For a brief introduction to everything earthy, herbal, spicy or aromatic in attar, mukhallat and concentrated oil perfumery, see a handy primer here. Now on to the reviews!
Nagi Attar (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)
Nagi is based on nag champa incense. Banish all thoughts of those five dollar packs of dusty Indian jossticks you might have seen around your local head shop or New Age store. Instead, Nagi was inspired by the old, traditional way of making aromatic nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks) that prevailed in India before the formula was cheapened in order to satisfy foreign demand for cheap incense.
The original formula for agarbatti included some very expensive naturals such as Assamese agarwood, Mysore sandalwood, expensive floral essences such as champaca and rose, kewra, saffron, henna flower, and spikenard, a rooty Indian herb. These aromatic materials were bound by honey and halmaddi, a fragrant gum from the Ailanthus triphysa tree. Important yogi would traditionally use nag champa in rituals, and it is still the prime component of any major Hindu event.
Mass production and cost-cutting over the years has meant that the Indian pan masala incense you buy these days is usually very low quality and, indeed, possessed of that hippy vibe that tramples on any cachet the original nag champa once enjoyed. Nagi Attar is Rising Phoenix Perfumery’s attempt to return nag champa to its former glory, re-building it entirely with natural, superb-quality raw materials, and recalibrating expectations of what nag champa can be.
If you expect nag champa anything to be sweet and powdery, then the opening of Nag Champa will be a bit of a shock. The topnotes smell like a deeply fermented oud, redolent of rotting wood, rising damp, pressed apricot skins, and kimchi. It is herbal and meaty all at once, a soup of things both alive and dead.
But suspend judgment and you will be rewarded by the sudden expansiveness of a creamy accord perched happily between banana custard and Eastern Orthodox resins powdered with mastic. This accord is not smelled directly on the skin but rather in the trail you leave behind. It is a moreish, welcoming kind of smell – like coming in from the cold to a kitchen fragrant with the scent of baking. The creamy sweetness seems to swell in the air, powered by a combination of buttery Mysore sandalwood, benzoin, vanilla, and ylang.
This surprising fruit-and-cream heart lasts a couple of hours at the most, but it demonstrates what I think is one of the signatures of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, namely, a way of composing mukhallats so that they present the wearer with little twists and turns that hold the interest all the way through. There is thoughtfulness to the composition here that is unusual in the area of mukhallat perfumery.
The drydown returns to the leathery oud, only now it is bone-dry, incensey, and darkly smoky thanks to the addition of nagamortha root (cypriol oil). In the far drydown, notes of sugared woodsmoke and powdered incense appear again, ensuring that the attar circles back fully to the nag champa incense theme. Wear this if you want to know why nag champa was once considered the stuff of Gods.
Nesma opens on a hot, oily note that makes me think of saffron mixed with Hindi oud. Saffron is such a multifaceted material in perfumery, sometimes presenting as a dry, rubbery leather accord, and other times as iodine or hay. But add vanilla or sandalwood, and suddenly you have a floral-spicy custard. Place saffron adjacent to real oud, and you get something as pungent and as wild as the oud itself. It is a marvelous shapeshifter of a material, and rarely showcased with the subtlety or careful handling it deserves. But Nesma is the rare attar that gets it right.
Cycling as it does through several facets of saffron, Nesma is more complex and perfumey than other saffron-dominant attars. To begin with, the saffron is pungent and sticky, gaining a fermented tone from the oud, reminiscent of the mild under-pantsy funk of another saffron-forward attar, namely the beautiful Mukhallat Najdi Maliki by Arabian Oud.
Nesma does not dwell in this mode for long, however, drying out into a fine-boned, snappy leather accord – think the thinnest book sleeve imaginable, supported by a range of dusty, papery notes that conjure up the collected smells of a rarely-visited library. The bitter suede-like feel of the saffron is reminiscent of the leather note in Cuir de Lancôme. However, this is much fiercer, drier, and does not have any soft, powdery florals with which to blunt the impact.
Later, a sublime aroma of baked, toasted rice grains emerges, adding a delightful nuttiness and roundness to the scent. Despite the rice note, however, Nesma is never sweet, creamy, or dessert-like – it leans firmly in the direction of austerity. I recommend it highly to saffron fans interested in a nuanced take on the material without the distraction of florals and amber.
Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)
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 (strictly speaking, they are mukhallats), both in keeping with the brand’s original focus on natural perfumery and the rising popularity among consumers of high-end artisanal attars.
