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The Areej Le Doré History of Attar Collection Thoughts and Reviews

16th September 2022

 

Thoughts

 

Don’t buy the Areej Le Doré History of Attar collection of attars if you are looking for another Walimah or Russian Musk attar by Russian Adam – a regular perfume composition, in other words.  Instead, buy the History of Attars collection if you value having a reference library for traditional distilled attars, made by artisans using pretty much the same equipment (a deg and bhapka) and distillation techniques practiced in India since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, 3300 BCE-1300 BCE. 

 

It takes enormous skill and knowledge to make an attar in the traditional way, and having practiced it for over five thousand years, Indians are the masters of this art.   Although the attar maker behind the History of Attar set of attars has not been revealed by Russian Adam, the traditional seat of the attar-making world has long been Kannauj, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.   Kannauj-based attar-makers supplied the princes of the Turkish-Mongolian (but culturally Persiatic) Mughal Empire with attars for more than three centuries and have a long history of trading with the Middle East (the word ‘attar’ is Farsi in origin but due to the boundary-crossing nature of attar making, the word is pretty much the same, with minor changes, in Urdu, Hindi, and Arabic).   Surrounded by silt-rich fields and valleys that grow an extraordinary range of exotic flowers, aromatics grasses, roses, and herbs, Kannauj is justifiably called the Grasse of the attar world.  Read about the most famous single-material Indian attars here and complex Indian attars here.

 

However, the traditional attar distillation industry is under threat.  Though you can read more in detail about why here, the main reasons are (1) the depletion of genuine santalum album oil, the traditional carrier oil into which the fragrant material materials – rose, jasmine, etc. – are distilled, (2) the high costs and labor intensity attached to harvesting, sourcing, and distillation of the raw materials to the standards expected in traditional attar distillation, and (3) the changing perfume tastes and buying power of the market that buys attars.

 

It is no wonder, then, that many of the small, independent attar-making houses have gone out of business.  At its height, approximately sixty percent of the population of the 1.7 million-strong city of Kannuaj was employed in the attar industry.  Until the restrictions on sandalwood oil production came about in the nineties, there were over seven hundred distilleries operating in Kannauj, for example.  Now there are only a hundred and fifty.  The traditional attar making industry has shrunk by almost eighty percent over the past three decades.

 

Sandalwood is perhaps the biggest issue, as it is responsible for about 50% of the aroma of a traditional attar (sandalwood being both a great-quality carrier that only improves with time but also deeply fragrant in and of itself).  Read more about why sandalwood is such an amazing material here.  Materials such as rose and jasmine have always been expensive to produce, because they are labor-intensive, and a great quantity of their petals required to produce even a small amount of a ruh or attar.  A ten milliliter bottle of genuine rosa damascena oil (ruh gulab) costs approximately $250 in Kannauj, but the same amount of synthetic rose oil costs only $8

 

You might think that all this preamble is a lot of bla, bla, bla.  But since the History of Attar collection of traditionally distilled attars is such a different product for Areej Le Doré to offer, it is worth spending a little time on clarifying why and how these products differ.

 

Russian Adam does not distill traditional attars himself.  Although he does distill his own ouds and some sandalwood oils for its sister outfit, FeelOud, Adam outsources distillations of specific materials to local artisans.  These oils are then used in the Areej Le Doré perfume compositions, both spray-based and oil format.  When these oils are mixed together with an oil carrier, these make what Areej Le Doré calls ‘attars’ but are technically ‘mukhallats’.  

