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November 2021

Attars & CPOs Floral Jasmine Mukhallats Orange Blossom Rose The Attar Guide White Floral

The Attar Guide: Flowers (A Primer)

29th November 2021

We have already extensively covered the flowers that Indians most value in traditional attar perfumery here, and here.  However, mukhallat perfumery – perfumery rooted in the Middle East – displays slight but important differences in the way different flowers are valued, used, and emphasized.   So, it is worth talking about those differences briefly here.   

  

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Photo by chandra sekhar on Unsplash

 

Jasmine plays a central role in both traditional Indian attar and Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery.   (It is also hugely important in Western niche perfumery, although for reasons of cost and regulation (IFRA), most perfumes featuring jasmine as a note now use synthetics rather than large quantities of the oil itself).  The word jasmine comes from the Arabic word for the flower, yâsamîn, which itself comes from the Persian word for it, again demonstrating the cultural and etymological fluidity between the Indian, Persian, and Arab worlds when it comes to perfume.

 

However, whereas traditional attar perfumery in India uses all types of jasmine, mukhallat perfumery tends to focus on one variety alone, namely Jasminum sambac, the famous ‘Arabian’ jasmine.   Sambac jasmine is muskier, spicier, and more leathery than the grandiflorum varietal.  It is also the more indolic of the varieties, meaning it can sometimes be quite dirty or even fecal, but this is balanced by a minty, almost fresh-watery facet.  Compared to the classic grandiflorum variety, Sambac can also appear coarse and fruity.  Sambac jasmine is often blended with other sweet white florals such as orange blossom.

 

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Photo by Coco Tafoya on Unsplash

 

Orange blossom, solvent-extracted from the small white flowers of the bitter orange tree[1],  plays a prominent role in floral mukhallat perfumery.  Symbolizing purity, innocence, and femininity, it is often associated with brides (an association that carried over into Western perfumery).  Orange blossom water is extensively used in Middle Eastern and Persian cuisine to lend a hauntingly sweet, floral flavor to foods such as pilaf rice, semolina cakes, ice creams, and other delicately-scented foodstuffs (in a way, it could be seen as the equivalent to kewra in India).  

 

In mukhallat perfumery, the orange-floral tones of orange blossom are often paired with honey accords to render them even more sweetly lush.  The syrupy floral aroma that emerges from these machinations means that jasmine and orange blossom are used mainly in overtly feminine blends.  However, Arabic men are also, in general, unafraid to douse themselves in heady floral perfumes, which is either due to a culturally-cemented confidence in their own manliness or an utter disregard for how perfumes are marketed.   Either way, their unabashed love of florals is worthy of emulation.

 

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Photo by René Porter on Unsplash

 

Rose is equal in stature to jasmine in traditional attar perfumery.  But while Indians love rose, it is just one of many different flowers that they grow and distill.  For Arabs and Persians, however, the rose is the most important flower of all, and it is considered the main floral component of a mukhallat, especially in blends that use oud oil.

 

The most important rose in Arabian perfumery is the Taifi rose, a variety of the rosa damascena (Turkish rose) grown in Ta’if in Saudi Arabia, a region whose unique growing conditions produce a rose oil that is considered by many (especially in the Middle East) to be superior to all other types of rose oil.  Although the Arabs and Persians have been distilling rose ottos from rose petals since the ninth century, it was not until about two centuries years ago that production of the famous Taifi rose began, near Mecca.

 

Ta’if lies two thousand meters above sea level.  Its cooler climate, coupled with excellent irrigation schemes, produces rose oil that smells green, tart, peppery, and blood-red all at once.  Taifi rose oil can come across as almost harsh in its top notes, until the aroma settles.  Its unique properties make the Taifi rose a perfect counterpart to the smoky, fermented woodiness of pure oud oil.  Thus, this pairing occupies an honored place in Middle-Eastern perfumery. 

 

In general, traditional Indian attar perfumery utilizes a much broader, more diverse range of florals and aromatics than mukhallat perfumery. For example, in India, florals such as champaca, narcissus, lotus, and marigold are used almost as extensively as rose and jasmine.  These same florals, plus neroli and magnolia, are also appreciated and used to a certain extent in the Middle-East, but their role in traditional mukhallat perfumery is limited compared to that of India.

 

However, modern artisanal mukhallat perfumery is changing that. Artisans such as Sultan Pasha, J.K. DeLapp, and Mellifluence have expanded upon the floral vocabulary of traditional Middle-Eastern attar perfumery by branching out into florals more associated with Western or French classical perfumery such as tuberose, gardenia, and osmanthus.  This strange, not at all by-the-books mix of French and Middle-Eastern floral perfumery is incredibly interesting and alluring – probably even more so than the traditional tropes.

 

Needless to say, when it comes to the more Western-centric oil perfumery of high end niche and indie brands, no flower is off limits – the entire palette is used.  The higher-end niche concentrated perfume oils from brands such as Bruno Acampora, April Aromatics, and Clive Christian produce some of the more modern, beautiful, or artistically original takes on flowers reviewed in this Guide.

  

As always, there is the matter of personal preference.  How do you take your florals?  If it is the raw-edged, throaty naturalism of flowers in all their sometimes weird and not-really-that-floral glory, then seek out traditional distilled attars and ruhs.  If you want the full-on exoticism of flowers in an Arabic or Persiatic fantasy garden, then mukhallats are the place to go.  If you want an artistic, abstract, refined, or simply more traditionally ‘perfumey’ impression of flowers, you will be more likely to find what you are looking for in the category of concentrated perfume oils, either those produced by the high end niche brands or those made by the indie oil segment of the market.  A good mix of all of these are reviewed next. 

 

 

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.

[1] The same white flowers, when steam-distilled, produce neroli oil, which is greener, fresher, and soapier than orange blossom (which is intensely sweet, heady, and honeyed, with a distinct white floral character that shares much with jasmine).

Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Musk Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Musk: Reviews O-Z

26th November 2021

 

Oriental Musk (Kuumba Made)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Oriental Musk is a light, clean musk built around the idea of Egyptian skin musk but spruced up with some spice in the topnotes.  The laundry drier-sheet aspect to this bothers me a little, but in general, this is a safe and pleasing musk scent for those who just want to smell freshly scrubbed.

 

It is worth mentioning that Oriental Musk would work well in scent-free work environments because it smells exactly like freshly laundered clothes, neutral deodorants, and other personal care products that come with descriptors like ‘cotton’ or ‘clean air’.

 

 

 

Patchouli Musk (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Patchouli Musk’s opening salvo is an odd mishmash of melting plastic, fruit, greasy almond, and nail polish remover, all of which hit the nose in a high-pitched, vaporous whoosh that will probably get you stoned if you huff it too quickly.  It is an interesting, if not altogether pleasant, beginning.  Soon, though, it eases up into a pleasant coconut accord – green leaves pulsed with coconut water in a blender, with underlying hints of sourish, piney sandalwood.  It dawdles in this bright, aromatic groove for a while before softening into a slightly creamier mixture of coconut flesh, woods, and musk, with a chaser of golden salt and marine animal from the ambergris.  In fact, towards the end, it reminds me of an even skankier Sex and The Sea by Francesca Bianchi.

 

It is difficult to detect any patchouli. This is odd because this mukhallat uses a 1997 vintage patchouli oil sourced by Mellifluence in India, an evilly-strong thing that gives me a banging headache if I so much as glance in its general direction.  On its own, the essential oil smells very little like one might expect, opening with a stinging slap of camphor, pine, and mint that never really slumps into the sweet, reddish-brown warmth normally associated with patchouli.  Indian patchouli, in its purest form, emphasizes the leafy, terpenic side of patchouli at the expense of chocolatey earthiness.  As essential oils go, it is strikingly pungent.

 

Making up for the non-appearance of the special Indian patchouli is a subtle deer musk accord.  I didn’t think I was able to smell this until my nose picked up on a musty, earthy nuance like old newspapers and cocoa husks mixed together with a bit of something plasticky.  I have come to understand that this combination of aromas signifies the presence of real deer musk.  

 

The musk gets earthier and more cocoa-like as time wears on.  It is very subtle, and those used only to the honking foulness of fake musks in mukhallat perfumery will write in to complain.  But, to paraphrase Teri Hatcher’s character in Seinfeld – it is real and it is fabulous.  Overall, Patchouli Musk is a gentle way with which to ease oneself into real deer musk.  It is well done and nowhere near as linear or as straightforward as its simple name suggests. 

 

 

 

Pheromone 4 (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Pheromone 4 is based on a brew of four animalic substances – ambergris, deer musk, civet, and castoreum.  Despite the presence of some ferocious animalics, the blend does not come off as dirty or indeed as musky.  Pheromone 4 is about as animalic as rice pudding, which it also happens to resemble.  That said, this is a pleasure to wear and to smell, sliding effortlessly as it does from floral porridge to a powdery white chocolate note that lingers for hours on the skin.

 

The rice pudding-like milkiness may owe something to an unlisted addition of other lactonic notes, such as, say, gardenia or sandalwood.  I would put good money on it being a combination of sandalwood, vanilla, and jasmine, though, because Pheromone runs quite closely at times to floral sandalwood perfumes like Dries Van Noten by Frederic Malle.

 

Pheromone 4 is also astonishingly like Feromone Donna by Abdes Salaam Attar (Dominique Dubrana) of La Via del Profumo.  Feromone Donna features a similar, although not identical, notes list to Pheromone 4 – jasmine, civet, ambergris, tuberose, and vanilla.  Like Pheromone 4, these materials come together to form a wheaten smoothness that is part instant porridge, part white chocolate.

 

If you like creamy, milky floral woody compositions, then Pheromone 4 has your name written all over it.  Those who dislike the sharp foulness of animalic substances in isolation need to sample this to understand that, sometimes, if you put a whole bunch of scary animalics together, what happens is that they cancel each other out.  The result here is about as threatening as a bowl of custard.

 

 

 

Phoebus (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Smoked vanilla, sweet resins, red musk, marshmallow, and fiery woodsmoke.

 

 

Phoebus is a good example of the ‘red musk’ so often cited in the descriptions of perfume oils composed by American indie oil companies such as Arcana, Solstice Scents, BPAL, and Alkemia.  Red musk does not exist in nature, you understand, being simply an imaginative way of dressing up synthetic white musk as witchy or mysterious-sounding.  But indie perfume oils are not strictly bound by their raw materials.  What is important here is that the result smells good and matches a specific fantasy the consumer is looking for.

 

Phoebus is built around the same resin-beeswax-woody-vanilla axis found in many of Arcana’s perfumes.  But it deviates from the template by dressing up its big bubblegummy musk with a shot of barbeque-strength smoke and an interesting (and probably unintentional) whiff of sulfur as richly gassy as a kitchen where broccoli is being cooked.

 

Somehow, it works.  At first, the nose is hit with the weird but wonderful smell of strawberry Hubba Bubba gum catching fire and smoking on a BBG grill, then a rich, salty vanilla and tonka heart overlaid with sulfur, and finally a resiny woodsmoke and vanilla blend.  It does not feel grown-up in the slightest, but that is probably half the fun here.   

 

 

 

Prince Kasthuri (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Prince Kasthuri is pungent to the point of being fecal, but this soon simmers down into a warm, dusky aroma that, while never less than animalic, is not rough, sharp, or piercing.  Indeed, what marks Prince Kasthuri out as a quality mukhallat is its velvety feel.  Compared to Kashmiri Kasthuri Ultimate, it is far darker and woodier, with a sootier backbone.

 

While Prince Kasthuri is considerably less sweet and powdery than other deer musks I have tried, the lingering sweetness intrinsic to deer musk does peek through every now and then.  Those unused to deer musk will certainly perceive it as animalic, but it is more the natural fug of closely-pressed sheep in a stall than of excrement or urine.  In terms of authenticity, I would hazard a guess that this blend contains a small quantity of real deer musk that has been fleshed out a bit at the corners with cedar, cypriol, and musk synthetics.  In general, the scent stays true to the character of an older Himalayan musk sample I have, which is dark, animalic, but not particularly loud.  It does not, however, smell like true Kasturi musk, which tends to be brighter, more uplifting, and less pungent in aroma than other types of deer musk.

 

 

 

Rawa’a Murakkaz (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Rawa’a Murakkaz is a cloying floral musk with a thick, pressed-powder texture and oily almond undertones.  Firmly in the thematic ballpark of heliotropic children’s bath and body oils (Johnson’s and Johnson’s™), many will find this very glamorous in a retro-feminine manner, but to my personal taste, it is a grim and airless affair.

 

A sharp floral tonality emerges as time goes on but fails to coalesce into anything clearly recognizable as any one flower.  Rose and jasmine would be my guess, although the edges are blurred to the degree that everything merges into one freshly-laundered plush toy accord.  It is not fresh, per se, but exhaustively clean in the fashion of Teint de Neige (Villoresi).

 

 

 

Royal Dark Musk (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Royal Dark Musk achieves two things simultaneously – darkness and comfort.  While it is not a clean laundry musk, its funk translates to delicious things such as stewed fruit, bitter chocolate, velvet, damp earth, smoke, and flowers rather than matted fur and fecal matter.  Tested side by side with a nose-searingly animalic musk such as Ajmal’s Musk Gazelle AA, it becomes clear that this is a more complex, layered effort.

 

Texturally, Royal Dark Musk’s chocolate-dense darkness contains a great deal of internal movement and detail.  As the musk settles and the wetter topnotes dry out, facets of jasmine, patchouli, woods, honey, and incense begin to emerge.  The smoky trail of bone-dry incense and musks towards the ten-hour mark is divine, and draped over a lush undergrowth of vetiver, it even takes on a Conradesque glower.

 

Not nearly as animalic as the Ajmal Musk Gazelle or the superior ASAQ Musk Ghazal, Royal Dark Musk is a perfect fit for those who feel Serge Lutens’ Musc Khoublai Khan is just a cuddly little kitten (rather than the monster it is sometimes made out to be) and wants to step it up.

 

 

 

Saffron Musk (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Saffron Musk pairs a pure, leathery saffron oil with a vintage, twenty-year-old deer musk for a result that threatens to mow you down in its path.  The first blast is unmistakably saffron, one of the most potent raw materials known to man.  The topnotes explode with a fiery intensity – dusty, almost meaty, and for a spice, animalic in its pungency.

 

I have smelled the pure Indian saffron used in this mukhallat, and in general, it is true to the essential oil, especially in its piercing rawness.  In the context of this mukhallat, however, the dustiness of the saffron is increased due to the presence of the deer musk, which acts as a magnifying glass.  The musk also adds a sweetness that lingers in the powdery drydown.

 

Interestingly, the deer musk does not smell as pungent as the raw material itself, a tincture that I have also smelled in isolation.  What it adds to this mukhallat is a warm lingering furriness, like the underside of a beloved family dog who has just taken a long hard run in the mountains.  Highly recommended for both saffron and deer musk freaks.  Keep in mind, however, that the Indian saffron oil used here is so strong that it has the potential to cause headaches in people who are sensitive to strong aromas. 

 

 

 

Sed Non Satiata (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A pounding heartbeat coalesced into scent: demonic passion and brutal sexuality manifested through myrrh, red patchouli, cognac, honey, and tuberose and geranium in a breathy, panting veil over the darkest body musk.

 

 

Sed Non Satiata is quite the morpher, cycling quickly through several stages on the skin.  The opening is quite characteristically BPAL in that it features a big dose of that slightly witchy house brew of sharp honey, bubblegummy red musk, and headshop patchouli.  (It is basically the same opening as in other BPALs such as Bloodlust and Malice).  This eau de BPAL comes on strong at first, blasting the sinuses with a slightly headachy mixture of sharp and sweet resin that catches at the throat.

 

Many people have described this scent as possessing a strong peanut butter facet.  But honestly, I think either someone just said this once and now everyone feels they have to repeat it or there is an especially esoteric brand of peanut butter out there that I have not yet inhaled in the name of science.

 

The searing floral honey and resin blast softens about an hour in, turning into a bewilderingly pretty base of creamy vanilla, fluffy musk, fruit, and flowers.  The patchouli self-soothes into an earthy, fertile smell that smells more like chocolate than herb, melting down seamlessly into a cushiony musk.  Oh dear, time for that cashmere shawl cliché once again, I’m afraid – Sed Non Satiata was born to live in the fibers of your favorite winter woolies.  

 

In the far drydown of the scent, one last surprise – the aroma of salty, warm skin.  Although far from dirty, there is something very sensual and earthy about the musk used here.  It makes me think of the silty funk of ambergris or hina musk, the Indian attar that mixes ambery resins with ambrette seed, sharp herbs, and aromatics for an effect that comes close to a properly furry animal musk.  Sed Non Satiata gains my admiration for performing a balletic turn from headshop to frothy cream to sensual skin musk.  In surprising the wearer with its minute twists and turns, Sed Non Satiata is anything but your average indie headshop oil.

 

 

 

Silk Musk (Ajmal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A thin, citrusy white musk with a massively chemical muguet note.  There are much better white musks out there for the price.  Some of them even by Ajmal.

 

 

 

Tsuga Musk (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Tsuga Musk is a good example of how an attar maker can emphasize the quieter, more delicate facets of real musk by pairing it with similar materials. As musk mukhallats go, this is powdery and irisy, with soft cocoa-like touches.  Tsuga Musk is built around a special vintage material that once depleted can never be replaced, namely a fifty-year-old musk paste found in the possessions of a Yemeni perfumer when he died.  Framing the powdery, intimate scent of the old musk is an array of coniferous woods, resins, and ambergris, all set in place to accentuate a certain briny freshness at the heart of the musk’s aroma.

 

There is a huge amount of good quality orris butter up front, presenting as a pure grey suede purse.  When the orris mingles with the vintage musk unguent, it fuses into a powdered dark chocolate or cocoa note, laced with spearmint.  Under the haze of minty, starchy orris and cocoa, the fine grey leather strengthens as the true heart of the scent.  The musk is beautifully placed in this attar – it is neither pungent nor strong, but soft, dusty, earthy, and slightly ‘stale’, like old chocolate bars developing a white bloom.  This nuance of the musk melds perfectly with the flinty orris butter, and it is a match made in heaven.

 

It is only at the edges of the scent, and then in the far drydown, that I catch the salty, briny notes that capture the marine air the mukhallat maker was aiming for.  These notes are finally brought forth by the silty, marine breeze of ambergris, which is simultaneously sweet and salty, but not really substantial, coming across more like molecules of sparkling sea air than something you can touch.  In its last gasp, vetiver, civet, patchouli, and hemlock contribute a chypre-like woody bitterness that adds backbone to the scent.    

 

 

 

Whidia (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Whither, Whidia?  This is a clean floral musk of the laundry softener genre, enriched by a dollop of ylang crème anglaise.  Like me in middle school – competent but hardly exceptional.

 

 

 

White Musk (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

 

With a texture that recalls the stickiness of a half-sucked lollipop, this is less musk than Maltol.  Candied orange blossom adds rather than detracts from the problem.  If you want a good white musk from the Arabian Oud stable, pony up for the lovely White Musk Maliki Superior (below) instead.

 

 

 

White Musk Maliki Superior (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

White Musk Maliki Superior is a cuddy, thick-as-a-cashmere-blanket white musk that flashes fruits and flowers at you before settling into softness for the rest of the ride.  It is one of those rare perfumes where ‘clean’ is not necessarily a dirty word.  It is slightly sharper than the famous Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Jism (Body) Musk, but with broadly comparable quality.   Highly recommended to people searching for a clean white musk attar that gives off that vaunted ‘my skin but better’ vibe.

 

 

 

Zuibeda (Gulab Singh Johrimal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Yet another chemical floral monstrosity out of a house that supposedly only does natural Indian attars.  Zuibeda opens on a screechy white musk with the kind of green apple and cucumber accents that are only ever acceptable in laundry softener.  It dries down to a generic green aroma about which the nicest thing that can be said is that it is not offensive. 

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples: I purchased samples (or in some cases quarter tola bottles) from Arabian Oud, Mellifluence, Arcana, BPAL, Agarscents Bazaar, Rasasi, and Ajmal.  The samples from Henry Jacques and Gulab Singh Johrimal are from Basenotes sample passes.

 

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! 

Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Musk Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Musk: Reviews K-M

24th November 2021

 

Kama (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

 

Kama is a musk fragrance with a briefly fecal topnote that sees it frequently compared to the famous Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens.  Beyond the fecal note, however, the two fragrances are quite different.  Whereas Muscs Khoublai Khan draws on a complex mixture of musk, castoreum, civet, and ambrette to achieve a warmly-furred texture, Kama employs a much simpler structure, leaning instead on the poopy facets of cedarwood and a synthetic musk molecule for its animalic effect.

