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Areej Le Doré History of Attar Collection (Fragrances): Reviews

4th October 2022

 

The first release in the History of Attar Collection was a set of traditionally-distilled attars specifically commissioned by Areej Le Dore to give its customers an idea of what Indian attars are (thoughts and reviews of the attar set here).  This release, on the other hand, is a collection of spray-based fragrances (not oils) made by Russian Adam himself, rather than commissioned from an attar distiller.  Since their composition do revolve around the use and theme of Indian attars, however, it might be useful for readers to read my previous article describing the attar set first.  

 

 

 

Beauty and the Beast

 

Photo by Maksym Sirman on Unsplash

 

I wrote about the new generation of Amouage attars (2021) a while back, but in trying to couch my disappointment in terms of market realities, I skipped over the sense of loss – emotional and patrilineal – of never seeing the likes of Badr al Badour, Al Shomukh, and Al Molook again.  These were mukhallats that successfully positioned feral ouds against the softening backdrops of rose, ambergris, and musk, stoking a love for oud among the heretofore uninitiated.  The first sniff of Beauty and the Beast makes me realize, with great joy, that cultural ‘scent’ patrimony is never lost entirely, but rather, constantly over-written by new entrants like this.   

 

Based on the age-old Middle Eastern custom of pairing the sometimes challengingly sour, regal animalism of Hindi oud (the Beast) with the soft, winey sweetness of rose (the Beauty), Beauty and the Beast doesn’t deviate too dramatically from the basic rose-oud template.  When the starring raw materials are this good, you don’t need to.  The Hindi oud and the rose oils used here are so complex in and of themselves that an experienced perfumer chooses wisely when they leave them alone to work their synergistic magic on each other. 

 

Interestingly, the ouds in Beauty and the Beast have been distilled using rose hydrosols, meaning that the water normally loaded into the still with the oud chips has been replaced with rosewater, the natural by-product of distilling roses.  I am not sure that this makes a difference to the resulting oud oil, but the environmentalist in me likes the thinking around circular economy it implies.  

 

The balancing act the materials perform is nothing short of magisterial.  When the Hindi oud at first challenges the senses with its pungent, feral qualities – think beasts of burden steaming together in a barn, old saddles piled on old wooden barrels in the corner, piss-soaked straw matted into the dirt floor – the rose (not Taifi, for sure, but more likely something like Rosa bourboniana, used to distill attar of roses, or Rosa damascena, used to distill ruh gulab, or a mix) is there merely to soften and sweeten things.  Later, however, when there is more room to breathe, the rose offers up a kaleidoscope of different ‘flavors’, cycling through wine and chocolate to raspberry liquor, Turkish delight, truffles, and finally, that traditional rose-sandalwood ‘attar’ scent.

 

But it is crucial to note that these nuances all unfold in sequence, matching step for step the series of nuances emerging from the Hindi oud.  So, when the oud reveals that regal, spicy leather underpinning so typical of high-quality Hindi ouds, the rose offers up its truffles and wine.  The two materials continue to evolve and in doing so, change the character of the rose-oud pairing we are smelling.  First, the character is pungent and sweet, then it is leathery and winey, then it is dry, woody-spicy and jellied-loukhoum-like.  This evolution, this symbiotic dance, lasts for a whole 24 hours, so you have ample time to luxuriate in its every transition.

 

There is nothing really new or innovative about the rose-oud pairing, but Beauty and the Beast is worth your time and money if you are looking for an exemplar of the heights it can scale when only truly excellent materials are used.  It is strong, rich, long-lasting, but most of all, interesting and beautiful from every angle, from top to toe.  In terms of what is still available in this style today, I would rank Beauty and the Beast alongside The Night (Frederic Malle), Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal), Al Hareem (Sultan Pasha Attars), and Al Noukhba Elite Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi).  In other words, the fragrances that best capture the feral but regal nature of Hindi oud, balancing it perfectly against dark, sweet roses.  For what it’s worth, my husband, who is a hardcore oud enthusiast, kept muttering stuff, “Good Lord, that is good,” and “Oh, that smells insanely good” all day long every time I wore it.

  

 

 

Ambre de Coco

 

Photo:   Aromatics, spice, and dried plant material for a shamama distillation being loaded into the deg. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor. 

 

Coming across a genuine shamama attar in the wild is like thumbing through a library of slim poetry books and pulling out a tome with the girth of a Ulysses.  Shamama attars, which can take two months of continuous distilling and over 60 separate fragrant materials to make, are so bewilderingly complex that even reading about how they are made is exhausting.  I’ve written about the process here, but in case you haven’t come prepared with sandwiches, a flask of tea, and a map, then let me just tl;dr it for you: an even more aromatic MAAI, wearing a bear pelt.

 

But Ambre de Coco takes it one step further – there is a shamama attar at its heart, but it is wrapped up in a dark, almost bitter, but superbly plush cocoa powder note, stone fruit accords, and a deeply furry impression that suggests that deer musk grains might have been involved at some point.  Complexity-wise, this is like taking Ulysses and wrapping it in a layer of Finnegan’s Wake.

 

Where to begin?  Let’s start with the amber.  Forget the idea of those cozy-vanillic-resinous ambers like Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) or Ambre Precieux (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier).  This is Indian amber, or what they call shamamatul amber, which is green, mossy, and astringent as hell, as if amber resin was not a resin after all but a stalk of rhubarb or a copper penny.  Indian ambers are lean and a bit stern – there is zero fat on their bones.  Inside this carnivorous structure, the rest of these 50-odd raw materials flow as a swirl of tastes and impressions rather than identifiable notes.  Aromatic grasses mingle with bitter, mossy aromas, wet-smelling herbs, roasted roots, dried berries, calligraphy ink, floral bath salts, and all sorts of dried lichens, leaves, and twigs.  It smells more like something a traditional Chinese medicine man would brew up to cure an infection than a perfume.

