Leather, civet, dry woods, almonds and amber in a scented creation meant to represent the “noble man” of Arabia. It is a list that made me sit up when I saw it, and not only because I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia a few times too many. It all sounded very Lutensesque, but the fragrance comes from Dominique Dubrana, the French Sufi mystic and poetic perfumer who goes by the name, “Abdes Salaam Attar.”
Sharif is a 2011 all-natural eau de parfum from Mr. Dubrana’s Italian perfume house, La Via del Profumo. Sharif is one of his “Arabian Series” of fragrances, and is meant to be embody the “fierce people of the desert.” As Abdes Salaam Attar explains on his Profumo website, the name “Sharif” means “noble man” in Arabic and is a description of character, not of lineage or descent:
Nobility, for the fierce people of the desert, is a quality of the soul. […] Sharif is the fragrance of a noble sheikh of Arabia who has chosen supreme elegance over flamboyance, gentleness over arrogance and seduction over haughtiness.
In the pure middle Eastern tradition Sharif blends intense leathery notes with aromatic woods and the delicious oriental aroma of amber, sweet and almondy.
The scent of Civet, far in the background, confers to the fragrance a sensual touch of desert wilderness, like the sillage left by a caravan of camels crossing the Bedouin lands at the sunset.
The following seems to be the succinct list of notes:
Almonds, aromatic woods, leather, civet, amber.
Sharif opens on my skin with intense, bitter almonds, followed by a darkened leather infused by smoke and dry sweetness. It’s a fantastic, wholly original combination, one that Serge Lutens would probably have loved to invent. The bitterness of the almonds feels concentrated and raw, but the brilliant touch is that their whiteness is lightly infused with blackness. The smoke is tinged with a tarry, almost licorice-like chewiness. None of it is remotely gourmand; there are no impressions of marzipan, or French confectionary pastries here at all.
The leather is a very subtle undercurrent, but I’m fascinated by it. It’s not birch-tar leather; there are no fecal or horsey qualities, and it’s far from rubbery or raw. Yet, it’s not wholly refined, either. It doesn’t feel like aged, burnished, oiled leather. The tiniest touch of civet gives it a rough-hewn, musky feel. Honestly, I keep imagining the saddle-bags that you would see on horses in Middle Eastern or cowboy movies of old. I myself never rode with them, but I’ve seen and touched that rough leather, and it is what comes to mind here. Perhaps the most accurate way to describe the note here is that it often feels like an impression of dark, smoky leather, more than the actual thing.
Something about the scent consistently makes me think about the desert, and it’s not due solely to the Profumo description. No, there is definitely grainy, warm, sandy textural quality to the scent that is really hard to explain. It makes me imagine a Bedouin tent in North Africa with raw almond treats inside, the golden dryness of sand all about, and the faintest touch of leather from the horses outside. The sandy quality underlying the notes calls to mind Pierre Guillaume‘s descriptions of Parfumerie Generale‘s Djhenné, a fragrance meant to evoke the African desert, as well as the warm, Northern, cool, woody sands that Serge Lutens used to describe Fille en Aiguilles. Sharif couldn’t be further from those two fragrances if it tried, but this is the one perfume out of the lot that successfully manages to convey a dry, woody, golden, sandy texture.
The almonds grow stronger and stronger, and their bitterness dominates Sharif, but something else starts to rise to the surface. It’s the civet which Mr. Dubrana implies that it is the real stuff with a “non vegan” label on Sharif’s page. Some of you may know that genuine civet is no longer used in modern perfumery. The synthetic type of musk that you may encounter is often quite animalic, if not urinous and aggressively feral as well. Sharif’s civet is not. It is a surprisingly well-rounded, rich, and deep, adding a modulated, carefully calibrated level of muskiness that is never perianal on my skin. In one test, it was virtually nonexistent for the first 40 minutes; in another, it was noticeable from the start, adding a subtle sharpness and depth to that abstract, smoked leather accord.
15 minutes in, Sharif slowly shifts. There is a floral herbaceousness deep in the base that I can’t pinpoint. Clary sage? It lacks the latter’s lavender or soapy qualities, but there is a distinct herbal, leathered element that is fragrant, aromatic, a touch floral, and a bit green. A more important change is that the almond note which dominates Sharif starts to soften. If you’re not an almond fan, I imagine that you’d find this version of the note to be “nose-searing” as one person described it. Yet, it does start to smooth itself out. It is still infused with incense-like smokiness and dry woods, still has a gravelly, pebble-y quality, but it is less forceful.
From afar, Sharif’s main bouquet after 30 minutes is of bitter almonds that are thoroughly infused with a dark, abstractly leathered smokiness, followed by dry sweetness and musk. The perfume remains the same for the next few hours; the only real change is in the fluctuating strength of the notes and in the sillage. Sharif becomes a skin scent at the end of the 2nd hour, the civet becomes much more noticeable on me about 3.5 hours in, and the bitter almond finally starts to weaken as the primary note around the end of the 4th hour.
