By Alison Bate
My article about the perfume Bint el Sudan and my grandfather was published in Reader’s Digest Canada in December 2009.
However, there wasn’t room to include all the stories I collected during various interviews. Here are more details, including those from former perfumers at the U.K. company of Bush Boake Allen, original makers of Bint El Sudan.
View from Khartoum
Alawiyya Jamal, a Khartoum-based humanitarian officer, told me that no Sudanese wedding perfume is complete without Bint.
She adds: “While preparing for my nephew’s wedding, I found it also comes as an atomizer for everyday use. Personally it is one of my favorite smells, not only as in the perfume mix but also a daily freshener.
“The other use is that it is sprayed on broken down sandalwood for the bride and married women. It is also used on the pieces of the acacia seyal wood with white powered musk as scent. The wood makes the perfume last longer and improves its smell.
“When used with the Acacia wood, it is used to scent the house, bed covers, and for those who can not afford the sandalwood, they use it as an alternative to perfume the tobes (the brightly-colored sari-like clothes worn by many Sudanese women), dresses and cloth.”
Not always topless
Trevor McCauley, who holds the current license for Bint El Sudan in South Africa, sent me this picture of the new packaging in Kenya, where the girl in the perfume label has been covered up.
He used to produce Bint in Zimbabwe and also recalls how popular it was, even in the most remote places: “Around 1993, I travelled to a very remote part of Mozambique and although there were virtually no westernized products available at that time, Bint was in the market, which consisted of a few locally fabricated tables from raw trees, mainly selling fish, millet and locally grown produce.
“The Bint had been purchased in Zimbabwe by informal traders (avoiding taxes) who carried it to the Inhassuro market in Mozambique via buses, carrying the Bint in their baggage. Inhassuro is some 1,000 kms. from the retail outlets within Zimbabwe where they would have made the original purchase.”
He notes that alcohol and non-alcohol versions are both still available.
“Whilst the oil-based perfume is aimed primarily at the Muslims, it is sold to many non-Muslims as well. It is not difficult to make perfume without alcohol, just more costly, as the dosage of actual fragrance needs to be higher than in alcohol-based perfumes. The alcohol and oil are merely carriers.”
Africa’s most successful perfume
Nicholas Evans, the IFF fragrance sales manager for Africa, wrote: “Firstly I must state that Bint el Sudan and its label are a registered trademark of International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. (IFF). The brand was acquired along with several other brands when IFF purchased Bush Boake Allen (BBA) in 2000. Unfortunately much of the knowledge of the history of the perfume was lost at the time.
“The story goes that when a new employee joined BBA, a member of staff would ask them if they knew what was the top-selling perfume by bottle in the world. The new employee would naturally answer something like Chanel No.5 or another famous brand, only to be told by the member of staff that they were incorrect, that it was in fact Bint el Sudan, belonging to BBA.
“Although the fragrance was created in 1920, today’s fragrance is essentially the same except for certain modernisations mostly due to changes in raw material availability and toxicological rules and regulations.
“This is an important factor as Africa is a unique market: once a product is established, any changes in packaging, labelling or smell will result in immediate rejection by customers. This is a result of the many fake and adulterated products entering the market, Bint el Sudan is no stranger to this. From the beginning, even till today, we are at war against fake products.
“Why? Bint el Sudan is today still the biggest selling and most successful perfume Africa has ever known.
“It is packaged and distributed in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, and Zimbabwe as well as in Saudi Arabia for the Middle Eastern market.
“An average of 5.7 million bottles of Bint El Sudan are produced every year for Africa, 80 per cent coming out of Nigeria from the original W.J. Bush Company in Kano, Northern Nigeria.
“It is produced in a mineral oil base, not alcohol according to Muslim law, and has been extended into other products like body lotions, hair pomades, petroleum jelly, air fresheners, talcum powders and even soap bars.
