Back in March 2022 the Olfactive Studio reporting team visited Oman for ten days, hoping to uncover the mystery behind a delicate ingredient: Frankincense, or as said in Arabic (Oman’s spoken language) “Luban” — from which derives the latin word “Olibanum”, and “Oliban” in French.
As introduced in our previous article from February, Oman is the birthplace of the Boswellia sacra species, the same Incense the Christ supposedly received on his birthday — a noble gift from the three magi.
We wanted to know more about Luban, so we visited a local distiller in Muscat, the capital of Oman, as well as a Frankincense researcher in Salalah, in the southern Dhofar region, to find some answers about this mysterious raw material and its market…
Follow us into the land of Frankincense and in the Dhofari desert, and travel through time to the early days of Luban!
THREE COUNTRIES TWO FRANKINCENSES
Back when our natural ingredient expert was still a perfumery student, she composed fragrances in the lab, where Frankincense was most certainly among her numerous natural raw materials – as a heart and/or base note.
The Olibanum she worked with was mostly sourced (sourcing is the name of the purchasing/procurement department in the industry) in Somalia or Yemen – their countries of origin – as indicated on the raw materials’ bottle.
Omani Frankincense was way more exceptional to come across, and “Frankincense Somalia” was by far the most common. This led her, and our team, to investigate Oman’s – the source of all Boswellias – mythical Frankincense!
For the love of Oman and its fragrant treasure, we unveiled in this article, some of the answers we found during our journey.
SACRA VS CARTERI
We told you about the different species of Boswellia in our previous article on Frankincense, now – as you probably already got a hint – we’re zooming on the Arabian peninsula.
For a long time, the Boswellia carterii and Boswellia sacra species were believed – based on a few reports and their close-by geographical distribution – to be the same species of Frankincense tree. It was only recently (around 2012) that they were recognized – based on their organoleptic, botanical, olfactive properties, along with their topographical dispersion and physical/chemical analysis – as two different and unique species. Boswellia sacra corresponds to the trees from Oman and Yemen, whereas Boswellia carterii refers to Somalian Frankincense trees.
Before we tell you the tales of Oman’s resinous pride – as we like to call it – let’s introduce you four of our fragrances containing this mystical ingredient!
FRANKINCENSE IN OLFACTIVE STUDIO’S FRAGRANCES
Woody Mood has a citrusy and spicy start, with the tangy freshness of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia). Very spicy and aromatic, we can sense the peppery side of Ginger (Zingiber officinale), and the fruity side of Saffron (Crocus sativus). The Clary Sage’s (Salvia sclarea) lavender notes are responsible for the aromatic facet of the top of the perfume. The top notes of Woody Mood quickly fade, leaving room for a heart full of mellowness.
In its heart, the fragrance is very woody! Incense (Boswellia carteri) is clearly present with its woody-resinous facet, the Sequoia accord evokes the forests of these huge conifers, which grow in Northern California, with a woody-resinous scent (close to cypress) offering earthy and aromatic notes. It goes without a say that the Black Tea (Camellia sinensis) provides the tea aspect, enhanced by the earl grey facet of Bergamot at the top. The Nard Jatamansi accord brings to the heart an herbaceous-aromatic and earthy note (Nardostachys jatamansi’s rhizomes are rarely distilled to obtain the essential oil).
The combination of all these raw materials creates some volume, and we quickly notice the base, as the notes present in the fragrance are mainly base notes. In the latter we perceive the dusty-earthy side of Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), as well as Styrax (Liquidambar orientalis). This balsamic raw material has cinnamic and floral facets, participating in the opulent floral side that we sense from the heart. Note that Styrax is used in leathery notes for its facet of the same name, thus it embellishes the Leather accord which recalls a beautifully smooth leather.
