Health & Grooming

Mystery is served

Potent and exotic, the ingredients of Middle Eastern perfumes are striking a note among Western cognoscenti, says Karen Wheeler.

September 05 2009
Karen Wheeler

Now that so many niche fragrances have become almost mainstream – names such as Diptyque and Creed, for example, are now more readily available around the globe – where does the perfume obsessive go in order to find a scent with some mystery, which few others are wearing? The answer, increasingly, is the Middle East, a region known for its exotic ingredients and scents that are often considered “difficult” to Western noses.

“Middle Eastern perfumery is the next big thing,” says Roja Dove of the Haute Parfumerie at Harrods, who points out that rare oils and concentrates from the area are enjoying a surge in popularity among cutting-edge perfumers. Ingredients such as oudh oil (extracted from resin from infected trees, and extremely rare), rose taif (the Arabian equivalent of the famous rose de mai from Grasse) and frankincense are the antidote to bland, commercialised scents and the inspiration behind many recent launches including Arabian Wood (£100, 50ml eau de parfum), the latest addition to the Tom Ford Private Blend collection.

The perception that all Arabian perfumes are intense and smoky is ill-founded, according to Dove. “They can also be soft, subtle and very pretty,” he says. “The problem is that many people have been exposed to the cheap end of the market but high-end Arabian perfumery can be exquisite.”

The perfect example is Amouage, the fragrance house founded on the request of the Sultan of Oman in order to showcase the finest Omani essences, including silver frankincense (said to be the best in the world) and rare rock rose. Despite being over 25 years old, the house, which works with French perfumers in Grasse, is known only to a few (including, it claims, Kate Moss and George Clooney). Its Ubar perfume (£115, 50ml), a blend of rose and jasmine with citrus top notes, was given five stars by fragrance critic Luca Turin, while its Homage Attar perfume oil (£175, 12ml) is one of my favourite discoveries in recent years (and rated in Turin’s top 10 fragrances of 2008.) Housed in a small square glass bottle, the blend of silver frankincense and rose taif looks and smells precious. A single drop lingers, in the best possible way, for hours. Amouage’s newest fragrances, Epic Woman (£135, 50ml) and Epic Man (£115, 50ml), have also had excellent reviews, but with their overdose of oudh and frankincense I suspect all but the most developed noses will find them too dense.

Montale, a niche brand with a shop in Paris but roots in the Middle East, boasts an entire collection of oudh-based perfumes, all made using a high concentration of Eastern oils. Founded in 2001 when Pierre Montale relocated to Saudi Arabia and began to create perfumes for Arabian royalty, the brand’s complex concoctions have, according to the perfumer, “caused a worldwide stir in perfumery circles – and the roar only gets louder”. Occasionally, that roar – if some of the blog reviews are to be believed – is due to people rushing to the sink to scrub the more potent creations off their wrists. But the fragrances certainly can’t be accused of smelling cheap or lacking in tenacity, and the perfumerati seem to love them.

It’s the use of such rarefied and expensive natural oils that makes Arabian perfumery so appealing to experts. “The passion for fragrance is an important part of Arab culture – you really feel it when you go there,” says Linda Pilkington, founder of Ormonde Jayne. She was one of the first Western perfumers to use exotic oils from the Middle East, including oudh and rose taif in her Ta’if fragrance (£68, 50ml) and Omani frankincense in Tolu (£68, 50ml). Pilkington operates like the perfumers of old, travelling for 12 hours through the desert in search of golden frankincense, for example. “Many of the oils from the region have a real mystery to them,” she says.

Meanwhile, Czech & Speake’s recently re-released Dark Rose (£75, 100ml), an intense, resinous rose containing saffron and oudh, was inspired by the owner’s visit to an attarine in Saudi Arabia, where he was captivated by the unusual oils produced there. “I liked the idea of using ingredients and methods that go right back to the beginnings of perfumery,” says Frank Sawkins. “I wanted the fragrance to be of the very highest quality and as authentic as possible.” To this end, the ingredients are sourced by a company in the Middle East, where the essence is made.

Once you’ve dipped a toe into Middle Eastern perfumery, the next step is to develop an interest in pure oils, such as the 80-year-old Pure Kalakasi Aoud Oil (from £1,945, 12ml) from Al Qurashi, the Arabian perfumery owned by the Al Qurashi family that recently opened a boutique in Knightsbridge, London. Here the oils, which are sold in 12ml units known as tolas, are drawn from ornate gold flasks into smaller bottles. As well as a full gamut of oudhs and musks, Al Qurashi offers many single floral notes from the Gulf region including Royal Jasmine, which in Roja Dove’s opinion “is equal to jasmine from Grasse”.

Customisation is key to the Arabian approach to perfumery, layering a floral oil such as Essence of Taif Rose (from £860, 12ml) over an oudh, for example, the latter adding depth and tenacity. “Nearly every Middle Eastern person who wears fragrance makes their own blend,” explains Dove. “It’s almost as if perfume is a personal accomplishment.” In addition, the store offers ready-made, so-called “French blend” oils with charming names such as Majed (Glorious) or Shahd (Sweet as Honey), both £48 for 12ml.

The movement towards Middle Eastern perfumery is pepping up the perfume world but often the packaging needs to be improved. When I gave Amouage’s Epic a second try, ignoring the jade bottle and gold metal stopper and imagining it presented in a black bottle made by Comme des Garçons, I saw it as a mysterious, warm, spicy scent rather than something that could clear a room. Which proves that you shouldn’t always judge a scent by its bottle.

See also

Perfume, Middle East