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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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The New Generation Amouage Attars: Thoughts and Reviews

13th September 2022

 

 

Thoughts

 

Reception of the New Generation Amouage Attars has been mixed, the reasons for which are not exactly rocket science.  First, in order to explicitly associate these new perfumes with the OG attars that had garnered such praise for the brand prior to their discontinuation in 2015, Amouage called these perfumes ‘attars’.

 

Reader, the New Generation Amouage Attars are not attars.  But then, neither were the Old Generation Amouage Attars.  The word ‘attar’ refers to a specific (and specifically Indian) manner of production, i.e., the steam distillation of a fragrant material, like rose or vetiver roots, over a base of pure sandalwood oil.  These are not that.

 

Rather, these perfumes are ‘luxe’ concentrated perfume oils along the lines of Alexandria II (Xerjoff), Absolute Amber (Clive Christian), Cardamusc (Hermès), Parfum Fin (Nabucco), Patchouli (Jalaine), or any one of those Henry Jacques oils sold in Harrods.  Of course, there is prestige attached to the notion of an attar, so some of these are (erroneously) referred to as ‘attars’ in the marketing materials. 

 

Not to get too technical about it, but it is worth knowing that niche CPOs are not distilled (as in traditional Indian attars) or mixed (as in mukhallats) but instead made to a precise formula in a laboratory in one of Europe’s big oil factories, like Givaudan, IFF, or Symrise, by a perfumer working to a brief.   Just like any other perfume, in other words, only instead of being mixed with perfumer’s alcohol and sent off in pallets of 500 units to Sephora or Douglas, these particular formulas remain in oil format, are poured into dinky little bottles, and get sold at terrifyingly high prices as ‘attars’.

 

The OG Amouage ‘attars’, while not attars at all from a construction perspective, were still definitely authentic mukhallats rather than luxe CPOs.  They employed a distinctly Middle Eastern approach to perfumery in both manner of construction and artistic intent.  In terms of construction, the OG oils followed a Middle Eastern tradition of mixing (‘mukhallat’ meaning ‘mix’) already distilled attars with oud oil, musks, and resin oils.  In terms of artistic intent, the OG oils existed to draw the world’s attention to the glories of an Eastern tradition of perfume making and a wholly Eastern set of raw materials, from the silvery Omani frankincense and peppery Ta’ifi roses to lusty Sambac jasmine, Hindi oud, and Egyptian orange blossom.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Amouage branded the OG oils as ‘attars’ and hard to blame them for doing it.  By the time of the original launch, the word ‘attar’ had already come to exemplify – for Westerners – the exoticism, whether real or imagined, of the East.  Amouage is an Omani brand with a proud tradition of mukhallat perfumery rather than a Kannauj distiller.  But Amouage, being a corporation, has a right to segment its market according to what is deemed to be profitable.  So ‘attar’ it was.

 

Sadly, the OG Amouage ‘attars’ were discontinued and are now largely unobtanium outside of the UAE or the secondary market.  But now we come to 2021 and Amouage, seeing the rising popularity of oil-based perfumery, wants to claw back its rightful share of the ‘attar’ market.  This time around, they want to position themselves in the high-end consumer bracket, which has been steadily growing.  To cut a long story short, that means niche perfume oils that correspond to the luxury consumer’s idea of a perfume rather than maintaining authenticity or fidelity to the Eastern manner of perfume making.

 

The brand must have been aware that while the OG ‘attars’, in being mukhallats, were one step removed from actual distilled attars, these new oils were now two steps removed – not attars, not even mukhallats, but concentrated perfume oils.   In other words, no different than Alexandria II by Xerjoff or even the oil version of Santal 33 by Le Labo.  But the wheels had been set in motion for this particular fiction decades ago, so Amouage deciding to go all in and call these 2021 attars too was probably the only logical move.  And naturally, the brand would want to cash in some of that OG fairy dust for the 2021 release.  Thus, the word ‘attar’ front and center, expectations were raised.

 

Which begs the question – what did Amouage think would happen when these expectations were not met?  

 

My guess is that the brand simply hoped that their positioning of the 2021 oil releases at the luxury consumer market would circumvent the small but vocal group of true perfume (and attar) aficionados that had bought the OG stuff.

 

You see, the people who will be interested in buying these newer Amouage ‘attars’ are not the same as those who were buying the OG ‘attars’.  The folks who bought the OG Amouage Attars were investing in the authenticity of a Middle Eastern or Indian raw material, like oud or sandalwood, whereas the folks who will buy the New Generation Amouage Attars are mostly looking for the prestige of dabbing on an oil out of a tiny, exquisite bottle.  The first is a desire for art, the second a desire for luxury.  

 

Amouage likely looked at the market and decided that they could generate more revenue from the people who view a bottle of the newest attar from Amouage in the same way they view all other luxury consumables like, say, an Hermès handbag or a Lisa Eldridge lipstick or the latest iPhone – opulent, high-spec things that give the pleasure of an object well made, none of which will scare the horses – than from the much smaller group of fragrance enthusiasts who stay up until 4 am, sweatily gripping their computer mouse, to secure 3 mls of the latest sandalwood oil from Areej Le Doré or the newest Hindi drop from Ensar.

 

It goes without saying that one group is not morally inferior (or superior) to the other.  Their buying parameters are just different.  Some folks long for the authenticity and artistic derring-do of some of the original Amouage attars, while others will much prefer these smoother, more Westernized pleasantries. And from a marketing perspective, it is perfectly legitimate for Amouage to decide to switch lanes for the 2021 release.  

 

Where Amouage might have messed up was in not communicating the differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ as clearly as they might have to the group of people still intensely loyal to the artistry of the brand’s original oil output.  Sure, from a business perspective, no corporation has to go the extra mile to explicitly explain a change in direction, manufacture, or artistic intent such as this.  However, some of the most pointed criticism about these oils may have been averted and some goodwill created amongst the very community that helped raise and maintain Amouage’s reputation for excellence.  Instead, the brand done took a match to a couple of bridges.  