 

Now, imagine all this soaked in a rich cocoa powder that softens all the pointy, jangly bits that threaten to poke your eye out, and you get an impression of being plunged into the warm embrace of fur – both animal and human.  The cocoa is not at all edible – fold away any expectations you might have of something gourmandy and sweet.  Rather, its powdery texture cleverly replicates the stale chocolate bitterness-dustiness that is a natural feature of real deer musk tinctures.  Shamama attars and shamama-based perfumes can often be animalic, even when they lean exclusively on plant-based materials (Ajmal’s 1001 Nights being a case in point), relying on the natural funkiness of the aromatics or woods or moss to create something that, in some quarters, might be termed a Parfum de Fourrure (a fur perfume).  Here, Ambre de Coco leans a little on oud and ambergris to boost that effect, but in spirit and intent, it joins the ranks of other glorious Indian shamama-inspired perfumes, such as 1001 Nights (Al Lail) by Ajmal and Jardin de Shalimar by Agarscents Bazaar.

 

Photo:  Charila, a type of Indian lichen that is similar to oakmoss. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor

 

The drydown is suitably bitter-musky-tobacco-ish in the way of these Indian shamamatul ambers, but I am not sure whether this is because of the additional dose of oakmoss and ambergris, or because of the naturally aromatic aspects of charila, an inky-smelling moss material from India that is oakmoss-adjacent and also the first material to be distilled in the shamama recipe.  Either way, my comment about MAAI wearing a fur coat stands.  This is a two-day affair and can be smelled on the skin even after a hot shower.  Considering that genuine shamama attars can take two months to distill and starts at a minimum of $2,000 a kilo for one that’s been distilled into real sandalwood oil, $360 for a 48ml bottle of perfume that not only does justice to shamama but elevates it to the small pantheon of shamama greats that exist on the market today, Ambre de Coco is both beautiful and superb value for money.          

 

 

 

Malik Al Motia

 

Photo by Bibi Pace on Unsplash

 

First, a bit of etymology. Motia (or alternatively mogra) is Urdu for Sambac jasmine, which itself is popularly known as ‘Arabian jasmine’, distinguishing it from Jasminum grandiflorum, the more classical jasmine grown in France and India.  You can buy motia in two forms – as an attar al motia, which involves jasmine petals distilled directly over a base of pure sandalwood, or as a ruh al motia, which is the pure essence of the flower, no sandalwood base.   Malik means, loosely, owner or King in Arabic, which I guess suggests that Malik al Motia is supposed to be the Supreme Boss of all Jasmines.  

 

But if you think that means you’re getting something loud, you would be wrong.  Russian Adam mentioned an interesting fact about traditional attars that I hadn’t known, which is that attar wallahs distilling in the old Indian manner produce essences that are pitched at a perfectly modulated mid-tone point, meaning that the final aroma is never too loud or too quiet.  And I find Malik Al Motia to be a perfect example of what he means.

 

This is jasmine with all the lights switched off.  It starts out as dusky, velvety, and slightly indolic in tone, similar to the darkened jasmine found in Ruh al Motia (Nemat) as well as to the soft, magic market indoles of Cèdre Sambac (Hermes).   But the leathery indoles are smoothed out by a judicious touch of the grandiflorum variety of jasmine, whose luscious sweetness and full-bodied charm sands down any rough edges on that Sambac.  Hints of overripe, boozy fruit – like an overblown banana liquor – lend a steamy tone but remain firmly in the background.  Oddly, Malik al Motia smells far more like jasmine than the Motia attar from the attar set that has presumably been used somewhere in the mix. 

 

There are resins and woods in the base, even some oud.  But these just act as the dimmer switch on the jasmine, making sure that everything, even the parts of jasmine that are naturally sunny, are subsumed into the folds of that black velvet olfactory curtain.  The rich, honeyed ‘just-licked skin’ tones of Sambac come through at the end and linger plaintively for hours.  Similar to the now discontinued Gelsomino triple extract by Santa Maria Novella, the natural end to any Sambac is that rich, skanky sourness of your wrist trapped under a leather watch-band all day under intense heat.

 

Yet Malik al Motia remains intensely floral.  Wearing feels like waking up in a field of jasmine at dusk, the air still redolent with scent.  It is not especially feminine and clearly not a soliflore.  The material’s rich indoles lend a slightly dirty feel, as does the mealy woods in the base (reading more cedar-ish than sandalwoody to my nose), but it manages to be darkly, sensually ‘adult’ without ever tipping over into full frontal territory.  Soft, black-purple velvet, a hushed ambience, your heels sinking into deep carpet.  Makes wish I still had someone to seduce.   

 

 

 

Al Majmua

 

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

 

Al Majmua is based on the famous majmua attar, a traditional Indian blend of four other already-distilled attars and ruhs, namely, ruh khus (vetiver root), ruh kewra (pandanus, or pandan leaf), mitti attar (a distillation of hand-made clay bowls), and kadam attar (distilled from the small, yellow bushy flowers of the Anthocephalus cadamba).   Together, these attars combine to mimic the lush, earthy fragrance of India during the rainy season.  In Al Majmua, it is the green, foresty tones of the ruh khus that dominate, at least at first.  Its rugged, earthy aroma smells like the roots of a tree dipped into a classic men’s fougère, something green and bitter enough to put hairs on your chest.  In fact, there is a chalky galbanum-like note here that links Al Majmua, at least superficially, with the front half of Incenza Mysore.