I have been testing the Abdes Salaam Attar attars consistently over the past few years 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, i.e., that of extreme ephemerality. The attar formats of favorite Abdes Salaam Attar scents are rich, strong, and long-lasting – paintings rendered in oil compared to the pastels of the regular eaux de toilette.
This is great news for anyone who might have loved the scents but hesitated over plunging $100+ into a fragrance that, while beautiful, rarely lasts more than three or four hours on the skin. Lovers of natural perfumery understand and accept the trade-off between all-natural materials and their longevity. But with Dubrana’s attars now offering fans the best of both worlds, we no longer have to compromise.
Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) is one of my favorite fragrances from La Via del Profumo, and in attar format, 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 eau de toilette, and reminds me of the way Djedi (Guerlain) and Onda (Vero Profumo) make me feel.
Oakmoss possesses the vivid rawness of an outdoors scene, which is more special to me than a smell that is simply luxurious. It is like 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). Less of a perfume, more of an experience.
Palisander (Ava Luxe)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
There is something therapeutic about the smell of wood, isn’t there? Rosewood, or palisander, is especially comforting, because it smells mostly like a freshly-split log of wood, but has steamy undercurrents of curry leaf, pressed rose petals, and chili pepper for interest. Ava Luxe’s Palisander is an excellent representation of the rosewood note, the essential plainness of the wood dressed up with enough amber and incense to stop it smelling skeletal.
Palisander was one of the samples I grabbed when evacuating our house during Storm Emma in early 2018. And I was enormously grateful for its plain, wholesome comfort as I struggled to lift my two little kids through the snow and up into the cabin of the tractor that my mother had flagged down, having waded through snowdrifts for hours to get to us.
It all seems a little extreme now, of course. The power came back on twelve hours after our dramatic rescue, and by the next morning, the roads had cleared enough to get us back home. But it was a great comfort to be sitting in front of the fire in the house where I grew up, wrapped up in a warm blanket and wafts of Ava Luxe’s Palisander floating up at me from my sweater. The best things are also the most basic of things. A good fire, happy children, hot food, a working mobile phone, and the glorious smell of wood.
Rosewood has a particular significance for me, because I wore the oil neat as a teenager in the nineties. Nowadays, rosewood is almost as rare as Mysore sandalwood, having fallen victim to a similar over-exploitation. The species that produces rosewood oil, Dalbergia nigra, is categorized as an Appendix I material under CITES, meaning that no rosewood produced after 1992 should be bought, sold, or traded. I have no idea whether Palisander by Ava Luxe actually contains rosewood or is just the artist’s representation, but it sure does smell like rosewood.
Palisander opens with the scent of a freshly-split plank of wood – raw, high-toned, and clean in a way that reminds me of industrial glue and binding products. Were the scent to remain in this track for too long, it might start to wear on the nerves, but soon the bland wood cracks open a little to reveal a host of interesting little details. There is the faintly fecal, coffee-ish undertone of cedar, for example, as well as a plasticky red pepper note that recalls the hot rubber milkiness of fragrances such as Etro’s Etra and Hilde Soliani’s Hot Milk.
But there is an essential plainness to Palisander that cannot be denied, and for me, that is part of its appeal. The soporific character of the wood is close to that of scents such as Tam Dao (Diptyque) and Cadjmere (Parfumerie Generale), and under certain lights, you might even call it sandalwood-ish. However, rosewood is softer, plainer, and a touch fruitier than sandalwood – a mixture of aromatic cypress wood, pulpy chili pepper, hot milk, and sawdust. Either way, the result is a scent so relaxing it should be prescribed as therapy.
Palisander cycles on at a fair clip, shifting quickly from its raw lumber start to a pale wood heart full of sweet incense powder, amber, benzoin, and soft vanilla. It finishes up as one of those elegant vanilla-woods combinations that always remind me of sweet Communion wafers, old books, and the tail end of Dzing. A simple, but well-rendered scent for those of us who love the wholesomeness of wood because it signals the comfort of home.
Port Royal (BPAL)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
Company description: Spiced rum and ship’s wood mixed with the body-warmed trace of a prostitute’s perfume and a hint of salty sea air on the dry-down.
I have never smelled a prostitute’s perfume – not knowingly, at least – but I think that the rest of the description matches the scent perfectly. However, one small point of clarification. Rather than the sweet, boozy rum alluded to in the notes, Port Royal revolves around the notion of bay rum, the spicy clove-and-bay-leaf accord closely associated with old-fashioned male grooming rituals and wet shaving. The original bay rum was a spicy, astringent lotion one slapped on after shaving, ostensibly to ‘close the pores’. (Though, by now, I hope that we all know that pores do not close and open like trapdoors).
