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).
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
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.