A whirling vortex of potent spices accompanied by resinous, woody, aromatic, herbal and medicinal notes in a thick haze of darkened amber lightly diffused with creamy vanilla — that is the essence of Safwa from Al Haramain. It is a bold and challenging scent that I struggled with quite a bit at times, and I don’t think it will be for everyone.
Safwa is an attar or concentrated fragrance oil in Al Haramain Exclusive’s Premium Collection. The company describes the fragrance and its notes as follows:
Safwa captures the essence of luxury and elegance. The fragrance opens with the spicy top notes of cardamom, clove and cinnamon and gradually becomes a refreshing herbal scent with nuances of basil and geranium. In the heart the cold wind meets with the hot sun of the East, where cool mint competes with warm spices of clove and cedar wood that resonate with the tenderness of freesia. Safwa ends with subtle sensuality by the appearance of amber and vanilla, enhanced by the earthy note of patchouli. The fragrance is presented in a white crystal bottle with neutral patterns.
Top notes: Cinnamon, Cardamom, Geranium, Basil, Anethol, Artemisia, Clove
Middle notes: Mint, Clove, Cedar wood, Freesia
Base notes: Patchouli, Amber, Labdanum, Vetiver, Vanilla.
Safwa opens on my skin with heaping piles of clove, cinnamon, geranium, dry woods, and patchouli in a thick, syrupy amber. The clove is biting, pungent, and peppered, its earthiness accentuated by the patchouli that has similar undertones in addition to being spicy, dark, dusty, and slightly woody. The geranium smells like the bitter piquancy of its fuzzy leaves. I don’t detect basil or mint in any distinct, clearly delineated manner, but there is a noticeable herbaceous and medicinal aspect that feels icy just as Al Haramain writes in its description. Something about the mix also reads as metallic in a steely way that I cannot properly convey or explain.
More than anything else, however, the primary impression created by the totality of the notes is the scent of old world apothecaries or pharmacies where dark spices and aromatic herbs were ground by hand, then stored in dusty wooden cabinets. It’s due to the intense and biting pungency of the cloves which leads the charge on my skin, followed closely by the woody, dusty, earthy aspects of the spicy patchouli, and then by Safwa’s dried herbaceousness.
Yet, at the same time, all of this feels intensely oriental, warm, spicy, and sweet in that heavy Middle Eastern manner of attars. The labdanum emits waves of dark toffee that is so rich it almost reads like a dark honey. The patchouli has a subtle booziness to go along with its spicy, smoky, woody sides, while the amber smells of chewy caramel that has been lightly flecked with sweet vanilla.
It’s nuanced and layered up close but, from afar, the notes flatten into a bouquet that smells mostly of medicinal cloves, woods, and dusty earthiness in a dark syrup. Something about it in the early moments reminds me of holistic or aromatherapy dental washes with their strong mix of cloves and herbs. I’m not very keen on it. It’s even worse if you apply too much of Safwa. The first time I tried the fragrance, I made the mistake of applying too much — 3 wide, big swathes across my forearm — and the medicinal spices and intense syrupy sweetness turned so acrid (both individually and together) that I reeled back. The result was so much like dark cough syrup on steroids with pungency and dense molasses sweetness that I actually scrubbed the scent after 45 minutes.
Things are better and fractionally more modulated with a moderate quantity but, even then, Safwa takes on a cough syrup profile as it develops. Roughly 15 minutes in, a strong earthy funk arrives, either from the cloves or the patchouli. The herbaceous, medicinal, spicy, and woody accords grow stronger. So does that odd metallic note that makes me think of steel more than ever. A whisper of vetiver trails behind it, but is quickly swallowed up by the spice mix.
Then, almost exactly 30 minutes in, the anethol arrives to take things up a notch. Apparently, it is an intensely sweet, anise and licorice note with an aromatic, green, herbal fennel nuance that one perfume material site, Creating Perfume, says is reminiscent of black cough drops or root beer. (A purchaser on the site wrote that the anethol essential oil had a “subtle gasoline type facet to it.”) Here, it smells exactly like holistic black licorice cough drops covered with a pinch of dried fennel leaves. It’s overshadowed by the clove cough syrup but only slightly. The end result is still the same: a dark, spiced, herbal medicine.