 

Surely, for example, the brand could have explained their rationale for using Western perfumers to compose these ‘attars’.  In an age where awareness about cultural misappropriation and decolonization has scaled new heights, the brand might have anticipated that its clumsy pairing of the word ‘attar’ – traditionally an Indian art – with ‘master’ European perfumers such as Dominique Ropion would create some uncomfortable associations or even take some of the shine off the brand. 

 

Amouage has always kept schtum about who composed the original ‘attars’.  It is likely that they used Middle Eastern perfumers with experience in mukhallat perfumery but didn’t name them (the company did name, however, the Western perfumers like Guy Roberts and Bertrand Duchaufour who worked on their spray-based fragrances).  For this new release of ‘attars’, Amouage’s strategy was to hire Western perfumers experienced in composing formulas for niche and designer perfumes, like Cécile Zarokian, Julien Rasquinet, and Dominique Ropion.  Now, to me, this makes perfect sense.  If you are creating a line of luxe perfume oils that are basically supposed to be a haute luxe or niche fragrance, just in oil format, then it makes sense to hire perfumers who are used to producing this sort of formula for other high end niche companies.

 

However, the brand didn’t explain that these new attars weren’t really attars at all (probably because this particular bit of fiction is now decades deep and it’s too late to walk it back), and therefore left itself wide open to accusations that it was aiding and abetting Western perfumers to misappropriate a traditionally Indian art of perfumery.

 

Now that you (yes, you Dear Reader!) understand that these oils are not attars but simply posh niche perfumes in oil format, I bet you don’t care if the formula was composed by a perfumer in Grasse or by one in Delhi or Dubai, do you?  Right.  It ceases to be an issue.  But the brand didn’t or couldn’t communicate this, thereby running straight into the fire that any 19-year-old social media manager worth their salt would have been able to predict was coming their way.  

 

More accurate than the cultural misappropriation (which is itself based on a misguided belief in the fragrance community is that only Indian or Middle Eastern perfumers can or should be involved in the creation of attar, oud, and mukhallat perfumery*) is the accusation that, in naming the 2021 oils ‘attars’, Amouage was cynically cashing in its previous reputation for authenticity and ‘realness’.  There is no real comeback to this.  The 2021 oils are, at best, a good ole cash grab, and at worst, a thumb in the face of loyal perfume fans who believed that Amouage anything was special, not to mention one of their vaunted attars.  While the general specialness of Amouage is less true today than it was ten, fifteen years ago, the 2021 ‘attar’ release still feels like a line in the sand between the brand’s proud artistic past and its now far more glossily commercial future. 

 

Whether or not this is a successful strategy from a business perspective is something only the Amouage CPA can tell us.   

 

 

Reviews

 

Now onto the actual reviews.  Spoiler alert: I enjoyed each and every single one of these new CPOs from Amouage, and as long as you go into it expecting luxe perfume oils rather than genuine distilled attars from India or authentic mukhallats from the Middle East, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t either.  Are they groundbreaking or original?  No.  But they are all extremely pleasant, smooth, and yes, luxurious-smelling perfumes.

 

Of the six that I have smelled, two oils didn’t smell at all Middle Eastern, pursuing instead traditionally Western (read: French) perfumery themes such as vanilla and orris.  Two of the ‘attars’ smelled straight up like an oil version of existing Amouage spray perfumes.  But they are all extremely nice and well executed, and thankfully (mostly) subtle in their use of modern woody ambers like Norlimbanol or Amber Extreme.

 

Are they $540 good?  Again, nope.  That’s my annual car insurance.  To be fair, I’m not the target market, and unless you’re the rare Birkin bag buyer whose SEO somehow re-routed you to this blog, then it’s safe to assume that neither are you.  The only reason I have to review these is that (a) I am currently publishing a Guide to Attars (which covers attars, mukhallats, essential oils like oud, and concentrated perfume oils) so this release kind of is my business, and (b) a very dear friend sent me her sample set free of charge.  So, there you go.

 

 

Photo by Veronika Nakhtman on Unsplash

 

Orris Wakan, composed by Julien Rasquinet, focuses on the famously cool, rooty aroma of orris butter to the exclusion of all else.  In fact, it smells suspiciously close to an ionone-rich orris butter dilution I have in my collection, which is to say a heady blend of the following: parsnip roots pulled from the soil on a freezing December morning, spermicidal jelly, a silver spoon, soap, and freshly-poured concrete or latex paint.  Why all of this should add up to a scent that Chandler Burr once described as ‘liquid good taste’ is a mystery, but God knows it does.

 

Orris Wakan is unusual for an ‘attar’ or oil-based perfume in that it manages to capture the very nuances of orris butter that normally get ‘squashed’ by other, heavier materials in oil format.  This is all rhizome, no flower.  In fact, in keeping the structure simple, Rasquinet has managed to produce something that briefly reproduces the opening of Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens). 

 

This is quite the achievement until you remember that orris butter itself is so lovely and complex a material that all the perfumer really had to do here was set it in place and leave well enough alone.  To Rasquinet’s credit, he didn’t overstuff the composition with any shouty materials that might detract from the orris.  It just fizzles out quietly into an ether of soft, frothy musks.  Like your first roll in the hay, Orris Wakan is poignantly beautiful for all of the thirty minutes it lasts.

 

It is worth noting that Orris Wakan is one of the two 2021 perfume oils that are completely Western (read: French) in both theme and construction.  I imagine this being a big seller for the luxury leather goods crowd, because the scent of orris has a natural affinity with creamy leather, suede, and hawthorn accords.              

 

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

 

Rose Aqor, composed by Cécile Zarokian, well – let me just stop right there.  Even without looking it up, it is clear that this is a Cécile Zarokian creation.  I love her work, but this central accord of soda fizz rose, sparkling ‘white’ incense, piquant black or pink pepper, doughy benzoin, cinnamon, and radiant golden ambers is as identifiable a fingerprint as anything done by Bertrand Duchaufour.  Rose Aqor is very lovely, as it should be, as it is a near note-for-note recreation of Zarokian’s 2009 Epic Woman (Amouage) in oil format.  Epic Woman is my most worn Amouage perfume, so I know her.

