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October 2021

Attars & CPOs Shopping The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: The Practicalities

27th October 2021

Alright, before we get into the fun stuff, let’s get the practicalities out of the way. Certain questions and concerns consistently pop up when people start getting into oil-based perfumes, such as:

How much oil should I be applying?

Where do I buy attars?

How can I be sure that I am getting the real stuff, as opposed to something that will burn a hole in my wallet and maybe even my skin?

Will my attar project as strongly as a spray perfume?

Why are some oils sold in tolas and others in grams?

How will I know if something is good or not?

What do I do with the stuff that I don’t like?

Let’s answer some of that in this section.

Sizing & Packaging

Many attars and mukhallats are sold and marketed as loose oils, which means that they are packaged in generic glass tola bottles with a plastic wand for application. A non-loose oil is an oil packaged in an elaborate and rather blingy-looking bottle with a metal wand built into the cap (see examples of what I mean below).

Photo of loose oil in generic tola bottle by Asif Akbar from FreeImages

Photo of non-loose oil, borrowed from the Ajmal website

Most of the bigger oil companies sell oils in units known as tolas. A tola is an ancient Indian unit of measurement for oils that works out to 11.6638 grams, although most sellers round this up to twelve milliliters. In the attar and oud community, people commonly buy oils in the following quantities: one tola, a half tola, and a quarter tola. This works out at 2.916 grams per quarter tola, and 0.972 grams per what we normally understand to be a one milliliter vial.

Most oud and attar artisans, on the other hand, sell strictly according to the exact number of grams. As a rule of thumb, small batch guys sell their oils by weight while the bigger oil companies sell by volume. Selling by weight is more accurate. Expect, therefore, to see grams used as the unit of measurement on the websites of the small-batch artisans like Rising Phoenix Perfumery and Ensar Oud, and millimetersor tola measurements on the websites of everyone else from Ajmal to Rasasi.

In the indie perfume world, perfume oils come packaged in five milliliter bottles (with wand caps) or roll-ons. Larger sizes are sometimes available. In the world of concentrated perfume oils (CPOs), it really depends on the market segment. For example, the oils sold by Nemat, Al Rehab, and Auric Oils in drugstores and health food stores are usually in eight milliliter roller balls. In the luxury niche segment of oil perfumery, populated by brands such as Clive Christian, Aroma M, and Nabucco, the oils are packaged in very nice bottles, which usually contain no less than ten to fifteen milliliters per bottle.

Application: How to wear oil-based perfumes?

For attars, oud oils, and mukhallats: Remove the metal cap or top, and ease the plastic wand cap out of the tight bottle neck, making sure to slide the wand applicator against the inside of the bottle to remove excess oil and prevent drips. Then, swipe the wand applicator gently on the skin on your hands, behind the ears, arms, and generally wherever you want to be scented.

For CPOs and roll-ons: Unscrew the top, and either roll onto the skin (if it is a roll-on) or place a clean fingertip over the neck of the small bottle, covering the opening completely, and tip it sideways to a slight angle to allow the oil to wash over the pad of your fingertip. Remove your finger from the bottle, and then apply the oil residue to your skin.

Oils can differ tremendously in strength and concentration, but in general, remember that these are concentrated perfume oils and need to be applied very conservatively. In other words, err on the side of caution. Start with one small dab and work up from there. If people can smell you several rooms over, you’ve gone too far! (Unless you want everyone to smell you coming, in which case, keep going).

If you are male and have a beard (or even you are female and have one), an alternative way of wearing oil-base perfume is to apply a small dot to the hair and rub gently to disperse. One can also rub a dab of oil into the tips of hair or along the collars of clothes and coats, with a careful eye on the potential for staining.

Although some oud oils and attars are incredibly strong, do not expect the same sort of projection you would get with an alcohol-based spray. In general, oils wear close to the body. Longevity, on the other hand, is usually excellent, with some oils lasting for days. Attars and mukhallats tend to be far richer in body than traditional spray perfumes.

Attars and mukhallats evolve differently to Western perfumes, which tend to unfold in a top-down fashion, with the fresher, more volatile topnotes burning away to reveal a heart (where the florals, spices, and aromatics hang out) before finishing up in a fudge of heavier basenote materials such as sandalwood, musk, or resins. In contrast, attars do not usually have topnotes, instead heading straight for a heart-base accord that radiates outwards like the glow from a fire. Imagine concentric, overlapping circles rather than a pyramid and you have the right idea.

Shopping: How to sample and buy oils

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Buyer beware – traditional Indian attars and ruhs are costly and difficult to track down, with authenticity a serious concern. For honest-to-goodness attars that have been distilled in the proper manner, stick to well-known suppliers of essential oils and perfumery materials. In the United States, reputable suppliers include John Steele, Enfleurage NYC, and Eden Botanicals. The sandalwood oil sampler ($58) offered by Eden Botanicals, for example, is an excellent way to educate your nose about the very different scent profiles of the different species of sandalwood that you are likely to encounter in attar perfumery. A reputable supplier in India is M. L. Ramnarain Perfumers, a family-owned business in Kannauj that still distills attars and ruhs in the traditional Indian manner (this company supplies raw materials and attars to perfumers, brands, and individuals worldwide).

