Strange New Love: Majmua Attar


I was at my computer, writing a letter to our mortgage servicer.  I was doing that particular task because it was the least onerous thing on my task list, which should give you some sense of the overtones of the day.  You know what a barrel of laughs those lenders are.   When we write our mortage-servicers, it’s never to tell them, just wanted to drop a note to say how much I luv sending u that check every month! In order to get me through it I was doing the perfumista version of binge-eating, which is to dip periodically into the untried samples to the left of my computer and sniff.

Eventually I hit this weird little glass bottle with a lump of whitish stuff in it, from a recent swap.

I’ve blogged about my beautiful-perfume jag recently – lovely, gorgeous, traditional perfumes that make my heart sing.  I also appreciate the opportunity to smell something really strange, even if it’s a scent (like Borneo) that I’m not wild for.   But as I unscrewed the lid and sniffed from that glass bottle, I was struck by a third force of perfumery – something so utterly foreign that I am immediately taken to a different place.  These are not places I’ve actually been, but places as I imagine them to be – a windswept grove on the side of a hill above the Mediterranean.  A fruit market in the sultry heat somewhere in Central America, or southeast Asia.  They are the fragrance equivalent of Exotic Travel without leaving my desk.  Scents that have done this to me: CB I Hate Perfumes’ Revelation.  Aftelier Tango.  Ormonde Jayne Champaca.

And now … this one, this white glob, which also turned out to be my introduction to attars – majmua attar, to be precise.

I know nothing about attars, except that in that moment I was feeling an intense, dog-like desire to dig all the contents out of my small bottle and roll in it frantically.  My pestering email to the bottle’s sender, Marla (aka Posse commenter Masha), produced a rapid response: she’d written about attars in general, and this one in particular, last year on Perfume-Smellin’ Things.  I probably read Marla’s post at that time, said attar schmattar, and forgot about it.  The word “attar” makes me think of roses, as in: distillation of, which makes me think of rose-ouds and a whole Middle-Eastern style of perfumery I’m not especially fond of.  (Hey, at least I’m honest.)

Majmua is an entirely different animal – no rose here.  It is also powerfully fragrant.  The solid perfume I’m wearing turns out to be the attar diluted to a mere 10% concentration, in a base Marla prepares from beeswax and jojoba oil.  I’d imagine wearing it straight out of the bottle at 100% strength might kill you.  It is simultaneously green, floral, woody and earthy, and it shifts – constantly and repeatedly and subtly – back and forth among those camps, rather than having any traditional top, heart or base notes.  The vibrant greenness hovers over a combination of tropical fruit and flower notes, moist and ripe and oh so slightly fetid.  There is the damp earthiness of vetiver and actual dirt — the smell of wet clay pots, loam, and river banks.  There’s rain – not the “Rain” of cheap, head-shop oils but the sense of being under a canopy of wet trees, with a balsam-y smell that is more living/vegetal and less incense.   After several hours it gets quieter, at which point it smells a bit like those Indian cotton blankets and skirts (remember those?) which I never see any more.

Majmua itself turns out to be a combination of four other attars: kadam, kewda, mitti and ruh khus (vetiver), which are also sold individually.  Kadam flower has been described as reminiscent of both neroli and champaca, and seems to be the hardest to get in attar.  Kewda flower (via attar seller Tigerflag) “has a smooth, refreshing balsamic scent. Floral but not too sweet, with hints of hyacinth and honey.”  Mitti is (literally) an essence of baked earth in sandalwood oil.  Again from Tigerflag, Ruh Khus is “green and sweet, with a woodsy, smoky aroma and a hint of mint. The Indonesian Vetiver is steam distilled, velvety smooth, softly sweet and earthy.”

In India, attars are made in copper kettles called degs, using centuries-old technology.  Traditional attars are taking a beating right now, both in terms of being a labor-intensive “lost art” and also because the cost of their base – sandalwood oil – has gone through the roof.  According to my brief study, many attars are now prepared using a cheaper petroleum base.  White Lotus and Tigerflag, the two sellers of majmua and other attars I’m referring to today, purport to control their manufacturing to a degree that you’re getting the genuine stuff (insert disclaimer here – I’m not a chemist.)  The preparation and the environmental issues are an interesting read if you’re so inclined.