 

Most perfumes in oil format called ‘attars’ are actually mukhallats.  See for example the 2021 Amouage ‘attars’ discussed here, as well as Ensar Oud’s ‘attars’.  This is partially because the word ‘attar’ originally meant anything fragrant or good-smelling, and has therefore become synonymous with ‘perfume’ – and specifically oil-based ‘perfume’ – to most people.  There is, however, some critical differences between the construction and artistic intent of a distilled attar and that of a mukhallat.  Unlike traditional attars, which are distilled, mukhallats are mixed, using already distilled or compounded materials, with a focus on raw materials culturally significant in the Middle-Eastern perfumery, such as ambergris, oud oil, musk, resins, and amber accords.   Mukhallats are definitely more perfumey and ‘finished’ in form – closer to what most would consider a real perfume. Traditionally distilled attars are far simpler and focused on praising the spiritual bounty of nature – closer to an ‘essence’ or ‘enfleurage’ than to what most people think of as a perfume.  Mukhallats tend to be easier to make because it involves mixing materials that have been distilled elsewhere, and the labor is all in the composition (rather than in the distillation).

 

Because traditional attar distillation is an extremely complex operation involving many people, weeks, complex procedures, etc., Adam commissioned an attar maker (attar wallah) to make these attars.  Despite some disappointment about this expressed online, this is basic quality assurance.  If you want a Chanel tweed jacket, you don’t buy a pattern and try to make it yourself.  Leave it to the experts. 

 

Yes, the History of Attar set of distilled attars is expensive.  But traditional distilled attars – genuine ones – are expensive, due to the labor and materials involved.  For example, a traditionally-distilled hina or shamama attar with the full whack of natural raw materials starts at a minimum of $2,000 per kilo.   And it takes over one month of uninterrupted distilling time to make a real shamama attar. Even in India, where labor in cheap,  that adds up to over 700 man hours.  Some will argue that you can buy an Indian attar for $5 on eBay or IndiaMart, and indeed, you can.  However, it will not be a genuine distilled attar.  It will contain a synthetic solvent (like IPM or DPG) or a substandard natural replacer (like Moringa oil) instead of Indian sandalwood.  Most, if not all of the other raw materials will also be likely synthetic.  And it most certainly will not have been distilled in a deg and bhapka but knocked up in someone’s back office masquerading as a lab.

 

It is ok if you are not interested in traditional distilled attars or if you are interested but don’t want to spend this much.  This collection isn’t for everyone.  (Also, attars themselves aren’t for everyone).  Only buy these if you are the type of person who values having a reference library of top-notch examples of a genre or raw material, against which you can judge the quality of other perfumes or oils.  I would compare this collection to the oud sampler you can get on Ensar Oud’s site.  It is handy as a baseline.  If you are content to limit your investment to the spray perfumes that Areej Le Doré will soon release based on these very attars and are only mildly curious as to how the spray fragrances relate back to these attars, then skip ahead to the reviews below.  They should tell you everything you need to know.

 

If you do buy this set, however, and are new to attar perfumery, be prepared for the fact that traditional Indian distilled attars are not perfumey-smelling.  Think of traditional distilled attars more as essences than perfumes per se, simply suspended in sandalwood oil.  Traditional attars are simple in structure; they start with the scent of the fragrant raw material that has been distilled, and end with the famously buttery-peanutty aroma of real sandalwood.

 

If Indian attars ever do smell complex, it is for one of two reasons.  First, some fragrant materials, like vetiver root, are complex-smelling materials in and of themselves, and so lend the attar the illusion of a more fully worked out ‘perfume’.  Vetiver root, when distilled as a ruh khus, for example, can stretch from hazelnut and grass to rose, earth, and smoke.  Second, there is a category of traditional attars known as complex attars, which are not single distillations of one material but co-distillations (for example, rose, jasmine and vetiver root in one still) or mixed with other attars and choyas after distillation.  Attars such as majmua and shamama fall into this category. 

 

The History of Attar attars are not complex-smelling attars.  They are single distillation attars, meaning that only one fragrant material was loaded into the deg and then distilled over the base of sandalwood.  This was an intentional choice on the part of Russian Adam, I believe, as he wanted customers to experience the raw materials in their purest form possible.

