“The love of perfumes springs from a quality of the soul, from a memory or from a premonition of paradise.“
Those beautiful words come from AbdesSalaam Attar who generously gave up a lot of his time over the last few weeks to answer a lengthy interview. His answers are filled with poetic grace, thoughtfulness, and honesty on such varied subjects as his perfume background, alchemy and spirituality, animal pheromones and human olfactory instinct, the economic challenges of making fragrances, the myths of modern marketing which dominate the mainstream perfume industry, olfactory psychology, the role played by our mind in translating scent, and whether we can ever really know what we smell at all.
For those of you unfamiliar with the name, AbdesSalaam Attar is an Italian perfumer (born “Dominique Dubrana“) who became a Sufi convert. His all-natural creations for his Italian house of La Via del Profumo are some of Luca Turin‘s favorites, several of which have received Five Star reviews. His last scent, Venezia Gardini Segreti (which I’ve reviewed here) was included on Luca Turin’s list of the Best Releases of 2014 on his column for Style Arabia. And The New York Times calls AbdesSalaam “a genius of sorts,” “a Saracen Willy Wonka.”
Yet, to me, and in my mind, he is above all else, first and foremost, a gentleman — and I mean that in every sense of that word. He is a very gentle, extremely courteous man, one whose vast knowledge is imbued with an old-world, Eastern mysticism and spirituality, as well as enormous humility and modesty. His words may seem simple on the surface, but they are usually laced with layers of meaning that often make me think deeply long after I’ve read them. Perhaps it’s because of his philosophical nature, or perhaps it’s AbdesSalaam’s very unique world view that stems from his travels far and wide. Whatever it is, there is a thoughtful quality to both the man and his creations that always shines through. Regardless of whether a particular fragrance works for me or not, they are always distinctive and unique, always seem to convey either emotion or a sense of a place, and always beautifully crafted.
My main goal in this interview was to show you the AbdesSalaam Attar that I’ve gotten to know in email correspondence, but also to have him share his knowledge and to teach us. However, I started with very similar questions to what I asked Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes and Liz Moores of Papillon in their interviews, focusing on the process of learning notes, handling raw materials, and creating fragrances. The reason for the deliberate overlap is that many of the perfumers in my interview series are self-taught, so I think seeing differences in how they answer the same or similar questions will be revealing. Other questions, however, are very different, such as AbdesSalaam’s views on the Myths and Marketing of Modern Perfumery, or how our mind filters information to interpret a perfume. I hope you will find his answers as fascinating, as poetic, and as beautiful as I do.
- I’m very interested in your perfume journey, particularly what it was like for you when you first started. How did you teach yourself the basics of perfume creation? Did you just jump into the deep end by experimenting with different essences? If so, do you remember the very first things that you put together in a beaker, and what the end result was like?
My perfume journey started when I left Europe for travelling in Africa, Middle East and near East. Perfumes were very much used in the Muslim world but in a completely different way as we do in the West and they were altogether very different perfumes from ours. They became part of my life.
After 10 years, I came back to Europe and in order to make a living I started to sell this type of eastern scents to the people. They were pure essential oils that I sold in small bottles with handwritten label. Ylang Ylang, Mysore Sandalwood, Patchouli, rose, etc… They were simply the natural raw materials of perfumery that I was buying in Grasse, the Mecca of all perfumers.
It was in the late eighties and nobody knew these products in Italy. After a few years though, the wave of new age made aromatherapy become a trend. A German company started to promote essential oils and to provide Italian health shops and pharmacies with them. I could not compete with their prices, although they could not compete with my quality. I was forced to change jobs. I started to make my own attars with my own names that nobody would find at a cheaper price in pharmacies. This is how I became a perfumer.
My first perfume was made with Oak moss, the “Tarzan’s perfume”. I noticed that people liked the smell of raw Oak moss absolute but it is a sticky and staining green paste not really usable as a perfume. In order to make it as a liquid attar, I added cedar wood, sandalwood and vetyver. Up to now “Oak Moss” is one of my best selling perfumes. Then a friend asked me to make a perfume for him with Patchouli, Vetyver and Frankincense. Here was “Sea Wood”. Then I started to make custom scents for friends and customers, and this is really how I learned the delicate balances of blending. The results of my first compositions are still some of my best sellers. As I used more and more precious absolutes, the prices of my small attars went up and, in order to sell them, I had to put them in bigger nice bottles with alcohol.