Port Royal is therefore less drunken pirate and more herbal fougère with a brisk salty edge. It would be very elegant on a man, as it is clean and bitter. In the latter stages, a powdery amber accord moves in to soften the blunt edges of the scent and add a warming sweetness. But, glanced by the lingering aromatics and either ginger or mint, the amber never becomes too sweet or sticky. In all, Port Royal wears as a warm, full-bodied men’s aftershave.
The transitions between salty and bitter to warm and soft are intriguing. Port Royal carries the same mysterious, hard-to-define allure of a woman wearing her boyfriend’s cologne to freshen up in the morning after a night out. Its unusual combination of fresh androgyny and worn-at-the-edges glamour will have people falling over themselves to ask you what you’re wearing.
Rasa (Ava Luxe)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
Rasa has a fearsome reputation for being animalic, but either it has been gutted through reformulation or all the reviews for it were written in the pre-Salomé era. Rasa is a basic model, the first Supercomputer, a pro-genitor of Skank – something that has been innovated on and subsequently surpassed by countless other things in the same track. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine how its rosy-saffron attar-lite façade might strike someone as deliciously exotic and dirty. But to be truly blown away, you would have to be utterly unfamiliar with the cheap rosy-saffron-musk oils sitting behind the cash register in one of those Asian food emporia alongside the dried shrimp snacks and the Satya Sai Baba nag champa. Because that is exactly what Rasa smells like.
Rasa smells big and slightly cheap. Its rosy mixture of musks, saffron, and ‘exotic’ spices feature in many fragrances seeking to evoke a vaguely souk-ish atmosphere. This basic attar accord will be recognizable to anyone who has ever smelled Scent by Theo Fennell or even Agent Provocateur (the original EDP in the pink bottle). Rasa is pungent in the spicy saffron way of these scents, and slightly animalic through the use of civet, which adds a nice shot of bitterness. But Rasa’s original shock factor just doesn’t hold up in a day and age when modern niche perfume companies are falling over themselves to out-skank each other.
Royal Dream (Henry Jacques)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
I cannot locate the notes for this, but to my nose, Royal Dream is a somber patchouli chypre built around rose absolute and the leaf-sap dryness of immortelle. An undercurrent of galbanum, hay, and scorched summer grasses lends a backdrop of dry, green velvet.
Don’t let these sunny-sounding, notes fool you though – Royal Dream is a nocturnal animal. It feels formal, due to a curiously starchy, antiseptic note running through the composition, which is possibly saffron. It pulls hard at a memory chord, although I fail to pinpoint why exactly. It is likely that I’m reminded of some vintage chypre, but until someone names it, I’m at a loss. Apologies for the near uselessness of this review.
Royal Medina Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)
Royal Medina Blend is a sharp, rather dour take on the theme of shamamatul amber, a traditionally Indian blend of amber, spices, woods, and flowers or herbs made according to family-owned recipes handed down through the generations. The Royal Medina Blend take on shamama essentially spikes a musky, bitter cedarwood with equally astringent saffron, roses, sandalwood, and amber. It bears some similarity to the spicy, smoky, and sour woody bone structure of the more famous 1001 Nights by Ajmal, although the ASAQ version tilts more towards vegetal amber than the spicy woods of the Ajmal.
Royal Medina Blend’s shamamatul amber base stands knee-deep in the funk of fermented, sour leather, woods, and spice, so it stands to reason that many will smell this and think they are smelling a raw, sharp Hindi oud. This is a shamama to scare the horses, in other words, and therefore one that beginners should approach with caution.
Ruh Khus (Anglesey Organics)
Type: ruh (sort of)
The ruh khus from Anglesey Organics is much more refined than the Yam International version. It does not display any of the sharply green, earthy, rooty, almost marshy aspects of vetiver, but instead showcases only the gentlest of nutty and woody undertones. If it were a color, it would be a gray-olive green rather than a luridly bright, thick green.
To be frank, it doesn’t strike me as a true ‘ruh’, or steam-distilled essential oil. However, the lack of purity or concentration here works to its advantage because it presents the vetiver in a gentler, more digestible format, which will please those who abhor the pungent rootiness of the pure stuff. With its aura of softly mashed and cooked greens, nutty with olive oil and salt, there is something very soothing about this oil. In the far reaches of the drydown, a pleasing hint of dry woodsmoke appears. Smoothly unobjectionable, I recommend this ruh khus to people who think they dislike vetiver, because if anything is going to convert them, it is this.