 

Like Epic Woman, Rose Aqor tucks a sweet-n-sour, heavily peppered rose inside a powdery incense-amber accord that is part pickles, part sherbet.  As roses go, Rose Aqor is a complete meal in and of itself, from the lip-smacking savor of kimchi to the meaty, peppery rose and a thimbleful of thin crème anglaise to sweeten the tongue at the very end.  It diverges slightly from the Epic Woman template in some parts, most notably with a touch of the slightly doughy bubblegum-benzoin accord and zesty cardamom ‘fuzz’ borrowed from Fêtes Persanes (Parfums MDCI), another perfume by – you guessed it –  Cécile Zarokian.

 

I am predisposed to enjoy Rose Aqor because I also enjoy Epic Woman and Fêtes Persanes.  But unless you have a very small collection and you’re specifically in the market for this type of rose (spicy, ambery, incensey), then it is likely you already own something very like this.  For me personally, Rose Aqor is redundant.  But remember, neither you nor I am the target market for Rose Aqor.

 

It is in Rose Aqor, by the way, that the key differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ emerge most clearly.  Smell Rose Aqor and immediately the closest equivalents that jump to mind are themselves niche perfumes that pursue a vaguely ‘exotic’, Middle Eastern theme albeit via the heavily filtered lens of a Western luxury buyer.  Contrast this with OG Amouage rose-centric ‘attars’ like Ayoon Al Maha (rose and sandalwood) or the infamous Homage (Taifi rose, frankincense) and, straight away, you can tell the difference.  Rose Aqor smells like a niche perfume in oil format; Homage smells like the fiercest distilled attars of Taifi rose and frankincense oil mixed together.  The first is a complete perfume composition, clearly made under temperature-controlled conditions in a lab, while the second smells like something violently wrested from this good earth.   And that right there is largely the difference between a concentrated perfume oil and an attar (or mukhallat).    

 

 

Photo by allison christine on Unsplash

 

Vanilla Barka, composed by Dominique Ropion, is guilty of what Luca Turin named the ‘one-liner tendency’ in today’s niche perfume market, which is the fashion for composing a perfume around one of two headlining materials and allowing that be the whole artistic point of the fragrance.  Imagine a scale of compositional complexity with L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) at one end and Vanille Benjoin (Affinescence) at the other, where the closer you move towards Vanille Benjoin, the more ideas your perfume sheds.  Vanilla Barka is positioned right at the Affinescence point on that scale. 

 

After one thrilling note of frankincense, in all its silvery-lemony severity, this devolves very quickly into the plain white sugar + vanilla-tonka bean sludge you see everywhere from Tihota (Indult) to Vaniglia (Mazzolari) and even, to be honest, Vanille (Molinard).  It is slightly plasticky, albeit in a nice way, like Vanyl (Bruno Acampora).  You can even get reasonable versions of this accord from indie oil perfume houses, like Solstice Scents, and have it work out at $18 for a 5ml bottle.  Vanilla Barka costs $540, for scale.  

 

Vanilla Barka is far from unpleasant, just to be clear.  There is a not insignificant amount of hygge to be mined in its deeply doughy, almost almondy dollhead embrace.  But let’s be honest.  Wearing Vanilla Barka is the scent equivalent of eating white frosting or raw cookie dough straight from the packet, while mindlessly binging Netflix in your slouchiest sweatpants.  Yeah, it’s insanely comforting.  But you also kind of know it’s not good for your teeth or your IQ.  Not to mention that, for $540, you can pick up two whole bottles of Tihota.  Of course, Amouage is counting on Dubai mall foot traffic not to know about Tihota.  So, there’s that.

 

 

Photo by volant on Unsplash

 

Incense Rori, composed by Julien Rasquinet, is the standout of the 2021 line for me.  No wonder, because it takes as its starting point the wonderful Omani silver frankincense that Amouage made so famous throughout the world.  The opening note is marvelously fizzy, dark, and sooty – picture the smoked out remains of an open fire in a traditional stone church.  It smells like handfuls of charcoal dust dumped into Schweppe’s Bitter Tonic, with this clean edge that frank fans will find utterly addictive.  Cedar and I think a good deal of unlisted amber join forces to lend the soaring frankincense some basso fondo, creating a rich, resiny background that swings between ashy (pipe tobacco) and sweetly whiskey-ish (amber, immortelle).

 

This darting contrast between achingly dry smoke and ‘wet’ booze is incredible, reminding me variously of a mash-up between the original Vetiver (Annick Goutal), Jeke (Slumberhouse), Tobacco Oud (Tom Ford), and Black (Comme des Garcons).  The drydown lays out a rich, salty oakmoss for our consideration, which is the precise point at which Incense Rori does a fabulous impression of the latter stages of L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), where all that funky oakmoss dries out on a bed of halitosis.  Incense Rori isn’t at all animalic, but it shares something of the scalpy moss funk of the Miller Harris – likely that same metallic, musky, slightly cheap suit shininess of Evernyl Prunastri.  Add a rubbery, saline myrrh (deflated latex condom and all) in the far reaches, and you have the complete incense madness that is Incense Rori.

 

Incense Rori is the perfume that I imagine most appealing to the Old Guard of the perfume community, i.e., the ones who bought the OG Amouage attars.  It smells pure and smoky enough to grab the attention of the most ascetic of luxury buyers’ tastes, yet complex and different enough to capture the interest of even the most jaded of incense (or indeed oakmoss) freaks in our tiny corner of Fragcomm.  Also, is Incense Rori possibly the 2021 Amouage apology for dropping Tribute?  A very small, scaled down tribute to Tribute, mind, but better some Tribute than no Tribute at all.     

 

 

Photo by marlik saffron on Unsplash

 

Saffron Hamra, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is the most traditionally ‘attar’-like of this collection, due to its clever use of a spice – saffron – that, as part of the age-old triumvirate of rose-sandalwood-saffron, will not fail to evoke a Pavlovian response.  I smell saffron, I smell attar.  Even if you think you don’t know attars, you have certainly smelled some variation of that rosy-saffron attar scent in your local Asian supermarket, round the back where the incense sticks and chunks of bakhoor and gaudy perfume oils are stocked.

