Business ‘Cense

Sniffing out a new enterprise in essential oils
By SARAH TUFF DUNN

OK, so we all know what gold is, but what the heck is frankincense? Myrrh is even more of a mystery. Two of the three gifts brought by the Magi to a certain newborn king leave most of us scratching our heads, wondering if perhaps the Bethlehem baby got stuck with a couple of booby prizes.

A new Burlington-based business suggests otherwise. The three partners in Ismael Imports are taking frankincense and myrrh from Somaliland and turning it into valuable essential oils purported to calm stress, combat asthma and arthritis, and even inhibit the proliferation of leukemia cells.

“There’s a reason why the three wise men brought frankincense and myrrh to Jesus,” says Mahdi Ismael Ibrahim, the 37-year-old Muslim who runs the company with business partners Casey Lyon, 29, and Bill Lanzetta, 30. “Nobody thinks about what’s behind it, but it was to clean; they could burn it and clear out disease.”

The entrepreneurial trio may be on to something: By introducing frankincense and myrrh to the world, they hope in some small way to improve the lives of the Somaliland people.

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In biblical days, frankincense and myrrh arrived in delicately carved wooden chests. Today’s shipments come in large, white feed bags packed inside cardboard boxes stamped “ismaelimports.com.” Seventy-eight of them — four tons of frankincense and nearly 500 pounds of myrrh — are piled in a corner of the Lanzetta family warehouse on Colchester Point, where Lanzetta’s father builds furniture and Ismael Imports is temporarily storing its goods until a more suitable location can be found.

The frankincense looks and feels like jewel-sized chunks of granular brown sugar. The myrrh is also crystalline and sticky, but larger and darker. The process by which they’re derived is more akin to maple syrup than sugar, however. Both substances come from the dried sap of three types of trees indigenous to Somaliland. Frankincense comes from trees of the Boswellia genus, extracted through an incision in the trunk and harvested after the resin has hardened into pale yellow globules. The Commiphora myrrha tree produces myrrh. (Click here to continue reading…)