Consumers are made to believe that blending essences into making a perfume is difficult. It is not so, making perfumes is easy; you need only two things, good ingredients and a clear idea. This is why making perfumes for real people is so important. In custom blending, the other person is the clear idea you need.
On the other hand, our art is so mysterious that most of the perfumers cannot explain the proceedings they use to build a perfume. Making perfumes is before all else a mental attitude.
The real difficulty is to formulate a scent that will be wearable using only synthetic chemicals, as is the standard nowadays, without any significant amount of natural ingredients. I could not do it.
- What were some of the early challenges that you faced when teaching yourself about the process of perfume creation as a whole, from tincturing to distillation and making the final product? What were some of the unexpectedly easy parts? For example, was it hard to learn about precise proportions, the more chemistry-related aspects of how ingredients interact, or how particular ingredients (like say, Angelica) needed to be handled in terms of doses?
You never know how several ingredients will interact together. It is always a surprise. You can learn how to blend only empirically. This is particularly true with the complex natural essences.
Every perfumer will develop a method of his own that will reflect his vision of life. You may learn more about a perfumer’s intimate self from his method in making perfumes than from the story of his life.
The challenges that every natural perfumer has to face are the same from the beginning of his career to the end, they are economic. His difficulties are first of all to be able to buy the expensive natural raw materials, and secondly to manage making a living by selling his perfumes.
Natural raw materials are costly, and the best of them cost real fortunes. Do you know what is the most expensive botanical extract? It is Iris root absolute, about 100,000 USD a kg.
The smell of Iris root is beautiful. It smells like the head of a new born baby, so tender and delicate. The baby produces this smell on the top of his head immediately after birth with a special pheromone so that the mother will have it right under her nose whenever she breast feeds him. This pheromone has a crucial role in fostering the olfactory tie between mother and child and in activating her hormonal system after giving birth. Many botanical essences mimic human pheromones, but none is as beautiful as “Iris new born baby”.
It is only after 25 years that I composed my first Iris based perfume, “Iris di Firenze”, the latest perfume of the “Italian series”. The challenge again is economic, selling the most expensive perfume of my collection.
- When you were starting out, were there any essences or tinctures that you found to be challenging to work with, either due to their innate properties and characteristics, or something else? Which ones were easy from the start? And which ones did you fall in love with immediately?
The love of perfumes springs from a quality of the soul, from a memory or from a premonition of paradise.
There is always a reason why you like some smells and dislike others. Most of the time it has to do with memories.
Your life memories have associated positive or negative emotions to smells, because this is the only biologic way that we have to remember them. You will like smells that are memorized with positive emotions. A very interesting thing is that our ancestors have transmitted genetically to us the memories of their most important emotional experience with smells, such as fire, cattle, hay, sea, earth and others that I call “archetypical smells” of the olfactory language.
You will also instinctively like the smells that you need physically, emotionally and psychically. Your nose is your doctor; it will guide you to crave for some scents as it guides cats and dogs to smell and eat some plants that they would never eat if they were not ill.
Wonderfully, the smell itself is your medicine. Through your nose smells will activate the glands of your hormonal system to produce the neuro chemicals that you need to be in equilibrium. Smells will put into motion your own pharmaceutical laboratory.
However, the perfumer has a higher level of relation with smells. Normal people are like children who play with colored glasses and stones, they like most the biggest and more shining ones. The perfumer is like the jeweler, he sees the beauty of the precious stones among the glass beads, he can appreciate it, evaluate it and enjoy it with a joy deeper than that of the child, a joy boosted by knowing and understanding. For the perfumer, his own liking an essence or not is secondary, his judging the beauty of smells is not an opinion, it is an understanding.
On your blog at La Via del Profumo, you talk with great love, eloquence and knowledge about various raw materials. For example, you recently wrote about tincturing Baltic amber, a material whose age you said “is estimated at 150 million years.” You have also explored unusual or rare ingredients, like Eco Sandalwood and Aboriginal fire tree, or have distilled Himalayan Pine. On your website, you offer seaweed oil in addition to the more typical essences for making perfumes. I would love to hear more about the unusual materials you have worked with, particularly any which may have surprised you in terms of how they manifested themselves in a fragrance. Have there been any unusual materials that you loved but which simply didn’t hold up well to the perfume-making process?
150 million years is the age of Baltic Amber. When you work the raw pieces with sand paper to make them into jewels your hands become perfumed with this very antique smell of prehistoric conifers. The tincture gives exactly the same smell. How can smell last for 150 million years?
There is a rule in natural perfumery, there is no natural essence that cannot hold up in a natural perfume, it is only a question of proportions.
