Monday, January 29, 2018

Passionate, poetic and inventive: An interview with Sultan Pasha

In today's fast food world where quality became a remote aspect of life and everything is produced for short timeline, one stood against all odds to resurrect a heritage of perfumery from its very origin. What is made ephemeral is produced by menial methods for massive population. As a result, attar oils and traditional mukhallat (in Arabic means blend) which are fruits of patience andd maceration, are put in shade by modern perfume and disgraced by inferior quality provided by anonymous online opportunists. Nevertheless, it is quite fascinating to hear pros and cons of attars and mukhallats from one of the most upgrowing perfumers of this range. Thanks to his kind and friendly personality, and a little thanks to social network where we gather to share our passion for odor, many of you know who's the nose behind the picture above. Sultan Pasha; a self-thought perfumer with eastern origin and western identity.

Although he's fully introduced by many bloggers who described his creations, I found it necessary to go further with an interview. I confess I went sooo deep in conversation! Thank you for your patience.


Keyvan: Dear Sultan, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I should note that it is exclusively made for both Pierre de Nishapur and Samoor online magazine, which I translate to Persian. So, let’s begin with yourself. Who is Sultan Pasha and how did you become interested in making fragrances?

Sultan: Hahahhah! Who is Sultan Pasha… even I don’t know myself as I’m constantly learning new things… but the basics are I’m what you call a born science geek who has always been fascinated by chemistry and the world around me. I studied biochemical sciences up to a degree level but due to certain circumstances I had to go in to retail banking to earn a living. I did my tenure in banking for ten years until I had severe heath issues. Thus, I took a break from work and it was during this period of darkness when I realized my raison d’etre… all the small pieces of the puzzle fell in to the right places to create the grandest picture of life.
Sultan Pasha

I’ve always been fascinated by perfumes, from an especially tender age of three when I was investigating my late grandfather’s chest full of remnants he bought back during his long pilgrimage to Mecca. Out of everything in that precious chest what interested me the most were these beautiful tiny bottles full of thick dark oil that had the most mesmerizing scents. Really from there it goes to me playing with my mother’s extensive perfume collection (Chanel No. 5, Christian Dior Miss Dior and Diorama etc.) to her total dismay.  So really I’ve always been fascinated by perfumes.

In terms of making perfumes, it really started during my tenure in retail banking, as the routine and mundane environment used to affect me greatly psychologically, and as such the only solace I had was on a monthly basis buying small amounts of essential oils and aroma chemicals and taking them to work with me. Whilst at work, I would smell these new discoveries and they took me to different places. I would then come home and go to various sites online or read books relating to perfumery to help decide on the next purchase. However, the purchases then escalated to purchasing full bottles of perfumes instead, as I discovered the newly launched Amouage attars in 2009 and I was just blown away! To me they were absolute olfactive masterpieces and I was just fascinated by how they were created… I felt like that three-year-old child again who discovered his grandfather’s wooden chest from Mecca.

Amouage Attars

These extravagant purchases stopped once I was diagnosed with my illness and I had to take time off work. Due to the medication I was on, I couldn’t enjoy any smells as any scent would make me nauseous. I later found out, thank God, that I had been misdiagnosed, and that is when I started feeling extremely hungry to smell. I put an Amouage attar on and to my surprise I was able to read the profile and ‘see’ how it was created. As a result, I tried to create my very first composition and I was shocked at the result. I just created Incense Royale. After that I made my second ever composition, this time with a lot more adventurous ingredient and for my beloved wife I created Shadee. And that’s how it started.

Keyvan: Why did you prefer attar oils and not regular perfumes?

Sultan: I prefer all perfumery as long as there is poetic thought in the composition or if the composition contains truly fine ingredients… so I’m not a fan of attars over alcoholic perfumes. However, I have to say that attars have true advantages over alcoholic perfumes:

1. Attars can be shipped worldwide without worrying about draconian postal regulations.

2. Most attars, depending on the ingredients, keep extremely well in comparison to alcoholic perfumes. Providing that there is no moisture or other foreign contaminants, Attars can survive decades longer.

3. They can be more complex than alcoholic perfumes and are longer-lasting and more powerful.

4. They mature extremely well. Imagine a 50-year-old attar made with oud, patchouli and sandalwood.

Keyvan: Good points. A frequent question about attar oils occupies my mind. What aspects make them distinct to typical fragrances? Are they natural perfumes? Are they solvent in perfumer alcohol?