No discussion of attars can take place without mentioning the huge role played by White Lotus Aromatics and Tiger Flag. Both outfits sourced, produced, and sold a wide range of high quality traditional Indian attars and ruhs, such as ruh khus, mitti, kandam, majmua, and so on. In particular, Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics has spent most of his career educating people about the processes involved in attar making and essential oil production, visiting the raw materials producers in the field and then writing many detailed articles and blog posts about their work. Unfortunately, both have since shuttered their doors. They are much missed by perfumers, attar enthusiasts, and the fragrance community at large.

In America, Enfleurage, a NY-based company specialized in the distillation and sourcing of the most sublime essential oils from around the world, should be your go-to for sniffing the essential oils that go into attars. In Europe, a reputable provider is Aromata Mirabilis, based in Lithuania. None of the attars or oils from these sources are inexpensive but you may be assured of their quality and purity.

If, however, you are just looking for a quick snapshot of traditional Indian attars and ruhs, then eBay is a reasonably good source. I have found decent examples of ruh khus, majmua, shamama, genda, nargis, mogra (motia), darbar, and ruh gulab on eBay, and although I would not testify in court to their purity, most gave me a rough idea of what they were supposed to smell like. 

eBay is also a good source for quarter tola samples of popular mukhallats from the big name brands such as Ajmal, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, Al Haramain, and Rasasi. Some sellers even offer one milliliter sizes. In fact, for any seller offering a large selection of oils, it is always worth writing a note to the seller to enquire as to the possibility of buying one milliliter samples, especially if you intend on sampling broadly from among their wares. The worst they can do is say no, and if they say yes, then you get to sample widely without incurring too much of a financial loss.

Distributor-retailer websites, such as Al Rashad in the United States, Oudh.co.uk in Britain, and Oriental Style.de in Europe offer a wide selection of attars and sample sizes, with prices roughly comparable to eBay. Service from these sites is very good, with the owners happy to suggest other attars based on your taste.

Another way to sample is to go through a large distributor company, such as Zahra’s, which stocks a huge selection of attars and mukhallats from many of the big-name brands. The advantage of this is that you can simply give the folks at Zahra’s a list of what you want to sample, and they will send you one milliliter samples of each, without you having to jump from supplier to supplier to access the stuff you are interested in. Also, it often works out cheaper per milliliter than going through European or American sources. The downside to Zahra’s is that shipping is slow (four to six weeks) because the company is based in the Middle East, and there are mixed reviews on reliability. I have not personally shopped there, but plenty of people are happy with the service and if you are of the adventurous type, then you might want to go this route.

Of course, there is also the option of visiting a company’s website or physical store location. Arabian Oud, for example, has wonderful store locations in both New York and London, and the staff are delightful. An advantage to showing up in person is that they may show you rare attars and ouds that are not available in their online catalogue. (Whether you are in the position to afford them is another matter entirely).

Be aware that the brands’ own websites tend to be a mixed bag, varying wildly in terms of language accessibility, buying options, and shipping costs. Do your homework first. Also, if you are doing a bit of sneaky browsing at work, remember to mute your computer’s speakerphone, as many of these websites blast loud Arabic music or run videos automatically on Flash like it is 2002 all over again. 

In the United States, I highly recommend The World in Scents, a Princeton-run family business that used to specialize in the sale of high-end Abdul Samad Al Qurashi attars and oud mukhallats, Agar Aura pure oud oils, and some of the Rising Phoenix Perfumery oils. A couple of years ago, TWIS phased out its branded stock in favor of its own line of perfumes, but it is worth contacting Mark, the owner, to ask about his back stock. I expect TWIS to continue to sell off its branded oils over the next few years.

During special celebration periods on the Muslim calendar such as Eid and Bayram, most brands and websites will run special offers, often reducing prices by up to fifty percent, so plan ahead and shop wisely if you intend to buy a full size of anything expensive.

If you are interested in the work of Sultan Pasha, then know that he offers samplers of his work on his website, Sultan Pasha Attars. Currently, a 29-piece attar sampler is offered at £75 (pre-order only). He used to sell a magnificent eighty-attar sampler of a broad range of attars from houses such as Amouage (including all the discontinued attars), Ajmal, Al Haramain, and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi. However, it appears as if this option is no longer available. Keep checking the website, though, as this might change in the future.

For pure oud oils and oud wood chips, my advice is to buy directly from the artisans themselves, all of whom have professional, well-run websites and top-notch customer service. Ensar Oud, Imperial Oud, Feel Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, the Rising Phoenix Perfumery, and Agar Aura are all names you can trust.  

Most of the artisan oud and attar producers have sample packs of oils for sale on their sites. These are curated to enable the customer to get a taste of the range of styles on offer. For example, Ensar Oud sells an oud legends sampler set ($750) that contains a curated selection of pure oud oils from a diverse range of regions and style profiles, each vial containing 0.15 grams of oil. The Rising Phoenix Perfumery sells a sandalwood sampler set for around €138 (the set contains 8 gram samples of Mysore, Tamil Nadu, and Papua New Guinea sandalwood oils). Expensive? You bet. With some of these sampler sets, you will be eating ramen for a month. But for someone beginning their journey into the world of oud or sandalwood, these vials of liquid contain an entire education for the nose. It is like staring tearfully at a complicated puzzle for hours and someone finally handing you the one piece that makes sense of it all. If you have the means to calibrate your nose with a fantastic baseline, then do it. Because it will inform and guide your every choice after that.

For a wide range of oud, musk, and ambergris mukhallats, you can also try Agarscents Bazaar – they sell a wide selection of samples for you to try before you buy. This company has both a brand website and an Etsy page. Do the perfumes feature genuine oud, musk, or ambergris? Personally, I suspect not (or at least not in anything more than holistic amounts). But if you can suspend disbelief for a while, then there are some true gems in the Agarscents Bazaar stable.