As the first hour draws to a close and the second begins, Safwa fully embodies the scent of an old apothecary. A hefty pile of biting, pungent, bitter, and earthy cloves lies atop layers of black licorice cough drops, dried herbal fennel, and patchouli that now smells rather like the 1970s headshop type, complete with green, camphoraceous, earthy, dusty, woody, smoky, leathered, and oily nuances. The whole thing is then subsumed within a sticky, sweet syrup of toffee’d labdanum and caramel amber.
It’s tough, a definite olfactory challenge — and I say that as someone who is a “Patch Head” who doesn’t mind old-school, dirty, hippie patchouli at all. The problem is really the intense, unbalanced quantity of cloves on my skin, and the way its pungent bite is rendered even more medicinal through the anethol. It’s tolerable from a distance where Safwa wafts a dark, herbal, woody, and earthy spiciness lacquered with sticky amber, but I confess I recoil at the acridness of the bouquet whenever I smell my arm up close.
Things improve midway during the 3rd hour when the vanilla emerges to soften the intensity of the other notes. The first hints of that upcoming change occur roughly 2.5 hours into Safwa’s development when tiny flickers pop up in the base. Gradually, the vanilla seeps up, coating both the top and base layers, diluting the pungency of the spices, and smoothening out their sharp edges. The clove continues to be medicinal, bitter, and biting up close, but it’s less so now and more balanced from afar. The vanilla helps the patchouli to shed much of its dusty, camphorous, green, and leathery undertones, turning it resinous, smooth, and bronzed, though a certain, subtle earthiness remains. At the same time, the cinnamon grows more pronounced and is now accompanied by a pinch of cardamom, while the coarse, unpleasant licorice cough drops have become merely a ghostly whisper of spicy anise that pops up once in a blue moon at the edges.
For the most part, Safwa now reminds me of a rich parfait where warm, spicy, resinous, quietly earthy patchouli lies sandwiched between layers of creamy vanilla and fragrant, dark spices. All around swirls a golden amber that is cozily warm and beautifully balanced. It’s impossible to separate the chewy labdanum from the vanilla or amber, but the mix skews more dark than heavily sweet or syrupy. It’s definitely not gourmand in feel. What’s interesting is that, from afar, Safwa smells chiefly like spicy patchouli and vanilla, lightly coated with pungent cloves, then nestled within a vanilla-heavy ambered cocoon.
I wish this stage lasted, but it doesn’t. The clove grows drier and stronger still, no doubt because a second layer was added in Safwa’s middle stage. It fuses with the spicy patchouli and, together, they become the dominant focus of the scent. As they surge forward, the vanilla weakens, slowly grows more imperceptible and, 4.5 hours into Safwa’s development, is largely swallowed up by the other notes. Heavily muffled and muted, I think it continues to have some indirect influence, but it shows up increasingly as nothing more than a vaguely vanilla-ish sweetness that dilutes the labdanum’s toffee and turns it into syrupy caramel. When combined with the continued pungency of the dried cloves, the result is strangely acrid and sharp up close, but it smells like a delirium of golden sweetness and dark spiciness from afar.
Safwa’s long drydown begins roughly midway during the 6th hour. Essentially, the clove and patchouli are in a constant relay race for dominance, switching back and forth as the primary note, all against a backdrop of heavy, syrupy amber diffused with vanillic sweetness. The notes are becoming increasingly blurry and hazy. Once in a while, there are ghostly flickers of something woody, smoky, and earthy in the background, but they’re tiny touches that rarely change Safwa’s primary bouquet. More and more, the fragrance smells like a swirl of dark, dry, clove-ish spiciness in a cocoon of ambered, vanillic sweetness laced with tendrils of patchouli. In its final moments, all that is left is a blur of spicy sweetness.
Safwa had very good longevity, moderate projection and initially strong sillage on my skin. However, it was far softer than Al Haramain’s Mukhallath Seufi in terms of both projection and sillage, in addition to being much less chewy, dense, and heavy in body and weight. Using 3 small smears, Safwa opened with 3 inches of projection and about 6 inches of a scent trail. Once the oil was warmed by the heat of the skin, the numbers grew. After 45 minutes, the sillage was more than a foot, though the projection was only around 5 inches. At the 2.5 hour mark, the projection dropped to about 2-3 inches, while the scent trail was roughly 6 to 8 inches. The projection was roughly an inch above the skin after 4.5 hours, then hovered just above it after 7 hours. Safwa didn’t turn into a true skin scent until the 10th hour, but it was easy to detect up close if I brought my nose to my arm for a short while after that. For the most part, the fragrance lasted just short of 14.75 hours, but a few miniscule patches of skin continued to emit a sweetness until the end of the 17th hour.
On Fragrantica, there are 3 reviews for Safwa. I’ll begin with the last one because it makes me laugh every time I read it. A chap from Sweden compares Safwa’s longevity to a lifetime – or two “if you believe in reincarnation”:
It is thick like syrup, golden in colour and it has a vicious kick…..
it lasts for over 24 hours and it moves from a sweet, fruity oriental dessert to an amazing woodiness. It retails at about 140 euro for 24 ml but it will last you at least a life time….if you believe in reincarnation it will probably last another one….:-)
A second commentator, “Suhaesa,” found Safwa to be primarily an intimate amber scent:
this is a beautiful ambery.. woodsy.. creamy.. non offensive oriental ..its an intimate oriental.. that sits close to the skin ..its a sensual one.. a bright.. full.. mellow.. ambery.. resinous.. balsamic
Safwa was much more problematic and challenging, however, for “Poboijosh,” who bought a full bottle blindly because of the look and packaging. Things didn’t turn out as he had hoped because Safwa had a difficult opening that he compared to a “ridiculously strong” version of Brut on “steroids,” before the scent finally softened. He found the drydown “more tolerable,” but still describes the fragrance as “a wee bit too Old Man smelling.” His review strongly implies that at least he has “a really amazing looking flacon and presentation box,” while the actual fragrance within was a bust. Regardless, here is his review:
I’ll admit, I happily, blindly purchased Safwa solely for that totally awesome and unique looking flacon and presentation box alone, not even caring if the oil inside would be a total wipe out, well, after a long awaited 2 months of chasing after this stuff, I can say that I have a really amazing looking flacon and presentation box now. The perfume itself smells like nothing that I thought it would. The only way I can describe it is, Safwa smells like a highly refined and complex, like super sized and steroided out but modernized and ridiculously strong version of Brut, by Fabergé… yes, Brut. The drydown becomes more tolerable where the Vanilla and Labdunum lend a smooth and creamy, incensy base, but Safwa still in my honest opinion is a wee bit too Old Man smelling, and as mentioned before, this oil is unnecessarily strong, so just a teeny drop smells better than a generous swipe because the potency is overwhelming. [Emphasis to name added by me.]
I know “Poboijosh” a little as he is an occasional commentator on the blog, and I find his analysis to be more telling than the generalised descriptions of the others because I know he actually loves the Middle Eastern style of perfumery. This is not the view of someone unfamiliar with the genre or unable to handle its intensity. And, in all candour, he’s not alone in finding Safwa to be challenging or difficult. I didn’t really like it, either, though Safwa occasionally had some appealing aspects when I smelt the fragrance from a distance on the air and didn’t go near my arm up close. I think the problem for both of us stems from the medicinal pungency of the double layer of cloves, in addition to the geranium, anethol, dusty patchouli, and herbal aromatics. They give Safwa not only that old-school feeling that he calls “Old Man” and compares to the fougère Brut, but also the apothecary and “headshop” vibes that I experienced.
The result is a tricky scent, though both individual skin chemistry and quantity may help and make a big difference. I suspect the first few hours will be tough for a number of people but, on the right skin and in the smallest quantities, Safwa could be a wonderful, seductive mix of spices, woods, dryness, herbaceous greenness, resinous darkness, and ambered sweetness. I caution you to be extremely careful of how much you apply because, as you will note, Safwa was better or more manageable for both Poboijosh and myself when “just a teeny drop” was used.
If you’re intrigued by Safwa, my advice is to sample it first and not to buy blindly. For those of you who may have just found this review and didn’t read about Mukhallath Seufi, I’ll briefly repeat the situation with samples. Al Haramain Exclusive offers three affordable sample sets in order to give people the chance to explore their fragrances, with free worldwide shipping included in the price. Each set costs €20 and includes either 5 or 8 fragrances, depending on which one you choose. Each scent is said to come in 2 ml manufacturer vials, though mine had perhaps 1.5 ml at most, so don’t be surprised if you get less than 2 ml. I think it’s still a great deal given the price of a full bottle.
I don’t recommend Safwa to those who can’t handle even the smallest amount of cloves or to anyone who dislikes spicy patchouli, particularly the very earthy, 1970s headshop variety. Safwa won’t be for you. However, if you don’t mind either of those things and love intensely spiced, ambered orientals with woody, aromatic, sweet, and herbal sides, then you may want to give Safwa a test sniff.
Disclosure: My sample was provided courtesy of Al Haramain Exclusive. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.