 

On its own, saffron is piercingly medicinal, like gauze bandages soaked in iodine or the rawest piece of cowhide you ever saw, a quality that aligns the material surprisingly enough with natural oud oil.  Indeed, on the lower end of the scale, you will find that all the big attar or mukhallat houses – Ajmal, Arabian Oud, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, and so on – pad out their ‘oudy’ compositions with saffron in order to create that subliminal link in our smelling receptors to natural oud, even when none is present (the same may be said for cypriol, which is smokier and far less medicinal than saffron).

 

In Saffron Hamra, Zarokian allows the medicinal properties of saffron to play out in full, but wraps a soft, sweet rose around it to cushion us from its sharper edges.  The result is a sort of vanilla custard tinged with iodine and dirty bandages.  I assure you that this is delicious and unsettling in equal measure, which is what makes it such a successful and balanced accord.  Imagine Safran Troublant by Olivia Giacobetti for L’Artisan Parfumeur but removed from the utter comfort of the Parisian salon to the harsh planes and arid environment of the Rub’ Al Khali desert in Saudi Arabia.

 

At this stage, Saffron Hamra strikes me as being authentically attar-like, and even worthy of being included in the original Amouage attar line-up. (It reminds me somewhat of a smoother Al Siraj by Arabian Oud, one of my favorite saffron-forward mukhallats).

 

However, it is worth noting that the far drydown of Saffron Hamra introduces an unpleasantly metallic note that gives me a headache.  Cade oil, listed in the notes, might be responsible for this element, as it is a dirty green, smoky material that can be quite pungent.  To my nose, though, it reads like a trace of some woody aromachemical.  A disappointing end to a perfume that started out smelling absolutely wondrous, therefore, although it also reminds me that sometimes, just sometimes, the normally thoughtful Zarokian can go ham on the woody aromachemicals (Sheiduna for Puredistance being an example).   

 

 

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

 

Oud Ulya, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is very similar to Zarokian’s own Silver Oud for Amouage, only not as earthy (there is little to no patchouli felt here).  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that, as with the Rose Aqor/Epic Woman parallel, this is Cécile Zarokian translating the formula of another of her Amouage spray perfumes to oil format.

 

Similar to its parent, Oud Ulya wraps a pungent oud oil (which smells authentically feral, aided no doubt by a lascivious touch of civet) in a syrupy amber-vanilla glove designed to make the medicine go down.  The opening resembles Trat oud oil, which is to say, soiled hay plunged into a hot, bubbly strawberry jam.  Now imagine this pungent oud-date jam spread across a huge chunk of pain d’epices and left to smolder and char at the edges on a censer, the air filling with the intense scent of burnt sugar.  The point here is that the ferocity of the animalic oud is equal to the ferocity of the syrupy sweetness of the vanillamber.  Add in the haunting smoke of birch tar and you are halfway to the delicious second half of Patchouli 24 (Le Labo).  

 

It might be the equivalent of showing up to church in full drag if the whole thing wasn’t so ergonomically velvety.  You see, Zarokian has managed to wrap all of this up in the most buttery of buttery leather accords, so even while part of your brain flashes on the barnyard, you also keep making that involuntary crooning sound you make whenever you see a picture of those Ritz-Carton lodges in the Maldives or when your hand brushes against the 500-count sheets on display in Harrods.  Oud Ulya is a mish-mash of things for sure – there is a bit of Amber Absolute, Patchouli 24, Prive by Ormonde Jayne, among others – but it is a charming and well-balanced mish-mash, and that counts for a lot.

 

But again, compare Oud Ulya to the towering oudy masterpieces of Badr Al Badour (my favorite OG Amouage ‘attar’), Al Molook, or Al Shomukh, and the differences in style are immediately laid bare.  Though Oud Ulya certainly contains an authentic-smelling oud, it is framed against a backdrop of sweet and smoky notes artfully arranged to evoke a fantasy of the East as expected by a Western gaze.  Like Shalimar.   Oud Ulya is deliberately exotic, because the perfumer has arranged the amber accords, the leather, and the smoke to create just that effect.

 

In Badr Al Badour, on the other hand, the combination of the oud, the rose, the ambergris, and the frankincense smells exotic because the raw materials themselves are exotic and because the perfumer has simply mixed these exotic smells together in the most pleasing way he knows how.  Badr Al Badour cares not if it pleases our Western nose or not; it is wholly agnostic to our comfort.  In contrast, Oud Ulya brings you on a magic carpet ride but keeps checking over its shoulder to make sure we’re still on.

 

 

 *This is largely true for traditional Indian attar perfumery since genuine attar distillation is now mostly limited to Kannauj, India, but we have established that neither the old nor the new Amouage ‘attars’ are actually attars.   Still, many of the most prolific and creative perfumers or distillers working in the field of oil perfumery (oud, sandalwood, and mukhallat perfumery) are themselves Western by birth or upbringing.  Ensar is American, Taha Syed is Canadian, Sultan Pasha is a Londoner, JK DeLapp is from Atlanta, and Russian Adam is…well.   You see where this is going.   A gentle suggestion: as fragrance writers, let us put down the pitchforks and try to see the perfume sector for what it is rather than for what we think it ought to be.   

 

 

Source of sample:  A very dear friend of mine passed on her set of official Amouage samples to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

 

Cover Image: Photo taken by me. Please do not re-print without my permission.

 

Aromatic Review Rose Spice Spicy Floral Woods

Smyrna by Le Couvent

8th September 2022

 

Although Le Couvent house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena art-directed rather than authored Smyrna, he almost certainly slipped whoever did it an early draft of his own Rose Poivrée (The Different Company).  But while Rose Poivrée’s pepper, cumin, and coriander overload created a savory, metallic funk that came uncomfortably close to the scent of second-day men’s underwear, the formula for Smyrna has been stripped back to a simple premise of rose, woods, and a bit of black pepper.

