They have been a part of the Middle Eastern culture since time immemorial.
Although times have changed and new brands have entered the market, the
distinctive Arab tradition of wearing aromatic oils and perfumes have shown
no signs of fading. By Sakshi Vashist
When Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, looked at her bloodied hands and cried that all the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten them, perhaps she too knew that the scent of rose, jasmine and amber have the mystical power to wash away almost anything.
Perfumery, or the art of making perfumes, began in ancient Egypt but was developed and further refined by the Romans, the Persians and the Arabs.
It’s an Arab tradition to use aromatic oils as a base for perfumes, called attar. The word ‘attar’, ‘ittar’ or ‘othr’ is basically an Arabic word which means ‘scent’, derived from the Persian word ‘Atr’, meaning ‘fragrance’.
A 9th century Abbasid scientist, Abu Yusuf Yaqub bin Ishaaq al-Kindi, is considered the founder of the Arabic perfume industry.
Ittars, long been considered one of the most treasured of material possessions, are popular not only in Qatar, but throughout the Middle East. These natural perfumes are affordable because they are so concentrated that a small bottle will last for several weeks, if not months.
For the same reason, they are usually offered for sale in small quantities, traditionally in decorated crystal cut type bottles or small jewelled decanters. Due to the purity and the nature of oils, there is very little chance of spoilage.
Additionally, since these perfumes are highly concentrated, a small drop makes the aroma last the whole day. It is also amazing how the aroma’s intensity changes with the changes of body temperature. Their peculiarity is that they are made only from natural ingredients and doesn’t contain any alcohol.
Perfumes are very powerful agent in our social life.
Therefore, it becomes important to choose the right perfume. To begin with, there is whole lot of variety available and secondly, you need to consider how it makes you feel. These Arabic fragrances are unique and there is bound to be one that will appeal to your senses.
Jo Malone, a popular perfume outlet in Villaggio Mall, offers a variety of ouds and ittars. Their latest collection ‘Sugar & Spice’ is artfully displayed along with savouries which resembles the sweet or fruity smell in the perfumes. The display of ginger biscuit, lemon tart, bitter orange and chocolate and red currant and cream help the customers make an easy comparison in distinguishing fragrances.
Arabic perfumes can have woody, oriental, flowery or fruity bases with notes of musk, amber, cedar, spices, citrus, sandal and cashmere wood that make them appealing.
Most commonly the oils used in making perfumes are obtained from the herbs, flowers and wood. They are then distilled into a wood base such as sandalwood and then aged. The ageing period can last from one to 10 years depending on the botanicals used and the results desired.
Frankincense, an aromatic resin, is also a key ingredient in making Arabic perfumes. The common fragrance for men is Dhan al Ward or rose flower oil.
In the Middle-East, cultivation of this damask rose, a 30-petalled flower, takes place in the Valley of Taif in Saudi Arabia, which is used in the finest Arabian perfumes for men. Exports of flowers from Egypt form the base of many of these.
There are some other natural sources that are commonly used to make Arabic perfumes. The first is oud. Oud is naturally fragranced wood that can be used on the skin or burnt to let the smoke spread a smell in the house or on your clothes. It originates from the Aquilaria trees found in India and Southeast Asia. The wood found inside these trees gets a particular mould which gives it a unique fragrance. The initial scent of oud is quite strong but over time it becomes more subtle and is quite lasting.
Then there is bukhoor which are pieces of wood chips called agarwood which have been scented with fragrant oils. The smell of bukhoor signifies special occasions like weddings, and its fragrance helps to create feelings of wellbeing in social gatherings or in homes.
Both oud and bukhoor leave a distinctive smell not only in homes but also in shopping malls and souks. These incense and fragrant herbs burnt for fragrance are very popular in the country.
A variety and affordable oud wood for burning at homes or shops are available at Hamil Al Mesk Centre, Qatar.
Hamil Al Mesk Centre have been selling ouds and perfumes since 1993. They have five outlets across Qatar and have a huge variety of ittars, ambers and ouds. Although most of their perfumes are imported from Dubai, they are manufactured with natural ingredients imported from across the world. ‘Oud Sharqia’ is the most loved product and customers come looking for it not only for their own personal use but also for gifting purposes.
Perfumers choose two to three kinds of ingredients from more than a hundred flower oils and spices. Like ancient times, many perfumes are still blended by hand. There is an ancient Egyptian method of crushing the flower petals in wooden pressing machines to extract oil which is blended with spices.
Manufacturing, nowadays, is also done in fully automated mechanised units where, after selection of the essential oils, the perfumes are filled and bottled and packaged by machines, to cater to the growing international demand.
Based on their manufacture Arabic perfumes can be classified as follows:
Floral: Manufactured from single species of flower are under this category like gulab, kewra, motia, gulhina, chameli and kadam.
Herbal: Manufactured from combination of flowers, herbs and spices like hina and its various forms viz. shamama, shamam-tu-amber, musk amber and musk hina.
They can also be classified based on their effect on human body:
Warm: Ittars such as musk, amber, kesar (saffron), and oud are used in winters, they increase the body temperature.
Cool: Like rose, jasmine, khus, kewda and mogra are used in summers and are cooling for the body.
The composition of a perfume is called “accord”, and describes the three set of “notes” that appear gradually on top of each other, thus creating an olfactive harmony.
Top notes (head)
The compounds that make up the top notes are usually sharp and volatile. When you spray the perfume on, you get the impression of these notes first. This note will last for about 10-20 minutes before they evaporate.
Middle notes (heart)
These scents appear just before the top notes fade and are usually rounded and soft. Rose, jasmine and lily scents are typical middle notes. The “heart”, in combination with the base notes, gives the perfume its main character. The middle notes usually appear a few minutes after application and will last about three-six hours on the skin.
Base notes (drydown)
These scents are heavy and large molecules that evaporate slowly. They emerge late in fragrant compositions and have a rich and deep character. They are also used to give lasting power to the perfume. You will probably detect the first base notes between half an hour to an hour after initial spray, and they can last up to 24 hours on the skin.
Ajmal Perfumes has established itself as one of the premier fragrance houses in the Gulf region. Marketing of perfumes is an art itself and aesthetics plays a huge role here in determining the shapes of the extravagant bottles.
Packaging is, hence, equally important these days. The perfume must look beautiful as well as smell nice. There are special designers to create unique bottles for each product.
There are many famous Arabic perfume brands in Qatar and almost all shopping malls and beauty outlets keep them to cater to the demand. A beauty and perfume outlet Faces keeps exclusive and exquisite items. ‘Julliete has a Gun’, a midnight oud made in France, exclusively available only at Faces is priced around QR300 for 50ml.
For giving their customers a knowledge of what inspires their most expensive perfume collection, the outlet ‘Opulent Shaik’ has displayed a know-about too. This helps in marketing of this QR1,400 majestic perfume and in fact helps the potential buyers connect with the product.
Arabic perfumes share the story of rich cultural heritage of the Middle East and have become popular among people of all nationalities. A fusion of Arabic and European scents are also now available in Qatar, like the renowned brand Chanel.
The trend and appeal of Arabic perfumes have given birth to online retailers like Zahras Boutique which serves to countries across the world through online sales. Even Amazon.com has a wide range of Arabic perfumes starting from QR8.
The craft of perfumery has been an essential part of Islamic culture. Steeped in exotic and local traditions, the aromatic oils have long been alluring the world with their distinct fragrances and are now synonymous with ancient heritage as well as fine luxury.
* Oud Imperial is a popular men’s brand available in Qatar.