Abdulla Ajmal, consulting perfumer, Ajmal Perfumes, finds the finest olfactory experiences similar to cooking and tells us about the changing dynamics of the perfume business in India
By Vaishali Dar
On a sunny and awfully humid Friday evening, we enter The Lalit’s bustling 24/7 Restaurant. The sun has moved away from the glass wall and we find the choicest seats next to the interactive open-plan kitchen lending a view to the restaurant’s alfresco extension on one side and a range of cuisines on the other. For a moment the aromas inside the restaurant intrigue me—a sangria-soaked orange or a spicy roast chicken masala on a balmy spring day? Perhaps both—light and not too overbearing.
But the person we are meeting has a scent of his own. Consulting perfumer of Ajmal Perfumes, Abdulla Ajmal, describes it: “What I’m wearing today hasn’t been launched. I’m working on the texture to launch it next year. Actually, I am my best guinea pig, it helps me take note of the fragrance, how it performs, ” says a cheerful Abdulla, the third-generation entrepreneur of the family-run business.
Smiling and fresh despite a long day of meetings, he is brimming over with enthusiasm when he greets us. “India is getting ready to the world of fragrances. The average Indian is becoming experimental and aspirational and knows how to work things up. Our constant research to understand the fragrance market in India or as I call it the ‘United States of India’ for its diversity, regions and culture, will help us devise something new,” beams the 46-year-old perfumer, who is working on a new range of affordable luxury fragrances and body care products, to be launched next year, and is seemingly not worried about growth, “It is consequential to how a product performs and will eventually happen,” he feels.
A homegrown brand in India founded by Abdulla’s grandfather Haji Ajmal Ali in 1951 in Assam, today Ajmal Perfumes is present in 34 cities with 56 company owned outlets across India and 250 retail outlets globally. The brand serves over 300 beautiful smells with the most precious being the oudh, which has been a key
ingredient of traditional middle eastern perfumes for thousands of years. Ajmal holds a strong legacy for oudh production, “From research to the final product and the most traditional ones to the exotic ones, we have created a niche in the Gulf for the best-in-class oudh trading from the agarwood tree in Assam. The extraction process of oudh is rigorous and tricky as not every tree yields oudh, the wood is chiselled by hand to ensure the oudh remains intact. No wonder it’s called liquid gold and we call ourselves the kings of oudh. My grandfather started afforestation in 1979, so for every tree cut we plant 10. Hence, we abide by the unique model of ensuring sustainability and social commitment,” says Mumbai-born and Dubai-based Abdulla, whose family has set up massive oudh labs in UAE for three generations. So is oudh a USP? He says, “The R&D that goes into the process is the USP, as the knowledge gained over the years in different raw materials is immense,” suggesting Aurum, Blu, Wisal, Amber Wood and Aristocrat as his top bestsellers.
When Abdulla moved to Dubai in 1988, he travelled to the UK to complete his graduation and post graduation in international relations from Huron University.
Having no formal education in perfumery except some practical sessions from his mentor uncle late Nazir Ajmal, whom he calls a ‘notable nose’, Abdulla remembers how during his childhood sucking on oudh would give him rash. “For several years, my everyday ritual was to smell and take notes of the ingredients, feel the different textures till the time I could come up with a conclusion. In fact, my uncle once told me, ‘A good perfumer should have 300 combinations in his head like a good chef’,” he laughs.
So what about the olfactory adaptation—or ‘nose fatigue’? And he quips, “I would say, I recalibrate my nose. I am always on a quest for the best ingredients in terms of sourcing but also in terms of distillation. Once you have sourced the best vetiver, amber or vanilla, maybe you want to do co-distillation. Like every job even this is a high pressure one where we sometimes have to work on tight deadlines, submit 16 submissions within three weeks, and by the end of it, the impact is so much that I even dream about perfumery and take notes of the best combinations in my dreams,” he chuckles.
Amidst all this, a noteworthy point of our discussion was to understand the dynamics of the perfume business. Abdulla explains, “The market is segmented by different factors—product type, offerings, price, ingredients, etc. Some expensive scents may last for two hours as compared to the affordable ones that may last for more than eight hours, so there are no definitive rules in the sector. It depends on the origin, texture and creation and is even very subjective—to the likes and dislikes of an individual. Perfumery is like cooking. You like spicy food but you can’t handle it because it gives you stomach ache, so a fragrance has to be created in the same manner as the dish is—it should flow smoothly into the top, heart and base notes.” He ends up by clarifying, what is called an over-simplified classification of fragrance, good for men: musky, spicy, fresh, woody; For women: floral, fruity, oriental.