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Dhaka Tribune

From ‘fraghead’ to perfumer

Meet Bangladeshi artisan perfumer Saiful Islam

Update : 27 Jul 2019, 06:06 PM

An academic by profession, Saiful Islam began dabbling in the art of perfumery out of passion. A passion for capturing the magical power of scents and also from his love for the prophet of Islam, who loved perfume. 

“When I came to know that perfume was one of the Prophet’s (may peace and blessings of God be upon him) favourites in worldly things, I started to use perfume, mainly perfume oils or attar, and tried to collect specific perfumes he used to like and wear, such as deer musk, ambergris, oudh, rose, etc,” said Saiful. 

The other reason for delving into the craft was slightly more self-centred: he wanted to make a ‘signature perfume’ for himself. Saiful’s aspiration was also to explore “the game of olfactory senses” and presenting his fellow countrymen with the kind of quality attars and perfumes that people only expect from Western imports. 

A lecturer at AIUB and currently pursuing higher studies in Europe, Saiful took up perfumery as a hobby about 10 years ago. 

In 2009 Saiful started to collect natural and raw form of perfume oils and layering them.

“By the end of 2011, I had a large collection of single note perfume oils and I was experimenting with those. By 2013, I had prepared many perfumes on my own for personal use, or for giving out as gifts or sharing with my friends at home and abroad.”

From his experimenting with layering single note perfume oils like oud, musk, rose, and more, Saiful gained an in-depth sense of the dimension in performance of each attar. In his learning process he was also mentored by Abdes Salaam, whom he admires a lot and refers to as “a legend in natural and handcrafted perfume.”

As he learned more and more, his zeal for creating intensified.

“These findings set me on an enthusiastic journey of making attar and eventually diluting them into alcohol which is the modern day spray perfume,” Saiful said. 

The word ‘attar’ is derived from the word ‘ittar’, which means perfume oil extracts from mainly botanic origins like flower petals, leaves, wood bark, fruit peels, etc. Ruh gulab, ruk khus, oudh or agarwood oil are some of the most widely used perfume oils. In perfumery, these are called essential oils.

“Today, attar means any perfume oil, be it natural or synthetic, concentrated or diluted. If the diluents are ethanol or alcohol we call it a perfume. So, in reality attar is actually perfume. Attars still come in oil form following the ancient tradition,” Saiful said. 

He started to sell perfumes, mainly attars, under the brand name ‘Saiful Islam Attar.’ Now called Rouhanne, Saiful changed the brand name to give it a “modern and French touch.” Expecting to launch a fully functioning website soon, Saiful hopes the brand will soon reach many perfume enthusiasts and earn a name for itself. 

Currently, Saiful’s client base consists predominantly of attar lovers from the community of religious people connected through Facebook, as well as the fragrance community online. Saiful also has a few foreign clients who help him by sharing their feedback on his perfumes.

As a perfumer and a perfume lover, Saiful looks for certain qualities in a perfume. “I look for uniqueness, the feelings and memories it evokes, and how complex it is to describe. If a perfume is beyond my capability of describing or explaining it, I consider it to be a masterpiece.” 

Saiful loves raw essential oils. His most favourites include deer musk, oudh, ambergris, amber and Taif rose. From designer and niche perfumes Saiful likes dark and deep perfumes that are woody, musky, patchouli, leathery, aquatic,citric.

Saiful says perfume making is an art like music composition. Just like a song,perfume is also made up of chords: base chord -- the longest lasting of perfume ingredients, heart chord -- what someone perceives after the first impression, and top chord -- most volatile perfume molecules, usually sensed 5-15 minutes after a perfume is sprayed.

“A chord is actually a series of notes. The procedure of creating them is complicated, but I am trying to make it simpler,” Saiful said. 

The art of perfumery sounds more like science as Saiful goes into details of the techniques involved. “A good rule of thumb is to formulate with 55% base, 20% heart/middle notes and 25% top notes,” he said. 

Usually, says Saiful, woody, amber, leather, mossy notes go to base chords. Florals and fruits make mid/heart chords and citruses usually make the top notes. The citrus genre is the most volatile perfume chemical which lasts very the shortest.

“For tools, you need several plastic droppers, glass vials, blending glass stick, scent strips, etc,” he said. When making these “chords”, Saiful advises, the ingredients should be diluted to 10% either in ethanol or carrier oils, while testing. 

“For attar I prefer not to dilute but while testing some accord or chords, I usually dilute them, so that I do not waste.”

Saiful usually prepares 100ml to 200ml raw perfume oil, depending on the demand and price of ingredients. 

“I sell Attar in raw form without any dilution, in 100% strength, in 3ml bottles which makes 33 bottles and rest 1 ml I usually keep as a reference for the next batch. If I prepare EDP (30% oil and 70% alcohol), I sell in 10-30ml spray bottles.”

The starting point for a person wishing to try their hands at perfume making is to train his/her nose, Saiful said. 

“I would say one must have key perfume ingredients and blending tools and then try applying the basic knowledge of mixing perfume or notes acquired from books or article available online.” For buying ingredients, the closest destination is India, said Saiful. But essential oils, aroma chemicals can also be ordered online from the US and Europe. 

“There are a wide range of learning kits available online, like natural perfume kit, aroma chemical kit, and many more,” said Saiful. 

Saiful’s dream is to grow a hand-crafted natural perfume brand, both oil and spray versions. 

“Other than my attars and perfumes, I would also like to introduce aromatherapy products such as scented soap and candles, incense, etc.”

But Saiful feels that Bangladesh is not at capacity yet to have its own export-worthy brand. 

“We do not have local customers in large numbers and also internationally our country is not known for this industry. Although we have few distillers in Sylhet region for oudh, we are far behind still compared to India,” he said. 

“Moreover, India is also producing rose, amber, sandalwood, etc. Mysore happens to be the largest and only in the whole world in quality and quantity for sandalwood.  The entire city of Kannauj, called city of perfume, is dedicated to this industry and also the Assam region known for their unique Hindi oudh worldwide,” said Saiful. 

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