Woody Mood is a very balmy fragrance (in reference to balms such as Styrax), this facet developing over time due to the low volatility of balsamic raw materials. The association of the floral heart and the balmy-leathery base gives a vintage effect, intensified by the animalistic aspect of Styrax and the Leather accord. The Cocoa Powder accord adds to the dusty effect of Patchouli, and the powdery facet of Styrax evokes the texture of powder itself.
At once citrus-woody-balmy-leathery, Woody Mood's construction is reminiscent of oriental fragrances, and its scent provides a comforting sensation.
The perfume Ombre Indigo has a subtle top because it is mainly composed of heart and base notes. Nevertheless, we perceive a discreet sour-citrus side given by the Petitgrain Bigarade (Citrus aurantium) with its aromatic facet reminiscent of lavender (given by their common component linalyl acetate).
This fragrant composition is immediately sensed as spicy and incense-like, characterized by strong base notes. The predominant facets, which mark the perfume since its first notes are the woody, amber, and leathery facets. However, we do not escape the floral-opulent side given by the Tuberose Absolute (Polianthes tuberosa), a heady Tuberose, typical of white flowers, slightly honeyed, and with its singular side reminiscent of vegetables. The Tuberose goes perfectly with the fruity facet of the Plum accord through its sweet honey facet, as well as with the Leather accord it embellishes.
The spicy Saffron (Crocus sativus) matches the Plum accord through its fruity side, which has a liqueur-like facet reminiscent of fruit liqueurs. The latter accord recalls the “prunol” base, both fruity, lactonic and balmy, which gives complexity to Ombre Indigo (famous base used at the beginning of the 1900's for plum notes).
Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanoide) is distinguishable by its smoky side that accompanies its woody-mossy main facet with earthy notes. Papyrus (Cyperus scariosus), from which the fragrant rhizome is extracted (like Vetiver) brings a spicy facet to the base of the fragrance, while matching Vetiver by their common earthy and smoky facets. The Leather accord has a very pronounced animalistic facet underlining the base dominated by Incense.
Incense (Boswellia carteri), the star of the fragrance is very resinous, woody, and omnipresent because it is sensed from the top! It is also bewitching by its so pronounced smoky facet, underlined by the smoky Vetiver and Papyrus. The mystical effect given by Incense transports us to an "old church".
Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis) appears through its gourmand facet with caramel notes. Its ambery side goes hand in hand with the amber notes of the fragrance. Together with Musks, it gives depth and volume to this powerful fragrance. The result is a woody-floral-incense scent with a truly striking smoky and ambery aspect!
Ombre Indigo is a fragrance combining the opulence of a flower of character, Tuberose, with a sweet Plum accord, and a bewitching Incense whose woody and smoky facets keep fascinating us.
In Autoportrait we discover a reassuring Incense, soothed by raw materials which make the fragrance so addictive. In the perfume's discreet and subtle opening, we can distinguish the zesty facet of Bergamot essence (Citrus bergamia) and the peppery-fresh facet of the Elemi essence (Canarium luzonicum), a spicy raw material whose woody and resinous facets can be sensed already.
The structure of Autoportrait allows the woody-balsamic heart and base to reveal itself very quickly.
The spicy facet persists in the heart of the perfume with the Benzoin Siam (Styrax tonkinensis), which also possesses a spicy-cinnamic aspect. As for the gourmand facet of Benzoin, with its vanilla and caramel accents, it wraps us in a warm and sweet haze. We also perceive the Incense (Boswellia carteri), with its powerful woody facet, it feels resinous and reassuring.
This rich woody aspect of Autoportrait is highlighted in the base of the fragrance by several raw materials. Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) in all its naturalness with its woody-dry side reminds us of pencil lead, the elegant Vetiver brings a refined smoky note and an earthy facet.
The Oakmoss Absolute (Evernia prunastri) with its woody-mossy facet and its earthy aspect accompanies the Cedar and Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanoide) while giving a chypre dimension to the fragrance. As for the Musks, they bring a smooth creamy effect.
Autoportrait is an elegant, deep, truly carnal fragrance with a mesmerizing trail.