 

But what I love about majmua attars, and hence also about Al Majmua, is that the juicy-sharp bitterness of the opening tends to soften into an earthy, dusty bitterness – nature’s slide, perhaps, from vetiver root to mitti.  

 

This earthy, aromatic aroma is complex and ever-shifting, sometimes letting the slightly minty yellow floral of the kadam attar peek through, sometimes the piercing, fruity-vanillic, yet funky aroma of pandanus leaf (kewra attar), which Russian Adam has cleverly accentuated by adding a cat-pissy blackcurrant up front.  But what really predominates is the earthy wholesomeness of soil and dust, emphasized with patchouli, and given a spicy, armpitty warmth by a sturdy cedarwood in the base that believes itself to be a musk of some sort.  Though the notes don’t include musk or even a naturally musky material like costus, there is an aspect to Al Majmua that smells like the creamed, stale skin at the base of a woman’s neck.  A perfumer friend of mine, Omer Pekji, recommended to me long ago to wear a swipe of Majmua attar under my Muscs Khoublai Khan (Serge Lutens), and I wonder if the reason this particular layering combination works so well is because muskiness forms the bridge between the two perfumes.

 

What I admire the most about Al Majmua is the way that the perfumer chose to simply frame the majmua attar at the center (since it is a complex-smelling thing in and of itself) and then arrange other, complementary materials around it to draw out and emphasize certain aspects of the attar’s character.  For example, a silvery-powdery iris is placed in just the right place to highlight the dustiness of mitti, the cedarwood to underline the majmua’s slight bodily funk, the patchouli to draw even longer 5 o’ clock shadows under the jaw of the ruh khus, and so on.   

 

Fresh over animalic.  Earthy but not pungent.  Imagine Green Irish Tweed sprayed over a deer musk attar that faded down a long time ago.  Indians love majmua attars for their complex, aromatic character and so do I, but I like Al Majmua the best when it is almost done.  Because, just as the slow, gentle fade-to-grey starts to happen, there is a magnificent moment where the natural sandalwood smells like – similar to some parts of Musk Lave and Jicky – idealized male skin.   Meaning, skin after a hot shave, application of an old-fashioned but honest sandalwood tonic (Geo F. Trumpers, say), and then an hour of gentle exertion in the cold air.

 

 

 

Mysore Incenza

 

 

Adjust your expectations.  You see, I know what you’re thinking.  You see the words ‘Mysore’ and ‘incense’ and, like Pavlov’s dog, you immediately salivate, expecting something warm, ambered, and resinous, like Sahara Noir or Amber Absolute mixed with the best, creamiest version of Bois des Iles or Bois Noir (Chanel) that ever existed, but somehow better, you know, because it is all artisanal and therefore deeper, richer, more authentic than anything you can buy on the shelves of your local department store or even niche perfumery.

 

Mysore Incenza is not that.  In fact, so large was the gap between my expectations and reality that I had to wear it five times in a row to come to terms with what it is rather than what I thought it was going to be.   In pairing the extremely high-pitched, dusty, lime-peel notes of frankincense with the extremely soft, ‘neutral’ woody tones of the vintage Mysore sandalwood (from 2000) included in the attar set (read my review here), a transubstantiation of sorts is performed, and something else entirely emerges.

 

Specifically, this new creature is born in the surprising mold of Chanel No. 19 or Heure Exquise (Annick Goutal), with one small toe dipped into the Grey Flannel genepool on the way.  At least at first.  It glitters in this high, pure register, an explosion of Grappa, lime peel, and wood alcohol chased by baby powder, a striking frankincense, and what smells to me like the dusky, cut-bell-pepper dryness of galbanum and the slightly shrill smell of violet leaf.  This creates a dry, clean, woody aroma that smells purified and ascetic.  This kind of frankincense, perhaps changed by the presence of the sandalwood, smells unlit – slightly waxy, slightly powdered, and definitely not smoky, although it occurs to me that the perception of smokiness is as personal and nuanced as your political beliefs.

 

There is no warmth, no sweetness, and no comfort at all.  Don’t look towards the sandalwood to provide any relief, either.  Mysore Incenza is cleansing, angular, and ‘holy’ in the same way as other famously austere scents in incense canon are, such as Incense Extreme (Tauer), Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal), and Ambra (Lorenzo Villoresi).  These are all fragrances that steer away from softening the jutting sharpness of frankincense with amber or vanilla or flowers, choosing instead to focus on the dry, musky-soapy, ‘hard core’ character of resin that radiates hard, like tiny particles of mica or dust leaping off the bible when the priest thumps it to make a point in the angriest of angry sermons.   Mysore Incenza keeps you kneeling straight, anxiously waiting for the priest to say that you can sit back down again.

 

Although technically beautiful, it is most definitely not my kind of thing.  My personal tastes run towards hedonism and gluttony rather than asceticism.  I put the hair shirt away a long time ago.  People who loved Grandenia will also love Mysore Incenza, as there is something of the same vibe.    

 

 

 

Le Mitti

 

Photo: The clay bowls of Indian earth loaded into the still to make mitti attar.  Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, with full permission to use.