In the category of concentrated perfume oils (CPOs), ease of sampling depends greatly on the segment you are interested in exploring. It is tremendously easy, for example, to sample the wares of the American perfume oil brands, because they all sell samples, either individually or in sets, on their websites or Etsy storefronts.

Solstice Scents, for example, sells a set of five samples for $17.50, or ten samples for $35. BPAL sells sets of samples (called Imp’s Ears) curated according to theme (gourmand, witchy, churchy, gothic, floral, etc.). They also sell individual samples, should you know what appeals to you out of the 67,000 perfume oils they seem to stock. However, COVID-19 seems to have put a halt to the gallop of some indie oil perfume brands – many of these were out of stock at the time of publication. Hopefully, things will begin to return to normal soon, so keep an eye out for these sampler sets. They are terrific value and provide a low-risk means of dipping your toes into their bewilderingly huge back catalogues. Solstice Scents in particular is worth the squeeze.   

For international customers, and for certain brands, like Arcana, however, it appears to be easier (and less pricey on the shipping front) to shop for these oils on retail sites rather than through the brand website itself. Sites such as Femme Fatale out of Australia, Pretty Indulgent in Canada, and Nui Cobalt in the USall provide excellent service. (Just keep in mind that these sites sell full bottles only, not samples).   

Sampling the pricier, more upmarket niche oils takes some patience and homework. Aroma M, Ava Luxe, and Olivine are good examples of American niche oil perfume brands that know what the American customer expects, and therefore offers well-priced, accessible sampling options. For example, Aroma M sells a set of eleven perfume oils for $40, and Olivine a set of eight samples for $45. Although Ava Luxe does not sell samples of her oil-based perfumes, you can sample the EDPs for ten dollars a pop, and then buy the oil version later if you like (her oil perfumes are priced at $40 for five milters).

Moving further up the food chain, we have luxury and niche brands such as Bruno Acampora, Le Labo, Clive Christian, Strangelove NYC, Andy Tauer, and so on, who offer, or have offered in the past, perfumes in oil format – and this is where sampling becomes a little more difficult. While Bruno Acampora does provide a sampling option (sample sets are €49 per set) on the brand website, for the others, it is best either to check the brand website for special deals, or indeed, skip the brand altogether and buy a sample from one of the brand’s official retailers, like Luckyscent, First in Fragrance, Essenza Nobile, Alla Violetta, Skins NL, and other sites. Keep in mind that sampling in this segment can be as expensive as high-end attars. A 0.3ml sample of Bruno Acampora Gold Musc costs $10 at Luckyscent, for example.

What to do with oils that don’t work out

Naturally, not everything you sample will be a success. And when you don’t love an oil, even one milliliter of it can seem like an awful lot. The first port of call for offloading unloved oils should be, of course, trying to sell them on the secondary market. Some of the artisanal oud oils hold their value or even increase on the re-sale market, as do some of the rarer, discontinued attars like the Amouage oils or a brand stand-out, like Areej Le Doré’s Russian Musk or Ajmal’s Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq.

Unfortunately, though, it is difficult to sell any oils that do not fall into this narrow bracket, for largely the same reason why secondhand underwear never does well in thrift stores, i.e., no matter how much scrubbing and sterilization is done, nothing can erase the thought of a stranger’s skin cells on such an intimate article. The higher the ick factor, the lower the resale factor.

Swapping is a possibility, although the same hygiene issues apply. If you are lucky enough to belong to a forum or online community of fellow enthusiasts, then your potential pool of swapees might be big enough to make it work. The advantage to swapping within a closed circle of enthusiasts is that hygiene is a non-issue. Keep in mind, though, that swap negotiations for oils can be exhausting because of the difficulty of establishing like-for-like values and because attar enthusiasts have annoyingly specific swap parameters.

Alternatively, you could always MacGyver rejects into what they call air care in the fragrance industry, meaning candles, air fresheners, room sprays, aroma diffusers, and reed diffusers. Rub the oil on an unlit, unscented beeswax candle, for example, and when the candle is lit, it will carry the scent into the room as the upper layer of wax liquefies. Empty whole vials of attars into the top of a simple oil burner, adding a few drops of water, and light a tea light underneath. Add a few drops to an aroma diffuser in the place of the same-brand essential oils they always tell you to use, and voilà, instant aura. You can also impregnate a piece of cloth or tissue with oil and rub it gently over (unlit) light bulbs and the tops of radiators – once turned on, the heat will cause the scent to diffuse throughout the entire room. You might even discover that you enjoy the oil much more when smelled on the air than on your skin.

Another idea is to turn your mistakes into something you can use for personal care, such as body oils, hair serums, bath oils, and so on. My husband’s favorite beard oil is an ever-changing concoction that I make for him by mixing unloved perfume oils, attars, and mukhallats into a quantity of high quality neutral oils such as jojoba or almond oil. Blend attars into Argan oil using a rough one-to-nine ratio, and voilà, you have an exquisitely scented hair or beard oil that would probably cost you forty dollars from a posh spa brand.

Oh, and if all else fails, there is always altruism! Gift oils you are no longer enjoying to loved ones, family members, friends, the postman – anyone you might think would be interested. Buy those little red or black velvet pouches with the drawstrings from Alibaba in bulk for anything between five and twenty cents apiece, and you have the perfect stocking filler or little birthday present ready to go. In my experience, there is not a person alive who is not thrilled to receive a little velvet baggie of perfume oils as a gift. Even if they chuck them in the bin later on, you will be positively bathed in the glow of good karma.  