 

Cedarwood can smell of feces and coffee breath in dilution, an odd effect that is cleverly accentuated in fragrances such as Santal Noble by Maître Parfumeur et Gantier and Woody Sandalwood Oil by The Body Shop.  This facet of cedarwood is brought out in Kama by way of a particularly ‘unclean’ musk molecule – possibly Tonquitone.  The overall feel of the fragrance is musky in a plain, sharply woody manner, with a hint of medicinal herbs lurking at the corners.

 

Is Kama properly dirty?  Oh yes.  Does it stand up against a more complex creation such as Muscs Khoublai Khan?  Nope. 

 

 

 

Kashmiri Kasthuri Ultimate (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Kashmiri Kasthuri Ultimate opens with the same dark fecal note as in the brand’s own Prince Kasthuri, reviewed later.  Thankfully, the pooey pong of the opening quickly dissolves into a medley of far friendlier aromas, namely bright honey, white flowers, meadow grass, and a nutty, roasted accent that eventually reveals itself to be vetiver.  These notes dance in and around the heavy musky accord at the center of the scent, and for a while, there is parity between the musk and the vetiver, flowers, and honey.

 

All too rapidly, however, the scent dries down to the same smoky, dry cedar note that is present in most other Agarscents Bazaar perfumes.  Whether this is cedar, cypriol, or frankincense it is difficult to say, only that it has the same charcoal dust quality as the material used in Comme des Garcons Black.  This gives the mukhallat a curiously transparent smokiness more reminiscent of birch tar or smoked-out church resin than of musk.

 

I am confident that this blend does not feature much, if any, genuine deer musk.  Furthermore, I give serious side eye to the suggestion that this is all-natural.  It does not smell like any natural musk I have ever smelled.  However, if you are not overly concerned with the naturalness of the deer musk, there is no reason not to enjoy Kashmiri Kasthuri Ultimate for what it is.  If you are into pungent, spicy musks and protracted smoky-woody drydowns, then both this and Prince Kasthuri would make for excellent, albeit pricey, choices.  Both blends lean masculine.

 

 

 

Kiswat Al Kaaba (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Roughly translating to the scent emanating from the cloth covering the Ka’aba in Mecca, this is an example of a nice, middle-of-the-road musk mukhallat.  It mixes a greenish, antiseptic musk note with rose, amber, patchouli, and perhaps a touch of fruity Cambodi oud.  Its pleasantly woody, resinous backdrop supports the musk without becoming intrusive.  The overall feel is rich, dusty and serene.

 

On the skin it feels dense, fragrant, and almost sweet, with sillage that is quite impressive, though never loud or overbearing.  The musk becomes steadily more animalic in character as the day wears on, but the effect is subtle and woven seamlessly into the other notes.  A very good option for someone searching for a musk that hits the happy median between clean and dirty.

 

 

 

Love’s True Bluish Light (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

This is one of Ava Luxe’s most revered scents, and for good reason.  A cold vanilla musk with hints of sweet milk, it is immediately likeable.  The basic thrust of the scent is a skin-like Egyptian musk accord, its translucence clouded by drops of vanilla milkshake.  And like milkshake, there is something a little too sweet or sticky about it as it melts.  But boy, that initial blast of icy sweetness is just wonderful.

 

Love’s True Bluish Light runs very close to Au Lait by DSH Perfumes, as well as to examples of cool vanilla musks found throughout the indie perfume oil sector, most notably Crystalline by NAVA and Snowshoe Pass by Solstice Scents.  Highly recommended for people who want an emotionally remote rendition of musk and vanilla.

 

 

 

Lust (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Uncontrollable passion and insatiable sexual desire: red musk, patchouli, ylang ylang and myrrh.

 

 

Along with Snake Oil, Lust is probably one of the BPAL scents that even outsiders know by name.  Lust starts out sharp and feral, with an almighty roar of potent red musk, red berries, and rubbery, petrol-like ylang ylang.  Grit your teeth, for this all eventually settles into an incredibly warm, earthy musk scent that manages to extract and showcase the best facets of each note, namely, the damp cocoa softness of patchouli, the banana custard elements of ylang, the fungal earthiness of myrrh, and the cinnamon furriness of ‘red’ musk.

 

Lust is one of the BPAL blends always being touted as being sexy or sensual, and for once, I have to say it lives up to its billing.

 

 

 

Maisam (Rasasi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Maisam is a sharp floral musk with hints of rose and cleaning detergent.  Like all the mukhallats from Rasasi, the trajectory from top to bottom is remarkably short, with the initial accords collapsing far too quickly into a soapy musk pinned to the base.

 

The musk here is dry to the point of being scratchy and as mineral as water running off a rock.  It leans slightly masculine in the drydown, with vetiver or moss lingering in the trail of parched musk.  Like Oudh al Mithali by the same house, Maisam is a face made up of blurred, indistinguishable features.  Undeniably attractive from a distance, up close it proves difficult to zone in on any one note or accord that might define it.  Maisam smells vaguely exotic but has little to offer by way of richness or interest.

 

 

 

Moschus Supreme (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Moschus Supreme is made with twenty-year-old Himalayan deer musk, and therefore only available in small quantities.  It is also eye-wateringly expensive.  The opening is a wave of the warm, toffee-like tones of the vintage Cretan labdanum absolute that Mellifluence uses in its mukhallats. Rich and caramelized, the labdanum dominates the opening for a while, before revealing the medicinal properties of the deer musk.  There is an ammoniac smell to some deer musk tinctures, and this aspect is emphasized here.  Note that this accord is not unpleasant.  It simply alerts your nose to the presence of a genuinely animalic material.

 

I have smelled the twenty-year-old Himalayan deer musk used in Moschus Supreme.  So, allow me to reassure you that while the original tincture is phenomenally dirty, with nuances ranging from sweaty pack animals to urine, Moschus Supreme itself is about as objectionable as kitten fur.  The musk element smells clean, furry, and a little ammoniac, but that is the extent of it.  Nothing to scare the horses.  In the far drydown, the musk does grow a little deeper and dirtier, but again, you would have to have a fairly low tolerance of animalic smells to find it truly ‘dirty’.

 

Despite the listed presence of oud, benzoin, pepper, and mitti attar, Moschus Supreme is a one-two punch of labdanum and musk.  The labdanum lends a rounded, warm caramel sweetness to the musk, and the musk a gently furred animalic tone that lingers in the nostrils almost indefinitely.  Belying its grandiose name, Moschus Supreme is a fairly basic take on the genre.  However, given that it avoids the foulness of most other dark musk mukhallats, and manages to smell rather pleasant, I give it a faint thumbs up.

 

 

 

Musc (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Musc is a great example of how musk can be both vaguely repellent and mysteriously attractive at the same time.  I love Musc, but it is a total mind trip.  It is not in the slightest bit sweet, powdery, or milky, but neither is it dirty, hairy, or scary.  It is just….odd.  And it is precisely this oddness that makes it so memorable.

 

Musc is a musk scent that smells of places and things rather than animals or humans.  Opening with a hugely musty patchouli and what smells to me like the clay-like pungency of pure lavender, I am not surprised that most people interpret it as mushroomy.  It occurs to me that the famously fungal opening to Acampora’s Iranzol is also due to a very Italian, very pungent (almost saline) medley of wet kitchen herbs and patchouli.  The clove note is dusty and stale-smelling, like radiator dust mixed with sweat.  I am also betting on some myrrh, its anisic-mushroomy facets muscling their way to the front. 

 

The salty-aqueous nature of Musc makes me think of the peat bogs of Western Ireland, where clods of wet soil mixes with the salt air from off the Atlantic.  It smells a little like cold cellars full of hearty parsnips and roots.

 

But its mustiness also reminds me of woolen sweaters taken out of storage, and the ramshackle home of an old friend of mine, where everything they had was handmade by their ex-hippy mother, even their shoes.  I loved their home and its musty smell.  I will always remember the ‘summer of love’ that I spent there, getting paid peanuts by her dad to paint flowers and peace signs on huge recycling bins, and listening to the Beatles on repeat.

 

Musc is a fragrance that will be entirely personal to its wearer because of its refusal to conform to conventional ideas about how musk should smell.  It is cold rather than warm, salty rather than sweet, and so on.  It smells both of the outside (peat bogs) and the inside (closed up rooms and hand-me-down clothes), but also intimately yeasty, like the moist neck fold of a fat baby.  Genre-shaking stuff, and seventies enough to make you feel like a shag pile carpet and a full bush are required to wear it. 

 

 

 

Musc au Chocolat (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musc au Chocolate is a good example of how deer musk can be made to smell almost entirely gourmand.  Musk au Chocolat goes on dusty and flat, but immediately fluffs out into a warm, furry musk tucked inside swaddling blankets of thick, dry vanilla and tangy cocoa powder.  The Mysore sandalwood used here adds its own quasi-gourmand touch, because, as everyone who loves Mysore sandalwood knows, it is as foody as it is woody – thick, buttery, salty and sweet, with a balsamic tang that recalls both buttermilk and caramel.  The Kashmiri musk in the blend is soft and bright, its pungency only noticeable when you take your nose away from the skin for a while and then return it.

Musc au Chocolat smells rather like a musk-impregnated Ore (Slumberhouse), minus the smoky guaiac and Carmex lip balm notes.  I make this observation not to imply that one might substitute for the other, but to suggest that Musk au Chocolat performs the same trick of smelling delicious but not candy-like.  This mukhallat is a great showcase for how an artisan can accentuate and extend the sweet, powdery, and cocoa-like facets of real deer musk, nudging it in a gourmand direction, while maintaining the characteristic animalistic furriness of musk and thus making sure you would not want to eat it.

 

 

 

Musc d’Orange (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musc d’Orange is a spicy, masculine-leaning Moorish leather scent.  Built according to the Spanish tradition of curing leather with flowers and spices, Musc d’Orange features a fuel-soaked, orangey leather over a base of animalic castoreum, civet, and real Kashmiri musk.

 

With its spicy, rubbery diesel undertones, this will appeal to fans of the rougher Spanish leather-style fragrances out there, such as the classic Knize Ten, Peau d’Espagne (Santa Maria Novella), and Cuir Mauresque (Serge Lutens).  It features the same dichotomy featured in most leathers of this style, namely the wayward tug between the aridity of the spices and the syrupy feel of the florals, all of which adds up to that dry-but-creamy mouthfeel that makes these leathers so satisfying (and, to some, nauseating).

 

Musc d’Orange is a much tougher, less floral fragrance than the same house’s Musc et Fleurs, but there is a common note that places them roughly in the same family – possibly the rubbery, potent Indian tuberose and the orange-tinted leather accord that either accompanies the tuberose or is a nuance of it.

 

The natural musk in this attar is not overpowering or dirty, displaying only the softly powdered furriness of real musk.  This is a mukhallat maker that has real talent in using deer musk in a subtle, considered manner.  He uses it to enhance the experience of the other raw materials rather than to clobber you over the head with a feral dirtiness.  Solidly classical, I recommend Musc d’Orange highly to fans of the masculine Spanish leather genre. 

 

 

 

Musc et Fleurs (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musc et Fleurs opens with a stinging medicinal accord – probably the Hindi oud – which softens into a soft, rich floral heart draped over an Indian sandalwood base.  The buttery, gasoline-tinged tuberose is the standout of the flowers here, but jasmine and rose also play a significant role in the overall richness.  This arrangement of flowers feels almost classical, in the mold of Joy or Ubar, although much sweeter and tamer.  It lacks the sour civet note that defines those scents.  Still, there is a leathery aspect to the tuberose that adds verve to the mass of softer floral notes, keeping them upright and moving forward.

 

The salty radiance of natural ambergris and the sweet furriness of real deer musk serve as a bed of hot coals that blows hot air under the flowers and woods, causing them to expand sweetly into the air in a billowing cloud.  Creamy and almost cocoa-ish thanks to the addition of patchouli, the final impression of the scent is of a thickly furred musk with a trail of powdered sugar sweetness.  The orange peel-flecked tuberose rears its heads now and then, but the overall effect is soft and subtle rather than overbearing.

 

A note on the musk used here.  The musk is natural Kashmiri deer musk and is bright and uplifting rather than heavy or animalic.  It is not dirty or foul in any way, simply adding to the furred warmth of this wonderful ambery-resinous floral   Intoxicating and complex, I could exclusively wear this and Musc au Chocolat for the rest of my life and not feel like I’m missing out on anything. 

 

 

 

Musc Pur (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is a good rendition of the basic white musk attar released by every single attar company in the world.  White musk oils, sometimes called jism or body musks, cost pennies to make because the extent of the perfumer’s art here is simply diluting the white musk synthetic with a carrier oil.  (All white musks are synthetic).  Little to add here except to say that this is a decent version – slightly sweet, clean, and dressed up with a hint of rose.  One can find much more reasonably-priced specimens elsewhere on the Internet, but for the money, this is one of the smoothest.

 

 

 

Musk (Nemat)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Although the label specifies nothing other than musk, I suspect that this is an Egyptian-style musk rather than a deer musk or a generic white musk, because it is yellow in color and features a clear-as-a-bell floral character.  The floral bouquet is sweet and clean, a blurry mélange of rose, muguet, or jasmine (although it is truly difficult to tell).  Unfortunately, the overly abstract nature of the flowers means that it also runs perilously close to the scent of laundry detergent.  Backing the florals is a vein of medicinal saffron and woods. It is fine for an Egyptian musk, but I think there is better out there.  Not bad in a pinch, though, if all you want to smell like is freshly-scrubbed.

 

 

 

Musk al Oud (Ajmal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A puzzling experience, and one that makes me wonder if my sample has soured.  First, there is a blast of something greasy and stale, like the air escaping from a long-unopened lunchbox.  It eventually dries down to a pale ghost of Montale’s Cuir d’Arabie without the charm of that scent’s half-feral, half-gentlemanly split personality. 

 

 

 

Musk al Ghazal (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Haramain’s Musk al Ghazal is obviously not real deer musk, but still, it is quite a decent option for when you want a hit of ‘black’ musk without the heavy, fecal facets of some dark musks on the market.  It opens cool and herbal, with a Coca-Cola undertone.  Some people may even be tempted to call this chocolatey, but in truth, it is too sharp and herbal to qualify for that descriptor.  It is musky but in a clean, uber-fresh way, a smidgen of hospital soap lurking at its corners.

 

Once the anise and caraway notes bank down, the musk becomes deeper and woodier.  It would make for a good layering agent under sweet ambers and gourmands to give them depth, or as a standalone musk attar for men who like their musks dark, woody, and herbal instead of sweet or powdery.  Perfectly serviceable, really, under the circumstances. 

 

 

 

Musk Aswad (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musk Aswad, which means ‘black musk’ in Arabic, is Al Faransi’s take on the famous black musk attars of the Middle East.  Given that this take runs more towards earthy than dirty, it is a more versatile option than the standard black musk prototype, each variant of which seems to try to out-poo the other.  

 

Musk Aswad opens with a powerfully antiseptic musk with greenish spice and a peppery vetiver lurking in the background.  The vetiver swells in presence beyond the opening, lending the composition a damp, earthy rootiness that feels like cool water running over moss and stones.  It is not at all sweet, but later in the blend’s development, there appear traces of deeply spiced fruit (plum) and a dark honey or mead note.  These elements add body and richness to the musk, but no sweetness.

 

In short, Musk Aswad is a clean and masculine-smelling musk, with a pleasantly winey richness creeping up on the backbone of mossy vetiver.  The texture changes impressively throughout its development, from a hard blast of antiseptic fluid to jungly vetiver and finally to a velvety, plummy richness as thick as coddled wine.  It is an original take on the black musk theme and recommended to musk fans looking for an interesting detour on the usual musk axis running between squeaky clean and fecal dirtiness. 

 

 

 

Musk Attar 2011 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musk Attar contains real deer musk.  It opens with a strangely familiar odor, which defies explanation except to say that it lies somewhere between glue, plastic, varnish, and something industrial but warm and putty-like.  Repeated wears make me suspect that some of these odd (but not unpleasant) nuances might be given off by the type of sandalwood oil used in the attar.

 

Sandalwood can often smell gluey, terpenic, or peanut shell-ish in aroma profile, depending on the distillation or provenance.  The sandalwood used in Musk Attar 2011 is high-toned and raw, more reminiscent of a freshly-split log of wood than the buttery, resinous sandalwood oil used in other Rising Phoenix Perfumery attars.  But it is more likely the strange, gluey overtones have something to do with the interaction between the deer musk and the sandalwood.  Some deer musks have a sweet, plasticky or rubbery smell, akin to the waft of air that greets the nose when you open your children’s’ lunchboxes after a summer of disuse. 

 

Beyond the first wave of sandalwood high notes, there rises a familiar skin-like aroma that combines facets of stale cocoa powder, cocoa husks, woods and newspaper, and something a little boozy and fruity, like apple schnapps.  This is the musk coming forward a bit more.  The overall aroma is as intimate as your lover’s pillow in the morning, fragrantly damp with saliva and skin cells.

 

At this stage, the scent is neutral in aroma profile, as well as abstract.  It does not remind me of anything concrete like flowers or leather.  It is just a pale, cloudy mixture of neutral musk and wood, whipped into a meringue-like texture.  The musk note is quite delicate, and towards the drydown, the sandalwood swells up once again, obscuring the aroma of the musk almost entirely.  The sandalwood in the base smells very different to the varnish-like wood in the topnotes; there is no strangeness here, just a deeply aromatic, buttery sandalwood in the Rising Phoenix Perfumery fashion.  It seems to grow in strength and volume in the far reaches of the drydown, which is probably the musk and the sandalwood amplifying each other in turn until their voices soar a little higher.

 

 

 

Musk Dulcedinis (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Dulcedinis means ‘sweet’ in Latin, and boy, they weren’t kidding.  This is a caramelized, thick-with-iris-starch musk freshened up with a slug of aloe vera.  At first, the thick laundry musk is all you can smell, but before you get too down about it, the texture begins to be stippled here and there with small droplets of aloe-scented shampoo and Dove body lotion, which seem to ‘pop’ in contact with the skin.  It is slightly sharper and sweeter than other white body musks, but its cosseting thickness will likely appeal to lovers of bath powders and milky lotions. 

 

 

 

Musk Gazelle AA (Ajmal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ajmal’s Musk Gazelle – issued under two different names or versions, varying only in concentration – is a great example of what most people believe real deer musk smells like or indeed what it should smell like, therefore making it something of a benchmark in the genre.  Unfortunately, since Musk Gazelle is unlikely to contain much if any real deer musk, it is also responsible for perpetuating misconceptions about what musk smells like.

 

And that is unfortunate, because Musk Gazelle is loud, filthy to the point of being fecal, and harsh to boot.  Wearing it feels like being on the losing end of a bet.  In case anyone is in any doubt, it is like being forced into a barn with a thousand defecating animals, all air vents closed off and the heating turned up to a hundred degrees.  I am aware that this description is disgusting – but to be fair, so is Musk Gazelle AA.

 

 

 

Musk Gazelle Grade 2 (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is a dark, quasi-fecal musk, the likes of which is standard fodder for any Middle Eastern mukhallat house.  Musk Gazelle Grade 2 is somewhat distinguished from its peers by way of a subtle dusting of dark cocoa, which progresses from bitter to velvety over the course of the wear.  Even if you don’t normally like cocoa notes, you will welcome them here for the softening effect they have on the fetid musk.

 

Just how dirty is this?  Well, as in the case of all black musks, it is all a matter of degrees.  Musk Gazelle Grade 2 is properly dirty, but it is also soft, which is its saving grace.  A fecal fist inside a velvet glove.

 

 

 

Musk Oil Black (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Despite the name – which makes it sound like just another one of those dark, foul-smelling musks so enduringly popular in the genre – Musk Oil Black is a brisk spice-laden affair that has more in common with old-fashioned barbershop colognes than with the souk.  It smells like benzoin and cinnamon soap, and the salty musk on Daddy’s neck after a long commute home.  A less floral Kiehl’s Original Musk, or, as a friend on Basenotes mentioned, Old Spice.  Forget the notes list for this one.  Musk Oil Black is a soapy carnation musk that walks the thin line between clean and dirty with aplomb.

 

 

 

Musk Oil White (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Musk Oil White is a white musk with all the freshly-laundered softness we have come to expect from its ilk.  To its credit, it is not entirely phoned in.  The ‘white noise’ sound of the musk has been upholstered with a chorus of powdery florals – mimosa, iris, and freesia – for a lustrous depth that goes beyond the initial impression of belly fluff.  Therefore, Musk Oil White has more in common with ‘complete’ perfumes such Lorenzo Villoresi’s Teint de Neige than with the bog standard white musks released by all the big mukhallat companies.  Still, there is no good reason to spend $500 on a white musk. 