 

As Russian Adam warns, Le Mitti is less of a perfume and more of a bottled emotion, so expect a maelstrom with a short but dramatic trajectory from start to finish.  Like Mitti from Oudologie (review here), Le Mitti is a departure from the mineralic, petrichor effect of very traditional mitti attars, in that it is smoky to the point of smelling charred.  I like this way of approaching mitti, as it feels more modern and exciting.  What is lost in all this delicious smoke, however, is that essential feeling of something wet (rain) hitting something dry (the parched red soil of India), which in effect activates the geosmin in the earth and makes that pure ‘after the rain’ effect ring out.  Try Après L’Ondée, if that’s what you’re looking for, or a traditional mitti attar.  But remember that Le Mitti is a perfume, not an attar, and is therefore more of an imaginative interpretation than a dogged replication.

 

So, what does Le Mitti smell like?  Like a perfect storm of peanut dust, tar, soot – charred remnants of a wood fire, soot snaking up the wall in black streaks.  It is Comme des Garcons Black without the anise or the clove.  I love it.  But it is definitely a hybrid mitti rather than a pureline one.  It joins the earthy red dust of Indian clay bowls to the dry, sooty scent of an Irish cottage without ventilation.  As you might imagine, it is hilariously atmospheric.  Don’t wear it unless you’re prepared for people to ask if you’ve been near an open fire recently.

 

 

 

Gul Hina

 

Photo by Photos by Lanty on Unsplash

 

Gul Hina, or Gul Heena, or sometimes even Attar Mehndi, meaning ‘flower of henna’, is an attar derived from distilling henna leaves (Lawsonia Inermis) directly into sandalwood oil.   As you might guess from the name, the attar comes from the same plant as the popular red dye that is used to paint elaborate patterns onto the hands and face of brides in most Indian weddings, be it a Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh ceremony.  There is also a Ruh Mehndi, but since it is very expensive at $43,000 per kilogram (while the attar ranges between $500 and $5,000 per kilogram), it is rarely used commercially.  Well, to be honest, neither the attar or ruh of henna is well known outside of India and is therefore under-utilized in Western niche or artisanal perfumery.   Strangelove NYC’s fallintostars is an exception – it uses a heena attar distilled by M.L. Ramnarain.  (Review here).  

 

Gul Hina by Areej Le Doré is an entirely different experience to most Gul Hina attars I have tried.  The scent of mehndi attar is that of earth, hay, flower petals, ink, baked clay, and iodine.  (The ruh smells greener, with a  tobacco-ish facet).  It can smell rather austere.  But the Areej Le Doré approach to Gul Hina is to bathe the henna flower in the prettiest of magnolia blossoms, rose, and jasmine, so that what emerges is a sort of Venus on a Half Shell – a pearlescent, creamy, and indubitably feminine experience.  This is not the hot baked earth and hay that I am used to in mehndi.  And I’m not complaining.

 

It strikes me that this would be perfect for a bride, especially one that is also getting those intricate henna patterns painted onto her hands and face.  Henna on the arms and face; Gul Hina on the wrists and neck.  A synchronicity of henna for good health and a happy marriage.

 

First, Gul Hina smells vaguely candied, but indirectly so, like floral gummies rolled in dust and lint.  Then you notice the magnolia petals floating in a pool of cream.  Unlike in other takes on magnolia, there is no lemony freshness and no juicy, metallic greenery at its heart.  Here, the petals feel impregnated with the cream in which it floats, like biscuits or croissants dipped into condensed milk before baking a bread pudding.  These sweet, milky notes mingling with the clearly floral elements of magnolia remind me of some aspects of Remember Me (Jovoy).

 

The jasmine is next to break free of this creamy mass.  Clear as a bell, this is a naturalistic jasmine, like jasmine petals dropping and wilting off a vine in high summer.  Petals fully open, a ripe smell, with something fecund and though not quite clean, not exactly indolic either.  Still, it is enough to give the pretty magnolia some much-needed kick.  A little funk in your cream.  The rose, when it emerges, is extremely subtle.  Rose rarely plays such a back seat, but here it plays nicely in floral tandem with jasmine and magnolia that it approaches that ‘mixed floral bouquet’ effect that Creed puts in all its older feminines, like Vanisia and Fleurissimo.      

 

To be honest, I am not sure what to think about the far drydown.  With the white musk and the sandalwood, there is a nice element of perfumey, musky bitterness that creeps in.  On the one hand, this sort of drydown is always very pretty (think Coco Mademoiselle, without the patchouli), but on the other, it doesn’t sit well with the magnolia cream pudding aspect, which in consequence begins to smell a little less like a milky dessert and more like that fake croissant scent they pump around the supermarket to get shoppers moving towards the baked goods section.

 

But even if it is ultimately not quite my thing, I can’t imagine why Gul Hina wouldn’t be a huge success with brides to be, women who like pretty florals, and fans of milky floral gourmands in general.  Overall, I admire Gul Hina for being a symbolic scent pairing to the more pungent smell of henna ink painted onto a woman’s body on her wedding day.  It doesn’t smell like any mehndi attar I have ever smelled before, but my experience with mehndi is limited and I fully expect someone who is fully familiar with it to smell this and say, but of course, this is pure mehndi!

 

 

Source of samples:  My samples were sent free of charge by the brand.  This does not affect my review.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Fahrul Azmi on Unsplash 

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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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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 

 

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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 

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Casablanca by St. Clair Scents

13th June 2022

 

 

I don’t wear fully floral perfumes very often, but when I do, I swing wildly between two extremes – the dependable, if sedate, beauty of established classics like L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) or Farnesiana (Caron) and the odd but thought-provoking experiments that are indie-made perfumes, like Cornaline (Anatole LeBreton), Quasi Una Absurdia (Chris Rusak), Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery), Romanza (Masque Milano), or Mardi Gras (Olympic Orchids).  When I wear perfumes from the first group, I miss the element of surprise (and often discomfort) that indie perfumes bring.  When I wear perfumes from the latter, I miss the polish and reassuring solidity of construction represented by the classics.

