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Musk: Technicalities, Legalities, and Ethicalities

24th November 2021

 

From here on out, we are going to go material by material, grouped according to the most important scent families for attars, mukhallats, and concentrated perfume oils.  Each section will start with a primer on the material or scent family, and end with reviews of oil-based perfumes in that category.  That’s right – reviews are upcoming!  I bet you thought we would all need a walking cane by the time I got there.

 

Musk is, I suppose, as good a place to start as any, because its use varies so dramatically with the type of oil perfume and the market in which it is positioned.  For example, mukhallats that contain real deer musk are enormously popular in the Middle East and among die-hard fans of artisanal perfume oils, but verboten in the American indie oil community.  Both the niche perfume oil and mukhallat perfume segments adore fluffy white or Egyptian-style musks that are 100% synthetic.  The American indie sector makes full use of a veritable United Colors of Musks, i.e., black, red, green, and pink musks (all synthetic, all with a different aesthetic effect).  And Indians love ‘black musk’ attars, which tend to derive their musky effect from a complex range of plant-based materials, such as ambrette seed, herbs, and synthetics, rather than deer musk (although this is possibly more of a scarcity issue than an ethical or legal one).

 

In this chapter, I am going to talk exclusively about natural (deer) musk.  The other types of musks (musk synthetics, musky plant materials, ethical animal musks) can wait until Part 2. 

 

  

What is musk?

 

 

If we speak exclusively about natural musk, then musk is a grainy, aromatic reddish paste formed within the glandular musk sac of the male musk deer.  It contains a genetic rundown of his most important attributes from age, health, strength, to overall virility.  Basically, natural musk is the Tinder profile of the animal world.

 

During mating season, the deer urinates onto the musk pod, releasing small amounts of his musk, which then falls or is sprayed onto rocks, trees, and bushes.  While in rut, the deer’s urine is dense with male deer hormones, so this mixture of urine and musk is incredibly potent.  Fresh musk pods have an ammoniac smell, because of the urine sprayed onto them.

 

What happens then?  The female takes a sniff, examines the profile, and decides whether the description appeals.  If all goes to plan, she swipes right and follows the scent to the source. If not, well.  It is brutal out there.

 

Because musk has so much to do with sex and reproduction, there is a common misconception that musk is stored inside the testes, like sperm.  Not true!   In fact, the musk sac is attached to the abdomen behind the penis, and is separate to the testes.  But while the musk sac is not actually a testicle, there is no getting around the fact that it does look awfully like one.  Since the word ‘musk’ itself comes from the Persian word moschos and the Sanskrit word muska, both of which mean testicle, it seems that our ancestors were just as confused on this issue.

 

Musk comes mainly from the musk deer family of deer (Moschidae), of which there are several sub-species, including, for example, Moschus moschiferus, the Siberian musk deer native to China, Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, and Moschus leucogaster, the Himalayan musk deer native to Bhutan, India, and Nepal[i].  Some of the musk deer species are more endangered than others.  There are seven main geographical regions where musk deer live, and are therefore hunted, namely: Nepal (the Himalayas), Siberia, China, India, Pakistan, Korea, and Mongolia.

 

Animal sources of musk other than deer do exist, although technically speaking, the word ‘musk’ exclusively refers to musk from a deer.  However, given that most of the world’s population uses the word ‘musk’ to describe anything even vaguely musky in nature, we will not be too pedantic about it here either.  Alternative animal musks include that of the muskrat, the musk duck, the musk shrew, the musk lynx, and even some species of crocodiles.  In perfumery and medicine, however, only musk from the musk deer is commercially significant because the deer produces the largest volume of aromatic substance and possesses the strongest odor.  (Also, have you ever tried holding a crocodile down to get to his musk sac?)

 

There are few other materials in the world that possess an aroma as complex as musk.  But if it is complex from a biological perspective, then you can only begin to imagine how difficult it is to get people to agree on what exactly it smells like.  Depending on who you talk to, it can be described as earthy, warm, sweet, powdery, chocolate-like, fecal, urinous, stale, woody, fatty, and so on.  This is further complicated by the fact that few people will have smelled the genuine article itself, but rather some aspect of it as recreated through synthetic molecules or botanical musks.

 

To further complicate things, many people simply use the word ‘musky’ to describe a textural facet of a scent, even if the scent itself does not contain any musk.  For example, perfumes that are clean or powdery are often described as musky, even though their laundry-clean scent is a million miles away from the animalic odor of deer musk.  Conversely, anything that strikes the nose as dirty or fecal is described as musky almost by default, even if other materials have been used to create that effect, such as indolic jasmine, civet, or castoreum.

 

 

In my experience, real deer musk features the following characteristics:

 

Soft and lingering odor

Subtle, skin-like aroma

Mimics the smells of bodily intimacy, ranging from dried saliva and perineal odors to morning breath

Possesses some petting zoo aspects

Not fecal per se, but a composite picture of soft droppings, urine, hair, fur, etc.

Not generally a loud, booming aroma, unless you are smelling synthetics

Powdery or dusty in texture

Can be sweet to the point of being saccharine

Can be also be ammoniac (think animal urine on hay) with sharp undertones

Incredibly tenacious odor – clings to the hairs inside the nostrils

Individual nuances include cocoa, leather, chocolate, newspaper, paper, dust, plasticky aroma (like old lunch boxes), mold, rising damp, sugar, human skin, intimate smells

 

 

Aging plays an important part in how a musk tincture will smell.  If old, dry musk pods from vintage stock are being used to make a tincture, the resulting tincture may give off an unpleasantly stale scent.  A tincture from young-ish, still moist grains will smell more varied and complex than one made from old grains.  However, fresh musk pods take longer to tincture because the grains are still moist and do not give themselves up to extraction as easily as dry grains.  Aging the musk pods for about three months before using them is ideal for perfumery purposes.

 

The liquid in which the grains are tinctured is the second vital component of its final aroma.  If the carrier liquid is even slightly perishable, then it is a waste of musk grains, as the mixture will not age well.  Tincturing liquids that are fine to use include ethanol and other types of perfumer’s alcohol.  The grains can also be macerated, meaning steeped in oil such as moringa oil, and even fractionated coconut oil, but the very best of all is, of course, pure sandalwood oil.

 

If the musk deer themselves are small, then you might imagine how tiny the musk pod is – about thirty grams.  Each sac contains about half as much again in musk paste, so around fifteen grams per animal.  Scraping the secretions out with a spoon to spare the animal’s life nets a much smaller amount of musk paste, but the deer at least lives to make another batch.

 

 

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Deer musk grains. Photo my own.

 

The musk pods can be dried and used whole (in Chinese medicine) or opened to remove and age or dry the musk paste into musk grains for perfumery and also again for Chinese medicine.  On the market, it is possible to buy both the whole pods and the dried grains.  When fresh, the musk paste is moist and red-brown in color; when dried, the paste separates into tiny grains the size of nigella seeds, most often dark brown, oxblood, or black in color.  If being used in traditional Chinese medicine, a doctor may use the grains whole on patients, or powder them down for use in complex liquid formulae to treat specific ailments.

 

Most sellers of musk scoop out the moist paste while the pods are fresh and pack all the aromatic material into large jars, measuring out quantities for buyers one at a time.  This way of storing the musk grains ensures that they don’t dry out as quickly, which is important because the sellers get a certain price per gram, and the drier the musk grains are, the lighter they also are.  Mukhallat makers can either buy the musk pods whole and age them themselves at home or buy the moist musk grains from a seller.

 

 

 

The grim reality of obtaining deer musk

 

 

Deer musk is a wondrous material.  But let us not beat around the bush here – in most cases, the deer musk is hunted and killed to obtain its musk sac.  Poachers first trap the deer in steel deer traps, and then either leave them to die or shoot them.  Licensed hunters shoot to kill.  It has been described as ‘killing the hen to get the egg’[ii] and with good reason: one pod per deer and that is it.  Nothing renewable about this particular resource.

 

Alternatives have sprung up to this in the form of deer musk farms in China, the first one being established in 1958.  On these farms, the deer do not die but are immobilized (held down or sedated) once or twice a year and have their musk glands scraped out with a special spoon[iii].  Chinese records suggest that a male deer can be ‘milked for his musk in this manner up to fourteen times[iv] over the course of its natural life.

 

It is not death, but on the flip side, it sounds excruciatingly painful and cruel.  How strictly is the welfare of the animals monitored?  It is a difficult matter to investigate with any degree of thoroughness because outside access to the farms is restricted, and most of the musk grains produced on these farms are consumed within China itself and not made available outside her borders.  Given China’s track record on animal welfare, if I were a deer, I think I would prefer to take my chances out in the wild.

 

JK DeLapp, perfumer of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, is also a licensed and practicing doctor of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) in the United States.  Because of his contacts in China and in the field (he has worked in many hospitals in China itself), he is able to import deer musk grains directly from these farms, but he is in a tiny minority.  When I asked if he could detect any difference in aroma or quality between farmed and wild musk grains, JK replied that ‘there is a difference, but only those with experience would be able to detect it’.

 

The model for this sort of ‘sustainable deer musk farming’ has not proved reliable, however.  Every single one of the Chinese-financed farms in India have failed, for example, demonstrating that musk farming is not a straightforward business.  But even if deer musk farms were successful, supply to the perfume industry would likely be a tiny, almost negligible part of the business model.  This is because the perfume industry is not the main market for deer musk.

 

 

The market for musk

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bundo-kim-ur2zmbseUIA-unsplash-683x1024.jpg

 

Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash

 

If not the perfume industry, then what is the main market for deer musk?

 

Strangely enough, it’s medicine.

 

By far the biggest consumer of deer musk in the world is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), followed by Ayurvedic medicine (Indian traditional medicine), and then Unani medicine (Greco-Arab medicine practiced in India).  The perfume sector lags well behind in terms of both demand and usage.  Until 1996, the perfume sector absorbed about fifteen percent of the world’s musk supply, but by 2012, due to CITES and the drying up of legal sources, this had shrunk to ten percent[v].  Although there are no exact figures for current usage, one must assume that it is smaller still, perhaps closer to five percent.

 

Quantifying the exact size of the Chinese market is tricky, but if you consider that Traditional Chinese Medicine accounts for about forty percent of all prescriptions in China as well as twenty-two percent of its clinics[vi], then we are talking about a sizeable chunk of the population of China, which is itself famously, well, sizeable.  China and India together absorb at least ninety percent of the world’s available musk.

 

In the perfume sector, both the demand for, and potential usage of deer musk is extremely limited compared to TCM.  If even five percent of China’s 1.371 billion-strong population has an ailment that needs to be treated with musk grains, that is a known market of 68.5 million people.  Compare that to the potential pool of people who might want to wear perfume with real deer musk in it, and it is always going to be small potatoes in comparison.

 

China’s demand for musk is estimated at up to a thousand kilograms per annum[vii], which translates to the musk sacs of at least a hundred thousand musk deer.  But globally there are only about seven hundred thousand musk deer left in the wild.   Clearly, domestic musk farming does not and cannot fill that gap.  Indeed, the bulk of the world’s deer musk – both legal and illegal – ends up in Hong Kong.  Given the supply and demand problem, the sums of money changing hands are huge.  In India, musk is valued at four times its weight in gold[viii].  Raw musk grains can fetch up to US$50,000 per kilogram in Hong Kong, the hub of the international musk market.  All musk in these Far Eastern markets is destined for the TCM and Ayurvedic sectors to make remedies and cures for hospitals and clinics.

 

In the past five years or so, there has been a small but significance resurgence in the demand for real deer musk in artisanal, small-batch perfumery, mostly thanks to the growing fan base around naturals, distillation, and attar making.  Bortnikoff, Areej Le Doré and Ensar Oud are artisanal small-batchers who have all released both mukhallats and spray perfumes featuring genuine deer musk since 2016.  

 

However, the commercial perfume sector will never use real deer musk, given both the difficulty of obtaining a cost-effective and legal source for the large quantities of the material necessary to fill perfume formulas on a mass production scale, and the general revulsion among consumers for products that involve animal cruelty.

 

 

Is deer musk illegal?

 

 

Some is legal; some is not.

 

Two things determine the legal status of a specific deer musk.  First, the level to which its source animal, i.e., sub-species of musk deer, is endangered, and second, the legislation put in place by individual countries regarding the hunting and trade of musk on their territory.

 

First, let us look at the endangerment angle.  There are eight species of musk deer in the Moschidae family, and they are not all equally endangered.  CITES has three classes of endangerment, Appendix I, II, and III, and the different sub-species of musk deer are classified into one of those appendices based on the health of their numbers in the wild.  

 

Moschus leucogaster (the Himalayan musk deer) and Moschus cupreus (the Kashmir musk deer), for example, are Appendix I, which means their numbers are nearing extinction levels, and should not under any circumstance be hunted and killed.  But Moschus berezovskii (Chinese forest musk deer) and Moschus moschiferus (Siberian musk deer) are Appendix II, which means their numbers are healthier, and, under certain conditions such as the proper licensing programs and permits, can be hunted and their musk traded.

 

Thus, something like Kashmiri musk is illegal primarily because its source animal is an Appendix I species approaching extinction.  Siberian musk is legal partly because its source animal is not nearing extinction.

 

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) named musk deer an endangered species in the 1980s[ix], restricting the trade of deer musk by its 170 signatory countries.  In Resolution Conf. 11.5[x], CITES lists all the relevant musk-producing animals, including the musk deer, and urges all parties ‘to develop alternatives for raw musk in order to reduce demand for natural musk, while encouraging the development of safe and effective techniques for collecting musk from live musk deer.’

 

In response to the convention, most countries with populations of Appendix I musk deer (species nearing extinction) introduced legislation to ban musk deer hunting outright.  India, Mongolia, Korea, and Nepal all responded to the CITES convention with musk deer hunting bans.  Signatory countries with populations of less endangered species chose different routes based on individual levels of need and state policy.  For example, China, which has an enormous market demand for musk in its traditional medicine sector, banned musk deer hunting in the wild but established government-sponsored musk farms to produce musk legally and without killing the animal.

 

Russia freely allows the hunting of musk deer within the boundaries of their territory, specifically in Siberia where the Siberian musk deer lives.  The Siberian musk deer is not in danger of extinction.  Musk grains from Siberia are therefore technically a legal product because they come from legal hunting and from a species listed on Appendix II of the convention, i.e., not threatened with extinction, trade and hunting allowed under the correct licensing systems, etc.  Deer hunting in Siberia is reported to be controlled, with hunters applying for licenses in a seasonal lottery that determines what number of deer they can kill.  Sometimes they can kill only five deer a season, sometimes twenty. This helps the government keep an eye on overall numbers of the deer population.

 

In other words, in the murky matter of musk legality, the ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ argument applies.  The legal status of the musk depends on the legal status of the source.  If your musk comes from a species of deer that is not in danger of extinction and a country that has legalized the hunting and killing of the musk deer, or that has musk farms, then the musk is perfectly legal. 

 

The converse is also true, of course.  If the musk comes from illegal hunting in a country that has banned musk deer hunting, then the musk is a product of a criminal activity and is the proverbial fruit of the poisoned tree. 

 

However, as always when it comes to any lucrative resource, illegality abounds.  One of the most common Western misconceptions about deer musk is that the CITES designation of the musk deer as an endangered species put an end to deer hunting, and that the shy little deer are bouncing around happily and uninterrupted in the foothills of the Himalayas.  This is simply not true.  Musk deer hunting continues apace in most of the regions to which it is native, whether the act is legal or not according to the country’s own laws.

