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Subtle Bodies And The Ancient Art Of Incense

Subtle Bodies And The Ancient Art Of Incense
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Subtle Bodies is a singular Australian incense brand and a fixture on the Assembly Label Lifestore. Founded by architect Courtney Gibbs and industrial designer Tommy Ashby, Subtle Bodies embraces this ancient practice through responsibly made, high-grade incense products. Here, we learn more about the materials, places and people behind this brand.

The act of lighting an incense stick summons a meeting of the physical and spiritual - that fragrant plume of smoke can transport the incense-lighter to another place and time, while simultaneously bringing their awareness closer to the present moment. This ancient alchemy has been respectfully reimagined as an accessible modern practice by Melbourne-based brand Subtle Bodies, which was founded by former housemates Courtney Gibbs and Tommy Ashby. The name Subtle Bodies, as Courtney explains, is derived from a concept spanning many philosophies. “In simple terms it is considered to be another aspect of the human form… multiple layers and energy channels that make up who we are. We felt it matched the ephemeral yet discernible nature of incense and the way it can gently affect your mood or the feeling of a space.”

Subtle Bodies was formed, Courtney says, in response to the ubiquitous low-grade incense everyone used when the pair lived in share houses. “Tommy was travelling to Taiwan at the time and brought back beautiful incense that transformed our understanding of what it could be.” Their shared interest in the history of incense and combined skillsets made it possible to launch a singular Japanese incense product from the outset. What sets Subtle Bodies apart is the nature and origin of each Japanese incense stick, which are pure wood. “Each of our scents is made of a single wood variety, without any fragrance added, so it is a true and pure expression of these amazing trees. Most other brands use a plain wood filler as the base, and then dip that in an oil fragrance or extraction to give it the scent,” they explain. While this means the cost is higher and the product offering is limited, their Japanese incense are inherently more subtle, gradual and natural. As Courtney puts it, “They project the scent a bit less, which encourages a more thoughtful approach, to light and appreciate the incense rather than have it fill an entire room with smoke”. 

“Each of our scents is made of a single wood variety, without any fragrance added, so it is a true and pure expression of these amazing trees.”

Each variety of incense is made by a different manufacturer, as each one comes from a different type of tree. You could say the incense are ‘single-origin’ with a direct and transparent supply chain. “Australia leads the world for sustainable sandalwood - Australia was the first country to develop plantation-style commercial growing,” they say. Similarly, their agarwood is plantation-grown and fully CITES certified (an international agreement that aims to ensure trade does not threaten wild plants and animals). The only exception, they add, is the red cedar, which is now a protected species. “Our red cedar incense are made from a stockpile of old wood that was harvested in the ’80s, it’s quite a unique situation.” To uplift and energise the senses, Courtney recommends the sandalwood, which she lights at home late in the morning. For relaxation, she suggests the red cedar - “it has a heavy, comforting feel to it”. 

While the Subtle Bodies offering remains tightly edited there are new creations on the horizon, including a range of single origin oil extractions that can be used as perfume, launching in late 2022. And despite balancing full-time careers with their beloved incense brand, Courtney and Tommy will unveil new incense varieties and a new incense holder collaboration design. “In five years we hope to be seen as the gold standard in high quality incense,” shares Courtney. “Working with suppliers around the world and the chance for further travel is very exciting.”