 

Casablanca by St. Clair Scents blows me away because it bridges the divide.  The buttery, vegetal tuberose and other white floral notes never get a chance to weigh the perfume down because they are lifted in the short term by a fizzy, spicy medicinal note that smells like a vaporization of Clovis toothpaste and Epsom bath salts, and over the longer term by a bright citrus accord that smells like someone peeling an orange through a dense thicket of white flowers, spraying its petals with volatile peel oils.

 

The effect is extraordinarily rich, voluptuous, and delicious, yet fizzy and upbeat in a way that I rarely find white flowers to be.  To me, white flowers usually smell solemn and ‘posh’, their natural environment seemingly more that of an achingly hip vase in a luxury hotel than anything that grows in actual soil.  But Casablanca takes white florals out of the hotel environment and into the boudoir.  It is both artificial and natural.  By this, I mean that while Casablanca smells very natural, with several expensive floral absolutes clustered together for effect, there is no way one would mistake its naturalness for an absence of design.  

 

The minty-spicy Listerine effect upfront, for example, is a klaxon sounded to jerk the white flowers out of their creamy stupor, and the sexy civet-laced minerals running through the base have been deliberately placed there to give it a retro feel.  And though I suppose there are parallels to similar effects achieved in other non-mainstream perfumes  – the toothpasty mothball vibe in both Tubéreuse Criminelle (Serge Lutens) and Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery) for one, the dusty floral civet floor of both Mardi Gras (Olympic Orchids) and Lost in Heaven (Francesca Bianchi) for another – there is not much out there that replicates the total effect of Casablanca, which is to say its rich, warm density that holds all elements (rich white flowers, civet, Listerine, blood orange soda) in balance for so long and with such grace.  It has this slightly smudgy, smeary texture that I love, like flowers seen through glasses steamed up and knocked askew by an illicit embrace. 

 

I am late to the Casablanca party, but better late than never, right?  My only regret is that St. Clair’s Scents perfumes do not seem to have a distributor outside of the United States, and so, a large part of the perfume-consuming market will probably miss out on getting to know it.   And that’s a shame, because I think anyone who loves full-blooded, smutty but still slightly edgy white floral bombs would love Casablanca.

 

 

 

Source of Sample:  My sample was sent to me by Diane St. Clair free of charge.  I understand my privilege as a EU-based perfume journalist, believe me, and am very grateful for the chance to smell perfumes that would normally be out of reach to consumers living where I do.  

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Joeyy Lee on Unsplash 

 

 

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Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi

8th June 2022

 

 

Over the years, I have built a scent library in my head, where I keep extensive files on all the different smells I have smelled.  So when I smell a new perfume, I can usually dip into the shelves of this library and pull out a reference or two that helps me put it into context.  Smelling Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi makes me realize that there is a huge gap in the shelves where the classics of masculine perfumery should be.  I am able to tell you what Libertine Neroli smells like to me – fresh, dark, bitter musky-woody – but will be rather useless when it comes to placing it in the broader context of masculine classics.  Sorry.

 

I only hope I can do it the justice it deserves, because Libertine Neroli is fantastic.  My husband, who wore the sample three or four times (I wore it twice), said it reminded him very much of the old school, masculine grooming products men used in the Balkans back when he was growing up.  These were mostly Italian brands of colognes, shaving creams, or talc like Felce Azzura and Pino Silvestre.  Old Spice even (yes, yes, not Italian – don’t be pedantic).

 

But while there is certainly some retro-styling going on here  (I knew I was on the right track when, after testing and writing the bones of this review, I finally checked the promo materials and saw photos of 1950s Italy, all Anita Eckberg prancing around in the Trevi Fountain and Marcello Mastroianni living his best, most suave life), Libertine Neroli is determinedly modern.

 

For every 1950s move this scent makes, therefore, there is a sly, sexy Francesca Bianchi ‘made-in-2022’ move to counterbalance it.  The topnotes are classic neroli cologne – fresh, balmy, redolent of the waxy emerald leaves of the orange tree.  But immediately under this there is an animalic, leathery thickness that is pure Bianchi.  It smells bright and clean, but also murky and therefore a bit sinister.  Water clouded with dirt.  

 

And while Libertine is as musky and as soapy as you’d expect a neroli fragrance to be, the bitterness of the ‘fern’ (oakmoss) note has been bulked up in the basenotes by what smells to me like a bit of Ambroxan or some other woody musk.  This creates the same drift-in-drift-out effect noticeable in other fragrances with a slightly Ambroxinated drydown, like Jubilation XV (Amouage).  What this means is that sometimes you can smell Libertine Neroli on yourself, and sometimes you suspect it is ghosting you.  But rest assured that others around you can still smell it.  It seems to become part of your pores, so you smell great but not necessarily like you are wearing fragrance.       

 

The oakmoss note in Libertine Neroli is stunning.  Inky, woody, and astringent as hell, it has the effect of sucking you into the grey-green shade of an oak tree.  Now, don’t hear oakmoss and think of the damp, lush green moss clambering over trees in Northern European forests.  This is the scent of desiccation – the melancholic, sun-bleached dryness of Balkan forests by the Adriatic, dotted sparsely with reedy umbrella pines and Holm oaks, bent over sideways and battered by the Sirocco or Bora gales.   This makes sense, as much of the world’s oakmoss comes from lichen scraped off Balkan oaks. 