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Why attars? Why oils?

25th October 2021

The longer form of that question being: why wear an attar or oil-based perfume at all when there are plenty of perfectly good spray perfumes out there?

 

Actually, there are several reasons.

 

One reason some people prefer attars to spray perfumes is because their religion prohibits the consumption of alcohol, and attars do not contain alcohol. There are several schools of thought in Islam regarding the use of alcohol in products such as perfume, but the dominant one believes very strongly that it is haram (forbidden).

 

Most religious figures in the Islamic world advise that alcohol-based perfume should be avoided at all costs unless one needs to cauterize a wound with it[i].  This is, by the way, the only circumstance under which Dior Sauvage should ever be applied to one’s skin.

 

Many Muslims are passionate consumers of perfume, deriving encouragement from key passages in the Qur’an itself.  One such passage refers to Mohammed as being a fan of perfume: ‘The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) liked aromatic things and perfume, he used them himself and recommended their use to others.  On waking up he would relieve himself, perform Wudhu, and apply fragrance on his clothing.  If fragrance was presented to him, he would never refuse it.  He would use perfume at night too, especially on Fridays for Jumu’ah prayers.’[ii]

 

Another passage exhorts good Muslims to spend money on attars:  ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) used to say that, ‘Whoever spends a third of his wealth on ‘Itr is not being extravagant.’  (A prime case of enabling if I ever saw one).

 

Another reason to wear attars or oil-based perfume is culture, which, of course, is the natural extension of religion in many parts of the world.  Attar distillation is first and foremost an Indian art.  Unearthed clay pots belonging to the Harappan civilization suggest that distillation had already begun during the Indus Valley era[iii], but it seems to have only truly flourished as a boundary-crossing art form when the Persiatic Mughal dynasty that ruled out of India for several generations used patronage and their knowledge of techniques outside of India’s boundaries to scale up local attar perfumery and flower-growing.  Even after the decline of the Mughal Empire, however, the use of attars and oils remained important in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism throughout India.

 

In India, attars are used for ayurvedic reasons, as well as for cultural events such as weddings.  Their use of the fantastic range of native plants, herbs, spices, flowers, and woods on offer throughout India is a way of honoring Mother India and an important connection to a shared cultural heritage.

 

In Arabian, Turkish, and Persian cultures, attars are used for prayer, with the robes of the Imam and the faithful richly anointed with rose and oud mukhallats.  But perfume occupies a much wider role in Arabian, Turkish, and Persian society at large, where both men and women adore rich attars and fragrances.  Arabs traditionally keep a tray of attars with which to welcome guests into their homes and to pass around after dinner.  They also fumigate their robes, hair, beards, and homes with precious incense materials such as oud wood, frankincense, and boukhour (mixed resinous materials), which they burn slowly on burners known as mabkhara.

 

Another excellent reason to wear attars is that they are the last hold-out – beyond all-natural perfumery – for abundant use of exquisite raw materials such as real jasmine oil, oud oil, ambergris, and rose.  Whereas synthetics such as Black Agar, Hedione, and Ambroxan have largely replaced natural oud oil, jasmine, and ambergris respectively in Western commercial perfumery, you can be reasonably sure to find the real stuff in attars and mukhallats (beyond a certain price point).  Furthermore, attars and mukhallats make generous use of these materials.

 

Attars exalt the most exquisite raw materials known to man.  There is something to be said for the simple but powerful beauty born out of gathering two or three incredible materials such as oud, rose, and sandalwood, and letting them work their synergistic magic on your skin.  Attars are, in general, far simpler in construction than spray perfumes.  But when that simple structure is adorned with the most magical-smelling, boundary-shifting essential oils, then who needs more?

 

Many people get into attars because they are drawn to a fantasy of Eastern exoticism, a tug on the collective imagination exerted by colorful visions of veils, palaces, and stories from the lips of Scheherazade herself.  Now this is problematic.  Although Westerners generally intend the word ‘oriental’ to be complementary –  an irresistible counter-weight to what we believe to be the comparative drabness of life in the West – we have allowed the idea of the ‘Orient’ to take root in our imagination without stopping to investigate either its basis or the harm it can do.

 

Indeed, though much used in the marketing and discussion of perfume, there is mounting scrutiny over use of the word ‘oriental’.  First, its value as a descriptor is pretty weak.  Oriental means eastern, but east of what, exactly?  How can India, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, and China – vastly different geographies, cultures, and peoples – all be grouped under the word ‘oriental’ from a perfume point of view?  Short answer: they can’t. 

 

Second, the word ‘oriental’ can be enormously Othering to the people whose resources and cultural identity have been purloined by countries who have either colonized Asian, Middle Eastern, or African territories in the past or benefited from their colonization.  Surprisingly, there has been quite a bit of pushback in the fragrance community over retiring the O word.  But if even one person in Asia or Africa or the Middle East finds the word hurtful, then there can be no justification for continuing to use it.  History will judge us harshly if we stray on the wrong side of arguments like this.  In the Attar Guide, therefore, there will be a section on ambers, resins, and balsams – not on the so-called category of ‘oriental’ perfumes[iv].  

 

Regardless of nomenclature, however, given that Westerners have little to no cultural experience of the strong, animalic aromas of oud oil, musk, and ambergris, encountering these materials for the first time is thrilling.  For some, it will prove to be an emotional or spiritual awakening from which there is no return.

