Are you mystified by mukhallats, confused by concentrated perfume oils, anxious about attars, open-mouthed at oud, and dithering on dupes? You are not alone. The world of oil perfumery spans a vast territory from the squidge of artisanal oud that will set you back a month’s rent to the Kuumba Made roll-on you lob into your cart with the toilet paper.
I have written this Attar Guide to help you make sense of it all. Over the next few weeks (or months), I’ll be uploading chapters of the Guide right here on Takeonethingoff, starting with a primer on attars, ruhs, mukhallats, and concentrated perfume oils, and seguing into actual reviews. Stick with me, and by the end, you will be able to buy oils with confidence, secure in the knowledge that you know what goes into making them and why they cost what they do. You will be a smarter, tougher consumer, able to look past the flashy exoticism of those little gold-capped tola bottles and spot the true gems.
The Guide sets out to do two things. Its first purpose is educational. Not all oils were created equal, and this will give you the tools you need to tell the difference. I want you to saunter into the marketplace with the confidence that comes from knowing why one perfume costs thirty-five dollars per millimeter and another only two.
The second purpose of the Guide is critical. By this, I mean in-depth reviews of a cross-section of oils offered by brands active in each segment of the market, with the aim of sorting out, for you (the reader), the good from the bad, and the sublime from the ridiculous. I am going to blow open the doors to the often mysterious and ill-lit world of oil-based perfumery, and answer the question that rarely gets answered to my satisfaction, which is: what does it actually smell like?
The Attar Guide is by no means exhaustive. Seven hundred (give or take) oil-based perfumes is a decent sample size, but still just the tip of the iceberg. Turnover in the oil-based perfume world is intense – what takes your fancy today might not be available to buy tomorrow. Treat this Guide as you would a dog-eared copy of the Lonely Plant Guide you find on a bus seat. It still identifies – in broad strokes – the top two or three places in a country worth visiting but features information that was going stale even while the ink was drying.
However, for someone who is interested in oil-based perfumes, this Guide could prove very useful indeed. The genre is so bewilderingly huge that anything that points you in one direction or the other is welcome. After all, whether you are already knee-deep in the oil-based perfume world, or just starting out, then you will already have discovered just how expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating a journey it can be.
First, the cost of entry is high. Samples of attars are not as widely available as designer scents and even the smallest size bottle (quarter of a tola or roughly three milliliters) can run into the hundreds of dollars, especially if oud or ambergris is involved. A quarter gram sample of pure artisanal oud can cost up to forty dollars, and even then, you are relying on the vendor’s description to figure out whether you will like it or not. At this level of investment, trying to find something that will be exactly to your taste is fraught with danger.
Sampling within the indie perfume oil world is much easier, not to mention cheaper. This is because the indie oil scene is dominated by companies in North America, a culture where sampling is regarded as a democratic birthright, in comparison to Europe, where Sales Assistants seem to have always ‘just run out’ the moment you ask. Americans simply expect that reasonably-priced samples are provided as part of the ‘try before you buy’ portion of the sales funnel. (We would be foaming at the mouth with jealousy were it not for fact that we’ve seen what their healthcare system entails).
Second, exploration of attar perfumery can be difficult because there is often a dearth of information on what these oils actually smell like. The official notes published by most of the big houses like Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Ajmal are vague, incomplete, or just plain wrong. In the American indie perfume oil world, we have the opposite problem. Purple-prosed product descriptions running to half a page are not uncommon, as well as notes lists so comprehensive that one suspects they contain the actual formula. While the sparse descriptions for Arabian attars leave the buyer grasping at straws, the descriptions in the indie perfume oil sector give too much information, creating unrealistic expectations in the mind of the buyer as to how the perfume will actually smell.
The exception to the problem of too much or too little product information is the artisanal oil niche. In recent years, there has been a significant upsurge in the number of artisanal attars hitting the market. Largely ushered in by the market-storming popularity of distill-it-yourself brands like Ensar Oud, Bortnikoff, and Areej Le Doré, these attars have attained the exclusivity and cachet formerly only associated with luxury brands such as Roja Dove and Clive Christian. Perhaps sensing a small but noticeable shift in luxury or high-net-worth consumer interest in oil-based perfumes, many luxury and high-end indie brands, from Xerjoff and Clive Christian to Auphorie, now have their own lines of attars.
Because it attracts mostly genuine fragrance connoisseurs, attars in this segment of the market tend to be very well reviewed and described. The 313-page (and counting) Basenotes thread on Areej Le Dore is proof of this, as are the wonderfully detailed reviews and interviews with attar and oud artisans on blogs such as Kafkaesque and Persolaise. However, for most everything falling to the left or the right of this narrow niche, you are largely at the mercy of fulsome marketing copy or the odd mention on an Internet forum (such as the Oudh Ud Aoud Oud Agarwood thread on Basenotes. or the Ouddict forums).