Marla’s take on majmua and a couple others (in an email):  “(Majmua) doesn’t remind me of some particular thing, but I find it to be very … emotional, does that make sense? It’s sharp, pungent, but soft and floral and earthy all at once. It’s really unlike any type of perfume I can think of. … Now I’m rummaging through my attar collection. I love the mitti attar (it’s made from distilled baked dirt and sandalwood), and the amberi (a mix of who knows what, but not at all floral, it’s resins and spices).” Marla recommends both Tigerflag and White Lotus for the majmua, which to her nose smells the same from both places (she thinks they buy it from the same family).  White Lotus is a wholesaler and thus requires a $100 minimum; Tigerflag does not.  A 1/8 oz. | 1-dram bottle of majmua attar is $29 on Tigerflag, which also sells samples of the other attars.   For dilution purposes after you buy it, the easiest thing to do is probably to mix it roughly 10% attar/90% jojoba oil, which you should be able to find at any co-op or “natural” grocery (they have it at Trader Joe’s, which is where I get mine.)  There are several other attars on these sites I’d like to try, including the champa, since I love OJ Champaca so much, the saffron, gulhina (henna flower, notes of tea and bittersweet chocolate), and (on White Lotus) the choya nakh, which is the toasted-seashell distillation that Tango’s based on.

I asked Marla if there’s anything she’d like to add to her year-old post that might be of interest to Posse readers.  She said:

“For those of us who like our florals green and lean, Genda is very androgynous.  The jasmine sambac attar is a real skankfest, in the best possible way. All those indoles they excised from Western perfumes are intact, and ready to party! I like that in a jasmine…. attars made with jasmine grandiflorum are softer and sweeter, but still pretty earthy.  The other thing to note is that these are like wine in the sense that each year’s vintage is subtly different from the others. As with wine, the scent depends on the weather conditions, the harvesting conditions, and so on. It’s fun to compare different years.”  Finally: “I forgot to mention that white sandalwood has become such a scarce substance in India, that a traditional attar-maker has started using the much more abundant vetiver to make attars. Christopher at WhiteLotus is selling them. I bought the Vetiver/Mitti. It’s gorgeous, but much more about the vetiver than the mitti. I love vetiver so I wear it a lot. I’d recommend these new attars for vetiver freaks, for sure.  They are quite different in character from the white sandalwood attars, however.”

I had no idea this stuff even existed (the joy of swaps!) and I’m putting together my order, traveling to another world, right here at my keyboard.

image: kadam flower, flickr.com

  • Iggy says:

    I had a small bottle of Majmua which I bought many years ago in India (Goa). There are different variations of Majmua. Last year I had a stop-over in Dubai and I bought at tax-free shop Majmua EdP (spray) which is made by some company in Dubai. Unfortunately, I can’t read Arabic, but the smell is almost identical to my attar.

  • karin says:

    Only thing keeping me from hitting the purchase button is my extreme laziness at not wanting to have to mix the thing up in oil or perfumer’s alcohol. Sounds like way too much work!!! Any retailers selling attars already diluted and ready to wear??? :d

  • grizzlesnort says:

    Fantastic! You’ve done it again! Please enter me in your drawing!!…Oh, wait…

  • dleep says:

    Wow! Tomorrow is payday and I am going to order some samples from Tigerflag. Does anybody have any other recommendations from that site? Thanks, much.

    • March says:

      I don’t know anything about the Madina (sp?) fragrances. Among the attars … reading the descriptions, most of them sounded good. 🙂 I inserted Marla’s take on them in the last paragraph. The mitti, made with dirt, that’s on my list. And the marigold one sounds awesome too, I know Marla likes that one. I’m sorry they’re out of stock on the champa 🙁

      • Masha says:

        Mmmm…baked dirt…I smell good.

      • dleep says:

        Thanks, I am going to get a couple of samps. I have several Madini oils, Alma de Alma, Maderas de Orient, Musk Pierre, Ambargris. I quite like them and they last forever on my skin.

      • Cheryl says:

        I am so curious about the attars. I am slowly wading into the ocean of attardom…called on by the sirens of incredible sensory experiences. I ordered a set of 10 samples from Madini..very cheap. Some are ok. Some smell crude and cheap. Ambergris lasts for about 4 days on me. Not kidding. It doesn’t smell like I think Ambergris does, but it is raspy and antique and wild…like a trunk of an old voyageur. Alma de Alma is like Shalimar. And I’ve tried Bahrain from TPC…oud and roses…very grounding clear and good. OH…when will I win the lottery so I can pursue this hobby further?

  • Bev says:

    Oh Boy, a new lemming.

  • Rappleyea says:

    March – I’ve had the same reservation about attars that you have – the rose. So this one sounds beautiful. I get a lot of my essential oils from Christopher at White Lotus, so the next time I order, I’ll definitely throw some of this in the cart. Thank you, and Marla, for another fragrant treat.

