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Volume 38, Number 6November/December 1987

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Old Scent, New Bottles

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland
Additional photographs by M. S. Al-Shabeeb

For thousands of years, gold, frankincense and myrrh were symbols of wealth and luxury for the mightiest . . civilizations on earth - the highest tributes one could offer, as the Magi did to the infant Jesus. Gold retained its value, but the two aromatics lost theirs when the incense-craving Greek and Roman empires declined. Now, however, all three are reunited in an exquisite new offering: Amouage, a range of exotic perfumes in elegant gold flasks.

Blended and bottled in Oman, in flacons that will also be made there, Amouage is already making waves in some of the world's most exclusive stores. The heady and allusive scent is thus helping to rescue from desuetude Oman's millennial craftsmanship in precious scents and precious metals - and playing a part as well in the sultanate's drive to diversify exports and reduce its economic dependence on oil.

The resin of the frankincense tree, Boswellia sacra, was once just as important to the economy of Arabia as oil is today. Over 3,000 tons of it were exported annually, carried north by camel caravans along the "incense trail" to distribution points in what is now Jordan and Syria. The Roman empire nearly went bankrupt buying frankincense, and mighty kingdoms such as Saba, Qataban and Nabataea prospered from its trade.

The pungent, pleasurable smell given off when frankincense is burned was highly esteemed by the peoples of the Mediterranean and Middle East. They believed the fragrant white smoke from smoldering frankincense soothed angry gods. As the Arab historian al-Tabari wrote, in describing the Magi's explanation of their gifts, "The smoke of incense reaches heaven as does no other smoke."

The temple of Baal in Babylon burned two and a half tons of frankincense a year, according to ancient records, and in Rome, Pliny says, the emperor Nero burned an entire year's production of incense from Arabia at the funeral of his wife Poppaea.

Frankincense had long been used for embalming corpses - pallets of frankincense, for example, were found in King Tutankhamun's tomb - and Celsus, the first-century Roman medical writer, says the ancient Greeks used frankincense to treat hemorrhoids.

Of all the varieties of frankincense, it was the silver variety from Oman's Dhofar province which was the most coveted; winged serpents were said to guard the forest of the "true tree" that grew there. For 2,000 years frankincense was the basis of Dhofar's economy, peaking in the first and second centuries when King Il'ad Yalut of the Hadramaut took over the incense-producing areas, built the port of Sumhuram and so secured a monopoly of the frankincense trade.

The same variety of frankincense tree still flourishes today on the desert plateau above the ruins of Sumhuram, nourished by the steady tropical sun and the heavy dew, unique to that part of Arabia, brought by the monsoon winds. Collection, however, has dwindled from some 3,000 tons a year at the time of Yalut to just a few tons annually today. Although Muslims and Christians continued to use incense in their ceremonies, the quantities were small compared to those the Romans used, and in 1946 an artificial substitute, developed in Rome, delivered the coup de grace to Oman's frankincense trade.

What little is left of the frankincense trade is mainly in the hands of the Bayt Kathir and, to a lesser degree, al-Mahra tribes, in whose territories the best frankincense trees grow.

Frankincense collection - which begins in winter, peaks in spring and ends with the summer monsoons - starts with shaving ovals of bark from the Boswellia sacra trunk. The collectors use an instrument like a putty knife called a minqaf. From these wounds the frankincense resin, or luban, oozes out and hardens into tear-like droplets, which are scraped off the tree and collected in two-handled baskets.

The first and second scraping produce only low-quality frankincense; the third produces the best. Even better frankincense - light and clear in color - can be obtained with greater patience and less effort: by collecting it from the ground after it has fallen from the tree and dried naturally. It is from this frankincense that the oil found in Amouage is extracted.

Frankincense has been used as a base for perfume since ancient times. On the walls of a temple in Edfu, a 2,000-year-old Egyptian formula dedicated to Hathar, goddess of love, includes frankincense among its ingredients. The Song of Solomon, the Hebrew king, rhymes of "the beloved" Queen of Saba - her name was Balkis, in the Muslim tradition - "who was perfumed with myrrh and frankincense"; and at Rome's peak, her chroniclers wrote of palace dining rooms lined with silver pipes that sprayed guests with frankincense perfumes.

