Monday, 22 June 2015

All the Perfumes of Arabia by Kate Lord Brown


Perfume is the key to our memories – Kipling said ‘it makes our heartstrings crack’. It evokes people, a place, a time. Here in the Middle East, fragrance is highly prized, and enjoyed everywhere from malls scented with the delicious smell of incense and oud burning in gently smoking mabkharas, to the dedicated perfumeries found in every souk. 


 At home, incense is burned to fragrance robes, and perfume is offered as a refreshing gift for visitors. During my first trip in the Middle East, after dining with a princess/interior designer one night, she carried round a crystal bottle of sandalwood oil and anointed the wrists of her guests. It was a great honour, and the scent of sandalwood still evokes the sights and sounds of that trip more clearly now than any photograph.

Perfume comes from the Latin ‘per fumum’ meaning ‘through smoke’, and it is either extracted from the natural world, or created synthetically to produce scents that cannot be stabilised, or to invent entirely new ones unknown in nature. It was in Arabia that perfumes were first distilled. By about 1500 many of today’s scents such as cedar wood, calamus, costus, rose, rosemary, spike, and incense had been extracted. In the 1900’s chemical characterisation of the oils led to expansion of production, and paved the way for the modern perfume industry.

The finest perfumes may have up to 100 ingredients, and while there are only four or five taste qualities there are over 40,000 identifiable odours. After being sprayed onto the skin, each fragrance goes through a number of stages. At first, you smell the top note, which is volatile and refreshing. Then, as the fragrance melds with your skin, a full middle note becomes apparent. Finally, when the perfume fully reacts with your own chemistry, the base or end note persists. Floral perfumes focus on jasmine, rose, lily of the valley or gardenia. Spicy scents are carnation, clove, cinnamon, or nutmeg. The woody fragrances often present in aftershaves are vetiver, sandalwood, cedar wood, and oak moss. Blends of these basic groups create the perfumes we love. For example, ‘Orientals’ are woody, mossy, and spicy with vanilla or balsam, and musk or civet accents. ‘Herbals’ focus on fresh clover and sweet grass. The ‘Leather-tobacco’ fragrances contain (not surprisingly), leather, tobacco and birch tar. Lighter Aldehydic fragrances have fruity characters. Men’s fragrances often have a vibrant blend of citrus, spice, leather, lavender, fern or woody elements. Here, it is Oud, the dark resinous heart of Agarwood that is most highly prized, and it forms the core of favourite perfumes for the home and individual.


Alongside all the familiar brand name perfumes, you find stalls and boutiques selling what looks like kindling or driftwood. Even in supermarkets like Carrefour you will find a section selling incense and resinous perfumed wood alongside the shisha pipes and charcoal.

Browsing the jewel-like gilded bottles in one of the local souks, you may think that the elaborate, elegant designs are a new trend, but even in early history packaging was integral to the whole luxurious experience. The earliest known perfume bottle dates to 1000 BC. Gold, silver, enamel, copper, glass and porcelain bottles gained favour during 18th century, and the 19th century saw a trend for classical designs. During the 1920’s Lalique revived the interest in bottles with moulded glass creations that set the trend for today’s dazzling range of designs. It was a joy researching the history of perfume making for 'The Perfume Garden', and realising how our love affair with fragrance goes back to the earliest of times. There is something magical, alchemical about the way perfume conjures the past - I wonder what your favourite scents are, or whether you have come across interesting historical fragrances in your research?



19 comments:

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

What an informative and interesting post Kate, I really enjoyed it. Have you read Turin and Sanchez's Perfumes: The A-Z Guide? I bought this a couple of years ago and have been gradually collecting their 4 and 5 star ratings - even though I don't always agree with their verdicts!

michelle lovric said...

Love the Kipling quote.

Recently attended a perfume and storytelling workshop that was absolutely fascinating, and I recommend it.

http://www.sarapitta.com/blog/category/workshops/

I became very interested in Frankincense for the novel I am writing at the moment, and brought back some bags of it from Oman to burn while writing about it. If I close my eyes I can remember the huge camel snuffling round my tent late one night, and the pile of shoes I made to throw at it, if it decided to come inside. But it also brings back memories of souks and supermarkets, where you buy Frankincense in bags alongside all your normal groceries.

Clare Mulley said...

I keep meaning to find a bottle of Caron's En Avion to evoke the scent, mood and ironies within my forthcoming book...

Susan Price said...

I was planting mint - spearmint and peppermint - in a tub yesterday, and thoroughly enjoying the freshness of the scent. There was lavender growing nearby, and some richly scented red roses.
Today I shall plant some sage and chamomile - and grate some vanilla into my yoghurt. I love all these scents - clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, lemon...
Thank you for a post that made that clear to me, and made me look forward even more to planting on my herbs!

Julia Ergane said...

I especially love Frankincence, both in perfume and incense. Generally, my favourite perfume category are the Orientals. Coco (Chanel), Poison (Dior), {no longer available My Sin by Arpege -- yes, I am old enough to remember it}, etc. have been favourites. I do not have a retiring personality ;-).

Joan Lennon said...

40,000 identifiable scents! What must the number be for animals with GOOD noses!
This was very interesting - thanks for posting -

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thank you, Elizabeth - I have, Turin's a genius of fragrance

Kate Lord Brown said...

I love your camel story, Michelle! Indeed, I have a bowl of frankincense here that looks like crystallised ginger

Kate Lord Brown said...

It helps! Chanel were kind enough to send a sample of Cuir de Russie when I wrote Beauty Chorus - Evie's perfume

Kate Lord Brown said...

Sounds like heaven, enjoy your planting

Kate Lord Brown said...

All gorgeous - i've just been writing the 70s, all the files are scented with Opium!

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thank you

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thank you

carol drinkwater said...

Lovely post, Kate. The Minoans infused olive oil with various herbs, plants and flowers and they traded with Egypt, possibly even sailed their scented wares right across the Med. This was possibly the first steps towards perfume, scented oils.
I used to wear Opium. I loved it. It always evokes memories of my twenties and thirties.
You must come and visit me and we'll take a trip to Grasse together
Cx

Kate Lord Brown said...

How fascinating, Carol. Would *love* to visit Grasse x

Josa Young said...

I have recently fallen for Oud big time. Assam Oud from Crabtree & Evelyn. Strange and different. Love this piece of writing.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thanks, Josa. It's interesting how many of the big perfumers are using Oud - Tom Ford, Jo Malone. Interesting that it's not just for the market here.

Piers Lyman said...

The best gift I wanted this Christmas is luxury perfumes.

Jhon Saka said...

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