One big misconception I have come across while exploring the world of oil-based perfumery concerns purity. Attars, mukhallats, oud oils, and concentrated perfume oils (CPOs) are, technically speaking, pure perfumes because they do not contain alcohol or stabilizers. However, many people have interpreted the moniker ‘pure perfume’ to mean that attars are botanically pure or even all-natural.
Forget that, please. Although this may still be the case for traditionally-distilled Indian attars made in a deg and bhapka, it is certainly not true for most modern Indian ‘attars’, dupe oils, and Middle-Eastern mukhallats. And when it comes to American indie perfume oils or the big luxury niche perfume oil producers, you may be certain that they are composed using as precise a formula of synthetics and naturals as a commercial perfume.
The term for a blend of synthetics and naturals in any perfume formula is mixed media. Most oil-based perfumes on the market are actually mixed media perfumes. If you visualize all oil-based perfumery as a pie chart, a sliver of the pie represents the traditionally-distilled attars and artisanal ouds, the largest portion of the pie represents mixed media perfumes, and a modest but sizeable wedge represents the all-synthetic oil perfumes, which are the dupes, cheapies, and drugstore roll-ons.
Many people are surprised to hear that attars and mukhallats can and do contain synthetics. It goes against the exotic image that these perfumes enjoy. But in fact, modern Indian attar makers and Middle-Eastern perfume companies are as enthusiastic consumers of synthetic aromachemicals as any other segment of the fragrance industry. One attar company, Swiss Arabian, is so-called because of its fondness for, and patronage of, Givaudan, the massive Swiss company that supplies a broad range of synthetics, natural raw materials, and flavorings to the food and fragrance industries.
Therefore, while it is true that pure oud oils and traditional Indian attars do not contain aromachemicals synthesized in laboratories, most modern attars, mukhallats, and concentrated perfume oils do. Even some of Amouage’s world-famous and now sadly discontinued attars contained, to varying degrees, synthetics. Indeed, considering how heavy or muddy all-natural compositions can be, many are improved by them. Lift, space between molecules, expansiveness – these are all things afforded by synthetic aromachemicals.
Try not to let this bother you. The ‘clean beauty’ trend in cosmetics and fragrance, coupled with the mold-on-a-wall blooming of pseudoscience on the Internet (promoted and perpetuated by cynical influencers), has imbued words such as ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ with a largely irrational, emotive power that transcends the facts to become a strange brew of personal values, beliefs, or branding.
It has often been said but bears repeating anyway: ‘synthetic’ does not equal ‘bad’, just as ‘natural’ does not equal ‘good’. Arsenic is a natural that, I think we can agree, should never make it into a face mask or a suppository. (Cross all fingers and toes that not even Gwyneth Paltrow is that dopey). Atorvastatin, the drug my husband takes to control his high cholesterol, is a life-saver – and entirely synthetic. Unfortunately, with the rise of pseudoscience in the cosmetics arena, words like ‘synthetic’ and ‘chemical’ have become the C words of modern parlance. Given that everything we consume and see, and touch is made up of chemicals (air, water, etc.), including, of course, the very products touted as ‘clean beauty’, this is all very stupid indeed.
Readers will surely have their own feelings on the issue of naturals versus synthetics, but unless you are sensitive to a particular synthetic aromachemical that makes you want to tear your own skin off with your teeth, there is no reason for this to become the ideological hill you die on. What we can agree to do is to assign the words ‘synthetic’ and ‘chemical’ a negative value only when there is a nasty aftertaste to a perfume, or an awkward edge that denotes poor or clumsy use of a synthetic. For example, I am particularly sensitive to Ambroxan, a synthetic ambergris replacer. When massively overdosed in a composition, as in Dior Sauvage, all I smell is musky, radiant pain. Yet, when sensitively dosed, or tucked away into a far off corner of the fragrance, as in Eau Duelle eau de parfum (Diptyque), I find it lovely – like cold, juniper-scented air.
In other words, synthetics are a bit like children in that there are no bad children, only bad parents (i.e., some perfumers, the brands who set the briefs for perfumers, but also, to be fair, market trends that must be catered to, such as the depressingly modern demand for perfumes so strong and so radiant that you can taste them in the back of your throat)[i]. Synthetics and naturals are simply inert materials, sitting there waiting to be animated into something by a perfumer. In the reviews section, therefore, if I say that an oil smells synthetic, understand that I am not attaching any value judgment to the use of synthetics versus naturals but rather to its dosage in a blend or a lack of finesse in blending. That is all.