 

 

 

Musk Ravz For Men (Perfume Parlour)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Dupe for: Parfums Editions de Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur

 

The topnotes of the dupe are clearly aiming for the bright lavender and spice opening of Musc Ravageur, but they land instead on an accord that is half Indian spice rack and half sherbet, like a fistful of lemon-scented Love Hearts blitzed down into a fine dust.  It is an unfortunate, even off-putting opening.  (Of course, there are people who claim that of the original, too.)

 

Once the unsettling opening settles, a creamy mixture of musk, woods, and vanilla comes to the fore, with the same funky doughnut-like undertone as the original.  The cinnamon inches its way forwards quite aggressively until it dominates the sweet, bready musk.  But the cinnamon note is at least sparkling and Coca Cola-ish rather than heavy.

 

Overall, the dupe catches at one or two of the main ‘movements’ in Musc Ravageur, and thus pulls off quite a convincing impression.  Where the dupe loses points is in the drydown, which lacks the essential texture of the original, arrived at by a combination of velvety woods, civety raunchiness, and creamy tonka.  However, the dupe could be good for layering under the original, as well as under the stalwart oriental that inspired Musc Ravageur, i.e., Shalimar.

 

 

 

Musk Tahara Al Faransi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musk Tahara is the title used for the standard, white body musks (‘missk’) put out by all the Middle Eastern and Indian attar houses, and as the name suggests, this is the Al Faransi take.  The obligatory white musk is usually a bit of a snooze in comparison to the other perfumes, but surprisingly, this brand chose not to phone it in.

 

Opening with a mouthwatering, but sharp and almost boozy nut aroma that makes me think of noisette liquors flavored with bitter herbs and hazelnuts, Musk Tahara Al Faransi is immediately and gratifyingly novel.   There is a floury, gluey texture to this smell, reminiscent of the chestnut accord in Cloon Keen Atelier’s Castaña and the peanut shell and heliotrope of Bois Farine by L’Artisan Parfumeur. There’s also an undertone of something milkily poisonous that I find rather alluring. 

 

This accord of milky, gluey nut-dust is soon joined by a Taifi rose that adds a piercingly green, leafy note.  The sharp nuttiness continues throughout, but the rosiness eventually fades away, leaving the white musk to swell up and take over for the rest of its very long life.  Although the ending is less interesting than the beginning, this will please someone who loves plush, clean musks but has grown tired of the cottony blandness inherent to the genre.  Boring is one thing this musk ain’t.

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples:  I purchased samples from Mellifluence, Maison Anthony Marmin, Ava Luxe, BPAL, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Agarscents Bazaar, Rasasi, Bruno Acampora, Duftkempels, Nemat, Ajmal, Al Haramain, and Perfume Parlour.  The samples from Rising Phoenix Perfumery were sent to me free of charge by the brand.  The samples from Henry Jacques are from a Basenotes sample pass.

 

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 Mukhallats Musk Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Musk: Reviews 0-H

24th November 2021

 

010 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 010 is a pink-smelling scent with a cheerful cherry blossom note pitched halfway between fruit and flower.  The opening is not half bad, with its bright vintage make-up vibe.  Unfortunately, a starched white musk soon arrives to bulldoze over the more delicate elements, sanding down the edges until all you smell is a yawning expanse of blandness.

 

At certain points, No. 010 reminds me of the scent of those delicate scalloped soaps in the restrooms of upscale Japanese restaurants.  This, it turns out, is the high point, because what follows is a piercingly sweet, watermelony musk that dredges up the memory of Calone-drenched aquatics of the nineties.

 

 

 

 

015 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Looking at the notes, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is an Arabian saffron-rose affair as exotic as the Muezzin’s call to prayer.  Think again.  No. 015 is, in fact, a rather old-fashioned floral musk.  It smells like Fructis Garnier shampoo at first, and then segues into pure pink soap. The drydown is the gentle, but barely-there scent of rosewater pastilles.

 

 

 

Ajeeb Musk Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ajeeb Musk Blend is an antiseptic yet sullen patchouli-musk-amber blend that wouldn’t go amiss among hippies at a Samhain festival or a Grateful Dead concert.  More of a San Francisco ‘summer of love’ vibe than an Eastern one.  The patchouli featured here is green, oily, and heavy duty in the way of health food store oils, complete with the lingering whiff of burlap and quinoa.  It is a raw, organic kind of smell whose edges have not been sanded down in any way, or softened with amber – the minty, camphoraceous sting of un-aged patchouli oil from India rather than a pleasing Western interpretation. 

 

Almost immediately, the patchouli is joined by an aggressively soapy musk.  Over the next three hours, the wearer is held hostage to an unpleasant power struggle between the sour patchouli and the ‘clean’ musk, the combination of which runs perilously close to bathroom disinfectant.  Together, the greenish patchouli and the bland musk conjure up the ghostly image of neroli, underlining the soapy, antiseptic impression of the other notes. 

 

The saving grace of the scent is a golden amber accord, thick and toffee-ish, that mercifully appears in the base to atone for everything that’s gone on before.  This part is delicious, sweet-n-salty in an ambergris kind of way. Since Ajeeb will last past hot showers and furious scrubbings with steel wire, it means that the blend is pleasant for about two-thirds of its life on one’s skin.  The opening segment is a trial, though, and even that remaining one third of wear time seems excruciatingly long when it swaggers past the four hour mark.  In brief, Ajeeb should appeal to anyone who has ever experimented with headshop oils, amber cubes, and musk lollies in their youth, and is now unaccountably nostalgic.

 

 

 

Al Dewan (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

An antiseptic oud note rises to meet the nose first, cleansing the palate for the urinous musk that follows closely behind.  Flashes of a hot pink rose and amber lift the dark musk here and there, but overall, this is a straight-up masculine affair of oud and musk.  Al Dewan is not terribly refined or interesting in and of itself, but it performs the same basic pheromone-enhancing function as Pepe Le Pew rolling in his own skunky secretions before trying to seduce the neighbor’s cat.  Therefore, it might make for a decent pulling scent.

 

 

 

Alexandria (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Red Egyptian Musk, Bergamot, Lime, Lotus, Amber, Blue Nile, Dark Rose, Dark Vanilla

 

 

Alexandria is a big, bosomy musk with plenty of spice and amber to fill out its curves.  Along the edges, there is something fresh and watery – a combination of the lotus and ‘Blue Nile’ accords – that serves to keep the scent from staggering under its own weight.  In the drydown, there seems to be a big dose of pleasantly musty vetiver and earthy patchouli (although unlisted), all backlit with the reddish, golden glow of that ambery musk.  Alexandria is mercifully unsweet, and although a little unrefined and big-boned, it at least fulfils something of the Egyptian exoticism promised in the brand’s lore.

 

 

 

Al Hajar Al’Aswad Royal (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

After the machoistic swagger of Ajeeb, Al Hajar Al’Aswad Royal is a fruity-floral musk clearly intended for the wimmen folk.  This is a brash floral over a resinous base of sandalwood and musk, but mostly musk.  The florals here explode in an almost dizzying show of force – a boatload of purple, fruity jasmine petals clambering all over neroli, bergamot, and later, the unctuous sweetness of orange blossom.  The initial onslaught of fruity flowers is intense, to say the least, but it teeters charmingly the edge of syrupiness without ever falling in.  When a brisk white musk eventually steps in to dial back the volume, it settles to an acceptable level of sweetness.

 

There is a creamy woodiness that rises from the base to further cushion the fruity floral accords, but it is very subtle and, as with most of the ASAQ mukhallats, you’ll just have to take the company’s word that it is sandalwood.  In general, it is fair to say that the sandalwood element in most ASAQ mukhallats seems to be there more for texture and mouthfeel than for aroma.  For the aroma of real Indian sandalwood, it is best to look elsewhere.

 

At one stage, the scent begins to radiate a subtle, creamsicle-like duet of orange blossom and milky white musk that comes very close to the starched marshmallow loveliness of By Killian’s Love (Don’t Be Shy).  If money is no object, and smelling like a pretty, floral marshmallow is your aim, then Al Hajar Al’Aswad Royal should fit the bill.  It is a scent fit for a modern princess who wants to leave a radiant trail of flowers, white musk, and creamy wood as she cuts a swathe through her minions.

 

 

 

Al Hajjar Al’Aswad (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Hajjar Al’Aswad is the budget version of the Al Hajar Al’Aswad Royal described above (note the slightly different spelling of the word ‘Hajar’), fetching approximately $100 per tola compared to $800 for the Royal version.  That’s still not enormously cheap, I know, but if you’re patient, you can score good deals in eBay auctions.  Even at $100 a tola, this attar represents good value for money in that the materials are decent (the rose in particular), and it is very long-lasting.

 

There’s a caveat, though.  You must love soapy laundry musks in order to get along with it.  Al Hajjar Al’Aswad revolves around a classic combo of rose and jasmine, given an exotic flourish by a generous dose of bitter, dusty saffron.  There is a hint of fruit too, possibly from the grapey jasmine that ASAQ seems to favor.  This rich but medicinal fruity-floral accord is blurred around the edges with a hugely soapy musk and, in the far drydown, sandalwood.  It is a solid, if unexciting performance. It is also unequivocally feminine.

 

I detect no oud, only the rich, medicinal sourness of saffron, a material that often stands in for the exotic austerity of oud in attars positioned at the lower end of the scale.  Although clean and laundry-like, the musk thankfully does not have the overly scratchy feel of some modern industrial musks.  Compared to the haute couture version above, Al Hajjar Al’Aswad feels like settling for the farmhand when what you really want is the prince.  But still, if you like rich, soapy musks mixed with bright fruits and flowers, you could do a lot worse.

 

 

 

Al Ghaliyah (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Ghaliyah is a type of mukhallat with a long and noble history in Arabian perfumery.  It was considered an art form to blend an exquisitely balanced Al Ghaliyah, one that the Abbāsid caliphs excelled in.  Those who were able to offer the most beautiful Al Ghaliyah mukhallats to the Emir were given status and money and regarded as royal perfumers with a royal seal of approval.  Al Ghaliyah mukhallats typically featured some of the costliest substances known to man, such as oud, ambergris, and musk.

 

Most modern Al Ghaliyah mukhallats are poorly made and contain synthetics to replace the costlier ingredients.  But the preserve of artisans is to take an ancient form of perfumery and restore it to its former position of glory by making it with care and the best materials.  Therefore, if you’re curious about the Al Ghaliyah model, seek out examples from artisans such as Al Shareef Oudh, Kyarazen, or Rising Phoenix Perfumery.

 

The Al Ghaliyah by Al Shareef Oudh smells very different to the other examples of Al Ghaliyah I have smelled, which have been either rosy and fruity (the Kyarazen) or smoky jasmine, rose, and oud (the Rising Phoenix).  It soon becomes obvious that Al Shareef Oudh has spent much time – six years to be precise – studying the ancient recipe for Al Ghaliyah and collecting the exact raw materials from around the world to make it.  The result is probably the most historically authentic example of the genre, because it focuses almost exclusively on ambergris, deer musk, and (possibly) oud.

 

Al Ghaliyah seems to headline with a very barnyardy oud, but there is no oud listed here.  Instead, this is a phenomenally dirty, furry musk that smells like fabric left to fester in a dusty cupboard for a few decades.  The aroma that hits the nose first is of that Afghan rug being taken out and shaken – thickly sour, with hints of mold, dust, animal hair, animal fat, and the rich pong of wood rot.

 

It is the smell of fermenting materials – leather, wool, cloth – that fools the nose into thinking it is smelling oud.  The essential character of pure oud is a core of resinous woodiness that is present in all oils, but it can also be defined as having a uniquely fermented aroma, which comes from soaking the wood chips in water prior to distillation.  The fermentation note in oud can resemble freshly tanned leather, fermenting fruit or vegetables, or even vapors from fermenting grain or wood alcohol.  It is an ancient, brooding smell with a whisper of prehistoric menace attached to it, making you close your eyes and imagine what the inside of Genghis Khan’s yurt must have smelled like.  (Answer: This. It smelled like this.)

 

The wave of oudy fermentation dies back and the nose becomes gradually more aware that this is deer musk.  It is unmistakably so, in fact – full of tarry smoke and spice, furry, pungent, with a rounded belly of a texture that no other material can create.  It is the scent of wet cows sheltering together in a cave.  Later, this accord sweetens, another characteristic of real musk.  But the texture remains tarry-sappy rather powdery.

 

There is a salty undertone to the musk, but although I recognize this as the ambergris element, it registers more as a sensation at the edges of my smell receptors than as a strong aroma in and of itself.  The ambergris comes across as less of a crackle of radiance and more as a naturally-occurring facet of the oud or musk.  In fact, what this reminds me of is Chinese oud oil, which manifests its animal character through specific nuances that resemble real ambergris and deer musk.  I appreciate the furry roundness of Chinese oud oils, and thus I also like Al Ghaliyah.  This mukhallat is highly recommended for guys and gals who take their animalics with an authentic growl, as opposed to blunted or babied with sweeter, softer notes.

 

 

 

Al Medina Al Mounawara (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Classified as a floral woody musk, Al Medina Al Mounawara is a good entry point into the world of Arabian concentrated perfume oils and attars, especially for people who are unsure about where to start or who want to avoid the darker, more challenging fragrances of the genre.  It is a very pretty, gentle fragrance, reminiscent of clean bare skin after a hot shower.  I put this on at seven a.m. one morning, and seven hours on, it was still there, radiating in the air around me in its own subtle but persistent cloud of loveliness. 

 

The structure of this scent is simple, but evident care has been taken to ensure that all elements here – the musk, the florals, the amber, and the woods – are polished to a perfect roundness and smoothness.  There’s a touch of amber for sweetness, but thankfully, it is not overplayed.

 

A smiley dollop of pink rose imbues the mixture of white musk, blond woods, and amber with a soft blush.  There is a charming innocence to this blend that makes me think of a young lady receiving this as a gift from a father or brother.  I think this would appeal to a large segment of the American market, particularly women who favor fragrances emphasizing shower-fresh skin, cleanliness, and warmth over carnality.  People who love fragrances by Clean or Philosophy will find this one comforting.

 

 

 

Al Molouk Musk (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Molouk Musk is a variation on the regular Al Molouk template created by Rising Phoenix Perfumery for its Al Molouk series.  In contrast to the other Al Molouk variants, this one possesses a strongly Indian character.  Al Molouk Musk differs from the other Al Molouk versions by way of addition of – you guessed it – musk.

 

The musk component reminds me powerfully of the type of musk in ASAQ’s Ajeeb, which is to say a pungent vegetal musk with a hyper-clean, almost antiseptic breeze blowing through it, and sluiced thoroughly with astringent, peppery green aromatics.  If life is all about the sweet and the sour, as Ed Sheeran says, then Al Molouk Musk stands firmly in the sour section.

 

In fact, the heart of this version of Al Molouk features the same hina musk attar that is used in Musk Rose Attar, a pungent shamama made from distilling over a hundred different herbs, woods, spices, and aromatics into sandalwood oil.   Although the hina musk used in both is the same, it smells completely different in Al Molouk Musk, proving that context within a perfume is crucial to the final outcome.  Whereas the hina musk attar renders Musk Rose authentically musky and skin-like in its drydown, here the hina sits more front and center, accentuating the attar’s naturally green, soapy, and bitter-astringent facets.  It runs cool, rather than warm.

 

Apart from the hina musk dominating the front end of this attar, Al Molouk Musk differs from its counterparts by turning the dimmer switch down on the sweeter elements of the original, namely the rose and amber.  The rose does start to come through more towards the far drydown, but even when it does, it is dry, not sweet or full-bodied.  The fresh, soapy greenness of the hina musk is very charming, reminiscent as it is of the smell on one’s hands after washing with Chandrika soap, the little pea-colored soap from India that strips grime, dirt, moisture, and even skin cells from one’s hands.  In other words, kind of harsh at first, but pleasantly fresh thereafter.

 

Its core of soap and bitter herbs might make this a better choice for men than for women, but, as ever, there’s nothing to say a woman couldn’t get away with it if she so desired.  Al Molouk would particularly suit the tastes of those who already like the heavy-duty antiseptic musk of Ajeeb or any of the greener, soapier Firdaus attars.

 

 

 

Baba Yaga (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Fiery dragon’s blood incense, sweet woodsmoke, dried herbs, dripping candle wax, forest dirt

 

 

At first, Baba Yaga is a confusing mish-mash of aftershave, dirt, and bubblegum.  But when the dust settles, it becomes clear that Baba Yaga is actually a relative of Sixteen92’s own Salem, simply switching out the smoky church incense for a sweet headshop musk to buffer the central accord of autumn leaves.  This switcheroo shifts the scene from Salem’s old stone church to a cozy New Age shop, where its owner has decided to light a cone or two and throw some dried sage onto the burner.

 

The bitter-spicy ‘aftershave’ taste left by the dirt and the herbs is effectively countered by the lurid Juicy Fruit red musk emanating from the dragon’s blood.  This is pure eau de New Age shop, but with a slightly unexpected, and therefore sexy, masculine edge.  The drydown is intensely powdery, so heads up if that is not your thing. 

 

 

 

Bien Loins d’Ici (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description:  The Scarlet Woman, aglow with sensual indolence: red musk, benzoin, caramel accord, golden honey, and spiced Moroccan unguents.

 

 

Oof, get this perfume bien loins d’ici, s’il vous plait.  Bien Loins d’Ici opens with a very strong, bubblegum-sweet red musk with an undertow of urinous honey.  Unapologetically headshoppy, it reminds me of the colorful ethnic shops I loved as a teenager, featuring a miasma of exotic smells from the piles of unlit incense sticks, musty second-hand clothes, mood stones, health food bars, sacks of bulgur and quinoa, and the wheaten aroma of burlap bags.

 

Although this sort of thing has the potential to be heavy, credit goes to BPAL for blowing some air up its skirts by way of some nice leafy notes, which smell to my nose smell like crushed flower stems, grass stalks, and dandelion leaves.  The honey note loses its initial sharpness as time goes on, relaxing into a pretty floral honey accord draped over the deeper caramel amber in the base.  Surprisingly, in the base, there is a sawdusty suede accord that might even be accused of being Tuscan Leather-lite.

 

 

 

Body Musk Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is one of the best and most luxurious white musks on the market.  With a texture poised between oil and powder, Body Musk Blend slips right onto the skin without any resistance at all.  Zero tackiness, zero stickiness. It smells like clean skin, cream soda, vanilla ice cream, and warm, folded cashmere blankets straight from the laundry basket.

 

Although stunning on its own, it will also layer beautifully under sharp rose oils and dank musks to lend a gentle muskiness that softens and modulates.  It also makes for a great fixative, extending the life of other perfumes. For anybody who loves creamy, clean musk fragrances like Serge Lutens’ Clair de Musc, give this one a whirl – you may never look back.  A drop in your nighttime bath is also a real treat, turning your bathroom into an upmarket spa.

 

 

 

Civet Musk Mukhallat (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Civet Musk Mukhallat is a syrupy, indolic orange flower draped over dirty musks, an under-netting of saffron and rose notes lending its familiar attar-lite exoticism to the ensemble.  A word of warning for those with delicate sensibilities – the musk pulls no punches, featuring the authentic pungency of pack animals steaming in a crowded shed.  The sweet affability of the floral notes papers over the dirtiness somewhat, rendering the filth more presentable for public consumption.  Like most Agarscents Bazaar mukhallats, Civet Musk Mukhallat is dense and animalic in the buttery retro-floriental style so beloved of the house.

 

I do not perceive the foul odor of real civet paste in Civet Musk Mukhallat, but there is lots of black ambergris.  Black ambergris is the lowest grade of ambergris, because, yet uncured by the ocean, it is still just a softish lump of whale dung.  Almost never used in perfumery except for Middle-Eastern attar perfumery (where it is very popular), it adds a brackish odor of mammalian effluent to a composition.  Pleasant?  Not intentionally.

 

The musk grows saltier and more oceanic, with an undercurrent of horse stalls, marine silt, and low tide harbor smells.  Civet and ambergris are linked by a halitosis-type aroma, and it is this element that comes through here most emphatically.  The marshier variant of ambergris used here gives the scent a breathy depth.  But absent is the floral sharpness of real civet paste.  The smoky, dry Indian amber that’s used in most Agarscents Bazaar blends features heavily in the drydown of Civet Musk Mukhallat too, lending a herbal, almost mossy greenness that atones for the sweetness of the florals.  The drydown, which lasts forever thanks to the high proportion of natural musks used, smells like a dank bog in a dark and thickly wooded forest by the sea.

