profile of natural Musk and emphasis on natural ingredients used in Japanese incense, many feel that synthetic musk is not well suited to incense use, even though some manufacturers do use synthetics. Others substitute nature alternatives with similar fragrance profiles such as Spikenard.

But recent efforts in China and Russia to produce Musk sustainably through farming Musk deer have proven promising. Recent studies have concluded that Musk deer were able to be farmed sustainably through proper management and breeding of the animals. Labeled as "musk from breeding deer" by the Chinese government, this form of natural musk is available for legal trade.

With over sixty years of farming Musk deer, the Chinese have mastered the craft of extracting this "soft gold" without harming the deer. With prices of nearly $60 a gram, over 20,000 animals are now being farmed for their musk, with each mature male Musk deer capable of producing up to 15 grams of musk sustainably each year. 

甲香 Kaikou - Onycha

Like Ambergris and Musk, Onycha has been used as an incense ingredient for over a millennia. But unlike the previous two, only Onycha is still widely in use today. Known as "shell fragrance" in both Japanese and Chinese incense, Onycha has been used throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, India, and Tibet as both incense and perfume. It is believed that during Japan's Heian period nearly one thousand years ago Onycha powder comprised up to one-quarter of the ingredients used in nerikoh (kneaded) incense enjoyed by royal courtiers of the time.

Onycha is mentioned in the Hebrew Torah as one of four ingredients Moses was instructed to use to make incense for sacred use in the Temple of Solomon (Exodus 30:34) :

Take fragrant spices – gum resin, onycha and galbanum – and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts.

As shellfish is not kosher, there is some controversy over comparison between Onchya of Moses' day and that used today. However there is clear evidence that Onycha in the Torah was indeed similar in origin to the shell fragrance used today.

Onycha is the operculum of various mollusk species of sea snail of the gastropod class (external shell). In ancient Greek, Onycha represents the word for "finger nail" or "claw" as the operculum looks like fingernails when dried. Essentially, the operculum can be thought of as a "door" or "lid" that the mollusk uses to close its shell opening when retreating into its shell to protect itself from predators or prevent drying out.

Operculum are protein extruded much like a fingernail at the "foot" of the sea snail, and is removed from the fleshy part of the mollusk during processing. Circular to oval in shape, the size and shape vary depending upon the species and type of shell opening produced. As an incense ingredient, many countries use operculum from many different species located in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa. It is believed that Onycha used in Japanese incense is of South African origin.

If you've ever hunted for shells on a beach and forgot a fresh find in you car, you know first hand the pungent smell of shellfish. So prior to being used as an incense ingredient Onycha is heavily processed. After cleaning, they are soaked in a mixture of vinegar and water or grain alcohol, then slowly baked to remove the "fishy" scent. Once they are completely dried, they are ground into powder for use as an incense ingredient.

As a fragrance, high quality Onycha has a animalic leathery musk-like fragrance, with slight powdery, salty, medicinal overtones. Thought to be purifying, Onycha is prized for its fixative effects upon other fragrant materials, unifying and extending their fragrance and prolonging shelf-life on the incense it is used in.


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