 

Traditional distilled Indian attars present the raw material in a way that will surprise people used to their portrayal in commercial perfumery.  For example, jasmine – motia in attar speak – does not smell as clean, bright, or creamy as is commonly portrayed in commercial perfumery.  In motia attars, I notice that jasmine can smell dusky and a bit dank, with some gasoline or plasticky nuances that tend to get filtered out for the commercial perfume experience.  If you buy this collection of attars, therefore, expect some olfactory surprises!  Do not adjust your TV set; this is all perfectly real.

 

The History of Attar attars all end up in exactly the same place, which is a base of real santalum album sandalwood.  As a bonus, Russian Adam has added a quarter tola of sandalwood  oil distilled by FeelOud from vintage Mysore sandalwood from 2000.  This is to give people an idea of what good quality santalum album smells like. The length of time it takes for each attar to get to the Mysore sandalwood base differs, with the more ephemeral materials like rose (Gulab) reaching their destination in an hour and the more tenacious materials like tuberose (Champa, Tuba) taking slightly longer.  But the end destination never changes.  If you love the scent of real, honest-to-goodness Indian sandalwood, you are in for a rare treat.  If you don’t have a particular yen for it, then it will be like being served the same dessert six days in a row.  (Honestly, the people in the latter group don’t deserve good sandalwood at all).     

 

 

The Reviews

 

 

Champa

 

Photo:  Vinayaraj, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

 

Champa attar is the most famous floral attar ‘type’ from India, possibly popularized beyond the borders of India by its use in nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks), shampoo, and soaps.  Distilled from the champaca flower, a bright yellow flower revered across the Indian subcontinent and much of tropical Asia as a symbol of sacred femininity, champaca tends to smell rich and creamy, similar in profile to magnolia, but with a denser, muskier body weight, and hints of bubblegum, green apple peel, mint, and apricot. Though champaca can be quite musky at times, it is traditionally associated with cleanliness.   In fact, the word ‘champa’ gave rise to the word ‘shampoo’ by way of the Sanskrit word for champaca, ‘champo’, which means ‘to massage’.  

 

This particular Champa attar smells (typically for champaca) headily botanical, with a sharp green tea element freshened with pops of mint, grass, wood, and something akin to furniture polish.   You can tell that it is a floral – something about the heady, steamy atmosphere – yet it doesn’t smell particularly fruity, bright, or feminine in the way you think an attar squeezed from a yellow flower is going to. 

 

I pick up on an intense ‘darkly stewed tea’ element, with a sweet, powdered incense quality in the background, although this impression could be the automatic linking my brain does between the scent of traditional agarbatti[1] and actual champaca.  Although this doesn’t make much sense, since most Nag Champa on the market these days haven’t been within 100 km of real champaca, the association lingers, rendering this attar distinctly Indian in character.

 

The most interesting part of Champa is when it starts to degrade on the skin.  By which I mean the yellow flower itself begins to wilt into a damp, almost fetid organic soup of crushed stamens and soggy stems.  It smells musky in a very natural, attractive kind of way – like a young woman, freshly washed head to toe in Timoteí, rolling around in wildflowers and chamomile buds, only to emerge hours later stained with plant juice and soaked in that fresh-sweet-salty sweat that only the very young seem to produce.  This ‘decaying at the edges’ aspect – the slight tip of the hat towards the barnyard floor – smells freakishly sensual, mostly because it is so clearly natural in origin.  Whoever thinks that flowers can’t smell anything other than sweet or clean should smell this.

 

After this, there is a brief detour into jasmine-like territory, with a sour, plasticky edge I associate with Sambac at the end of its natural life.  Sometimes champaca can smell a little like jasmine, though, only a bit coarser and not as ‘clear’.  If you’ve ever smelled the underside of your wrist after removing a rubber watch at the end of a hot day, you’ll know what this stage of Champa smells like (only mixed with something vaguely floral).    

