3 Unusual Natural Perfume Ingredients You've Never Heard Of

Written by Maggie Mahboubian

Photo by Stocksy

The natural perfumery palette is made up of raw materials that come from all over the world. Each has a fascinating story to tell, from source to extraction, but none is as unusual as the three notes you are about to encounter. These notes have been used by traditional cultures for centuries prior to finding their way into the Western fragrance repertoire, and were used in commercial perfumes until recently when synthetic molecules were developed to replace them.

The resurgence of natural perfumery has sparked a renewed interest in these materials helping to revive centuries-old methods that have brought back these unusual materials from the brink of extinction, so to speak.


Ensar Oud

Of these three unusual notes, one is botanical but classified as animalic due to its barnyard scent. We are talking about oudh ("wood" in Arabic). Extracted from the diseased heartwood of the Aquilaria genus, oudh is highly prized by many cultures. In Saudia Arabia chips are burned as incense called "bukhoor," a special offering made to guests. In Japan it is part of the Samurai Kodo ceremony, where a tiny chip is smoldered so that the scent can be appreciated socially.

The oil used in natural perfumery is distilled from the wood infected by the Phialophora parasitica mold, which causes a resinous reaction by the tree. Once harvested, the resinous portion is carved out of the heartwood sometimes resulting in twisted sculptural forms. This portion is then hydrodistilled yielding a small amount of dark aromatic oil, which ranges from varnished wood to fecal, musty to smoky, sweaty to medicinal. Real oudh is incredibly complex and very expensive, mostly due to the difficulty in obtaining the infected heartwood and the overharvesting of the wild tree. Many oudh-type perfumes on the market contain synthetic re-creations that don't smell anything like the real thing, which is very much an acquired taste.

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Mitti Attar

Whie Lotus

In India, traditional attars are considered complete perfumes. They are made with low-yielding botanicals distilled into sandalwood, which also acts as a base for the fragrance, adding depth and longevity. Natural perfumers often use attars as individual notes in fragrance design. One in particular captures the scent of rain. It is called Mitti Attar and is made with thick clods of earth that have just received their first monsoon rains. In the village of Kannauj, villagers welcome the monsoons by harvesting these chunks of wet baked earth and gently distilling them in huge copper degs. The molecules released from the earth are then suspended in sandalwood, which captures the elusive earthy scent of rain falling on dry earth, otherwise known as "petrichor," a term coined in 1964 from petra meaning "stone" and ichor meaning "the fluid flowing through the veins of the gods."


Kafkaesque Hyraceum

Hyraceum, also known as Africa Stone, is the fossilized urine of the rock hyrax, called "dassies" in South Africa. These adorable critters are related to the elephant and spend their time in herds munching on native aromatic plants. They urinate in the same spot where minerals in their urine harden and accumulate into pillars. Over time these crystals fossilize, acquiring a stonelike color and appearance. Rock hyrax is then collected and tinctured to 6 to 10 percent. It has an uncanny ability to make florals smell three-dimensional, as if you are holding a flower just under your nose. On its own, however, hyraceum smells just like a wild zoo, although if you squint, sweet, haylike notes come through as well.

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