 

The only modern oakmoss fragrance I think Libertine Neroli’s oakmoss reminds me of is New York (Parfums de Nicolai), but that one is far more formal, more French.  If this were a Mills and Boon novel, New York would be the stern, slightly stuffy (but absolutely hot) CEO-slash-Daddy, while Libertine Neroli is the sexily louche younger brother who runs off to the Italian Riviera with your heart and half your fortune. 

 

But this is not a Mills and Boon novel.  This is Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the epitome of the type of male beauty that is both charming and arrogant in its unassailability.  It is dapper from top to toe and yet is by no means a simple retread of the old school masculine trope.  This is 1950s masculine perfumery as seen through a female gaze in 2022, and that is what makes it feel so right for right now.

 

Interested in oakmoss?  Read my essay on oakmoss and a round-up of excellent oakmoss fragrances here

 

 

Source of sample:  Sent to me gratis by the brand for review.

 

Cover Image: Still from the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf (courtesy of The Rakish Gent)

 

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Hera by Papillon Artisan Perfumes

22nd May 2022

 

 

Two fragrances do not an evolution make, I’m aware.  But I can’t help feeling that Spell 125 and now Hera mark a departure for perfumer Liz Moores, away from perfumes that either reference classical styles (Dryad – a green chypre in the fashion of Vol de Nuit, Bengale Rouge – a spicier, more balsamic take on Shalimar or Emeraude) or espouse a particular trope like leathery incense (Anubis) or rose (Tobacco Rose).  Rather, Her and Spell 125 seem to be a bold move towards abstraction, wherein the perfumes are much more than a good smell – they are an expression of an idea.

 

Take the complete lack of literalism in Hera, for example.  You look at the notes and the description, and you think, ah, ok, a wedding bouquet perfume.  Lush, creamy white and yellow florals spilling over a whale-boned corset of puffy marshmallow musk.  Romantic, serene and beautiful in that conventionally feminine manner expected of brides.  But you don’t actually get any of that from Hera.

 

The first surprise is an atomic cloud of spicy violet-iris powder, a diffusive ballooning of molecules powered by what feels to me like aldehydes but is actually ambrette, a natural musk derived from the musk mallow plant.  The apple peel and grappa facets of the ambrette sharpen the violet sensation of the opening and feathers the whole thing into an ethereal mist.  But in no way does this smell pretty or candied or like face powder.  No dainty bridal pastilles here, no Siree.

 

There is also – immediately – the tarry benzene edge of Extra or First Ylang, announcing the first of the floral absolutes that don’t really smell like their usual floral representations in perfumery.  Ylang is always painted as banana-ish or custard-like, but in truth, the natural stuff (essential oil) often has this surprisingly creosote-like smokiness that most often gets smothered by perfumers with sandalwood or vanilla, in the hope of squishing it into a more banana custard shape.  Here, the ylang is uncut and unsweet.  And it definitely doesn’t smell like banana custard. 

 

The surprisingly true ylang in Hera is soon joined by a spicy Sambac jasmine – again, not the creamy, sweet white jasmine of conventional perfumery, but more the authentically leathery-sour twang of Sambac absolute.  The florals do not smell lush, sweet or traditionally feminine.  In fact, Hera does not even smell particularly floral.

 

The central surprise of Hera – its abstraction – is the way in which this tug of war between potent floral absolutes takes place inside this smoky cloud of iris-mimosa-violet powder, stacked one on top of another like a matryoshka doll.  It is an incredible feat of construction that turns florals as heavy as jasmine, orange blossom, and ylang into a fizzy, violet-colored ether.

 

With time, another layer of the matryoshka reveals itself as a murky accord that smells like tobacco but is probably ambergris.  This lends the perfume an aura of salty, powdered skin, like the glow on healthy young skin after mild exertion.  Momentarily, the interaction between the purplish dry-ice florals and damp, tobacco-ish ambergris produces an impression of Caron’s Aimez-Moi (which itself smells like a pouch of moist, tobacco leaves dotted with anise and dried violets).  But this impression is fleeting.

 

Hera feels spicy but remains utterly air-filled and diffuse, as if someone has tried and failed to plug cinnamon sticks and clove buds into an ever shifting dust cloud of wood molecules.  There is also something like myrrh, with its dusty, minty-latexy bitterness.  But Hera never gets bogged down in the thick, sweet thickness of resins, thus neatly sidestepping any effort to pigeonhole it as an incense.  Yet, the spices and the myrrh do give Hera a hint of what I imagine medieval candy might have smelled like, a sort of salty-herbal-fizzing concoction that, when ingested, banishes all evil.    

 

The perfume seems to deepen, but the overall sense of its construction – a complex whirligig of chewy florals and tobacco inside a bright, acidic haze of floral high C notes – remains consistent.  I picture Hera almost synesthesically, a violet-greige cloud of molecules that spark off each other like electricity.

 

It is an abstract experience, similar to the hard-to-define Spell 125 or even Seyrig (Bruno Fazzolari), but that’s not to say that Hera doesn’t also meet the original brief, which was to honor Liz Moores’ daughter, Jasmine, on her wedding day.  Indeed, Hera feels fizzy and bright and sensuous.  It smells optimistic.  