Of course, blind buying is exciting. Nothing tops the thrill of stumbling over an oil that makes the heart beat a little faster. As in any situation where you cannot easily test the product or even find out very much about it in advance, the only benchmark turns out to be the question ‘Do I like this?’ But for the risk-averse or those who do not have a bottomless well of money to gamble away, well, that risk is a serious barrier.
For many, these are hurdles not worth jumping over and the interest stops there. After all, if you are about to spend several hundred dollars or a thousand dollars on an unknown oil, then you want as much information about it before whipping out your credit card. One wouldn’t invest in a horse or a husband before inspecting its undercarriage, and the same due diligence applies here. Too often, the simple question, ‘What does it smell like?’ is not answered to my satisfaction. I assume it is the same for you. And that is why I have written this Guide.
The Attar Guide has been ‘under development’ for roughly six year now, but, as with most efforts like this, it has not happened in a vacuum. Over the years, I have had the immense good fortune of learning from true experts in the field.
First of all, any guide or book on fragrance owes a great debt of gratitude to the work of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, the parents of modern fragrance criticism. Their books both popularized and legitimized the notion of fragrance criticism, elevating it beyond the sphere of influence traditionally dominated by glossy magazine editors and salespeople. Beyond this, Luca Turin has been a wonderfully supportive, kind, and only occasionally bitchy friend to me over the years.
Then there are the experts in raw materials. I have been fortunate to learn at the knee of Mandy Aftel, the mother of natural perfumery, as well as Christopher McMahon of (the now sadly closed) White Lotus Aromatics and Trygve Harris of Enfleurage – people with inarguably the most first-hand experience of essential oil production in the world. Their books, writings, interviews, and explorations have been instrumental to me in understanding how raw materials are produced and how they behave in compositions. Michelle Krell Kyd of Glasspetalsmoke, a well-respected educator who uses natural science to explain olfaction, has also been a fantastic source of learning for me and many others. If you are lucky enough to live in Michigan, please sign up to one of her Smell and Tell, or Taste and Tell workshops.
I would like to thank Grant Osborne of Basenotes for not only inviting me to author several articles and interviews for Basenotes over the years, but for just being good people in general. Always kind, supportive, and fair-minded, Grant is tireless in his dedication to making Basenotes a welcoming home for fragrance enthusiasts. The length of my articles recently forced him to adjust the code for how long an article can be on Basenotes, which is something I’m inordinately proud of.
Other friends are Franco Wright of Luckyscent and Sjorn Plitzko of Essenza Nobile who have not only employed me as a writer over the years, but generously supplied me with friendship, advice, samples of oil-based perfumes, and valuable insight into the commercial side of the perfume world. Speaking of Franco, the late, great Jtd (Connor McTeague) was the person who introduced us. Connor was the best writer I have had the pleasure of knowing and I miss him sharply. (I am not sure that it is correct to say ‘sharply’ here but that is how it feels).
On Instagram, the place to which much of today’s fragrance discussion has moved, I would also like to draw attention to the efforts of perfumer-slash-activist Christophe Laudamiel, Pranjal Kapoor (one of the key distillers of raw materials and attars in India, supplying perfumers and fragrance brands), and Scent Festival, an account run by Yosh Han, to raise awareness of cultural, social, and equity costs connected to the production of raw materials. Together, they are working to dispel some of the smoke and mirrors around perfumery. It is often eye-opening stuff.
My heartfelt thanks go to the countless individual artisans like Ensar Oud, Russian Adam, J.K. DeLapp, Taha Syed, Ws of Kyara Zen, Dominique Dubrana of Abdes Salaam Attar, Abdullah of Mellifluence, Sultan Pasha, and the folks at Al Shareef Oudh and Imperial Oud, who have all spent considerable amounts of time and money in educating my humble nose. Many of these artisans sweat it out in some of the world’s most inhospitable places to produce exquisite raw materials. The very act of making attars, mukhallats, or pure oud oils is an expensive, messy, and all-consuming. That some of this labor of love has made it onto my skin is something for which I will never not be grateful.
Finally, though I was unable to convince any publisher that a book on oil-based perfumery could be marketable to anyone beyond a tiny band of people inside an already narrow niche, I am immensely grateful for the support and advice shared with me by Dominique Brunel and Jeanne Doré of Nez, La Revue Olfactive, the most important and prestigious publication on perfumery and raw materials today, and Barbara Herman, author of the wonderful book ‘Scent and Subversion’ (as well as founder of Eris Parfums). What I’ve learned is that publishing is a tough sell, unless you already have a platform, a name to trade on, or a quantifiable market that you know will buy your book. Since I lack most of those things, I have made the decision to put the Guide out there myself, on the one platform I do have, which is Takeonethingoff. I figure that I owe it to all the wonderful people who have given their own time and resources to help me write this Guide, as well as to anybody who is searching for attar-specific content and not finding it elsewhere.
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.