There are no words other than "delicious" to describe Chambre Noire! From the top of the perfume comes the peppery Pink Berry (Schinus molle), with its slight zesty edge. An expensive raw material, it blends well with the woody facet of the perfume, which it enhances thanks to its floral-spicy side. The latter ingredient acts as a junction between the head and the heart.
Base perfume (due to its components), Chambre Noire, quickly reveals its heart with the Egyptian Jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum) both floral and animalistic, reminiscent of jasmine tea. Papyrus (Cyperus scariosus), from which the fragrant rhizome is extracted (like Vetiver) brings a spicy facet to the woods of the perfume, while matching them with its earthy facet reminiscent of Vetiver (a woody ingredient). Allied to Jasmine is the Violet accord with its floral-powdery side and its little fruity-strawberry note.
Incense (Boswellia carteri) is clearly sensed, emphasizing the sensual woody character of the fragrance. It is a very balsamic Incense, a facet supported by the Vanilla Absolute (Vanilla planifolia), itself sweet and creamy. Its spicy side matches perfectly with Pink Berry, and Papyrus, which each have characteristic spicy notes. Rounded by Vanilla, the Prune accord is fruity and sweet, and echoes the fruity side of Violet.
In the base we have the Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) and Sandalwood (Santalum album) couple. The yellow flower facet of Sandalwood resonates with Jasmine (white flower) and its lactonic facet with Vanilla and Musks. The woody-earthy Patchouli and its dark chocolate note combines with the sweet facet of Vanilla to awaken our taste buds through gustatory notes! The association of these two woody raw materials to Incense accentuates its woody-resinous power and gives an Oud effect (Aquilaria malaccensis).
The Musks have a creamy facet that matches the milky Sandalwood, as well as a fruity side reminiscent of red fruits, combining with the Prune accord at heart. Vanilla, with its spicy side, joins the head of Pink Berry, and makes the spices persist in the base. The Leather accord offers an opulent and bewitching base, whose animalistic facet matches that of Vanilla and Musks.
With Chambre Noire, we have a woody-balsamic fragrance, providing a real sensation of vanilla warmth. The ensemble has very oriental aspects with vanilla accents and evoking notes of Oud (a raw material with animal-woody-amber-smoky facets).
Let’s start with a quick introduction to Omani Incense, through Oman’s marvelous Incense heritage!
Getting facts checked is certainly one of the most important things when it comes to writing our reports, which is why a not-so-quick visit to the national archeology, Frankincense museums, and archeological sites were mandatory for our team!
We found so much precious information we brought back exclusively to share it with you — it’d be a shame to keep it to ourselves.
Frankincense has always been at the core of the Omani culture and people, long before it became a modern perfumery ingredient – by being extracted into a resinoid then distilled into an essential oil.
In 400 BC, Olibanum was conveyed from Dhofar by sea and land to the rest of the world. At that time no other merchandise equaled the tremendous demand Frankincense encountered – captivating ancient historians and scientists such as Herodutus, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, Strabo and Diodorus (who all mentioned it in their writings).
To cite one of them, Herodotus – in 5 AD – remarks “every year the Babylonians burnt 800 talents of incense for their supreme god Marduk.” – talents being an ancient weight and unit of currency.
ONE TRADE, THREE ANCIENT SITES
Three hundred years later, in 100 BC until 100 AD, an important port was built in Sumhuram (Khawr Rawrī or Khor Rori area) – the biggest pre-islamic settlement in Dhofar – for the Frankincense trade, and more precisely to take control of the latter. Ingeniously constructed, it was protected by stone blocks whose precise position forms the walled fortifications of the port. Arabic inscriptions which describe the founding of the settlement were found on five of these blocks.
The Khawr Rawri site is nowadays characterized by a bar-estuary – when a shallow lagoon or bay is protected from the ocean by a sandbar, delta or island. Back when it served as a major Frankincense harbor it was an open estuary!
