In Search of Scents, That Smelled Like Home
Rajiv Sheth, master perfumer and the creative director behind All Good Scents, shares what inspired him to come back to his country and start his entrepreneurial adventure.
Jasmine, sandalwood, rose, patchouli, vetiver… Whenever I smelled these ingredients – whether in classes at I.S.I.P.C.A, Versailles or during the time I was creating fragrances for a French perfume house in Paris – it reminded me of home.
These raw materials would instantly make me revisit my childhood memories of playing in my grandfather's jasmine-scented gardens and partaking in fragrant festive ceremonies. My family has been into manufacture and export of essential oils & perfumes for over 60 years, and I have grown up with the scents of rose, patchouli, vetiver, lingering in the air. The more I studied perfumery and delved deeper into its finer nuances, the more I realised India's role in the modern olfactory universe.
Till date, India remains one of the leading exporters of perfumery raw materials, and it's not uncommon for noses from prestige perfume houses to travel to India for the best quality ingredients. So, how it works is that most of the designer branded fragrances are created by fragrances and flavours multinationals such as Firmenich, Givaudan, IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances) etc., which have their internal resource of perfumers. These companies also manufacture natural and aromatic chemicals themselves and for them India is one of the largest sources for natural ingredients like spices, woods and flowers. Many of these ingredients are converted into essential oils or absolutes and exported out of India. One of which is jasmine sambac, which is the jasmine variety found in India, which is widely exported. Earlier we were also the largest exporters of sandalwood and agarwood (Oud) but now we consciously controlled that for environmental reasons. Vetiver from Nilgiris is also known for its earthy and green aromatic character. Apart from this, India is also a very large exporter of aromatic chemicals. India accounts for the largest production of menthol and we are also the largest exporters.
In the West, perfumes are linked to the fashion industry, but in India it's seeped in our ancient traditions and sensibilities. Written in the 15th century, Ghyiath Shahi's Ni'matnama or Book Of Delights shows the exalted place that the art of perfumery had in royal courts. Even before the western world woke up to the nuances of fine perfumery, ancient Indian royals were commissioning local perfumers to create customised one-of-a-kind scents. Members of Indian royalty were no strangers to bespoke fragrances and luxurious fragrant experiences. It is believed that the cotton used in the quilts of Awadhi royalty was swirled in the huge copper urns in which attar was made. References to fragrances abound in our mythological tales. For instance, unlike Cupid, bow of love god Kama are tipped with blossoms of a scented flower as the sense of smell is most intimately linked with heart and memories.
What is unique is how natural perfume ingredients continue to be a part of daily life in India. Take for instance the tradition of women wearing jasmine mogra in the hair, burning of sandalwood incense sticks for religious ceremonies and the use of fragrant gulabs and mogras in weddings.
Even in our food, whether is it is gulkand in paan, or kewra water in biryani, or khus sherbats the fragrant quotient is very high.
Couple of things, I find interesting about Indian perfumery. One is that attar, one of the purest forms of fragrances and is distilled in the same traditional way as it was done 5000 years ago. These are non-alcoholic fragrances which have stood the test of time. Also, while the western perfumery universe is waking up to the concept of unisex fragrances, in India, fragrances or attars have been always gender-neutral. Our ancestors were true connoisseurs of fine fragrances, as they were led by their noses and selected the odours which gave them pleasure. In India, traditionally people never bothered whether it was marketed as 'for men' or 'for women'.
What is unique is how natural perfume ingredients continue to be a part of daily life in India. Take for instance the tradition of women wearing jasmine mogra in the hair, burning of sandalwood incense sticks for religious ceremonies and the use of fragrant gulabs and mogras in weddings
For me it was strange that on the one hand, India has been a land of olfactory indulgence and yet there is no modern Indian perfume that could stand on its own against the branded perfume industry in the West, especially France. All the duty-free sections in Indian airports were filled with the same alcohol-based fragrances that are available in any other parts of world and there was no Indian brand in sight. All along while I was studying and working in Paris, I was on the lookout if any significant brand in India, moved into perfumery. And for so many years I didn't see any Indian brand making any serious inroads into perfumery. Whoever did launch fragrances, did that as a line extension or a second business. I didn't come across a lifestyle, aspirational category of Indian fragrances. We did have attars and it didn't move beyond that.
For me this was a gap, and that motivated me to come back to India with a mission of building a modern fragrance house in India. And that's how All Good Scents was created with an aim to blend our scented heritage with modern sensibilities, keeping in mind the domestic preferences of scents. To give the people a choice to have access to a fine fragrance but at affordable price points so they can enjoy and wear fragrances on a daily basis and not only on occasions.