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