 

But even if the ‘Closer to Nature, Closer to God/Shiva/Allah’ argument for wearing attars and ouds does not apply to other segments of the oil perfume sector – dupes, for example, but also indie perfume oils, roll-ons, luxury niche perfume oils and so on – there are still many reasons why a customer might prefer to buy an oil-based perfume over a traditional, alcohol-based one.

 

Fans of American indie perfume oils, for example, choose oils as part of a general anti-mainstream lifestyle choice that rejects the marketing guff and big corporate budgets of conglomerates such as L’Oréal or Estée Lauder.  Indie oils are hugely imagination and fantasy-driven, catering to highly individualistic desires not met in mainstream perfumery.

 

Many people also value oil versions of their favorite scents to wear perfume in a quieter, more subtle way.  The oil versions of the Le Labo, Fragrance du Bois, and April Aromatics scents, for example, are all subdued versions of their eau de parfum counterparts, thus the perfect choice for yoga, meditation, the office, and those pesky visits to the dentist.

 

The oil format also brings more prosaic benefits for brands.  Oil is a cost-effective carrier, less irritating to the skin than alcohol, and, importantly, can be shipped internationally without setting off any Hazmat alarms.  In recent years, for example, small American indies such as Dame Perfumery and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz Perfumes have introduced oil-based formats of their most famous perfumes, allowing them to access markets such as Europe and Asia, heretofore off limits due to the cost and hassle of shipping alcohol-based perfumes outside of America.  

 

Many people prefer to wear oil-based perfumes because of the sensual, tactile nature of wearing an oil.  Notions of luxury and self-care are attached to oil-based perfumes, a feature often emphasized by high-end niche brands.  The artistic director of Henry Jacques, Christophe Tollemer, for example, explained the appeal of oil-based perfumery as follows: ‘It is personal, emotional, and almost as if you’re protecting yourself in a bubble. It is sensual, seductive and elegant.’[v]

 

Oils also play into the modern consumer’s desire for customization, a crucial factor for the indie segments of the market that believes strongly in skin chemistry. Attars need body warmth and movement to activate the scent molecules. In a world of mass production and product homogeneity, the idea that your perfume is an entirely personal mix of raw materials, body heat, and skin chemistry exerts an irresistible tug.

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

 

[i] https://islamqa.info/en/1365

[ii] http://www.zikr.co.uk/content/view/70/111/

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/making-perfume-from-the-rain/391011/

[iv] Likewise, I will henceforth be scrubbing the entire category from this blog.

[v] https://sg.asiatatler.com/style/discovering-henry-jacques

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Introduction

22nd October 2021

Are you mystified by mukhallats, confused by concentrated perfume oils, anxious about attars, open-mouthed at oud, and dithering on dupes?  You are not alone.  The world of oil perfumery spans a vast territory from the squidge of artisanal oud that will set you back a month’s rent to the Kuumba Made roll-on you lob into your cart with the toilet paper.

 

I have written this Attar Guide to help you make sense of it all.  Over the next few weeks (or months), I’ll be uploading chapters of the Guide right here on Takeonethingoff, starting with a primer on attars, ruhs, mukhallats, and concentrated perfume oils, and seguing into actual reviews.  Stick with me, and by the end, you will be able to buy oils with confidence, secure in the knowledge that you know what goes into making them and why they cost what they do.  You will be a smarter, tougher consumer, able to look past the flashy exoticism of those little gold-capped tola bottles and spot the true gems.

 

The Guide sets out to do two things.  Its first purpose is educational.  Not all oils were created equal, and this will give you the tools you need to tell the difference.  I want you to saunter into the marketplace with the confidence that comes from knowing why one perfume costs thirty-five dollars per millimeter and another only two. 

 

The second purpose of the Guide is critical.  By this, I mean in-depth reviews of a cross-section of oils offered by brands active in each segment of the market, with the aim of sorting out, for you (the reader), the good from the bad, and the sublime from the ridiculous.  I am going to blow open the doors to the often mysterious and ill-lit world of oil-based perfumery, and answer the question that rarely gets answered to my satisfaction, which is: what does it actually smell like?

 

The Attar Guide is by no means exhaustive.  Seven hundred (give or take) oil-based perfumes is a decent sample size, but still just the tip of the iceberg.  Turnover in the oil-based perfume world is intense – what takes your fancy today might not be available to buy tomorrow.  Treat this Guide as you would a dog-eared copy of the Lonely Plant Guide you find on a bus seat.  It still identifies – in broad strokes – the top two or three places in a country worth visiting but features information that was going stale even while the ink was drying.

 

However, for someone who is interested in oil-based perfumes, this Guide could prove very useful indeed.  The genre is so bewilderingly huge that anything that points you in one direction or the other is welcome.  After all, whether you are already knee-deep in the oil-based perfume world, or just starting out, then you will already have discovered just how expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating a journey it can be.

 

First, the cost of entry is high.  Samples of attars are not as widely available as designer scents and even the smallest size bottle (quarter of a tola or roughly three milliliters) can run into the hundreds of dollars, especially if oud or ambergris is involved.  A quarter gram sample of pure artisanal oud can cost up to forty dollars, and even then, you are relying on the vendor’s description to figure out whether you will like it or not.  At this level of investment, trying to find something that will be exactly to your taste is fraught with danger.

