Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sniffapalooza in London : Visiting Al Qurashi

Still buzzing from the lovely presentation at Roja Dove’s Haute Parfumerie and the thrill of our exclusive purchases, we moved across the street on Brompton Road and entered a very different world of perfumes indeed. Al Qurashi was founded by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, perfumer to Saudi kings and queens. Today the company is still family-owned and the tradition set by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi is continued by specially chosen blenders who continue his vision. Considering my recent experience at the Arabian Oud Shop in Paris was a minefield of both sensory and social insults, I’ll admit to entering Al Qurashi with some trepidation, my spirits only buoyed by Roja Dove’s earlier promise that we were going to love it. In fact, my reservations dropped the moment we stepped in the shop, seeing as unlike the Arabian Oud Shop, my nose-hairs were not singed upon entrance and the staff was delightfully welcoming and warm.
 
Gathered round a glass top table, we followed presentations on aoudh oils and got to experience the different grades of maturity as we appreciatively explored 1 year old, 3 year old, 8 year old, 15 year old, 30, 80 year old and finally, the majestic 100 year old aoudh oil. During the presentation, Roja Dove popped in from across the street, and once we had finished smelling the oils, he proceeded to give us yet another beautiful presentation on aoudh itself as well as Arabian perfume customs. I already knew a good bit about Aoudh and how it is produced from fungus-infected wood, but was mesmerized to find out exactly how labor intensive the process is, fully explaining the cost of this marvelous ingredient. From a large deep bowl on the table filled with aoudh wood, Roja produced a sufficiently large chip and showed us little holes and abrasions on it, ranging from the minute to the slightly larger, some of them deep and incredibly narrow. He then explained that every chip is worked by hand with extreme precision, for every little bit of healthy wood has to be removed so as to not compromise the quality of the prospective aoudh oil. The narrow little holes and small abrasions are the marks left on the wood after the healthy bits have been removed. My mind struggled excitedly with the realization that each and every bit of that wood was handled by someone whose eyes are so expertly accustomed to not only spot the tiny healthy bits and how deep they vein into the wood, but also someone who is both patient and skilled enough to be able to remove them! It seemed impossible, but there it was… Mr. Dove then went on to explain how when the oil is extracted, it is not poured in containers by machinery, but by hand. And by that I do not mean hand-poured. No, the artisan will gently place his palm on the surface of the oil and will then gently rub off the oil that was picked up on the mouth of the container, letting it drip in. Again and again and again. Hundreds, thousands of times, until the container is filled. My mind was once again filled with wonderment for this age old traditional process, the patience of all the artisans involved and a silly little voice which wondered whether the oil was not contaminated by flakes of skin from the hand. A question I decided to ignore, because frankly, I do not care. Mr. Dove then proceeded to demonstrate how one can be perfumed with the smoke of aoudh, using a tall silver pot-like instrument with burning aoudh chips in its core. He explained that this is placed under the clothing and that the perfuming is completed once the smoke starts coming out of the collar. Finally, we discussed the differences between western and Arabian perfumery and how western (mostly French) perfumery actually ended up influencing Arabian perfumery. Roja explained to us that Arabian men and women used to (and still in fact prefer) to create their own perfumes by way of layering different oils on skin to create their own unique sillage. The concept of a ready-made blend was foreign to them up until the latter half of the 20th century when they were exposed to French perfumery. At that point, Arabian perfumers began experimenting more with complex blends in order to create perfumes that smelled similar to popular western classics, yet were closer to the Arabian sensibilities. Before leaving, Roja was kind enough to demonstrate how Arabian men and women layer oils on their skin, by tapping an oil on their skin, blotting and blending with the fabric of their flowing garments and then continuing with the next oil and then the next, until the desired effect is achieved. Beautiful and extremely exciting, to learn about a culture in which perfume is so interweaved in daily life that everyone dares to blend their own perfume!

We then followed a presentation on rose perfumes. We were first presented First Grade and Second Grade Rose. The first grade is the premium, the one from the first processing of the fresh petals, while the second one is derived from the already used petals, processed for a second time. You can guess which one is more precious and expensive! They were both beautiful, but the difference was stunning. We were then passed several different varieties: Swiss Rose, Taif Rose, Instanbuli rose, May Rose, Bulgarian, as well as several different blends of rose with oudh and other, non-disclosed ingredients, referred to secretively as 'exotic flowers', a term even the lady giving the presentation had to giggle about. I am not a pure rose kind of girl at all, but to my surprise, I found one that mystified and excited me. Eastern Rose (a variety which I unfortunately cannot recal which city it stems from), was a marvel that managed to seduce even me. This is a pure rose oil that actually smells fruity and sublimely feminine. I would be happy to wear this on its own, as it simply needs no further ornamentation.

As the official presentations ended and most of our group started to wander in the shop, sniffing the various blends and deciding what to buy to bring back home, I requested that Diane give one last presentation to us, a presentation of musks, for those that were interested. She happily complied, and brought another group of large beautiful jars to the table for those of us remaining, still transfixed by all the beauty we had encountered. Beautiful natural vegetable musks were presented to us, others pungent while others soft and innocent. They were all vegetable musks, some pure, while others blended with oudh and/or flowers. There's still a story lurking in here, but well, that's a story for another day. I promised you an article on natural musks soon. I haven't forgotten. It will be coming after my vacation, along with stories of many more perfumes, the promise of which always lingers in my mind...

With kind thanks to Karim, who gave his permission to include the images used in this article. (www.asqgrp.com)


5 comments:

Jenavira13 said...

I can't wait for you musk article and the rose sounds utterly captivating.

Anonymous said...

All Qurashi and Arabian Oud perfumes available at superb prices from http://perfume.zahras.com

Zazie said...

Tantalizing!! Your travelogue reviews are so beautiful and interesting and captivating I wish they will never end! I wish you happy holidays - wherever you're going, I hope it will inspire additional chapters to your "voyage series"!!!

Nina Z. said...

A beautifully written report on a wonderful and fascinating experience. I almost felt like I was there.

ScentScelf said...

Thank you for taking the time write about your experiences, D...especially nice, given how wonderfully you present them!

Isn't it interesting...replace a few key words...and you might have been at a distillery. I was just explaining to a friend that I consider it no accident that I have been a gardener for a long time, had an aromatherapy phase, and a wine/sprits passion, before falling into perfume. That process...of cajoling, of conjuring one thing to become another...humans having done it in some form for centuries...and savoring the results...

...love it. :)