If you’ve been in the fragrance world long enough, or if you happen to be from the Middle East or the Indian Subcontinent, you’ve probably heard of attars before.
While perfume or eau de cologne is the byword for fragrance in the Western world, in the East, attar occupies the same pride of place.
But what exactly is an attar? And what differentiates it from a perfume?
Attars are the oldest form of perfumery, dating back to ancient Egypt. Typically, an attar is a blend of essential oils, such as rose, jasmine, sandalwood, oud, or musk. What differentiates it from a perfume is its lack of alcohol.
Let’s take a closer look.
The History of Attars
As I mentioned, attars are the oldest form of perfume, dating back at least to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The Egyptians in particular were famed throughout the ancient Mediterranean for their production of precious perfume oils, especially perfumes containing fragrant resins such as myrrh and frankincense, spices like cinnamon and cardamom, and flowers like lily and rose.
But by modern standards, these Egyptian perfumes would have seemed somewhat crude. That’s because distillation techniques, the process by which essential oils are gleaned from raw materials, were far less sophisticated. That’s part of the reason why attars historically contained no alcohol – pure alcohol, obtained by the distilling of wine with salt, was not achieved until the early Medieval period, around the 10th to 12th centuries, by Arab and Persian chemists.
As time went on, however, more and more advancements in distillery were made. The famous polymath Ibn Sina, known to western writers as Avicenna, achieved the first recorded steam distillation of flowers. He prescribed his attar of roses for aromatherapeutic purposes, especially for heart conditions.
Attars came to occupy a place of importance in medieval Islamic societies not only because of a vigorous perfume trade being conducted with Europe, but because of religion. It was (and still is) considered an Islamic duty to be freshly bathed, and, if possible, perfumed when going to Friday prayers.
In the Indian subcontinent, where an attar tradition in the Middle Eastern style was developed starting in the 16th century during the reigns of the Mughal emperors, especially at Kannauj, attars also played a role in certain Hindu sects, being given as offerings to the gods in pujas. In Ayurvedic medicine, attars have long been considered to have medicinal properties.
In the modern day, attars are still the predominant style of fragrance in the Middle East, and in India, primarily because of their lack of alcohol, which is considered haram in Islam.
What Are Attars Made Of?
Attars differ considerably in terms of composition from a conventional alcohol-based perfume.
While most alcohol-based perfumes have a hierarchical, tripartite structure – known as top notes, middle notes, and base notes – most attars don’t. Instead, attars place an emphasis on capturing the essence of individual, natural ingredients, rather than creating synthetic accords.
Of course, the dominance of Western perfumery styles on the world market has led to some osmosis between the two – Eastern perfumery staples, like oud, have penetrated the Western market, and Western perfumery tropes have without a doubt influenced the attars of the modern day. However, in the traditional sense, attars are more elemental, and more natural, than their European counterparts.
Usually, attars are blends of an essential oil – such as rose, jasmine, musk, or amber – in a woody base oil, typically sandalwood or agarwood oil. Once blended, the attar is aged, typically from one to ten years, but potentially for longer.
What Do They Smell Like?
Attars can have a wide array of different scents, but there are some very classic combinations which any initiate into the world of attars would do well to familiarize themselves with.
One of the most famous, and most often imitated in Western perfumery, attar styles is what is known as mukhalat – a blend of oud, rose, and, usually, saffron, patchouli, and amber. The mix of rich rose (often taif rose, which is distinct from the more common Bulgarian or damask rose) and deep, dry, smoky, and often animalic oud creates an unmistakable and beautiful scent.
There are innumerable different varieties of mukhalat – almost every major Middle Eastern brand has their own, or several.
But that only scratches the surface of the world of attars. There are “warm” attars for use in the winter, such as oud, musk, or saffron, and “cooling” attars for use in the summer, such as jasmine, vetiver, and rose. There’s even a classic Indian attar, known as Mitti attar, which smells like petrichor, the scent of rain.
There are also many attars that try to replicate or put a new spin on the scent of popular Western designer fragrances, if that tickles your fancy.
How Do You Wear an Attar?
Now we come to the question: how do you apply and wear an attar?
Because attars are oil-based, they can not be sprayed on like a conventional alcohol perfume. Instead, attar bottles come with either a rollerball or a dipstick applicator.
There are a couple of different schools of thought on how to apply attars which I’ll go over.
The traditional method of wearing attar is to put it on your clothes, rather than directly on your skin. To do so, put one to two drops of attar onto your palms or wrists, or swipe one to two times with the rollerball or dipstick, and rub together gently. Then softly massage the scent into your clothes.
However, attars are oils and can of course stain light colored garments. If you’re wearing light colored clothing, you will definitely want to go for the skin method instead.
Although not as traditional, you can wear attar on skin as well.
To apply attar to the skin, put one to two drops of attar onto your palms or wrists, or swipe one to two times with the rollerball or dipstick, and rub together gently. Then, rub wherever you’d like the scent to be spread – your neck, behind your ears, your jaw, etc. Attar can also be massaged directly into your hair or beard.
However you decide to apply your attar, do not under any circumstances put on more than two or three drops. Attar is extremely concentrated, and only comes in small bottles, usually between 3 and 30ml. There’s a reason for that – although a sparingly applied dose of attar will give you enough longevity and projection to satisfy anyone, any more than that will give you enough olfactory firepower to take down a horse at forty paces.
The dictum, “Less is more,” certainly applies here.
Which Attars Should I Try?
There are so many attars in so many variations on the market that it’s almost impossible to recommend them. The best advice is to just pick one and dive in.
However, there are several stalwarts in the world of attars that you can turn to as a beginner in order to orient yourself.
On the lower end of the monetary spectrum, brands like Al Rehab, Al Haramain, Swiss Arabian, Ajmal, and Rasasi are king and will run you from a few bucks to around $60.
Golden Sand by Al Rehab ($7), Musk by Al Haramain ($16), Attar Mubakhar by Swiss Arabian ($34.99), Dahn Al Oudh Nuwayra by Ajmal ($41), and Amber Oudh by Rasasi ($32) are all good starting points.
All of the houses also offer pricier, and more luxurious, attars as well.
Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Arabian Oud are great high quality attar makers in the $60 to $200 range.
Sadine Blend by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi ($180) and Aged Cambodian Dehn Al Oud by Arabian Oud ($90) are both good options.
Finally, in the high end, commanding prices in the hundreds or even thousands, you’ll find niche attar makers like Ensar Oud, Sultan Pasha, The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, and Al Shareef Oudh. These are artisan brands, sourcing their raw materials organically and working in small batches. They are intended for the connoisseur, so it might not be the best idea to start with these brands. Still, for those seeking for the upper echelon of attars, look no further.
Sultan Leather Ghalia by Ensar Oud ($585 for 2gr), Aurum d’Angkhor by Sultan Pasha ($549 for 3ml), Aziz Attar by The Rising Phoenix Perfumery ($102 for 1gr), and Samarqand by Al Shareef Oudh ($335 for 2.5ml) are all good points of entry.
The Final Word
The world of attars might seem vast and complex for Western perfume lovers, but it is a world well worth dipping one’s toes into. Rich with history and tradition, and often more focused on natural ingredients than Western designer perfumes, attars provide a fascinating, rewarding, and, of course, wonderful-smelling experience for both perfume novices and veterans alike.
So, what is the difference between a perfume and an attar?
The difference between perfumes and attars lies in their compositions. Perfumes are alcohol-based and more structurally complex, while attars are oil-based and place more emphasis on individual materials. Attars are the oldest style of perfumery, dating back to ancient Egypt, while perfumes evolved in the Medieval and early Modern periods.