 

In fact, the musk trade is a good example of what happens when overwhelming demand for a product meets the legal banning of said product – i.e., business as normal, albeit conducted under the dark cover of illegality, smuggling, and general tomfoolery.  In most cases, the amount of the banned material for sale on the market even increases.  The correlation between banning and black marketeering applies to other materials too.  In an interview[xi] with me for Basenotes, JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, noted the same phenomenon in the case of the African civet cat:

 

‘20 years ago, the public pushed cosmetic companies to stop using civet due to the cruelty involved for the civet cat in the extraction process.  Did this improve the conditions of civet harvesting?   Quite the opposite.  Instead, the ban pushed civet paste prices into freefall and brought the civet farmers to the brink of starvation.  Because the prices fell so drastically, the farmers tried to make up for lost income by simply producing more and more civet paste, which in turn meant that the civet cats were put under increased pressure and stress to give up their paste.  A lose-lose situation for everyone, and by everyone, I also mean the animal.’

 

This pattern is largely borne out by the evidence of what happens in countries that have banned musk deer hunting outright.  For example, India and Pakistan both have laws banning the killing of the musk deer on their territories, but don’t have the resources to control or stop the hunting of the deer.  Likewise, the Mongolian government banned musk deer hunting in 1953, two decades even before the CITES ruling, but illegal hunting has whittled the deer population down to a shocking twenty percent of their 1970 levels[xii].

 

In some regions of India, when deer hunters are caught by local government officials or rangers, the musk pods are confiscated and then later sold by the local government.  Confiscated musk therefore becomes legal musk that can be bought and sold for profit on the open market – fruit from the poisoned tree washed clean and sent right back out to market!  China has a legal source of musk, through their musk farms.  And yet the output is nowhere near the level demanded by the market, and so most of the world’s illegal musk still washes up in China.

 

 

The ethics of musk

 

 

Most people in the West consider deer musk to be ethically problematic, if not downright wrong.  Part of this is due to the issues over legality, with most people assuming that all deer musk is illegal and harvested from an animal close to extinction.  But the larger issue is that most Western consumers do not tolerate animal cruelty, to the extent of actively avoiding companies that, for example, sell in China where animal testing for cosmetics and perfumes is still mandatory.

 

To be clear, deer hunting is cruel and unethical when the animals are killed illegally.  Poachers are unconcerned about animal suffering and will often leave the deer to die a horrible death in their crude steel traps.  They care only about the musk sac and will discard the rest of the body.  A musk sac obtained in this manner carries the same stigma of illegality, waste, and animal cruelty associated with ivory.   

 

By corollary, musk farming and legal hunting through license programs yield musk that is more sustainable from an ethical standpoint.  In Siberia, the species of deer being hunted is not a species threatened with extinction, and the hunting lottery system means that only a finite number of musk deer are killed in the region each year.  During a licensed hunt, the kill is as humane as possible (shooting instead of trapping).

 

However, for most people, this is beside the point.  Whether the musk is legal or not doesn’t really address the issue of the deer being killed or maimed for the sake of his musk pod.  A big concern over hunting animals in the wild boils down to the issue of motive – are we hunting for sport or because the animal is useful to us?  Statistically speaking, a far greater number of domestic animals such as cows, chickens, and pigs are slaughtered to give us meat and leather.  However, this mass killing of animals has been organized so that it takes place far away from the public eye, behind the walls of abattoirs and factories far away from residential areas.  It is a different thing altogether when it comes to the thought of Bambi.  Most of us just do not have the stomach for it.

 

 

 

Note: This article is a reprint of The Murky Matter of Musk, which was originally published by Basenotes in 2017. I am reproducing it here, with kind permission by Grant Osborne of Basenotes.

 

 

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.

 

 

[i] http://checklist.cites.org/#/en

[ii] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e02.htm

[iii] https://www.drugs.com/npp/musk.html

[iv] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e03.htm

[v] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2012/03/the-musk-deer-of-india/

[vi] http://universitasforum.org/index.php/ojs/article/view/63/242

[vii] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2007/10/traditional-chinese-medicine-and-endangered-animals/

[viii] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e03.htm

[ix] http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/muscone/musconeh.htm

[x] https://cites.org/eng/res/11/11-07.php

[xi] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[xii] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2012/03/the-musk-deer-of-india/

Attars & CPOs Independent Perfumery Round-Ups The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

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.

Attars & CPOs Oud The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Foundational Essential Oils: Part 2 (Oud)

12th November 2021

 

Although I will be doing a much deeper dive on both sandalwood and oud in their respective sections, I wanted to use this chapter and the previous one as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery – sandalwood and oud oil.  Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery. In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.

 

 

 

 

Oud: The Noble Rot

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Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

 

While sandalwood is the most important essential oil for traditional distilled attars, the truly essential oil for mukhallat perfumery is oud.  Oud is an oleoresin, a word that literally means ‘oily resin’.  The dark, damp oleoresin forms inside the wood of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops species of tree as a response to external trauma – the equivalent of white antibodies in the human body sent to fight infection.  The external trauma can be anything, from an infiltration of a fungus through the bark or chemical inoculation by farmers to bug infestations, drilling holes into the bark, burns caused by molten lava, or even strafing by bullets.  In other words, oud resin is the tree’s way of defending itself from attack.

 

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Photo of an Aquilaria crassna tree with (darker) oud oleoresin clearly present. The strafing on the trunk was done by poachers to allow an airborne fungus access to the wood, hopefully prompting the tree into producing more of the oleoresin as a response to the ‘attack’.  Photo by Blaise Droz,, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2254233

 

The appearance of the oleoresin is dark brown, greyish, or even black, and clearly distinguishable from the light creamy color of the non-resinated wood.  Older resinated specimens such as genuine kyara or incense-grade wood will not display such clear delineation between the oleoresin and the uninfected wood, instead appearing as one piece of wood uniformly threaded with greyish resin.

 

Oud wood refers to the piece of wood that contains the oleoresin.  Resinated oud wood can be heated gently over a burner as incense or carved into prayer beads and other objects.  In Arab culture, the smoke from heating oud wood is used to fumigate clothes (both personal and ceremonial robes), houses, and even the hair or beard.  The Japanese grind agarwood to powder to use in their world-famous stick incense.  The Chinese and the Japanese both have a long tradition of carving precious oud wood into prayer beads and ornaments to be used for ceremonial or religious purposes.  The very wealthy may even buy a top quality piece of oud wood (kyara) and display it in a glass case as a showpiece.

 

Most oud is consumed in oil form, however. Oud oil is the essential oil distilled from resinated oud wood.

 

 

Why is oud so important?

 

No other essential oil in the world is as subject to hysteria, obsessive behavior, collector’s mania, and controversy as oud oil.  Its rarity and expense parallels that of Mysore sandalwood oil, and yet, you don’t really find whole Internet communities dedicated to the minutiae of sandalwood oil.

 

There are several reasons for this. First of all, oud oil is so complex in its aroma profile that it wears as a complete perfume on the skin. Oud oils can have topnotes, a heart, and basenotes, just as in a commercial fragrance.  It is therefore the rare essential oil that provides the wearer with a full 360° experience.  This marks it out as different from other essential oils such as sambac jasmine or vetiver.

 

Second, oud oils are exciting because they vary a lot in basic aroma profile from region to region, terroir to terroir, style to style,, and species to species.  Therefore, if you don’t like the barnyardy honk of Hindi oud oils, no problem – simply move onto the sweeter, friendlier Cambodi style oud oils, or the super-treacly Trat ouds.  Likewise, one might find oneself nerdily consumed with the different types of oils that are distilled from wood grown on the island of Borneo, each with their own little quirks and personalities.  There is something in the oud pot for everyone.

 

Third, oud oils satisfy the eternal human hunger for individuality, rarity, and uniqueness.  Oud oils are the perfect riposte to the mass-market, standardized wave of products we consume in our daily lives.  Pure oud oils are small-batch and limited edition, full of minute but important nuances never to be replicated with a hundred percent exactitude again.  The idea that one can own something a tiny piece of a non-renewable resource is irresistible, especially to those with a keen collector’s mentality.

 

The final reason why oud oils can be the focus of obsession is that they, unlike other essential oils, allow for a large degree of artisanship and creativity on the part of the distiller.  Even minor tweaks to the distillation process can produce surprising variations in the resulting aroma.  Therefore, not only is the raw material more intrinsically nuanced than other materials, but its manner of distillation is more open to innovation.  The result is still an essential oil, but in experimenting with different distilling materials, mineral content of the water used, cooking temperatures, soaking times, and post-distillation aging, the distiller can arrive at a slightly different result each time.

 

This ‘room to play’ aspect of oud distilling has resulted in oud oils that display a surprisingly wide range of notes that might not otherwise appear in the oil, such as lilac, chocolate, musk, and even hints of salty, golden ambergris.  One oud artisan describes it as alchemy.  This aspect of creative experimentation in oud distilling has attracted a greater proportion of artists and artisans to the process, far more than are drawn to either sandalwood or other essential oil distilling.

 

 

 

The Process of Making Oud Oil

 

The process of distilling oil from resinated wood is very traditional.  In many ways, the process is like that of producing a ruh (essential oil) in the old Indian method, namely slow steam distillation using clay, steel, and copper degs.  First, the hunters arrive out of the jungle, bearing wood they have chopped out of living trees or felled to access the wood.  If the oud wood is from a plantation, the wood is harvested just like any other farmed crop.

 

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Uninfected agarwood, i.e., bunkwood. Photo by Hafizmuar at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4782613

 

The big logs will then be broken down into shards of oud wood and inspected for bunkwood, which is wood in and around the darker, resinated areas of the wood that do not contain any essential oil or resinoid at all (see photo above).   If the distillation is a high quality one, then the bunkwood is carefully carved out of the piece of wood and discarded.  In lower-quality distillations, the bunkwood is left in to make up the weight needed to pack the distilling pot to capacity.

 

The remaining wood shards are soaked in water for varying periods of time, but usually for no less than ten days.  Longer soaks will ensure that the wood rots a little, adding a sour, fermented note to the resulting oil.  This is an effect that consumers of Hindi oils (the Arab market) have come to prize as the principal characteristic of good oud oil.  The mineral content of the water used for soaking will impart its own character to the resulting oil, with varying effects coming from carbonated water versus spring water versus tap water, and so on.

 

After soaking, the still is loaded with about seventy kilos of soaked wood chips and a fire built underneath the still.  The oud oil is distilled from the wood over the course of a week, using very exact heat and condensing methods to keep the wood at exactly the right temperature.  Steam distillation is the preferred method of extraction because it is easier to keep the heat constant using this method.  It is vital not to allow the still to get overheated.  The average yield from a seventy kilo distillation is only about twenty to twenty-four grams, which is enough for two tolas of pure oud oil.  The yield depends on the species of the wood used, as some species are notoriously low-yielding.  The water in which the agarwood has been distilled (called a hydrosol) is valuable to producers because it still contains little particles of oud oil, so the hydrosols are used again and again to wring out the most oud particles possible.

 

 

 

The Scarcity of Oud

 

 

Oud is scarce.  Less than eight percent of wild Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees contain oud resin.  Its scarcity means that it is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  Its status as an endangered species is partly because of the naturally-low infection rate among wild trees and partly because mass deforestation across South-East Asia is mowing down much of the forests, including the agarwood-producing species of tree.  Wild oud-bearing trees are facing depletion in much the same manner as Mysore sandalwood.  Oud wood from wild trees is rare and costly, leading to high demand, which in turn means that people will spend anything or do anything to get their hands on it. 

 

Although technically it is true that trees are a renewable resource, it takes a lot of time to replace an wild tree that has spent eighty plus years growing that precious oleoresin inside its trunk.  Once a wild tree is gone, it is gone for good.  Wild agarwood trees are listed as Appendix II in CITES.  But as with all Appendix II classifications (including, for example, deer musk), this does not mean that there is a ban on the material itself.  It simply means that strict measures are in place to control its trade.  James Compton, the South East Asian director for TRAFFIC, clarified this in a press release, by saying: ‘It is important to remember that CITES Appendix II is not a trade ban, but a management intervention that will help ensure legality, promote sustainability and enable more accurate monitoring of the agarwood trade.’[i]

 

For many, the best ‘management intervention’ to address the scarcity of wild-crafted oud is plantation cultivation.  Plantations are farms that grow Aquilaria species under controlled conditions, with farmers artificially inoculating the tree trunks with fungus to spark them into producing the valuable oud oleoresin.  Plantations enable sustainability, continuation of supply, and consistency of product quality – a good thing from the point of view of commercial perfumery.

 

There is no global shortage of plantation-grown agarwood.  Trygve Harris, in her wonderful article, entitled ‘Agarwood – Is It Endangered?’, states that people in Asia are investing in agarwood farming to supply the market and that there is subsequently a healthy number of plantation-grown agarwood trees in Asia[ii]:

 

‘Ajmal perfumes estimates that there are 55 million trees planted in Assam, in anticipation of the worldwide shortage.  Many of these were planted over 20 years ago.  There is a nice plantation of 1.5 million on the Lao plain north of Vietnam, planted in 2000/2001 and now set to become a fishing resort for secondary income.  These are mostly, if not all, Aquilaria Crassna.  There are 2 million Aquilaria trees planted near Bangkok, and more all over Thailand.  One can also find in plenty of trees in Vietnam at the fragrant mountain experimental station in An Giang, not to mention other plantations.  Those trees are Aquilaria Crassna.  And it seems everyone’s planting them at home, in their yard.  All over Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam at least, these trees grow.  The world of agarwood does not exist in a separate universe where people have no concept of nature’s limits.  In fact, many people have noticed the incredibly high prices agarwood commands and are taking steps to integrate themselves in the future market.’ 

 

The CITES effort to regulate and control trade of agarwood has had a big impact in signatory countries where agarwood naturally grows, and some say not for the better.  Agarwood grows naturally in Northern India, for example, but strict CITES certification procedures have cut smallholders out of the picture and accidentally allowed corruption to flourish.

 

Trygve Harris explained the effect of CITES on agarwood production in an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018 as follows: ‘Basically, it was illegal to harvest an agarwood tree, even from your own property, unless certain steps were taken and rules followed, and the designated places to distill for oil were in cities far away from the towns and villages in NE India where Agarwood happily grows.  Agarwood naturally and traditionally grows all over those states, in people’s yards.  Trees were harvested for important events, weddings, college, etc.  But, with the 2000 regulations, people couldn’t legally sell their own agarwood, unless it had a CITES certificate, which were only obtainable though the official channels at Guwahati and Kanpur.  So, a big gap was left, and who better to step in than the mafia?  They did, and that’s all I want to say about that.’’”[iii]

 

The current production landscape is made up of large-scale plantation farmers who grow agarwood under contract for the big Emirati houses and Western commercial perfume houses, and a second, much smaller group of mostly foreign artisan distillers who run small-batch, custom distillations of oud for their customer base.  These two groups of people have very different goals for the oud oil they produce, so it stands to reason that their ways of managing the trees are also different. 

 

Indigenous plantation owners and farmers are under contract to produce the oud oil needed in large-scale perfumery, which includes the big Emirati and Indian brands, as well as Western commercial perfumery[iv].  For these plantation owners, oud is a cash crop like any other.  They do not have the financial wherewithal to wait between twenty and forty years for the trees to mature, and many begin harvesting at between six months and three years old.  Plantation-grown oleoresin therefore often lacks maturity.

 

In some regions of SE Asia, but particularly in Laos, farmers use chemical inoculants to stimulate oleoresin production, to speed up the process.  Many say that the chemicals leave a metallic dirtiness in the resulting oil.  These factors contribute to an oud oil product that is certainly cheap and plentiful, but also inferior-smelling.  In contrast, farmers in Assam, in Northern India, rarely use chemical inoculants and allow the trees to be naturally infected by bugs or wounding the trees with knives.  Therefore, different countries, different production cultures.  Laos produces trees hard and fast, while Assam takes a slower, more rural approach.