 

Sampling within the indie perfume oil world is much easier, not to mention cheaper.  This is because the indie oil scene is dominated by companies in North America, a culture where sampling is regarded as a democratic birthright, in comparison to Europe, where Sales Assistants seem to have always ‘just run out’ the moment you ask.  Americans simply expect that reasonably-priced samples are provided as part of the ‘try before you buy’ portion of the sales funnel.  (We would be foaming at the mouth with jealousy were it not for fact that we’ve seen what their healthcare system entails). 

 

Second, exploration of attar perfumery can be difficult because there is often a dearth of information on what these oils actually smell like.  The official notes published by most of the big houses like Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Ajmal are vague, incomplete, or just plain wrong.  In the American indie perfume oil world, we have the opposite problem.  Purple-prosed product descriptions running to half a page are not uncommon, as well as notes lists so comprehensive that one suspects they contain the actual formula.  While the sparse descriptions for Arabian attars leave the buyer grasping at straws, the descriptions in the indie perfume oil sector give too much information, creating unrealistic expectations in the mind of the buyer as to how the perfume will actually smell.

 

The exception to the problem of too much or too little product information is the artisanal oil niche.  In recent years, there has been a significant upsurge in the number of artisanal attars hitting the market.  Largely ushered in by the market-storming popularity of distill-it-yourself brands like Ensar Oud, Bortnikoff, and Areej Le Doré, these attars have attained the exclusivity and cachet formerly only associated with luxury brands such as Roja Dove and Clive Christian.  Perhaps sensing a small but noticeable shift in luxury or high-net-worth consumer interest in oil-based perfumes, many luxury and high-end indie brands, from Xerjoff and Clive Christian to Auphorie, now have their own lines of attars.

 

Because it attracts mostly genuine fragrance connoisseurs, attars in this segment of the market tend to be very well reviewed and described.  The 313-page (and counting) Basenotes thread on Areej Le Dore is proof of this, as are the wonderfully detailed reviews and interviews with attar and oud artisans on blogs such as Kafkaesque and Persolaise.  However, for most everything falling to the left or the right of this narrow niche, you are largely at the mercy of fulsome marketing copy or the odd mention on an Internet forum (such as the Oudh Ud Aoud Oud Agarwood thread on Basenotes.  or the Ouddict forums). 

 

Of course, blind buying is exciting. Nothing tops the thrill of stumbling over an oil that makes the heart beat a little faster.  As in any situation where you cannot easily test the product or even find out very much about it in advance, the only benchmark turns out to be the question ‘Do I like this?’  But for the risk-averse or those who do not have a bottomless well of money to gamble away, well, that risk is a serious barrier.

 

For many, these are hurdles not worth jumping over and the interest stops there.  After all, if you are about to spend several hundred dollars or a thousand dollars on an unknown oil, then you want as much information about it before whipping out your credit card.  One wouldn’t invest in a horse or a husband before inspecting its undercarriage, and the same due diligence applies here.  Too often, the simple question, ‘What does it smell like?’ is not answered to my satisfaction.  I assume it is the same for you.  And that is why I have written this Guide.

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

The Attar Guide has been ‘under development’ for roughly six year now, but, as with most efforts like this, it has not happened in a vacuum.  Over the years, I have had the immense good fortune of learning from true experts in the field.

 

First of all, any guide or book on fragrance owes a great debt of gratitude to the work of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, the parents of modern fragrance criticism.  Their books both popularized and legitimized the notion of fragrance criticism, elevating it beyond the sphere of influence traditionally dominated by glossy magazine editors and salespeople.  Beyond this, Luca Turin has been a wonderfully supportive, kind, and only occasionally bitchy friend to me over the years.     

 

Then there are the experts in raw materials.  I have been fortunate to learn at the knee of Mandy Aftel, the mother of natural perfumery, as well as Christopher McMahon of (the now sadly closed) White Lotus Aromatics and Trygve Harris of Enfleurage – people with inarguably the most first-hand experience of essential oil production in the world.  Their books, writings, interviews, and explorations have been instrumental to me in understanding how raw materials are produced and how they behave in compositions.  Michelle Krell Kyd of Glasspetalsmoke, a well-respected educator who uses natural science to explain olfaction, has also been a fantastic source of learning for me and many others.  If you are lucky enough to live in Michigan, please sign up to one of her Smell and Tell, or Taste and Tell workshops.  

 

I would like to thank Grant Osborne of Basenotes for not only inviting me to author several articles and interviews for Basenotes over the years, but for just being good people in general.  Always kind, supportive, and fair-minded, Grant is tireless in his dedication to making Basenotes a welcoming home for fragrance enthusiasts.  The length of my articles recently forced him to adjust the code for how long an article can be on Basenotes, which is something I’m inordinately proud of.

 

Other friends are Franco Wright of Luckyscent and Sjorn Plitzko of Essenza Nobile who have not only employed me as a writer over the years, but generously supplied me with friendship, advice, samples of oil-based perfumes, and valuable insight into the commercial side of the perfume world.  Speaking of Franco, the late, great Jtd (Connor McTeague) was the person who introduced us.  Connor was the best writer I have had the pleasure of knowing and I miss him sharply. (I am not sure that it is correct to say ‘sharply’ here but that is how it feels).    

 

On Instagram, the place to which much of today’s fragrance discussion has moved, I would also like to draw attention to the efforts of perfumer-slash-activist Christophe Laudamiel, Pranjal Kapoor (one of the key distillers of raw materials and attars in India, supplying perfumers and fragrance brands), and Scent Festival, an account run by Yosh Han, to raise awareness of cultural, social, and equity costs connected to the production of raw materials.  Together, they are working to dispel some of the smoke and mirrors around perfumery.  It is often eye-opening stuff.     