Making perfumes is very easy, it is like cooking. It is even easier than cooking, but it requires much less instruments. On the other hand if you are not a cook you cannot make perfumes. Cooking, like making perfumes is not for everybody, but if you love perfumes and have this desire, certainly it is for you.
The most surprising ingredients to me were the animal scents when I came across them, especially the muskdeer. It smells like the noise of busy bees. After having smelled it, I could recognize that some persons produce naturally this scent.
Animal scents are very important in perfumes. At the beginning of the century, a fragrance without animal scents was not conceivable to perfumers. It was not understood why people preferred them, but this was a notorious fact and perfumers found it wise to indulge the taste of customers.
Pheromones had not yet been discovered, and nobody could imagine that Muskdeer, Ambergris, Castoreum, Civet musk, Hyraceum, and bees wax were substances that had the power to influence deeply the comportment of human beings.
When you know that these smells called pheromones are fundamental in the reproduction process of all living species, you begin to understand why we are so attracted to them, and you can also imagine what they can do to us in perfumes, because this is exactly what the animal scents of perfumery are: pheromones. [Ed.’s Note: AbdesSalaam has explored this issue in detail via a project with Basenotes members whom he asked to add animalic, pheromone-heavy essences to their existing fragrances. His blog post, “Correcting Commercial Fragrance with Animal Pheromones,” quotes their findings for a range of perfumes, from Bal à Versailles and Jicky to Eau Sauvage, Mitsouko, John Varvatos, Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque, and more. The results are fascinating, particularly for scents that have suffered IFRA/EU reformulation, so you may want to check out his post.]
But our attraction towards them, our need of them goes further than their basic influence in our mating process.
A fragrance made entirely of ingredients from plants meets only a part of our soul’s needs. We need the presence of plants so much that we bring them into our houses when they are absent in our streets. We do exactly the same with animals, we take pets.
We need the company of both of them for our psychological and emotional equilibrium. Together they ARE nature.
Animal scents in botanical perfumes work like the stereoscopic device, the “View-Master”, through which one looks with the 2 eyes at two images taken from a different angle. The result is a wonderful 3 D image. This is why I call a perfume that contains both botanical and animal ingredients a three-dimensional perfume; there are only two images, but they combine, just as the pictures in the stereoscope, to create an emotional image that is real and complete, that brings the entire harmony of nature to our soul.
The smell of things can bring to us their presence in their absence, and this is the marvel that performs a bottle of perfume.
- You speak a lot about distillation on your blog, and also teach the process to others. In one post, you said that it exerts some sort of magical fascination on people, then concluded with some of the most beautiful words that I’ve read in a while: “I believe that distillation is showing us in the material world a primordial spiritual process of mankind. The distillation of one’s self. Distilling yourself means to eliminate all that makes yourself as a person in order to become the pure spirit of your person.” I would love for you to talk further about those points, but also to explain to readers about the process itself and why it’s such a critical part of perfumery for you?
The metaphor of distilling oneself is a Sufi teaching. It is the same metaphor as the Philosophical Stone of Alchemy. Distillation is in fact a basic process of Alchemy. If we want, we can see the allegories in everything, because everything of the created world has several levels of meanings. It is just for us to open our eyes.
Distilling yourself is to separate what is from your ego from what is from your pure soul. I can add no more to what I wrote in the text, “Distill yourself,” because my knowledge reaches only that far.
Distilling aromatic plants is beautiful and being able to distill is an asset for the perfumer but I do not say that it is important to him for making perfumes. What is important is the capacity to choose the best quality of the essential oils and absolutes that one uses for making one’s perfumes.
- You have a provocative post on your blog entitled, “Pyramids, Lies and Myths of Modern Perfumery.” I’ll quote one portion, with apologies for connecting all your various sentences together into one paragraph: “Pyramids are but a marketing tool used to persuade you into buying frags. If you believe that the ingredients listed in the pyramids are in the fragrances you just missed the point. Pyramids are to make you dream a of a wonderful world where perfumes are made with real musk, real amber and real rose… If it is written ‘Lavender’, it does is not meant the extract of lavender flowers, it means ‘lavender note’ such as the one you find in dish wash soap. It smells nothing like lavender but it is, let us say, ‘legal lavender’ because if it is not written ‘Lavender essential oil”, it is a ‘legal lye’.” You also talk about the arbitrary nature of the pyramid’s division into top, middle, and bottom. I agree with a lot of your points, but want to ask you about the marketing of perfume in general. Hasn’t there always been mystical marketing, even a 100 years ago, that was meant to create an illusion and increase sales? Isn’t the selling of perfume at any level really a selling of fantasy and dreams? And isn’t every perfumer ultimately bottling a promise, be it a promise of sensuality, travel to the Hindu Kush, or something else.