 

Champa winds up, about two hours later, in pure sandalwood territory.  Because all of these attars end with the same sandalwood finish, it is worth describing this once and then moving on.  If you want to study this basenote in isolation, Areej Le Doré has provided a whole quarter tola of vintage sandalwood in the set, called ‘Sandal’.  I describe it below.

 

 

Sandal

 

Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash

 

This is the essential oil of pure santalum album (meaning ‘white sandalwood’), the species of sandalwood rightly prized for being the most fragrant sandalwood of all.  Sandal was distilled from a vintage, well-aged batch of real Mysore sandalwood (22 years old at the time of writing).   Due to current restrictions on Mysore sandalwood, this is a genuine rarity.  

 

How does it smell?  Well, to paraphrase Teri Hatcher in Seinfeld, it’s real and it’s spectacular.  But lean in, folks, because real Mysore sandalwood is actually very quiet.  A fun fact is that, when you first smell Mysore sandalwood – or indeed any santalum album at all, whether it is grown in Mysore or not – you have to make a physical effort to shake off any association with the loud, buttery, incensey scent familiar to you in commercial perfumery, because that’s an association largely formed thanks to widespread use of sandalwood replacers like Javanol or Ebanol.  Commercial perfumes pre-1980s might have contained a certain quantity of real santalum album, but after that, you have been raised on the alluring lie that is sandalwood synthetics.  Therefore, a person’s first sniff of real Mysore sandalwood oil can be disorienting.   

 

At first, Sandal smells like freshly-felled lumber, with that slightly vaporous, high-pitched tone that all wood esters emit.  This is a clean, soft, slightly peanutty aroma, with only the faintest whisper of rose and milk stirring in the undercarriage.  Later on, it develops, in small tonal waves, into a warm scent that is typical of all s. album oils in its savory, milky-but-also-arid warmth.  It smells rugged but also weirdly flat, like the surface of cream, with a musky, spicy element that reads sometimes like ambrette or carrot seed, and sometimes like cumin or black pepper.  It remains extremely quiet and tonal, however, a gorgeous beige-blush-buff thing you instinctively want to drip-feed into your amygdala.  There is none of the deep incense or amber tonalities that Mysore oils sometimes boast, but it is fairly rich and sturdy. 

 

 

Tuba

 

Photo: Jayesh Patil, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Now this will be a surprise to anyone used to tuberose in the commercial perfume context.  In traditional Western perfumery, tuberose tends to be one of those white floral notes you either love or hate.  I, um, have my issues with it.  It is just so strong and sweet, with this overlay of bubblegum, melted butter, candy, and cream that tends to suffocate.  It is just not my style.  It smells aged and ladies-who-lunch-ish and hotel lobby-ish.  There is a handful of tuberose perfumes that I love, but these have to be either so odd that its psychotic quirks suddenly become playful rather than annoying (Daphne by Comme des Garcons) or so green and medicinal that it tips over into bitterness (the opening of Carnal Flower, Tubéreuse Criminelle).  

 

But Tuba doesn’t smell like any of these iterations, let alone anywhere near the big classical, shoulder-padded versions that haunt my nightmares.  The opening is earthy but delicate – small tart green leaves, clay, an earthy Rooibos tea, and mint, all suspended like mist droplets in a curtain of camphor.  It smells dun-colored rather than the hot pink synesthesically associated with tuberose.  In fact, it is less flower than a newly opened jar of that Borghese Advanced Fango Active Purifying Mud, full of Siberian ginseng root and chaga mushroom extract.  Earthy, quasi-medicinal smelling things like this give me far more pleasure than a bouquet of flowers.  

 

Yet, there is also a small but still clearly tuberose character in all of this, which I find extraordinary.  It is as if someone took the freshest, softest leaves at the center of Carnal Flower’s evergreen box hedge opening and washed them in this creamy greige mud until soft, limp, and almost denuded of color.   Leaning savory rather than sweet, the slow fade into the equally savory sandalwood gives the impression of a barely set bread pudding, its layers wobbly to the point of collapse, flavored with miso paste rather than vanilla.  Tuberose must be tenacious even in attar form because Tuba takes more than two hours to disappear entirely into the sandalwood base.  Color me charmed.    

