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 perfume. 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.

In summary, perfume brands peddle tired, dated clichés, and they will continue to do until we, consumers, ask them to stop and instead demand authentic information and authentic stories about how they source ingredients and how they make perfume. For the past 10 years, I’ve been working with small farmers and raw material producers, and I’ve learned that their stories are far more fascinating than yet another “souks and genies” image used to sell perfume. As long as we accept the whole orientalist package–and not just the word “oriental”–and don’t question it, real stories have no place in the narrative and we are all the poorer for it.

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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153 Comments

  • Ella: Honestly, I am more interested in making sure the people who work to supply the ingredients in fragrance etc are treated well in the here and now than the sort of tokenism that changes a ‘name’ but still allows unfair practices to flourish under a new title. Oriental is no more ‘offensive’ than the word Occidental. It smacks of manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon to be seen to be politically correct and pandering to the (relatively speaking) wealthy of all skin shades in the West who have the luxury of being ‘offended’ rather than actually caring about the conditions of the (usually) people of colour working for a pittance in some far off land just trying to do their best for their families. June 25, 2021 at 7:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Are manufacturers really having those debates? So far, I haven’t see much evidence. If they did, it would already be a step forward. One has to start someplace. June 25, 2021 at 9:06am Reply

      • Ella: I don’t think they are Victoria and I also think the only thing that matters to them is the bottom line so they will adopt whatever they think will continue to make them money but it is an empty gesture if no real change is effected. It then becomes a form of ‘neo-colonialism’ for those people at the bottom of the ladder whose toil in very unfavourable conditions feeds the wealth at the top. Very complicated subject with a million different elements but a good one to get everyone talking about a long overdue exposure of neglect! June 25, 2021 at 9:47am Reply

        • Victoria: Very true. As with many other instances, including sustainability, the push for these changes will come from consumers. June 25, 2021 at 10:01am Reply

        • Henna: An empty gesture is better than nothing. I’m not in the marketing/manufacturing sphere, but as an Indian person, I’d at least like reviewers to stop using the term. I don’t think it costs them anything to do this but it still sends a message. June 30, 2021 at 11:34pm Reply

    • Nick: I second this opinion. Well said: oriental is no more ‘offensive’ than the word Occidental.

      ‘Oriental’ referring to a style that evokes a certain antiquated fantasy of the East, often applied to perfumes with fruity or spicy top notes with a warm bases of vanilla and animalics, can be vague–but never derogatory.

      Lumping ‘oriental’ with colonialism, racism, and bigotry is simply ridiculous. I smell hyper political correctness. If something ought to be rectified, it is the situation of the producers and gatherers of the raw materials, not a marketing word. June 25, 2021 at 9:10am Reply

      • Kathleen: Agreed, well said! June 25, 2021 at 9:32am Reply

      • Victoria: How did the so-called “oriental” ingredients enter the perfumer’s palette in the 19th century? With the colonial conquests of the land where these materials were grown. So, absolutely, oriental is tied to colonialism. It is tied to racism. And it denotes bigotry. The whole history of the term and the way it has been applied attest to this. June 25, 2021 at 9:32am Reply

        • Ella: I think if we speak of the perfume makers of the 19th century then of course the mechanics of empire and capitalism factor in but spices, civet musk and all sorts of things have been traded for thousands of years along the Silk Route and into Europe along with foodstuffs etc. I don’t see perfumery per se as a colonial issue but the imagery and the way that certain raw materials were exploited using local labour was at the time. These days, it is for us consumers to demand better conditions, respect and pay for the people who help make these perfumes possible. June 25, 2021 at 9:53am Reply

          • Deborah A Oney: Do we do this by not buying certain perfumes that source unfairly? How do we ask in a meaningful way for fairer pay for the people who collect and harvest these precious perfume elements? June 25, 2021 at 1:14pm Reply

        • Melanie: I agree with you completely, Victoria. June 25, 2021 at 10:27am Reply

        • Nick: I think context is key here: Yes, the word is tied to those exploitation and discrimination of the past and the present. One doesn’t go around calling a person of East Asian descent ‘oriental’. That certainly is offensive.

          But, in the context of defining a fragrance family, I believe ‘oriental’ does its job in referring to a certain olfactive character. I find it reductive to describe Shalimar, Must de Cartier, Obsession, Youth Dew, Opium, and Coco as ‘insert-an-adjective ambery’.