 

My heartfelt thanks go to the countless individual artisans like Ensar Oud, Russian Adam, J.K. DeLapp, Taha Syed, Ws of Kyara Zen, Dominique Dubrana of Abdes Salaam Attar, Abdullah of Mellifluence, Sultan Pasha, and the folks at Al Shareef Oudh and Imperial Oud, who have all spent considerable amounts of time and money in educating my humble nose.  Many of these artisans sweat it out in some of the world’s most inhospitable places to produce exquisite raw materials.  The very act of making attars, mukhallats, or pure oud oils is an expensive, messy, and all-consuming.  That some of this labor of love has made it onto my skin is something for which I will never not be grateful.

 

Finally, though I was unable to convince any publisher that a book on oil-based perfumery could be marketable to anyone beyond a tiny band of people inside an already narrow niche, I am immensely grateful for the support and advice shared with me by Dominique Brunel and Jeanne Doré of Nez, La Revue Olfactive, the most important and prestigious publication on perfumery and raw materials today, and Barbara Herman, author of the wonderful book ‘Scent and Subversion’ (as well as founder of Eris Parfums).  What I’ve learned is that publishing is a tough sell, unless you already have a platform, a name to trade on, or a quantifiable market that you know will buy your book.  Since I lack most of those things, I have made the decision to put the Guide out there myself, on the one platform I do have, which is Takeonethingoff.  I figure that I owe it to all the wonderful people who have given their own time and resources to help me write this Guide, as well as to anybody who is searching for attar-specific content and not finding it elsewhere.   

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

 

 


Hay Iris Leather Musk Patchouli Review Spicy Floral Violet

Le Labo Iris 39: A Review (Sort of)

15th October 2021

 

I have yet to come across a review that captures what Le Labo Iris 39 smells like to me, so I’m going to take a run at it myself.  Despite the advertised violets and iris, Iris 39 doesn’t smell sunlit, or powdery, or even floral in the traditional sense.  To me, it smells utterly abstract, a nigh-on impenetrable wedge of industrial cement and toner ink mixed with mud-caked flower bulbs, fuzzed up at the edges with a carbolic soap (patchouli-musk) accord that wears on you like a rain-soaked wool sweater.

 

I’ve noticed that the earlier Le Labo perfumes – Patchouli 24, Oud 27, Santal 33, Iris 39 – all feature this interesting tension between something natural-smelling and something ‘pleasantly chemical’, i.e., the vaporous head-spin of industrial materials like hot glue, ink, magazine paper, or burning rubber.  Perhaps this is what makes these perfumes so distinctive.  Later Le Labo output (The Noir 29, Tonka 25, Another 13) shoot for the same complexity but lean too hard on harsh woody ambers, Ambroxan, etc., thereby landing on the ‘bad chemical’ mat rather than the ‘good chemical’ one.  You know what I mean, right? A good chemical smell to me is the honest honk of fresh newspaper ink or spilled petrol or the school supply closet.  A million miles away from those powerful woody ambers like Amber Extreme or Norlimbanol that are (over) used in perfumery these days to make a scent enormously radiant or long-lasting.

 

So there you have it. Part of Iris 39 that makes me feel like a hippy who’s spent the afternoon planting out tubers in a wet garden, while the other makes me feel like I’m getting a semi-high from hanging around the office printer while they’re changing the cartridges.  Mostly, though, I think it’s just one of those thick, murky ‘soups’ of a perfume that are vaguely resistant to analysis, like Mitsouko (Guerlain) or Kintsugi (Masque Milano) – perfumes that are simultaneously harsh and organic.  Wearing Iris 39 gives me a physical jolt akin to being so hungry for the first bite of something that, even before it’s fully tasted, your mouth waters so suddenly it’s almost painful. 

 

Source of sample: Various samples, decants, and finally a full bottle, all of which I purchased myself.

 

Image:    Photo by Darklabs India on Unsplash  

 

    

Floral Green Green Floral Hay Independent Perfumery Review

L’Amandière by Heeley Paris

12th October 2021

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez have an extraordinary turn of phrase, don’t they?  One of the many things they have written that has lingered in my mind for years is their description of L’Eau d’Hiver (Frédéric Malle) as ‘an elegiac, powdery, almonds-and-water accord that takes its place next to Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée and Caron’s Farnesiana among the fragrance Ophelias of the world’ (Perfumes: The Guide, 2008), calling to mind Millais’ famous painting of the doomed Ophelia, kept afloat in a pond by flowers and tendrils of her own hair before being pulled to her ‘muddy death’.  The association with the perfume is immediate – you understand, even without smelling it, that L’Eau d’Hiver is watery and delicate and even a little melancholic.

 

But L’Eau d’Hiver, while undoubtedly a lovely perfume, is as fragile and as milquetoast as its predecessor, Après L’Ondée, meaning that it works perfectly if you have a quiet space somewhere where you can appreciate its every nuance in slow motion, but tends to dissipate as rapidly as a mummy when exposed to the hoary breath of modern life.  Both L’Eau Hiver and Après L’Ondée are a ‘bottled firefly’ type of smell that belongs more to the fairies at the bottom of a garden in Cottingley than to an irritated woman fighting her way through the crowd to get on her train to work.