Safran White Or (Henry Jacques)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
A potent saffron over a dark, rubied rose, Safran White Or unfurls like a length of thickly-embroidered fabric handed from one prince to another. The saffron rings out as clear as a bell, a piercing diorama of freshly-tanned leather, orange peel, and iodine calling to mind both medicine and food. But before the saffron note rides too high (it is a hellishly strong material), the plummy rose softens the spice, rounding it out into a rich Christmas cake accord. There is something both bejeweled and clear about it, a sleight of hand possibly attributable to the ambergris lurking in the shallows beneath.
Safwa (Al Haramain)
I never thought this would work for me, given the double whammy of cloves and camphor listed in the notes, but Safwa is a surprisingly sexy and comfortable wear. The biting dose of camphor and metallic mix of clove and cardamom in the opening was a trial until I had figured out the game. This is the mastic and cinnamon opening of Eau Lente, borrowed and repurposed in attar form – no longer an apothecary-style salve for middle Europeans but a genuine ‘soul of the souk’ affair.
Twenty minutes in, and all other notes drop out of sight for a while, leaving an oily mint note floating weightlessly over a waxen patchouli. It is not a fresh mint note, even, but strands of mint roots left to rot gently in a glass of water. A most strange and unconventional opening to a Middle-Eastern mukhallat, I appreciate Safwa even more for not taking the tried and tested route towards exotica.
The pungent, spicy greenness up top acts as a necessary prelude to the main act, which is a muted patchouli so beautiful it makes me think of piles of red and brown leaves on a forest floor. It shares with Patchouli Bohème by LM Parfums the same musky-ambery vanilla and sandalwood base that makes the patchouli note slightly edible.
Further on, a smoky labdanum reveals itself, its grit roughing up the smooth woodiness of the vanilla, patchouli, and musk. The golden pool of amber and patchouli slowly becomes cross-contaminated with the black oiliness of uncured leather. It is very sensual. On balance, Safwa has much more development on my skin than any of the other high-end Al Haramain attars, and the only one where the complex list of notes bears out on the skin.
And you will have ample time to study Safwa’s development, by the way. It has a half-life of decades. Sillage is low at the beginning, however. Don’t make the same mistake I did, which was to keep on applying more oil until suddenly I could smell it and I’d realized I had applied far too much. My precious sample lived on my bookshelf for six months until it dropped into a crack between the wall and the shelf, never to appear again. I have thought about it ever since.
Sajaro (Classic) (Mellifluence)
Sajaro Classic is a simple but pleasing riff on the traditional Arabian-style attar, namely a blend of saffron, rose, jasmine, and a dab of something oudy or musky in the base for support. This kind of thing is barely interesting, let alone exotic to my nose anymore, but as with anything this ubiquitous, there are good examples and bad examples. And this is a good example.
The opening is sharply rosy, with a backing of spicy, leathery saffron forming that tart rose-saffron bridge used in most Arabian attars and co-opted for use in some very famous Western fragrances such as the original Agent Provocateur, Juliette Has a Gun Lady Vengeance, Diptyque Opône, and The People of the Labyrinths’ A. Maze. Clearly, the rose-saffron pairing has legs.
And Sajaro, while by no means original, executes the theme with honesty and grace. There is something satisfying about a plain thing done well. Sajaro Classic differs from the Sajaro Imperial by containing only the basic qualities of rose oil, saffron, oud, and so on. To get an idea of how different grades of the same raw materials can produce utterly different effects, wear Sajaro Classic and Sajaro Imperial side by side. Sajaro Classic is sharper and brighter, with a dusty texture that feels like cracked leather – it plays true to the original attar theme. Sajaro Imperial, on the other hand, is duskier, with a darker, more velvety feel. In particular, there is a plummy quality to the rose that distinguishes it.
Sballo (Bruno Acampora)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
Sballo means ‘trip’ in Italian. Not in a ‘trip to the seaside’ sense of the word, but in the ‘I ate some funny-looking mushrooms and now your face is a rainbow’ sense of the word. Which is appropriate when you consider how mind-bendingly seventies the Acampora oils smell. Trippy, psychedelic, groovy – all words that fit the Acampora aesthetic like a glove.
Sballo is the banner-carrier for this seventies feel, so it goes heavy on the aromatics, hay, patchouli, and oakmoss. It ain’t pretty, but it sure does smell authentic. The main thrust is a patchouli-rose chypre in the Bernard Chant style. Think Aromatics Elixir and Aramis 900, but richer and rougher in texture. An artisanal, homemade take on a commercial model.
The rose is brilliant and red, but quickly smothered by armfuls of dry, rustic grasses and hay note acting in tandem with oakmoss and patchouli. Most modern chypre scents fake the bitterness of oakmoss in the traditional chypre accord via other materials that share a similarly ashen dryness, like denatured patchouli aromachemicals (Akigalawood), hay, galbanum, or even saffron.
But though there is no oakmoss listed for Sballo, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t actually contain at least some. To my nose, the shadowy dankness of the material is unmistakably present. Sballo shores up this oakmoss effect by flanking it with equally dank or earthy-dry materials such as hay, clove, patchouli, and a material that smells like tobacco or black tea leaves.
The overall effect is gloomy and desiccated in the grand chypre tradition. Saving it from a classic ‘ladies who lunch’ formality of the chypre structure is the rough, almost burnt-ashy texture of the moss and patchouli. The hoarseness of this accord is great. It is like the rough, stubbled jaw of a brutish male thrust into your personal airspace, causing both discomfort and the thrill of secret excitement.
Amouage’s take on Shamama opens with a sharp antiseptic burst of iodine, spackling the olfactory landscape with gaudy daubs of saffron and henna flower. The spice element is pungent, oily, and radiant, as if coriander and cardamom seeds were first roasted at high heat in a dry pan, and then tipped, piping hot, into the deg.
In keeping with the Indian tradition of making shamama, Amouage’s Shamama is not at all sweet or soft, but rather fierce, pungent, and alkaline. There is also a light rubbery undertone, like hospital tubing, which we can probably attribute to the henna. Shamama eventually mellows into a soft, muffled bed of amber, but because this is vegetal, herbal Indian amber rather than the sweet, resinous kind, it never becomes sweet or creamy.
All in all, Shamama is not a bad rendition of traditional Indian shamama, but given its price point, it is not something to pursue above and beyond the more interesting and more reasonably priced shamama currently in production.
Nemat’s version of the famous shamama attar is affable, sweet, and easy-going. Like most other shamama attars, it opens with the slightly medicinal tinge of saffron or henna, but, fused to a sweet underpinning of amber or vanilla, this accord is never allowed to become too vegetally bitter. Later, it develops a fruity muskiness that might strike some as slightly rude, possibly thanks to ambrette seed. All in all, Nemat’s Shamama is a sweet, herbal-ambery shamama with a slightly raunchy trail. A passable example of the species but not especially complex.
Shamama (Sultan Pasha Attars)
Sultan Pasha’s take on the classic Indian shamama attar – a complex, blended attar consisting of over sixty different materials, herbs, spices, choyas, and other attars made according to closely-guarded secret family recipes – is an unusual one. It twists the traditional format into a new shape.
The opening confuses as much as it delights, packed with as many dense aromas as a tin of the blackstrap molasses, but shot through with the antiseptic airiness of saffron. The dual tracks of dark stickiness and explosive spice give the opening tremendous energy. Quickly, the individual notes begin to pull apart a little so that you start to perceive them more easily. Orange peel, saffron, henna paste, saltwater, toasted buckwheat, and chestnut honey all come to the fore. These are all notes that teeter between savory and bitter, with only a thin ribbon of sugar calling a truce between them.
Compared to other shamama attars, the Sultan Pasha take is far darker, balmier, and smoother. It is molten licorice to the sharply golden, leathery herbs of the others. After the complex, packed feel of the start, the middle decompresses somewhat, flattening everything into a single layer of anise-flavored toffee, with hints of a dark chocolate musk, henna, and supple leather flitting in and out. In fact, it would seem to combine the best of a traditional shamama attar with the damp, chewy chocolate sensuality of a good Darbar attar.
Then, as if filmed in slow motion, the attar collapses into a slightly smoky, boozy amber with hints of dried fruit, leather, and incense, reminding me very much of Ambre Russe, a fragrance that Luca Turin called ‘the most nutritious amber in existence’. There is a similar pain d’épices texturization at work here. The mukhallat derives much of its richness from the scent of macerating raisins, brandy, damp tobacco, and plum pudding. This develops further into a smoky, incense-laden amber accord, with the stained-glass window warmth of something like Amber Absolute.
What I love about Sultan Pasha’s take on shamama is that it preserves a core of tradition but twists it into a sleeker, more sensual format to appeal the modern taste. It gives you the dusty, medicinal feel of a traditional Indian attar, with its exotic henna, herbs, spices, and innumerable Indian botanicals, while at the same time spinning you off into a more Middle Eastern direction, rife with sweet, smoky resins and balsams. This is the 2.0 version of shamama, and my personal favorite of its genre. Think of the licorice darkness of Slumberhouse’s Vikt unspooling into a thick, smoky-sweet incense amber, and you have an idea of the complexity at play here.
Sirocco (Solstice Scents)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
Description: It is a blend of sandalwood, precious saffron threads, hot baked Earth, myrrh resin, spices and a touch of oud and jasmine which meld together to create a dry, woody, resinous and spicy scent representing the blisteringly hot desert, spice caravans and never ending sun scorched sand.
In general, Sirocco smells as advertized, except for the sandalwood, which is not a significant player. First, a starburst of saffron, its astringent aroma redolent of hay, leather, and iodine. This quickly gives way to the mitti, which here smells of wet soil rather than the drier, dustier earthy scent of true Indian mitti. Last to emerge is the rubbery, mushroomy myrrh, which smells like the plain essential oil one picks up at the health store, i.e., bitter, saline, and musty. Unfortunately, the myrrh dominates the scent completely. Once it pops its head around the door, it is here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Top marks to Sirocco for smelling precisely of the notes promised in the notes list. Just be aware that Sirocco is not really the hot, dry ‘desert’ scent billed in the description, but rather the damp and almost fungal scent of caves. It is closer to the original Bat (Zoologist), for example, than to L’Air du Désert au Marocain (Tauer). (It is especially tempting, based on the description alone, to expect something desiccated and toasty along the lines of L’Air du Désert Marocain, because who doesn’t want a version of that for a tenth of the price?). But if you like the wet, fungal side of myrrh, and earthy, medicinal smells in general, then you will love Sirocco.
Type: concentrated perfume oil
Exploring the (mostly American) indie perfume oil sector from the viewpoint of the niche or mainstream perfume world often feels like a step backwards. Sometimes this is because of a lack of polish and sometimes it is because of the gap between reality and the unfeasibly high expectations stirred up by the descriptions. But where the indie perfume oil sector excels well over and above niche or mainstream perfumery is in creating perfumes that accurately recreate entire atmospheres, such as a spooky forest at night, a bonfire, or, as in the case of Sixteen92’s Supercell, the intensely green, mineralic scent of the air after a rainstorm.
Supercell, by perfumer Claire Baxter, who won the 2017 indie perfume award for her Bruise Violet at the 2017 Art and Olfaction Awards in Berlin, is a greenish petrichor perfume. It is not incredibly long-lasting, but its effect is so pleasing that I recommend it for cooling down on sweltering days.
The scent opens with wet, sweet grass, transitioning slowly to the electric smell of rain on hot asphalt and damp soil. The name Supercell seems to refer to the ion-charged air particles present in the air just before or right after a storm breaks, and for once, the perfume lives up to the promise of its name. It is both dewy and protein-rich.
Sycomore (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)
Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil
Vetiver is a funny material. Depending on the varietal, source, and extraction method, it can display a wide range of nuances from roast hazelnuts to grass, campfire smoke, rose, and vase water. It can be bitter, woody, smoky, or creamy, and sometimes all of those things at once. That is why, even though vetiver is not the most expensive or precious raw material in the world, its nuances can be hard to match note for note. On the other hand, vetiver always smells robustly and clearly of itself – you rarely mistake it for another material.
This observation, generalizing as it may be, bears out here. The vetiver used in the dupe smells much darker than the grassy vetiver used in Chanel Sycomore. It is also a bit simpler, less textured – more like a simple ruh khus than a composed perfume. However, vetiver is vetiver is vetiver, which means that if you love vetiver, then the chances are you will like this too.
But while Sycomore is a complex perfume that corrals cypress, sandalwood, and juniper around a vetiver core, the dupe is mostly just vetiver. There is a crystalline gin and tonic buzz to the topnotes of the original Sycomore that is not replicated in the dupe, and the dollop of very good quality sandalwood that renders the original creamy in its drydown is missing in the dupe. Perhaps most importantly, Sycomore has a harsh, exciting smokiness that makes it an evocative perfume experience – the dupe emphatically does not.
Still, the vetiver used in the dupe produces the same relaxing, outdoorsy, and slightly narcotizing effect as Sycomore. It does not adequately replace the original EDT, perhaps, but post-2016, even Sycomore is not truly itself anymore, so perhaps these are distinctions that matter less and less. In summary, this is a good perfume oil in its own right and may appeal to hardcore vetiver fans.