Note that the issue of natural versus synthetic perfumery is generally not as important to consumers in India and the Middle-East as it is in the West. In the Middle-East, consumers are generally more concerned with what the finished perfume smells like than with the naturalness or purity of each of the ingredients. They like perfume to smell amazing and strong, and the devil may care what makes it so. Many customers in the United Arab Emirates, for example, place a premium on oudy mukhallats smelling convincingly of Indian (Hindi) oud and are not overly concerned about the blending or stretching out with other oils that needs to occur for this to be economically feasible.
Likewise, in India today, young men and women are increasingly apt to choose lighter, Western-style oil perfumes made in the modern manner, i.e., with lots of synthetics to achieve an effect that runs as close as possible to the original designer perfumes that lie outside of their financial reach. Indeed, traditional distilled attars and ruhs are rather unpopular among young Indians, because they are viewed as old-fashioned, heavy, or too ‘Indian-smelling’.
Some real talk, though. The higher the price for any attar or mukhallat, the better the raw ingredients are likely to be. There is a much higher correlation between price and quality in attar and mukhallat perfumery than in Western commercial perfumery. The further we climb past a certain price point – say a hundred dollars per tola – the more likely it is that the oud or rose or jasmine or ambergris featured in the perfume will be real. And as the price climbs, so too does the quantity of the expensive raw material used in the blend.
Given the extraordinary cost of raw materials such as pure jasmine oil, oud, or ambergris, this is just common sense. A ‘pure sandal’ attar costing ten dollars for three milliliters will not be real Indian sandalwood, but rather a mix of modern sandalwood replacer synthetics such as Ebanol or Javanol blended with a non-Santalum album oil. But the sandalwood used in a sample of mitti attar that costs approximately twenty-five dollars for one millimeter is assuredly real sandalwood from the Mysore region of India.
Some high-end attars, mukhallats, and CPOs are all-natural, and some are mixed media. Sometimes, there is no way of telling. One possible indicator is the ‘perfumey-ness’ of an oil. The more perfumey an oil is, the more likely it is that synthetic materials have been used to achieve lift or volume, or an abstract quality. Often there will be a trace of something to round out a blend, lend a tactile quality (muskiness, smokiness, etc.). Either way, the only impact the use of synthetics should have on your personal wearing experience is how expertly (or otherwise) they have been used in the overall blend.
Beware the masking power of exoticism. Western consumers tend to regard anything Arabian-looking as ‘exotic’ and therefore intrinsically superior to anything we can buy locally. But there is as much cheap, shoddily-made crap on the Arabian perfume oil market as there is on the shelves of your local department store. The more you smell, the more you know. In the meantime, try to resist being blinded by the romance of those dinky, gold-topped tola bottles or anything in Arabic script. ‘Exoticism’, or perceived exoticism, is not in and of itself a meaningful harbinger of quality.
Lastly, a word to the wise on the issue of market segmentation. Most big Indian and Emirati perfume companies segment their market by income and social class, and then make perfumes to cater to each of those segments, as happy to make perfume oils for the lowly clerk as for Sheikhs. Therefore, it is not unusual to find something as beautiful and costly as Ajmal’s Mukhallat Dehn al Oud Moattaq – priced at three hundred dollars for seventeen millimeters – rubbing shoulders with the same company’s Al Wisal, a trashy synthetic rose oud you can pick up for twenty dollars. Arabian Oud, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Ajmal, Al Haramain, Rasasi et al produce a broad range of perfume oils to suit every pocketbook and social class. Buy what you can afford and use price (as well as this Attar Guide) to help you find your comfort level.
Naturally, a bit of common sense is called for too. Don’t expect, for example, an oud-based oil in the lower brackets of a company’s catalogue to contain much in the way of real oud. Due to its rarity and cost, it is just not financially feasible to use real oud in a perfume that costs thirty dollars. However, an oud mukhallat in the higher-priced ranges of a company’s catalogue, costing upwards of a hundred dollars per tola, will contain a quantity of the real thing.
A few companies avoid this ‘all sizes catered to’ strategy, choosing instead to throw their weight at one single market segment. This includes Amouage, the prestigious Omani firm that focuses on a Westernized luxury segment of the market to the exclusion of all else, and, at the other end of the scale, Surrati, which seems to have entirely thrown its lot in with the cheap dupes and generic perfume oil ‘types’. In the American indie perfume oil sector, brands are all gunning for the same customer segment, which is mostly price-inflexible young women with an anti-mainstream bent, who are generally unwilling to pay over forty dollars for a five milliliter bottle of oil.
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] An exception to this ‘no bad child’ rule might be Norlimbanol, a brutal woody synthetic that smells like eggy farts trapped in a rubber glove. This one should have been drowned at birth.