Marketing is a magical craft. Persuading people into buying what they do not want to buy. There is a big difference between describing the real properties and qualities of a product and inventing them.
There is a difference between reality and illusion, although they look alike. The ability of men and women to discern this difference is systematically erased by the Kafkaesque world. People must be confused in order to be controlled.
The same applies in the perfume realm, there is a difference between a synthetic aroma of peach and the smell of a real peach, although they look alike.
This is why my describing the meaning of my natural perfumes is not fantasy or dream, it is not even marketing. It is sharing knowledge and truth. When you understand the meaning of what you smell you are smelling as no animals can smell. You smell with your mind.
- Do you think the niche world is a bit better insulated from the demands of marketing like, for example, avoiding the use of focus groups to dictate how a mainstream fragrance is going to smell? Or is niche just as bad for other reasons?
Focus groups are not intended to help in making good frags but rather to test how far you can go in putting crap on the market.
I live on top of a hill in the country side and rarely go down to city. I visit perfume shops only in the airports when I fly, but then I only look at the trends in perfume bottles. I do not have the curiosity to smell what is inside them; the smell of the shop itself tells me that what is in the bottles is not for my nose. I do not know what niche perfumes smell like. From what I can see on Internet though, niche perfumery relies on marketing even more than mainstream. The difference seems to be that niche perfumery has a marketing strategy based on provocation and contestation of the accepted standards of aesthetics and ethics. In art, this is a clear sign of lack of contents.
- If I were to describe both you, your philosophy, and your perfumes all in a single word, it would be “spiritual.” From Mecca to the Hindu Kush, it’s as though you seek to capture the spiritual soul of a place, as well as how it may smell. You also travel extensively. Are there are places whose soul or smell was simply too great to be distilled into an olfactory bouquet? Are there any places that you think have no olfactory soul?
You are kind, but I would more simply say that I make “perfumes with a meaning”.
Of course, you are right that my Dervish travelling during so many years and in so many countries have conditioned my way of conceiving and making perfumes, but only some of my perfumes narrate places, travels and adventures. Many of them narrate stories in the olfactory language. My stories are simple and archetypical, this is why they appeal to many, because they can be easily understood.
However, my next perfume is indeed one of those who want to show the “soul of a place”, as you say. After the Italian cities of Florence, Milan, Palermo and Venice, the next perfume will be “Cuore di Napoli”, Heart of Naples.
- You once told me that “we smell through our mind,” meaning we process what we smell through the filter of our personal experiences, our past, our likes and dislikes. In the Myths & Marketing post, however, you also discussed the power of suggestion in the context of a water experiment conducted by Avery Gilbert. Which do you think plays a bigger role in shaping what we think we smell, expectations and illusions created by marketing – or – our personal history and baggage?
My statement that “we smell with our mind more than with our nose” can be applied to all the aspects of smelling. For instance, suggesting smells that do not exist or creating an emotion with marketing in order to associate it to a perfume and having people buy it, as you rightly mention.
It is applied also to the fact that knowing the meaning of what you smell gives you a smelling dimension that animals do not have, but these are only minor aspects of olfactory psychology.
The deeper meanings of this statement of mine are to be discovered in all the situations where our sense of smell raises a conflicts between our animal instinctive nature and our human intellectual one.
- Continuing on your point about the mind and subjectivity, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave essentially posits that most people can’t see the true reality of things, but merely distorted projections and shadows on a wall. Do you think it’s possible for us to ever smell anything but the shadows created by our minds and/or marketing? If so, then how?
I do not know. This is a hard one. I do not feel that I am up to commenting on Plato. I am just a Tuareg of the desert. It is true that we cannot see the whole reality, in the same way as the fish cannot see the extend of the sea, but how can I know that you smell the same thing as I do?
The more deeply we seek to understand reality the more evident to us that we know nothing. Maybe a perfumer is playing with smells that do not exist, like bankers play with money that does not exist, but if money without existence has the strongest hold on our lives, perfumes have it on our emotions. Happiness is an emotion and so is love. Greed and envy are not emotion, they are only a void. Voids exist in order to manifest that which makes them cease to exist.
There is nothing nearer to reality than love, in this world and in the next one.