          If it indeed should be replaced, then one might as well coin something better than ‘ambery’ which is quite misleading–is it like ambergris or sweet amber?–and simplistic for a complex perfume character. And to be free of any political judgement, it can be some benign plants like ferns…after all ‘fougère’ does pretty well! June 25, 2021 at 11:12am Reply

          • Victoria: Historically, that’s how those fragrances were described, because amber and ambergris were seen as occupying the same olfactive space. But we can certainly come up with something better! Any ideas?
            It might just be the general trend, but the composite fragrance family are now used less often. Fougère is now mostly herbal aromatic, and chypre is mossy. June 25, 2021 at 11:20am Reply

            • Nick: This should certainly be our next topic of discussion. I would want something that captures the olfactive character more precisely and easily understood by both lay persons and industry without historical burden. Sometimes I wonder whoever decided to go for these words: oriental, fougère, chypre, cologne…so abstract.

              Actually, now that you mention fougère and chypre are mostly called ‘herbal aromatic’ and ‘mossy’, I might just contradict myself and go for these reductive terms—makes life easier actually. Maybe directly as ‘ambergris’ and ‘amber’ might just do for now. June 25, 2021 at 11:41am Reply

              • Victoria: If I recall correctly my perfumery teacher’s explanation, it was the perfume distributors. They wanted something that could convey an image, so that they didn’t have to explain notes and technical terms. But of course, those terms didn’t arise at the same time. Oriental is one of the most recent, in fact. Cologne must be the oldest.

                I like the word fougère a lot! June 25, 2021 at 11:46am Reply

          • MaureenC: I think your article, is nuanced and informative and thought provoking. You clearly hit a nerve for some people but that often happens when we expose links to the colonial history of the west and its legacy. Somehow people think they are being personally accused of ill doing. I’m delighted that a term which has such a legacy is being ditched. The conditions of the people who harvest these resources has its roots in colonialism and its present existence is as much a feature of our capitalist economic system as the conditions of garment workers in poor countries who feed our fashion industry. June 25, 2021 at 12:03pm Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you very much, Maureen! It’s indeed painful, and as someone who comes from a post-colonial country with a complicated history, I can recognize many of the sentiments on both sides of this debate. June 25, 2021 at 12:15pm Reply

              • Sabine: There’s a correlation between naming conventions and perception—oriental/exotic has always been a term of denigration drummed up by colonial/imperial overlords to denote what’s strange, bizarre, foreign, and otherness. Down with negative names! June 25, 2021 at 1:19pm Reply

                • Henna: Well said! June 30, 2021 at 11:38pm Reply

                • katherine x: I am not a history buff and come from the Caribbean where our history lessons did not focus on Asian matters. So the term ‘oriental’ meant magical, beautiful, mysterious to me. I have never, even through today, heard anyone use the term to imply or mean anything in a negative light. I understand better these days why some people might reach back in history and take offense – but wonder if we might be better off to collectively focus energies – and put those energies towards going out and volunteering in ways that will provide opportunities to those who don’t currently have them. July 3, 2021 at 8:59am Reply

                  • Sabine: History textbooks for schools have sanitized colonial atrocities and whitewash the facts. As you are someone from the Caribbean, I am surprised by your comments, especially since this region has suffered so much racism and exploitation because of imperial policies. July 3, 2021 at 2:28pm Reply

                    • katherine x: People from the Caribbean have diverse views and opinions. Same is evidenced on this blog for Asian people. We are not homogenous – not group thinkers. July 3, 2021 at 2:42pm

                    • katherine x: And I hate to say this because I know it will be hugely unpopular – but colonialism wasn’t all bad. There are good things that came of it as well. Like everything in life it is/was grey – both good and bad. July 3, 2021 at 2:49pm

                  • Sabine: Well you’re definitely entitled to your opinions, but nothing positive about a colonial regime—having another country making decisions, exploiting resources and allowing enslavement, indentured labor? No thanks. July 3, 2021 at 4:47pm Reply

        • Sabine: Aptly put Victoria—I commend this post because it challenges our perceptions of fragrance origins, often paid at a tragic price. Retiring the name oriental is a start with more changes to follow, hopefully. We wouldn’t call Asians oriental any more, so why would we for a perfume? June 25, 2021 at 1:10pm Reply

          • Victoria: Absolutely! One has to start someplace. June 25, 2021 at 3:32pm Reply

