As young Saudis infuse the market with new perfumes, regard for their fragrant past is stronger than ever.
What is considered the most valued sense that humans possess is questionable. We see beauty with our eyes and hear melodies with our ears. We show affection through touch and read poetry through our lips. But some may say that smell is the most prized sense of all. For Arabs, scents and aromas have always been significant. Whether you’re walking down a souk and the scent of spices tingles your nose, or you smell your mother’s perfume on someone and it brings back fond memories of your childhood, fragrances in particular have always been associated with nostalgia; they act as a trigger to a recollection of memories. For Saudis specifically, the familiarity with fragrance dates back centuries.
Today, most perfumes are in liquid form and in pretty packaged bottles, but before liquids, fragrances were released through burning incense. Mohammed Khoja, designer of ready- to-wear label Hindamme who recently launched two fragrances in collaboration with Al Zomorod perfumes, says that fragrances are “ingrained in the heritage with Arabs in general.
They trace back to ancient times with the burning of incense or bukhoor; it’s a tradition that I’m so happy we have inherited.” The designer’s custom fragrances include Cardamom Amber Blend and Jasmine Leather Blend, and he explains that the inspiration behind them comes from “the scents and spices of the ancient Silk Road and merging notes from Eastern and Western influences.”
In Saudi Arabia, burning bukhoor dates back to pre- Islamic times. The word “perfume” itself is derived from the Latin per (“through”) and fumare (“to smoke”), which relates to the fumes released when burning incense. An array of different pungent substances make incense but the most common are oud, amber, sandalwood, and musk. For Saudis, there has always been a deep appreciation of powerful fragrances. Whether sprayed on skin or burnt to fill homes with ambrosial and laden scents (culturally, burning incense has been associated with purifying the home), fragrances have a deep history in the Kingdom. “The sense of smell is one of the most powerful and effective to bring back emotions and memories of my childhood,” says Nouf Al Qahtani, the first Saudi female perfumer, who started her label NSHQ in 2005.
For centuries, perfumes have been used as a status symbol, and it’s not only because of the high price tags on oud – “liquid gold” aged oud oil in its purest form can cost up to US$80,000 per liter. Fragrances are proof that beauty isn’t only seen but can be smelled, too; to smell attractive is a symbol of luxury and indulgence. So much so that international luxury brands such as Tom Ford and Dior have adopted what are referred to as the Arabian scents of oud, musk, and other ingredients into their own perfume ranges. These scents may be recognizable as you walk down the streets of London and New York, but European and Western perfumers only adopted these scents following their staggering popularity in Arabia. The scents may have been embraced by other cultures, however, the emotional and historical significance that they have to Saudis and other Arabs is incomparable.
Khaled bin Mohammad Al-Thaneyan, co-founder of Rashat, a leading perfume house launched in 2013, which has stores across the Kingdom, explains one of the fundamental differences with regards to perfumery in Saudi and the rest of the world, “International companies tend to manufacture seasonal perfumes according to public taste. For me, this limits creativity and the splendor of innovation in the industry.”
To Saudis, finding the perfect fragrance is more complex than might be imagined. Many Saudi women purchase various international brands and will then blend their oud to their own unique recipe. Rakan AlRomaihi, founder of RR Perfumes who recently launched his namesake perfume label Rakan, shares, “I was so passionate about hand-blending, I even made some fragrances at home. Then I became that person who owns their own office and brand.”
Much consideration goes into finding a well-balanced and harmonious blend, as they often enjoy mixing different ingredients together. Whether you prefer sweet, subtle, and tangy aromas or bold, powerful, and piquant smells like oud, fragrances are nothing short of a cultural marvel in the Kingdom. So much so, that they are also integrated into hospitality as much as dates and Arabian coffee are customary.
With just a few sprays, a perfume has the power to elevate confidence. It’s no wonder that Saudis have incorporated it into their daily routines, making it as customary as brushing your teeth.
Hatem Alhomaidi, who is behind Riyadh-based Hrof Perfume, states, “Fragrance is an essential part of our culture. Saudis are known for laying heavy emphasis on personal hygiene, which extends to buying good quality perfumes, bathing bars, and essential oils.”
Abdullah bin Mohammad Al-Thaneyan, co-founder of Rashat, posits, “A person’s final look is never complete without wearing a perfume.” Khoja concurs. “It’s part of the process of getting ready. A scent says a lot about the individual and the mood that they are in, and it also has the power to change your mood.”
Originally published in the December 2020 Issue of Vogue Arabia