Sunday, 12 May 2013

The $4,200 Bottle of Perfume

The pitch:
Ah, Chanel No. 5. The perfume that’s considered the world’s most iconic by many a fragrance fan. But if you’re still shopping for Mother’s Day, why settle for just any bottle of the “now and forever” scent when you can purchase it in “its rarest, most collectible form”? That’s how the brand refers to its Grand Extrait edition, which runs $4,200 in its 30-ounce bottling — yes, nearly two pounds of perfume. (A 7.5-ounce Grand Extrait bottle can be had for $2,100.)
But it’s not just the quantity that counts. The Grand Extrait bottle is itself of “exceptional quality,” says Chanel spokeswoman Ruthie Vexler. Each is created through the use of molds, but also benefits from a glassmaker’s individual touch. To complete the package, the bottle is placed in what Chanel describes as a “hand-assembled, artisan-crafted case.” Chanel doesn’t provide exact details as to how truly rare the Grand Extrait is, but Vexler says “very few pieces are produced” each year.
Of course, there’s also what goes in the bottle. Company founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel asked legendary perfumer Ernest Beaux to create “a fragrance for women that smells like a woman.” And the complex, floral No. 5 – unveiled on the fifth day of the fifth month of 1921 – was the result. Chanel says No. 5 is still made with care and precision, pointing to the fact that the brand sources the may rose and jasmine that go into the fragrance from its very own fields in France.
The scent has also had plenty of famous fans — and plenty of famous endorsers, from Nicole Kidman to current spokesman Brad Pitt. And then there’s Marilyn Monroe: When asked what she wore to bed, she famously replied, “Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.”
The reality:
As iconic as Chanel No. 5 may be, the idea of a plus-sized bottle of it — priced in the four digits, no less — doesn’t quite smell right to some in the scent biz. For starters, there’s the issue of how long a fragrance lasts once a bottle is opened. “The rule of thumb is two to three years,” says Pamela Netti, a veteran cosmetics industry professional who helped launch Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume and is now behind Kallini Beauty, a brand of antiaging products. And chances are that even the most ardent of Chanel No. 5 fans might not go through 30 ounces in that timeframe; Netti says many women need only a one-ounce bottle per year.
There’s also the matter of whether Chanel No. 5 is the right scent for the recipient — regardless of price. Perfume pros say it’s not just a question of individual taste, it’s also a question of body chemistry — the same scent works differently on every person because of the nature of their skin (and the same person’s skin can change, based on everything from their mood to medications). On top of that, there’s the question of fashion: As “timeless” as Chanel No. 5 may be, some experts say it represents an older-school (and, yes, floral) approach to perfume. “Each era has had a unique fragrance, indicative of the times,” says Mary Ellen Dorey, founder of DoreyAromaTherapy, a Texas-based company. As for modern approaches to perfume, consider the brand Bond No. 9, which takes as its inspiration different New York City neighborhoods and locales (for example, Bond’s Nouveau Bowery perfume, with notes of lime, bergamot, violet wood and Indonesian patchouli, is intended to represent “the sweet scent of Skid Row transitioning to ultra-modernity”).
But price plays a role too. Even the “cheapest” bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume (as opposed to eau de toilette) runs $120 for a quarter-ounce. And scent cognoscenti say perfumes priced under $50 with comparable floral appeal aren’t tough to come by. “It’s hard to replace Chanel No. 5, but you could find a fragrance that is very similar,” says Pamela Netti.
The folks at Chanel don’t argue with these points. Can’t afford the $4,200 bottle? They indeed suggest the $120 one. Looking for something more contemporary? They point to any number of other fragrances in their lineup, including No. 5 Eau Premiere — a “lighter” version of the classic No. 5. (One perfume writer described Premiere as “akin to a dance-club remix.”)
But regarding whether or not that $4,200 bottle could last a Chanel fan for years, the brand has a somewhat different take. As they see it, the Grand Extrait bottle is really a collector’s piece — more for show than for use. Says Chanel spokeswoman Ruthie Vexler, “I think that most people buying the Grand Extrait would not actually open it and would prefer to keep such an investment intact.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Encounter With Oudh

Al-Madinah  |  المنورة
Al-Madinah | المنورة (Photo credit: Hossam all line)
"It was in the streets of Madinah that I first encountered this heavenly smell, a concoction of somehow minty fresh herbal freshness, a little bit pungent but also sweet and a tinge of mysterious champor-like smell that reminds you of the dark gloomy interior of an old church but altogether very majestic, a holy kind of experience and strangely unforgettable.  After a while I discovered that the divinely smell came from the perfume shops, a kind of incensed wood chips the shopkeepers occasionally thrown into the incense burner.  Every time the chips is thrown into the burner, a gush of the refreshing aroma filled the street to the wonderment of passers by and after every few yards there were another perfume shops and the magic again!  This has a lasting impression on my mind and it reminds me very much of Madinah much more than other things in the city, the rituals and prayers apart. 