Sultan: What most laymen know as attars are really technically called mukhallats or mixtures, however it’s easier to say attar and therefore has been adopted. A real attar is when an essence such as rose has been obtained via co-distillation with sandalwood to produce the product attar Gulab, however what I produce are really mukhallats as they are mixtures of various essences and absolutes. In my case, I like to make something from start to finish rather than use a pre-distilled attar as a base component… thus, making what I do truly artisanal.

Some of my compositions are 100% natural, for example Pure Incense, but the rest are a mixture of natural and synthetics. However, I have three extremely strict principals:

1. To make sure I use the absolute minimum, but necessary, amounts of synthetics.

2. To make sure that the overall composition is not more that 15% synthetic.

3. To make sure that I don’t use artificial aroma chemicals, if methodology permits, and only use synthetic nature identical (nature identical are molecules that are synthetically created but also available in nature. For example, instead of using deer musk sometimes I will use the actual deer musk components such as Muscenone and L-Muscone. The maximum concentration of L-muscone and muscenone in pure Himalayan deer musk grains for example is between 0.5 - 5% amongst other components of the total grains. The maximum level of either of these components that can be used in a total composition is 1% before the musk components totally overwhelm and unbalance the composition).

If any of these rules are broken the price of the composition must reflect as such. Most of the compositions work in alcoholic solution.

Keyvan: Oils are viscous form of perfume. They cannot be sprayed or splashed. How should one wear them to get effective result?

Sultan Pasha Attars

Sultan: The method I follow is simple. Place one drop of composition in your palm and with your little finger apply to pulse points, then rub both palms together and rub or pat down on your outer garment such as your shirt.

Keyvan: You suggest applying directly on skin. It’s a rumor that attar oils may slightly vary in smell from skin to skin, are you comfortable with this idea?

Sultan: Of course! How boring would it be to smell like everyone else? For example, I don’t know if anyone enjoys wearing a uniform as there is no sense of individuality there. To me, perfume is the ultimate form of self-expression in a world that is becoming increasingly mundane and uniform. So, to me, variation of a perfume from person to person is an incredibly beautiful thing. This is one of the reasons why I don’t enjoy modern perfumery as much. You go on the London transport system and you see an ocean of people and all you can smell in the air nowadays is a mixture of real and fake Aventus, tons of Iso E Super, ambroxan, hedione or aldron… it’s just boring.

Keyvan: Right, but modern perfumery also gives opportunity of purchase with lower price, whilst attars are often presented in super luxury price in West. Apart from the price of the ingredients used in each blend, what factors affect the prices?

Sultan: In the case of my compositions three factors are at play here:

1. Ingredients used.
2. Time needed to create composition.
3. Complexity of composition.

With regards to other companies in the West, I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that question.

Keyvan: Time, you mentioned. This factor varies from perfume to perfume and perfumer to perfumer. How long do you often spend for a final product?

Sultan: It varies accordingly from composition to composition... Two factors you will have to take in to account:

1. Availability of materials with the right facets. This is possibly the most time consuming as sometimes I have to go through hundreds of material references for the same material. Let’s say a rose, and find the right one with all the right attributes. Sometimes just getting the right material can take months but you have to take in to account that some of my compositions have multiple of ingredients and each one I’ve to make sure has all the right attributes. In Aurum for example where there’s a large number of materials it’s taken me four years to get to the right ones. I ordered multiple roses from one of my Iranian contacts and he (may God bless him) sent me eight different varieties and I settled on a 2nd distillation from Kashan.

Kashan roses

2. Sometimes if I can’t find the right materials I will make an accord but that takes very long time as well as the accord will change over time sometimes regrettably in to something I don’t require for a particular composition, but I pay particular attention and try to remember each nuance and changes for any other future composition. It opens up possibilities. Working with high amounts of naturals is exciting due to this factor. It’s unpredictable and almost alive with its own innate behaviour and characteristics which sometimes you don’t even foresee. That is why each and every new material I try to treat as a totally new member of family. I try my upmost to know everything I can about it. What it loves, hates, its weaknesses and it’s strengths. I then try to use that knowledge I gathered to temper a composition in the direction I need.

Keyvan: Every year some perfume ingredients are highly restricted because of new regulations concerning health and allergy. Many natural ingredients are at the top of that list. Are there any health and allergy cautions concerning attar oils that consumers should be aware of?