 

Where Smyrna remains similar to Rose Poivrée (The Different Company) and even Rose 31 (Le Labo) is in that neat sleight of hand where, despite it ostensibly being a rose scent, the rose comes and goes, as unreliable as sunbeams on a cloudy day.  Sometimes it smells like a peppery rose, sometimes like gently spiced woods.  But never the twain shall meet.

 

Smyrna, for the most part, reminds me of the steamy, botanical smell of a warm greenhouse where you are dividing geranium plantlets – the vaporous aroma of sun-warmed wood frames, the peppery snap of the roots and stalks, the rosy-minty smell of the geraniums.  The black pepper gives the scent a kick but no funk.  It smells planty, not underpanty.

 

Simultaneously, though, it also smells like a body lotion or shampoo, one scented with Turkish rosewater or loukhoum.  Unlike in Rose 31 or Rose Poivrée, therefore, every time the spice threatens to flare up to the point of pungency, there is enough of this balm to sooth it all down again.  In fact, there is an almost Uncanny Valley lack of sharp corners here.  The scent is preternaturally smooth. 

 

I’m in two minds about Smyrna, to be honest.   On the one hand, fragrances like Rose Poivrée (the original version at least) are too vegetally-sharp or culinarily stinky for me to enjoy comfortably.  Smyrna resolves this by removing the more pungent spicing and adding an almost candied rosewater balminess.  It is therefore much brighter and easier to wear.  But ultimately, Smyrna remains a copy of something that, while not to my personal taste, was deeply original and artistic.  Wearing Smyrna kind of feels like wearing the original soaked in stain remover and put through the hot cycle – it suits me better, but it also feels like a bit of a cop out.

 

Source of sample: Provided by the brand for copyrighting purposes.

 

Cover image: Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash 

 

 

Aromatic Chocolate Green Herbal Iris Leather Masculine Review Smoke Spice Spicy Floral Suede Vanilla Woods

Iris Malikhân by Maison Crivelli

22nd August 2022

 

 

Iris Malikhân is immediately two things.  It is a leather bundle charred in the grate, so smoky and bitter it short circuits to the word ‘chemical’ in my mind.   But equally, it is a thick iris-vanilla cream that fills the room with a haunting sweetness.

 

It took me ages to figure out that second is causally linked to the first.  Unwrap the scorched, blackened skin of the leather bundle, blowing on your fingers for relief, and you reveal the slightly singed, chalky orris roots that lie within, the violence of the char the catalyst to releasing those cocoa-thickened vanilla spores.

 

For six months, I have struggled mightily with the burnt part of Iris Malikhân.  I believed that it was just like any number of other sweetened iris-suede scents out there – Dior Homme Intense (Dior), Bois d’Iris (Van Cleef & Arpels), Vanille d’Iris (Ormonde Jayne) and so on – just not as good or at least more ‘on trend’ in its use of those intrusive liquid smoke aromachemicals that brands like Maison Martin Margiela, seem to be so fond of.  

 

Funnily enough, it was all those upvotes on Fragrantica for Iris Malikhân smelling like Dior Homme Intense that made me revisit the perfume and try to reframe it for myself.  Because that comparison definitely doesn’t tell the full story.  I’ve smelled Dior Homme knockoffs before (like D600 by Carner Barcelona) and there is more artistry and kink in this one’s little finger than in all of those.  The weird Pastis-like note of artemisia or mastic upfront makes this clear.

 

The moment I was able to mentally reclassify the harshness of the opening accord as part and parcel of a leather tanning process – which in and of itself involves chemicals – was when the clouds cleared and Iris Malikhân clicked for me.   Whereas before I was gritting my teeth through one part to get to the other, I now experience the fragrance as a whole, where the tanning chemical front end is key to unlocking and releasing the full fatness of that licorice crème anglaise, infusing it with a hint of anise, bitter chocolate, and woodsmoke.   If I squint, I just about get leather.   Heck, I can sometimes make out the shape of the purported orris root.  But like Dior Homme Intense, Iris Malikhân is so much more than a sum of its parts.

 

 

Source of sample:  Provided free of charge by the brand for copywriting purposes.      

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash 

All Natural Aromatic Floral Green Herbal Musk Resins Review Rose

Rozu by Aesop

20th August 2022

 

 

Just when I thought roses had lost their capacity to surprise, along comes Rozu, which wraps a fresh, dewy rose in paper-thin layers of pink pepper, shiso leaf, and aromatic grasses that crackle with intent.  Surprisingly, it is not the spice or the aromatics that shine through the hardest.  For me, it is the evocative aroma of freshly-turned soil that makes Rozu special.  Moist, sharp, alive – this is the healthful, plush air inside a Japanese onsen.  There is also even a tenuous link to mitti, an attar that captures the aroma of the first rains of the season hitting the red earth of Mother India.

 

In line with other Aesop fragrances, Rozu smells uncluttered.  Simplicity is not shorthand for laziness, though.  On the face of it, you might write Rozu off as a rose perched between herb and wood, a dash of pink pepper providing an electrical spark to keep it moving.  But pay attention and you’ll start to wonder why you never noticed until now how minty shiso leaf can smell warm or how spices can smell cold or how a rose can smell indistinguishable from clay.  

 

There is grace (and design) in the way your impressions are prompted to shift from roses to earth to spice to wood and back again.  Yet, it is all as effortless as if Rozu had leapt fully formed from a Japanese forest floor rather than from a perfumer’s organ.

 

Hours in and you start paying for its supreme naturalness.  One by one, the sharper, zestier notes fall back and even that dewiest of roses starts to feel a little faded around the edges.  Every time I wear Rozu, I have to remind myself to stay still and let it roll over me like a fog.  Otherwise, it is easy to miss parts of its conversation.

 

For example, on my third test, I noticed that Rozu has a deeply fragrant, almost ‘dry-roasted’ drydown that, while subtle, provides the wearer with the sense of a party meandering pleasantly to a close instead of the abrupt full stop common to most ‘natural’ (or natural-styled) fragrances.   Whether this is due to a particular resin or wood is besides the point.  If you’re still paying attention at this stage, the only solid thing you grasp is a feeling of warmth.

 

My God, but it’s good.

