dimanche 7 août 2011

Profumo Italia Sharif: Remembering the first functions of fragrance



There is a moment in the practice of any craft when your material – whether it is clay, words, or aromatic essences – dictates the form it needs to achieve. The perception of its inner logic, dynamics and harmonies seems to bypass rational thinking processes: you just know. This isn’t anything as fuzzy as the romantic notion of “inspiration”, but the result of a deep knowledge, of an attunement to very precise elements in your material: a bringing-forth which discloses what was already there to know (for those of you who have a nodding acquaintance with German philosophy, yes, I’ve been reading Heidegger). This wordless connection doesn’t preclude aesthetic intention, technical mastery or an intellectual grasp of what is being accomplished during the process: you do, and then you understand what you’ve done.

Contemporary perfumers who work within the French tradition obviously draw on this wordless connection with their materials: this is something that comes up regularly in conversations about the genesis of a scent. But, in the most interesting cases, their perfumes don’t linger in that zone where words are suspended. There is a legibility to them when you know the language; a reflection on the history of perfumery, on specific notes or accords, on the perfumer’s own style… They display asperities onto which you can hook narratives or critical comment; informed by discourse, generating discourse.
This discursive, narrative nature of French-tradition perfumery appears most strongly when experienced in contrast with the work of Dominique Dubrana, a.k.a. Abdes Salam Attar, of Profumo Italia. While I’ve worn several samples of his compositions, they never seem to trigger much discourse, not because there’s nothing to say about them, but because they seem to invite contemplation rather than explanation.

Perhaps this is an effect of the perfumer being a Sufi. What little I know about this mystical, meditative branch of Islam leads me to think that the sense of wordless attunement between the craftsman and the crafted might be at play in the Sufis’ quest for divesting themselves from the Self to attain truth.
It might also be because the perfumer’s intent is not entirely aesthetic. Though it is clearly driven by beauty, Abdes Salam’s perfumery reaches back to the first functions of scent: spirituality, eroticism and therapy.
As a result, his perfumes exude a profoundly archaic feeling. Not because they are based on ancient formulas, but because they seem to spring from a desire to enter a pre-modern mindset. To me his stance is not unlike Pier Paolo Pasolini’s when he filmed The Thousand and One Nights or Medea: not by adapting or showing the modernity of an ancient tale but by attempting to see it through the eyes of those who first told it.

Fittingly, his new Sharif is meant to express a value that has very little currency today in the Western world: nobility. Not the type inherited through birthright by chinless princelets, but nobility of character. And like a noble character, it doesn’t let itself be approached or tamed easily: you’ve got to go through the fire of its camphoraceous top notes before feeling its softness.
It is almost surprising to find Sharif so liquid in its bottle, because its smell conjures the fatty, tactile, ductile quality of a paste. It feels like something you could lick or chew: a smooth, resinous preparation similar to majoun, a type of cannabis jam where the resin is blended with honey and almond. There’s no cannabis note in Sharif, but it does have honey and almond notes, saffron providing a medicinal note and a leather effect.
Though the latter is the core of the scent, it is also, to my nose, an expansion of the properties of civet. Old civet tinctures do display the smoothly dark honeyed facets of Sharif. And again, this links the scent with age-old traditions from the Islamic world.
I used to wonder how such a pungent material as civet made its way into perfumes. It is likely it travelled west via the Arabs who traded in Ethiopia, where it was used in rituals. Perfume was also used for therapeutic or magical purposes in the West for centuries: the aesthetic effects of civet may have been acknowledged later on. Or perhaps alchemists revelled in turning base matter into fragrant gold…

As it turns out, there are stories in Sharif, as in all of Abdes Salam Attar’s compositions: they are just told in a different idiom. His connection with his materials through his spiritual journeys, and with ancient practices and tales through his travels, may be what carry his work into a different dimension than those explored by most natural perfumers. There is a depth of culture here that translates into aesthetic terms; a depth of resonance that gives Sharif not only beauty, but a quiet authority.

Abdes Salam Attar has kindly given me an extra sample of Sharif: leave a comment, and I will do a draw.


63 commentaires:

  1. Perfumery is indeed culture-bound and provides a wonderful opportunity for cross-cultural contemplation.

    I have often wondered when on a smelling journey. Just as a baby understands meanings when first learning a language, why some perfumes seemed to be speaking to me in (simple) words I understood, whereas others, I was felt it was just the sensation I was understanding.

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  2. Nobility is indeed underappreciated in the West- no doubt tarnished by association to the aristocracy... But this is one I really do want to smell- the first since I moved to Italy in fact... Are there fewer interesting releases this year? So glad you reviewed this one!
    Alexander

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  3. Emma, a few perfumers I've spoken with believe that there are "absolute values" in some notes: that they same the same things to us all, independently from culture. It seems to be the case for sounds (look up the "Kiki/Bouba" effect).
    Apart from that, I also believe some perfumes are intrinsically more talkative and other more wordlessly emotional.

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  4. Alexander, not sure whether there are fewer interesting releases or whether the whole aficionado movement is just less keen because we've smelled/acquired more things since the craze started.
    But Abdes Salam does bring something different to the story.