  • Musette says:

    I. HATE. You!

    :-w

    no, seriously. I DO!

    :-w

    okay, I don’t. But this has just got to stop, March. You need to write like a boobie for awhile, okay? This is just ridiculous. I don’t have 32cents to rub together right now, saving all my simoleans so I can be sure we can pay our project workers – and I could barely finish reading your post for wanting to leap onto those websites and buy everything!

    Cut it out, okay? At least until August, when our invoices come due? 😉

    xo >-)

    • Musette says:

      Ohhh…

      I just went on the site.

      :-w

      xoxo >-)

    • March says:

      Okay, I’ll blog on nothing but those Ferragamo Incanto thingies for the next three months, you’ll never feel that itch to buy.

      OTOH. Those sample vials on Tigerflag were $4 – $6 weren’t they? The scents of India, delivered to your door for $30 plus shipping. >:)

    • carter says:

      I want a new iPhone and am up to my freaking neck in medical bills and will be until Shavout (yeah, look it up March, you Episcopalian you) and she’s KEELING me here. And you, too, Masha. Shame, shame, shame and a POX on you both (but not your houses).

  • Olfacta says:

    Just ordered some, you enabler you.

    Seriously, they sound interesting. I have some perfumer’s alcohol and getting some jojoba oil is a good excuse to go to Trader Joe’s. 9 to 1 you say?

    • Masha says:

      Yes, for the strong ones. Subtler attars, like the gulab, or champa, can be 5:1 jojoba to attar.

    • March says:

      I keep fiddling with my cart! /:)

      I’ve been to TJs twice in three days. I love them, but it’s times like these I wish our popular store was a *hair* bigger. They have constant restocking issues.

  • DinaC says:

    This was educational since I haven’t tried any attars yet. They sound really lovely, especially the green florals — my fav! I’m attracted to the traveling in your imagination element, too. Imaginary travel can be idealized so that one never has to deal with long lines, sore feet, incomprehensible signs, or upset tummies! :d Majmua might be calling my name.

    • Masha says:

      Oh, my, you’ve pretty much summed up my nomadic life (with kidlets, no less!). I agree one of the best things about our olfactory addiction is that we can travel without all the suffering!

    • March says:

      I’m avoiding the term “natural” like the third rail it is (not getting sucked into that debate!) but I will say that these have a great foreign-fragrance smell that is completely different than, say, the essential oil rack at my co-op, if that makes any sense. It’s more complex, less astringent, and richer.

      I love the actual travel too, though — upset and incomprehension and the rest of it. We have to build it around/with the kids, but kids are amazingly portable.

      • Masha says:

        It’s funny, but the kids will do great through all kinds of travel trouble, but I’ll be nervous wreck worrying about them!

        • March says:

          I tend to worry more about pedestrian stuff at home re the kids (scalded in the tub, hit by a car.) When we got to Bangkok it was like a force field descended around them. All my worries disappeared. Illogical but true.

  • Masha says:

    Here’s a photo of how they make the choyas.
    http://whitelotus.smugmug.com/Other/Attars/1906217_SwXPR#118141469_HMvab-L-LB
    The entire slide show that Christopher put together is really interesting and worth a look, for those so inclined.

  • Annelie says:

    Oh, but I´ve found it at Ebay though. :d

  • Masha says:

    Annelie, I found this company in the UK, they say they stock the natural, traditional attars, pre-diluted so you can use them right out of the bottle. I believe they ship to Sweden, you could contact them:

  • Annelie says:

    This sound so interesting and beautiful, but unfortunatly I noticed they wont ship to Sweden. :((

  • Joe says:

    Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh dear. $-)

    Of course, you should all know that one of the core reasons I’m into perfume is that whole “Exotic Travel Without Leaving My Desk” thing. Not that I wouldn’t leave my desk sometimes — and I do — but I don’t see myself taking that 3-month backpacking journey to India and SE Asia anytime soon. Pesky poverty.

    These do sound good, and it looks like Tigerflag actually sells a sample of Majmua for $5. Hmmmmmmmmm.

    I bought some EOs from an eb*y outfit called Sleeping Dragons awhile back. While I was reading I pulled out my vial of Jasmine Sambac absolute and mixed a couple drops with some grapeseed oil; it’s a rich, almost fruity thing. And I treasure the tiny vial of Indian white sandalwood (or so they said) that I have. Sometimes smelling raw materials — or even blends like the Majmua — is such an amazing sensory experience. It gives me a deep appreciation for the aromatherapist’s art, even though I really know very little about that specialty. Thanks for writing about this.