 

 

 

Source of sample:  I have sampled Rozu several times in a department store.  Unfortunately for me, Aesop seems to apply production pricing to its catalogue of scents, so while other Aesop fragrances cost as little as €100 per 50ml bottle, Rozu is priced in the €150 range (implying that the essential oils required to make it are particularly expensive).  One day, probably when the Aesop shop girls start to object more vociferously to my soaking myself in 20mls in it at a time, or when my Catholic shame gets the better of me – whichever comes first – I might be persuaded to bring it home with me. 

 

Cover Image:   Photo by Oleh Morhun on Unsplash    

Animalic Carnation Cult of Raw Materials Independent Perfumery Iris Musk Review Sandalwood Violet

Iris Ghalia by Ensar Oud

17th August 2022

 

 

Iris Ghalia by Ensar Oud makes for an unconventional iris but a reassuringly traditional Ghaliyah*.  It takes the gin-and-ice ethereality of orris and dispassionately sets it up to either thrive or fail against an onslaught by grungiest, most uncouth cast of characters ever licked up from a zoo floor – castoreum from the anal glands of a beaver, warm-scalpy costus root, calcified urine scraped off a rock (hyraceum), and saliva-ish musk grains scooped out of the undercarriage of some poor unsuspecting Tibetan deer.  And that’s before we even talk about the marshwater skank of natural ambergris.

 

Yeah, it was never going to be a fair fight.  If you have any experience at all, then you go into Iris Ghalia knowing that it is only a matter of time before quivering silver bloom of the iris is subsumed by the powerful animalics.

 

But the perfumer has sought to stack the deck a little in favor of the iris by flanking it with a sharp, fresh accord that is one third citrus peel, one third plant juice, and one third piano rosin.  Therefore, you get that first dopamine hit of warm, plush iris (smelling divinely of antique wood furniture, old books, and closed-up mansions) and just as the sugary deer musk bubbles up to nip at its heels, your nose flashes on the shrill, metallic greenery of violet leaf and the funky cat pee fruitiness of blackcurrant leaf.  Together these notes form a citric-resinous barricade around the iris, allowing it to stand up and assert itself just a little longer.

 

Iris Ghalia also benefits by being a spray and not an attar or an oily distillate, because a note as ephemeral as iris needs its own space (think a whole castle rather than a room).  For a while, the notes teeter, achieving a precarious balance between something very classical and something very grunge-indie-artisanal.

 

Of course, in the end, it is inevitable that the warm animalic notes begin to tighten around the trembling neck of the iris like a dirty fur stole.  The musks, which start out smelling as sweet and as dusty as powdered sugar sifted over a hot wolf, grow ever staler by the minute, a time-lapse video of animal fur collapsing into decay over the course of a week.

 

All this might prove heavy going indeed were it not for the persistent effervescence of a bright Coca Cola note running like ambient noise in the background.  I suspect that some combination of the iris and the powdery musks is what’s conjuring this effect.  But at times it also smells like all those minor aspects of benzoin – brown sugar, crackling brown paper, camphor, mint gum, and yes, Coca Cola – that only ever come out when benzoin is left alone to do its own thing rather than called in to serve as a member of the fantasy amber trope or as a rough stand in for vanilla.  No benzoin listed, by the way.  Pure conjecture on my part.  

  

Anyway, no matter how it’s configured, the contrast works.  And it seems to be a series of contrasts, rather than just one thing.   Notes-wise, you have something quite funky and animalic (scalpy) – the musks, the ambergris, and so on – jutting right up against something quite ethereal or even effervescent – the iris, benzoin, the powdered sugar of the Tibetan deer musk.  But there is also a textural contrast between the greasy/leathery and the dusty/sparkling.   In terms of ‘taste’, the contrast between the intensely sugariness of the musks and the sourness of the funky, leathery castoreum in the tailbone is clearly no afterthought either.  (Flanked by the saliva-ish musks, I find the murkiness of the castoreum to be very similar to the bases of other Ensar Oud scents, most notably Chypre Sultan, but the innovation here is all in that Coca Cola effervescence).    

 

All in all, a novel idea.  The sharp, greyish, concrete-like violet leaf (think Kerbside Violet by Lush) shoring up the elegant woodiness of the iris, the powdered sugar musks, the swelling chorus of animal gland secrete, just licked skin, and that miles-deep, bubbly Coca Cola sweetness.  Could I pull it off on the regular?  Probably not – it feels too much like hard work at times, and it is incredibly heavy.  Yet I found Iris Ghalia a tremendously exciting scent to wear.

 

*Ghaliyah, meaning ‘most precious’ or ‘most fragrant’ depending on the source, is a common type of mukhallat in the Middle East.  These were once all-natural affairs containing real ambergris, musks, oud, and spices, offered primarily to royal princes and members of the ruling class.  

 

 

Source of sample: Ensar Oud very kindly sent me a sample free of charge for review purposes (I paid a small customs fee).  I freely acknowledge that I am in a privileged position, as a fragrance writer, to receive free samples of the most expensive or rarest fragrances in the world.  The hope is that I perform some sort of service for the reader by reviewing them.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Dorothea Bartek on Unsplash 

 

All Natural Animalic Aromatic Chypre Cult of Raw Materials Green Hay Herbal Independent Perfumery Jasmine Leather Masculine Musk Oud Review Sandalwood Spice Woods

Chypre Sultan by Ensar Oud

11th August 2022

 

Always brave, I think, for a perfumer to set their cap at making a chypre in this day and age.  Most falter not because they can’t find an oakmoss replacement or the low-atranol stuff, but because they are so focused on getting the moss element right that they miss the whole point of a chypre in the first place, which is that abstract, kaleidoscopic richness, that sweet-and-sour balance that makes your mouth both salivate and shrivel up a bit.   Good chypres feel murky and on the knife edge of bitter to me – a mysterious conflagration of forest floor and a miso-based tare that took hours to make.  