“Bint el Sudan is not just a perfume that people use in order to just smell nice. On a continent where water is the most precious resource, perfume is needed in the sometimes long periods between bathing.
“The mineral oil is an excellent carrier for the perfume, giving it longevity for the wearer as well as helping to seal the skin against moisture loss in the hot climate and to smooth and soften the skin.
“However, Bint el Sudan is greater than just that: it is the unmistakable smell of Africa – a blend of floral odours with the emphasis of jasmine, lilac and lily of the valley, with undertones of woody notes supported by musk, amber and moss.”
The wedding perfume
Robert Kramer, Associate Professor of History at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, U.S., specializes in the social history of the Sudan.
He writes: “I have a bottle of Bint El Sudan in my office that I purchased in Omdurman in 1986 or 87.
I would guess that it came to be associated with weddings because the picture depicts a girl/young woman in the Rahat, a dress traditionally worn by unmarried girls (and probably since Mahdist times in the 19th century, by brides over their other clothing). i.e. I think it was marketed as “the wedding perfume” in the 20th century, whether it bore any resemblance as a fragrance to what various Sudanese ethnicities used at weddings or not.
The jewelry worn by the girl on the label resembles what I have seen worn by brides of the northern riverain Arabs (Ja’aliyin, Danagla, Shaygiyya).”
Memories from the filling lines
Roger Duprey worked at Bush Boake Allen in England from 1965 to 1996, first as a laboratory chemist and later as a perfumer. He put me in touch with many of his former colleagues, many of them members of the British Society of Perfumers.
Phil Mernick worked as supervisor on the filling lines and in various other roles at Bush Boake Allen from 1966 and until the firm was bought out by IFF in 2000.
He recalls that the non-alcoholic and alcoholic versions were packaged separately. “The non-alcoholic Bint No.3 was oil-based and packaged in a tall, thin 12-millilitre vial with a cork, while the alcohol-based Bint No.5 had a different-style bottle.
“When the alcoholic form was imported to Saudi Arabia, a bittering agent was added so that it couldn’t be drunk, to comply with Muslim customs.”
Mernick adds: “The U.K.-filled Bint was done in Bush days by their Potter & Moore subsidiary. Later, when that was sold to De Witt, production moved to Walthamstow and finally to Long Melford.
“More than a million bottles were filled in the U.K. every year for export to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Libya. Even larger quantities were packed in Nigeria using perfume concentrate supplied from the UK.
“There was also local manufacture at BBA sites or by BBA agents in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Liberia and Zaire. Not all these countries manufactured at the same time, many falling victim to the endemic instability of the region.”
Vince Skeels, a former colleague at Bush Boake Allen, wrote: “BES (Bint el Sudan) contained at one time many separate fragrance bases (could have been 48 intermediates), all of which themselves contained many ingredients.
“In terms of volume, BBA (Bush Boake Allen) London made something like 40 tons a year of perfume concentrate (i.e. without the alcohol etc.) and this was shipped to Bush Nigeria or Bush Ivory Coast.
“If you consider this was then diluted in alcohol at say 10 per cent, then total volume was something like 400 tons, which is huge for an alcoholic perfume. But be aware that maybe all of it did not end up in perfume (soaps etc were also produced).”
Peter Whipps worked at BBA Walthamstow from 1976 until 2001, when the site closed due to the IFF takeover. He started off as Fragrance Quality Control manager in the technical area, and later moved into the perfumery group as a technical perfumer, becoming a perfumer a couple of years later.
He writes: “As Vince has previously mentioned, Bint was originally a very complex perfume, but in latter years was simplified to make it easier to manufacture in London. I can’t say exactly what it contains now as IFF has
the formula but back in 2000 it contained the following oils and extracts:
Lemon, bergamot, orange, geranium, lavandin, patchouli, petitgrain, clary sage, clove, cedarwood & peppermint oils plus treemoss, labdanum & mimosa extracts.”