The lucrative business of Dhofari Incense traveled to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, East Africa and the powerful Roman Empire.
QUOTE ON QUOTE
Sumhuram is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of The Land of Frankincense. The international organization affirmed “The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah [...] and the affiliated ports of Khawr Rawrī [...] vividly illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries, as one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world.”
“Incense can stand on the quay without being guarded thanks to the power of a god who protects it. Not even a gain of precious resin can be loaded unlawfully. If a grain of incense is loaded the ship cannot sail as it is against the will of God.” This quote on Sumhuram from the first century AD was mentioned in the Greek work “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” – in which the settlement bears the Greek name of Moscha Limen.
Frankincense storage rooms and production facilities were found in the site’s ancient residential area and commercial district during archeological excavations. Artifacts such as limestone Incense burners – from the Iron Age until the 5th century AD – with the typical South Arabic astral motif as part of its decorative elements can be admired.
Excavations revealing two religious areas were conducted, and more Incense burners were found in one of them – The Temple of Sin, one of the most prominent buildings in the city.
These objects are among the most found in Sumhuram! Employed for religious ceremonies as much as within the home, what varied the most about them was their shape – lion legs, pyramidal shape, etc. – size and materials (stone or metal).
Initially called al-Mansura and al-Ahmadiyya, Al Baleed – another port city – was founded in 6 AD. It held a leading role in the sea trade after Sumhuram’s decline in the 3rd century AD.
It was described by famous travelers like Marco Polo in 1290 AD as one of the most magnificent and biggest harbors of the Indian Ocean. Because of its strategic position on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula – overlooking the Indian Ocean – the city quickly gained commercial importance. It is no secret it participated in the promotion of international trade, and concerning our subject of interest, the Frankincense trade!
The product left from Al Baleed all the way to China, passing by Southeast Asian countries, India, and other East African ports. These exchanges are proven by mentions of the city by explorers like Ibn al Mujawir (1220 AD), or leaders such as Zeng He – commander of the Chinese fleet from 1421 to 1431 AD.
On the route to Al Baleed – 180km north of Salalah – is found the oasis and caravan site of Shisr, a critical water halt dominated by an Iron Age fortress. Caravans were composed of hundreds of thousands of men and pack animals, and caravanserais – roadside inns – were established along the main trade routes for the caravaners to rest.
Located 40 kilometers North of Salalah, 1257 ancient Boswellia sacra trees are spread over an area of 5 square kms out of the total 19 sq kms of Wadi Dawkah. This incredible Frankincense reserve is a perfect example of how the species has been naturally thriving in its Dhofari homeland.
Suggestions from Neolithic sites nearby indicate the Incense trade started developing as early as in 6th millennia BC!
ARAB-ASICS OF LUBAN
In the 19th-20th centuries, Incense containers were used to store not only Luban, but also aromatic ingredients. These traditional airtight copper containers called mukkabah were made in the famous ancient city of Nizwa, renown for its talented coppersmiths — among other crafts — who held the secret to creating “tight fitting, fluted lids” precisely elaborated to prevent the essential oils from evaporating.
Not to be confused with mukkabah, “majmar” is the name given to Incense burners – and not just containers – in which hot coals are placed, sprinkled with Frankincense beads in order to release its scented smoke.
We spoke copper, now let’s talk silver! Nizwa’s artisanry is best represented — out of any other material — by silver. Apart from holding a sacred dimension from being the Prophet’s metal (associating it with purity), silverwork has been popular in Oman for centuries for personal adornment articles (weaponry, jewelry, money pouches). Silver incense and cosmetic containers are found among traditional women’s objects.
THE ACTORS OF FRANKINCENSE
To obtain information about the culture, collection, use of Incense in Oman; and its close ties to the Omani nation we had to meet the actors of Incense! Like mentioned above, we had the chance to meet a foreign distiller in Muscat, and an Omani Frankincense distiller and researcher in Salalah, who opened up about this incredible ingredient they’ve worked with for over 20 years.
