Is It Time to Rename the Oriental Fragrance Family?

My original article on this topic was published in FT’s magazine, March 2016 issue, but the topic is as relevant as ever so I decided to continue the discussion here.

The world of perfume press releases is one in which Edward Said never wrote “Orientalism”.  Odalisques lounge in the incense-scented harems of marketers’ imaginations. The Mughals are still ruling India, and the Arabian Desert is a vast expanse of golden sands populated with handsome explorers—not an oil well in sight. There is even a fragrance family called “oriental.”

The term is misleading and vague. The Middle East and North Africa have old and sophisticated fragrance traditions, but the average oriental one might come across at Harrods has little to do with their classical forms. This family of French perfumery grew in tandem with other 19th-century developments in society, economy and art. As Ingres painted his erotic ideals in a harem setting, perfumers used heavy, rich notes like balsams, vanilla and musk to fashion their fantasies of the east. The fascination lingered well into the 20th century. Guerlain Shalimar was created in 1925, but it reprised all the hallmarks of the genre—opulence, warmth and an exotic backstory.

Under the layers of incense and roses, however, the term “oriental” hides much more unsavory associations with exploitation and colonialism. For the colonized lands, the European quest for spices, gold and raw materials had tragic consequences, many of which are still with us today.

Although perfume press releases emphasize French roses and Italian citrus, most of the natural raw materials come from the same lands as gave rise to the orientalist images–the Middle East, North Africa, India and Asia. Most of these natural raw materials are also wild-sourced, meaning that the incense in your fragrance is likely to be harvested by villagers in Somaliland, who risk their lives to reach the trees growing high on cliffs. Frankincense tears fetch high prices on the international market, but the raw material at the source is sold for a pittance. To survive, the gatherers are forced to tap the trees all year round, without letting them regenerate, which further decreases the yield and the villagers’ income.

The same story can be told about the most common perfumery materials, from benzoin to vanilla, but we rarely bring up such topics as part of our discussions about fragrances. Of course, many fragrance companies offer programs to support the growers and improve their lot, but the most pernicious issues are due to the global trade system, which was itself shaped by colonialism, and they can’t be fixed by building a few schools and promising villages a fair price for the next harvest.

For our part, we can become informed, and we can start by framing the discussion. I’ve been retraining myself not to use the term oriental, due to its connotations and its vagueness. Oriental can mean anything and everything. Sweet fragrances like Lolita Lempicka and austere Frédéric Malle Noir Epices both fall in the same “oriental” category. Other scions of this family take the incense route—Papillon Perfumery Anubis, Czech & Speake Frankincense and Myrrh, or Lorenzo Villoresi Incensi.  A new ilk comes laden with oud, a traditional Middle Eastern material derived from the rapidly vanishing species of aquilaria trees. The irony is that the arch-oriental perfume, Guerlain Shalimar, contains so much bergamot that it could be a cologne.

In fact, the term “oriental” used to describe an olfactive family is of a fairly recent vintage; it’s a marketing word, not technical jargon. “Ambery” (la famille ambrée in French) used to be the norm for describing perfumes like Coty Emeraude and Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan. Amber is also an abstraction and a fantasy scent, suggesting warmth, burnished hues and opulence. For a long time I have been wondering why it hasn’t yet been resurrected.

As I was working on the article, I received a press release from Michael Edwards of the renowned Fragrances of the World announcing that his classification will retire the term Oriental. Oriental will changed to Amber, Soft Oriental to Soft Amber, Floral Oriental to Floral Amber, and Woody Oriental to Woody Amber. Although the fragrance industry can be conservative and slow-moving, changes are indeed in the air.

What are your thoughts on this topic? I’d be curious to hear your opinion.  

Title image: Odalisque with a lute by Hippolyte Berteaux, wiki-images, some rights reserved. Second image: Mr. Patel who walked me through his jasmine fields in Kannauj and described how flowers are grown. Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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