Once it finally pipes down, the leathery base becomes much more noticeable and, to a lesser extent, the civet as well. At the top of the 5th hour, the abstract, incense-y “leathery” darkness vies with the almonds for center stage. The whole thing is extremely muted and blended seamlessly on my skin, so it takes some hard sniffing to single out the specific layers. The incense-like note, the sandy dryness, and the leather gradually fade away entirely. In its final moments, Sharif is nothing but creamy sweetness, vaguely reminiscent of fresh almonds. All in all, Sharif lasted 9.75 hours on my skin, with extremely soft sillage after the second hour.
I tested Sharif twice, including once with the fragrance on both my arms, and it was largely the same thing each time. On my right, non-testing arm, the almonds in Sharif were significantly smokier, darker, and more leathered — not only from the start, but throughout the perfume’s lifespan. The civet was strong in the opening minutes too, making Sharif a much dirtier, darker, animalic scent. The dry, grainy sandiness was also more noticeable. As time passed, the Sharif turned more into a leathered almond scent on that arm, while the dark accords were more muted and muffled on my main, (left) testing arm. However, all these differences were tiny, fractional ones of degree, not of kind; the scent was identical in its core essence in both cases. Instead of Lawrence of Arabia, you have leathered-incense Almonds of Arabia.
The desert is also what came to mind when The Non-Blonde (and her husband) tested Sharif. They experienced primarily a civet-woody-leather fragrance, though the Non-Blonde’s ingredients list does put almonds at the top. Her review reads, in part:
Sharif, a 2011 release, is an incredibly complex wood/animalic fragrance. The aromatic opening is a bit deceiving– you almost think that you’re getting an old school balsamic camphoric men’s cologne when it captures you and pulls you into its world: leather, amber, and the unmistakable touch of civet. Sharif, like other La Via del Profumo fragrances aims to take you away from the world of perfume as you know it. This time the journey is to an imaginary desert. The landscape is stark and the sandstorm blurs reality. There are tall figures approaching, their silhouettes appear in the dusty air. Are they friends or foes? There’s a smell of danger in the air.
Sharif’s desert scene is stark and only marginally sweet. It’s as far from what we call an “oriental” perfume as the artwork above is different from the opulence and decadence of Orientalist art. […][¶] I do think that it’s quite gender neutral and women who find the notes and ideas expressed in this fragrance should give it a try (must love civet). The sillage of Sharif is polite, but it’s incredibly long-lasting on mys skin as well as on the husband (10 hours easily); it also clings to fabric until after a second washing. Sharif is an all-natural perfume, meaning no synthetic ingredients, but it’s decidedly not vegan. The civet you smell here is the real thing, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know where and how AbdesSalaam Attar acquired it.
For Kevin at Now Smell This, the civet dominated to such an extent that he had to wear the fragrance outside of the house to test it, lest his “infuriated” cat attack him in an attempt “to obliterate Sharif from his environment.” I find that hysterically funny, but the non-feline parts of Kevin’s review focuses on the tarry nuttiness that he too experienced in a significant way:
Sharif smells wonderful. It starts off with a nose-searing note that smells like tonka beans in turpentine (with a nutty background aroma, almost dessert-like, but not too sweet). A beautiful, almost smoky, leather scent appears next, blending well with tonka and spice (a clear, pungent cinnamon-clove note). Sharif remains in tonka-leather-cinnamon territory for a long time before turning a tad powdery with musky (civet) amber in the dry-down. There is a hint of smooth “incense ash” in the base notes also. The entire composition is fine-tuned and high-quality (what a relief it is to smell Sharif after sampling too many cheap perfumes from other houses recently).
Now, to my “relationship” with Sharif. First, its arrival on a chilly day was auspicious; this is a cool-weather perfume. Though it is not overpowering and dense, it has more tenacity than you’d expect from a natural perfume (it lasts at least six hours on my skin, with minimal sillage).
For Grain de Musc and Octavian Coifan of 1000 Fragrances, Sharif’s main qualities were a honeyed almond, saffron-tinged spiciness, and civet leather. Grain de Musc writes:
… [L]ike a noble character, [Sharif] doesn’t let itself be approached or tamed easily: you’ve got to go through the fire of its camphoraceous top notes before feeling its softness. It is almost surprising to find Sharif so liquid in its bottle, because its smell conjures the fatty, tactile, ductile quality of a paste. It feels like something you could lick or chew: a smooth, resinous preparation similar to majoun, a type of cannabis jam where the resin is blended with honey and almond. There’s no cannabis note in Sharif, but it does have honey and almond notes, saffron providing a medicinal note and a leather effect. Though the latter is the core of the scent, it is also, to my nose, an expansion of the properties of civet. Old civet tinctures do display the smoothly dark honeyed facets of Sharif.