 

Through experimenting with a combination of blending with other oud oils for consistency of smell and force-aging the oils by exposing them to the air to get those traditional barnyardy flavors, the plantations have come up with an oil that can be used in commercial and niche perfumery.  The advantages to plantation agarwood are clear – it is cheap, plentiful, and of consistent quality.  Depending on the manner of inoculation (chemical versus natural), the age of the wood when harvested, and the quality of the distillation process, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is not always pleasant or suitable for wearing neat on the skin.  But blended with other natural ingredients and lifted by synthetics, the effect in a commercial perfume is usually excellent.  It also allows for Western perfume houses to make a claim of authenticity for their oud perfumes.

 

Artisan distillers, in contrast, just want the best-smelling oil possible.  They do not care about selling large volumes of oil and intend for the oil to be worn neat on the skin, not mixed into a larger perfume formula.  Therefore, they are inclined to buy small quantities of high quality plantation wood whose quality they can control.  Artisans usually select only farmed trees that have been growing for between twenty and forty years and buy from farmers who use organic inoculation methods to infect the trees, namely drilling holes in the wood and allowing natural air-borne fungus spores and bugs to enter the wood on their own.

 

Careful management, selection, and inoculation can yield very good quality plantation oud wood for distilling.  The resulting oil can be of a quality that approaches or even matches that of wild oud.  In oud terminology, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is called ‘organic oud’, a term that, as in food, is supposed to convey to the customer qualities of purity, cleanliness, naturalness, and the level of care taken during its production.

 

 

 

The Market for Oud

 

The culture of a country or ethnic group is the strongest influence on how oud is consumed, valued, packaged, used, and sold.  Arabs consume the great majority of the Hindi-style oils and wood, for example, while the Chinese consume most wild Cambodi incense-grade wood for carving ceremonial beads and ornaments.  The Japanese consume most, if not all, of the incense-grade wood that comes out of the Vietnamese jungles for milling into incense powder for sticks and cones.

 

In terms of sheer volume, the Arab market is by far the most important consumer of oud.  Arabs have used oud oil and oud wood for burning for almost five centuries, an appetite that accelerated sharply with the discovery and exploitation of crude oil in the Emirates region.  Oil made many Arabs rich, and this wealth meant that they could now indulge their appetite for a material – oud – that had once been reserved for the Royal families.  It is the Arab preference for the smoky, austere, leathery oud oils, i.e., Hindi-type oils, that set the tone for most oud oil production in the Far East.

 

Hindi-style oud oils were traditionally consumed exclusively by the royal families of the Middle East and the Emirates.  Since Hindi oud was so highly valued by the elite, the taste for this style became pervasive in Arab culture.  The preference for this style of oud runs so deep, in fact, that if an oil does not possess the traditional Hindi aroma profile, many Arab consumers have trouble recognizing the oil as genuine oud.  Clean, green, woody oud oils such as a Borneo or Papuan oil, for example, do not sell well in this market.

 

The cultural expectation of what oud must smell like plays a huge role in how oud oil is distilled, soaked, mixed, and aged for the Arab market.  To cater to the Arab taste, many large companies require that their distillers soak the wood for a longer time before distilling it or expose the oud oil to the air in order to oxidize it and produce an aged, leathery result (called ‘force-aging’).  These processes produce a more pronounced, fermented ‘Hindi’ flavor in the oil.

 

Above all, the enormous Arab appetite for oud oil has had an impact on purity.  Yields of pure oud oil are low, averaging at about twenty grams per seventy kilo distillation, which begs the thorny question of how to satisfy huge demand with such tiny amounts of oud.  Realistically, something has got to give.  And in the case of oud oil, that something is purity.  Put bluntly, every single quantity of pure oud oil brought out of the jungles of India and the Far East and into the Emirates is adjusted, stretched out, and diluted with other oud oils, essential oils, and fillers in order to make a quantity large enough to satisfy Arab demand.

 

And the Arab demand for oud is inexhaustible.  The Arab market consumes oud oil and wood not only in their pure form, but also mixed into soaps, detergents, and toothpaste.  Therefore, oud is as much a flavoring product to be used in functional cleaning products as lily of the valley or rose is in the West.  Oud oil is an essential oil, but its purity is of a lesser concern to Arabs than its essential oudiness.  The Arabs prize purity in most all other essential oils such as rose ottos, sandalwood, or Sambac jasmine oil, but regard oud more as a general scent category than as an essential oil. 

 

The Chinese market absorbs almost all the wild, incense grade agarwood from the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam.  Ensar of Ensar Oud reports that it is practically impossible to procure Cambodi oud wood now[v], since every single log carried out of the jungles have already been bought by the Chinese and at a far higher price that other buyers can afford to pay.  The Chinese use some of the oud wood they buy for burning in their temples, but the majority is used to carve beads, ornaments, and necklaces, all of which are assumed to have ceremonial or religious importance.

 

The Japanese market consumes incense-grade oud wood for use in Japanese incense cones and sticks.  The market for oud oil itself is not significant.  The huge Japanese incense companies of Baieido, Shoyeido, and Nippon Kodo, among others, consume such large quantities of the highest grades of oud wood (termed incense-grade, Kyara, or Kinam) that they often station representatives outside the edges of jungles to make sure they get first pick from the loads the hunters carry out.  In Japan, oud wood is known as jinko or aloeswood.

 

Once back in Japan, the aloeswood is sorted further into grades, milled to fine powders, and mixed with other powdered woods such as sandalwood and cedar, spices such as clove and cinnamon, and gums and resins (most particularly benzoin).  These mixtures are destined for use as molded incense cones or incense sticks, the highest quality of which does not possess a wooden core but burn straight through.  Aloeswood is prized in Japanese culture almost uniquely for its role in incense ceremonies, known as Kōdō (香道, or the “Way of Fragrance”).  Kōdō involves ‘listening’ to Japanese incense and understanding its spiritual message.  The ceremony includes games, a code of conduct, and rituals.

 

The use of agarwood is historically important in Japan, and dates to the 6th century AD, when fragments of fragrant agarwood were combined with aromatic herbs and woods to perform Kōboku, the act of perfuming one’s robes for religious and stately purposes.  Some warriors also used it before battle, and it was an important commodity on the Silk Road.  The best pieces (Kyara) were reserved for royal use, and some pieces of Kyara from this period have been preserved in vaults by the government.  The price and scarcity of Kyara means that the ceremony of Kōboku is rarely performed today.  However, the art of Kōdō continues, with the more expensive aloeswood being mixed with sandalwood, clove, spikenard, and other aromatic spices to produce a wonderfully fragrant incense for burning during the ceremony.

 

 

Waiter! Is that an oud in my perfume?

 

When buying a perfume or oil that has oud in the name, the buyer usually wants to know: is there any real oud in this?  It is a reasonable question, especially since any scent or oil marketed as containing oud will likely be more expensive than other, non-oudy options (regardless of whether there is any oud in it).  In general, if you are buying a commercial (spray-based perfume), then the likelihood is that the oud will be synthetic.  A small number of commercial niche oud perfumes contain real oud oil, but the vast majority does not.

 

There are two reasons why not.  First, there is the problem of replicability.  Pure oud oil is one of the most inconsistent materials in the world.  Oil batches can smell different from each other even if the same type of wood is used, because of variations in the mineral content of the water used to distill, as well as differing soak times, microclimate, etc.  The problem of replicability is not a factor for small-batch artisans such as Ensar Oud, Imperial Oud, and AgarAura, because their unique selling point lies in the interesting variations from oil to the next.  But this type of batch inconsistency is a logistical nightmare for commercial perfumery.  In commercial perfumery, it is vital to be able to replicate an accord with a hundred percent consistency from one batch to the next.

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fulvio-ciccolo-Pmkq0yZ80-4-unsplash-683x1024.jpg

Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash  

 

Second, there is the problem of scaling up.  Real oud oil yields are too small and expensive to make sense in perfume formulas that require greater quantities of each raw material or aromachemical to scale up for production.  One twenty gram batch might stretch to fill a formula for two hundred bottles, but it will not be enough to make the ten thousand bottles required to stock the shelves at Sephora or Douglas.  In general, small-batch raw materials with huge variances in quality or aroma rarely translate well to large-batch commercial perfumery.

 

The great issue of oud in commercial perfumery is therefore not that of sustainability but of transparency.  If few commercial perfumes contain real oud oil, then why do companies charge more for perfumes with the word oud in them?  The simple answer is that oud is an exotic note to which ideas of rarity and expense has been attached.  Customers are demonstrably happy to buy into its mystique.  It is likely that many consumers believe that the higher prices for scents with an oud note are to cover the cost of obtaining and using real oud in the perfume, although this is rarely, if ever, the case.  Many reputable companies obfuscate on this matter and charge much higher prices for the perfumes in their lines that supposedly contain oud.

 

As mentioned, however, a small number of niche perfume houses do use real oud oil in their formulae, sourced from the plantations of Laos and Thailand.  The advantage to Western perfume houses of using plantation oud oil is that it is cheap, pre-blended with other oils to achieve a replicable consistency, and, crucially, available in the quantities needed for commercial perfumery.  Brands reputed to use real Laotian, Malaysian, and Thai farmed oud include Mona di Orio (Oudh Osmanthus), Fragrance du Bois (e.g., Oud Violet Intense), Dusita (Oudh Infini), Maison Francis Kurkdijan (Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Silk Mood, Oud Velvet Mood), and The Different Company (Oud for Love, Oud Shamash).  Ex Idolo 33 is a niche perfume that used a stock of 33-year-old Chinese oud oil and might be said to be the only commercially produced perfume to contain an amount of high-quality, vintage wild oil rather than plantation oil.

 

Higher-end oudy mukhallat sprays produced by the big Emirati and Indian brands such as Ajmal (Shams Oud) and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi (Dahn al Oudh Anteeq) also contain a quantity of real oud, diluted with other oils and perfumer’s alcohol to scale the formula up into a spray-based perfume.   In contrast, oudy mukhallats on the lower end of the price scale use the same oud synthetics as everyone else.  For a detailed breakdown of what types of perfumes are likely to contain real oud and which are not, please refer to the section in the upcoming Oud chapter titled Challenge 1: Where to Start?  This section runs you through all the available options (artisanal oils, big brand oils, oudy mukhallats, Western niche, etc.) and explains the extent to which each option is likely to contain real oud and in what proportions.

 

 

 

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.

 

[i] http://www.fao.org/forestry/50057/en/

[ii] http://www.enfleurage.com/pages/Agarwood%252dIs-it-Endangered%3F.html

[iii] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

[iv] Fragrance du Bois, for example, is a brand that either owns or contracts exclusively with an agarwood plantation in Malaysia to supply them with oud oil for their line of fragrances.

[v] http://agarwood.ensaroud.com/the-great-cambodian-experiment-3/

Attars & CPOs Sandalwood The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Foundational Essential Oils: Part 1 (Sandalwood)

10th November 2021

 

Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery.  In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.

 

Although I will be doing a much deeper dive on both sandalwood and oud in their respective sections, I wanted to use this chapter and the next as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery.  First, sandalwood.

 

 

Sandalwood: The Elephant in the Room

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is isaac-martin-Jewkfj03OUU-unsplash-819x1024.jpg

Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash

 

When we talk about traditional Indian distilled attars, the elephant in the room is the one carved in sandalwood.  Sandalwood is a key component of attars because attars are botanicals, woods, and resins distilled directly into sandalwood oil.  To be less technical about it, it is at least fifty percent of the magic.  

 

Until a few decades ago, sandalwood oil would have certainly meant Santalum album oil from the Mysore region of India.  However, thanks illegal poaching, over-harvesting, and careless disregard for sustainability, the famed Mysore sandalwood oil is now largely unavailable.  Supply to the traditional attar making industry has dried to a trickle.

 

Mysore sandalwood is, or was, one of India’s most precious natural resources.  Accordingly, depletion of this resource seems to have caused a national-level paroxysm of anguish.  The right to harvest the dwindling number of sacred giants in Mysore is a privilege restricted to individuals or outfits with the proper state licenses, which are difficult to obtain.  The totality of the crackdown on sandalwood initially resulted in a spate of illegal harvesting, smuggling, violence, and corruption of government officials, most acutely in Karnataka state – but these issues seem to have abated somewhat in recent years.  The consensus seems to be that the sandalwood trade is now quite firmly under the control of the government. 

 

Due to its status as a key national resource, the Indian government has legal ownership rights over all sandalwood trees on the territory of India, even those growing on private land.  People often have sandalwood trees growing in their backyard, but if they chop it down to sell or make oil, a quarter of the proceeds must be tithed to the Government[i].

 

 

About Availability

 

 

When I say that Mysore sandalwood is no longer available, I should clarify that this does not mean that Mysore oil is not being produced at all.  Small-scale harvesting does continue in certain areas of India where it is still allowed, and several large French perfume houses have contracts with private plantations in India to supply oil.  However, it is not available in commercially significant quantities, i.e., it is not available in quantities that would satisfy the need of the commercial perfume and attar industry.  

 

In an interview[ii] with me for Basenotes in 2017, attar maker JK DeLapp explained the issue of availability thus:  ‘It is my understanding that 50 or so tons of sandalwood oil are produced in India every year. Not necessarily all from the Mysore region, but they are producing.  Global annual demand is closer to 400-600 tons of sandalwood oil, which is why Indian sandalwood is generally not used any longer. From an industry perspective, it “no longer exists”.  What that really means is that demand exceeds availability, hence the newer Australian and Hawaiian Sandalwood oils filling in to satisfy demand’.

 

What this means is that the flow of Mysore sandalwood oil outside of India’s national borders is extremely limited.  Whatever is left in the forests of Mysore is controlled by the Indian government, and export of the oil outside of India is technically illegal.  Furthermore, India consumes roughly ninety percent of the essential oils and attars it produces, be it kadam, kewra, or sandalwood oil, further staunching the flow of sandalwood outside its borders.

 

Naturally, the sandalwood supply problem has greatly affected the traditional attar-making sector within India.  The flow of oil to domestic attar production has slowed to a trickle, with the rising costs of what oil is still available forcing traditional attar makers to turn to cheaper synthetic solvents (such as IPM), or traditionally less valued wood species such as Australian sandalwood oil (Santalum spicatum).  By corollary, the past three decades has seen the number of attar houses in Kannauj fall by nearly 80%.  More on that here.  

 

Small amounts of Mysore oil are still available locally through the state-run Cauvery[iii] Silk Emporium shops in the Karnataka district of Mysore, but unless one is lucky enough to find a trusted local intermediary, this oil is largely inaccessible.  It is also not available in the quantities required for attar-making and distillation.  Furthermore, the purity and provenance of the oil is difficult to verify.  Given the high prices fetched for Mysore oil outside of India and the huge demand for it in perfumery, adulteration is more a probability than a possibility.

 

Trygve Harris, respected owner of Enfleurage in New York and a distiller of frankincense in Salalah, Oman, confirms this, stating that the oil she tested in 2012 from the Cauvery Silk Emporium had clearly been adulterated.  In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Harris described the oil as follows: ‘It didn’t even try to smell like sandalwood — it was some floral-ish perfume. It was hideous, the product of an ill-employed bureaucrat who imagines it is what tourists want to smell. And there was only 7 ml in the bottle as well.  Really disappointing.  It was an outrage, actually’[iv].

 

 

Is it Mysore sandalwood or Santalum album that is rare?

 

 

Here is the good news. While real Mysore sandalwood oil from vintage, well-aged stock is a rarity, its species – Santalum album – is not.  Santalum album is the species of the sandalwood tree traditionally grown in Mysore, but it can also grow (and thrive) in regions other than Mysore, where climate conditions are optimal. These places include Indonesia, Tamil Nadu (Southern India), and Northern Australia.  Naturally, when the santalum album species of tree is grown in an area or country other than the Mysore region, it is not technically Mysore sandalwood.  It is, however, still santalum album.

