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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.

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