 

Chypre Sultan feels like a real chypre because it treats the chypric model (bergamot, moss, labdanum) more as a suggestion than a straitjacket.  Bergamot?  Forget bergamot, too stuffy, let’s put yuzu in instead.  Labdanum?  Booooring.  Tends to take over.  Put in the quietest of sandalwood instead, creamy and substantial enough to anchor the scent.

 

In playing fast and loose with the rules, Chypre Sultan successfully captures the mysterious umami character of chypre that eludes the grasp of others.  The opening is winey and dark, a dense carpet of forest floor notes – minty wet moss, woods, artemisia, hay, sage, perhaps even a touch of rubbery myrrh – which give it a distinctly medicinal tinge, similar to Tiger Balm.  It wears like the deepest green velvet this side of Scarlet O’ Hara’s curtain dress.

 

Naturally, being an Ensar Oud creation, Chypre Sultan is kitted out with the most exquisite medley of natural oud, castoreum, and musks, which weighs down the flightier herbal and citrus notes, and creates the ‘pea souper’ murkiness so essential to a chypre’s character.  It is so thick that I can almost taste it at the back of my mouth.

 

The castoreum alone is extraordinary – leathery, almost burnt in its dryness, and in conjunction with the minty-vegetal tones of the (genuine) oakmoss, distinctly savory in tone.  The musk element is not animalic or heavy-smelling in and of itself.  In fact, it seems to be there only to give the castoreum and oakmoss this buffed-out, diffused ‘glow’ effect.  Imagine burying your nose in a man’s leather jacket and then walking around in a ‘head space’ cloud of those same molecules all day long.  This feels like that.

 

Surprisingly for such a dense, winey stew, I can clearly smell the jonquil.  Jonquil is a type of daffodil (narcissus) that smells like hay but also quite like jasmine under some conditions.  At some point, the sweet, sunny wafts of hay and jasmine begin to shake loose of the darker backdrop, and the effect is like a sudden shaft of sunlight piercing the gloom of a medieval forest.

 

Bear in mind that this floral effect is really subtle.  There is, however, a moment when the savory (almost celery-like) oakmoss meets the jonquil, and I think of Vol de Nuit.  It is a similarly ‘long simmered greens’ train of thought that connects the two.  But of course Chypre Sultan is an indie-artisanal perfume, while Vol de Nuit is a perfume made in the grand manner of French classical perfumery, so both the finish and the intent are very different.  Chypre Sultan is, naturally, far richer, more pungent, and rougher around the edges than Vol de Nuit.   

 

But there is a distant link, nonetheless, and you might be the type of person who prefers the raw authenticity of the natural ouds, musks, or oakmoss that an artisan outfit can offer.  Chypre Sultan is Vol de Nuit if she got up from her table at Le Cinq, delicately wiped her lips on the Irish linen napkin, and disappeared off into Fontainebleau forest to roll around in the muck and the hummus and the animal carcasses, only to emerge naked ten hours later with nothing more than a smirk and eyeliner smudged all over her chin.  

 

There is only one slightly difficult moment for me, and that is when all the minty herbs and hay-like florals fade out, leaving only the surround system of the castoreum, musk, and oud to play out their slightly gloomy brown tune.  Without the distraction of the fresher notes, the oniony-sweat nuances of oakmoss, complete with that slight over-stewed celery tea note, start to wear on me a little.  However, the rich, rubbery castoreum, musk, and oud step in to smooth this over and it steadies itself, finishing out the day (and this is a serious all-day kind of thing) in a softly murky, leathery-foresty haze that hovers rather than ‘sits’ on your skin.

 

I am hard-pressed to say what Chypre Sultan might be compared to, because a perfume by an oud artisan like Ensar Oud is always going to be on a different level of pungency and purity to a commercial perfume.  So, allowing for the sheer ‘apples and oranges’-ness of the comparison, I suppose that Chypre Sultan reminds me a little of Diaghilev (Roja Dove) in terms of the bitter, foresty greenness and masculine-leaning character.  However, Diaghilev has a stouter floral core and, being a commercially-produced rather than artisanal perfume, lacks the leathery castoreum-musk depth of Chypre Sultan.

 

Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI) is also a fair comparison, but is much sweater and creamier, its florals appearing almost powdery in comparison (Chypre Sultan is a powder-free zone).  The Vol de Nuit linkage is but a fleeting impression and probably a figment of my overactive imagination; Dryad (Papillon) is another possibility because of its costus note. 

 

But in fairness, Chypre Sultan is far less classical in structure than these two fragrances, and in its ‘brewed up in a wild jungle’ intensity, comes closer to the tannic, crunchy-organic Peruvian Amazon experience that is Carta Moena 12|69.  In terms of murkiness, complexity, and that ‘Chinese meal’ completeness you get with a good chypre, it drifts along the same orbit of Kintsugi (Masque Milano) without smelling like it at all.  Either way, Chypre Sultan is very much its own thing, and that thing happens to be a force of nature chypre.

 

 

Source of Sample:  Ensar Oud very kindly sent me a sample free of charge for review purposes (I paid a small customs fee).  I freely acknowledge that I am in a privileged position, as a fragrance writer, to receive free samples of the most expensive or rarest fragrances in the world.  The hope is that I perform some sort of service for the reader by reviewing them.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash 

Review Vanilla Woods

Vaniglia by Santa Maria Novella

9th August 2022

 

 

Vaniglia is one of the few vanilla-centric vanilla perfumes I own, and to be honest, I am not sure why it has become such a big part of my rotation other than the fact that my children, currently on their school holidays, have blocked my access to my perfume collection with a rickety tower of soft toys.  Since 1st September is the earliest I can yeet it off my summer tray into the deepest depths of my cupboard where it belongs, now is as good a time as any to review it.

 

Vaniglia is a Jekyll and Hyde vanilla.  In the air, it smells like a scoop of artisanal vanilla gelato, thick with egg yolks and stiff with tiny, crackling particles of vanilla bean.  People have accused Vaniglia of smelling a little like extract, which it does, except it is probably more accurate to say it smells like vanilla bean paste, which is woodier and has less of an alcohol shriek.