 

A positive thing to have emerged from the current scarcity of, and restrictions on Mysore santalum album, is a renewed awareness of just how good santalum album is. The demand for santalum album is as robust as ever.  Individual consumers want it.  So do the big perfume companies like Chanel, Guerlain, and Frederic Malle. And where there is demand, there is a way.

 

Currently, there are plantations of a new generation of santalum album being grown under controlled conditions in Australia, meaning that there will be a future supply of santalum album available to the market. And although the trees are still too young to compare the quality of the output to the original Mysore stock, the first results are promising. Many expert noses report the scent of santalum album grown in Australia to be exquisite, with the same creamy, soft, santalol-rich aroma characteristic of Mysore sandalwood.

 

The only differences at this stage are likely to be that of aging, both of the tree itself (specifically, its heartwood) and of the oil in the bottle. Aging works wonders for the quality of santalum album oil.  Oil from heartwood that has been allowed to develop inside the tree for two decades or more will naturally be richer and more complete in aroma than heartwood cut out of a six-year-old tree. Still, these new santalum album plantations are good news for both attar and Western perfumery, as well as for sandalwood enthusiasts.

 

A word of caution[v] from JK DeLapp about the new santalum album coming out of the Australian plantations (though it is likely that only diehard Mysore enthusiasts will care about this):

 

‘The Australian s. album quality is good, if we are looking at the total santalol content (santalols being the benchmark for sandalwood quality testing). A Grade Australian s. album tests at a consistent 90% total santalol load (our own Rising Phoenix sandalwood oils test at an average 91-93% total santalol load, for comparison sakes). I think the new Australian material is pretty close to this benchmark, although the trees are 20 or so years old, which is young for sandalwood. That means that you can distill it in good conscience, but its tone will lack the subtle nuances present oils drawn from the heartwood of older sandalwood trees.

 

One thing I’ve noticed with the new Australian album oils, though, is that they tend to smell like popcorn. If you like buttered popcorn, then great, you’re in luck. But it is a different type of “buttery” aroma that you get in older Mysore oils or in Rising Phoenix oils, which tends to be deeper and more sandalwoody (yes, that’s a word). Sandalwood enthusiasts will grasp immediately what I mean by that. For casual sandalwood oil users, I doubt the difference will matter much.

 

The upshot is that for large-scale compounding, I think the Australian album material is a great replacement for the Mysore oils of yore. But on its own, as a perfume for personal use, it won’t quite hit your sandalwood sweet spot in the same way. Therefore, globally, Australian plantation s. album is great news for larger scale perfumery, but it won’t satisfy customers in the small-batch, artisanal production sense.’

 

The same note of caution is sounded by Trygve Harris. Having visited the Mysore plantations twice – once in the late 1990s and again in 2012 – she is familiar with the oil coming out of India and how it compares to the newer Australian plantation s. album.

 

In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Harris noted: ‘The Australian album trees are quite young but are already being harvested and I think the odor profile matches the traditional one for sandalwood grown in Mysore. It is not the same, but if you are enquiring only if Santalum album will once again be available, then yes, I think it is already, and it smells good. And, if they keep up the plantations, then it will probably be better in a few years. But will we ever again smell that magical being from Karnataka? I don’t see it. Nature is patient. And nature is magic. And while plantation trees or laboratory Petri dishes might yield an ultimately adequate product, they won’t yield an exquisite or magical one’[vi].

 

 

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.

 

[i] http://www.enfleurage.com/pages/Sandalwood%252dThe-Great-Receiver.html

[ii] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[iii]Sometimes written as Kauvery

[iv] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

[v] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[vi] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

The Attar Guide: Traditionally Distilled Attars and Ruhs

1st November 2021

 

Attar – an old Persian word for perfume (ațr, pronounced atir) – is the world’s earliest form of fragrance still in existence today.  The word ‘attar’ is used in some form in most of the languages of the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, for example, ittar or ittr in Hindu and Urdu, ‘etr in Arabic, and ațr in modern-day Farsi.  The words ottar, atar, athar, and otto are also forms of the word attar, and used pretty much interchangeably.

 

Originally, the word referred to any fragrant smell emanating from a person, thing, or plant.  For example, if a person had particularly sweet-smelling skin, his or her scent might be described as attar, as in ‘Da-yum, Fatima, you smell attar, girl’.  But with the discovery of man-made interventions such as distillation, maceration, and enfleurage, the word attar began to specifically refer to perfumes made using those new methods[i].  When people discovered how to extract essential oils from plants, woods, and resins in the early 1600s, the word ‘attar’ began to be associated almost exclusively with essential oil extracted from roses.  Beyond the world famous attar of roses, few outside India were aware of the incredible diversity and range of raw materials beyond rose that could be distilled, extracted, macerated, or enfleuraged to make attars.

 

Perhaps proving that fragrance is a marker of true civilization, attars were first made by inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BCE-1300 BCE) which was, along with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, was one of the three major cradles of civilization.  Covering most of modern-day Pakistan and India, the people living there at the time were Indian in the cultural-historical sense.  These people were the first to distill and make attars. And despite attar being a word that was later co-opted by Persian and Arab cultures, its origins remain deeply rooted in Indian culture and taxonomy.  Interestingly, clay pots (degs) unearthed belonging to the Indus Valley Civilization are almost identical to the ones used today in modern-day India to produce attars.

 

There is no evidence that attar-making died when the Indus Valley Civilization did.  However, attar making truly rose to global prominence under the Mughal Empire in 1526, a Turco-Mongolian dynasty in India that was culturally Persian.  The Mughal emperors and princes, passionate about perfume, oversaw the flowering of a golden age of attar-making that outlasted the Mughal Empire itself, which ended over three centuries later in 1857.  Ultimately, therefore, although the tradition of making attars is culturally an Indian one, it was the Persiatic culture of the Mughal Empire that caused attar making to flourish past the borders of India herself.  So enthusiastically did the Mughal emperors award money and prestige to local Indian attar makers (attar wallahs) that they birthed a golden age for attar making.  

 

We know about the earliest forms of attar production through Islamic texts and historical trading records, but some of the most revealing pieces of information come to us via story telling from the Mughal Empire period.  In the 17th century, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir credits his mother-in-law, Saleemah Sultan Begum, for having accidentally discovered how to make rose otto:


‘When she was making rose water, a scum formed on the surface of the dishes into which the hot rose water was poured from the jugs.  She collected this scum little by little; when much rose water was obtained a considerable quantity of the scum was collected.  It is of such strength in perfume that if one drop be rubbed on the palm of the hand it scents a whole assembly and it seems as if many red rosebuds had bloomed at once.  There is no other scent of equal excellence to it. It restores hearts that have gone and brings back withered souls.  In reward for that invention, I presented a string of pearls to the inventor.’

 

 

From Deg to Lab: The Sad State of Attar Making in India

 

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Photo by Rebecca Matthews on Unsplash

It takes enormous skill and knowledge to make an attar in the traditional way, and having practiced it for over five thousand years, the Indians are the masters of this art.  The traditional seat of the attar-making world is Kannauj, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.  Kannauj-based attar-makers supplied the princes of the Mughal Empire with attars for more than three centuries and have a long history of trading with the Middle East.  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.

 

Between 90 to 90% of all essential oils, ruhs, and attars produced in Kannauj are consumed by India’s domestic food and tobacco industries, where they are used to flavor cigarettes, chewing gum, dessert syrups, and food bases.  The remaining is used domestically as perfume or exported abroad, mainly to the Middle East (the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait).  But the millennia-old attar industry in Kannauj is under threat from the most modern of foes, namely, the cost and availability of key raw materials, and a rising economic class with very different tastes to their forefathers.

 

Materials such as rose and jasmine have always been expensive to produce, because they are labor-intensive, and a great quantity of fragrant materials is 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.  Adulteration and fakery of the costliest oils has always been an issue.

 

What is (relatively) new is the dearth of sandalwood oil, the essential oil that has always been a key component of traditional Indian attars.  As will be detailed in the section on sandalwood, the great sandalwood forests of Mysore and other wood-producing regions are almost depleted due to years of over-harvesting, corruption, and careless management.  In the late nineties, in response to the sandalwood crisis, the state governments of Karnataka, Mysore, and Uttar Pradesh all placed severe restrictions on the harvesting and trading of sandalwood oil.  At a national level, the Indian Government banned the export of sandalwood outside of India’s borders.

 

Although the supply channel to the great perfumery houses of Chanel and Guerlain in Paris has been kept partly open (through private French ownership of plantations), the restrictions meant that the supply of Mysore oil outside of India is extremely limited, as well as technically illegal.  In turn, the flow of oil to the domestic attar industry dried to a trickle. With only tiny amounts of santalum album still reaching the domestic market, prices within India have risen to levels that price most attar makers out of the picture. 

 

The reduced flow of oil to attar-producing houses in Kannauj has resulted in many attar houses packing up and leaving to settle in areas of India such as Mumbai, where sandalwood oil is still perhaps a little easier to obtain, thanks to less stringent government oversight than in Uttar Pradesh.  But a big question mark hovers over the purity of the sandalwood oil that does remain on the market in India, whether in Mumbai or elsewhere.  Because of scarcity, costs have escalated, leading to what seems now to be a common adulteration of the oil with paraffin, DPG, or inferior wood oils. 

 

When you put together the high costs of production and the low availability of key ingredients, it is no wonder that many of the small, independent attar-making houses in Kannauj have gone out of business.  At its height, approximately sixty percent of the population of the 1.7 million-strong city 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.  Now there are only a hundred and fifty.  The traditional attar making industry has shrunk by almost eighty percent over the past three decades.

 

But perhaps the greatest pressure on the traditional Indian attar-making industry in Kannauj has been the rise in demand for Western designer perfumes among young, upwardly mobile males in the large Indian cities, a new socio-economic class that emerged during India’s great economic turnaround in urban areas in the nineties.  Flush with new wealth and an emerging middle class, attention has turned away from the traditional Indian attars and towards more modern, Western-orientated grooming products.  The Indian trade association, ASSOCHAM, reports that the demand for Western brands such as Azzaro, Burberry, Chanel, and Armani amounts to a hefty 30% of total fragrance consumption in India and is worth almost $300 million.

 

In order to pivot towards the market, two things happened in Kannauj.  First, the traditional Indian attar makers still in business have scrambled to adapt to a new business model.  While some (such as M. L. Ramnarain Perfumers) have stuck to old distillation methods, and switched to using solvents other than sandalwood, many other outfits, especially the Mumbai-based ones, have lowered their cost base (and therefore prices) by using paraffin oils to pad out their formulas to retain the interest of the modern Indian fragrance market.   A quick scan of IndiaMart shows many attar houses now offering so-called ‘traditional’ motia (Sambac jasmine) and gulab (rosa damascena) attars for as little as $45 per liter, a price that in and of itself betrays its synthetic composition.  If made in the traditional way in Kannauj, using a deg and bhapka, and real jasmine petals, a liter of genuine motia attar would cost more in the region of $5,400[ii]

 

Second, some attar factories in Mumbai began focusing on churning out cheap perfume oils and dupes of the most popular Western fragrances instead of traditional Indian attars or ruhs.  These have become something of a modern success story, in the business sense.  These factories create their oils in the laboratory rather than in the traditional deg and bhapka, and they don’t even pretend that there is anything traditionally Indian about them.  In fact, it is their Western character that is emphasized, designed to appeal to young Indian tastes.  Their oils are also commonly called ‘attars’, which must feel like salt in the wound of any attar house in Kannauj still distilling their attars in the time-honored manner.

 

Somewhere in the nineties, therefore, the  meaning of the word attar began its slow, inexorable drift away from its traditional meaning (raw plant material distilled into a sandalwood base) to a more modern interpretation, meaning any perfume that comes in oil format.  The word attar now can mean anything from a shamama attar distilled for two months to a knock-off of Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather that costs less than a hundred rupees.

 

All is not lost, however.  Despite the problems in the industry at present, some small-scale traditional attar production continues, and given its millennia-long history, it is not likely that traditional Indian attars will ever disappear completely.  The pendulum of interest will swing back again in that direction, especially if there is a return to valuing heritage and tradition, as has been the case in many countries once the dust of an economic boom has settled.  Artisanship will always be valued as a segment of the total fragrance industry, alongside an appreciation for excellent raw materials.

 

 

How Traditionally Distilled Attars and Ruhs are Made

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is rowan-lamb-WGNJIsiLr24-unsplash.jpg

Photo by Rowan Lamb on Unsplash

 

Traditional distilled attars are made in much the same way as they were way during the Indus Valley Civilization.  The main components of traditional attar making are copper or earthen drums called a deg, a copper receiving vessel (containing sandalwood oil) called a bhapka, and the slowest and most gentle of all extraction techniques, namely hydro-distillation.  Steam distillation, which is conducted at much higher temperatures, is also used, but only for harder resin or woody materials less likely to burn than, for example, more delicate materials such as jasmine petals.

 

Photo courtesy of Pranjal Kapoor

The process is slow and laborious.  First, up to forty-five kilos of fragrant materials – for example, rose petals, henna flowers, or jasmine blossoms – are loaded into the deg.  The deg is then filled to the top with water so that the fragrant materials float freely in the liquid, and the lid sealed with a mixture of wet clay, straw, and cotton fibers.  The deg rests on top of a clay or brick oven that is maintained at a very low heat throughout the day.  Once the fire is lit, it will be kept going for at least eight hours[iii].

 

Photo courtesy of Pranjal Kapoor

Once the deg is heated, the aromatic vapors begin to build up inside the pot and these then pass through an angled bamboo pipe into the long-necked copper bhapka waiting underneath the deg in a shallow basin of water, which serves to instantly cool the vapors flowing into the bhapka and change it into liquid.  The awaiting bhapka will already contain up to five kilograms of pure sandalwood oil, prized for both its beautiful aroma and fixative properties.  Indian attar makers are extremely skilled at keeping temperatures steady and low throughout the process, often sponging the deg down with cool water if they feel that it is overheating.

 

Photo courtesy of Pranjal Kapoor

At the end of the day, the fire is extinguished and the liquid in the bhapka is left to cool and settle overnight.  In the morning, the water (called a hydrosol) has separated from the oil and is carefully siphoned off to be poured back into the deg for the new days’ worth of distilling.  Fresh fragrant materials are placed in the deg, along with the hydrosol, and the process is repeated.  Most distillations take between ten and twenty days to complete, all the time adding fresh fragrant materials and re-using the hydrosol, which by the end will have passed through the flowers so many times that it itself is fragrant and can be sold for use in skincare and food preparation.

 

But the real prize is what’s in the bhapka – a thick sandalwood oil fragrant with the heady scent of the flowers, herbs, or other aromatic materials.   The attar is then poured into flasks made from soft calfskin or lambskin leather, materials just porous enough to allow any excess water in the mixture to evaporate but sturdy enough to keep the fragrant attar inside.  The flasks are stored in a dark, dry place until the attar has matured and settled into its final aroma, a process that takes at least a year but can take up to ten.   

 

Sometimes, attars make use of materials that cannot be extracted using steam or water, such as resins and gums.  In such cases, the material – for example, frankincense gum or myrrh resin – is heated up until it produces liquid tears that are scraped off the inside of the heated deg and then mixed into sandalwood oil.  The attars are then macerated, filtered, stored, and matured in the same way as the regular floral attars.

