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).

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