 

What Hera absolutely is not is a re-tread all the tired tropes of traditional bridal perfumery, so if you’re expecting something conventionally feminine or sweet, then park your expectations at the door.  Hera feels made for a lifetime of marriage – interesting, complex, wistful, packed with all the bittersweet moments of a relationships that morphs over time – rather than for one single shiny, glittery, picture-perfect day.  And in my opinion, it is all the better for it.  

 

Source of sample:  Sent free of charge to me by Liz Moores, with no expectation of a review, let alone a positive one. 

 

Cover image:  Photo by Łukasz Łada on Unsplash  

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Civet de Nuit by Areej Le Doré X Sultan Pasha 

28th April 2022

 

 

When reviewing a collaboration between two well-known figures in the indie-artisan scene, especially two friends with ten years of cross-pollination of ideas between them, the question becomes whether to review the fragrance for the small band of fans of people already intimately familiar with the styles of both Russian Adam and Sultan Pasha respectively, or for the broader group of people who just want to know what the perfume smells like.  Because I think the hardcore indie fans of both brands are well catered to by Basenotes threads here and here, I write this review for anyone who wandered in off the Google high street.  

 

Civet de Nuit is a retro-style floral musk featuring antique civet and a powdery oakmoss and amber drydown.  It is something of a Picasso, cycling through different color periods.  The opening is its Blue Period, a plush, anisic eddy of old-school florals inside the wistful heliotrope-and-violet powder room of L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain), albeit one reimagined through the lens of a dense indie musk – all licked skin, honeyed, damp cocoa powder.

 

In its heart, Civet de Nuit slides into a Yellow Period, dominated by an animalic acacia honey, sandalwood, and ylang combination.  Fans of Montaigne (Caron) will especially like this part.  The ylang in Civet de Nuit does not particularly of banana itself or of banana custard, but more like the animalic, fuel-like gassiness of a banana stem degrading in a brown paper bag.  It is simultaneously sharp and doughy.

 

In its very last stretches, Civet de Nuit enters its Brown Period, where the florals desiccate to a musty, leathery oakmoss (withered brown dust) that recalls the far drydown of both Bal à Versailles (Jean Desprez) and Miss Balmain (Balmain), an indeterminate ‘brown’ woodiness, glimpses here and there of amber resin, and a stale, saliva-ish accord that might be tobacco (but is rather similar to the brackish honey note present in Onda by Vero Profumo).   

 

The civet in Civet de Nuit is actually very subtle, reading more like a powdery deer musk than the jutting floral sharpness of civet paste.  It is likely that, being vintage civet, it has mellowed over time and lost all its urinousness.  Civet de Nuit is a complex fragrance that cycles through multiple stages on the skin, with the last occurring a full 24 hours after the first spray.

 

Honestly, though I think Civet de Nuit smells amazing, I find it hard to categorize because it seems never to smell the same on me twice.  I’m sure that after this review is published, I’ll wear it again and kick myself for missing something really important.  On my first test, I felt sure I had this pegged as a doughy floral honey scent, with the same burnt, yeasty cocoa effect as Sultan Pasha’s own Mielfleurs.   It smelled to me like all parts of honey production – propolis, pollen, chestnut honey, the bee’s arse, the wildflowers in the meadow, the wooden frame.  A hint of Slowdive (Hiram Green), perhaps?  Yet – and this is the head scratcher – there is no honey listed anywhere.  

 

On my first wearing, I also noticed something of the ‘corn masa’ nuance of Seville à L’Aube (L’Artisan Parfumeur) and the floral cream-of-wheat effect of Dries Van Noten (Frederic Malle), Feromone Donna (Abdes Salaam Attar), and Pheromone 4 (Agarscents Bazaar), produced by a combination of a white floral like orange blossom or jasmine with ambergris or sandalwood.  I love this malty, wheaten effect.  It smells granular and salty, like a knob of Irish butter set to melt in a bowl of hot porridge.    

 

On my second test, the powder came out to play in a way it hadn’t previously.  In particular, a thick Nag Champa indie-style musk.  I’d made sure to wear Mielfleurs (Sultan Pasha Attars) on one hand and Civet de Nuit on the other, to see if the floral honey comparison was right.  But while they certainly land in a similar place (crusty artisanal honey, left to stale pleasantly on the skin), the Mielfleurs attar was immediately smoky, thick, and chocolatey, while Civet de Nuit was a diffuse haze of floral powders and stick incense lifting off the skin.  I think I am only able to smell the sparkling lift effect of Civet de Nuit’s aldehydes when placed next to something with no aldehydes at all.  On this test, I thought Civet de Nuit felt particularly gauzy and gentle.

 

On my third test, I wore Civet de Nuit on one hand and vintage Bal à Versailles parfum on the other.  Though they are both retro civety florals, they are completely different fragrances for 80% of the ride.  Whereas Civet de Nuit had felt aldehyded and powdery on previous tests, side by side with Bal à Versailles, it becomes clear that its aldehydes are a mere spritz compared to the fierce Coca Cola-like effervescence of the Jean Desprez perfume.  While both perfumes feature civet as a headlining note, Civet de Nuit cloaks it in a velvety glaze of dark cocoa and a caramel amber sheen, weighing it down in that thick artisanal musk, and setting the temperature dial to an Evening in Paris.  By comparison, Bal à Versailles, despite the 30 years it has on Civet de Nuit, smells like that Fragonard painting of the girl on the swing with her slipper flying off – a sherbety fizz of bright florals, civet, and soap.  Interestingly, however, in the far drydown, Civet de Nuit and Bal à Versailles do seem to converge.  There is a slightly astringent, leathery ‘Miss Balmain’-esque oakmoss element to both, although at times it also smells like a dusty, rubbery myrrh.     

