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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Straight From the Deg

by Marla

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.

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Anonymous Bradamante said...

Dear Marla, you made me very curious. Can you recommand some bonafide European suppliers? I did some googling already, but I can't check the quality of the goods.

8:57 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Bradamante:
I'll do some research for you to see if I can find a European supplier who sells the all-naturals. I'll leave another comment when I find something!

10:09 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post - thank you. I've heard of "attar of roses" before, and never knew what it meant. - Emma

11:21 AM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Thanks for this great post, Marla. I have been reluctant to venture out into the world of attars because of the sandalwood crisis and the high number of fakes, but they fascinate me. I'm glad to know you've found some reliable suppliers and I especially love knowing that the makers take their Degs to the flowers. Cool!

12:07 PM EDT  
Blogger Dixie said...

Just what I need, another lemming.

12:16 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Bradamante:
So far, no luck, but I would encourage you to try Tigerflag's paper samples if Amrita's willing to send you some to Europe (in an envelope, should be inexpensive) so you can get an idea what they smell like. As they have no alcohol, she might be able to send a few to you, also. Liberty will ship to Europe, but you should have an idea what you like first, before ordering, as postage might be chere.

1:54 PM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

Went to ebay right now in search of attars. Found one seller who has good prices and seems decent, but wanted to read all the fine print to see if they specified sandalwood as the base oil. Was amused to see that in the section for "Item specifics" they had three categories:

Weirdness: Soapy
Type: Arabian perfumed oil
Condition: New

The "weirdness" definitely is a new one for me. :-)

3:39 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Elle,
"Weirdness"- does that correspond to a top, heart, or base note??hehe
The vast majority of attars are attars in name only, it took me a long time to find actual naturals, I think there are only a few families left who make them, and I've read that they have priority for the state sandalwood auctions in India. I'm hoping the new vetiver base, or something similar works out, to keep the tradition of genuine naturals alive.

4:36 PM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

Ended up getting quite many (almost all they offer) samples from Tigerflag. Can't wait!

4:48 PM EDT  
Anonymous Lavanya said...

Thank you for the post, Marla!!
Yeah, many attar shops don't seem to sell all-natural attars..The ones I smelt near Charminar in Hyderabad (a few years ago) didn't smell natural.. I've heard of a few shops that are reported to sell the real stuff- Can't wait for my next trip to India to check them out..I NEED to make a 'perfume driven' trip to India- to Kannauj, Old Delhi..Since I go only once a year to visit family- perfume mostly takes a backseat..

6:04 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Wow Marla, Now I am really eager to try some true attars! I am imagining the bliss of Champaca infused into sandalwood oil - pure paradise!

9:40 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alyssa, yes, I think the attar-makers to travel would be a great basis for a novel, actually! Lavanya, an perfume-oriented trip of India sounds fabulous! That would be simply amazing.
Flora, champaca attar is another of my favorites. It's a simple soliflore, but actually, having tried several champaca perfumes, I think it shines best on its own with the sandalwood.

11:01 PM EDT  
Anonymous Bradamante said...

Hi Marla, thanx for checking out! Still on the lookout for a bonafide European provider. If I find something I'll let you know.

3:03 AM EDT  
Blogger Tania said...

I'd be interested in a good European supplier, too.
I'd love to try attars, but the costs of getting them from the US are high, if the site in question ships to the UK at all.
I did find some Indian sites, but again, can't tell bona fide from fake (and I've sniffed some awful fake attars in India!)
I was hoping to find perhaps a shop in London that sells the real deal, as we have a large Indian population, but so far, no luck.

4:23 AM EDT  
Blogger indieperfumes said...

Thanks for this great post. I know Liberty Naturals and White Lotus Aromatics, and love the articles White Lotus has on their site. Both sites are super informative and I have had good experiences ordering materials from them. Now I am re-inspired to go back and try attars.

7:19 AM EDT  
Blogger Inu. said...

Hi Marla,

You say it would be best to dilute Majmua in Jojoba oil. Which other attars do you think need to be diluted?


12:37 PM EDT  

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