Sultan: I sell my oils on a strict semi-bespoke basis, where I first urge my client to buy the samples and try the small amounts on their skin to fully evaluate how they behave with their individual skin chemistry. Also, all the components for each of the compositions are from well-known and prestigious houses such as Albert Vieille, IFF, Firmenich, etc. With materials that have a high risk factor I take that in to account and use the said material sparingly to minimize risks. There are potential risks with all the things that we are constantly exposed to (detergents, food, medicine etc.), but these can be fine on one person and a disaster on someone else. So, really, it’s down to common sense. If the samples cause any allergies than don’t use them, simple (however, praise be to God Almighty, allergic cases from using the compositions have been extremely minimal).

Some of the natural materials used in perfumery have been used by humanity for thousands of years, as food… i.e. saffron, cloves, oak moss, citrus, etc. Yet in the West there are heavy restrictions on most of these today, as a certain minority or the European population is allergic to some of these. Just because a minority of the European population is adversely affected is that reflective of the whole of humanity? I’m sorry, this is truly draconian!

Keyvan: Attar oils are special delivery, with special use and a special audience. Is it economical to produce them in long-term?

Tiny sample tubers of his creations

Sultan: So far so good… popularity of oils has been increasing exponentially, praise be to God Almighty. It seems people are slowly but surely catching on, like a chain reaction. So, inshAllah, I’ve no worries.

Keyvan: What about your origins? If I’m not mistaken you have roots in India, where perfumes and scents are naturally intense and pure. How did this encouraged you to be a perfumer?

Sultan: My mother was born in East Pakistan, what is now Bangladesh, but her family was originally from Calcutta. Her maternal grandparents were from Isfahan. My father is from Bangladesh.

With regards to perfumes back home… where do I start?… wow! Let’s just say this, after every Friday prayer my father or maternal uncles would treat me with attars sold by vendors outside the mosque… how fascinating they were to me!

Keyvan: You live in England. How about this? Does this country inspire you to create scents?

Sultan: Yes indeed… I was born here and have been here for a very long time. When it comes to creating my compositions, I don’t really take a particular country into account, rather I take my emotions, feelings and memories into account and translate them into perfumes. Some emotional people write beautiful poetry, some paint beautiful pictures, some sculpt beautiful sculptures, I try to do the same but with olfactive molecules.

Keyvan: What is your inspiration source? Do renown classic perfumes motivate you?

Sultan: Well, a number of things inspire me, alhamdullillah, but my main source of inspiration is my emotions. I’m an extremely emotional person who is prone to different shades of moods, one of the primary reasons for this is because I suffer from a lesser form of bi-polar disorder. At first, I used to see it as a curse but, Alhamdulillah, over time, and thanks to perfumery, I found a way to harness all those energies in a most suitable way. So, when I compose I try to reinterpret my emotions into a said composition. Another thing that deeply inspires me is memories and feelings evoked by certain classical compositions, for example, Guerlain Djedi.

Photo taken from Basenotes profile: pkiler

When I first smelt Djedi I felt immensely sombre but totally at peace. The type of peace one experiences in solitude, however, at that time I was surrounded by a lot of people, but for a moment I was transported to my inner self. This triggered me to create Thebes. By smelling Djedi I was affected emotionally and at the same time I was able to ‘read’ the notes and almost feel how it was constructed, which taught me something totally new. As a result, I’ve a huge collection of pre- 1950s vintages, as to me they are like books written by masters.

Keyvan: How do you borrow inspiration from a classic perfume - which is based on alcohol - to create an attar oil, while their structure and techniques are different?

Sultan: Technique of course is different but the story is the same. As a perfumer I try to understand the structure of the complex accords how they were achieved and then using the knowledge I’ve gathered about the materials I have at hand and try to achieve the same. It takes practice and patience and above all you must not be fearful of making mistakes. I made thousands of ‘mistakes’ but to me ‘mistakes’ are valuable lessons about what not to do or rather realize any new opportunities to a different direction that may have opened up as a result of these ‘mistakes’ 😉

Keyvan: In modern perfumery innovation happens frequently. For example, Antoine Lie invented a blood accord for Blood Concept Red +MA which is a modern animalic odor, and like civet it has haters and lovers. Attar oils seem entirely traditional and concrete. Is it possible to expand horizons of innovation in attar oils likewise?

Sultan: Of course it’s possible! Attar perfumery and typical perfumery only differ in methodology and the medium they are presented in, that’s all. Apart from that everything is the same. You have to use the same ingredients and molecules, but one has to pay attention to the polarities of the ingredients to make sure they are stable and can dissolve in an oil medium.