 

Then there are the ruhs.  Ruh in a Sanskrit word for ‘essence’ or ‘spirit’.  Ruhs are essential oils distilled from a limited number of Indian flowers, herbs, and plants in much the same way as attars, i.e., gentle hydro-distillation using the traditional deg and bhapka.  Unlike attars, however, ruhs are not distilled into sandalwood but left in their undiluted state.  At the end of a distilling day, the distillate is allowed to rest and cool, and the next morning, the water is siphoned off the essential oil.  The ruh is then packaged into small flasks and allowed to rest, as for attars.  Due to the lack of carrier oil, ruhs are far more perishable than attars, and must be stored well away from the light.  Ruhs are costly to produce and the number of materials that can be distilled into ruhs is limited.  According to White Lotus Aromatics, these include jasmine (all types), rosa damascena, kewra (screwpine flowers), and khus (wild vetiver roots).

 

 

 

End Note:  The four building blocks of oil-based perfumery as I see them, are (1) traditional distilled attars, (2) Middle-Eastern mukhallats, (3) foundational essential oils such as oud oil and sandalwood oil, and (4) concentrated perfume oils.  Here is a brief summary of the four categories:

 

Traditional distilled attars:  The subject of this chapter.  In contrast to its catch-all categorization today, the word attar originally referred to a specific method of production, and a tradition that was almost exclusively Indian.  True attars are made through the slow, laborious process of hydro- or steam-distilling flower petals, herbs, exotic woods, and resins directly into a base of sandalwood oil.

 

Middle-Eastern mukhallats:  While traditional Indian attars are distilled from a fragrant material, mukhallats – meaning ‘mix’ – are compounds of many different oils that have already been distilled, tinctured, or otherwise produced elsewhere.

 

Foundational essential oils:  Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery.  In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.

 

Concentrated perfume oils:  Although all attars are by nature concentrated perfume oils, not all concentrated perfume oils are attars.  For example, a perfume oil from Bruno Acampora, Le Labo, or BPAL is not an attar.  Neither is the Al Rehab dupe for Dakar Noir that you can buy on Amazon for four dollars.  They are perfumes in oil format but made in a completely different manner (and intent) than attars.

 

 

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.

[i]F. Aubaile-Sallenave, Encyclopædia Iranica, Vol. III, Fasc. 1, pp. 14-16; available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/atr-perfume (accessed online, 14 December 2017).

[ii] Based on 120ml of hydro-distilled motia attar costing $650 on White Lotus Aromatics

[iii] L’Inde des Parfums by Nicolas de Barry & Laurent Granier, published by Éditions du Garde-Temps, ISBN: 2-913545-33-5, 2004.

Books Independent Perfumery Review The Business of Perfume Thoughts

Review of Perfumes: The Guide (2018) by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez

26th October 2018

 

Takeaway for the casual browser

 

To the casual browser who’s wandered in here because the SEO on my site is working – yes, you should buy Perfumes: The Guide (2018) by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Heck, buy the original Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (2008) too. Because whether your interest is casual or professional, there’s always space in your life for a book that explains a subject with equal parts erudition and bitchiness. Reading this book is like being seated next to a scientist who whispers hilarious put-downs in your ear about the hostess’ bottom all night and then gets up and explains Chaos Theory so elegantly you wonder if you’d ever not understood it.

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Independent Perfumery Lists Round-Ups The Business of Perfume Thoughts

The Business of Perfume: Artisan as the New Niche

29th June 2018

When it comes to fragrance, traditional classifications of niche and designer are beginning to lose their meaning. Economists might divvy up the fragrance pie into two big slices called “prestige” and “mass”, but we all know that Tom Ford (prestige) has more in common with Dior (mass) than it does with Hiram Green (prestige). In reality, the perfume segment really ought to be divided up into Masstige (high-spec commercial fragrances, whether niche or mainstream) and Artisan/Indie (independent, artisanal, non-commercial in nature).

 

While “mass” as a category is relatively homogenous, “prestige” is not. How can it be? It’s a term that awkwardly covers everything from a $800 Henry Jacques to a $12 Solstice Scents roll-on. Those in the fragrance community have always preferred the term “niche” over “prestige”, in recognition that it is its apart-ness from the mass that defines niche, and not its prestige, real or implied. Therefore, although the market equates the term “niche” with luxury and high spec, the die-hards inside the Fragrance Community are still clinging to the OG definition of niche.

 

And the word “niche” really stood for something once. When Jean Laporte left Sisley to form L’Artisan Parfumeur in 1976, he did so to offer people a real alternative to mass market fragrance. His work at L’Artisan Parfumeur defined the true essence of niche perfumery as bold new ideas, freedom from artistic or financial constraint, and a disregard for what is commercial.

 

In a segment now dominated by masstige brands and big beauty conglomerates, it’s hard to imagine fragrances like Tubéreuse Criminelle (Serge Lutens, 1999) or Secretions Magnifiques (Etat Libre d’Orange, 2006) getting past the marketing execs. But it wasn’t only the fragrances that were idiosyncratic, the perfumers and creative directors were too. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, Serge Lutens, who communicates in sentences so gnomic that I’m convinced it’s code for aliens, being allowed to talk to a room full of investors.

 

But as soon as niche had established itself as a high-growth area, everyone wanted in. Brand behemoths like LVMH, Puig, and Estee Lauder gobbled up many of the original niche brands, smoothing out any rough edges and turning them back out again to capture a broader stream of customers. Thank God Lutens had his old stomping grounds, the artistically alien culture of the Japanese firm, Shiseido, to fall back on when it came to his inevitable corporate take-over. Tom Ford was acquired by Estee Lauder, which absolutely makes sense, given they both espouse a peculiarly American style of square-shouldered luxe that’s rich but slightly dull.

 

Fragrance as Haute Couture  

 

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Designer brands like Chanel, YSL, Armani, and Dior liked the downstream potential of OG niche so much that they launched special “private collections” to capture it. Cleverly, the designer brands picked names for their exclusive collections that drew direct parallels to their haute couture clothing collections – Givenchy’s L’Atelier, for example, Armani’s Prive, and Dior’s Privée – so as to mark them out clearly from their humdrum prêt-a-porter collections.

 

The drift towards luxury also sparked a fetishization of raw materials in the marketing, an effort by Masstige niche brands to cultivate the appearance of authenticity to cover a real lack of thereof. Carl Groenewald of Dior said that the Dior Privée fragrances are constructed using a limited number of top quality raw materials, in much “the same way we do the fabrics for Haute Couture gowns.”[1]  A smart, if cynical analogy that most consumers will get. It is now very common to see niche fragrances giving their raw materials and provenance top billing in the perfume names – how many Santals of Mysore or Vanillas from Madagascar are currently floating around the market?

 

The homogenization and smoothing out of niche accelerated at the top with the fastest-growing mini segment of all, namely the “haute parfumerie” brands like Clive Christian, Creed, and Roja Dove. These brands, spiritual inheritors of the trend for bespoke perfumery that began at the turn of the 20th century, turned the niche dial even further away from “boundary-breaking” to “because you’re worth it”. They were so successful in their colonization of niche territory that today many consumers equate the word niche with luxury.

 

Niche was originally defined loosely through its specialness, meaning its apart-ness from the mainstream, and its idiosyncrasies. At least that’s the way the Father of Niche, Jean Laporte, saw it. Today, niche is still defined by its specialness, but it’s a carefully managed image of specialness rather than the real thing. Crucially, the direction of specialness has been reversed: whereas originally it was the fragrance itself that was special, now it is the customer who wears the fragrance who is special. The experience has been transmuted; not art for art’s sake, but what it can do for you, the end user.

 

Dior’s Carl Groenewald told the Independent that the customers for Dior’s Privée collection “do not want a commercial fragrance and to smell like everyone else.”[2]  The market term for this is personalization, or customization – making the customer feel as if the product has been created especially with him or her in mind. And yet, ironically, these fragrances are technically masstige – luxury for the masses – implying a specialness that can be bought by anyone as long as they have the cash, and therefore really not all that special.

 

The rise of “Masstige”

 

“Masstige” is a smushed-together name for a smushed-together category – prestige and mass. In their article “Luxury for the Masses” for Harvard Business Review (April 2003), Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske defined Masstige as goods that “occupy a sweet spot between mass and class[3]. It might seem like a real conehead kind of term to use, but I like it, because it’s honest about the blurred lines between a Dior Privée and a Tom Ford Private Blend.

 

Masstige is all about giving a customer the high spec experience they expect from a professionally made product, but also making them feel special and different from the masses. As a market category, it covers mainstream designer brands with prestige lines, big brand niche brands with corporate backing, and the haute parfumerie luxe brands. It’s a giant chunk of the perfume segment.

 

The trick to masstige, and the one that every brand wants to figure out, lies in making the perfume wearer feel special, not necessarily in making the perfume itself special. Masstige fragrances are basically one giant reflecting pool designed to flatter the person who looks into it.

 

In shifting the focus from the intrinsic qualities of the perfume itself to the wearer’s experience, perfume has become more of a commodity than an art form. In line with the commoditization, everything else about the business of niche has been commercialized too. Forget the image you might have of a bunch of creative people sitting down with mad perfumers over bunches of wild lavender and exotic oud oils. Masstige niche perfume is a business like anything else. They operate in a similar manner to designer brands, meaning they have marketing teams, ad budgets, product placement strategies, and quality control.

 

Of course, niche still has that aura of “not available to just any Joe Schmoe” to cultivate. Limited distribution and short-run production are calculated to the nth degree to create an illusion of unavailability and drive up demand. For example, the Le Labo City Exclusives are made available only in one city, like Moscow, or in one specific month of the year. Xerjoff Join The Club perfumes come with special membership cards allowing access to a restricted part of their website. Some By Kilian special editions come with jewel-encrusted handbags.

 

In short, brands will go to extraordinary lengths to create that feeling of “specialness” for the buyer. The notion of specialness in niche has well and truly flipped; it is no longer the special of the non-commercial, wildly artistic idea, but the special of luxury and of exclusivity.

 

There’s nothing here to take personally; niche perfumery is a business like any other, and exists to make a profit. Members of the Fragrance Community understand this, if only in its general outline and not its detail. More importantly, being aware of it doesn’t make masstige niche any less attractive to fragrance fans. The lure of prestige and luxury is strong, even among those who consider themselves to be more clued in than more casual perfume buyers.

 

Masstige versus the artisans

 

There’s a small part of the prestige segment that still espouses everything once associated with the word niche, namely its independence from the mainstream, boundaryless creativity, and the preference for the idea of a perfume over its potential to make money. And that’s artisanal, independent perfumery. Because this segment has so little in common with the credo or modus operandi of masstige, or even just prestige perfumery, I’d argue that independent artisanship stands alone and apart from masstige, a tiny sliver of the overall perfume pie. Instead of mass and prestige, I would reconfigure the pie to read as masstige and artisans.

 

Artisanship is the last hold-out against the broad strokes of commercialization that has colonized the originally niche, but now masstige segment. If masstige brands are the professionals and the corporations, artisanal brands are the DIYers, the crazy bunch o’ fools, the starving artists, etc. Not only did artisans pick up the OG niche baton, but they also created some of the really big, important, conversation-starting perfumes of the past 10, 15 years. Onda by Vero Profumo, L’Air du Desert Marocain by Tauer Parfums, Maai by Bogue, Salomé by Papillon, Lampblack by Bruno Fazzolari, Civet by Zoologist….these are all fragrances conceived, created, and sent out into the world by artisans.

 

 

The definition of artisanship

 

The word “artisanship” refers to someone who is particularly skilled at a trade and makes things by hand. In food terms, it has come to mean products made either in a very traditional, skilled way or without much mechanization. To that definition, I’d add the notion of authenticity; we often associate artisanally-made anything with genuineness, with the sense of something being made because it is beautiful and right, not because it will make money.

 

In perfume, we take artisanal to mean something made by the hand of the artisan. At its most basic level, artisanship means that the perfumer owns or co-owns the brand. Artisan perfumers are largely self-taught; most will never have been formally trained as perfumers either in Grasse or Paris.  Artisanship  also translates to a lack of corporate backing for the enterprise; the artisan is responsible for everything, from the sourcing of raw materials and the writing of the perfume formula to the purchasing of bottling, mixing and blending, maceration, bottling, labeling, the expedition of orders, shipping and handling, and so on.

 

That’s the general understanding, at least. In reality, the picture is far more complex, with some brands doing everything from A to Z themselves, and others outsourcing parts of the process such as the final compounding of the perfume, or the bottling and packaging. Some of this is location-dependent: artisan perfumers in Europe, for example, are obliged to hire external safety assessors to ensure that each component of its perfume formula is safe, because without an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate, the product can’t be sold in the EU.

 

The folks who run the Art & Olfaction Awards have come up with a neat system that divides this corner of the perfume-making world into two groups: artisans and independent perfume brands. So, when we talk about indie artisans, we’re really talking about two distinct groups.

 

According to Art & Olfaction, an artisan perfume brand is one where the perfumer who wrote the original formula (i) either owns or co-owns the brand that is releasing the perfume, and (ii) wrote and has legal ownership of the perfume formula[4]. In other words, the person who runs the company is also the one making it. Examples of artisan brands under this definition would be: Tauer, Papillon, SP Parfums, Hans Hendley, Pekji, Slumberhouse, Bogue, Auphorie, Imaginary Authors, DSH Parfums, Hiram Green, Vero Profumo, and many more.

 

An independent perfume brand, on the other hand, is a company that employs “an external perfumer or fragrance house to initiate and create their blends, with creative direction from the perfume brand[5]. For example, Zoologist is an indie brand whose creative director, Victor Wong, hires a variety of (artisan) perfumers to compose the brand’s perfumes, which are released under the Zoologist name. Other examples of indie brands include: Maria Candida Gentile, Masque Milano, Jul et Mad, Charenton Macerations, and Skive.

 

The dividing lines between artisan and independent perfume brands are probably not important to anyone other than the people who run or judge high-stakes awards like the Art & Olfaction Awards. I’ve conflated the two terms myself in this article because I think most people in the FragComm will understand indies and artisans as being linked by a general independence from market trends, a genuine feeling for the art of perfumery, and the creation of artistically risky perfumes (compared to masstige and ‘haute parfumerie’ niche). The hand of the artisan or creative director is clearly in evidence throughout, from the design of the bottle art to the marketing, copy, and of course, how the scent smells.

 

Artisanship in perfumery compared to artisanship in other categories

 

Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

Pour-over coffee. Craft beer. Organic carrots. It’s fair to say that the artisanal movement has had a profound effect on the way we consume at a meta level. We take pleasure in buying organic, supporting local businesses, and choosing the artisanal over the corporate. But what began as a movement in the food industry has spilled over into other, surprising areas too.

 

Advertizing, for example, once the preserve of big, rather traditional companies, is now drifting downstream into artisanal mode, with the CEOs of massive companies doing podcasts to talk about their products, and using Snapchat and Instagram Stories to reach out to consumers directly.

 

The message filtering through is that consumers care more about authenticity than video quality. Julia Vyse of Mediative, in an article about the top advertizing trends for 2018, noted that the “audience for these ads is more likely to spend a little bit more for brand loyalty, for locally or independently produced items. Authentic messages plus a premium-minded audience is about as harmonious as pour-over coffee and locally baked doughnuts!”[6]

 

Authenticity is the keyword here. Modern consumers are drawn to the authentic, even if it is at the cost of slick production values.

 

The contradiction: artisanship versus consumer expectations

 

Consumers are drawn to authenticity. Well….to a certain extent. The truth is that we are a generation raised on

Photo by Thanh Tran on Unsplash

maximum efficiency. We might like pour-over coffee, but if it’s 8am and we’re late for a meeting, then we want that cup in front of us stat. And therein lies the contradiction: while artisanship emphasizes the slow, homemade, personal nature of the product, consumers have little tolerance for things that do not work as quickly or as effectively as they’re used to.

 

Even massive global conglomerates like Unilever are struggling with the contradiction between the consumer’s desire to support artisanship and his (seemingly equal) desire for maximum efficiency, comfort, or the lower cost base that commercialization brings.

