Building a California Desert Incense

When I first began making what would become Io, I set out to make an incense perfume. My only real goal then was not to make what was already pretty common in the market: neither something sweetish nor in the Comme des Garçon style, nor something overly reliant on lemony-pine frankincense or Iso E Super.

Io /// Chris Rusak

Needless to say that often when we try to avoid something creatively, we just end up doing it. Initially, I somehow kept making sweetish, lemony-pine, Comme des Garçon-like perfumes. There's a reason why today you smell so much Iso E Super, the primary chemical which makes up "Molecule 1" by Escentric Molecules: it's a truly wondrous and powerful perfume chemical. But it's also greatly overused. The first five iterations of my "incense perfume" all overly relied on Iso E Super and felt boring, xeroxed, and lifeless. I trashed them all.

Around this time California saw sudden massive wildfires and my own personal life seemed to be burning down, too. After a series of mishaps and poor planning, I suddenly found myself without a place to live and faced with a brief period of homelessness. I slept in my car in various campgrounds around the state, living in Kings Canyon and Death Valley National Parks for week-long stretches, trying to determine what options I had, what my future could be.

Several days after a stint in Sequoia National Forest, the campground I slept at burned down. Like everyone else, I had already smelled the wildfire smoke blanketing much of California, but now my own proximity to sudden natural destruction heightened all my senses. It fostered a crystalline sense of how to act, like one suddenly feels during emergencies.

I decided to use these experiences and imagery, this smoky, charred sensory data, to forge another try at an incense perfume. Once I found a place to live, got my life back in order, and retrieved my perfume materials from storage, I aimed to translate my experience of destruction and renewal.

It still proved difficult. I couldn't quite find the right materials to capture a sense of smokey death gnawing at my being. Ultimately, in a chance moment while grocery shopping, the smell of freshly dried peppers on a hot Los Angeles day immediately transported me back to the forest: There was something there about desiccation.

It was a dryness pinned with heat — nature's fuel for a wildfire.

I immediately purchased ten pounds of the dried peppers and tinctured them. Several months later, after filtering and fining, I integrated their unique smoky aroma into an incense perfume. Shortly thereafter, Io was complete. It finally made sense.

In the end, Io is about destruction and renewal, about burning it all down and finding somewhere to grow in the ash. It's about re-understanding life in one's valleys of death. It's about the experience of finding growth in a hot, dry California desert.


Experience Io when you purchase a Perfume Discovery Set.