    • Masha says:

      Ooooo, natural jasmine sambac, I could roll around in that smutty stuff all day…! It does seem to have that “catnip” effect on some of us.

    • March says:

      I do like how reasonable the samples are. I think in my cart is a bunch of samples and a bottle of the majmua, and it’s still less than $70. And hot weather seems like the perfect time for these.

      Foreign travel via perfume: the last frontier. 🙂 I do think it’s why I like many incense scents, and why I wish “traveler” scents by Duchaufour (like Timbuktu and Dzongkha) worked better on me.

      • Masha says:

        Off topic, but you mentioned Dzongkha- this used to be one of my all-time faves, but lately, I’ve noticed the “whiskey” top note that others have mentioned. What’s up with that? I still wear it, but not to work, I don’t want to smell like I’ve been guzzling Laphroaig–do I have a brain tumor or what??

        • March says:

          I *wish* I got that boozy top note, Dzongkha smells just terrible on me, all muddy and sour. If you smelled it on me you’d never choose it to wear. 🙂 And I wanted it so much!

        • Joe says:

          Masha: I don’t get whiskey, and I don’t get celery either. Just smoky tea, iris, and other assorted goodness.

          • Masha says:

            I didn’t get the whiskey thing either until 2 weeks ago, and I’ve been wearing it since its debut! That’s why I’m thinkin’ “brain tumor”….:o

    • carter says:

      Shut up, Joe:-$ And I say that with tremendous love in my heart>:d<

  • Tamara says:

    Drooldrooldrooldrooldrool!

    Too bad I’m broke or I would be doing the online thing too.
    Honestly reading your reviews leads to no good, no good at all.
    I’m up late nights dreaming about this shit!8-}

    I am on a kick with this natural perfumery,
    it is really a lovely discovery.
    Thanks again for your always persuasive reviews, I love them!

  • sweetlife says:

    And SOLD to the lady reading blogs too late in the evening…

    I meant to order some of these when Marla’s post went up, actually. It was the idea of dilution that got me. “Ooooh, so if I order a 1/2 ml sample I can turn it into something fluid enough to fill my current bottles and wear for awhile…”

    • Masha says:

      Yes, you can dilute these into perfumer’s alcohol and bottle ’em up no problem, and one tiny bottle of attar lasts a long time. I’m going to be turning some of my vetiver/mitti into a summer cologne, great stuff in the heat. I saw the vetiver/tuberose attar for sale yesterday, do I dare, I mean, hey, it’s the Summer of Tuberose, right? 😉

      • Divalano says:

        Wait … so, which works best with these, oil dilution or alcohol? SO exciting!!

        • March says:

          Buttinski here. I’d raised this issue in an email. You can use perfumer’s alcohol, but for whatever reason Muslims (?) and some other groovy folks prefer a non-alcohol dilution. It seemed to me that Marla thought the jojoba was a completely legitimate way to go. I like the jojoba because IMHO the oil helps heighten the skin’s absorption and projection of the scent. [-( That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • March says:

      In a weird way the assemble-your-own aspect of this appeals to me. I have a couple tiny rollerball bottles. And I like that it’s strong but not abrasive.

  • carter says:

    As I was reading this all I could think was “Pandora’s Box…she just pried opened Pandora’s Box.”#-o

  • Divalano says:

    Thank you for launching another obsession. Of course I must sniff these & gee, I’m fairly sure I won’t find any lurking in the MUA swap lists. So then … how does one dilute an attar in jojoba oil? And why was yours solid? I’m trying to read back to find it in the post but it’s late & my eyes are glazing over with the thought of a whole new world of sniffage …

    • Masha says:

      I made the solid for March, since it was going transatlantic and if that baby leaked in oil form, the Customs people would have had…questions for me, I think! For the jojoba dilution, simply take 9 parts pure, unscented jojoba oil, and add 1 part attar. Mix or shake your capped bottle, let it sit a few hours, and it should be ready. Works great in one of those little roller-ball bottles. Some of the lighter attars can be mixed 5 parts jojoba to 1 part attar. Majmua is the strongest!

      • March says:

        RE the mixing I have a question, so I’ll ask it here at the top where you’re giving instructions: what does the attar look like when it comes? Is it a thick liquid like the oil? Or pasty? Powdery?

        And I saw you gave suggestions for mixing ratios for the less intense ones down further in comments. (1:5 instead of 1:10 for the majmua.)

    • March says:

      It’s all Marla’s fault! Interestingly, I wore it to a meeting this morning and found it very, very calming. If you google majmua in general, it says it’s worn for meditation. There are places that sell it cheaper, but those may be the petroleum-based. I’m going to go with Tigerflag.