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A Side Trip:
Traditional Indian Attars

Part IV of a Multi-Part Series
Indian attars, an older cousin of essential oils, offer a quite different approach to perfume creation to that of the great fragrance houses of Europe.

The photos on this page of attar making were taken by Christopher McMahon and Manoj Avasthi, with the support of Ramakant Harlalka. They used by permission.

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A truck unloads fragrant materials alongside a row of stills ("degs").

Thus far in our perfume journey we have discovered that flowers are reluctant to give up their scent, that boiling water can extract scent from non-floral materials, and that by using controlled heat and pressure we can extract high quality essential oils from various natural materials through distillation. At this point, as a side journey, it is useful to take a look at another application of distillation — the production of traditional Indian attars.

Here, without going into depth on the subject or exploring some widespread misconceptions, I want to review the basics of traditional Indian attar making as this art differs from Western perfumery.

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The still (deg) is packed with flowers and perhaps a variety of other natural materials that will yield a fragrance under distillation.

What We Look For In An Essential Oil

In the Western tradition of perfumery, essential oils are sourced from the far corners of the earth and at times extracted using the same type of stills used in attar making. But, in the production of essential oils, the goal is the production of an oil that represents the essence of a single flower, plant or other natural material.

In the Western tradition of perfumery, the purity of the essential oil is judged by the lack of contaminants from materials other than that from which the extraction is being made. For example, if we are distilling sandalwood, our goal is to produce pure sandalwood oil. Any "non-sandalwood" materials in the finished oil would be considered contamination.

Moreover, in Western perfumery, we look for a consistency from batch to batch. This is achieved through a variety of high and low tech methods that give us confidence that when we place a reorder from our supplier, the new batch we receive will be a close match to our original order so that our perfume formula, unchanged and unadjusted, will yield the same aroma and tenacity.

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After the deg has been filled with flowers and whatever other fragrant materials are to be distilled, the contents are covered with water.

The Attar Philosophy

Whereas purity and consistency are the virtues in the production of essential oils, the attar maker strives for originality. While, in the production of essential oils, the natural material from which the oil is to be extracted will be as unitary as possible — everything from one single natural material — the materials in the attar maker's "deg" will be ... a closely guarded secret!

In traditional Indian attar making, the "formula" for the attar is as closely guarded a secret as that of a French perfume. For the attar maker, the "formula" is what goes into the deg and the bhapka — the still and the receiver.

Making an attar is a bit like making soup with leftovers. All sorts of leftovers and seasonings will go into the pot and the taste of the finished soup will depend very much on the skill of the cook to "adjust" by eye, nose, and tongue rather than following a cookbook recipe.

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to enlarge
A worker is shown inserting one end of a chonga (bamboo pipe used as a condenser tube) into the sarpos (lip) of a deg (copper distilling vessel). The other end will be inserted into the mouth of the bhapka (receiver).

Attars are original perfumes, created in a distillation process. The product of the distillation is the finished perfume. There is no mixing of separate aroma materials from a row of bottles. The product that emerges from the bhapka (receiver) is ready to be aged, bottled and sold.

The Attar Business

Whereas the business of essential oils was always a global one, with a production chain that stretched from Asia to the United States and Europe with parts of the production taking place at each end of the chain, (i.e., harvesting in Asia, distilling in New Jersey), production in the traditional attar business is strictly local. Only in the marketing of the finished attars does the business become national and international with the largest markets being India and the Muslim Middle East.

The manufacturing of attars has been, traditionally, a family business centered in particular villages close to the source of raw materials. As two friends have explained to me, each village would produce its own attars which would be distinct from those produced in any other village. The production and marketing, of course, would be under the direction of the owners — the family that owned the "formulas" and production facilities of that particular village.

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to enlarge
In this photo a row of chongas (bambook tubes) carry the distillation vapors from their respective degs (copper distillation vessels) to their waiting bhapkas (receiving vessels). Workers rotate the bhapkas by hand so that they are kept cool as distillation progresses.

The Attar Making Process

The process of producing attars would be familiar to anyone skilled in producing moonshine as the techniques are quite similar.

The process starts with gathering the raw materials from which the attar will be made. These are placed in a still (deg) and covered with water. The deg is heated and vapors from the mash risk to the top. These fragrant vapors exit through a small hole into the a bamboo tube (chonga) which leads them to a receiver, the bhapka.

The twist to the process is that the receiver — the bhapka — is not empty at the beginning of the procedure but is partially filled with what will become the base or fixative of the attar. Traditionally this had been sandalwood oil and thus the finished attar is a blending of the distillate of various natural aroma materials with sandalwood oil.


Like the skilled cook making soup, production of traditional attars depends on the skills of the supervisors. Modern manufacturing methods are not employed. There are no gas burners, no thermometers or pressure gages, no chemical sampling kits. All depends on the eye and the nose.

The wood or charcoal fires under the deg must produce the right amount of heat — but this is measured by touch and adjusted by adding or subtracting logs or charcoal from the fire.

The condensation in the chonga (bamboo condenser pipe) and bhapka (receiving vessel) must be just right, but again, this is checked by touch and adjusted, when necessary, by cooling the chonga or bhapka with wet cloths.

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to enlarge
A row of chongas (bamboo pipes) connecting their respective degs (copper stills) to their bhapkas (receiving tanks).

The process is "repeatable" but not precise (by Western standards). The exact details of how each step of the process is accomplished remains a very closely guarded secret within the family making the particular attar. When we describe the manufacturing process, we speak in generalities as we simply do not know what subtlties in the process have been learned over the years and passed down from generation to generation. What we can assume is that for each family making attars, both the fine points of selecting the particular fragrant materials and the distillation process itself have evolved over time and are not to be shared with those outside the family.


For all its rich history and use of natural materials, attar making has its problems. The biggest problem faced today by attar makers is the cost of sandalwood. Today (real!) sandalwood oil can fetch over $1,000 per pound.

Thus what was once a business where the profit was 900 percent of the cost of raw materials, of late the profit has dropped to around 10 to 20 percent of the cost of the raw materials.

As a result of the current economics of the attar business, paraffin and dioctyl phthalate (DOP)are commonly substituted for sandalwood as a base and today the "big market" is often the cigarette industry where attars are used to scent cigarettes.

Part I: Making Your Own Perfume For Pleasure or for Profit

Part II: Voyage of Discovery

Part III: Extracting Essential Oils Through Distillation

Part V: Producing Agarwood Oil In Thailand

Part VI: Turning homemade perfume into a commercial product

How to create an international production formula for your homemade perfume
How to create an international production formula for your homemade perfume

Homemade perfumes generally lack commercial value, regardless of how wonderful they may be, because their creators fail to record how their perfumes were made. To profit from a perfume, to sell it, to sell the rights to it, or have somebody sell it for you, you must be able to make more of it. To make more you need the formula, the record of how the perfume was made: what materials were used and how much of each material was used. While the formula is nothing more than a recipe, a simple piece of paper, it is the key to unlocking your perfume's commercial potential. With the formula in your hand you have the ability to make a few dozen bottles more or, like the celebrities, tens of thousands of bottles. How to create an international production formula for your homemade perfume is a guide to getting you started on the right foot, correctly documenting everything you do as you are doing it, and then using these notes with some basic mathematics to write a simple, accurate, universal formula for your perfume. Writing formulas for your perfumes can change the way you think about them. With your formulas in hand your creations are no longer "here today, gone tomorrow." Now, thanks to your library of formulas, your perfumes become immortal!

Making Perfume By The Quart: A do-it-yourself project book

While much is written about perfume – the beautiful fragrances... the beautiful bottles – little is available on the "mechanics" of perfume production – the steps that take place on the "factory floor" where a beautiful vision is turned into a finished product, a "ready to sell" perfume. Now you can experience all of these steps, hands on, by making just one quart of your own perfume. If you follow each chapter and do what you are instructed to do, you will end up with from 8 to 64 bottles of your own perfume, depending on the capacity of the bottles you select. Along this "insiders journey," each step is profusely illustrated with professional color photographs and you'll learn — • Exactly what alcohol you'll need and where to get it • Why you'll want (just a little!) water in your perfume • What type bottles you'll need and why you cannot use others • Why you will use a spray and not a cap • How to fill and seal your bottles • How to label your bottles with the correct information so they will be legal for sale • How to select a name for your perfume that will allow you to acquire powerful trademark rights free. If you are a developer of scents you are encouraged to use one of your own for this project. If you are not a scent creator yourself you'll learn how to get a fragrance oil that is exactly right for this project. Online sources are given for all required supplies and materials. Nothing can hold you back from starting your project immediately!