In the centuries that followed, the Arabs developed a more scientific approach to the creation of perfumes, adding the fragrances of oriental flowers to the traditional aromatic woods. During the reign of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, when the Arab empire stretched from Spain to India, chemists created a floral essence - 'itr, in Arabic - that is still called by its Arabic name in English: attar of roses.

These perfumes, brought back by the Crusaders from their wars in the Middle East, revolutionized Europe's idea of cosmetics, which until the Middle Ages had been restricted to paints. Eventually the skills of perfume production itself were transmitted from Arab Spain to southern France, where the town of Grasse rapidly achieved the dominant international reputation that it has retained to the present day.

To Grasse, in 1890, went Joseph Robert, carrying a process for obtaining flower oils that he developed while working in a soap factory in Marseilles. It revolutionized the industry and established a dynasty of perfumers that has lasted 100 years.

The third generation of this dynasty is Guy Robert, the creator of Amouage. He is one of about 10 people in the world who can determine how certain ingredients, when combined, will smell: He is a composer and orchestrator of perfumes - what the small and secretive perfume profession respectfully calls "a nose."

From his Paris studio, Guy Robert had already created the modern perfume classics Madame Rochas, Caleche, Equipage, Gucci and Monsieur Rochas. Yet he still had a dream to fulfill.

"In my kind of work," says Robert, "you always have a dream of creating the perfume, the one in which you are given free rein to use all the essences of your experience, your thought and imagination, no matter how expensive"

His opportunity came when he was asked by an Omani company to create a perfume "for people who didn't have to ask the price" The only condition was that it contain frankincense.

The perfume that Robert came up with contains, in fact, 140 ingredients. It is based, he says, "on a balance of the richest flowery notes of tuberose, rose, jasmine and muguet [lily of the valley], with top notes of fruity essences - apricot, peach, lime." The perfume's strength is brought out through the use of frankincense and olibanum extracts, with the help of patchouli, vetiver, cistus and sandalwood oils, and its lasting power is enhanced by the use of such animal products as ambergris and musk.

The basic structure of the men's eau de toilette is similar to the ladies' perfume. Its increased strength and virile aspect is achieved, Robert says, by the use of more animal substances and more patchouli against a more oriental background.

Amouage LLC, the perfumes' manufacturer, is a subsidiary of SABCO, an active Omani trading company founded by Sami Hamed and Badr Hamed bin Hamoud, whose family has long traded in frankincense. The name they gave their company and their scent is a French transliteration of the Arabic amwaj, waves or splashes.

Like the formula for the perfume itself, the company's modern perfume factory on the outskirts of.Muscat was also imported from France. The flasks in which Amouage is sold have a French connection as well. They were designed by Asprey of London, precious metalsmiths and jewelers to royalty around the world, a firm still owned by the same Huguenot family that fled from France 200 years ago to escape persecution.

The flacon for the men's eau de toilette is shaped like the hilt of the khanjar, the curved dagger worn by Omani men on formal occasions; while the flasks for the ladies' perfume are cubes topped by the familiar Arabian ogive dome.

"Perfumes were produced thousands of years ago in the Middle East and Oman," bin Hamoud told the press conference that launched Amouage, "and while we are delighted to re-establish this industry in its original birthplace, we feel our work should not be restricted to the preparation of perfumes alone.

"We looked at the traditional silver craft, which has not changed in centuries, and we felt that this, too, should be part of the project," he said.

And so Amouage, in its distinctive flasks, was born, rekindling traditions of the past in the light of Oman's economic needs of the future.

Sales so far have been good, despite the perfume's price tag, which seems nearly as daunting as winged serpents once were. The smallest, simplest container of Amouage - 10 milliliters (a third of an ounce), plated with 24-carat gold - costs 135 Omani riyals, or about $56. A 120 milliliter (4-ounce) solid gold, jewel-encrusted bottle can set the buyer back 12,000 riyals - an impressive $5,000.

Yet luxury always finds its market. Frankincense has found one for most of three millennia or more, and - with Amouage - it continues to do so today.

]ohn Lawton is a contributing editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 38-40 of the November/December 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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