 

 

 

Genda

 

Genda attar is made from marigold (tagetes minuta), which, for a flower, smells uniquely herbaceous, bitter, and spicy.  Its astringent tonality has something in common with saffron, and indeed, the two make for good bedfellows.  Genda attar is uncommon outside of India, but marigold itself is used quite cleverly in some other mukhallats and perfume oils, one example being Aroosah by Al Rehab.

 

This Genda attar is – again – a shock to the senses if you are expecting something recognizably floral.   It smells distinctive without you being able to say exactly what it is that distinguishes it.  But if you relax your nose (like your eyes when looking at one of those Magic Eye paintings), strange and not unalluring shapes begin to emerge from the fog.  First comes a slash of bitter herbs (unidentified, medicinal in purpose), followed by the tacky glucose coating on candy cigarettes, a wash of chamomile tea, a slight hay-like note, latex paint, and either mint or camphor, all wrapped up in an accord that can only be described as a first cousin once removed to nail polish remover.  It is slightly animalic, but mostly high-pitched and vaporous, with its individual nuances shifting around so quickly that it is hard to pin them down. 

 

The flightiness of this herbal-acetone ether makes me think of Borneo oud, which also smells minty, woody and slightly bitter, with a vaporous intensity that makes your head spin if you get too close.  In terms of floral-essence-to-sandalwood trajectory, Genda sits firmly in the middle of the pack, taking about an hour and a half to wind down.  Delightfully odd.

 

 

 

Motia

 

Photo:  Reprinted with kind permission of the photo author, Pranjal Kapoor

 

Out of the three species of jasmine most commonly distilled in attar making[2], motia (or mogra, as it is sometimes called) is the most popular, and is made from Jasminum sambac, the famous ‘Arabian’ jasmine.  Ruh motia itself is almost exclusively distilled in Kannauj these days (whereas solvent-extracted Sambac absolutes and concretes can be found elsewhere).

 

Now this is where things get really strange.  If you know your Sambac jasmine, then you walk into Motia having a pretty good idea of what this is going to smell like – minty, fresh, a bit coarse (in a good way), sexy, slightly sour-leathery in the lower register, etc.  Good ole Sambac jasmine, in other words, and yes, quite recognizably distinct from the classical, sweet grandiflorum type.

 

However, for much of its lifespan, Motia doesn’t smell much like jasmine of any species at all.  You do get a floating layer of green floral soap that may or may not be jasmine, but this nuance is far more wax than flower.  There is a strong aroma of propolis, as well as flashing hints of that grapey benzyl acetate high note that some jasmine materials push to the front, so the jasmine clearly is there, somewhere.  But, in passing through that dusky almond-green floor wax accord, the sound it emits seems to be muted.  It smells to me like what I imagine the pearly white fat remaining from a jasmine enfleurage might have smelled several hundred years ago, when enfleurage was discovered as an extraction technique.

 

I like Motia very much, perhaps because off-center approaches to floral essences as characterful (and recognizable) as jasmine are always more interesting to me than the standard soliflore treatment.   I get a real kick out of the fact that this smells more of cream of wheat and wax and propolis than of jasmine itself.  In fact, Motia reminds me that there is this strange alchemy that occurs when jasmine meets sandalwood that transmogrifies the flower and the wood into something that smells like a warm, silky bowl of porridge.  This wheaten, nubby cream accord strongly recalls other jasmine-sandalwood accords such as that found in the central axis of Dries Van Noten (Frederic Malle) or in Feromone Donna (Abdes Salaam Attar). 

 

Motia is a real education for the nose.  In the ‘strange but true’ category, I also have samples of the Areej Le Doré spray perfumes that are based on these attars, and the one based on this motia attar most definitely smells like Sambac jasmine. 