 

The sillage is thick, unctuously creamy, and even a bit sticky or cloying.  Like many of the richer Santa Maria Novella perfumes (Muschio, for example), there is a Biscoff undertone running through the lower register that strikes me as obscene in a perfume meant for grown-ups.  But because there’s the slight bitterness of the booze in which the bean has been preserved, or a dusting of something cocoa-ish at the edges of this aroma, you do have that rather alluring (and yes, vanilla extract-like) contrast between the very expensive and the very cheap.

 

Smelled this way, I can take Vaniglia.  It is a little disgusting in its biscuity foodiness, but since it has survived several collection culls, I obviously have some sort of feeling for it.  Smelled up close, however – my God, what a shitshow.  The vanilla eggnog thing completely disappears, replaced by the ugly aroma of melting plastic, which assaults the nostrils relentlessly for the first couple of hours.  Given that Santa Maria Novella is one of the more traditional, and therefore, naturals-heavy brands, I will give the benefit of the doubt here and say that this is possibly an overdose of a latexy myrrh or an inherently plasticky jasmine material.

 

I am leaning towards the latter because this repulsive banana-plastic-acetone-industrial-fire aspect reminds me very much of Vanillary by Lush, another scent that burns my nose hairs when I get too close to it.

 

My solution for Vaniglia is not to get too close to it.  

 

 

Source of sample: I bought my own bottle of Vaniglia from the Santa Maria Novella store in Florence.  I know – what was I thinking? I blame the heat, the crowds, that final glass of Prosecco at lunch….   

 

Cover Image: Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash 

 

 

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Gatsby 22 by Ormonde Jayne

9th August 2022

 

Because I feel that I should love Gatsby 22, but definitely don’t, I have worn it heavily over the course of the summer to figure out how to describe it to someone who very well might.  All perfume reviewers have their blind spots, and here’s mine: I am terrible at describing huge floral-woody musks that are little more than a vague shape in the air.

 

Amber smells delicious, kind of like food.  Flowers smell distinctly of themselves, once you know what they smell like individually.  Incense smells like church.  Pine smells like the forest.   But to me, Gatsby smells less like the individual flowers or woods or vetiver referenced in the notes list, and more like an abstract (and ever-shifting) set of ‘moods’ caused by these notes bouncing off each other as they jostle around that expanse of sour, rubbery musk.  

 

Parts of it certainly smell good.  I appreciate the clean, bright citrus shifting into the spearmint tones of geranium, the tangy waft of violets, that Ormonde Jayne osmanthus with its high-end, peach fuzz suede, all washed down until shiny with benzyl salicylate water for that mild, sweet balsamic touch.  This familiar familial arrangement of Ormonde Jayne notes cannot fail to please.

 

But then again, these accords all come drenched in, and partially obscured by a woody musk material that screams eau de department store for once, rather than the usually palatable (to me) Iso E Super accord that Ormonde Jayne uses.  The effect of this particular woody musk is to make the more natural-smelling fruit and floral notes read as arch, highly stylized versions of themselves – glossy magazine inserts rather than the real thing.

 

Here’s the kicker.  I am not the young professional or cool girl/gal at whom it is aimed.  So, can I do this scent justice for the reader who does form part of this demographic?  Ormonde Jayne call Gatsby 22 edgy, but it took me a whole month of wearing it to figure out that they didn’t really mean that it smells edgy (it doesn’t) but rather that it has that clean, androgenous, Ambroxinated vibe that people who wear Glossier You or Tanagra by Maison de Violet or even Baccarat Rouge 540 find so sexy.  These are perfumes that smell like nothing at all but also like crushed gemstones, fresh air, sexual confidence, and the aspiration of personal wealth.

 

In other words, it is the abstraction of Gatsby 22 that matters.   Worn side by side with, for example, Bal d’Afrique (Byredo), a scent that goes for a similar sparkly champagne-lemon-vetiver vibe, it soon becomes clear that Gatsby 22 is much drier, more urbane, and far less literal than the Byredo (which suddenly seems quite ostentatiously gourmand-ish in comparison).  Gatsby’s tart woody musks act like a pour of the driest Vermouth on earth, swishing all the notes together into a blur of things that your field of perception sometimes catches (was that grappa?) but more often not (why am I not picking up on the vetiver?).

 

Gatsby 22 isn’t something I can see myself ever leaning into, but I appreciate that it made me work harder than usual to figure out why I don’t like it and, conversely, think more seriously about the person for whom it might be the best thing ever.  Because, as it turns out, those are two types of people whose tastes will never intersect on a Venn diagram.  And that’s ok too.

 

 

Source of sample:  Ormonde Jayne very kindly sent me a 50ml bottle of this free of charge for review.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

 

Amber Animalic Iris Leather Masculine Review

Cuir d’Iris by Parfumerie Generale

8th August 2022

 

The secret to Cuir d’Iris is that it is simultaneously sooty and wet.  Bone-dry cedarwood and iris kick up dust eddies as stale as the air from a newly-fired radiator.  Floating in this thick miasma is the scent of the milking shed, successive days of cow juice coagulating slowly on the concrete floor, soured slightly by the sun.  Wisps of charcoal or soot add a grainy dimension that might be interpreted as smoke of some sort.

 

Add to this Pierre Guillaume’s signature amber-musk combo that smells uniquely intimate, like the sweet, yeasty folds of skin under a baby’s neck or the two-day scalp of a loved one, and you have yourself a result that stands less with the Cuir de Russies and the Knize Tens of the world, and more with the L’Air de Riens.  And yet, step back, and this is still clearly leather – freshly cured, curdy, a bit raw and thin.

 

But leather is just skin after all.  And human skin is still animal skin.  In the series ‘Hannibal’, his therapist tells him that while she admires its construction, what he is wearing is a well-constructed person suit, suggesting that his humanity is something one can slip into (or out of) as easily as one would a pair of dress pants.  Cuir d’Iris, with its organic, lived-in human-ness, is the ultimate parfum de peau.  Robots and psychopaths, take note.     

 

 

Source of sample:  I bought my own bottle of Cuir d’Iris in 2015.  Many thanks to Danny C. who safeguarded it in London for two whole years before my brother was able to go pick it up.  

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash