Straight From the Deg
Well, after reading a great deal (and writing some) on the IFRA Wars, I wearily decided it was time to leave the battlefront, venture abroad, and refresh my love of perfume by learning about perfumery traditions that have nothing to do with major corporations, synthetic aromachemicals, or the European Union. And I’ve been making some delightfully fragrant discoveries. Today I want to share a little about attars, sandalwood-oil based perfumes from India that have a thousands-year-old history, and which are in danger today from globalization. I hope more of us in the West become acquainted with these treasures, and that they won’t disappear anytime soon.
The history of natural attars is an important part of the history of India. Sacred flowers such as champaca, rose, saffron, bakula, and others have been hydrodistilled into sandalwood oil with the use of degs for perhaps five thousand years. They became extremely important to the upper classes during the Mughal Period (the era the Taj Mahal was built), and the industry came to center in Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, where most genuine attars are still produced today.
So what is a deg, anyway? Attars are made with a sealed copper vessel (deg) to simmer the flowers, resins, and spices (up to a hundred ingredients in some traditional recipes), a bamboo tube to bring the fragrant steam to the receptacle, where the essences combine with sandalwood oil. The water is recycled and the process repeated with fresh ingredients for up to several weeks. Attars are strong stuff! Because some flowers, like bakula, are so fragile and bloom for such a short season, attar-makers often travel with their degs to the growing site and produce the perfume in situ. Many of the recipes and specific processes are family-held secrets. The result is an oil-based, entirely natural, and very concentrated perfume.
A shamama is an attar made from dozens of different ingredients, and the formulae are always held secret. Some of the more common attars are Oud (agarwood), Gulab (rose), Motia (jasmine), Rhus Khus (vetiver), Saffron/zafran, Amberi (amber), Champa (champaca), Bakula (a delicate evergreen flower), and Majmua (a mix of vetiver, baked earth, kewra, and kadam flowers). All have sandalwood as their base note.
One of my favorites is Mitti, which is made from a special earth from the banks of the Ganges. It’s an extraordinary olfactory experience, soothing and refreshing like rain falling on baked clay in midsummer. Gulab, or rose, is my perennial favorite, it’s a ripe, old-fashioned rose straight from the garden, enhanced by the warm sandalwood it’s infused with. Simple and soft. A newer favorite is Genda, or tagetes/marigold. This green floral beauty is refreshing and piquant, and has been growing on me steadily. Sometimes I wear these, sometimes I scent a room with them by taking an oil burner, filling the top halfway with water, adding a few drops of attar, and putting the tea light underneath. The effect is quite exotic.
Sadly, the crisis in white sandalwood oil has hit the attar industry especially hard, and most perfumes called “attars” now are actually paraffin, blended with synthetic aromachemicals. However, the real deal can still be found in various shops and on the Internet, and at a reasonable price, if you consider these to be extraits de parfum. The main market for genuine attars is now in the Middle East, where many Muslim women eschew alcohol-based perfumes. The other, emerging market, is among those Westerners looking for natural perfumes. One attar master is experimenting with using vetiver as the base, rather than sandalwood.
For a genuine, natural attar or shamama, 2 drams (8ml) will usually cost about $20-50. As they are extremely concentrated, 2 drams will last for a good while. For some attars, like Majmua, it might work better to dilute them in jojoba, or another stable, unscented oil, or make a solid perfume from them with oil and beeswax. Out of the bottle they are quite potent, with impressive sillage and longevity.
I have tried attars from Liberty Natural, found under their Products/Botanical Ingredients heading, and White Lotus Aromatics, and Tigerflag Natural Perfumery and they have all been superb. Blunda Aromatics also carry genuine attars, and I’ll be trying theirs soon. Liberty has a $50 order minimum, White Lotus has a $100 order minimum, as they mostly sell to the trade, but Tigerflag sells samples with no minimum, as well as surprisingly effective paper-test sample strips at a very low cost.
I found it important to “live with” a new attar for a few days, to appreciate its nuances. The scents are very different from modern western perfumes, and take a little adjustment. However, they soon become quite addictive. Attars and shamamas are like wine in that each year is a different vintage, with different qualities, so if there’s one variety you really love, you might try collecting vintages.