 

An intoxicating blend, Civet Musk Mukhallat is recommended to lovers of animalic notes in perfumery, as well as to fans of a certain retro style of spicy floral ambers – thickly civety, furry, and sharp – that has now sadly fallen out of fashion.  If you like Scandal (Lanvin), Ubar (Amouage), or Joy (Patou), then head straight for this.  Everyone else, steer clear! 

 

 

 

Dangerous Oil (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Dangerous Oil is infused with the finest of rare things. 6 musks from blackest black up through a rare and gorgeous in itself purple/blue musk hybrid. A good jolt of labdenum [sic] and an edge of cognac. The heart note is an entire chypre made only for this project and used for no other. There is a fresh and almost gardenia-like part to this (but there is no gardenia in it), it is not a floral but a resinous blend but there is a mesmerizing beauty to it.

 

 

This smelled like greenish, dry woods on me at first, with an alluring hint of artemisia or rosemary.  My interest was immediately piqued.  Could the bitter herbs be the chypre part to which the company alludes?  I wanted to see where this was going.  But Dangerous Oil suddenly loses its nerve, swerving sideways into the musky vanilla base that seems to populate the Possets catalog from A to Z.

 

Once the blend hits that familiar stride, the blend sheds all the spiky greenness that initially made it noteworthy.  The blurb cites six different types of musk, all of which are six variants on the same white synthetic musk material and not one of them terribly interesting.

 

 

 

Deer Musk (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat   

 

 

Apparently, ASAQ have two batches of this floating around – an aged version, and a lighter version.  The first sample I tested was very dark, sticky, and almost feral, whereas my current sample of Deer Musk (from another source) is lighter in color, more liquid, and a great deal milder than the first one. 

 

Although purists might complain that it has been dumbed down beyond all recognition, I much prefer the lighter, reformulated version of Deer Musk.  Whereas the original version was so brutally animalic that it was difficult to breathe, the reformulation has enough air and space in it to allow room for the other notes to come through.  In the reformulation, which goes onto the skin far more easily, by the way, it is now possible to pick out some of the ambery and grassy notes from the gloomy musk of the musk.

 

However, make no bones about it – even with the reformulated version, the first two hours of Deer Musk are characterized by a heavy dose of feces and scatole.  Compared to Muscs Khoublai Khan, which gives off a similarly ferocious fecal yowl for the first five minutes but then starts to pile on the roses and cream, Deer Musk feeds you the feces unadorned and for a much longer time.  An hour or two, at the least.  Just trying to be real with you here.

 

Since Muscs Khoublai Khan mixes its fecal musk so successfully with rose, perhaps the same applies to Deer Musk?  If the stink is too intense and singular on its own, it is always a good idea to experiment a little to see if you can’t get it to behave.  I have had quite a bit of success layering Deer Musk under soft, innocent roses like Amouage’s Rose TRO (Turkish Rose Absolute).  Rose TRO adds a creamy, sweet rose accord that softens the blunt force of the musk, and the musk adds a dark, almost feral undertone to the rose that brings it into animalic rose chypre territory.  The Deer Musk provides the double bass that this pretty rose had been crying out for.

 

I think that a tola of Deer Musk would be a useful addition to anyone’s oil .  Not to wear as a standalone per se (unless you are a hardcore animalics enthusiast), but as a layering agent with which to add darkness, complexity, and yes, a creamy fecal warmth to more innocent floral perfumes.  For that aspect alone, I can see the added value.

 

 

 

Egyptian Musk Golden Anbar (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Like Musc Pur, Egyptian Musk Golden Anbar is a clean musk oil that mimics the scent of skin.  Egyptian Musk Golden Anbar differs from Musc Pur by being slightly more complex and warmer in character, with the addition of a rosy amber note and possibly something earthy, like patchouli.  It is a basic, slightly boring blend, but for days when you simply need to smell fresh and clean, either this or Musc Pur would do the trick.

 

 

 

Geisha Blanche (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Geisha Blanche opens on a bleachy note that recalls industrial cleaning agents and the plastic floral arrangements one sees in the vet’s office.  It smells clean, yes, but unfortunately more in the manner of a squeaky plastic shower curtain than French triple-milled soap.  Geisha Blanche is similar to the concept presented in Blanche by Byredo, only even more piercing.

 

 

 

Habibati (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Habibati is a pleasant, feminine-leaning mukhallat revolving around sweet vanilla fluffed up with iris and white musk.  It opens on a rather unfortunate accord – a clump of clotted cream coated in the hard spackle of Ethyl Maltol, the molecule used in Angel and other gourmand perfumes to create a cotton candy or caramel note.  However, the candy floss impression is brief enough not to leave any lasting trauma, and soon disperses to reveal the bone-pale dustiness of iris.  This splices the heavy vanilla with splinters of dust and root, in effect kicking its arse and getting it to move a bit.  A weightless white musk wraps around the vanilla and iris, giving them a pillow-soft texture.  In the far reaches, there are glimpses of a sandalwood with the silky delicacy of peanut shells.

 

Very nice, overall, and quite close in theme, if not execution to Ormonde Jayne’s Vanille d’Iris.  I recommend Habibati to women who are love clean, fluffy musks but either cannot stretch to the (much better quality) Ormonde Jayne or believe any of the Narciso Rodriguez ‘cube’ perfumes to be below them.

 

 

 

Hyraceum Attar 2013 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Hyraceum is the calcified and petrified urine of the Cape Hyrax, a shy little animal that urinates on one rock and defecates on another, ensuring that the petrified urine deposits needed for perfumery are completely clean of animal scat.  The hardened substance, also known as Africa Stone, is a cruelty-free ‘musky’ material that mimics the pelvic thrust of both civet and musk.

 

In the context of this attar, the hyraceum merges so completely with the smooth sandalwood that it is hard to identify where one begins and the other ends.  The rich, oily sandalwood has a softening effect on the slightly urinous, damp, feral-cat stink of hyraceum, sanding down all its sharp points and lending it a bitter cocoa roundness that adds depth. In return, the creamy sandalwood is given an animalistic bite by the hyraceum.

 

I like Hyraceum Attar because although the structure is simple, it is so perfectly balanced between the two materials that the nose is never sure which one it is smelling at any given moment.  This yin and yang creates a more complex picture than the bare bones list of ingredients would suggest.  Indeed, this is rich, sultry, and creamy-animalic in all the right ways.

 

 

 

Hyrax Musk (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although based on some pretty animalic essences, such as hyraceum, Hindi oud, and Indian deer musk,  Hyrax is not at all dirty or sour.  Rather, it is a beautiful and rather wearable creation swimming in a liquid, sweet darkness that seems to be made up of musky chocolate, incense, soft black leather, and ebony.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples: I purchased samples from Mellifluence, Maison Anthony Marmin, Aroma M, BPAL, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Agarscents Bazaar, NAVA, Sixteen92, Possets, and Hyde & Alchemy. The samples from Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, and Al Shareef Oudh were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor.

 

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 Mukhallats Musk Single note exploration The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Musk: Technicalities, Legalities, and Ethicalities

24th November 2021

 

From here on out, we are going to go material by material, grouped according to the most important scent families for attars, mukhallats, and concentrated perfume oils.  Each section will start with a primer on the material or scent family, and end with reviews of oil-based perfumes in that category.  That’s right – reviews are upcoming!  I bet you thought we would all need a walking cane by the time I got there.

 

Musk is, I suppose, as good a place to start as any, because its use varies so dramatically with the type of oil perfume and the market in which it is positioned.  For example, mukhallats that contain real deer musk are enormously popular in the Middle East and among die-hard fans of artisanal perfume oils, but verboten in the American indie oil community.  Both the niche perfume oil and mukhallat perfume segments adore fluffy white or Egyptian-style musks that are 100% synthetic.  The American indie sector makes full use of a veritable United Colors of Musks, i.e., black, red, green, and pink musks (all synthetic, all with a different aesthetic effect).  And Indians love ‘black musk’ attars, which tend to derive their musky effect from a complex range of plant-based materials, such as ambrette seed, herbs, and synthetics, rather than deer musk (although this is possibly more of a scarcity issue than an ethical or legal one).

 

In this chapter, I am going to talk exclusively about natural (deer) musk.  The other types of musks (musk synthetics, musky plant materials, ethical animal musks) can wait until Part 2. 

 

  

What is musk?

 

 

If we speak exclusively about natural musk, then musk is a grainy, aromatic reddish paste formed within the glandular musk sac of the male musk deer.  It contains a genetic rundown of his most important attributes from age, health, strength, to overall virility.  Basically, natural musk is the Tinder profile of the animal world.

 

During mating season, the deer urinates onto the musk pod, releasing small amounts of his musk, which then falls or is sprayed onto rocks, trees, and bushes.  While in rut, the deer’s urine is dense with male deer hormones, so this mixture of urine and musk is incredibly potent.  Fresh musk pods have an ammoniac smell, because of the urine sprayed onto them.

 

What happens then?  The female takes a sniff, examines the profile, and decides whether the description appeals.  If all goes to plan, she swipes right and follows the scent to the source. If not, well.  It is brutal out there.

 

Because musk has so much to do with sex and reproduction, there is a common misconception that musk is stored inside the testes, like sperm.  Not true!   In fact, the musk sac is attached to the abdomen behind the penis, and is separate to the testes.  But while the musk sac is not actually a testicle, there is no getting around the fact that it does look awfully like one.  Since the word ‘musk’ itself comes from the Persian word moschos and the Sanskrit word muska, both of which mean testicle, it seems that our ancestors were just as confused on this issue.

 

Musk comes mainly from the musk deer family of deer (Moschidae), of which there are several sub-species, including, for example, Moschus moschiferus, the Siberian musk deer native to China, Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, and Moschus leucogaster, the Himalayan musk deer native to Bhutan, India, and Nepal[i].  Some of the musk deer species are more endangered than others.  There are seven main geographical regions where musk deer live, and are therefore hunted, namely: Nepal (the Himalayas), Siberia, China, India, Pakistan, Korea, and Mongolia.

 

Animal sources of musk other than deer do exist, although technically speaking, the word ‘musk’ exclusively refers to musk from a deer.  However, given that most of the world’s population uses the word ‘musk’ to describe anything even vaguely musky in nature, we will not be too pedantic about it here either.  Alternative animal musks include that of the muskrat, the musk duck, the musk shrew, the musk lynx, and even some species of crocodiles.  In perfumery and medicine, however, only musk from the musk deer is commercially significant because the deer produces the largest volume of aromatic substance and possesses the strongest odor.  (Also, have you ever tried holding a crocodile down to get to his musk sac?)

 

There are few other materials in the world that possess an aroma as complex as musk.  But if it is complex from a biological perspective, then you can only begin to imagine how difficult it is to get people to agree on what exactly it smells like.  Depending on who you talk to, it can be described as earthy, warm, sweet, powdery, chocolate-like, fecal, urinous, stale, woody, fatty, and so on.  This is further complicated by the fact that few people will have smelled the genuine article itself, but rather some aspect of it as recreated through synthetic molecules or botanical musks.

 

To further complicate things, many people simply use the word ‘musky’ to describe a textural facet of a scent, even if the scent itself does not contain any musk.  For example, perfumes that are clean or powdery are often described as musky, even though their laundry-clean scent is a million miles away from the animalic odor of deer musk.  Conversely, anything that strikes the nose as dirty or fecal is described as musky almost by default, even if other materials have been used to create that effect, such as indolic jasmine, civet, or castoreum.

 

 

In my experience, real deer musk features the following characteristics:

 

Soft and lingering odor

Subtle, skin-like aroma

Mimics the smells of bodily intimacy, ranging from dried saliva and perineal odors to morning breath

Possesses some petting zoo aspects

Not fecal per se, but a composite picture of soft droppings, urine, hair, fur, etc.

Not generally a loud, booming aroma, unless you are smelling synthetics

Powdery or dusty in texture

Can be sweet to the point of being saccharine

Can be also be ammoniac (think animal urine on hay) with sharp undertones

Incredibly tenacious odor – clings to the hairs inside the nostrils

Individual nuances include cocoa, leather, chocolate, newspaper, paper, dust, plasticky aroma (like old lunch boxes), mold, rising damp, sugar, human skin, intimate smells

 

 

Aging plays an important part in how a musk tincture will smell.  If old, dry musk pods from vintage stock are being used to make a tincture, the resulting tincture may give off an unpleasantly stale scent.  A tincture from young-ish, still moist grains will smell more varied and complex than one made from old grains.  However, fresh musk pods take longer to tincture because the grains are still moist and do not give themselves up to extraction as easily as dry grains.  Aging the musk pods for about three months before using them is ideal for perfumery purposes.

 

The liquid in which the grains are tinctured is the second vital component of its final aroma.  If the carrier liquid is even slightly perishable, then it is a waste of musk grains, as the mixture will not age well.  Tincturing liquids that are fine to use include ethanol and other types of perfumer’s alcohol.  The grains can also be macerated, meaning steeped in oil such as moringa oil, and even fractionated coconut oil, but the very best of all is, of course, pure sandalwood oil.

 

If the musk deer themselves are small, then you might imagine how tiny the musk pod is – about thirty grams.  Each sac contains about half as much again in musk paste, so around fifteen grams per animal.  Scraping the secretions out with a spoon to spare the animal’s life nets a much smaller amount of musk paste, but the deer at least lives to make another batch.

 

 

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Deer musk grains. Photo my own.

 

The musk pods can be dried and used whole (in Chinese medicine) or opened to remove and age or dry the musk paste into musk grains for perfumery and also again for Chinese medicine.  On the market, it is possible to buy both the whole pods and the dried grains.  When fresh, the musk paste is moist and red-brown in color; when dried, the paste separates into tiny grains the size of nigella seeds, most often dark brown, oxblood, or black in color.  If being used in traditional Chinese medicine, a doctor may use the grains whole on patients, or powder them down for use in complex liquid formulae to treat specific ailments.

 

Most sellers of musk scoop out the moist paste while the pods are fresh and pack all the aromatic material into large jars, measuring out quantities for buyers one at a time.  This way of storing the musk grains ensures that they don’t dry out as quickly, which is important because the sellers get a certain price per gram, and the drier the musk grains are, the lighter they also are.  Mukhallat makers can either buy the musk pods whole and age them themselves at home or buy the moist musk grains from a seller.

 

 

 

The grim reality of obtaining deer musk

 

 

Deer musk is a wondrous material.  But let us not beat around the bush here – in most cases, the deer musk is hunted and killed to obtain its musk sac.  Poachers first trap the deer in steel deer traps, and then either leave them to die or shoot them.  Licensed hunters shoot to kill.  It has been described as ‘killing the hen to get the egg’[ii] and with good reason: one pod per deer and that is it.  Nothing renewable about this particular resource.

 

Alternatives have sprung up to this in the form of deer musk farms in China, the first one being established in 1958.  On these farms, the deer do not die but are immobilized (held down or sedated) once or twice a year and have their musk glands scraped out with a special spoon[iii].  Chinese records suggest that a male deer can be ‘milked for his musk in this manner up to fourteen times[iv] over the course of its natural life.

 

It is not death, but on the flip side, it sounds excruciatingly painful and cruel.  How strictly is the welfare of the animals monitored?  It is a difficult matter to investigate with any degree of thoroughness because outside access to the farms is restricted, and most of the musk grains produced on these farms are consumed within China itself and not made available outside her borders.  Given China’s track record on animal welfare, if I were a deer, I think I would prefer to take my chances out in the wild.

 

JK DeLapp, perfumer of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, is also a licensed and practicing doctor of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) in the United States.  Because of his contacts in China and in the field (he has worked in many hospitals in China itself), he is able to import deer musk grains directly from these farms, but he is in a tiny minority.  When I asked if he could detect any difference in aroma or quality between farmed and wild musk grains, JK replied that ‘there is a difference, but only those with experience would be able to detect it’.

 

The model for this sort of ‘sustainable deer musk farming’ has not proved reliable, however.  Every single one of the Chinese-financed farms in India have failed, for example, demonstrating that musk farming is not a straightforward business.  But even if deer musk farms were successful, supply to the perfume industry would likely be a tiny, almost negligible part of the business model.  This is because the perfume industry is not the main market for deer musk.

 

 

The market for musk

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Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash

 

If not the perfume industry, then what is the main market for deer musk?

 

Strangely enough, it’s medicine.

 

By far the biggest consumer of deer musk in the world is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), followed by Ayurvedic medicine (Indian traditional medicine), and then Unani medicine (Greco-Arab medicine practiced in India).  The perfume sector lags well behind in terms of both demand and usage.  Until 1996, the perfume sector absorbed about fifteen percent of the world’s musk supply, but by 2012, due to CITES and the drying up of legal sources, this had shrunk to ten percent[v].  Although there are no exact figures for current usage, one must assume that it is smaller still, perhaps closer to five percent.

 

Quantifying the exact size of the Chinese market is tricky, but if you consider that Traditional Chinese Medicine accounts for about forty percent of all prescriptions in China as well as twenty-two percent of its clinics[vi], then we are talking about a sizeable chunk of the population of China, which is itself famously, well, sizeable.  China and India together absorb at least ninety percent of the world’s available musk.

 

In the perfume sector, both the demand for, and potential usage of deer musk is extremely limited compared to TCM.  If even five percent of China’s 1.371 billion-strong population has an ailment that needs to be treated with musk grains, that is a known market of 68.5 million people.  Compare that to the potential pool of people who might want to wear perfume with real deer musk in it, and it is always going to be small potatoes in comparison.

 

China’s demand for musk is estimated at up to a thousand kilograms per annum[vii], which translates to the musk sacs of at least a hundred thousand musk deer.  But globally there are only about seven hundred thousand musk deer left in the wild.   Clearly, domestic musk farming does not and cannot fill that gap.  Indeed, the bulk of the world’s deer musk – both legal and illegal – ends up in Hong Kong.  Given the supply and demand problem, the sums of money changing hands are huge.  In India, musk is valued at four times its weight in gold[viii].  Raw musk grains can fetch up to US$50,000 per kilogram in Hong Kong, the hub of the international musk market.  All musk in these Far Eastern markets is destined for the TCM and Ayurvedic sectors to make remedies and cures for hospitals and clinics.

 

In the past five years or so, there has been a small but significance resurgence in the demand for real deer musk in artisanal, small-batch perfumery, mostly thanks to the growing fan base around naturals, distillation, and attar making.  Bortnikoff, Areej Le Doré and Ensar Oud are artisanal small-batchers who have all released both mukhallats and spray perfumes featuring genuine deer musk since 2016.  

 

However, the commercial perfume sector will never use real deer musk, given both the difficulty of obtaining a cost-effective and legal source for the large quantities of the material necessary to fill perfume formulas on a mass production scale, and the general revulsion among consumers for products that involve animal cruelty.

 

 

Is deer musk illegal?

 

 

Some is legal; some is not.

 

Two things determine the legal status of a specific deer musk.  First, the level to which its source animal, i.e., sub-species of musk deer, is endangered, and second, the legislation put in place by individual countries regarding the hunting and trade of musk on their territory.

 

First, let us look at the endangerment angle.  There are eight species of musk deer in the Moschidae family, and they are not all equally endangered.  CITES has three classes of endangerment, Appendix I, II, and III, and the different sub-species of musk deer are classified into one of those appendices based on the health of their numbers in the wild.  

 

Moschus leucogaster (the Himalayan musk deer) and Moschus cupreus (the Kashmir musk deer), for example, are Appendix I, which means their numbers are nearing extinction levels, and should not under any circumstance be hunted and killed.  But Moschus berezovskii (Chinese forest musk deer) and Moschus moschiferus (Siberian musk deer) are Appendix II, which means their numbers are healthier, and, under certain conditions such as the proper licensing programs and permits, can be hunted and their musk traded.

 

Thus, something like Kashmiri musk is illegal primarily because its source animal is an Appendix I species approaching extinction.  Siberian musk is legal partly because its source animal is not nearing extinction.

 

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) named musk deer an endangered species in the 1980s[ix], restricting the trade of deer musk by its 170 signatory countries.  In Resolution Conf. 11.5[x], CITES lists all the relevant musk-producing animals, including the musk deer, and urges all parties ‘to develop alternatives for raw musk in order to reduce demand for natural musk, while encouraging the development of safe and effective techniques for collecting musk from live musk deer.’

 

In response to the convention, most countries with populations of Appendix I musk deer (species nearing extinction) introduced legislation to ban musk deer hunting outright.  India, Mongolia, Korea, and Nepal all responded to the CITES convention with musk deer hunting bans.  Signatory countries with populations of less endangered species chose different routes based on individual levels of need and state policy.  For example, China, which has an enormous market demand for musk in its traditional medicine sector, banned musk deer hunting in the wild but established government-sponsored musk farms to produce musk legally and without killing the animal.

