My Perfume Wardrobe is back from its winter break with a new installment on oriental fragrances. This perfume genre is so called because it is the Western fantasy of the East. Oriental perfumes evoked the same mysterious and sensual world that French artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres captured in their paintings of lounging odalisques, tiger hunts and harem scenes. French perfumers translated such exotic, if stereotypical, visions through rich notes of vanilla, amber, patchouli, sandalwood and musk. Oriental ideas have been explored in many 19th century fragrances, but Guerlain Jicky is widely considered to be the first modern fragrance with an oriental twist. Then perfume visionary François Coty made a splash with his innovative L’Origan (1905), Ambre Antique (1910) and Émeraude (1921). These fragrances paved the way to the dazzling array of orientals available today.
The floral oriental genre was my gateway to dark perfumes. I’ve always loved the suave quality of jasmine and orange blossom, but I soon started to crave more opulence. Floral oriental compositions fit the bill perfectly—they have both the softness of florals and the warmth of true orientals. Coty L’Origan is a forebear of this large and interesting family. While it no longer exists, Guerlain L’Heure Bleue and Après l’Ondée give an idea of its rich and voluptuous aura.
Or I might try the luminous Rochas Tocade which layers roses and vanilla. Serge Lutens Datura Noir is a heady vignette of tuberose and osmanthus folded around vanilla and musk. Givenchy Organza was inspired by candied almonds and it is the least floral of all fragrances mentioned here. Still, a whisper of green gardenia offsets the richness of its luscious woody accord.
Soft Oriental (Incense)
If I yearn for an even darker and warmer composition than anything I’ve mentioned above, then I know to look for the incense embellished perfumes. According to Michael Edwards’ classification of fragrances, they are called soft orientals. Such blends are less balsamic and animalic than true classical orientals, but they still are undeniably sensual. Cacharel Loulou blends incense with vanilla and tiare flowers, while Diptyque L’Eau infuses effervescent citrus into the spicy incense accord.
One of the most exquisitely crafted oriental perfumes is Chanel Coco. It is a rich tapestry of jasmine, rose, spice, musk and sandalwood. Kenzo Jungle L’Éléphant is another distinctive perfume which adds a savory touch of cumin to play up its languid oriental accord. If one is willing to forget what Yves Saint Laurent Opium used to be like, the newly relaunched version is a pretty mélange of jasmine, carnation and amber. Unfortunately, I am too deep in mourning for the original to enjoy its successor.
Must-know classic: Estee Lauder Youth Dew, Jean Patou Sublime, Chanel Coco, Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan.
As I move along the spectrum of oriental fragrance and arrive at classical orientals, I certainly feel the heat! Everything suddenly darkens, the animalic notes become more pronounced, and the florals headier. Guerlain Shalimar embodies the classical oriental genre with its contrast between cool citrusy notes and warm amber and vanilla. Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur captures Shalimar’s dramatic, smoldering stance. In this modern interpretation, the accent is placed on musk and leather, and the perfume feels seductive and indulgent. Some sweet, heavy ambers like Annick Goutal Ambre Fétiche and L’Artisan L’Eau d’Ambre have the opulence of classical orientals, while the sheer Prada Candy renders the classical plush oriental accord light as chiffon.
Must-know classic: Guerlain Shalimar, Guerlain Habit Rouge, Calvin Klein Obsession, Must de Cartier.
Out of the whole oriental family, woody oriental fragrances are my favorites. It is because the accents of patchouli, sandalwood, and other rich woods give an unexpected luminous effect. The woods also temper the sweetness of vanilla, tonka beans, amber and balsamic notes. Some great examples include Guerlain Vol de Nuit, Hermès Eau de Merveilles, Donna Karan Chaos and Bulgari Omnia. Also, there are some virile and handsome blends in this group: Comme des Garçons White, Caron Yatagan, Joop! Homme, Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male and Thierry Mugler A*Men/Angel.
Photography of a temple offering by Vera