Octavian Coifan‘s review also has a detailed elaboration of the notes, ranging from camels representing leathered Peau d’Espagne to the “precious ambery-balsamic” foundation that he thinks Sharif shares with Profumo’s Mecca Balsam. He writes, in part:
A small saffron-like note is the golden sprinkle above the peppery spiciness transforming the majestic combination of the 4 ancient spices into the golden precious “honey”, deep, highly aromatic with herbal undertones and melting on the skin. The almond-vanilla quality of the drydown, with subtle animalic notes suggesting the leather-skin facet of Musk Tonkin and the herbal-silex dimension of Hyraceum, transforms the darkness found in Balsamo Della Mecca into something serene and elegant. It evokes the ancient opopanax perfumes, different from modern opopanax resin. The sweetness is crystallized not in “sugar”, as in a Tonka bean, but in camphor, like the combination between laurel leaf/cinnamon leaf/clove and a balsamic base.
The perfume evokes the rich quality of dry tobacco preserved in an ancient leather pouch, blended with unknown powerful herbs and pepper. Its evolution on the skin is surprising and with Balsamo Della Mecca, Sharif is one of the most elegant natural perfumes. […] The creations from Abdes Salaam Attar are based on the true essence of an antique craft. They are the most profound and refined expression of that lost world. [Emphasis in the original.]
I’m afraid I didn’t experience anything quite as interesting, complex, or spiced. My version was fractionally closer to that described by one Basenotes commentator in Sharif’s entry on the site:
This is a sexy fragrance that I would love to smell on a man. It is the aroma of scented tobacco and suede, of being held by a man who smells manly. Yet, it is a beautiful scent on a woman, too. On me, it opens with a hint of smoke and leather, like an outdoor fragrance. Right away, a cherry-almond sweetness comes forward, inviting me inside where it is warm, and sweets are being served to guests. This one glows like a fire and simmers nicely on the skin. A must-try.
The two other reviews on Basenotes are equally positive, talking about how Sharif is an easier, more accessible version of Mecca Balsam. The description by one chap, “A Good Life,” is very evocative:
In the pure tradition of the Middle East, Sharif consists of intense notes of leather and aromatic woods with the delicious aroma of amber scents of the East, and sweet almond,” the perfumer tells us. It is, first of all, a wonderfully pleasant perfume and an ideal entry into the world of natural perfumery, as it is much more accessible than the starkly meditative, distantly elegant Mecca Balsam. The latter requires study before you can deeply appreciate it, while Sharif provides pure pleasure even before you begin investigating its complexity. There is a perfect harmony of spice and sweetness, dryness and deftness, of clarity and density, the slender elegance of a minarett and the opulence of a plate of Arabian sweets. The dry craggy resins of Mecca Balsam’s pilgrimage are here enveloped in smooth delicious amber. Imagine yourself being entertained in the golden tent of an Arab nobleman, the scent of fine resins rising from incense burners, eating honey and almond cakes while a pipe rests by your side and a distant smell of leather saddle and noble horses wafts over from the stables. You are at peace, but you feel energy brimming inside you. New deeds of your own choosing await, but for now, you enjoy the tranquil flow of life and its pleasures.
I don’t see any similarities to Mecca Balsam at all, but then my skin rendered that one very anomalous indeed. Regardless, I join him in being transported me to a Bedouin tent filled with almond treats and smoky darkness. I was happy to see that he too envisioned “the distant smell of leather saddle,” even if he wasn’t talking about small saddle bags. I hadn’t read any of these reviews when I was testing the perfume and writing my notes, so I’m glad it’s not just my imagination.
Unfortunately, what appeared on my skin simply wasn’t as interesting as what everyone else experienced. The almonds dominated to an enormous degree, and far overshadowed both the smoky darkness and the leather. The latter was also an impression more than the smell of actual leather. The civet was a rich, warm, very smooth touch that I enjoyed, but I wish all the notes would have replaced the almonds as the perfume’s central characteristic. I particularly wanted more leather!
Clearly, skin chemistry makes a difference, and enough people got a hardcore civet, leather, woody, ambered scent for it to be worth your while to test Sharif if you’re interested in those notes. I think it is definitely unisex in nature, but, given two of the accounts quoted here, it may be wisest if you like civet musk. (And almonds!) As for the sillage, Mr. Dubrana told me that “you should use the perfumes on your clothes and hair in order to enjoy them fully and longer.” He also perfumes his beard with them as well.
Even if the vagaries of skin means that Sharif doesn’t work for me personally, I think it’s a fascinating, very different, original take on both leather and orientals. If you love almonds or leather, you should give it a sniff.
Disclosure: My sample was courtesy of AbdesSalaam Attar. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, my views are my own, and my first obligation is honesty to my readers.