A Dhofari Frankincense researcher and distiller – to make it simple a specialist – from the Salalah area helped us understand better the tales of this ingredient.
A MILLENIAL KNOW HOW
The country counts around 800K to a million trees, among which the oldest ones are over a hundred years old. They grow in a wild state, in arid deserts called wadi. It’s a hard-to-grow species and it takes 8 to 10 years for a tree to start producing commercially viable Incense.
TAP THE TREE!
In April – as the temperature rises – Frankincense farmers injure the tree – by making an incision on the trunk – then wait two weeks for the resin to exudate (a white sap), and harvest it at that time (after the sap now resin has hardened). The tool used to wound the tree consists in a knife with a wooden handle called manqaf. This first harvest isn’t of the best quality nor quantity and often hard to exploit commercially.
After this first harvest, they injure the tree on the same spot, wait another two weeks, and harvest the resin once again. This second harvest – as opposed to the first one – is exploitable business wise!
By then a month has passed by and the Luban resin has been collected twice. This practice involves 4 to 5 injuries for older, bigger trees which can handle more wounds than their younger smaller peers, which can only take a maximum of 3 injuries.
This activity allows the farmers to make about 200 to 300 OMR – omani rials, the local currency – after a couple months. This equals about 520-780 dollars with today’s exchange rate.
Do you know the average productivity of a fully grown tree throughout the season? No less than 10 kilograms! The end of the harvesting season is named alkashem.
A DHOFARI STORY
Tapping the tree – the exact term used for the injuring/harvesting method – is a remarkable physical job that takes place under the burning wadi (desert in arabic) sun.
Back in the days, Dhofari mountain people lived off Incense, families had their own trees and harvested it. Luban was traditionally burned for its smoke in the whole country, and used to treat diseases. Before 1970, Frankincense was one of the main businesses in Oman.
In the 70’s, the rural exodus took many Dhofari farmers out of their native countryside, who moved to the city to take government jobs.
The previous Sultan Al Qaboos – one of the greatest rulers of the Sultanate of Oman – was a very respected man who wanted to help his people, and people in general, including his Somalian neighbors of lower income. Despite their modest lives due to their country’s economic struggles, Somalians have excellent professional knowledge of the Boswellia trees, as a different species grows on their land as well (Boswellia carteri).
Supported by the generous Sultan, some of them were welcomed to Oman. They rented the land the trees prospered onto from the lands’ owners – Omani Dhofari families – and worked as Incense farmers by tapping the tree.
Dhofar possesses a huge area of land: 100 000 km2! If the coast is well populated and known, many zones are very far, making them difficult to attain – West of Salalah, East Merbat – and its nature still intact.
Many Incense trees belonging to those areas have never been touched nor exploited, explaining why an important number remains in their wildest form.
LUBAN FLOWING THROUGH OMAN’S VEINS
We’ll say it again, Incense has always been used in Oman, even before the nation bore that name, when it was called “Magan” – the ancient region of Oman named by Sumerian texts between 2300-550 BC. So yes, a long time ago!
Employed in all its forms and many ways – apart from the common burning – the resin is today still added to drinks, eaten when free of impurities (more like chewed), used in treatments due to its anti-inflammatory benefits (including animal medicine), to keep out the moisture, and burned for birthdays and weddings.
Nevertheless, the traditional usage prevails until now, and most of the Incense is sold and used as a resin to burn.
Historically, the Boswellia sacra species has been classified into distinct grades in function of their provenance in the Dhofar region (and not quality)
Before 1970, four grades were identified. The shabi Frankincense, from the coast (not available on the market); the shazari Frankincense, from the cliffs of the mountains between the coast and the desert; the nagdi Frankincense from the wadi (desert); the hojari Frankincense from the Jabal Samhan area – a fabulous nature reserve in the Dhofari mountains, home to the endangered Arabian leopards!
Knowing someone local helps with identifying the provenance, as mixes are often sold.
