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