 

How do we embrace customized, local, artisanal consumer desires with the need for efficiency and ruthless price competition?” asks Bryan Lapidus, in an article for The Association for Financial Professionals. Unilever responded by copying the marketing ideas of smaller competitors, increasing its local markets spend by 50%, and oh yeah, by buying up many of those small, artisanal companies biting at its ankles[7]. Big companies often buy up smaller niche brands in the same segment – it’s a great way to plug into a downstream market without having to start up a new brand. Estee Lauder acquiring Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, By Kilian, and Le Labo, for example.

 

Why am I blathering on about this? Well, because this contradiction very much applies to artisanship in the fragrance category too. As we know, market research companies divide fragrances into two broad categories: prestige and mass. Internally, the prestige category is so heterogeneous that it’s kind of awkward – a Creed and a January Scent Project uneasily crammed into the same space, like a gorilla lumped in with a canary. We can all see for ourselves that these are from two very different species. And yet, subconsciously, the consumer expects the same level of finish, smoothness, and performance metrics from the January Scent Project scent as he or she does from the Creed. This might strike the artisan or indie brand as being quite unfair, and it is. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

 

Perfume buyers are a risk adverse lot: if there is a choice between Carnal Flower (Malle) or Moon Bloom (Hiram Green), for example, many will go for the Malle simply because Malle is a known quantity and Hiram Green is not, despite the fact that Moon Bloom is probably the better perfume. Indie artisan brands need to be aware of all the inhibitors to buy in the mind of their audience, and then set about challenging them, one by one.

 

My sympathies to the artisans and the indies

 

Photo by Brandy S on Unsplash

It must be incredibly difficult for small independent artisans to be thrown into the same bull pen as masstige and niche brands whose corporate backing pays for their distribution channels, marketing, packaging, materials, and talent, and then be told to go compete. They have my profound sympathy.

Being an independent or an artisan brand has its advantages, of course, chief among them the creative license to create perfumes that don’t have to conform to a certain market demand or budget. Likewise, the freedom from having to worry about IFRA and EU cosmetics directive compliance, if the brand decides to stay out of the European market. Oakmoss, eugenol, and coumarin, oh my!

 

But mostly, I’d guess that trying to stay afloat in a market segment dominated by the deep-pocketed guys like Le Labo and Malle is a giant pain in the ass. A daily, no-letting-up, crushing, almost existential struggle to launch that one perfume that pierces the murk of a market fogged up by all that capital investment sloshing around the ankles of big niche brands, and land so successfully with perfume buyers that it makes your name. Not overnight success, not even financial sustainability, but just enough to filch a bit of that spotlight away from the bigger players, and start the hard slog towards building the kind of brand recognition, trust, and return custom that counts in the long run.

 

At a bare minimum, the challenges an indie / artisan perfume brand faces include:

 

  • Low purchasing power with big raw materials and bottling supplier: many suppliers will not sell in units less than wholesale figures, which indies can neither afford nor absorb
  • (In the EU or for brands who want to sell in the EU) Finding and then paying for expensive safety assessments of each perfume formula to obtain an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate
  • Lack of control or oversight over supply chain integrity; especially important for small all-natural brands
  • Lack of in-house marketing know-how
  • Finding distribution channels that don’t bleed the brand dry at the margins

 

 

But the biggest challenge facing small, independent & artisan brands is probably us, the consumers. Apart from the challenge of having to cut through all the noise and competition for our attention, indie brands have to deal with that contradiction between our desire to support artisanship and our over-reliance on high-tech performance and glossy production values.

 

Why weaning consumers off the masstige tit is tricky

 

Weaning consumers off the glossy tit of masstige and luxury niche and onto the rougher, realer one of indies and artisans is no small feat. In many areas of our lives, we have switched our allegiance to the artisans, buying plantation-specific dark chocolate, fair-trade coffee beans, and locally-sourced cheese and wine. But in the world of cosmetics and perfume, indies are still a hard sell.

 

Or, in other words, you have my sympathies for being an artisan brand afloat in a sea of corporate greed, but do you have my money? Aside from the die-hard, anti-corporate folks who will only buy face creams, perfume oils, and eye shadows from Etsy indies and consider Estee Lauder anything to be the devil incarnate, there’s a general hesitation among perfume buyers to step outside the warm embrace of masstige and take a chance on indie perfumers and brands.

 

Part of the hesitation I get. There’s a (rational) concern over putting any product that might not have been subjected to the same stringent testing as Estee Lauder products directly on one’s skin. But it’s also because, as consumers, we have been raised on a diet of glossy, high-tech products that meet our every need without us having to put much work in: iPhones, espresso machines, Kindle, Netflix, hair straighteners, etc. Anything even vaguely “handmade” scares the shit out of us. Because it implies we might have to make a compromise somewhere, whether it’s on price, on performance, on availability, whatever. And man, are we reluctant to do that.

 

Niggling concerns at the back of the mind of the potential indie buyer include: poor performance metrics compared to big niche brands, high prices (even for new entrants who haven’t proved themselves), creatively risky compositions, leaky bottles, less-than-luxurious packaging, and often, a lack of distribution channels which leave the casual browser wondering where on earth they can actually buy the perfume. And that’s even before you add in the fear that if you fall in love with a perfume, the entire brand or its distribution channel might have fallen off the face of the planet before you can replace it.

 

As discussed in my previous article, perfume buyers – even within the Fragrance Community itself – are surprisingly conservative in their taste, as well as risk adverse. Bloggers like me are writing for an audience that barely exists anymore, namely a small band of olfactory explorers who will buy the latest experimental perfume from that start-up brand. This is the natural audience, too, of the indie / artisan world. But unfortunately, this shrinking demographic isn’t buying as much perfume these days, or at least, not nearly as much as the primary demographic of the FragComm, namely young, upwardly mobile males, aged 25-35 whose interest in fragrance is less aesthetic than functional or mating-related.

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The challenge then becomes how to get people who buy masstige and big brand niche to buy some of the artisanal stuff too. How to do that within a group of people who, despite what they might say, are actually kind of risk-adverse when it comes to perfume, and whose demographics mark them out as being interested in performance metrics over art, grooming over a cool idea, and attracting compliments from the opposite sex over appreciating a perfume for its intrinsic properties?

 

Keep talking

 

First of all, indie brands and artisans need to be as good at communicating as they are at making perfume. Social media, blogging, reaching out to other bloggers, and trying a variety of new and interesting ways to reach anyone who will listen is crucial, because in talking, talking, talking, indie brands get to assuage any fears or reservations customers might have about spending money on their product.

 

The fragrance community is not the place for the artisan to be enigmatic or shy. Indies and artisans have to keep up a steady stream of conversation with their target market, inside of which must be hidden nuggets of information that educate and persuade the person who is reading. Why is the product so expensive, for example? Why can’t I buy it directly from your store in the UK? Where can I get samples? Why doesn’t your jasmine perfume last as much or project as strongly as this niche?

 

Probably many indie artisans find this side of the perfume-making business tiresome and, in some cases, unpleasant. The bigger niche brands all have marketing professionals and agencies, so the perfumers themselves never get their hands dirty in the mud of self-promotion: indies and artisans don’t have this luxury. They have to do all of it themselves. Most of the indie perfumers I know are thoughtful, creative introverts who are passionate about making perfume but kind of awful at talking to their customer base about why they should buy their perfume and not the new Creed.

 

Nonetheless, in order to breach that gap between the consumer’s a) desire to support indie artisans and b) fear of plunging way too much money into a product that might not deliver, it’s essential for artisans to keep going out there, day in, day out, and talk to customers.

 

Getting the word out about artisans

 

As a bystander – a blogger – there’s only one thing I can really do to help, and it’s not much: just talk about the gems in the indie world that deserve attention, especially among the groups of people who would rather buy Guerlain, Dior, or Creed. And maybe even argue the case for these perfumes in a way that artisans themselves rarely do themselves, by acknowledging their true place in the pecking order of similar choices, being upfront about the niggling concerns a buyer might have, and ultimately, making a convincing case of why people should buy this perfume over another slicker, more readily accessible masstige option.

 

Here’s a list of 20 indie/artisan fragrances that I think deserve more attention and kudos. My hope, in talking them up, is to convince anyone who was ever on the fence about indies to take that leap of faith.

 

 

House of Matriarch Kazimi

 

It may seem odd to some that I’ve chosen to lead this list with a brand that, while certainly artisanal, is extremely well-placed in the market. House of Matriarch has distribution channels that include Nordstrom’s and a retail website that cleverly mines data from its customers and browsers, flooding their inbox with coupon codes and special offers on exactly the perfumes they were just looking at. The owner-perfumer, Christi Meshell, is the rare example of someone who is both an artisan and a brilliant businesswoman. But still, in the flurry of copious new releases from House of Matriarch in the past 12-24 months, I’m worried that one of its most extraordinary perfumes might get lost in the shuffle.

 

Photo by Ravi Pinisetti on Unsplash

Kazimi, like Nahema (Guerlain) and Rose 31 (Le Labo), is one of those perfumes that boasts impressive quantities of rose oil and yet smells very little of rose, leaning instead on the sharp, peppery radiance of ambergris, ginger, and woods to broadcast an aura of danger, like the crackle of static between lightning strikes. The scent opens with a dry, ammoniac smell, with a hint of that brutish tar-and-fuel dirtiness that natural ambergris sometimes exudes, like oil rising to the surface of a plastics fire under the surface of the sea. Kazimi is a 100% natural fragrance, but interestingly, has something of the chemical buzz I associate with Rose 31.

 

Kazimi smells wild and a bit unhinged – every time I wear it, I think of the island that Pi in The Life of Pi lands on with the tiger, Richard Parker, which at night turns from a lush paradise into a carnivore that dissolves human flesh in its acid pools. There’s something verdantly poisonous about Kazimi, with its barely-there rose that snaps and fizzes, eating into your flesh. It smells of thickets of pine blown sideways and crippled by strong ocean winds, crusted over with salt. Kazimi is an important achievement in natural perfumery because it highlights the most stirring parts of ambergris but still feels like a proper perfume rather than a tincture.

 

Downsides? Price, for sure. At $330 for 50ml, it’s hard to make the case for buying this over the alternatives listed below, both of which are obtainable at lower prices (approximately $200 per 75ml and $180 per 50ml). The ambergris and other materials used in Kazimi are 100% natural, and therefore expensive to obtain. This and the fact that House of Matriarch runs regular sales take the sting out of the price tag somewhat. For me, Kazimi is worth the investment: an essay on the strange, transformative brutality of natural ambergris, it twists a rose into a new shape that’s both ugly and beautiful.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you love natural ambergris, or even just rose fragrances that don’t really smell like an on-the-nose rose, Kazimi should be on your list of things to try. Although not a replacement for scents such as Encens Mythique d’Encens (Guerlain) or the supernaturally radiant Rose 31 (Le Labo), Kazimi has a similar “steel wire” gauziness that registers more as a texture than a scent. It’s bitter, perfumey, and natural all at once. If you love or wear Ambre Nuit (Dior Privée), another rose-ambergris composition, then consider Kazimi the speed to Ambre Nuit’s comfort.

 

 

Di Ser Kyara & Adameku

 

The Di Ser fragrances are a triumph of natural perfumery: 100% natural, yet light-footed rather than muddy as some all-natural fragrances can be. They are also immediately identifiable as Japanese, in terms of both aesthetics and form. To a Western palate, most of the Di Ser scents will first appear deeply unfamiliar, because of the traditionally Japanese botanicals the company focuses on, such as Himalayan spikenard, yuzu, and kyara.

 

Di Ser’s Kyara is an exquisite natural oud fragrance that features genuine oil distilled from kyara, the highest grade of agarwood in the world, considered only to be kyara when it comes from wild, densely-resinated Vietnamese agarwood of at least 80 years in age. Because of its rarity, kyara is never used to distill oud oil. Until Di Ser decided to do it, that is. Di Ser is in the unusual position of having access, through its mother organization, a Japanese research facility in Sapporo, on Hokkaido Island, to a wide variety of rare botanicals, woods, and resins collected for research purposes. Most pieces of kyara are collector’s pieces, kept in private vaults across Japan and China: Di Ser’s mother organization happened to have one.

 

It’s genuinely nuts that the brand decided to distill kyara and equally nuts to put it into a fragrance, but there you go – the essence of artisanship is taking the kind of anti-commercial risks that just wouldn’t fly in the mainstream. Its price – $1,150 for 33ml of extrait, $25 for a 0.5ml sample – reflects the kind of madness that using genuine kyara entails.

 

The scent itself smells amazing. It captures the elusive aroma of kyara when heated gently on a burner, which is an ethereal, almost silvery-jade smell encompassing arboreal sap, conifers, and an aromatic note that, to my nose, bridges the fiery heat of freshly-grated ginger root and the dull warmth of powdered ginger. I smelled both the pure kyara oil from whence the fragrance was built, and the fragrance itself; the finished fragrance has a rose note that suffuses the taut coniferous notes with lush sweetness. If you have loads of money and absolutely no sense, then at least sample Kyara to find out just how delicate (and non-animalic) oud oil can be.

 

But the price of Kyara places it far beyond the means of most people, so for the purposes of this list, I’d like to talk about Adameku. At a much more accessible $240 a bottle, Adameku is a very Japanese – and endearingly odd – take on osmanthus, the small flowering tree or shrub native to Eastern Asia but traditionally associated with Japan and China.

 

While most osmanthus-forward compositions focus on the leathery aspects of the flower (a by-product of fermentation caused by a long pre-distillation soak in water), the Di Ser take focuses on the translucent, fruity-jellied texture of the small petals themselves when sniffed fresh from the tree. This gives Adameku a bright, uplifting character similar to Diptyque’s Oyedo, but there’s a softly dirty, almost sour note in the background creating a chiaroscuro effect – cubes of delicate fruit jelly strewn across soil. If you’re an osmanthus fan and are looking for a fresh take, then Adameku’s half-Hello Kitty, half-Japanese botanical garden deserves to be on your radar.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you love a) osmanthus, b) the fetching weirdness of Japanese esoterica, culture, and flavors, and c) natural perfumery in general, then Adameku is worth at least a sample. Also, in a sector almost offensively prone to cultural appropriation, it’s thrilling to smell something so authentically Japanese. When you smell the Di Ser perfumes, you are granted a direct window view into Japanese culture rather than someone else’s interpretation of that culture, and that feels like a privilege.

 

 

Olympic Orchids Mardi Gras

 

A key difference between the indie/artisan world and the big brand niche one is that while the latter is primarily interested in creating luxurious, gorgeous smells that make its wearer feel special, the former invests its perfumes with atmosphere, emotion, and a sense of place.

 

Olympic Orchids excels at this kind of “set piece” perfumery: Café V transports the wearer straight to a Seattle coffee shop, Tropic of Capricorn will make you feel like you’ve just made love on top of a pile of rotting mango peels, and Ballets Rouges will whisk you back in time to the scent of rosin, furniture wax, and the cool-toned red lipstick of your piano teacher. None of the Olympic Orchids scents have the polish or “finish” of big brand niche – picture a retsina next to a Barolo – but they are all tremendously evocative, delivering an emotional punch to the gut that’s as cleansing as a good cry.

 

Mardi Gras is what I’d call a sexy-but-weird perfume. It’s a floral for Goths and non-conformists. A quick read of the notes – vanilla, orange blossom, honey, civet, and benzoin – might make you think that this is going to be standard floral fare, but it’s anything but. Rather than go the usual soapy and sugared route with orange blossom, Mardi Gras smears a fistful of withered, leathery flower petals over the dusty flagstones of a temple, allowing them to evaporate into the heat like spores off rotting fruit.

