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Exploring the Arabian art of luxury fragrance layering

In the mood for a bespoke scent symphony? Let’s head Middle Eastwards where writer Krishnaraj Iyengar explores the Arabian art of luxury fragrance layering.

By LLM Reporters  |  January 25, 2022

Words by Krishnaraj Iyengar

“Nahnu hena fee’l imarat, natanaffasu’t teeb!” (We here in the Emirates, breathe fragrance), winked Abu Marwan as a sensuous musk eloped from his sparkling white kandoora robe, with a seductive gush of chilly wind from the Arabian Gulf.

Sharing tantalizing Arabic Qahwah – black coffee with cardamom and succulent seedless dates with his Arabic speaking Indian guest on his million-dollar yacht anchored in the Dubai Marina, fragrance was Abu’s apt gesture of hospitality. Gently resting my forearm on his palm, he perched himself on an exquisitely embroidered carpet in the yacht’s deewan as I reclined on a bright red Emirati style cushion.

First, he smeared a generous dab of refreshing white musk on the back of my hand with the glass applicator of the traditional Arabian scent bottle. Then, a deep, intensely heady black musk preluded viscous, leathery, aged oud oil and finally, a natural Ta’ifi rose extract oil from Saudi Arabia. Whispering Arabic blessings for his guest, the Bedouin billionaire caressed his forefinger over the combination, et voila! “Mud’hil!” (amazing), I gushed!

Gulf grandeur

When it comes to scents, truly is the Arab an olfactory enchanter conjuring up magical aromas that spring up a plethora of permutations to dazzle, captivate and seduce the senses. The treasure house of Khaleeji or Gulf Arabian fragrance heritage preserves the fascinating culture of luxury fragrance layering that symphonize some of the world’s most exotic scents in scintillating synergy on skin and fabric alike, owing it to their fierce passion for scents and an inherent, intensely keen olfactive expressiveness.

Misk A fragrance
Ajmal’s Misk A, a heavyweight black musk, takes you on a nocturnal African safari

While stumbling upon a fragrance that shouts ‘you’ may indeed seem like a rare coincidence, few are blessed with the unique ability to craft their own exclusive scents with a marriage of notes that emerge from their individual consciousness, soaked in the vernix of their own distinct personalities. The Khajeelis have it in them.

“A majority of their fragrance purchases largely depend on how they want their unique layer to smell. Their concept of layering is so advanced, that it is almost as if they create a bespoke fragrance buy applying multiple products across varied categories to present an overall accord that is uniquely them” explains oriental fragrance maverick Abdulla Ajmal, third generation and deputy COO of the legendary Ajmal and Sons.

Although the basic fragrant components may vary, Ajmal believes, the crème of Khaleeji society is synonymous with creating awe-inspiring fragrance layering with a variety of products. Fragrant smoke through varieties of scented incenses (mu’attar) and also pure oud chips, or perfume oils sans alcohol on select areas on the body or clothing. These could include pure extracts of oud or rose, a traditional Arabic mukhallat blend of various oriental notes or even oils with western formulations. Many even prefer eau de parfum or eau de toilette sprays directly on the attire. For women, skin care products aid in adding oomph to their layering.

“After a shower, I typically apply one of our concentrated fragrances called Musk Silk. In the meanwhile, I have my clothes basking in incense. I place the madkhan (traditional incense burner) on the floor and hang my clothes above it. Then, I put my clothes on and generously spray my current favourite fragrance (eau de parfum) on them. As I am almost out the door, I apply some dahn al oud (concentrated oud oil) to my wrists and behind the neck to ensure that the touch of the orient remains with me throughout the day!” shares Ajmal, passionately.

From his repertoire of classic Arabian scents a Khaleeji layering aficionado would die for, comes Misk Madinah. This is bottled nostalgia. A nippy evening in a 1970’s old town Damascus, the ethereal, silken voice of legendary songstress Faiza Ahmed casting a spell on her soiree as a clean, eclectic, soapy white musk with teasing floral undertones projects from the freshly shampooed hair of gazelle-eyed damsels in the front rows. As Faiza commences, her melody in Maqam Rast lilts with a dusk winter breeze.

