Etiquette Arabia sits with Ghassan Hajjaj, L’Oréal Luxe’s fragrance expert, to discuss oriental fragrances, the history of perfumes and the layering trend.

Could you tell us more about yourself and how you got interested in perfumes?

I have worked in the fragrance and beauty industry for the past 20 years, mainly in Training and Education. I began my career in Denmark, moved to Paris for a few years and then to the Gulf in 2002 where I spent a year in Saudi Arabia before finally settling in Dubai. As a result, I have been exposed to very different cultures that have different relations to perfumes and fragrances.

I would like to say that it is through work that I gained this passion for fragrances, but looking back, I was no more than 7 years old when I started to pick flowers and squeeze them in water, in the hope of creating my own perfume. Needless to say it didn’t work, but I guess somehow the passion has always been there.

In terms of origin where do perfumes comes from? Where were they used first?

The first traces of perfumes date back more than 4000 years to Mesopotamia, the current Iraq. From there it quickly spread to the Phoenicians and the ancient Egyptians, and slowly they made their way up to Europe. Islam played an important role in fragrances as the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, had said that every Friday, men should wash and cleanse thoroughly, clean their teeth with miswak and use oils and perfumes. The Arabs and Persians were also the first people who mastered the art of distillation.

Oriental fragrances are trendy at the moment but which European brand started to use oriental scents in their perfumes?

The first well known European brand that used an oriental ingredient and by oriental I refer to Arabic, was Yves Saint Laurent with their M7, which paid tribute to oud. This was back in 2002. The fragrance was an immediate success in the Middle East, but it took a few more years before people in the west really started testing these new exotic ingredients.

What are the basic ingredients of an oriental perfume? And where are they from?

Frankincense; Is an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes and is mainly found in Oman and Somalia.

Oud; The origin here is south east Asia, and mainly from a tree named  the Aquilaria. When this tree is infected by a type of mould, it creates a dark and resinous heartwood. Today, India and Cambodia are particularly well known for their oud.

Musk; Originally this not which is often used as a base note came from the musk deer that can be found in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Tibet, China, and Mongolia. However today almost all fragrances in the world use a synthetic musk for ethical reasons.

Rose; Taif in Saudi Arabia originally but as it spread, it got different names and ultimately the rose developed differently in different places. Most commonly it is known today as the Damascena Rose.

Layering is a big trend in the region, could you explain this concept?

The concept of layering somehow exists all over the world, even though often people do not realize that this is what they are doing. In the Arabic culture, people are very much aware of the art of layering and enjoy trying out new mixes. What it is really about, is the mixing of 2 or more fragrances.

Each perfumed item we use will add something to the overall fragrance impression that we leave on others. So for example you may be using a shampoo that smells of citrus, and a body lotion that smells of lavender. When you spray your fragrance onto your skin, there will still be fragrant traces left of the citrus and lavender.

This is typically what would happen not only in Europe but all over the world. Here in the Middle East we take things further. We fragrance ourselves with the smoke of oud, rub musk oil in our hair or beards and oils from oud or roses on our skin, before spraying ourselves with our favourite fragrances. It’s as if we are always on the quest for creating a unique fragrant signature.

How can someone choose the right fragrances to layer?

My spontaneous reply would be that you mix scents that you really like. They may not work out together, but honestly the best way is through trial and error. Having said that there really is no right and wrong because scents are interpreted differently by different people. Who would have thought that one day we would be mixing chili in chocolate and salt in caramel?

Nevertheless, from an olfactive point of view there are some ingredients that tend to work well together. An example would be mixing flowery fragrances with a woody base. Or vanilla with some spicy ingredients. But I say be adventurous and go out there and try. It’s so much fun.

Who are you favourite perfumers?

That question is too tough to answer. I like many and my list would be very long if I had to name them all. But to not leave you without any answer, I could mention that I have a lot of admiration for Jean-Louis Sieuzac who I find really broke the mold more than once with his magical creations.

What are you favourite fragrances?

Another tough question. I can honestly say that I consider myself very lucky because I work for L’Oreal Luxe, a group that really has launched many amazing fragrances, not only in terms of juice but also the way that many of these fragrances “speak” to people through their beautiful bottles and packaging. Again though, and in an attempt to not leave you without an answer to your question, I guess that I can say that my personal favourites are:

Armani Eau Pour Homme as well as rive gauche and “Y” by Yves Saint Laurent.

Ah yes, and there is a fragrance that will be launched soon which I absolutely adore. But I can’t reveal anything at this time.