 

Anybody in love with the smell of aging wood, paper, and flagstone in ancient churches or castles will experience a thrill of recognition here; at times, the perfume seems resolutely un-floral, with a mustiness so deep it’s capable of blocking out the orange blossom. At other times, powder puffs of honeyed civet poke through the orange blossom, turning it into a bathtub gin version of Bal à Versailles. Central to its character, I suspect, is benzoin, responsible for the spicy, medicated foot powder texture that makes it so unusual.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re in the market for a come-hither scent that’s sexy in a slightly gritty, bohemian-messy way, then roll the dice on Mardi Gras. It’s the kind of fragrance that’s flashes its boobs at you whether you throw a necklace or not.

 

Aftelier Ancient Resins

 

Mandy Aftel is the mother of the artisanship movement in perfumery; originally a writer, she continued to write and educate other artisans after she founded Aftelier in 2000, with a total of 9 books published. Her 2001 work “Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume” has proved deeply influential in the movement, helping inspire other artisans such as Andy Tauer to branch out and start their own perfume companies.

 

Mandy is known for her work with natural essences. Her work is often quirky and unexpected (Cepes & Tuberose, Sepia), sometimes straightforwardly lush (Secret Garden, Velvet Tuberose), but for me personally, it is the weird and wonderful Tango that is emblematic of her quixotic style. Unfortunately, it has been discontinued due to an unavailability of a certain component, but those who have a chance to smell it certainly should; I know that it was a key part of my own “smelling education”. It is a scent that espouses a perfume made without any regard for how it might be received in the wider, commercial market. Full review here.

 

In terms of current availability, I would urge people to sample Ancient Resins, which although technically a body oil, is strong and rich enough to wear as a personal perfume. Very reasonably priced at $40 for 50ml, I am planning to buy this at Christmas, because its meditative resins and balsams are perfect for instilling calm during long bouts of enforced family time.

 

Ancient Resins by Aftelier was developed by perfumer Mandy Aftel in cooperation with, and expressly for, the great Leonard Cohen himself. It smells exactly what you’d think a Zen guy like Leonard Cohen would like – a warm treble base of resins that balances the bitter, cleansing properties of something that might be used in a Shamanic ritual with the dusty smell of wood, paper, and rosin breaking down in old record stores or bookshops. It features an ingredient that I’ve not seen many perfumers work with, namely Balm of Gilead. Full review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Because Mandy Aftel is the mother of the artisanal movement in perfumery, and so her work is what we’d call a safe pair of hands. Her work sits at the tippy top of the quality chain in artisanal perfumery, therefore, although expensive, one sniff will tell you that you’ve found the baseline for judging all quality thereafter. Plus, if you’re a Leonard Cohen fan, wearing Ancient Resins takes on another layer of significance, one almost as reverential as the ancient resins used in the oil itself.

 

La Via del Profumo Oakmoss (Muschio di Querchia)

 

There is little from the hand of Abdes Salaam Attar (Dominique Dubrana) that I don’t at least admire, and quite a few that I love. One of the giants of natural perfumery, Dubrana has now rendered most of his fragrances in attar format, both in keeping with the brand’s original focus on natural attar perfumery and the rising popularity among consumers of high-end artisanal attars (Sultan Pasha et al).

 

I have been testing some of the attars these past few weeks, and can tell you that a) they are superb, and b) they solve the problem that plagues most of the catalog of La Via del Profumo and natural perfumery in general, namely, that of extreme ephemerality. The attar formats of favorite La Via del Profumo scents are rich, strong, and long-lasting; paintings done in oils compared to the pastel work of the EDTs.

 

This is great news for anyone who might have loved the scents but hesitated over plunging $100+ into a fragrance that, while beautiful, doesn’t last more than 3-4 hours on the skin. Lovers of natural perfumery understand and accept the trade-off between all-natural materials and their brief longevity. But with Dubrana’s attars now offering fans the best of both worlds, we don’t have to compromise.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Querchia) is one of my favorite fragrances from La Via del Profumo, and in attar format,

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

allows me hours of pleasure, rolling around and luxuriating in its ripped-from-nature goodness. Far more a vetiver scent than an oakmoss, Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire. It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory: playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.

 

Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze. It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees.

 

The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest. And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort. People have called Oakmoss formal; the kind of scent to wear with a business suit. I can see that, especially in its clipped, almost monolithic elegance. However, the attar is earthier, more sepulchral, and darker-green than the EDT, and reminds me a bit of the way Djedi (Guerlain) and Onda (Vero Profumo) make me feel. Worth saving up for.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Every now and then a perfume comes along to prove that scent is the most evocative sense of all, capable of connecting people in a profound way to memories and feelings they’d thought long-buried. In my experience, when this does happen, it happens mostly with fragrances created by the smaller artisans and independent brands, as opposed to those created by the big masstige or luxury niche brands. Oakmoss is a powerful example of this, for me. It might not tap into the same current of emotion for you as it did for me, since these things are highly personal. But if what you’re seeking is a deeper connection to your personal experience through scent, then artisan perfumes are more likely to spark that for you.

 

Aside from this (quite personal) angle, Oakmoss is special because it has the vivid rawness of an outdoors scene, which is more special to me than a simply luxurious smell. It is similar to both Annick Goutal’s Vetiver (the original) and Etro’s Vetiver, in that it features a salty, ferrous vetiver that pulls no punches. Oakmoss will also appeal to lovers of vintage chypres, especially Chanel’s Pour Monsieur and Givenchy’s Givenchy III. In attar format, it also reminds me somewhat of the rooty, Middle-Earth solemnity of both Onda (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain). Just keep in mind – less of a perfume, more of an experience.

 

St. Clair First Cut

 

There’s a “build it and they will come” model at work in the artisanal food movement, whereby artisans choose one product upon which to build their reputation, invest everything they’ve got in it, and trust that the high-value end users of artisanally-produced food (chefs, restaurants) will absorb it all. This holds true for Diane St. Clair, renowned in the United States for her artisanal butter produced from milk from her small Jersey cattle farm in Vermont. Read more about Diane’s extraordinary back story in Kafkaesque’s comprehensive introduction post here; suffice it to say, with every gram of Diane’s butter bought up in advance by chefs of Thomas Keller calibre, she truly is the Queen of Butter.

 

Like Hans Hendley, Bruno Fazzolari, Annette Neuffer, and quite a few other indie perfumers, Diane St. Clair is an example of an artisan who decided to take her artistry in one field and cross it over into another. The connection between food and perfume is, naturally, that of sensory pleasure, so it follows that Diane St. Clair’ has a talent for perfumery too.

 

But perfume is an incredibly crowded field. The “build it and they will come” model doesn’t quite cut it in a segment where marketing, social media outreach, and YouTube reviews are perhaps two-thirds of getting a perfume to land where it needs to. That leaves the Diane St. Clair scents – as good as they are – at risk at being swallowed up in the great white noise of the perfume scene before they’ve really had a chance to resonate with buyers.

 

To help the brand resonate with potential buyers, bloggers like me have to figure out how to describe them in a way that it will be clear to readers where the scents fit in the larger context of the perfume landscape. The best way I can put it is that the Diane St. Clair scents are subtle portraits of an idealized rural landscape where the cows that give us our milk are all happy, golden creatures, where wildflowers scramble over banks, and nobody has to get up at 4am.

 

It’s not the raw, wild density of Josh Lobb’s American landscape, nor is it the smoky, resinous forests of Laurie Erickson’s imagination, where mighty oaks ooze great fat tears of labdanum and myrrh. Instead, Diane paints an ethereal, almost translucent picture of what we might imagine a Vermont smallholding to be. There’s nothing literal or heavy-handed about the way the bucolic ideal is presented here, though; the perfumes are minutely textured and abstract in a way that shows real vision.

 

First Cut is by far my favorite of the initial releases. Its contrast between prickly aromatics (citrus, lemon verbena, tomato leaf) and the buff creaminess of hay reminded me at first of Jicky, especially in its famous clash of cymbals at the start, citrus and lavender stirred into dirty vanilla, but First Cut is not at all animalic. The dulcet almond tones of the tonka deepen, sweetening and thickening the scent, but the crisp aromatics persist throughout; fans of both Tonka Impériale (Guerlain) and Cologne Blanche (Dior) will appreciate the prickle of rosemary against the smooth expanse of hay here.

 

Although never strictly gourmand, there’s a whipped egg white delicacy of texture to First Cut that recalls the sensation of biting into the soft almond center of pasticche di mandorle, dusted with powdered sugar and aromatized with a drop of Sicilian lemon oil.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Hay fragrances can often stray too far into syrupy richness (Chergui) or sugared grass (Fieno), but First Cut gets the balance just right. It takes me a while, and multiple wears, to realize that the success of the scent lies in the same equation Etat Libre d’Orange figured out for its Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes, which is to say pitched perfectly between sweet and sour, pungent and creamy, hot and cold, like the best South East Asian meal you’ve ever had. 13ml travel sizes of First Cut can be purchased for $65, including shipping in the US, which is not bad at all for an artisanal perfume.

 

April Aromatics Ray of Light

 

April Aromatics, along with Hiram Green, is one of the rare all-natural perfume brands that produce perfumes that feel like proper perfume rather than a mixture of essential oils. Many of my favorites from April Aromatics, like Bohemian Spice and Calling All Angels, rely on a clever use of labdanum to enrich the bases and make them last longer. Tanja Bochnig is a obviously perfumer who has learned to embrace that strange Janus face aspect of labdanum, meaning its psychotic, continuous lurching between parched-leathery and wet-honeyed.

 

Her florals, while slightly less intense, are also rich and durable, with Nectar of Love and Tempted Muse leading the pack. But perhaps the greatest test for any natural perfumer is how they handle The Great Citrus Problem. Citrus notes are short-lived molecules of pure joy, and it is the task of every perfumer to come up with new solutions to make them last beyond 5 minutes. Companies with a broad palette of mixed media materials (both naturals and synthetics) can extend the citrus through layering it over coumarin or oakmoss-replacing materials; see Azemour Les Orangers (Parfum d’Empire) as perhaps the best example of this on the niche side.

 

On the natural end of things, Ray of Light is probably the best I’ve personally encountered. The yuzu-like grapefruit topnote is so riveting that you’ll drop whatever you’re doing just to focus on it. How is this incredible note extended? The best I can tell, it’s done through using mint to bridge it to a slightly bitter, resinous galbanum or hay-like accord in the base. There’s also a candied edge to it reminiscent of the lemon-and-lime flavored chews of my childhood.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Perfume is mood-altering and depression-lifting; none more so than a perfectly-judged citrus. For perfume nerds like me (and hopefully you), the fact that an all-natural citrus perfume that lasts actually exists and that it’s this good is reason enough to smile.

 

 

January Scent Project Selperniku

 

Diane St. Clair might be the Queen of Butter, but John Biebel of January Scent Project made a scent that really smells like butter (and a few other, weird things). Read my full review, here, to get an idea of what Selperniku smells like; if you can make sense of it based on my incoherent ramblings, then more power to you. Better yet, order a sample. And then write to me to tell me what you think it smells like.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Selperniku is the scent that jumps to mind when I think about the central tenet of what sets artisans apart from big brand niche, i.e., the boldness of the original and utterly non-commercial idea. Selperniku might not make the brand any money, and I’m not sure I’d want to wear it as a personal fragrance, but it moves the landscape of fragrance several steps forward. At the very least, it’s a talking point.

 

 

Marina Barcenilla Black Osmanthus

 

Osmanthus is one of those things that smell different in its absolute form than in commercial perfumery. In commercial perfumes (and most high-end niche ones), osmanthus is usually presented as a light apricot-and-suede note. In absolute form, however, it smells like a pungent and creamy Laotian oud oil, with a greasy leather undertone and a winey, damascenone-rich fruitiness. Because osmanthus petals are so tiny, you have to collect a lot of them to fill the still, so the petals sit (and rot slightly) in water until enough petals have been gathered for distillation. This process, similar to the pre-soaking of oud wood chips for at least 10 days before distilling, gives the resulting oil the animalic twang of fermentation.

 

Marina Barcenilla’s Black Osmanthus doesn’t veer away from the animalic, fermented leather side of osmanthus absolute, but instead embraces it. Probably much influenced by the dank, oudy pungency of the osmanthus absolute in Auphorie’s Miyako, the scent that famously revived Luca Turin’s interest in blogging, Barcenilla sets about exploring the less polite aspects of this most expensive material, framing it with a host of equally pungent materials – Indian tuberose, myrrh, saffron, bay rum. This has the effect of “de-floralizing” the osmanthus, shearing off all the pretty apricot nuances until all that’s left is rubber, smoke, pepper, and the metallic smell of rain hitting the red earth of India. The drydown reads like an extended essay on myrrh, bringing its savory, wet-soil gloom to the fore.

 

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re fed up with the stultifying serenity of florals as presented by big brand niche, take a walk on the wild side with the indies and naturals – they’re the ones that will show you the surprisingly non-floral, non-pretty face of all those flowers you think you’ve been smelling.

 

Natural jasmine, osmanthus, even rose – these are all materials that are rarely found in commercial perfumery anymore due to expense or low yields. Indies and artisans are a holdout for working with natural raw materials to any substantial degree, because they work with small batches and don’t care about stretching the formula to fill 100,000 bottles. Sample Black Osmanthus because it’s the real face of osmanthus, the one you rarely see. If you’re intrigued by this, then you’ll know you’re ready for exploring some of the other ugly-beautiful faces of flowers in the artisan arena.  Cue Matrix quote: “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

 

Slumberhouse New Sibet

 

Slumberhouse fragrances are fetishized in certain parts of the community, so hardly needs no talking up by little old me. But for people who didn’t jive with the original aesthetic of Slumberhouse – dense, syrupy New Gothic Americana – and thus allowed their interest to drift away from the house, might be brought back into the fold by New Sibet, a scent that marks a stylistic departure for Josh Lobb and the house.

 

Underneath the otherworldly chill of orris meeting the gamey funk of leather, New Sibet has a classical bone structure. The gears shift midway through its trajectory, transitioning so soundlessly from Slumberhouse weirdness to a Caronesque leathery carnation that it unnerves the wearer. The dusty coldness that permeates from head to toe gilds the scent with a silvery edge that feels like breathing in dry ice.

 

New Sibet is unusual in that it exhibits almost human intelligence; sometimes it is a cool-toned, ashy leather, other times it seems rather ripe, buttery, and pungent, and occasionally, it smells resolutely classical, like a beguiling mash-up of Tabac Blond and L’Air du Temps. It’s gloriously weird, borderline unwearable, and absolutely beautiful.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Along with Feu Secret by Bruno Fazzolari, New Sibet is the rare example of an artisan fragrance that turns our traditional idea of iris on its head, rather than simply allowing the beauty of the material to do all the talking, as is the norm.

 

 

Pekji Battaniye

 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Amber fragrances are a sort of rite of passage in the first few years of one’s fragrance journey; they are un-challenging, simple in structure, and offer the kind of dopey sweetness that’s hard to pass up on when you’re in need of warmth. But what makes ambers so attractive is also what limits them. One you’ve amassed two or three of the amber stalwarts, it’s hard to find a variation that innovates or improves on the basic model to the point where you’d be happy shelling out for another.

 

Battaniye is that rare amber that does something new with an old idea. Meaning blanket in Turkish, Battaniye was made to evoke the feeling of restfulness and comfort of having an old wool blanket pulled over your lap, while you watch the rain bucket down outside. Omer Pekji took his inspiration from a stormy evening in Trabzon, in his native Turkey, a town on the Silk Road that served as the gateway to Persia.