Long after my return to the home land the longing for Madinah took me into a quest to find what the magical incence in the holy city was.  I did a  research on attar perfumes and my first guess was Patchouli or Nilam mainly because of the herbal quality.  I bought and sampled a few patchouli perfumes but no, it was not it, patchouli is herbal and fresh but that does not have the minty-like smell.
I sampled and tried many other perfumes but none give the sense I that I can recall.  My worry then was that the memory of the smell will gradually faded from my mind and so will be the rest of Madinah. One day I randomly pick a perfume in a local shop that was labelled as Ood, it was nothing like what I was looking for, disgusting woody smell, pungent and fecal fresh from the bottle.  Even the sales girl gave a disgusted grin.  I was hopeless, nonetheless I gave it a chance, hoping that the smell will change as it dries as what some other perfumes normally do.  At home I poured some of the oil into the burner's bowl with some water in it and lighted up the candle below it, a little better.

The next day right after work as I opened the door to my living, suddenly a weak traces of the long yearned smell touches my sense.  That drew me to the incense burner where the smell is stronger.  The candle has long went out since the day before, the water in the bowl has dried and there were an oily residues of the perfume almost dried at the bottom of it.  I held it close to my nose and "EUREKA"!!  Yes I have found it!!

It was the Ood or Gaharu as the local calls it.  All the disgusting smell was no more there, now it was all the heavenly smell that I vividly pick from my memory.  The pictures of Madinah came clear to the mind now, the streets, the buildings, the food, the blessed Holy Mosque and the longing for the Messenger.

Gaharu is a product of my country and my very own place, it took a half an hour drive to the outside of the city to the plantation, it was in my backyard all the time but the magic I discovered in a land far away."

Get the best agarwood here.
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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Fleeting fragrance

(original article from

Tejeesh N.S. Behl       Edition: July 27, 2008

Om Prakash Pathak, Managing Director, Munnalal Sons & Co., is the current head of the 97-year-old family-owned attar (oil-based fragrance) manufacturing business. There are, however, no grand celebrations planned three years down the line to mark the company’s centenary—for one, there’s not much to celebrate, he says, and for another, it pays to remain low key in this business. This, from a man who’s politically well-connected—his son, a BJP activist, is angling for a Lok Sabha ticket from the district for the general elections due next year. Pathak, however, is not the only one feeling the pinch of the attar industry’s downslide. Jagat Narain Kapoor, the 87-year-old patriarch of Jagat Aroma Industries, a leading attar manufacturer till a few years ago, has shifted completely to exports.
A whiff of past: Attar being processed in copper urns
A whiff of past: Attar being processed in copper urns
“The cost of raw materials, as also lack of easy availability, ultimately made us realise that sourcing products was far easier than making them ourselves,” says Kapoor, Managing Director, Jagat Aroma Industries. Today, Kapoor’s bread, butter and marmalade come from his export earnings, though there’s a token presence of the family concern in manufacturing.
The cases of Pathak and Kapoor typify the conundrum faced by attar manufacturers in Kannauj, who have been grappling with low volumes in a high-margin business— where profits were 900 per cent of costs compared to the tame 10-20 per cent these days. The product itself has undergone a radical transformation and bleeds 15-20 per cent of its market share annually as the prohibitively high selling price of the final product makes consumers—both retail and bulk— shy away. Says Abdul Malik, Managing Director, Mohammad Ayub Mohammad Yaqub Perfumers, Kannauj’s largest exporter and one of the biggest manufacturers of attar (it produces more than four tonnes every month): “Most manufacturers, including us, have replaced the sandalwood oil base with either liquid paraffin or DOP (dioctyl phthalate, a chemical compound) as there is a huge difference in the input costs of the final product—Rs 90,000 per kg for sandalwood compared to Rs 10,000 per kg for liquid paraffin.”
So, while earlier—about six years ago—the ratio of attars based on sandalwood oil vis-à-vis liquid paraffin/DOP was 80 to 20, today, it is 10 to 90. It’s a different matter that DOP is a known carcinogenic agent, a fact acknowledged by the attar makers themselves, but they have no qualms in using it.
Flower to fragrance: A worker empties jasmine flowers into copper urns
Flower to fragrance: A worker empties jasmine flowers into copper urns
That, however, is not the only dubious business practice followed by the attarmakers of Kannauj. Sandalwood is legally available only through auctions and most of it is exported due to better prices in the overseas market. Attarmanufacturers admit they do resort to clandestine procurement of the famed wood as the quality and quantity of supply through official channels is poor. According to Kapoor, about 90 per cent of the sandalwood used in Kannauj’s attar manufacturing industry is smuggled.
Of the total attar output, nearly 90 per cent is used as flavouring agents for tobacco products. The remainder is either exported or sold in the domestic market. It’s a dangerous dependence on one sector and one that can capsize the industry should tobacco go out of flavour—a risk acknowledged by the attar makers themselves. “But there’s no alternative for us. Earlier, we pandered to the tastes of royalty. Post-Independence, the industry sustained itself by supplying attar to select industries, notably incense stick manufacturers and soap makers. And when they cut costs, it was the tobacco industry that came to our rescue,” says Pushpraj Jain, Managing Director, Pragati Aroma Distillers, which produces about 30 tonnes of attar annually.
Sniffing the moolah: Mohammad Ayub Perfumers’ Malik, Kannauj’s largest exporter and one of the biggest manufacturers of attar in the country
Mohammad Ayub
Of the Rs 1,000-crore worth of attar produced in Kannauj, exports account for Rs 100 crore—mainly to West Asia and select countries in Europe like Spain, which have a sizeable Muslim population. It’s probably this realisation that has prompted Jain and his company to foray into synthetic perfumes, with a unit in Silvassa. Many, in fact, are diversifying into completely unrelated areas—the most popular being cold storage as the region has several potato farmers.
Both Jain and Pathak also have cold storage facilities. Interestingly, given the socio-economic climate of the region, attar makers are cagey about revealing the true extent of their business finances. They also heavily under-report their turnover figures for fear of attracting unwanted attention—and not just from the tax bogeyman.
Time warped
Visit Kannauj and you are transported to an era of yore, till you actually spot a BMW belonging to one of the attar manufacturers. It’s a cottage industry that’s hidden behind facades of houses situated on either side of a labyrinthine network of narrow, cemented lanes.
Hues of scent: Henna flowers being weighed and sorted before processing
Henna flowers being weighed and sorted before processing
Attar manufacturing is a closely-guarded family business, and queries about the business are regarded as an intrusion into a private act, drawing hostile glares. Turning up its nose at technology—the perfume industry here is distinctly uncomfortable with even the slightest touch of modernisation—the industry still uses the age-old, slow, laborious and labour-intensive process where the sandalwood oil extraction itself takes a week. The process of making attar is still the same as followed centuries ago—degh bhapka. The flower-water mixture is heated on brick ovens using wood charcoal. “We did experiment with industrial burners but they not only turned out to be more expensive due to the cost of the gas cylinders but their flame often burnt the contents inside. This way, we can control the amount of heat required by each urn,” informs Pathak.
Pragati Aroma’s Jain: His unit in Kannauj produces 30 tonnes of attar annually
Pushpraj Jain
Standardisation and quality control are another iffy area and the nonchalance about the lack of either is borne out from the knowledge that theirs is a monopolistic cottage industry. Refusing to introduce any standardisation procedures, Jain of Pragati Aroma Distillers says the industry depends on smell alone and even within the same variety of flower, there will be a difference in the aroma due to varying climatic and geographical conditions. “Why should I get hassled about quality control when nobody is even asking for it?” asks a smug Jain, knowing that the bulk consumer—the tobacco makers—will lap up anything he dishes out since their own quality is also suspect. That explains why, apart from Malik, none of the major attar manufacturers BT spoke to, is seeking to expand his spread to overseas markets.
Jagat Aroma’s Kapoor: The 87-year-old patriarch of the company was once a leading attar manufacturer
Jagat Narain Kapoor
The end product may be lusciously fragrant but there’s nothing sweet-smelling about the manufacturing process, as a multitude of fumes and smells assail your eyes and senses. Workers get paid on an average Rs 2,500 per month—not compensation enough for wading through watery-slush, lugging 60 kg sacks on their backs and being exposed to a heterogeneous mixture of steam and fumes from the woodcharcoal throughout the day. “While the process may be open to some modification for modernisation, the degh-bhapka system has its advantages—it is mobile and requires a low intelligence quotient to operate it,” observes Kapoor.
Intriguingly, most manufacturers don’t see any compelling reason to brand their attars—selling them by their generic floral content. Their contention: since both the product and manufacturing process is the same, what point will branding serve? Besides, the high-value sandalwood oil-based attars are made largely on demand, which precludes the need for any branding for these home-grown entrepreneurs, who steadfastly follow age-old accounting practices. For these attar manufacturers, it’s a system that they are comfortable with, as it has worked for them through generations—and they don’t appear to be in any unseemly rush to fix something that, according to them, isn’t broke.

 It’s all in a day’s work
From flower to fragrance
Here’s a peek into the journey from flower to fragrance. A flurry of activity surrounds a degh-bhapka (fragrance manufacturing process) unit around mid-day when the fresh supply of flowers comes in jute sacks, each of which is carefully weighed and checked for the quality of their contents.
Each sack of flowers, which could weigh between 60 kg and 70 kg, is emptied into a copper urn (degh) that contains roughly an equal quantity of water. Once the urn is full, its mouth is plastered with clay over which the lid is clamped to make it airtight—except for a one-and-a-half inch diameter hole in the lid through which a hollow bamboo pipe, wrapped in coconut coir, is inserted to collect the vapours and transfer them to another copper urn (the bhapka). This bhapka contains sandalwood oil, liquid paraffin or DOP and is kept immersed in a shallow water tank to help condense the vapours. Each bhapka has a small outlet with a screw-on cap at the bottom from where the condensed water vapours are run off. The coconut coir absorbs the heat from the bamboo pipe, preventing it from becoming too hot from the vapours.
Now comes the most important part of the process. The flower-water mixture is heated by igniting the wood charcoal fuel. Attendants keep a hawk-eye vigil to ensure that the heat is neither too high nor too low—by taking out or adding logs of wood as required.
The distillation process takes about five to six hours— the time taken to extract the last whiff of fragrance from the flowers. This fragrance is captured by the base oil—whether sandalwood, paraffin or DOP— which takes on the smell of the particular flower.
The best quality flowers are available in the pre-monsoon season. The reason: the water content of these flowers is 6 to 7 per cent while postmonsoon, it is around 30-40 per cent. This results in a more concentrated fragrance. It requires a minimum of 80-100 kg of flowers per kg of sandalwood oil for a kg of attar (which, unlike synthetic perfumes, is not sold in litres).
Each manufacturer sells at a minimum 10 per cent margin.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

India's perfume capital threatened by scent of modernity

(original article from

  • Indian flower farmers sort out petals at a farm in Kannauj in the northern state of Kanpur. Photo courtesy: AFP
1 of 11
by Abhaya Srivastava
KANNAUJ, India, Sept 18, 2012 (AFP) - In the remote town of Kannauj, the perfume capital of India, traditional workers are struggling to keep their craft alive in the face of fierce competition from modern fragrance makers.
This fight, between small businesses such as the Pragati Aroma Oil distillery and global groups such as Armani and Chanel, mirrors thousands of other battles across India between ancient practices and the forces of modernity.
Laxmi Narayan, 72, has spent the last 30 years making what is known as attar, an oil-based perfume manufactured using a method dating back thousands of years.
"Attar-making is a painstaking craft," Narayan told AFP through a cloud of thick smoke that billowed from wood fires set below a row of simmering copper pots that he was constantly monitoring.
"We rely on our instincts, we know the attar is ready by the smell and feel of it," he added.
Sushil Singh, a supervisor at the distillery about 130 kilometres (80 miles) from state capital Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh state, believes machines can never take the place of experienced hands.
"The smell will be lost if we start using machines. People are forgetting the value of attar. But we know what goes into (its) making. For us, attar is our life."
Each morning local farmers near Kannauj pluck bagfuls of rose, jasmine and other petals and deliver them to the nearby perfume distilleries dotting this sleepy town.
In a process that can take days to complete, the flowers are mixed with water and heated in the copper pots. The aromatic steam is then transferred via a bamboo pipe to a receptacle containing sandalwood oil which acts as the base for the attar.
But while it is still popular with natural fragrance enthusiasts, attar is increasingly shunned by India's brand-conscious consumers who have become used to foreign products since economic reforms in the 1990s opened up the country.
Rising raw material costs, particularly of oil which must be imported because of limited production in India, are also a major headache.
"The attar industry is gasping for survival," says Rohan Seth, the vice-president of the Fragrances and Flavours Association of India, an umbrella group of around 800 traders.
Fading fragrances
Located on the banks of River Ganges, the city of Kannauj was once a key trading centre for Indian perfumes, spices and silks that were sent mainly to the countries in the Middle East.
The city of 1.7 million people reached the peak of its glory during the 7th century A.D. when it was the capital of an empire led by a Hindu king called Harsha Vardhan.
Local perfumers would later supply to the Moghul emperors, who ruled India for nearly 300 years. Remnants of sprawling forts and royal facades stand testimony to the bygone glory of the city.
"Kannauj has been the perfumery town of the country for thousands of years," says Shakti Vinay Shukla, the deputy director of the Fragrance and Flavour Centre (FFDC) in Kannauj.
"Kannauj is to India what Grasse is to France. Here perfume-making is art. It is an integral part of the culture and heritage of the people," Shukla told AFP at the centre, surrounded by lemongrass, mint and henna shrubs.
The centre has been trying to help the farmers who pick the flowers and the perfume makers in a bid to stem the decline in the numbers of distilleries.
"The city boasted nearly 700 distilleries up until the late 1990s," said Pulkit Jain of Pragati Aroma Oil Distillers.
"Now the numbers have come down to about 150. Chemical alternatives and paraffin-based perfumes are much cheaper to make so it makes business sense to switch to these," Jain told AFP.
A study by the country's leading trade body ASSOCHAM in May this year said the domestic perfume market was seeing annual growth of about 30 percent and was currently worth about $270 million.
The sector, which includes attar and other locally produced perfumes, accounted for nearly 30 percent of the total fragrance industry sales, it said.
Armani, Azzaro and Burberry were listed as the top three "most sold" leading perfume brands in the country, boosted by a trend for male grooming among urbane Indians, the report said.
Shukla of FFDC conceded the industry needed to find new uses for attar to stave off international competition, such as in aromatherapy where essential oils are used for their healing properties.
Love for attar
In the narrow winding streets of the old area of New Delhi, Praful Gundhi, 49, runs his perfume business which was started by his family in 1816 and draws well-heeled customers as well as those looking for cheap rip-offs.
His shop -- Gulab Singh Johrimal -- stocks perfumes in beautifully carved and coloured glass bottles displayed neatly on shelves all around.
Workers take great care to ensure the essence is not lost in the air as they prepare bottles tagged with names such as Iceberg, White Musk and Sandal Gold.
"Muslims form the biggest customer base for us because Islam prohibits them to use alcohol-based perfumes which is what most of the foreign brands are," said Gundhi, himself a Hindu.
"Even tourists coming to India flock to our shops because of the natural and organic quality of these perfumes. They know attar is kind to the skin, you won't have any allergies."
Gundhi said he usually charged 14,000 rupees ($252) for 10 millilitres of pure rose oil but synthetic ones could be had for as cheap as 400 rupees ($8).
"It is all about taste and choice. The true connoisseur will not mind spending as long as he is satisfied about the quality."
But for many like Delhi businessman Anshul Agarwal, nothing compares to the high-end brands that he is fond of buying from the modern glass and steel shopping malls in the city.
"One of my friends had gifted me an attar around a year back. It is still lying unused because I love my Calvin Kleins and Davidoffs," said the 34-year-old.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Welcome to Attar Perfume

Attar (Arabicعطر‎) also known as ittar is a natural perfume oil derived from botanical sources. Most commonly these oils are taken from the botanical material through hydro or steam distillation. Oils can also be expressed by chemical means but generally natural perfumes which qualify as Ittar/Attars are distilled naturally. The oils obtained from the herbs flowers and wood are generally distilled into a wood base such as sandalwood and then aged. The aging period can last from one to ten years depending on the botanicals used and the results desired.
These all-natural perfumes are highly concentrated and therefore are usually offered for sale in small quantities and have traditionally been offered in decorated crystal cut type bottles or small jeweled decanters. Ittars are popular throughout the Middle East and the Far East of India as well as Pakistan. Ittars have been used in the entire Eastern world for thousands of years. These 100% pure and natural perfumes are free of alcohol and chemicals and so the problems faced in the West by perfume lovers are irrelevant to most Eastern perfume lovers. Natural perfumes are affordable because they are so concentrated that a small bottle will last the user several weeks, if not months. Due to the purity and the nature of oils, there is very little chance of spoilage unless a food based carrier oil is used to cut the concentrated pure oil.
Some of the first lovers of Ittars were the Mughal nobles of India. Jasmine ittar was the favorite perfume of the Nizams of the Hyderabad state. Traditionally in the Eastern world it was a customary practice of nobility to offer ittar to their guests at the time of their departure. The ittars are traditionally given in ornate tiny crystal cut bottles called as itardans. This tradition of giving a scent to one's guests continues to this day in many parts of the Eastern world. Among Sufi worshipers the use of Ittars during meditation circles and dances is quite common.
Most ittars are alcohol-free and are used by many Muslim men and women. Ittar has long been considered one of the most treasured of material possessions and Prophet Muhammad has been compared to Ittar as one of the most beloved of gifts given to mankind.
Ittars are also used among Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh meditation practices.