Creating Your Own Perfume With A 1700 Percent Markup! (3rd edition)

Perfume is famous for the markup it can achieve, even for a middle market fragrance. While "everybody knows" that perfume costs next to nothing to make (not completely true) the making of it is often considered an esoteric secret. "Creating Your Own Perfume With A 1700 Percent Markup!" details how a 3-person company with no experience created their own fragrance in response to a marketing opportunity that was too good to pass up. The book explains exactly what was done to create a fragrance for that opportunity but it is far more than a history of the author's project. "Creating Your Own Perfume With A 1700 Percent Markup!" lays out every step in the process of creating your own perfume, either as a do-it-yourself project – and without the benefit of automated equipment some compromises and workarounds are required – or full bore professional production under your supervision. Either way you will be producing a quality fragrance at a remarkably low cost. Do you have a marketing opportunity that would be wildly profitable if only you could obtain your fragrance at a ridiculously low cost? "Creating Your Own Perfume With A 1700 Percent Markup!" is the guide you need to do it.

Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name

A really great name, a special name that is just right for a particular perfume or perfume marketer (or entrepreneur with money to invest!) can be worth a ton of money. But few individuals with great ideas ever manage to cash in on those brilliant ideas. Instead they wait while others "discover" their idea, acquire legal rights to it and make all the money while they are left out in the cold without a penny having been earned for what was once THEIR idea.

If you are struggling to name your perfume and are looking for a name that will have real value, "Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name" will help you weed out low value names and point you to names that have better marketing value plus the potential to become valuable assets in themselves.

If you have a great name you want to protect but no fragrance, "Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name" will guide you through the simple steps you must take to acquire a legal right to that name before someone else grabs it! Best of all, "Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name" shows you how to gain strong legal protection for your name without a lawyer and without spending more than pocket change.

Never had an idea for a product name? Never thought much about perfume? "Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name" may stimulate your interest in a whole new game that, when played well, can make you lots of money without your having to leave the comfort of your home office.

How To Launch Your Own Perfume Company: A Simple Business Plan

You can build a perfume business of your own using this business plan as a guide. By following its detailed strategy you learn to identify motivated groups of potential perfume buyers. Members of these groups are near the tipping point of desire for a new perfume. You don't know these people and they don't know you but you know a marketer they trust, one who does not currently sell perfume and might never think of selling perfume were it not for your approach. Here is where you step in with a professional plan, promotion, and perfume to take advantage of this ripe opportunity for mutual profit. Before your first promotion has peaked, you will already be developing a relationship with your next marketing partner. Following this plan, you will gain more and more profit with each new marketing partnership.

Creating your own perfume from dropper bottles: Methods, mechanics, and mathematics

Now when you make your own perfume you can make it fully "commercial" meaning you will be creating a product ready for regular, continuous sales to friends, relatives, and the public! If the fragrance you've made has already won praise, why not share it with others? Some might pay you for it and want it for their web stores or retail boutiques! Creating your own perfume from dropper bottles: Methods, mechanics, and mathematics guides you through steps that can turn your hobby project into a perfume business. Discover how close you are now and how little more you must do to take what you made with essential oils and dropper bottles into a business of your own! For an introduction to this book, watch this video.

How To Create A More Valuable Name For Your Perfume

When you name a perfume you create a valuable asset – the name itself. To sell your perfume you want the most effective name possible. But a good name can have value beyond the edge it gives your sales. In naming your fragrance you are creating a trademark and a trademark can have value independent of the product. The value of that trademark can vary. Much depends on how well, in naming your perfume, you follow the trademark "rules." How To Create A More Valuable Name For Your Perfume first helps you develop a name that will be effective in selling your perfume. It then prods you to make use of certain techniques that can turn a good name into a great trademark, strong and valuable. If you have questions about how to protect a name, How To Create A More Valuable Name For Your Perfume will answer many such as:

  • Can you protect your name yourself or do you need a lawyer?
  • Can you register a trademark without a lawyer?
  • What does it cost to register a trademark?
  • How do I enforce the rights I have established?

How To Create A More Valuable Name For Your Perfume covers both state, federal, and international protection.

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Philip Goutell
Lightyears, Inc.