 

The scent opens on a remarkable note of burned coffee grounds, before smoothing out into a dry, whiskeyish amber that reads more like fabric – leather, sheep’s wool, hessian – than resin. In fact, it does rather smell like an old afghan or perhaps a man’s battered leather jacket, something that you absentmindedly pull onto your bare knees and then spend the rest of the evening inhaling the rich humanity of smells bound up in its fibers.

 

Battaniye achieves a textured, layered feeling of warmth without ever spiraling into gooey sweetness, or at the other end of the scale, the sort of parched dryness that wears on the spirit. It’s a masculine scent, and slightly animalic in parts, a core of medicinal Peau d’Espagne-style leather hiding out in layers of wool, resin, and cool, wet earth. Once the TCP-like nuances of the leather burn off, the patchouli really piles into the scent in a big way, reminding me of the evocative smell of rain on soil. This is a scent that just gets better and better as it ages on the skin.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: It’s hard to do something with amber that a) diverges from the basic model of sweet, resinous warmth, and b) doesn’t in any way call to mind the spice-rack ambers of the Middle East. Battaniye shuffles the spirit of oily, macho Peau d’Espagne-style leathers into an ever-shifting deck of resin, wool, and earth, for a result that both comforts and pulls on an emotional string.

 

It’s masculine but not macho, dry but not desiccated, exotic but not souk-ish, and finally, evocative but not challenging. Battaniye solves a lot of problems inherent in amber scents, and thus might be the baby bear’s porridge of amber for many fragrance fans. Devotees of By Kilian’s Amber Oud and Tauer’s Lonestar Memories will want to sample.

 

 

Providence Perfume Cocoa Tuberose

 

Chocolate, like coffee, is one of those things that smells amazing in real life and borderline disgusting in perfume. Overly burnt, harsh, syrupy – these are all charges laid at the door of coffee and chocolate perfumes, be they natural or mixed media. But Cocoa Tuberose is very clever; it hints at the topnotes of dark chocolate (brandy, dried plum, red earth, dust) without ever tipping into the faintly metallic, period blood-like animalism that lurks beneath, or worse, adding cream and sugar to bloat it up and dumb it down.

 

I put this down to the surprisingly subtle influence of the tuberose, which shows up only as a faintly rubbery, vegetal note that throws a net over the chocolate and controls it. Hints of dry tobacco add a sexy, rugged accent very much like the animalic tobacco-chocolate-black tea triad in Sammarco’s Bond-T. The overall effect is of a dark, dusty richness born not of flowers and chocolate, but of cardboard, solvent, old houses, and libraries.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Sexy and evocative, Cocoa Tuberose is a rare natural perfume that transcends the limits of its constituent materials. It won’t hit you over the head with either cocoa or tuberose, but instead explores what those things feel like in a wider, more perfumey context. For people who prefer less “on-the-nose” florals like Le Labo Iris 39, this is a must-try. Hurry though – I hear Cocoa Tuberose is on the chopping block.

 

 

Stora Skuggan Silphium

 

Silphium demonstrates the endearingly nerdy interest of some artisans in repurposing old materials and traditions for modern ends; Antonio Gardoni, perfumer of Bogue, created Maai, for example, when he discovered a stash of barrels of vintage raw materials in a disused warehouse. In the case of Silphium, Stora Skuggan wanted to create the scent of Silphium, an ancient plant native to modern-day Libya that was used for medicinal purposes in Ancient Greece. Pedanius Dioscorides, in 70 BC, described Silphium as having a “very healthy aroma”, and it’s possible that it was used as a contraceptive or even an aid to abortion.

 

The perfumers, probably working off the information that Silphium may have been related to fennel or asafetida, built an accord that smells like an ancient salve made from sweeping armfuls of culinary herbs and spices off the rack. But whatever medicinal pungency might have resulted from this is mitigated by the cheerful zing of freshly-grated ginger root, which sluices the dense herbal canopy with heat and sunshine. Indeed, layered with a fizzing incense note, Silphium smells more like a good mood than the inside of Hippocrates’ medicine chest, and that’s a good thing.

 

The clove and black pepper accents rev up the spicy and metallic aspects of the Silphium accord, making it feel half-clean, half-sweaty. Crucially, there’s no amber or vanilla to blunt the spice, so things never get maudlin or, shudder, creamy. It does, however, smell incredibly soapy in a happy, effervescent way. Although Silphium doesn’t really remind me of any other perfume, I’m confident that anyone who loves the sooty, airy incense in Timbuktu (L’Artisan Parfumeur), the clovey resins of Eau Lente (Diptyque), and the luxurious soapiness of Castile (Penhaligon’s) would also love this scent.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Love the ancient herbs and spice rack authenticity of the earlier Diptyque scents? Silphium nails it, and is an indie to boot.

 

 

Hiram Green Shangri La

 

Some all-natural perfumes sacrifice aeration for wholesomeness, leaving the perfume feeling overly dense and “brownish” in aura. Then, when the main show of force is over, they evaporate into the ether. What, pay €150 for sludge that lasts 30 minutes? Nope, I require both beauty and lift, which is why I usually prefer mixed media perfumes over all-natural. However, there are a couple of artisan brands whose all-natural perfumes slip past my cynicism barrier and make it to “must buy” status, and Hiram Green is one of those.

 

Florals are, I suspect, slightly easier to arrange in the context of natural perfumery; many absolutes and essential oils, like jasmine, rose, and ylang, are complex aromas in their own right, and the trick then becomes how to best manage their behavior in the final composition. But chypres, which involve a complex arrangement of bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss, are difficult to achieve, especially in a day and age when real oakmoss is restricted.

 

Shangri La pulls it off. A dry but lush chypre with an aged peach saké topnote, it has the rubied, velvety bitterness of a Mitsouko or Femme without any the compromises one has to make for the modern-day versions. Plus, it’s all-natural, although Shangri La is so good that you forget all about its worthiness. Full review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: A proper fruity chypre with a properly mossy drydown priced at €39 for a travel size? Come on, I’ve laid riskier bets than that at our local greyhound track.

 

Francesca Bianchi Under My Skin

 

Together with Siberian Musk (Areej Le Doré), Francesca Bianchi’s Under My Skin was my favorite fragrance in 2017, but it’s kind of silly to confine perfumes to years, because I have the feeling that this would make my list every year. Under My Skin smells of intimacy in the best way possible, an idealized notion of milky sweat, buttery baby skin, worn suede, and old wood. Original review here.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: If you’re attracted to the special, private smells common to a loving household or family, then skip the much-vaunted L’Air de Rien by Miller Harris, now reformulated down to a small, pungent amber, and come right to the door of an artisan who’s doing it all right. It is both atmospheric, in the way it paints a picture of the collected smells of a place – a bed, a room, a library – and intensely human, in the way it captures the private, milky scent of much-loved skin. It’s basically the kind of human fur perfume that Guerlain should still be doing but isn’t.

 

 

Hans Hendley Mown

 

Many artisan perfumers come to fragrance by way of another art or artisanal profession, such as photography, graphic design, jazz music, poetry, jewelry-making, or small-batch artisanal food production: Bruno Fazzolari, Diane St. Clair, Annette Neuffer, and Hans Hendley are all prominent examples of this sort of crossover. A surprising number of them started out in the field of science and chemistry: Andy Tauer, Sven Pritzkoleit, and Spyros Drosopoulos all came with a professional curiosity about scent molecules and how they behave (scientifically or not) in a composition.

 

Obviously, the desire to create is one that spills feverishly over boundaries and finds cracks in the pavement through which to sprout. The artisan sector is where cross-pollination thrives; it gets strangled in the bigger niche and mainstream segments of the market.

 

Not all art is good just because it is art, just like not everything an artisan makes is intrinsically superior to what’s offered in the mainstream. I like Hans Hendley perfumes because they are artistic without being pretentious or inaccessible to a more general public taste. I would describe his style as Slumberhouse-esque, inspired by rugged, outdoorsy smells such as “pine, cedar, oak, forest floor, daffodil flowers (narcissus), honeysuckle, sage, tomato leaf, fresh bread, sawdust, smoke and the secretly amazing smell of gasoline[8] but much lighter than Slumberhouse and with a use of “radiant” woody-ambery basenotes.

 

Mown encapsulates both facets of the Hans Hendley style well. It features a damp, nutty hay accord interspersed with the dried fruit and bitter cocoa notes of curing tobacco, with a result that is syrupy, rich, and almost edible. However, layered over a radiant woody amber that smells like shards of wood impregnated with resin, smeared with honey, and left outside in the sun to dry, there is enough “burnt” in the scent’s structure to keep it buoyant. Powdery orris helps tilt the scent towards the dry, bitter “grassy” aspects of the harvest line. There’s even a toasted note in there that calls to mind cereals laid out on hay to dry out in the sun.

 

Before the woody amber sets itself on fire in the base, we have time for a whistle-stop tour of the tobacco curing shed. The dried fruit richness of the start mimics the chocolatey dampness of un-cured tobacco leaves, which smell like they’ve been dipped in fruitcake soaking liquor, before becoming green and waxy, similar to the smell of beeswax absolute.  But as the scent dries out, so too do the sheaves of tobacco, honeycomb transitioning into the crackling nuttiness of 100% cured tobacco leaf, red-gold at the edges and barely sweet. The base is what marks Mown out as related to other powerfully dry, woody perfumes such as Woodcut by Olympic Orchids, Eau My Soul by 4160 Tuesdays, and Hendley’s own Bourbon. At $28 for a 9ml travel spray, Mown has to be one of the best deals on the market if you love the earthy smells of the harvest.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Because if you’re a young professional living in the city, you’ll always feel a tug of yearning for wide open spaces and rusticana. You see the countryside as wholesome and freeing, an imagined space into which to pour all your longing. The perfume landscape is dotted here and there with visionary perfumers who see the wildness of non-urbanized spaces as the refuge of authenticity; Slumberhouse, Hands Hendley, and Diane St. Clair are all artisans who create pictures of the (predominantly American) rural scene, albeit filtered through a very sophisticated, and in the case of Hans Hendley, Big City aesthetic.

 

Mown will strike a chord with those who love earthy harvest scents: honey, hay, tobacco, grains, grass, cereals, etc. It is built along the same lines as Erawan (Dusita), Agartha (April Aromatics), and Slowdive (Hiram Green), but distinguished by its potently dry, radiant woodiness. It might also be an option for those looking to replace the now-defunct Tabac Aurea (Sonoma Scent Studio), or the more expensive Tobacco by Frank Broclet.

 

Bruno Fazzolari Au Dela Narcisse

 

Au Dela Narcisse deserves the kind of “classic green floral” status as Chanel No. 19 or Guerlain’s Chamade. Revolving around a honeyed, animalic narcissus and a dulcet jasmine, Au Dela has a brisk modern feel, but none of the clipped formality of either the Chanel or the Guerlain. The opening moments – a clustering of green notes that manage to be simultaneously crisp and nectarous – are truly riveting, and though the jasmine that follows is a hair too honeyed for my taste, the overall impression is of a green floral chypre, a feat that’s none too easy to accomplish in an oakmoss-limited era.

 

What I appreciate most about Au Dela Narcisse is that it is the rare green floral that doesn’t feel ramrod stiff. It has a sexy, tousled feel to it, as if Chamade had rolled around with a lover on a bed of wild, honeyed narcissi for hours and is now pleasantly drowsy.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: Anyone unhappy with the current state of Chamade (Guerlain), Vol de Nuit (Guerlain), or No. 19 (Chanel) could switch to this and not feel the sting, apart from a slight lack of chypric bitterness. There are distinct parallels between Au Dela Narcisse and both Romanza (Masque Milano Fragranze) and Le Temps d’Un Fete (Parfums de Nicolai), so if the former is too bitter or animalic, and the latter too unavailable, the Bruno Fazzolari would be a more than satisfactory replacement. Travel sizes of 9ml sometimes appear on the brand’s website too.

 

Bogue MEM, Vero Profumo Naja, & Papillon Dryad

 

Last but not least, I’d like to mention three of the artistic standouts of last year, all three released at around the same time in Spring 2017, and all three still defining the heights to which artisanal perfumery can scale. I’ve reviewed them already, in this post here, but I’d like to talk here specifically about the aspects that make these three perfumes in particular so significant, in terms of artisanal perfumery and in perfumery in general.

 

Vero Profumo Naja is significant because the sheer ambitious scale of the perfume belies the humble beginnings of the brand, as the brain child of a woman who worked for Swissair until she was 54. Although largely self-taught (another key feature of the artisan scene being that its perfumers don’t go through the formal route of a Grasse education), Vero Kern’s fragrances are all built in the grand, sweeping manner of the Guerlain, Chanel, and Caron classics.

 

But where the greats of classic perfumery have all degraded into pale versions of their former glory, or stagnated in the artistic sense, Vero’s fragrances continue to grow in scope and depth. Naja is a strange green-gold osmanthus leather scent that’s almost too complex to categorize except for a passing nod to Tabac Blond and Habanita. But truthfully, Naja transcends and surpasses its antecedents. It’s the kind of perfume we’ll still be using as a reference 50 years from now, and guess what, an artisan made it.

 

Papillon is an outfit that I’m guessing many consumers would mistake for high-end niche rather than artisan, because of the extraordinarily high gloss finish of the perfumes and the artistic self-assurance of its perfumer, Liz Moores. But in fact, Papillon is an artisan outfit through and through, Liz Moores doing everything herself from the sourcing of materials and creating the formula to bottling, packaging, and shipping. Her 2017 release, Dryad, demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that a talent for perfumery is innate rather than taught. Encompassing the cantilevered depth of vintage Vol de Nuit, the chilly smoothness of No. 19, and the leathery wickedness of Bandit, you could tell us that Dryad sprang from the loins of Germaine Cellier or Jacques Guerlain, and we’d believe it.

 

Bogue Mem is a perfume event in the landscape of perfumery, whether you like it or not (and many did not). A perfume of such astonishing complexity it requires repeat wearings to break it all down, it is essentially a riff on lavender that meanders through burnt marmalade, malt, hay, and the low tide stench of ambergris. But the important thing about Mem is that after it’s finished – a good 12-14 hours after you’ve applied it – you think to yourself, boy, now that was an experience. It’s as twisty as a good telenovela, but nutrient-dense, cerebral. Wear this if you want the perfume equivalent of watching The Unusual Suspects or Inception for the first time.

 

Why you should take a leap of faith: These are three artisans at the top of their game, artistically and career-wise; sample their work to track the trajectory they took to get there and to pay witness to the extraordinary complexity and polish that’s possible from the hands of self-taught perfumers.

 

 

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/designer-perfumes-niche-fragrance-collections-are-the-heaviest-hitter-in-the-business-a7052226.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/designer-perfumes-niche-fragrance-collections-are-the-heaviest-hitter-in-the-business-a7052226.html

[3] “Luxury for the Masses”, authored by Michael J. Silverstein & Neil Fiske, April 2003 issue, Harvard Business Review, accessed through https://hbr.org/2003/04/luxury-for-the-masses

[4] http://www.artandolfactionawards.org/submission/artisan/

[5] http://www.artandolfactionawards.org/submission/independent/

[6] http://www.mediative.com/2018-digital-trends-9-artisanal-advertising/

[7] https://www.afponline.org/trends-topics/topics/articles/Details/why-should-finance-be-buzzing-about-artisanal-trends

[8] https://www.theolfactive.com/hendleyperfumes/

The Business of Perfume Thoughts

The Business of Perfume: Demographics, Gender, and Influence

23rd May 2018

 

Who is buying perfume? Why are they buying it? Are their reasons for buying perfume different based on gender, culture, profession, or geographical location? And who or what is influencing them to buy?

 

These are not easy questions to answer. Perfume is a difficult product to pin down because it straddles two categories at once: it is both a functional product (designed to make you smell good) and an aspirational lifestyle product like a watch or a car – the reflection of a personal and complex interwebbing of desire, imagination, and ambition.

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