 

Russia freely allows the hunting of musk deer within the boundaries of their territory, specifically in Siberia where the Siberian musk deer lives.  The Siberian musk deer is not in danger of extinction.  Musk grains from Siberia are therefore technically a legal product because they come from legal hunting and from a species listed on Appendix II of the convention, i.e., not threatened with extinction, trade and hunting allowed under the correct licensing systems, etc.  Deer hunting in Siberia is reported to be controlled, with hunters applying for licenses in a seasonal lottery that determines what number of deer they can kill.  Sometimes they can kill only five deer a season, sometimes twenty. This helps the government keep an eye on overall numbers of the deer population.

 

In other words, in the murky matter of musk legality, the ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ argument applies.  The legal status of the musk depends on the legal status of the source.  If your musk comes from a species of deer that is not in danger of extinction and a country that has legalized the hunting and killing of the musk deer, or that has musk farms, then the musk is perfectly legal. 

 

The converse is also true, of course.  If the musk comes from illegal hunting in a country that has banned musk deer hunting, then the musk is a product of a criminal activity and is the proverbial fruit of the poisoned tree. 

 

However, as always when it comes to any lucrative resource, illegality abounds.  One of the most common Western misconceptions about deer musk is that the CITES designation of the musk deer as an endangered species put an end to deer hunting, and that the shy little deer are bouncing around happily and uninterrupted in the foothills of the Himalayas.  This is simply not true.  Musk deer hunting continues apace in most of the regions to which it is native, whether the act is legal or not according to the country’s own laws.

 

In fact, the musk trade is a good example of what happens when overwhelming demand for a product meets the legal banning of said product – i.e., business as normal, albeit conducted under the dark cover of illegality, smuggling, and general tomfoolery.  In most cases, the amount of the banned material for sale on the market even increases.  The correlation between banning and black marketeering applies to other materials too.  In an interview[xi] with me for Basenotes, JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, noted the same phenomenon in the case of the African civet cat:

 

‘20 years ago, the public pushed cosmetic companies to stop using civet due to the cruelty involved for the civet cat in the extraction process.  Did this improve the conditions of civet harvesting?   Quite the opposite.  Instead, the ban pushed civet paste prices into freefall and brought the civet farmers to the brink of starvation.  Because the prices fell so drastically, the farmers tried to make up for lost income by simply producing more and more civet paste, which in turn meant that the civet cats were put under increased pressure and stress to give up their paste.  A lose-lose situation for everyone, and by everyone, I also mean the animal.’

 

This pattern is largely borne out by the evidence of what happens in countries that have banned musk deer hunting outright.  For example, India and Pakistan both have laws banning the killing of the musk deer on their territories, but don’t have the resources to control or stop the hunting of the deer.  Likewise, the Mongolian government banned musk deer hunting in 1953, two decades even before the CITES ruling, but illegal hunting has whittled the deer population down to a shocking twenty percent of their 1970 levels[xii].

 

In some regions of India, when deer hunters are caught by local government officials or rangers, the musk pods are confiscated and then later sold by the local government.  Confiscated musk therefore becomes legal musk that can be bought and sold for profit on the open market – fruit from the poisoned tree washed clean and sent right back out to market!  China has a legal source of musk, through their musk farms.  And yet the output is nowhere near the level demanded by the market, and so most of the world’s illegal musk still washes up in China.

 

 

The ethics of musk

 

 

Most people in the West consider deer musk to be ethically problematic, if not downright wrong.  Part of this is due to the issues over legality, with most people assuming that all deer musk is illegal and harvested from an animal close to extinction.  But the larger issue is that most Western consumers do not tolerate animal cruelty, to the extent of actively avoiding companies that, for example, sell in China where animal testing for cosmetics and perfumes is still mandatory.

 

To be clear, deer hunting is cruel and unethical when the animals are killed illegally.  Poachers are unconcerned about animal suffering and will often leave the deer to die a horrible death in their crude steel traps.  They care only about the musk sac and will discard the rest of the body.  A musk sac obtained in this manner carries the same stigma of illegality, waste, and animal cruelty associated with ivory.   

 

By corollary, musk farming and legal hunting through license programs yield musk that is more sustainable from an ethical standpoint.  In Siberia, the species of deer being hunted is not a species threatened with extinction, and the hunting lottery system means that only a finite number of musk deer are killed in the region each year.  During a licensed hunt, the kill is as humane as possible (shooting instead of trapping).

 

However, for most people, this is beside the point.  Whether the musk is legal or not doesn’t really address the issue of the deer being killed or maimed for the sake of his musk pod.  A big concern over hunting animals in the wild boils down to the issue of motive – are we hunting for sport or because the animal is useful to us?  Statistically speaking, a far greater number of domestic animals such as cows, chickens, and pigs are slaughtered to give us meat and leather.  However, this mass killing of animals has been organized so that it takes place far away from the public eye, behind the walls of abattoirs and factories far away from residential areas.  It is a different thing altogether when it comes to the thought of Bambi.  Most of us just do not have the stomach for it.

 

 

 

Note: This article is a reprint of The Murky Matter of Musk, which was originally published by Basenotes in 2017. I am reproducing it here, with kind permission by Grant Osborne of Basenotes.

 

 

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] http://checklist.cites.org/#/en

[ii] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e02.htm

[iii] https://www.drugs.com/npp/musk.html

[iv] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e03.htm

[v] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2012/03/the-musk-deer-of-india/

[vi] http://universitasforum.org/index.php/ojs/article/view/63/242

[vii] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2007/10/traditional-chinese-medicine-and-endangered-animals/

[viii] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e03.htm

[ix] http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/muscone/musconeh.htm

[x] https://cites.org/eng/res/11/11-07.php

[xi] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[xii] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2012/03/the-musk-deer-of-india/

Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Musk Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Musk: Perfumery, Profiles, & Ethical Alternatives

24th November 2021

 

Musk in perfumery

 

Musk is one of the four great animalic bases of perfumery, the other three being ambergris, civet, and castoreum.   When smelled in isolation in their pure state, all four of these animalic materials can be foul to the human nose.  However, in dilution, they each produce deep, drawn-out basso fundos of aromatic sound waves ranging from soft leather (castoreum), earth, tobacco, and hay (ambergris), and velvety, warm floral tones (civet) to deep, complex skin-tones (musk).

 

Animalics are all excellent fixatives, each serving to stabilize the other more volatile notes in a scent and enrich the blend as effectively as a pound of butter added to a dry cake.  Their value in perfumery, therefore, is inestimable.  But musk is perhaps the most valuable of all the animalics, because not only does it have the deepest fixative powers, but it also adds its own super-complex, warmly-furred, animalic aroma to the totality of the scent.  It possesses a consistent ‘roundness’ or ‘fullness’ that distinguishes it from the other animalics.  

 

We are conditioned to love musk in perfume precisely because, more than anything else, it reminds us so strongly of the pheromone-rich smell of the skin of the people we love.  Think of the intimate scent of your spouse’s nape after a long day’s work, or the smell of the back of your children’s knees, and that is a smell best encapsulated by musk.  

 

While natural musk may have been used in commercial perfumery at some point – although this is difficult to ascertain –  it is certainly not used anymore.  Modern commercial perfumery relies on synthetics, botanicals, or humanely-obtained animalic substances such as hyraceum to recreate the scent of a material, i.e., deer musk, no longer in use.

 

Many might be surprised to learn that there is not much, if any, use of natural deer musk in larger-scale mukhallat perfumery either.  By large-scale mukhallat perfumery, I mean the Chanels and Diors of the Middle-Eastern market – massive companies such as Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Ajmal, and Arabian Oud that have branches all over the world and do a brisk trade in attars and oils each year.  Although mukhallat perfumery in general uses far greater quantities of rare and costly animalics and botanicals such as oud oil, sandalwood oil, ambergris, and musk than commercial perfumery, a company that sells thousands of tolas of a single formula per year is not small-batch, artisanal production.  It is big business.

 

For these large mukhallat companies, the importance of ensuring a consistent quality of raw material from tola to tola, batch to batch, and so on, is an absolute business necessity and, as a production issue, on a par with the quality control concerns of commercial perfume companies and fragrance labs.  Customers will complain vociferously if their tola of Ajmal Deer Musk is not the same as their tola from the year before.  Therefore, while these companies might use some raw deer musk in their musky attars, batch consistency and supply issues make it necessary for them to stretch out the natural musk through use of other musky-smelling materials such as ambrette seed, ethical animal musks like hyraceum, and a wide variety of musk synthetics such as Tonquitone.

 

This will not come as a shock to anyone with a bit of common sense.  Most people know that many, if not most, of the oud oils being sold as pure on the Arabian market in the UAE and elsewhere have been adulterated and stretched out with fillers, vetiver oil, saffron, ambrette, other expensive botanicals, and complex synthetics.  Musk is, in many ways, equivalent to oud.

 

The only sector of perfumery that still uses natural deer musk is the small-batch, artisanal one. Even within that sector, opinions on its use differ.  For example, Areej Le Doré and Bortnikoff both use natural musk in their mukhallats.  But Sultan Pasha does not (he uses an ethical, botanical-based formula as an alternative).

 

The point is, if any artisan attar maker or small match perfumer wanted to work with deer musk, then they are really the only ones in the broader perfumery landscape that can.   The smaller an artisan perfume operation, the more feasible it is for them to work with natural musk, mostly because of the tiny volumes involved.  Working with the crumbs from the rich man’s table of TCM and Ayurvedic medicine works for small artisanal perfumers, because they only make perfume in small quantities anyway.

 

However, cultural factors also play a role.  There is a larger and more culturally-acceptable appetite for deer musk and other natural animal products in the Middle East.  Accordingly, Middle- and Far East-based mukhallat artisans have a far easier job selling deer musk-based mukhallats to their audience than their Western-based counterparts. 

 

 

Is there such thing as terroir in natural musk?

 

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Samples of deer musk tinctures, macerations, and mukhallats. Photo my own.

 

The short answer is no, not really.

 

Deer musk can vary in aroma depending on age, and the liquid in which it has been tinctured.  However, musk does not vary as widely according to terroir as oud or sandalwood, both of which display significant variances in aroma depending on the soil, climate, and sub-species of the trees involved.   With musk, species and micro-climate (terroir) have a far more limited effect on final aroma, with aging and tincturing liquid being more significant factors.

 

In other words, if you have the genuine article, then there will always be a familiar odor profile and texture that links one musk to another.  Musk is musk is musk.  Small differences do appear, of course, based on age or nature of the specimen. But it is more accurate to talk about profiles in musk, rather than terroir. 

 

 

Profiles in Musk

 

 

Although personal experience based on a few random samples can never be extrapolated to represent the entirety of such a complex-smelling material, below are my impressions of different deer musk samples I have collected.

 

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Tibetan musk grains. Photo my own.

 

Tibetan Musk

 

 

Material: musk grains

Source: JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery

Appearance: miniscule, reddish-brown dust particles, like the detritus from rolling cigarettes

 

The smell is rich but light; not overpowering.  It smells dirty in an almost uncomfortably intimate way, like the smell of tooth floss after a long overdue flossing session, in other words, a bit stale, saliva-ish, and carrying with it the lingering aroma of tooth decay, halitosis, and degraded molecules of food.  However, the smell is not exactly unpleasant.  It is simply intimate.  If you can tolerate and even appreciate the scent of a loved one’s dried up sleep drool on the pillow beside you, then this will seem familiar and maybe even comforting to you. 

 

 

 

Siberian Musk

 

 

Material: musk grains

Source: JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery

Appearance: reddish-brown small particles, larger and more prone to clumping together than the Tibetan musk grains

 

The smell is sweet and high-toned, pitched at a much higher decibel than the Tibetan musk, with leathery and herbal facets.  It is immediately pleasant to the nose, unlike the Tibetan musk grains described above.  It smells animalic only in a clean and non-jarring manner, like the flank of a slightly sweaty horse in a stable with fresh straw on the ground.  It is warm, intimate, and clinging.  When the nose draws away from the bottle of grains, the trail in the air reads as slightly powdery.

 

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 Siberian musk grains. Photo my own.

 

Material: Siberian musk macerated in sandalwood oil

Source: Mellifluence

Appearance: deep reddish-brown liquid, viscous, oily

 

The scent is immediately super sweet, like powdered sugar mixed with hot chocolate drinking powder and pancake syrup.  It is also a little herbal, as if there is patchouli or lavender in the mix somewhere.  At this stage, this sample reminds me of the powdery Darbar attars you can get from Nemat and numerous other sources on the Internet.  Darbar attars are thick, dark, sweet musky attars made from mostly patchouli oils mixed with musk synthetics, henna, and carrier oils.  However, once these topnotes die down, the scent is authentically musky, with a pungent, thick aroma that smells quite dirty, although not quite fecal – more like freshly-turned soil and the heavy morning breath of a loved one.

 

 

 

Material: Siberian musk tincture at ten percent dilution

Source: Mellifluence

Appearance: light straw color, completely liquid

 

The topnotes are pure tincturing alcohol, but then a subtle, soft odor of musk appears.  This manifests as a translucent wash of aroma that smells like a clean, warm animal after a day out in the sun.  The odor is sweet, soft, powdery, and lingering.  In terms of weight, it is very light and sheer. 

 

 

 

Material: Siberian musk tincture

Source: Russian Adam of FeelOud and Areej le Doré

Appearance: urine yellow, with small musk grain particles still visible on the glass of the vial when tipped over

 

Immediately, the scent here is much less sweet than the other samples, and has a deep, musky leather facet that is very appealing.  It is more animalic than the other samples, in the sense that it actually smells like it is been scraped off the behind of an animal.  But the scent is in no way dirty, unpleasant, or fecal: it simply smells authentically of animal origin.  It is an extremely warm, deep aroma, with a strong note of leather, specifically leather saddles or reins that have been resting on a horse.

 

There is a certain dustiness lurking underneath the leather, but it is not excessively powdery, and although there is some natural sweetness, it leans more towards neutral-salty on the flavor wheel. It is just soft, musky leather.  A pleasure to smell.  It lingers in the nostrils for quite a while, eventually displaying some papery ‘stale cocoa’ tones.  In overall aroma, this particular musk is closest in profile to the smell of the Siberian musk grains from The Rising Phoenix Perfumery.

 

 

                                                                                                                   

Material: Siberian musk tincture at five percent dilution, one year old

Source: Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse

Appearance: pale straw, liquid

 

Josh Lobb obtains legal Siberian musk grains from a gentleman in Siberia who sets aside a small amount of grains from his hunting quota each year for him: he then chops the already tiny grains up into smaller pieces and tinctures them in perfumer’s alcohol and rests it for a year.  This method seems to intensify the aroma of the finished tincture, because this sample was the most densely fragrant out of all the samples.

 

The aroma is pungent, warm, and once the brief hit of alcohol dissipates, possessed of a strong ammoniac or petting zoo aroma with undertones of hay and animal urine.  However, the scent is in no way unpleasant or sharp.  The aromas smell natural and rustic, wrapped in a thick, wool-like texture that is very comforting, like getting a bear hug from a llama.  Compared to the other samples, this tincture smells more nuanced and perfumey, and I found myself thinking of Muscs Khoublai Khan, or at least one specific part of it, namely its grimy, sensual, male ‘wool’ facet.  Other notes I pick up on include chocolate, damp paper, and dust.  The density of scent slackens off quite quickly after ten minutes, or else my nose simply stops smelling it as acutely past that point.  What remains on the skin is the dusty, sweet smell of newspapers doused in a layer of powdered sugar.  Strangely enough, I also pick up hints of something herbal and fresh.

 

 

 

Kashmiri (Kasturi) Musk

 

 

Kashmiri musk is the rarest and most highly prized of the musk, because of its bright, uplifting, and intoxicating properties.  But genuine Kashmiri musk, also known as Kasturi, is illegal.  Not only does it come from a species of deer listed as being in danger of extinction by CITES (category I), but it also comes from a region (the mountainous parts of Northern India and Pakistan), countries that have made deer musk hunting illegal.  The penalty for being caught with Kashmiri musk in Pakistan, for example, is five years in prison.  However, I have been able to collect two samples for the purposes of research.

 

Material: Kashmiri musk from private collection, ten percent

Source: Duftkumpels, Germany

Appearance: yellow, oily, with visible musk grain particles clinging to the inside of the vial

 

Although Shafqat himself calls this a tincture, it is in fact a maceration of musk grains in a very fine Indian santalum album oil (possibly Mysore).  The maceration has a concentration of 10%, which is very concentrated.  First and foremost, the quality of the sandalwood oil used here is stunning and almost overshadows the delicacy of the musk.  But the musk is there, bright and airy, even a little pungent, revealed when you perform a sort of hide-and-seek with your own arm (take your nose away, smell something else, return nose to arm, etc.).  Despite the fame of Kashmiri musk, I cannot say that it is superior or inferior to any other type of musk.  However, when the sandalwood is so sublime and dominating proceedings anyway, it seems a pity to use an illegal musk from an endangered species when you could just as well use Siberian musk.  

 

 

Material: Kashmiri deer musk, two-point-five percent, in Australian sandalwood oil

Source: Mellifluence

Appearance: viscous orange-yellow oil

 

 

At first, the overriding smell is of the Australian sandalwood oil (s. spicatum), characterized by a raw, harsh wood solvent smell with facets of pine, eucalyptus, and menthol or camphor, and a texture like sour milk.  The pungency of the wood oil makes it difficult to discern anything of the more delicate musk, and this problem persists for a good twenty minutes.  Aging is probably a factor here: the aroma molecules feel young and raw, as if brushed with a steel wire brush.  Eventually, an aroma of bright, plasticky musk hits the nose, although it is not strong enough to burn right through the pungent layer of sandalwood.  This one probably needs time to reveal the delicate nuances of the musk more clearly.  It might be interesting for readers to note that the very same Kashmiri musk grains were used in both these samples, but the medium of the solvent (sandalwood oil versus ethanol) and treatment by two different attar makers rendered two very different results.

 

 

 

Himalayan Musk

 

 

Material: 20-year-old Himalayan musk maceration

Source: Mellifluence

Appearance: oxblood, almost black in color, viscous texture

 

The aroma is dark and pungent but also smooth.  It initially presents like a locker room full of sweaty rugby players, with a side of billy goat.  There is a distinct ammoniac edge to the aroma, like dried animal urine and sweat mixed together, or a stable floor packed a foot high with compacted fecal waste and straw.  If you have ever mucked out a stable that hadn’t been cleaned in quite a while, then this smell will be familiar to you.  The smell is not unpleasant – not to my nose at least. But as always, tolerance of ‘dirty’ smells depend on individual exposure to animals or farming in childhood.   On the skin, it remains dark and pungent, but reveals a surprisingly complex range of notes such as rubber tubing, smoke, fuel, stables, and animal hair.  And it does smell rather like a petting zoo.  But I like that.  It is the only sample I tried that smelled like animal fur. 

 

 

 

Other types of musks

 

 

Deer musk is not the only substance that gives a perfume a musky smell, of course. The main alternatives are: (i) cruelty-free, ethical animal musks, (ii) botanical or plant-derived musks, and (iii) synthetic musks. All three are used extensively in attar and mukhallat perfumery.

 

 

Ethical animal musks

 

 

Many attar makers make use of hyraceum, which is the petrified urine and fecal matter of the Cape hyrax found on rocks.  Because hyraceum is harvested without any cruelty to the animal itself and possesses a rich, animalic odor that shares some similarity with castoreum and civet, perfume makers are increasingly using it to stand in for animalics, including deer musk.  To my nose, hyraceum is more leathery and high-pitched in aroma than deer musk.

 

Mink musk, rat musk, and skunk musk are also being examined for experimental use in attar perfumery as stand-ins for deer musk.  One of the Sultan Pasha attars, for example, experiments with skunk musk.  These types of animal musks are also harvested in a cruelty-free, sustainable manner.

 

 

 

Musk of botanical origin

 

 

Certain botanical materials give off a musky scent or texture and can therefore be used as a substitute for deer musk in mukhallats and attars.  These include ambrette seed, muskwood (olearia argophylla), angelica, and muskflower (mimulus moschatus).  Out of these, ambrette seed oil, extracted from the musk mallow plant native to India, is perhaps the best known and most highly regarded.  Ambrette lends a scent a fresh, woody muskiness that can smell alternatively like green apple peel, pear schnapps, cumin, and freshly-baked bread.