 

Only on my third wearing was I able to identify Civet de Nuit as having a clearly ylang character.  Ylang can be difficult to control in a fragrance because of its assertively fruity-sour nature and gassy, benzene-like properties.  One drop too many and you get something too mature, too 1980s.  Ylang can age a scent backwards like no other.  Here, it is slightly banana-ish (again, more gaseous decaying banana stem than banana custard) but quite a lot of its bitter, leathery nuances have also been left in.  Not a tropical take, therefore, but more along the lines of how Thierry Wasser used ylang in his Mitsouko reformulation of 2017-2018, lending a discreet cuir de Russie accent.  Nonetheless, the ylang does give Civet de Nuit that slightly bitter, perfumeyness that constitutes its retro floral character.  

 

Russian Adam and Sultan Pasha both have identifiable signatures that run through their work – powdery, pungent floral musks in Russian Adam’s case and funky honey-tobacco accords in Sultan Pasha’s – and both signatures are present in Civet de Nuit.  But I hadn’t realized until I tested Civet de Nuit just how similar their styles actually are.  Civet de Nuit fits seamlessly into the Sultan Pasha Attar stable beside Sohan d’Iris and Mielfleurs, both of which lean on an animalic floral honey for their pulse.  But it fits just as seamlessly into Areej Le Doré canon, right beside the musky, Nag Champa floral stylings of Koh-I-Noor and the delicious, powdery funk of War and Peace.

 

On balance, though, Civet de Nuit is far lighter and less bombastically-styled than any of these forbears on either side of the aisle. Elegant and almost soft, I highly recommend it to anyone who not only loves retro florals but the furred weight of the real musks, sandalwood, and oakmoss used in the artisanal indie perfumer scene these days.   

 

 

Source of Sample: A 10ml bottle of Civet de Nuit was sent to me free of charge by the brand for review (I paid customs). This did not affect my review.

 

Cover Image: Photo my own.  Please do not use or replicate without my permission.

 

 

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The Attar Guide: Concentrated Perfume Oils (CPOs)

15th November 2021

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Different Types of Concentrated Perfume Oils

 

 

High-end niche perfume oils

 

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Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

American indie perfume oils

 

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Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Dupes and Roll-Ons

 

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Photo by Yogandha Oils on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The question of authenticity

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The final word

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Floral Green Green Floral Hay Independent Perfumery Review

L’Amandière by Heeley Paris

12th October 2021

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez have an extraordinary turn of phrase, don’t they?  One of the many things they have written that has lingered in my mind for years is their description of L’Eau d’Hiver (Frédéric Malle) as ‘an elegiac, powdery, almonds-and-water accord that takes its place next to Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée and Caron’s Farnesiana among the fragrance Ophelias of the world’ (Perfumes: The Guide, 2008), calling to mind Millais’ famous painting of the doomed Ophelia, kept afloat in a pond by flowers and tendrils of her own hair before being pulled to her ‘muddy death’.  The association with the perfume is immediate – you understand, even without smelling it, that L’Eau d’Hiver is watery and delicate and even a little melancholic.

 

But L’Eau d’Hiver, while undoubtedly a lovely perfume, is as fragile and as milquetoast as its predecessor, Après L’Ondée, meaning that it works perfectly if you have a quiet space somewhere where you can appreciate its every nuance in slow motion, but tends to dissipate as rapidly as a mummy when exposed to the hoary breath of modern life.  Both L’Eau Hiver and Après L’Ondée are a ‘bottled firefly’ type of smell that belongs more to the fairies at the bottom of a garden in Cottingley than to an irritated woman fighting her way through the crowd to get on her train to work.

 

Enter L’Amandière by Heeley Paris.  With its boot polish lilacs, linden, hyacinths, maybe a smidge of rose, mint, and freshly cut grass, it shares the same watery translucence as L’Eau d’Hiver and Après L’Ondée, i.e., Spring incarnate, but is robust enough to stand up to modern life.   It is certainly a watercolor fragrance, its soft daubs of blush pink, mint green, and duck egg blue qualifying it as one of Turin and Sanchez’ so-called ‘fragrance Ophelias’.  But suffused with sturdy, air-conditioned musks and a green, unripe almond note, there is a slight thickness of body to L’Amandière that keeps it all from crumbling away into nothing.

 

There is also an undercurrent of sweetness in  L’Amandière,  but this is the faint natural sweetness you smell in crushed lilacs, green plant milk, and freshly trampled grass, rather than the sticky, all-encompassing sultriness of tonka-led takes on almond, which tend to lean towards cherry pit and marzipan. There is no fudge here, no extra weight.   

 

Above all, L’Amandière is the perfect reflection of the Heeley house style, which is discreet, refined, and vaguely pastoral, filtered through a modernist lens that allows for clarity.   And this is definitely a soft, clear perfume.  Nobody else but James Heeley could have, in my opinion, produced a fridge-cold spring floral with all the watery melancholia of an Après L’Ondée or a L’Eau d’Hiver that lasts longer than a sigh in the wind while sacrificing none of the ‘fairy dust’  translucence that makes those perfumes special in the first place.   

 

 

Source of sample: I bought a full bottle of L’Amandière at full retail price from ParfuMarija in Dublin, one of only two bottles of perfume I have purchased in 2021 (the other being a bottle of the reissued Nahema eau de parfum by Guerlain).  

 

Image: John Everett Millais, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons