Great perfumes affix the mind to a specific place and time
Shoba Narayan

December 16, 2013 Updated: December 16, 2013 18:42:00

No people understand perfumes better than Arabs, who instinctively and unconsciously layer scents using oils and attars. As the new year approaches, it is perhaps a good time to think about perfumes: the gifting and giving of them.

The great thing about gifting perfumes to your loved ones is that it is deeply symbolic and perishable. Unlike a pashmina shawl or even a book, perfume does not last forever. Even if your great-aunt doesn’t like the Amouage perfume that you have gifted her, there will come a time when the bottle is finished and she can go back to the Damascus rose essential oil that she uses.

Perfume has its roots in worship. The Latin root of the word, per fumus, means “through smoke”. Ancient cultures burnt fragrant resins, wood and incense as a way of purifying the space and making a plea to God. Most eastern cultures light wicks, incense and sticks of wood in prayer spaces. There is nothing like curling smoke to make a symbolic wish seem like a message to the heavens.

Ancient perfumes were stored in earthen vials or amphora; or specially crafted glass bottles, themselves objects of beauty. Today, artisanal perfumers rue the mass-marketisation of scent. International federations force perfume companies to test their products and remove any allergy-producing ingredients. The traditional roots of perfumes – flowers, fruits, woods, resins, herbs and spices – are viewed as potential allergens, thus dissipating the joy for elite “noses” as perfumers are called.

The good news is that there is a back-to-the-basics approach among elite perfumers. Rather than using thousands of synthetic ingredients, they are turning to the building blocks of traditional perfume like ambergris, musk, jasmine and sandalwood.

The other trend in global perfumery is the use of fewer ingredients. In the past, European perfumes had hundreds, if not thousands, of ingredients. Now, niche perfumers are trying to use seven or eight.

The ingredient that has perfume industry salivating these days is oud, or frankincense. Demand for this resin is rising, with everyone from Tom Ford to Jo Malone adding oud to their fragrances.

Most perfume houses use chemical duplicates to recreate the scent of oud, but some luxury perfumers prefer the raw ingredient. Real oud is both scarce and expensive. The best ones come from Oman.

The Indian equivalent of oud is sandalwood – also a rare and scarce ingredient that has been put on the protection list by the government.

In Bangalore, sandalwood trees have to be reported to the local authorities and they cannot be cut. They become state property. Mysore sandalwood is the best and forms the base of numerous male colognes.

In India, we use incense to perfume our spaces and oils to perfume our beings. Indian women use perfumed oil in their hair and in fact, a famous Tamil poem has a verse that talks about the heroine’s scented hair.

My favourite writing on perfume is not from ancient Tamil poetry. It comes from the late great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who wrote about the sense of smell in his tour-de-force book, “In the presence of absence”. In it, Darwish, who was facing imminent death, wrote about the scent of life and death. “Exiles have a shared smell: the smell of longing for something else; a smell that resembles another smell. A panting, nostalgic smell that guides you, like a worn tourist map, to the smell of the original place. A smell is a memory and a setting sun. Sunset, here, is beauty rebuking the stranger.”

It is this evocative, nostalgic aspect of scents that perfumers aspire to transmit. The best perfumes can remind you of your father, or a particular holiday, or a city. The scent of pesto can take you to Italy. The scent of salted water can take you to Greece.

Great perfumes affix the mind to a specific place and time, which is perhaps why we love them so.

So this holiday season, consider giving your brother, sister or parents a signature perfume that will remind them of you even as you prepare to leave the home.

Shoba Narayan is the author of “Return to India: a memoir”

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