 

Wonderfully complex and full-smelling, ambrette seed is unfortunately quite expensive and is therefore now only used in attars where cost is no issue.  Thankfully, there exists a synthetic replacement for ambrette seed, called ambrettolide, which is inexpensive and smells very good.  In the realm of traditional Indian attars, however, natural ambrette oil (mainly the absolute) is the prime musk component used in the more complex attars such as black musk attars, shamama, and amberi (ambery) attars.  Not only is the ambrette seed native to India, but it was also always less expensive and difficult to obtain than genuine deer musk, hence its popularity for use in attars that have a musky component.

 

 

 

Musk of synthetic origin

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Photo by Karen Maes on Unsplash

 

Deer musk has always been hugely expensive to obtain. Therefore, as explained by Mandy Aftel in her wonderful book, Fragrant, from the moment people first smelled deer musk, they have been creating synthetics that can replace it.  The scent of deer musk is naturally complex, consisting of a wide range of compounds such as acids, phenols, fatty waxes, and alcohols, but by far its most important component is muscone.  Muscone makes up two percent of the molecular composition and is the prime source of that inimitably ‘musky’ aroma.

 

Scientists have successfully isolated individual scent-giving molecules from deer musk and synthesized them in labs.  Synthetic musks are subdivided into three categories, as follows: nitro musks, polycyclic musk compounds, and macrocyclic musk compounds.  Without going into too much technical detail, it is important to note that nitro musks, which once gave scents such as Chanel No. 5 their slightly sweaty, intimate, and powdery feel, have long been banned due to public health concerns over potential carcinogenic effects.  Many people mourn their absence, treasuring vintage versions of their favorite scents for their use of those same nitro musks.

 

Polycyclic musks are the original ‘white musk’ synthetics that were developed primarily for the laundry detergent segment of the market, because their molecules were large and insoluble enough to have their scent cling to the fibers of clothes even after washing.  People loved the smell of their laundry after using these detergents, and soon there was a demand for that type of squeaky clean musk scent in perfume too.  Macrocyclic musks are the new generation of white musk molecules that will replace most if not all the polycyclic musks.  Most attars and mukhallats on the cheaper, non-artisan side of the scale use synthetic musks in their formulas, unless they are using an expensive botanical musk such as ambrette.

 

Because deer musk is not used in commercial perfumery anymore and because natural, botanical musks are expensive, the real issue in most of perfumery these days is not really real versus synthetic, but clean versus dirty.  The range of synthetic musk molecules is so incredibly diverse that there is a musk to suit practically every preference.

 

Some people crave laundry-clean musks. This is easy to explain – there are firm cultural and historical associations with smelling clean.  For many Americans of the fifties, for example, when these super musk-charged laundry detergents were first introduced, they signaled (literally) a breath of fresh air after the deprivations of the second world war.  Puritanism also left a deep mark on a certain (mostly Caucasian, Christian) segments of American society, with many believing that cleanliness is close to Godliness.  Cultural conditioning is a tricky area to get into, but it is something that cannot be entirely discounted.

 

Most flavor and aroma molecule development by the big flavor and fragrance labs in Switzerland and France is destined for the functional sector, i.e., soaps, shampoos, candles, laundry detergents, and household cleaning agents.  Naturally, the bulk of research and development budgets are spent on developing aromas that would be considered desirable by most of the population.  And what most people want to smell like is clean.  So, when our functional products smell more like a spanking fresh pile of laundered cotton and less like the business end of a yak, it makes sense that these ideas (and aroma molecules) have trickled down into personal perfumery too.

 

White musks in both Western and attar perfumery smell soapy, slightly sharp, powdery, and almost aggressively clean.  In other words, not a million miles away from what they smell like in laundry detergent.  But variety is the spice of life.  The aromachemical and flavor factories of France and Switzerland have produced broad ranges of different polycyclic and macrocyclic musks to suit every level of tolerance, from the ultra-clean Galaxolide (IFF) to the fruity Helvetolide (a Firmenich molecule that smells a little like ambrettolide with a side of green apple) to Muscenone (a Firmenich molecule that is deeply musky and based on natural Muscone present in deer musk) and, finally, the filthy, animal-like Tonquitone (IFF)[i]

 

In other words, in modern perfumery, every kink is catered to, ranging from the slightly-grubby-but-still-passing-as-innocent musk and the I-just-showered-using-Irish-Spring musk to the bedded-down-with-goats musk.  The same applies, of course, to mukhallat perfumery.

 

 

The united colors of musk: red, white, and black

 

 

Musks are often marketed as red, white, black, or even green.  It would be futile to argue that the colors have no real meaning in the context of perfumery, because, perception-wise, they do.  Colors are powerful in terms of the message they convey.  But since all these musks are synthetic musks, the only real difference between them is the choice of colorants a perfumer will add to the batch and the variety of spices and other aromatics to vary the scent profile.  The colors are mostly there to convey an impression of its essential ‘character’ to its wearer – white for purity, red for lusty, black for danger, and so on.

 

White musk, as discussed above, is a category of synthetic musk that grew out of the household laundry detergent segment of the market.  Because this class of musks was first used in laundry detergent, their sharp, cottony smell has become forever linked to the scent of clean clothes.  In mukhallat perfumery, white musks are extremely popular and each seller has their own variation on the theme.  White musk mukhallats are often colored with a thick white colorant, giving them a cloudy, opaque appearance – a clever visual trick that helps the brain to subconsciously classify it as clean.  White musk attars are often called tahara musks, body musks, or jism musks (jism meaning ‘of the body’).  These attars are extremely popular during Eid, when white musk cubes and attars are distributed to visitors to the home.  Here, white stands for purity, cleanliness, and the washing away of bodily sins.

 

Red musks are usually a deep rusty-red color and often contain saffron, cinnamon, or clove to match the spicy red image of the oil.  Red musks are not a special variant of natural musk but simply a marketing-driven variation of synthetic musk.  What it means to you will be whatever the color red means to you.  And as in lipstick and cars, red tends to mean spicy, exotic, or lusty.  Red musk is most frequently used in indie oil perfumery, by companies such as BPAL, Alkemia, NAVA, and the like.  

 

In the American indie oil sector, the red musk accord is usually a blend of musk and a dragon’s blood resin note.  Rather disappointingly, Dragon’s Blood resin does not come from a dragon but from a variety of plants.  It is not very fragrant on its own, so indie oil perfumers make up a mixture of oils to approximate what they think it should smell like – usually a mixture of patchouli, amber, nag champa accords, etc.  To my nose, the red musk used in indie oils smells like that too-sweet miasma of greasy Indian cone incense, ‘Christmas apple’ candle oils, and burlap at the arse end of a head shop.

 

Black musks are often called Kasturi-type musks in order to drive home the point that they are aping the scent of natural musk that comes from the Kasturi or Tonkin deer.  Black musks, if made well and in the traditional Indian manner, are highly complex attars in and of themselves, and can contain anything from patchouli and costus root to ambrette seed oil, as well as a potent cocktail of synthetic musks on the dirtier side of the scale, such as Tonquitone or Musk Ketone.  An expensive black musk attar made in the traditional manner can be a pleasure to wear.  Unfortunately, most of the black musk attars on the market tend to be made almost entirely with synthetics dissolved in cheap dilutants.  Prepare to spend more to find a black musk worth wearing.  The black color denotes darkness and masculinity, although I find this is contradicted by the fact that many of them also smell like Cherry Coke.

 

Green musks and pink musks are monikers only rarely used in attar or mukhallat perfumery.  They are more commonly seen in scent descriptions for commercial perfumery and some indie oil companies.  Green musks will usually feature vetiver or patchouli oils and are perceived as earthy and forest-like (even a little bit ‘witchy’).  Pink musks are floral and feminine, with pretty Asian flowers such as cherry blossom and pink lotus.  Sometimes, in modern commercial perfumery, soft Egyptian musks such as the Narciso Rodriguez perfumes or the texture of Coco Mademoiselle are described as being ‘pink’. 

 

 

Egyptian Musk

 

 

Egyptian musks differ from the red, white, and black variants by dint of there being a historical, botanical basis for their existence.  While nowadays practically all Egyptian musks are made from synthetic white musk, in the times of Ancient Egypt, the recipe was made exclusively from natural materials of botanical origin.  Recipes for the original Egyptian musks[ii] vary but almost always mention ambrette seed oil, kyphi (Egyptian pressed incense, a sort of barkhour made from myrrh, mastic, pine resin, red wine, halmaddi, and honey), frankincense, patchouli, and rose oil.  It was the ambrette seed oil that gave the blend its muskiness. 

 

Egyptian-type musks have proved enduringly popular in perfumery and are still much loved today.  Although the recipe is now based entirely on a synthetic musk base, they differ from white musks by being generally creamier, sweeter, and more sensually skin-like, thanks to the inclusion of a more complex range of materials mixed into the white musk.  

 

Modern variants of Egyptian musk scents will almost always include a touch of patchouli and rose, although one of my personal favorites features a fruity jasmine note.  The musky rose and patchouli pairing has become a popular trope in Western perfumery too and can be seen in everything from Narciso Rodriguez’ Musc for Her and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely to Lady Vengeance by Juliette Has a Gun.  The advantage of Egyptian musk over a pure white musk is that it is mimics the smell of skin more than laundry detergent.

 

 

 

Note: This article is a reprint of The Murky Matter of Musk, which was originally published by Basenotes in 2017. I am reproducing it here, with kind permission by Grant Osborne of Basenotes.

 

 

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://hermitageoils.com/product/tonquitone/

[ii] http://oilhealthbenefits.com/egyptian-musk-oil/

Attars & CPOs Independent Perfumery Round-Ups The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

The Attar Guide: Concentrated Perfume Oils (CPOs)

15th November 2021

 

The final category of oil perfume is that of concentrated perfume oils.  You might get to this section and groan.  After all, are attars and mukhallats not concentrated perfume oils?  The short answer is that while all attars are, by their very nature, concentrated perfume oils, not all concentrated perfume oils are attars.  For example, BPAL’s beloved Snake Oil, while most definitely an oil-based perfume, is not an attar.  Neither is Sballo by Bruno Acampora, Café Noir by Ava Luxe, Santal 33 perfume oil by Le Labo, Choco Musk by Al Rehab, or meltmyheart by Strangelove NYC.  Cheap oil dupes of popular Western fragrances like Aventus or Sauvage are not attars either, even though many people call them that.  In other words, while many perfumes come in oil form, it is not the oil format that makes an attar an attar.

 

 

Ok, so how do Concentrated Perfume Oils differ from Attars?

 

 

First, the intent behind CPOs is substantially different to that of attars.  Attars primarily exist to exalt the beauty of certain raw materials and notes, and by doing so, turn the wearer’s thoughts inwards, towards the soul and towards God (or indeed, Nature).  In other words, attars evolved as an adjunct to the spiritual life of a person rather than something that makes you feel like Charlize Theron shimmying through the Louvre in a gold dress.  

 

The intent behind concentrated perfume oils, on the other hand, is artistic rather than spiritual or exalting.  They do not exist to help you praise God or pay tribute to precious raw materials.  Instead, they exist to spin you a fantasy.  They want you to feel like Charlize Theron shimmying through the Louvre in that gold dress.  They correspond more closely to the Western idea of perfume – that just happens to be in oil form.

 

The range of quality and themes in the concentrated perfume oil category is far more diverse than that of attars, mukhallats, or pure ouds.  But in general, it is fair to say that someone who seeks out a perfume oil is looking for an effect – a fantasy of how they want to smell – rather than a single-minded essay on one or two raw materials.

 

For example, if your desire is to smell like a pampered Persian queen, and you have the money, then you can indulge yourself with luxurious perfume oils from high-end niche perfume companies that cost over $250 for a tiny bottle, like Nabucco’s Parfum Fin, or even an oil from Henry Jacques, which start at $500 for fifteen milliliters and climb into the tens of thousands.  In this bracket, the quality of the raw materials tends to be as sublime as the artistic result.

 

On the other hand, if you just want to smell freshly-showered even when you are not, you can pick up a roll-on of Kuumba Made Persian Musk for less than fifteen dollars at Wholefoods while you are queuing to buy cereal.  Or perhaps you are a young woman who wants to smell like the library at Hogwarts or a scene out of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which case there is a whole back catalog at BPAL for you to explore.  Because the nature of desire is as individual as a fingerprint, there is an endless array of perfume oils to match its specificity. 

 

The composition of concentrated perfume oils also differs from that of attars or mukhallats.  While attars, ruhs, pure oud oils, and mukhallats involve processes such as distillation, maceration, extraction, blending, and compounding, a concentrated perfume oil is largely composed by mixing a variety of pre-packaged naturals and synthetics together according to a precise formula in a neutral carrier oil.  The ratio of naturals to synthetics will depend on budget.  At the higher end of the market, with the Henry Jacques and Nabuccos, the content load of natural raw materials is very high, with less synthetic intervention.  At the lower end of the scale, the mix is tilted firmly towards the synthetic, with few to no natural materials. 

 

Another key difference between attars and concentrated perfume oils is verisimilitude.  While the raw materials used in attars and mukhallats usually smell like the source material, the raw materials referenced in indie or concentrated perfume oils often do not.  For example, if an attar contains or references sandalwood, then you will experience something that is close to the aroma of the raw material itself, even if synthetic sandalwood has been used.  But in the concentrated oil sector, a sandalwood note is more often a fantasy of sandalwood than something that is faithful to the smell of sandalwood essential oil.

 

Lastly, there is a difference in the type of exoticism represented in attars and concentrated perfume oils.  Attars, ruhs, and mukhallats are an expression of Eastern perfumery, and, as such, use traditional materials used in attar and mukhallat perfumery, such as oud, sandalwood, musk, and ambergris.  If they are ‘exotic’, it is simply because they use ingredients perceived to be exotic to our (Western) noses.

 

In the concentrated perfume oil sector, on the other hand, any notion of exoticism is stage-managed.  For example, a concentrated perfume oil might want to recreate a fantasy of what the grave of Ra smells like, meaning configurations of accords designed to conjure up the ‘feel’ of stone, dust, old paper, and kyphi incense.  Such a perfume would use a complex formula of synthetics, some naturals, and carrier oils to achieve the fantasy.  The result smells exotic purely because the hand of a perfumer steers it in that direction, not because its raw materials or its expression are themselves intrinsically exotic.  In short, concentrated perfume oils supply you with half of the fantasy – the rest is up to your imagination.

 

The Different Types of Concentrated Perfume Oils

 

 

High-end niche perfume oils

 

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Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash

 

The definition of ‘niche’ in perfumery is an ever-shifting target. The term has become largely meaningless in the march of big corporations to gobble up small, independent ‘niche’ brands in the attempt to capture downstream markets.  Read my article on this here.  However, in the contest of oil-based perfumery, niche can mean anything from a larger niche brand like Le Labo diversifying into the perfume oil niche to capture a different kind of customer to the small, Etsy-based business making products for a tiny corner of the market, with very limited batch production and little to no distribution in retail outlets.  At the risk of generalizing, we understand niche as a business model that caters to a long tail of quirks – no matter how obscure – whereas mainstream fragrances are designed to appeal to the taste of a broader audience.

 

Companies such as Nabucco, Henry Jacques, Bruno Acampora, Fragrance du Bois, Strangelove NYC, Le Labo, Clive Christian, Aroma M, Ava Luxe, April Aromatics, and Olivine belong in the niche category of perfume oils for several reasons.  First, limited distribution.  Niche oil perfumes are not usually available in retail spaces but must be ordered from online retailers, or in the case of Henry Jacques and Fragrance du Bois, bought in person at one of their exclusive stores.  Second, craftsmanship.  The quality of artisanship and raw materials in the niche perfume oil segment is considerably higher than, say, the bulk of the American indie oil sector.  And despite the common format (oil), niche oils have zero in common with cheapie roll-ons and dupes. Third, diversification.  Most of these niche companies also produce perfumes in formats other than oil, and indeed, for companies such as Le Labo and April Aromatics, their perfume oils are simply an extension of their main line of business, i.e., fragrances in eau de parfum or eau de toilette concentration.  Thus, for these companies, oil perfumes are themselves a niche within a niche.

 

A further line of demarcation is artistic focus.  Niche perfume companies tend to be tightly focused when it comes to overall theme or brand aesthetics.  The Bruno Acampora brand, for example, focuses on a specifically Italian heritage of exquisite raw materials and a certain seventies aesthetic espoused by the (now deceased) Bruno Acampora himself.  Aroma M has built up a curated collection of perfumes around the theme of Japan and Japanese forms of poetry, art, incense, and ceremony, because its perfumer, Maria McElroy, is a devoted Japanophile and studied art in Japan for over seven years.  Olivine is a brand that has devoted itself to white flowers in all their guises.

 

Under the lens of such tight thematic focus, these companies do not churn out thirty new releases each year, preferring instead to add slowly to their core collection of perfumes. Brand integrity and aesthetic control are more important to these brands than capitalizing on the hunger for something new and shiny. (Though there is certainly some of that.)

 

Within the collection of niche oil perfume companies, there are many perfumes that might at first seem attar-like in their single-minded focus on one or two stunning raw materials such as jasmine or musk.  But while these perfumes do, like attars, express the beauty of natural flowers, musk, and plants, they do so in a classically Western ‘abstract’ tradition of composing a perfume, which makes them a concentrated perfume oil rather than an attar.

 

 

American indie perfume oils

 

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Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

 

The world of American indie perfume oils is a specific, self-contained segment of the perfume oil market.  Produced in small batches by independent artisan perfumers and self-taught perfumers, mostly in North America, these oil perfumes seek to achieve end results that are largely imagination-driven. They chase a fantasy, such as the smell of a witch’s love spell, Ancient Egypt, or reproduction of the wild, wet greenery of a forest after a rainstorm.

 

As one might imagine, the perfumes in this segment are far more complex and evolved than in the simpler roll-ons or dupe segments at the lower end of the perfume oil market.  Quality-wise, however, they do not measure up to the niche oil segment, either in terms of raw materials or perfumery skills.  There is often an amateurish, homemade quality to the perfumes.  Brands in the indie perfume oil sector are almost too many to list but names the reader might be familiar with include Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, Alkemia, Possets, NAVA, Solstice Scents, and Sixteen92.

 

Olivine, Ava Luxe, and Aroma M are also American indie oil brands, but straddle that awkward middle ground between niche and indie. In addition to being more invested in quality and naturalness, these companies also produce non-oil perfumes, such as eau de parfum and parfum-strength sprays.

 

The prices, quality, and artistry of indie perfume oils vary from company to company.  The sole unifying element is a folksy ‘handmade’ approach at odds with the conveyer-belt aesthetics of mainstream, commercial perfumery.  It is set apart from other segments of oil perfumery through the use of highly individualized, artistic marketing and bottle imagery, extending to hand-drawn labels, and newsletters for fake towns.  The prevailing aesthetic is that of the witchy, gothic, and artsy.  Indie oils are also, to a large extent, anti-luxury, preferring the hand-mixed approach to perfume over the high-gloss one of professionals.

 

Consumers in this segment of oil perfumery tend to be young women who value an individualistic lifestyle over the corporate, mainstream one.  Given that the indie perfume makers are often one-person shows, there is often direct communication between the company and its fans, with none of the traditional distance between the perfume house and consumer.  If American indie oils vary in quality, their basic construction does not, being mostly a proprietary mix of synthetics and naturals in neutral carrier oil.  

 

 

 

Dupes and Roll-Ons

 

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Photo by Yogandha Oils on Unsplash

 

Lower down the scale, we come to dupes and drugstore roll-ons (roller-balls).  Customers in this segment care neither about the naturalness of raw materials nor their ethical status.  They care only that a specific effect has been achieved, such as an oil that smells like Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather at a fraction of the cost, or a drugstore cheapie (Auric, Kuumba Made, Al Rehab) that gives the wearer a quick jasmine or amber fix for the price of a pack of gum.

 

For every aspirationally-priced niche or designer perfume out there, there exists an oil dupe that costs a fraction of the price.  India is particularly adept at producing oil dupes for popular Western perfumes – there is now a sizeable CPO industry in places like Mumbai dedicated to churning out these oils for a couple of hundred rupees a pop.  The advantages to dupes are obvious.  They cost a few dollars compared to the hundreds of dollars for the real thing, they provide a reasonably close facsimile of the duped fragrance, and they contain no alcohol, making it halal for Muslims and easily exportable across national borders.

 

However, a dupe will never faithfully reproduce the exact aroma and texture of a more expensive fragrance.  For the purposes of this Guide, I procured only dupes for fragrances I myself own either in decant, sample, or full bottle form, because the only valid way to test the accuracy of a dupe is to wear it side by side with the original.  I discovered that while many of the dupes can be up to 98% similar to the original fragrance, there is often a vital textural component or depth that is missing. 