 

Enter L’Amandière by Heeley Paris.  With its boot polish lilacs, linden, hyacinths, maybe a smidge of rose, mint, and freshly cut grass, it shares the same watery translucence as L’Eau d’Hiver and Après L’Ondée, i.e., Spring incarnate, but is robust enough to stand up to modern life.   It is certainly a watercolor fragrance, its soft daubs of blush pink, mint green, and duck egg blue qualifying it as one of Turin and Sanchez’ so-called ‘fragrance Ophelias’.  But suffused with sturdy, air-conditioned musks and a green, unripe almond note, there is a slight thickness of body to L’Amandière that keeps it all from crumbling away into nothing.

 

There is also an undercurrent of sweetness in  L’Amandière,  but this is the faint natural sweetness you smell in crushed lilacs, green plant milk, and freshly trampled grass, rather than the sticky, all-encompassing sultriness of tonka-led takes on almond, which tend to lean towards cherry pit and marzipan. There is no fudge here, no extra weight.   

 

Above all, L’Amandière is the perfect reflection of the Heeley house style, which is discreet, refined, and vaguely pastoral, filtered through a modernist lens that allows for clarity.   And this is definitely a soft, clear perfume.  Nobody else but James Heeley could have, in my opinion, produced a fridge-cold spring floral with all the watery melancholia of an Après L’Ondée or a L’Eau d’Hiver that lasts longer than a sigh in the wind while sacrificing none of the ‘fairy dust’  translucence that makes those perfumes special in the first place.   

 

 

Source of sample: I bought a full bottle of L’Amandière at full retail price from ParfuMarija in Dublin, one of only two bottles of perfume I have purchased in 2021 (the other being a bottle of the reissued Nahema eau de parfum by Guerlain).  

 

Image: John Everett Millais, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Animalic Citrus Floral Fruity Scents Gourmand Honey Independent Perfumery Orange Blossom Patchouli Review Sandalwood Vanilla White Floral Woods

Anamcara by Parfums Dusita

6th October 2021

 

The fact that something as weird and borderline confrontational as Anamcara by Parfums Dusita was workshopped in a Facebook group known for its strict ‘say something nice or don’t say anything at all’ policy is hilarious to me.  This is a humongous, syrupy fruity-floral that lurches at you with a pina colada in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.  Though striking, it is more feral than pretty.  Think less Juliette Binoche and more Béatrice Dalle.  

 

If you are familiar with the pungency of some floral absolutes in the raw, like jasmine, with its grapey nail solvent highnotes, or ylang, with its banana fuel-spill aspect, then you’re going to love Anamcara, because it features a massive overload of natural orange blossom.  If you’re unfamiliar with just how jolie laide naturals can smell or are new to the more artistic corners of niche-dom in general, however, Anamcara could be something of a shibboleth.

 

Because this is not the polite orange blossom of, say, Orange Blossom (Jo Malone) or Eau des Sens (Diptyque).  Rather, this is the weirdly medicinal gunk of cough syrups, hard-boiled orange throat lozenges, and vitamin C gummy bears sold in rickety little apothecaries all throughout Provence.  It reminds me very much of a holiday in Uzès, where everything from the ice-cream, honey, and chocolate to the bread (gibassier) seemed to be expensively infused with orange blossom or lavender essences and hyrosols.  I think of this perfumey oddness as distinctly French.

 

In Anamcara’s opening notes, I smell a dense ‘brown’ floral syrup diluted with a pour of carbonated water for an uplift that reminds me of the orangey Coca Cola fizz of Incense Rosé (Tauer). This is shot through with the fresh, lime-green bite of petitgrain, which also smells very French to me, recalling the openings to both Eau Sauvage and Diorella (Dior) as well as the later Mito (Vero Kern).   I can’t think of anything that smells quite like Anamcara in its totality, though.  I suppose that Rubj (Vero Kern again) in eau de parfum format is the fragrance that comes the closest, in terms of a shared focus on the medicinal ‘boiled sweet’ aspect of orange blossom.  But where Rubj piles on the sensuality with a shocking cumin seed note, Anamcara focuses on the weirdness of orange blossom alone.  There is also a savory or umami element to Anamcara, possibly from the sandalwood, that reads as more Asian than European.

 

If I had a criticism, it would be that Anamcara is overdosed (on something) to the point of being oppressive, a monolith of floral muck so densely muscled that it’s hard to make out the shape of any of the tendons or veins.  This will be somebody’s idea of floral bliss, no doubt, just not mine.  I can’t wear fragrances like this – they wear me down, defying my attempt to parse them out.  I do, however, respect the hell out of Pissara Umavijani’s refusal to color inside the lines on this one.  Despite the ‘rainbows and unicorns’ vibe of its origin story, Anamcara will push buttons as well as boundaries.

 

 

Note: As widely reported, Anamcara translates roughly to ‘soul friend’ in Irish (and Scots Gaelic, which is similar), though ‘soul mate’ is probably closer in modern parlance. As an Irish person (and Irish speaker) myself, I can tell you that the vocative form of ‘cara’ is used very often in day to day speech, i.e.,  ‘mo chara’ to say ‘yo my fine friend’ and ‘a chara’ to mean Dear Sir/Modom when writing a letter to the Irish Times complaining that last week’s crossword puzzle was wrong or that the banks are running this country into the ground, etc. So it’s funny to see these words appear on a fancy French perfume. 

 

Source of sample: Sent to me free of charge by the brand. My review and thoughts are my own.

 

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

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