Thebes I (Sultan Pasha Attars)
Thebes is Sultan Pasha’s tribute to the fragrance he most reveres in the world – Guerlain’s infamous (and deeply unavailable) Djedi. I am lucky enough to own a large sample of Thierry Wasser’s Djedi reconstruction, so, for the purposes of this review, wore both side by side.
Djedi is a dry vetiver chypre. It is immediately arresting both to the nose and the imagination – dusty, rich, and shadowy, its greenness is more that of dried up lichen and creeping mold than of living plants and roots. It has a crypt-like coldness to it that defies analysis.
Vetiver, dried flowers, moss, and ambergris – such a curt line-up of ingredients, and yet an entire underworld is called forth. A dab of Djedi is transportative. One can almost taste the thickness of the first gush of air that must have rushed out at Howard Carter when he prized open the tomb of Tutankhamen, a smell full of cool stone, ancient dust, dried-up herbs, ointment, and kyphi, a complex Egyptian incense made with spikenard, henna, mastic, and other aromatics.
The vetiver turns slightly creamy and almond-like later with the addition of orris and rose, but despite the listed notes of civet and ambergris, the reissue of Djedi is never animalic. Its dry and salubrious demeanor drives the composition forward in a single-minded fashion. There are echoes of Djedi in both Habanita by Molinard (minus the soft-focus vanilla and florals) as well as in Onda extrait by Vero Kern, which is perhaps its closest-living relative today. A distinctive and memorable fragrance, Djedi is notable most of all for its total absence of warmth.
Thebes (both I and II) is an entirely different animal. To my nose, it is a more complex version of Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens, cleverly balancing pungent animalics with sweet, plush roses, fur-like warmth, and sugar.
In the opening of Thebes I, there is a rush of oily, compressed florals that taken together smell like ancient, dusty wooden chests rubbed with linseed oil. The aged wood and oily floral flatness make me think immediately of oud oil. In fact, it is extraordinary that this effect is apparently achieved without a single drop of it.
The rose is most present to my nose, followed by lily of the valley. But the florals are not fresh, crisp, or ‘living’. Rather, they are a memory of scent clinging to flower petals pressed into old books by Victorians, then placed in an attar bottle to preserve them further. Although I do not smell vetiver or moss strongly here, I am impressed that Pasha has arrived (via a completely different route) at the same sort of dusty, ancient-smelling accord featured in Djedi.
From there on in, however, the composition of Thebes I is overtaken by a wave of musk and ambergris. The musk dominates at first, working with the dried jasmine to create an animal fur note with a creamy filth attached to its underbelly. Very close to the fur effect in Muscs Khoublai Khan, the musk has the almost mouth-filling texture of wool. The dance between clean fur and human filth makes me think of making hot, sweaty love to someone on a lion pelt in a medieval banqueting hall. Overall, Thebes I is far furrier and thicker than Djedi. But the key difference, I think, is that Thebes I has an almost animal warmth, while Djedi has none at all.
In the far stages of the dry down, there comes a wonderful surprise. Vetiver – bone dry and smoky as hell – remerges phoenix-like from the ashes to mingle with the animal fur. It is here, in the ashes of this rich, dusty vetiver that Thebes intersects most strongly with Djedi. But still, where Djedi is ascetic, Thebes is sensual.
Using lesser qualities of rose, orris butter, and musks, Thebes II is a more cost-effective version of Thebes I. To my nose, the opening is brighter and sharper, with the florals taking on a slightly more chemical character (especially the lily of the valley notes). Thebes II suffers in comparison to Thebes I, but probably only if worn in a side by side wearing. There is the same lovely, smoky fur-like quality in the drydown.
It is perhaps fairer to simply say that Thebes I will suit those who prefer their floral topnotes to be abstract, and Thebes II those who prefer the bright, laundry-fresh florals of mainstream perfumery. In Thebes II, the additional space between the notes allows for a spicy powder to creep into the structure, a bonus for those who like the powdery, clove-tinted feel of the older Carons.
Vasura is made with over forty different essential oils, ruhs, or absolutes, all of which pull in the direction of wet jungle earth. The first impression is simply one of a cool, herbal freshness. It mixes the bitter white floral crunch of a Borneo oud with pungent vetiver and aromatic sandalwood. Zero cream, low calorie, but maximum flavor.
Further on, traces of Hindi oud bubble to the surface, bringing with them the acrid, smoky stench of fermenting leather. But the Hindi is brought to heel by a damp blanket of velvety greenery, which lies on top and calms its fiery heat. The result is a cool-toned, earthy leather aroma that is pleasurably easy to wear.