 

The thorny issue, of course, is ethics. Since dupes copy another perfumer’s hard work rather than creating something new, they cannot ever really be considered ‘real perfume’.  Their mere existence, though an economic reality, shortchanges the work of the original perfumer.  But it is difficult to begrudge the existence of a low-cost option in a sea of over-priced fragrances.  If I wanted an expensive Western fragrance like Tom Ford’s Oud Wood but was unable or unwilling to pay the hefty price, then Surrati’s Tom Oudh gets me most of the way there for a fraction of the cost.  And for most people wanting to smell good on a budget, that is good enough.

 

Drugstore roll-ons, on the other hand, are not intended to dupe mainstream fragrances (though some do) but to be simply a ‘good smell’ in a handy roll-on tube that you can throw into your bag for a quick picker-upper at some point during the day.  In general, the perfume oils in this category are inexpensive, do not have the cachet of attars and mukhallats, come in a rollerball, and often pursue Western perfumery themes such as gourmand or chypre styles. They are also proudly synthetic in construction, unpretentious, and terrific fun to wear.  For example, Kuumba Made’s Amber Paste is a smoky-sweet amber that might satisfy a fan of the far more expensive Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens. Auric Blend’s Egyptian Goddess musk oil is a subtly sexy skin musk that is favored by many celebrities, including Sarah Jessica Parker (indeed, it was part of her inspiration for Lovely).  

 

 

The question of authenticity

 

 

The companies that produce concentrated perfume oils do not usually make any great claims with regards to the naturalness or authenticity of the ingredients of the oils.  To be fair, customers are not buying them for that reason anyway.  It makes sense, therefore, that concentrated perfume oils are vaunted more for their ability to achieve an artistic effect than the intrinsic qualities of their ingredients.

 

There are exceptions, of course.  High-end perfume oil companies such as Nabucco, Henry Jacques, Strangelove NYC, Aroma M, Olivine, April Aromatics, Fragrance du Bois, and Bruno Acampora place an emphasis on the high quality and naturalness of their raw materials.  Their market is slightly different to the market for most concentrated perfume oils, in that the customer for this type of oil is invested in top-notch quality and is prepared to pay the price that entails.

 

But even within this niche, the abstract goal of the perfume is still the most important factor.  Has Bruno Acampora’s Jasmin T conjured up a garden full of heavy jasmine petals turning brown and wilting off the vine and straight onto your lap?  Has Aroma M’s Geisha Noire succeeded in making you think of the warm scent of amber resins washed up on a beach on Osaka near to your onsen?  If yes, then that means that the creative vision of the artisan who made the perfume oil has succeeded.  The customer who buys these high end oils cares more about that creative end game than whether there is actual ambergris or pure jasmine oil in the perfume.  The common link between these high-end perfume oils and the rest of the oils in this category is fantasy.  The authenticity of the raw materials runs secondary to the fantasy.

 

In the rest of the market, it is fair to say that the hotter philosophical argument is not between natural and synthetic, but between vegan and non-vegan, ethical and unethical. In the predominantly American indie oil market, for example, customers rarely ask if their oil contains natural raw materials, but they do care  about the ingredients being vegan and/or cruelty-free.  A natural musk attar or mukhallat, for example, would not sell in the American indie perfume oil segment of the market.

 

What does vegan mean in the context of a concentrated perfume oil?  Quite simply, that the materials used to make the perfume do not derive from an animal.  Vegan alternatives to natural raw materials are prioritized in the American indie oil sector.  For example, a vegan ambergris note (in other words, Ambroxan) is preferred over natural ambergris.  Even beeswax is a problem, with perfumes containing it often red-flagged by the brand owner as fair warning to customers.

 

Although the word ‘vegan’ has come to be synonymous with ‘superior’ or ‘ethical’ in the indie perfume sector, what it really boils down to is that a lab-created synthetic molecule is being used to replace a more expensive natural raw material such as beeswax or ambergris.  This seems to be a trade-off that customers are happy to accept.

 

 

The final word

 

 

Are concentrated perfume oils inferior to attars or mukhallats?  No.  They just exist in largely parallel universes to each other. The people who buy concentrated perfume oils are generally not the same people who buy artisanal attars or pure oud oils, and vice versa.  Think of them as two circles of perfume lovers on a Venn diagram with little overlap.  They have different priorities regarding raw materials, different budgets, and different views on the role fragrance plays in one’s life. 

 

It is always a good thing to explore beyond our boundaries.  But be realistic.  Manage your expectations.  For example, if you are used to attars, do not expect concentrated perfume oils to be 100% faithful to their raw materials.  If faithfulness is what is most important to you, then stick to attars and mukhallats, especially the higher-priced ones.  But do not be dismissive either.  Some concentrated perfume oils summon a far more evocative portrait of a theme than some of the cheaper mukhallats and attars.  People crossing over to the indie perfume oil sector from a background of attars and mukhallats might be awestruck at the ability of oils to smell like gingerbread, coffee, or a seascape.  

 

Likewise, if you are turning to attars and mukhallats from a starting position in the indie sector, then you can expect the oils to be much stronger and more intense than you are used to, but also much simpler in structure and less evocative of a specific fantasy.  People crossing over into attars from concentrated perfume oils are often surprised to learn what real rose, ambergris, musk, and so on smell like.  For some, it can be a shock to the system akin to purging your body of sugar.   

 

 

 

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 Oud The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Foundational Essential Oils: Part 2 (Oud)

12th November 2021

 

Although I will be doing a much deeper dive on both sandalwood and oud in their respective sections, I wanted to use this chapter and the previous one as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery – sandalwood and oud oil.  Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery. In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.

 

 

 

 

Oud: The Noble Rot

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Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

 

While sandalwood is the most important essential oil for traditional distilled attars, the truly essential oil for mukhallat perfumery is oud.  Oud is an oleoresin, a word that literally means ‘oily resin’.  The dark, damp oleoresin forms inside the wood of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops species of tree as a response to external trauma – the equivalent of white antibodies in the human body sent to fight infection.  The external trauma can be anything, from an infiltration of a fungus through the bark or chemical inoculation by farmers to bug infestations, drilling holes into the bark, burns caused by molten lava, or even strafing by bullets.  In other words, oud resin is the tree’s way of defending itself from attack.

 

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Photo of an Aquilaria crassna tree with (darker) oud oleoresin clearly present. The strafing on the trunk was done by poachers to allow an airborne fungus access to the wood, hopefully prompting the tree into producing more of the oleoresin as a response to the ‘attack’.  Photo by Blaise Droz,, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2254233

 

The appearance of the oleoresin is dark brown, greyish, or even black, and clearly distinguishable from the light creamy color of the non-resinated wood.  Older resinated specimens such as genuine kyara or incense-grade wood will not display such clear delineation between the oleoresin and the uninfected wood, instead appearing as one piece of wood uniformly threaded with greyish resin.

 

Oud wood refers to the piece of wood that contains the oleoresin.  Resinated oud wood can be heated gently over a burner as incense or carved into prayer beads and other objects.  In Arab culture, the smoke from heating oud wood is used to fumigate clothes (both personal and ceremonial robes), houses, and even the hair or beard.  The Japanese grind agarwood to powder to use in their world-famous stick incense.  The Chinese and the Japanese both have a long tradition of carving precious oud wood into prayer beads and ornaments to be used for ceremonial or religious purposes.  The very wealthy may even buy a top quality piece of oud wood (kyara) and display it in a glass case as a showpiece.

 

Most oud is consumed in oil form, however. Oud oil is the essential oil distilled from resinated oud wood.

 

 

Why is oud so important?

 

No other essential oil in the world is as subject to hysteria, obsessive behavior, collector’s mania, and controversy as oud oil.  Its rarity and expense parallels that of Mysore sandalwood oil, and yet, you don’t really find whole Internet communities dedicated to the minutiae of sandalwood oil.

 

There are several reasons for this. First of all, oud oil is so complex in its aroma profile that it wears as a complete perfume on the skin. Oud oils can have topnotes, a heart, and basenotes, just as in a commercial fragrance.  It is therefore the rare essential oil that provides the wearer with a full 360° experience.  This marks it out as different from other essential oils such as sambac jasmine or vetiver.

 

Second, oud oils are exciting because they vary a lot in basic aroma profile from region to region, terroir to terroir, style to style,, and species to species.  Therefore, if you don’t like the barnyardy honk of Hindi oud oils, no problem – simply move onto the sweeter, friendlier Cambodi style oud oils, or the super-treacly Trat ouds.  Likewise, one might find oneself nerdily consumed with the different types of oils that are distilled from wood grown on the island of Borneo, each with their own little quirks and personalities.  There is something in the oud pot for everyone.

 

Third, oud oils satisfy the eternal human hunger for individuality, rarity, and uniqueness.  Oud oils are the perfect riposte to the mass-market, standardized wave of products we consume in our daily lives.  Pure oud oils are small-batch and limited edition, full of minute but important nuances never to be replicated with a hundred percent exactitude again.  The idea that one can own something a tiny piece of a non-renewable resource is irresistible, especially to those with a keen collector’s mentality.

 

The final reason why oud oils can be the focus of obsession is that they, unlike other essential oils, allow for a large degree of artisanship and creativity on the part of the distiller.  Even minor tweaks to the distillation process can produce surprising variations in the resulting aroma.  Therefore, not only is the raw material more intrinsically nuanced than other materials, but its manner of distillation is more open to innovation.  The result is still an essential oil, but in experimenting with different distilling materials, mineral content of the water used, cooking temperatures, soaking times, and post-distillation aging, the distiller can arrive at a slightly different result each time.

 

This ‘room to play’ aspect of oud distilling has resulted in oud oils that display a surprisingly wide range of notes that might not otherwise appear in the oil, such as lilac, chocolate, musk, and even hints of salty, golden ambergris.  One oud artisan describes it as alchemy.  This aspect of creative experimentation in oud distilling has attracted a greater proportion of artists and artisans to the process, far more than are drawn to either sandalwood or other essential oil distilling.

 

 

 

The Process of Making Oud Oil

 

The process of distilling oil from resinated wood is very traditional.  In many ways, the process is like that of producing a ruh (essential oil) in the old Indian method, namely slow steam distillation using clay, steel, and copper degs.  First, the hunters arrive out of the jungle, bearing wood they have chopped out of living trees or felled to access the wood.  If the oud wood is from a plantation, the wood is harvested just like any other farmed crop.

 

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Uninfected agarwood, i.e., bunkwood. Photo by Hafizmuar at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4782613

 

The big logs will then be broken down into shards of oud wood and inspected for bunkwood, which is wood in and around the darker, resinated areas of the wood that do not contain any essential oil or resinoid at all (see photo above).   If the distillation is a high quality one, then the bunkwood is carefully carved out of the piece of wood and discarded.  In lower-quality distillations, the bunkwood is left in to make up the weight needed to pack the distilling pot to capacity.

 

The remaining wood shards are soaked in water for varying periods of time, but usually for no less than ten days.  Longer soaks will ensure that the wood rots a little, adding a sour, fermented note to the resulting oil.  This is an effect that consumers of Hindi oils (the Arab market) have come to prize as the principal characteristic of good oud oil.  The mineral content of the water used for soaking will impart its own character to the resulting oil, with varying effects coming from carbonated water versus spring water versus tap water, and so on.

 

After soaking, the still is loaded with about seventy kilos of soaked wood chips and a fire built underneath the still.  The oud oil is distilled from the wood over the course of a week, using very exact heat and condensing methods to keep the wood at exactly the right temperature.  Steam distillation is the preferred method of extraction because it is easier to keep the heat constant using this method.  It is vital not to allow the still to get overheated.  The average yield from a seventy kilo distillation is only about twenty to twenty-four grams, which is enough for two tolas of pure oud oil.  The yield depends on the species of the wood used, as some species are notoriously low-yielding.  The water in which the agarwood has been distilled (called a hydrosol) is valuable to producers because it still contains little particles of oud oil, so the hydrosols are used again and again to wring out the most oud particles possible.

 

 

 

The Scarcity of Oud

 

 

Oud is scarce.  Less than eight percent of wild Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees contain oud resin.  Its scarcity means that it is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  Its status as an endangered species is partly because of the naturally-low infection rate among wild trees and partly because mass deforestation across South-East Asia is mowing down much of the forests, including the agarwood-producing species of tree.  Wild oud-bearing trees are facing depletion in much the same manner as Mysore sandalwood.  Oud wood from wild trees is rare and costly, leading to high demand, which in turn means that people will spend anything or do anything to get their hands on it. 

 

Although technically it is true that trees are a renewable resource, it takes a lot of time to replace an wild tree that has spent eighty plus years growing that precious oleoresin inside its trunk.  Once a wild tree is gone, it is gone for good.  Wild agarwood trees are listed as Appendix II in CITES.  But as with all Appendix II classifications (including, for example, deer musk), this does not mean that there is a ban on the material itself.  It simply means that strict measures are in place to control its trade.  James Compton, the South East Asian director for TRAFFIC, clarified this in a press release, by saying: ‘It is important to remember that CITES Appendix II is not a trade ban, but a management intervention that will help ensure legality, promote sustainability and enable more accurate monitoring of the agarwood trade.’[i]

 

For many, the best ‘management intervention’ to address the scarcity of wild-crafted oud is plantation cultivation.  Plantations are farms that grow Aquilaria species under controlled conditions, with farmers artificially inoculating the tree trunks with fungus to spark them into producing the valuable oud oleoresin.  Plantations enable sustainability, continuation of supply, and consistency of product quality – a good thing from the point of view of commercial perfumery.

 

There is no global shortage of plantation-grown agarwood.  Trygve Harris, in her wonderful article, entitled ‘Agarwood – Is It Endangered?’, states that people in Asia are investing in agarwood farming to supply the market and that there is subsequently a healthy number of plantation-grown agarwood trees in Asia[ii]:

 

‘Ajmal perfumes estimates that there are 55 million trees planted in Assam, in anticipation of the worldwide shortage.  Many of these were planted over 20 years ago.  There is a nice plantation of 1.5 million on the Lao plain north of Vietnam, planted in 2000/2001 and now set to become a fishing resort for secondary income.  These are mostly, if not all, Aquilaria Crassna.  There are 2 million Aquilaria trees planted near Bangkok, and more all over Thailand.  One can also find in plenty of trees in Vietnam at the fragrant mountain experimental station in An Giang, not to mention other plantations.  Those trees are Aquilaria Crassna.  And it seems everyone’s planting them at home, in their yard.  All over Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam at least, these trees grow.  The world of agarwood does not exist in a separate universe where people have no concept of nature’s limits.  In fact, many people have noticed the incredibly high prices agarwood commands and are taking steps to integrate themselves in the future market.’ 

 

The CITES effort to regulate and control trade of agarwood has had a big impact in signatory countries where agarwood naturally grows, and some say not for the better.  Agarwood grows naturally in Northern India, for example, but strict CITES certification procedures have cut smallholders out of the picture and accidentally allowed corruption to flourish.

 

Trygve Harris explained the effect of CITES on agarwood production in an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018 as follows: ‘Basically, it was illegal to harvest an agarwood tree, even from your own property, unless certain steps were taken and rules followed, and the designated places to distill for oil were in cities far away from the towns and villages in NE India where Agarwood happily grows.  Agarwood naturally and traditionally grows all over those states, in people’s yards.  Trees were harvested for important events, weddings, college, etc.  But, with the 2000 regulations, people couldn’t legally sell their own agarwood, unless it had a CITES certificate, which were only obtainable though the official channels at Guwahati and Kanpur.  So, a big gap was left, and who better to step in than the mafia?  They did, and that’s all I want to say about that.’’”[iii]

 

The current production landscape is made up of large-scale plantation farmers who grow agarwood under contract for the big Emirati houses and Western commercial perfume houses, and a second, much smaller group of mostly foreign artisan distillers who run small-batch, custom distillations of oud for their customer base.  These two groups of people have very different goals for the oud oil they produce, so it stands to reason that their ways of managing the trees are also different. 

 

Indigenous plantation owners and farmers are under contract to produce the oud oil needed in large-scale perfumery, which includes the big Emirati and Indian brands, as well as Western commercial perfumery[iv].  For these plantation owners, oud is a cash crop like any other.  They do not have the financial wherewithal to wait between twenty and forty years for the trees to mature, and many begin harvesting at between six months and three years old.  Plantation-grown oleoresin therefore often lacks maturity.

 

In some regions of SE Asia, but particularly in Laos, farmers use chemical inoculants to stimulate oleoresin production, to speed up the process.  Many say that the chemicals leave a metallic dirtiness in the resulting oil.  These factors contribute to an oud oil product that is certainly cheap and plentiful, but also inferior-smelling.  In contrast, farmers in Assam, in Northern India, rarely use chemical inoculants and allow the trees to be naturally infected by bugs or wounding the trees with knives.  Therefore, different countries, different production cultures.  Laos produces trees hard and fast, while Assam takes a slower, more rural approach.

 

Through experimenting with a combination of blending with other oud oils for consistency of smell and force-aging the oils by exposing them to the air to get those traditional barnyardy flavors, the plantations have come up with an oil that can be used in commercial and niche perfumery.  The advantages to plantation agarwood are clear – it is cheap, plentiful, and of consistent quality.  Depending on the manner of inoculation (chemical versus natural), the age of the wood when harvested, and the quality of the distillation process, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is not always pleasant or suitable for wearing neat on the skin.  But blended with other natural ingredients and lifted by synthetics, the effect in a commercial perfume is usually excellent.  It also allows for Western perfume houses to make a claim of authenticity for their oud perfumes.

 

Artisan distillers, in contrast, just want the best-smelling oil possible.  They do not care about selling large volumes of oil and intend for the oil to be worn neat on the skin, not mixed into a larger perfume formula.  Therefore, they are inclined to buy small quantities of high quality plantation wood whose quality they can control.  Artisans usually select only farmed trees that have been growing for between twenty and forty years and buy from farmers who use organic inoculation methods to infect the trees, namely drilling holes in the wood and allowing natural air-borne fungus spores and bugs to enter the wood on their own.

 

Careful management, selection, and inoculation can yield very good quality plantation oud wood for distilling.  The resulting oil can be of a quality that approaches or even matches that of wild oud.  In oud terminology, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is called ‘organic oud’, a term that, as in food, is supposed to convey to the customer qualities of purity, cleanliness, naturalness, and the level of care taken during its production.

 

 

 

The Market for Oud

 

The culture of a country or ethnic group is the strongest influence on how oud is consumed, valued, packaged, used, and sold.  Arabs consume the great majority of the Hindi-style oils and wood, for example, while the Chinese consume most wild Cambodi incense-grade wood for carving ceremonial beads and ornaments.  The Japanese consume most, if not all, of the incense-grade wood that comes out of the Vietnamese jungles for milling into incense powder for sticks and cones.

 

In terms of sheer volume, the Arab market is by far the most important consumer of oud.  Arabs have used oud oil and oud wood for burning for almost five centuries, an appetite that accelerated sharply with the discovery and exploitation of crude oil in the Emirates region.  Oil made many Arabs rich, and this wealth meant that they could now indulge their appetite for a material – oud – that had once been reserved for the Royal families.  It is the Arab preference for the smoky, austere, leathery oud oils, i.e., Hindi-type oils, that set the tone for most oud oil production in the Far East.

 

Hindi-style oud oils were traditionally consumed exclusively by the royal families of the Middle East and the Emirates.  Since Hindi oud was so highly valued by the elite, the taste for this style became pervasive in Arab culture.  The preference for this style of oud runs so deep, in fact, that if an oil does not possess the traditional Hindi aroma profile, many Arab consumers have trouble recognizing the oil as genuine oud.  Clean, green, woody oud oils such as a Borneo or Papuan oil, for example, do not sell well in this market.

 

The cultural expectation of what oud must smell like plays a huge role in how oud oil is distilled, soaked, mixed, and aged for the Arab market.  To cater to the Arab taste, many large companies require that their distillers soak the wood for a longer time before distilling it or expose the oud oil to the air in order to oxidize it and produce an aged, leathery result (called ‘force-aging’).  These processes produce a more pronounced, fermented ‘Hindi’ flavor in the oil.

 

Above all, the enormous Arab appetite for oud oil has had an impact on purity.  Yields of pure oud oil are low, averaging at about twenty grams per seventy kilo distillation, which begs the thorny question of how to satisfy huge demand with such tiny amounts of oud.  Realistically, something has got to give.  And in the case of oud oil, that something is purity.  Put bluntly, every single quantity of pure oud oil brought out of the jungles of India and the Far East and into the Emirates is adjusted, stretched out, and diluted with other oud oils, essential oils, and fillers in order to make a quantity large enough to satisfy Arab demand.