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  5. Fantastic review, D. I've been itching to order this unsniffed, given what I've heard about it. I've very fond of Balsamo della Mecca. I like what you say about the narrative vs. the meditative/contemplative. Much as I love thinking about the "stories" perfumers are telling through their work, there is something pleasing about something that just "smells right."

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  6. Jarvis, what I'm thinking is that the "rightness" isn't about "niceness". It's about striking certain chords. But as I'm sure you know, I'm still a sucker for the big Western discursive stuff.
    I do love the Balsamo as well. It's very profound.

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  7. What happy timing. I spend the day contemplating Greek (Platonic) philosophy, go for a run immersed in Arabic music, and then come back to read this post! Brilliant. I have not tried any of these perfumes, but this has been on my radar since its release. As someone deeply interested in Sufi thought, I'm eager to try it. Further, your words here are inspiring and apt. It sounds like this is what I've been looking for in a perfume...I sense a threshold moment....

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  8. I have been wanting to sample his fragrances for a while, and this sounds like such a lovely one to start with...

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  9. Is this an oud perfume, and oil based? I believe genuine oud is considered sacred by the Sufis. Many of the best oud dealers/experts out there are Sufis. It sounds wonderful.
    -Marla

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  10. Qu'il est bon de trouver enfin un blog consacré au parfum ! Peut-être qu'un jour je trouverai dans ma province un lieu exclusivement dédié aux parfums, les vrais. Pour ma part j'emploie plus le terme de jus. Je cherche encore mon parfum celui qui sera l'alter ego du sang qui coule dans mes veines, mon spectre olfactif. Je vais d'un clic parcourir tes articles, j'espère qu'ils seront ponctués de liens permettant d'en savoir un peu plus et de pouvoir avoir des coordonnées pour se les procurer.

    Merci de mettre tes mots au service de cet art.

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  11. I would very much love to try this. I am intrigued by the entire line, even though I have only smelled mecca Balsam, which I love. Thanks for the drawing!

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  12. Beautifully written, I enjoyed your acknowledgment of the ancient art of perfume and your blend of the knowledge of Heiddeger and deeper philosophical approaches to an experience of an invisible force such as parfum. Merci bien. xo

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  13. The only one from this line that I know well is Balsamo della Mecca, but I've been very curious about this one. I love this idea of "disclosing what was already there to know" as applied to perfume.
    -Janice

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  14. This sounds amazing- thanks for entering me in the draw! I adore Heidegger and Western philosophy, but I do agree that we as perfume lovers need to explore the fragrant idioms of other cultures.

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  15. Please, enter me the draw-this is so tempting..
    Thank you for a wonderful review,your link to Passolini was touching

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  16. Jared, sounds like serendipity! I don't know what it is about this summer, but I've been reading a lot of philosophy myself (currently Sloterdijk). Threshold moment indeed!

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  17. Chance, you're in (Profumo Italia also has a samples program).

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  18. Marla, no, no oud in this one. Octavian smells African stone in it in addition to civet. I'm getting the civet more.

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  19. Claudia, merci de tes mots. En revanche, je mets très rarement des liens sur des sites de marques, sauf les toutes petites comme celle-ci qui n'ont pas de points de vente...

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  20. Elizabeth, you're in. Mecca Balsam is certainly getting a lot of love!

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  21. Libby, it's true the ritual and medicinal origins of perfume are forgotten in the West but must be acknowledged - they're still part of our subconscious response to it. And I am convinced there is something specific in its language that can further knowledge.

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  22. Janice, this "bringing forth" is something that transpires from what perfumers say about their process: it's there to hear though it's not always formulated, when the process is deep and true.

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  23. Susan, as a thoroughly Western mind this is something I find difficult to do, which may be why the work of Abdes Salam, who is French, represents a kind of bridge to that approach.

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  24. Irina, I always think of Pasolini's cinema as being suffused with smells and scents...

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  25. Oh, Denyse. What a wonderful essay. Thank you, that was like a balm.

    I would love to sample this scent - I'd like to try all of these fragrances. I need to work on that.

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  26. Wonderful review, I would love to try this. Please enter me in the draw.

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  27. Amy, that's what this scent does to you: draws you towards more thoughtful zones. I'm in the airport now on my way to Canada with several more samples. I'll see where they take me.

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  28. This sounds wonderful. I have only tried his Mysore sandalwood perfume which I love dearly. I would love to be in the draw.

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  29. Sara, you're in! Haven't tried the Mysore sandalwood, it must be gorgeous...

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  30. Hello and thank you for another entertaining and informative post; to my great shame, I still have to sample the work of Abdes Salam Attar, and this would be a great place to start: please enter me in the draw.

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  31. I would love to try something from this line. This is a beautiful review.

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  32. Wow, Mecca Balsam is wonderful a scent but now with your review, please enter me in the draw that I may have a try at this! Irrestible. Merci

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  33. This review threatens to make a lot of fragrances seem trite and profane all of a sudden. :)

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  34. How wonderful this is - your story, the scent. I would love to try it.