Ajmal’s Misk A, a heavyweight black musk, takes you on a nocturnal African safari, a penetrating animalic scent permeating the silent darkness of the wilderness suggesting the presence of animals in the vicinity.

Heritage perfumery, Gulabsingh Johrimal House of Fragrance, is famed for its herbaceous and warming Attar Shamama, a mélange of indigenous Indian spices and sought after creamy, aged Mysore Sandalwood

Among the high-end traditional blends, his majestic Mukhallat Hadaya stands tall like the formidable patriarch of an Arab tribe, an unshaken pillar of strength and forbearance. A deep, towering, leathery dahn al oud wearing an armour of sturdy leathery accords displays the steadfast loyalty of a Bedouin warrior chieftain braving the dunes of time and galloping on the stallion of faith against any storm the desert can possibly unleash. But beneath these herculean notes lies the gentle compassionate hearth of a white musk with subtle floral touches to come home to.

Layering Hadaya with Misk A is definitely a daytime delight, especially for warm, sunny climes. With a volcanic projection, this combination would mesmerize even introverted strangers into spontaneous compliments. With the refined and gentle Misk Madinah, however, Hayada’s subtle class is enhanced manifold as you layer a tad bit on your wrist and smear it on your attire.

Pure perfection

“The Arabs share a long history of trade with India. Among the myriad treasures they have sought from our land, natural fragrances have been on the top of their list, be it oud, shamama or sandalwood,” opines perfumer Vinamra Gundhi, eighth generation torchbearer of the historic 1816 Gulabsingh Johrimal House of Fragrance in India’s national capital Delhi.

Hailing from a family of Gundhis or traditional perfumers who have distilled natural fragrances for several generations, young Vinamra unveils a fresh avenue in Arab layering. He believes that many Arabs with eclectic tastes prefer to layer their staple oud oil with other natural oils instead of synthetic ones.

“Wealthy Arabs, both expats as well as tourists, have flocked to our perfumery for our array of natural extracts like rose, tuberose, sandalwood and patchouli. What are known as ruh gulab and ruh motia in India for instance, is what the Arabs call dahn al ward or rose extract and dahn al ya’sameen or natural jasmine oil. India still ranks among the world’s biggest producers of natural fragrance materials,” Vinamra adds.

The world of artisanal perfumery is spiritually enriching and nonetheless intriguing

Indeed, Gulabsingh’s lush, fresh, sweet Rosa Damascena or Damascus rose, an earthy, deep patchouli and a clean, bright and radiant jasmine sambac layered with leathery and animalic oud oil is truly a classic upper crust indulgence few Arabs can resist.

The heritage perfumery is also famed for its herbaceous and warming Attar Shamama, a mélange of indigenous Indian spices and sought after creamy, aged Mysore Sandalwood. This fragrance has long been a key ingredient in Arabian perfumery.

Sound oudwise

The world of artisanal perfumery is spiritually enriching and nonetheless intriguing. When it comes to oud, there are just a few niche distillers who bottle this divine fragrance for the pleasure of the soul. Janab Tajul Bakshi of Assam is one such master. He believes that for a perfectly gratifying olfactory experience, layering artisanal ouds with natural extracts is the key.

“Rather than pungent commercial oud that is commonly available in the Arabian souqs, which can go well with a vast variety of synthetic oils, delicate artisanal ouds derived by sophisticated and meticulous distillation techniques is best complemented by natural Indian patchouli, extracts of vetiver, Damascus rose and Indian sandalwood, to name a few,” he explains.

Springing up accords of floral, leathery, incense, woody, often smoky and almond, Janab Tajul’s oud oils are soulful divine renditions. Just a drop of pure Indian rose oil over his rare 2021 Taj Oud 218 reminds me of Sufi mystic Rumi’s words “na tan baashad na jaan baashad o man az jaan e jananam”- I am beyond body and soul, I belong to the soul of all souls.