 

And the Arab demand for oud is inexhaustible.  The Arab market consumes oud oil and wood not only in their pure form, but also mixed into soaps, detergents, and toothpaste.  Therefore, oud is as much a flavoring product to be used in functional cleaning products as lily of the valley or rose is in the West.  Oud oil is an essential oil, but its purity is of a lesser concern to Arabs than its essential oudiness.  The Arabs prize purity in most all other essential oils such as rose ottos, sandalwood, or Sambac jasmine oil, but regard oud more as a general scent category than as an essential oil. 

 

The Chinese market absorbs almost all the wild, incense grade agarwood from the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam.  Ensar of Ensar Oud reports that it is practically impossible to procure Cambodi oud wood now[v], since every single log carried out of the jungles have already been bought by the Chinese and at a far higher price that other buyers can afford to pay.  The Chinese use some of the oud wood they buy for burning in their temples, but the majority is used to carve beads, ornaments, and necklaces, all of which are assumed to have ceremonial or religious importance.

 

The Japanese market consumes incense-grade oud wood for use in Japanese incense cones and sticks.  The market for oud oil itself is not significant.  The huge Japanese incense companies of Baieido, Shoyeido, and Nippon Kodo, among others, consume such large quantities of the highest grades of oud wood (termed incense-grade, Kyara, or Kinam) that they often station representatives outside the edges of jungles to make sure they get first pick from the loads the hunters carry out.  In Japan, oud wood is known as jinko or aloeswood.

 

Once back in Japan, the aloeswood is sorted further into grades, milled to fine powders, and mixed with other powdered woods such as sandalwood and cedar, spices such as clove and cinnamon, and gums and resins (most particularly benzoin).  These mixtures are destined for use as molded incense cones or incense sticks, the highest quality of which does not possess a wooden core but burn straight through.  Aloeswood is prized in Japanese culture almost uniquely for its role in incense ceremonies, known as Kōdō (香道, or the “Way of Fragrance”).  Kōdō involves ‘listening’ to Japanese incense and understanding its spiritual message.  The ceremony includes games, a code of conduct, and rituals.

 

The use of agarwood is historically important in Japan, and dates to the 6th century AD, when fragments of fragrant agarwood were combined with aromatic herbs and woods to perform Kōboku, the act of perfuming one’s robes for religious and stately purposes.  Some warriors also used it before battle, and it was an important commodity on the Silk Road.  The best pieces (Kyara) were reserved for royal use, and some pieces of Kyara from this period have been preserved in vaults by the government.  The price and scarcity of Kyara means that the ceremony of Kōboku is rarely performed today.  However, the art of Kōdō continues, with the more expensive aloeswood being mixed with sandalwood, clove, spikenard, and other aromatic spices to produce a wonderfully fragrant incense for burning during the ceremony.

 

 

Waiter! Is that an oud in my perfume?

 

When buying a perfume or oil that has oud in the name, the buyer usually wants to know: is there any real oud in this?  It is a reasonable question, especially since any scent or oil marketed as containing oud will likely be more expensive than other, non-oudy options (regardless of whether there is any oud in it).  In general, if you are buying a commercial (spray-based perfume), then the likelihood is that the oud will be synthetic.  A small number of commercial niche oud perfumes contain real oud oil, but the vast majority does not.

 

There are two reasons why not.  First, there is the problem of replicability.  Pure oud oil is one of the most inconsistent materials in the world.  Oil batches can smell different from each other even if the same type of wood is used, because of variations in the mineral content of the water used to distill, as well as differing soak times, microclimate, etc.  The problem of replicability is not a factor for small-batch artisans such as Ensar Oud, Imperial Oud, and AgarAura, because their unique selling point lies in the interesting variations from oil to the next.  But this type of batch inconsistency is a logistical nightmare for commercial perfumery.  In commercial perfumery, it is vital to be able to replicate an accord with a hundred percent consistency from one batch to the next.

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fulvio-ciccolo-Pmkq0yZ80-4-unsplash-683x1024.jpg

Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash  

 

Second, there is the problem of scaling up.  Real oud oil yields are too small and expensive to make sense in perfume formulas that require greater quantities of each raw material or aromachemical to scale up for production.  One twenty gram batch might stretch to fill a formula for two hundred bottles, but it will not be enough to make the ten thousand bottles required to stock the shelves at Sephora or Douglas.  In general, small-batch raw materials with huge variances in quality or aroma rarely translate well to large-batch commercial perfumery.

 

The great issue of oud in commercial perfumery is therefore not that of sustainability but of transparency.  If few commercial perfumes contain real oud oil, then why do companies charge more for perfumes with the word oud in them?  The simple answer is that oud is an exotic note to which ideas of rarity and expense has been attached.  Customers are demonstrably happy to buy into its mystique.  It is likely that many consumers believe that the higher prices for scents with an oud note are to cover the cost of obtaining and using real oud in the perfume, although this is rarely, if ever, the case.  Many reputable companies obfuscate on this matter and charge much higher prices for the perfumes in their lines that supposedly contain oud.

 

As mentioned, however, a small number of niche perfume houses do use real oud oil in their formulae, sourced from the plantations of Laos and Thailand.  The advantage to Western perfume houses of using plantation oud oil is that it is cheap, pre-blended with other oils to achieve a replicable consistency, and, crucially, available in the quantities needed for commercial perfumery.  Brands reputed to use real Laotian, Malaysian, and Thai farmed oud include Mona di Orio (Oudh Osmanthus), Fragrance du Bois (e.g., Oud Violet Intense), Dusita (Oudh Infini), Maison Francis Kurkdijan (Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Silk Mood, Oud Velvet Mood), and The Different Company (Oud for Love, Oud Shamash).  Ex Idolo 33 is a niche perfume that used a stock of 33-year-old Chinese oud oil and might be said to be the only commercially produced perfume to contain an amount of high-quality, vintage wild oil rather than plantation oil.

 

Higher-end oudy mukhallat sprays produced by the big Emirati and Indian brands such as Ajmal (Shams Oud) and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi (Dahn al Oudh Anteeq) also contain a quantity of real oud, diluted with other oils and perfumer’s alcohol to scale the formula up into a spray-based perfume.   In contrast, oudy mukhallats on the lower end of the price scale use the same oud synthetics as everyone else.  For a detailed breakdown of what types of perfumes are likely to contain real oud and which are not, please refer to the section in the upcoming Oud chapter titled Challenge 1: Where to Start?  This section runs you through all the available options (artisanal oils, big brand oils, oudy mukhallats, Western niche, etc.) and explains the extent to which each option is likely to contain real oud and in what proportions.

 

 

 

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] http://www.fao.org/forestry/50057/en/

[ii] http://www.enfleurage.com/pages/Agarwood%252dIs-it-Endangered%3F.html

[iii] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

[iv] Fragrance du Bois, for example, is a brand that either owns or contracts exclusively with an agarwood plantation in Malaysia to supply them with oud oil for their line of fragrances.

[v] http://agarwood.ensaroud.com/the-great-cambodian-experiment-3/

Attars & CPOs Sandalwood The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Foundational Essential Oils: Part 1 (Sandalwood)

10th November 2021

 

Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery.  In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.

 

Although I will be doing a much deeper dive on both sandalwood and oud in their respective sections, I wanted to use this chapter and the next as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery.  First, sandalwood.

 

 

Sandalwood: The Elephant in the Room

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is isaac-martin-Jewkfj03OUU-unsplash-819x1024.jpg

Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash

 

When we talk about traditional Indian distilled attars, the elephant in the room is the one carved in sandalwood.  Sandalwood is a key component of attars because attars are botanicals, woods, and resins distilled directly into sandalwood oil.  To be less technical about it, it is at least fifty percent of the magic.  

 

Until a few decades ago, sandalwood oil would have certainly meant Santalum album oil from the Mysore region of India.  However, thanks illegal poaching, over-harvesting, and careless disregard for sustainability, the famed Mysore sandalwood oil is now largely unavailable.  Supply to the traditional attar making industry has dried to a trickle.

 

Mysore sandalwood is, or was, one of India’s most precious natural resources.  Accordingly, depletion of this resource seems to have caused a national-level paroxysm of anguish.  The right to harvest the dwindling number of sacred giants in Mysore is a privilege restricted to individuals or outfits with the proper state licenses, which are difficult to obtain.  The totality of the crackdown on sandalwood initially resulted in a spate of illegal harvesting, smuggling, violence, and corruption of government officials, most acutely in Karnataka state – but these issues seem to have abated somewhat in recent years.  The consensus seems to be that the sandalwood trade is now quite firmly under the control of the government. 

 

Due to its status as a key national resource, the Indian government has legal ownership rights over all sandalwood trees on the territory of India, even those growing on private land.  People often have sandalwood trees growing in their backyard, but if they chop it down to sell or make oil, a quarter of the proceeds must be tithed to the Government[i].

 

 

About Availability

 

 

When I say that Mysore sandalwood is no longer available, I should clarify that this does not mean that Mysore oil is not being produced at all.  Small-scale harvesting does continue in certain areas of India where it is still allowed, and several large French perfume houses have contracts with private plantations in India to supply oil.  However, it is not available in commercially significant quantities, i.e., it is not available in quantities that would satisfy the need of the commercial perfume and attar industry.  

 

In an interview[ii] with me for Basenotes in 2017, attar maker JK DeLapp explained the issue of availability thus:  ‘It is my understanding that 50 or so tons of sandalwood oil are produced in India every year. Not necessarily all from the Mysore region, but they are producing.  Global annual demand is closer to 400-600 tons of sandalwood oil, which is why Indian sandalwood is generally not used any longer. From an industry perspective, it “no longer exists”.  What that really means is that demand exceeds availability, hence the newer Australian and Hawaiian Sandalwood oils filling in to satisfy demand’.

 

What this means is that the flow of Mysore sandalwood oil outside of India’s national borders is extremely limited.  Whatever is left in the forests of Mysore is controlled by the Indian government, and export of the oil outside of India is technically illegal.  Furthermore, India consumes roughly ninety percent of the essential oils and attars it produces, be it kadam, kewra, or sandalwood oil, further staunching the flow of sandalwood outside its borders.

 

Naturally, the sandalwood supply problem has greatly affected the traditional attar-making sector within India.  The flow of oil to domestic attar production has slowed to a trickle, with the rising costs of what oil is still available forcing traditional attar makers to turn to cheaper synthetic solvents (such as IPM), or traditionally less valued wood species such as Australian sandalwood oil (Santalum spicatum).  By corollary, the past three decades has seen the number of attar houses in Kannauj fall by nearly 80%.  More on that here.  

 

Small amounts of Mysore oil are still available locally through the state-run Cauvery[iii] Silk Emporium shops in the Karnataka district of Mysore, but unless one is lucky enough to find a trusted local intermediary, this oil is largely inaccessible.  It is also not available in the quantities required for attar-making and distillation.  Furthermore, the purity and provenance of the oil is difficult to verify.  Given the high prices fetched for Mysore oil outside of India and the huge demand for it in perfumery, adulteration is more a probability than a possibility.

 

Trygve Harris, respected owner of Enfleurage in New York and a distiller of frankincense in Salalah, Oman, confirms this, stating that the oil she tested in 2012 from the Cauvery Silk Emporium had clearly been adulterated.  In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Harris described the oil as follows: ‘It didn’t even try to smell like sandalwood — it was some floral-ish perfume. It was hideous, the product of an ill-employed bureaucrat who imagines it is what tourists want to smell. And there was only 7 ml in the bottle as well.  Really disappointing.  It was an outrage, actually’[iv].

 

 

Is it Mysore sandalwood or Santalum album that is rare?

 

 

Here is the good news. While real Mysore sandalwood oil from vintage, well-aged stock is a rarity, its species – Santalum album – is not.  Santalum album is the species of the sandalwood tree traditionally grown in Mysore, but it can also grow (and thrive) in regions other than Mysore, where climate conditions are optimal. These places include Indonesia, Tamil Nadu (Southern India), and Northern Australia.  Naturally, when the santalum album species of tree is grown in an area or country other than the Mysore region, it is not technically Mysore sandalwood.  It is, however, still santalum album.

 

A positive thing to have emerged from the current scarcity of, and restrictions on Mysore santalum album, is a renewed awareness of just how good santalum album is. The demand for santalum album is as robust as ever.  Individual consumers want it.  So do the big perfume companies like Chanel, Guerlain, and Frederic Malle. And where there is demand, there is a way.

 

Currently, there are plantations of a new generation of santalum album being grown under controlled conditions in Australia, meaning that there will be a future supply of santalum album available to the market. And although the trees are still too young to compare the quality of the output to the original Mysore stock, the first results are promising. Many expert noses report the scent of santalum album grown in Australia to be exquisite, with the same creamy, soft, santalol-rich aroma characteristic of Mysore sandalwood.

 

The only differences at this stage are likely to be that of aging, both of the tree itself (specifically, its heartwood) and of the oil in the bottle. Aging works wonders for the quality of santalum album oil.  Oil from heartwood that has been allowed to develop inside the tree for two decades or more will naturally be richer and more complete in aroma than heartwood cut out of a six-year-old tree. Still, these new santalum album plantations are good news for both attar and Western perfumery, as well as for sandalwood enthusiasts.

 

A word of caution[v] from JK DeLapp about the new santalum album coming out of the Australian plantations (though it is likely that only diehard Mysore enthusiasts will care about this):

 

‘The Australian s. album quality is good, if we are looking at the total santalol content (santalols being the benchmark for sandalwood quality testing). A Grade Australian s. album tests at a consistent 90% total santalol load (our own Rising Phoenix sandalwood oils test at an average 91-93% total santalol load, for comparison sakes). I think the new Australian material is pretty close to this benchmark, although the trees are 20 or so years old, which is young for sandalwood. That means that you can distill it in good conscience, but its tone will lack the subtle nuances present oils drawn from the heartwood of older sandalwood trees.

 

One thing I’ve noticed with the new Australian album oils, though, is that they tend to smell like popcorn. If you like buttered popcorn, then great, you’re in luck. But it is a different type of “buttery” aroma that you get in older Mysore oils or in Rising Phoenix oils, which tends to be deeper and more sandalwoody (yes, that’s a word). Sandalwood enthusiasts will grasp immediately what I mean by that. For casual sandalwood oil users, I doubt the difference will matter much.

 

The upshot is that for large-scale compounding, I think the Australian album material is a great replacement for the Mysore oils of yore. But on its own, as a perfume for personal use, it won’t quite hit your sandalwood sweet spot in the same way. Therefore, globally, Australian plantation s. album is great news for larger scale perfumery, but it won’t satisfy customers in the small-batch, artisanal production sense.’

 

The same note of caution is sounded by Trygve Harris. Having visited the Mysore plantations twice – once in the late 1990s and again in 2012 – she is familiar with the oil coming out of India and how it compares to the newer Australian plantation s. album.

 

In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Harris noted: ‘The Australian album trees are quite young but are already being harvested and I think the odor profile matches the traditional one for sandalwood grown in Mysore. It is not the same, but if you are enquiring only if Santalum album will once again be available, then yes, I think it is already, and it smells good. And, if they keep up the plantations, then it will probably be better in a few years. But will we ever again smell that magical being from Karnataka? I don’t see it. Nature is patient. And nature is magic. And while plantation trees or laboratory Petri dishes might yield an ultimately adequate product, they won’t yield an exquisite or magical one’[vi].

 

 

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] http://www.enfleurage.com/pages/Sandalwood%252dThe-Great-Receiver.html

[ii] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[iii]Sometimes written as Kauvery

[iv] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

[v] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[vi] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Resins The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Middle-Eastern Mukhallats

8th November 2021

 

 

Now we come to Middle-Eastern mukhallats.  First, let’s get etymology out of the way.  The word mukhallat simply means blend in Arabic and refers to a mix of pre-distilled attars and ruhs with other raw materials culturally significant in the Middle-Eastern perfumery, such as ambergris, oud oil, musk, resins, and amber accords.  Remember, unlike traditional Indian attars, which are distilled, mukhallats are mixed, using already distilled or compounded materials.

 

One of the most famous types of mukhallat is the rose-oud mukhallat, a pairing that matches the sour, smoky bluntness of oud oil with the peppery brightness of Taifi rose.  This coupling has taken the world of Western commercial perfumery by storm, flooding the market with hundreds of rose-oud fragrances that ape the structure of the original mukhallat template.

 

Of course, in modern-day parlance, the words attar and mukhallat are used almost interchangeably.   Hence, Amouage calls its (sadly discontinued) range of perfume oils attars even though, from a technical perspective, they are mukhallats.  The same applies to Sultan Pasha and most other young, modern attar makers – although technically mukhallats made by blending distilled attars and essential oils (some of which the attar maker may even distill himself), the final product is always marketed as an attar, because attar is the word that modern customers know and recognize.

 

It is important to note that the cultural ties and trade in perfume between India and the Middle-East go back thousands of years, which has led to a symbiotic exchange of materials, knowledge, and even language about perfume between these cultures.  For example, the word attar is virtually identical across all major languages in the area, meaning Hindu, Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, etc.  Thanks to the rich melting pot of cultures and arts encouraged by the Mughal dynasty, themselves an empire of traders, attars are something of a fluid, boundary-crossing art, claimed by all cultures in this part of the world as their own.

 

But the culture of use of perfume throughout Turkey, Northern Africa, and the Middle East has evolved quite differently to that of India.  Though it is difficult to speak on this without flattening entire and richly diverse cultures into one generalization, it is broadly accurate to say that people of Arabian, Persian, Turkish, and Northern African descent have a cultural preference for richer and heavier animalic aromas, such as those from oud, deer musk, and ambergris.  While Indian attar perfumery is inward-looking, focused almost exclusively on India’s own natural bounty, Middle-Eastern oil perfumery avails itself of a much broader range of raw materials sourced outside their own national borders, likely the result of the centuries-long history of Arabic-Persiatic empire-building and trading.

 

Oud oil, for example, is sourced from humid jungle areas of a geographically-vast sweep of countries ranging from North India and Borneo island to China and the countries of the Mekong Delta (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand).  Resins and gums such as frankincense (loban/luban) and myrrh are more important in Arabic oil perfumery than in Indian perfumery, because these resins are not native to India – they are grown and gathered in the hot, desert-like areas of Arabia and Africa (with some like copal resin, Peru and tolu balsams even coming all the way from Peru, Colombia, and Argentina, in South America).  Use of these smoky, sometimes vanillic gums and resins has come to define a whole genre of perfume, formerly known (inaccurately) as the oriental family of perfumes (a term now being replaced by more culturally and etymologically-correct terminology, such as ambery or resinous perfumes, see note here).  In general, the Middle-Eastern market for perfume displays a strong, cultural preference for more heavily perfumey smells than Indians.

 

But the cultural and historical links between these two perfume-making cultures run deep.  Arab and Persian perfumers value Indian ruhs and attars for their purity and use them to mix into their mukhallats.  One of the biggest attar companies in the world, Ajmal, is an Indian company that distills oud and makes mukhallats almost exclusively for the Middle-Eastern market.  Furthermore, it was India, and specifically the Assam region in Northern India, that gave Arabs their first taste of oud oil, stoking a fire in their hearts for the animalic, Hindi (Indian) style of oud oil that burns brightly to this day.

 

 

End Note

Reminder:  We are working our way through the four categories of oil-based perfumery as I see them, which are (1) traditional distilled attars (discussed here, here, and here), (2) Middle-Eastern mukhallats (this chapter), (3) foundational essential oils such as oud oil and sandalwood oil, and (4) concentrated perfume oils.  The main differences are briefly outlined below:

 

Traditional distilled attars:  In contrast to its catch-all categorization today, the word attar originally referred to a specific method of production, and a tradition that was almost exclusively Indian.  True attars are made through the slow, laborious process of hydro- or steam-distilling flower petals, herbs, exotic woods, and resins directly into a base of sandalwood oil.

 

Middle-Eastern mukhallats:  While traditional Indian attars are distilled from a fragrant material, mukhallats – meaning ‘mix’ – are compounds of many different oils that have already been distilled, tinctured, or otherwise produced elsewhere.

 

Foundational essential oils:  Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery.  In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.

 

Concentrated perfume oils:  Although all attars are by nature concentrated perfume oils, not all concentrated perfume oils are attars.  For example, a perfume oil from Bruno Acampora, Le Labo, or BPAL is not an attar.  Neither is the Al Rehab dupe for Dakar Noir that you can buy on Amazon for four dollars.  They are perfumes in oil format but made in a completely different manner (and intent) than attars.

 

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.

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