 

 

 

Gulab

 

Photo:  Reprinted with kind permission of the photo author, Pranjal Kapoor

 

When rose petals are distilled into pure sandalwood oil, the result is an oil known the world over as ‘attar of roses’, or sometimes even Attar Gulab, as here (Gul means rose in Hindi, although the word is sometimes also loosely interpreted as ‘flower’.)  Attar of roses production takes place over nine months of the year, mostly using Bourbon roses (Rosa bourboniana) rather than rosa damascena (which, technically, is used to produce Ruh Gulab, or rose otto, i.e., an essential oil distilled in much the same manner as an attar, only not into a base of sandalwood oil or another solvent. Ruhs are 100% pure essences, rather than 50% fragrant hydrosol, 50% sandalwood oil)

 

Anyway, technicalities aside, describing what rose smells is probably as redundant as describing what coffee or chocolate smells like.  These are smells hardwired into our core memories.  But if I told you that while rose itself has over 300 compounds, the main ‘flavor’ compounds you are smelling are citronellol, geraniol, and eugenol, does that at least help you decode a bit of the mystery of what makes a rose a rose?

 

For me personally, learning that roses can be broken down into the main building blocks of lemon-lime (citronellol), green-minty (geraniol), and clove-pepper-spicy (eugenol) was critical to me understanding what I was smelling when I sampled my first rose outside the cannon of commercial perfumery eight years ago, which was Al Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous from ASAQ.   Now with more experience, I know that the chances of Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous being a pure rose otto are slim to none, but still, this particular oil upended my set-in-stone idea of roses as being soft, sweet, and feminine.  In contrast, the ASAQ smelled like freshly peeled lemons and spicy black peppercorns.  Smelling it slapped me awake.

 

I mention this as preamble to describing this Gulab attar.  If you go into it expecting a big, rich, or sweet affair, you’ll be disappointed.  This is a very traditional rose attar scent, its noise undistorted by the oil format.  It smells high-toned and delicate, with undertones that split off into tart-lemony and peppery-minty directions (without getting sidetracked).  Not surprisingly, due to the citronellol and geraniol compounds, the rose itself is a volatile creature that flares brightly and then immediately begins to soften away into a barely there smudge of rosiness.  When it reaches melting point with that beautiful sandalwood base a scant hour later, it smells very close to what most people’s fantasy of what an attar might smell like, in other words a rosy sandalwood scent with a very simple yet moving beauty to it.  

 

 

 

Source of sample:  Areej Le Doré kindly provided me with the attar set for free.  It normally costs $375.  I paid a small customs fee.

 

Cover Image:  My own photo.  Please do not use or distribute without prior permission.

 

 

[1] Champaca was used in the old, traditional way of making nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks) that prevailed in India before the formula was cheapened in order to satisfy foreign demand for cheap incense.  In addition to champaca, the original formula for agarbatti included some very expensive naturals such as Assamese agarwood, Mysore sandalwood, expensive floral essences such rose, kewra, saffron, henna flower, and spikenard, an aromatic Indian herb.  These aromatic materials were bound by honey and halmaddi, a fragrant gum from the Ailanthus triphysa tree.  Important yogi would traditionally use nag champa in rituals, and it is still the prime component of any major Hindu event.  Therefore, nag champa was originally a highly prized sort of incense.  Mass production and cost-cutting over the years has meant that the Indian pan masala incense you buy these days is usually very low quality and, indeed, possessed of that hippy vibe that tramples on any cachet the original nag champa once enjoyed.

 

[2] The other two species are Chameli and Juhi.  Chameli attar is made from Jasminum grandiflorum, the type of jasmine grown in India and in Grasse and used in classic French perfumery.   Juhi attar is made from Jasminum auriculatum.  The auriculatum variety (Juhi attar) is simply a three-petalled subset of the sambac jasmine, and so the differences between them are negligible.  The differences between sambac and grandiflorum, on the other hand, are more significant.

 

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