Keyvan: Are there any notes or smells that you are particularly drawn to, and are there any that you dislike intensely?

Sultan: I adore fine ambergris, Rosa Alba Otto and really fine sandalwood, amongst countless other things. But these two sticks out immediately in my mind when it comes to favourites. I really dislike synthetic laundry detergent musk.

Keyvan: I heard news of a brilliant collaboration between you and Jovoy London which really caught my attention. Coronation Ambergris, tempting title indeed. Please tell us about this collaboration.

Sultan: Yes, alhamdulillah, for such a beautiful blessing! As you may already be aware, I’ve been a huge fan of ambergris for many many years. It was an obsession of mine to seek out this most elusive and almost mythical substance. As a result of me trying to seek out this material for the last one and a half decades, I’ve had many many misadventures where I purchased countless number of compositions and essences reputed to have or even be ‘ambergris’, but I can wholeheartedly confirm right now that what I was sold was basically ‘snake oil’. As a result of all these misadventures I learnt a lot, so I don’t regret any of them, alhamdulillah. In the early days of exploration all I could afford was few precious drops of ambergris tincture which were between 1-3% concentration, and even then I couldn’t smell anything. I eventually purchased a variety of small pieces of ambergris from New Zealand, and that’s when I realized that there isn’t that much of a scent to ambergris, unless you have the low grade fresh black ambergris which is truly nauseatingly faecal. It was during that time I realized that the scent of ambergris is really secondary and its effects are its primary function in perfumery. After that I purchased various pieces of ambergris as my business grew, from various geographical locations, and realized that although each piece had its signature ambergris scent each one was intrinsically unique. This was even more reinforced when, last year, I was invited to go to Ireland to see my friend Patrick Lillis.

After meeting Patrick, I had to go to Paris for another matter and decided to quickly go into Jovoy to see if my good friend and mentor Monsieur Henin was present. Praise be to God he was there and I showed him these strange looking smelly stones, to which he exclaimed, ‘What is this!?’ I then said, ‘Mon ami, are you kidding me, this is one of the rarest of rare ingredients in perfumery, used by kings and queens for their coronation ceremonies the world over!’ After which he became silent and extremely serious and started typing something on his computer after which he exclaimed, ‘Sultan, my dear, this name ‘Coronation Ambergris’ is still available… I want you to talk to your Irish friend and create a company under that name and we shall talk later.’ To which I was shocked and laughing uncontrollably and thus the name Coronation Ambergris was born. Straight after, I spoke with Patrick and here we are.

Coronation Ambergris’ main ethos is to bring the finest ambergris pieces and products to the world’s attention and to make them readily accessible via a prestigious retailer. Via Jovoy, we are selling three alcoholic tinctures and one oil maceration (more to come in a few months). Each liquid has a 5% concentration and has been prepared from a specific single piece of ambergris, giving it a unique olfactive signature. Alongside these liquids, solid ambergris pieces are also sold in the shop. As one can imagine, this is truly a world’s first and Jovoy is the only boutique in the world where individuals can not only see the ambergris pieces but also smell them and educate their noses. The pieces that we select are the absolute finest and each has truly unique qualities, which the customers are really surprised to discover. But what truly opens their eyes is when they put a drop of the tincture on their skin and then spray something else on top! The number of times I’ve seen people having goose bumps at that moment is hilarious and truly shows the magic of this material and why its price is higher than gold. They realize at that moment that ambergris is much more than just mere ambroxan… as ambroxan alone does not and cannot create this magic! So, inshAllah, yes… some exciting times ahead!

Keyvan: How do you describe Sultan Pasha Attars in three words?

Sultan: Passionate, poetic and inventive.

Keyvan: Finally, as a self-made perfumer, what is your advice and suggestion for people interested in perfumery who don’t have the opportunity to study in a school?

Sultan: As you may be aware my path to perfumery has been truly unconventional and as such sincerely I can’t give you a clear answer however I will say this. I believe everyone’s path to obtaining any knowledge should be absolutely linked to their passions and shouldn’t have a known uniform dictated path. The path to knowledge should be full of excitement and adventures. Such cannot be achieved with uniform structure or a curriculum. Seek your path fearlessly by having faith in yourself and God as you may be pleasantly surprised where the path eventually leads you.


Hope you all enjoyed this interview.

Carpe Odor!

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