The delicate aroma of mitti – the attar that captures the smell of the first rains of the season on the red earth of India – is unfortunately lost in the mélange of stronger, earthier notes like oud, myrrh, and vetiver. However, as the fresh, moist green notes wither away, they leave behind a mineralic dust accord that could quite conceivably be interpreted as the scent of soil after the rain. Therefore, despite the disappointingly quiet role of the mitti, something of the Indian people’s longing for the rain has been captured in the golden, earthen mien of this scent. And that is more than good enough for me.
Vert Gallant (Henry Jacques)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
Vert Gallant opens with an accord of fresh herbs shimmering over rank body odor that smells intensely animalic and arousing. The sweaty, green topnotes glint evilly like petrol on water. This effect is probably due to use of a specific lavender absolute that smells more like spikenard, which in turn smells rather like lavender with a subcutaneous layer of sheep fat.
Under this front of green, cuminy herb is a generous layer of labdanum massaged with sandalwood and vanilla. Sweet, dusty, and strangely musky, Vert Gallant smells enticingly like the belly fur of a domestic animal, like a cat or guinea pig. I suspect a judicious dose of costus somewhere in the mix, although this is not listed. If you like intimate, human-skin-smelling fragrances such as Under My Skin (Francesca Bianchi) and L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), it is likely that you will also enjoy Vert Gallant. I find its curious balance between the purity of herbs and the licentiousness of labdanum to be compelling.
Volubilis (Bruno Acampora)
Type: concentrated perfume oil
Many have extolled Volubilis as a beautiful expression of mint, black pepper, citrus, and rose. Unfortunately, I experience it a true expression of its name, which translated from Latin, means ‘volume’. Volubilis is doused in enough Iso E Super to achieve a stadium-filling reach, sacrificing the delicacy of its natural raw materials at the altar of radiance (that most modern of codenames for projection).
Note that I have been sensitized to certain aromachemicals over the years and tend to perceive them as a hair too highly pitched above the other voices in a chorus line. Your experience may be entirely different. And indeed, based on reviews available for Volubilis, I seem to be in the minority. Most other reviews mention its fresh, sparkling mint and citrus duet, spiked with black pepper for interest. If those notes sound appealing to you, then don’t let my experience put you off trying it. Unless you’re as sensitive to woody ambers as I am, you are likely to experience the scent as it was intended to be.
Type: concentrated perfume oil
Company description: Three vanillas, aged patchouli, almond buttercream
Wicked benefits from a long, hard aging. When I first received the sample, the almond buttercream notes jumped up and bit me in the arse. It was nauseating, like inhaling a blast of the cheap, cherry-scented nail polish remover you get in Poundland. Sharp and unlovely, this greasy almond solvent note seemed to float gracelessly over a sea of headshoppy patchouli and ice-cream.
Reader: I tried it several times, each time with the same result. I gave up and put all my Sixteen92 samples away in a dark drawer and forgot about them for eighteen months. As it turns out, Sixteen92 perfume oils need far more than the recommended two weeks resting time, and eighteen months proved to be the magic number. (If you’re not the patient type, then perhaps avoid the American indie oil sector entirely.)
Although all my Sixteen92 samples benefitted from aging, Wicked emerged as the most improved. Now, Wicked smells as it should – a creamy vanilla with moody patchouli giving it a dark and sexy earthiness. There is a brief snap of cherry pit at the start, but this melts away so quickly that it barely registers. I find the aged version of Wicked to be divinely rich and gorgeous. If I could guarantee being spared the horror of its unaged self, I would buy a bottle in a heartbeat.
Zafraan Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)
Zafraan Blend takes an ultra-medicinal saffron and marries it to a subtle scaffolding of roses, musk, and sweet amber for support. The star of the show, however, is that tannic saffron note. You must love saffron to appreciate this attar, but if you do, then you’re in for a treat. The saffron here smells dusty, red-gold, and vaguely iodine-like, with rich, woody tea notes lurking in the background.
Zafraan is a simple blend, with little to distract from the main note. It starts and ends with the mysterious spice, fading out slowly into an austere, gold-tinged leather. Its stark focus on saffron limits its usefulness as a standalone oil – one simply grows tired of its dogged purity after a while – but it is perfect for layering with rich ambers, vanillas, or even rose soliflores.
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.
Source of samples: I purchased all the samples reviewed in this chapter, apart from the samples from Sultan Pasha Attars and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, which were gifted to me by either by the brand or a distributor for review purposes, and the Henry Jacques samples, which were part of a Basenotes sampling thread.
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