When it comes to the resin’s color, just like its grade, it has nothing to do with its quality. Green Incense corresponds to resin from a dry area, the black one from a humid area where oxidation would provoke this darker color. Let’s also note that the same tree can give different colored resin!
Before 2008 – when Frankincense research took a turn – grades remained directly linked to the geographical origin of the resin. Passed that year, more focus was set onto these grades commercially speaking.
Nowadays, it’s said white luban free of impurities is the best, and that its quality decreases as its color becomes reddish or when mixed with impurities.
Moreover, hojari would now refer to Incense from a specific desert, claimed to be “clean” – and only a couple hundred kilograms of resin would be produced from there – making it pricy.
AN AMERICAN DISTILLER IN OMAN
In Muscat (pronounced “Mascat”), we met Trygve Harris an American Incense distiller who’s been in the country for over 10 years. Calling herself an “aromatic artist”, Trygve first came to Oman in 2006 because of her love for Incense and desire to move to the sultanate.
Her passion for Oman and its luban, was in part driven by her admiration for the previous sultan Qaboos bin Said, who ruled for 50 years from 1970 to 2020. He founded Amouage in 1983, willing to reconnect the country with the arabic luxury perfume tradition. Back then, recalls Harris, the bottles were fabulous — all crystal, silver, gold and semi-precious stones.
Harris has been in the essential oil business for over 25 years and owns a shop “Enfleurage” in New York City selling essences by supplying herself she buys from small distillers all over the world. She worked with woods a lot, especially Agar Wood (Oud or Aquiliaria trees) — one of her main focuses.
When she initially came to see the trees, and meet her Frankincense distiller and supplier, Harris wasn’t expecting him to take a different path career-wise and leaving her, soon after her visit, with no more Frankincense essence for her shop for two years straight!
This raw material was too important for her and she brought some resin back to her New York City apartment to try to distillate it with her small alembic. She surprised herself by getting the distillation right, which motivated her to go forward with the process.
In 2010 she even experimented with frankincense ice-cream which caught international attention, and was featured in the press by important medias like CNN.
After some short stays in Oman — renting an apartment and distilling more Frankincense and some other aromatic raw materials — she decided to move to Oman and establish a distillery to supply her own shop in New York City, and export to sell abroad.
She first moved to Salalah in 2011 where she started her Incense distillation until 2012 when she relocated to the capital. Back then she didn’t have the quality control to sell to Europe, but she does now.
The American distiller put together a circulating distillation system – she built initially using five stills she brought to Oman – to not generate any waste. She and her assistant make about 70 kilograms of Frankincense essential oil per month. They also do Frankincense/Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) co-distillation.
Her supplier allows her to get very fresh Frankincense resin, and she orders Myrrh from Somalia, which takes a long time to arrive in Muscat given the far distance.
She produces essential oils, hydrosols, and even uses the detritus containing boswellic acids — terpenes (family of molecules) produced by the genus Boswellia found in the trees’ resin and shown to have anti-inflammatory properties among others. Harris was able to extract these acids – by a process of her own – from the detritus.
About 15-20% of triterpenic acids are present in the oleo-gum resin, among which the boswellic ones. The essential oil, on another hand, doesn’t contain any boswellic acid.
Nowadays Harris’ essential oil reaches the rest of the world — Europe, the United States and Asia being her main clients. Being a foreign woman distiller in a country that’s not her own, has surely been an adventure for Harris, but she successfully met the enriching challenge!
SOME USEFUL INSIGHT
Our investigation and whereabouts surely led us to meet broadening local actors of Frankincense, and allowed us to understand better this thousand-year-old market – and we hope it came in handy for you too!
The Dhofari Frankincense is widely sold among Oman and its local population, but its rarity and venerable smaller production – compared to its Somali and Yemeni neighbors – have made it an exclusive and prized exceptional good for the international scene.
It is recognized as one – if not the – finest Frankincense species and provenance in the world!