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  35. Denyse, it sounds like a contemplative perfume is up my street. One other perfume alters my mood quite the same way, and that's Breath of God.

    Thank you for holding the draw.

    I'm also curious to smell a spiritually inspired perfume.

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  36. A lovely piece - balanced effectively among the three "p"s - poetry, philosophy, perfume. Thank you! I recently was able to sniff some old civet and was surprised by the sweetness with which it began, and by the complexity of smells all called by the single name. I think it's that which is part of the silence. One is simply dumbfounded by orders of magnitude. How can something be so much bigger inside than out? Please enter me in the draw!

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  37. Your essay and Octavian's recent review make this sound like a must-try. I've also somehow skipped trying Dubrana's Mecca Balsam... Must correct this mistake soon. Thanks for the draw!

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  38. The journeys of imagination that can be prompted by perfume are amazing- please enter me in the draw- I would love to try this one.

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  39. I have wanted to sample Sharif since I read about it's release, please enter me in the draw! The last new perfume that conveyed meaning to me was By Killian's Pure Oud. Sharif likewise sounds incredible although for different reasons.

    --Nicole.

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  40. Cleep, Nancy, Anna-Lyssa, Bradamante, Liam, you're in too!

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  41. Anonymous, I would love to include you in the draw but I'll need a pseudo or a name though...
    Your remark about something being so much greater inside than out -- how can all that be contained in civet? -- puts my feelings another way, and I couldn't agree more. I think the inside-outness of perfume is part of its nature, and a fascinating aspect to explore, poetically and philosophically, though it may take me years...
    And, you're right again, that may explain the silence.
    You're in.

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  42. How intriguingly you define these different attitudes towards perfumery! I would be delighted to sample this fragrance. Ariane

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  43. A beautiful, thought-provoking review. I love the scents I have had the opportunity to try. They have such soul to them. I would love to be entered in the draw for the first of this new series, Sharif.

    Thank you!
    Michael

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  44. Your writing just gets better and better, to be asked to think about both Heidegger and Sufism in the context of a perfume is an intellectual delight. Please enter me in the draw.

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  45. Please enter me in the draw. I have a decant of his Mecca Balsam and I love it. I've been meaning to try more of his work, and this sounds wonderful. I've also been very interested in the accords he sells.

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  46. Sounds very interesting. I love Tabac and Holy Water by La Via del Profumo, and would love to try this one. I post at basenotes as WillC. Please contact me there if I win the sample.

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  47. Great insights - great blog - thank you.

    I'd love to be introduced to Sharif!

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  48. Ariane, Michael, Maureen, Karen, Will, Gwen, you're all in! And thank you for your kind words.

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  49. I have yet to find a perfume that conjures archaic for me. Please enter me in the draw.

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  50. Archaic and mythic I am always seeking in perfumes. Very few
    perfumers walk that path.
    Thanks to make me discover that perfumer I did not know about!

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  51. Thanks for such a lovely review! I've only smelled Mecca Balsam, but I'm intrigued by this line-- I'm a sucker for that mix of mysticism, art, philosophy and history that he evokes. And we are in such short supply of nobility around us these days, no?

    Heidi

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  52. Would it make sense to you to say (also following Heidegger a bit) that some perfumes speak a language based more on aiming for a correspondence with reality rather than a more oblique, disclosive/poetic (alatheia-ish) relationship?

    BTW, I am a philosopher too, by training and profession, and it is great fun for me to learn from your blog.

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  53. Carla, the Profumo Italia line certainly does that and is worth exploring...

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  54. Isayah, you're right, few perfumers walk that path -- but I guess the variety is what keeps this center of interest of ours so vibrant.

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  55. Heidi, yes indeed, nobility may not be in short supply, but it's not often on display...

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  56. Olive, do you mean that certain perfumes are more figurative (i.e. in correspondence with reality) while others aim at the disclosure of what is contained in their materials?
    Heidegger is a pretty arduous read and I must admit I've just been digging here and there for the moment. It's been quite a few years since I followed Derrida's seminars on Heidegger. And even then, "following" wasn't always possible. But I get the feeling that philosophy can and should be applied to reflections on perfumery. Not just the philosophers who wrote about the senses, but also those who wrote about art.

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  57. Thank you for such a beautiful review! Sharif sounds like a magnificent frangrance to try - please enter me in your draw.

    Your reference to an artist's element being "an attunement to very precise elements in your material: a bringing-forth which discloses what was already there to know" immediately resonated with me. I am not the least bit familiar with German philosophy, but what came immmediately to my mind was the memory of a rehearsal of YoYo Ma's which I observed many years ago. This is exactly what his playing was for me - not merely the act of "playing" an instrument, but his ability to bring out what was there inside it to discover. It was a marvelous experience.

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  58. Please enter me in your draw!

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  59. I would love to try this. It sounds really interesting and unique. If it made one of your "lists" I definitely want to give it a go!! Thanks for the chance.

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  60. Thank you so much for a beautiful write up. This is the most thoughtful piece on perfume I've read in a long time. I would appreciate an opportunity to smell the fragrance that inspired such a text from you.

    It helps that the fragrance shares some of my favorite notes, such as honey and saffron.

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