        • Ella: It is interesting that the examples you open with – the Mughals who indulged in the slave trade and were themselves Persian conquerors of India before setting up their own empire.
          -the Arabs whose slaving routes stretched from India to Oman and down the African coast as far as Mozambique. Or who went on raiding trips around Europe even as far as the southern coast of Britain to snatch slaves who were worked to death in North Africa.
          – the odalisques who were themselves usually European or Caucasian women snatched and sold on the slave block for a life of slavery under the Ottoman Turks which for most wasn’t about lolling around on silken cushions..
          It all demonstrates a very important point – that nothing is black and white and that if the term ‘Oriental’ is offensive because of white colonial overtones, then it should also be considered offensive for the oppression, cruelty and distasteful overtones that the imagery presents in terms of the cultures where many ingredients hail from. From viewing the discussions here, it seems that we can all find something objectionable about the term though from different perspectives and it actually opens up a whole plethora of discussion about how horrid people can be and have been to each other globally. We can’t change the past no matter which culture we belong to but we can help to change things going forwards and I would argue that the modern day slavery of people being forced to risk their lives for a pittance and at the mercy of big corporations is a good place to start! June 25, 2021 at 3:01pm Reply

          • Victoria: Liz, I will ask this again. How do you change “the modern day slavery of people being forced to risk their lives for a pittance and at the mercy of big corporations” if consumers don’t even know that there are real human beings picking their incense and roses? My proposal that I wrote in my post is that we start by using the words carefully, stripping the senseless orientalist clichés and educating ourselves about the way essences get into our bottles. I’m still waiting to hear of something concrete and actionable from you, not just arguments for the sake of arguing. June 25, 2021 at 3:38pm Reply

          • Adrienne: Ella. I applaud your last comment about the ubiquitous nature of slavery historically. Sadly, few are taught history in school anymore and therefore there is a dearth of understanding, and little ability to grasp the full aspect of history in slavery. It’s far beyond inappropriate adjectives used to describe a fragrance style. June 25, 2021 at 10:58pm Reply

            • Victoria: But how is this topic at odds with the one I brought up? Can’t we have a discussion about orientalism and slavery? Clearly, we can if that’s what we are doing now. June 26, 2021 at 2:05am Reply

        • Sebastian: I would like to see some support for this sweeping claim about the “whole history” of the term. As far as I know “oriental” comes from Latin “oriens” meaning East. Churches have been “oriented” (made to point eastwards, i. e. towards Jerusalem) for ages. In time, the term came to denote non-European regions east of Rome. This all predates colonialism as well as the period of Orientalism in European fashion. I wonder why people get so fixated on that part of the history of the term.

          So in earnest, we cannot talk about the whole history of the term, but only about its usage in perfumery. That is a niche usage. Hardly anyone outside a circle of parfumistas, perfumers and traders is aware of it. (None of my friends, whether they wear Shalimar or not, and regardless of their ethnic background, is. They just buy a scent they like.)

          Of course, it’s always nice to be polite, and I have nothing against replacing a term if it offends a large enough percentage of people. There is no need to be gratuitously offensive. But apart from that, I do not believe that terminology exerts much political influence. People tend to overestimate the power of words to shape concepts. There is a body of research work to support that conclusion.

          There is also anecdotal evidence from other parts of political life. For example, in East Germany (while it still existed) women had very good career chances, much much better than in present day Germany. If asked, they would describe as an “Ingenieur” or “Arzt” etc. They would never use the gendered forms of these words for female engineers and doctors. Yet, in present day Germany, the discussion centers more on gendered language in job offers, instead of on creating equal career opportunities for women. I find this nont onyk absurd, I find it politically harmful. And I see a striking similarity to the discussion we are having in this thread.

          Now back to our topic. I have just flipped through a few online advertisements of Shalimar, and they all mention words like “fantasy”, “legend”, “fairy tale”, “dream”, and of course the Taj Mahal in connection with it, so it becomes quite clear that “oriental”, at least in the context of Shalimar marketing, is nothing but that: an allusion to a particular dream of India. This is is certainly a European dream, but I wonder for what reason some people find it offensive. Because the British ruled India for some time?

          Anyway, in the context of perfume reviews, I’m all for using more specific, descriptive terms. Using “amber” (ambrée, ambriert, ambrato?) instead of “oriental” will achieve exactly nothing in that respect. The new term is just as vague as the old one.

          In the context of classifying perfumes, why have family names at all? Couldn’t one just say warm-spicy, green-aromatic, floral-animalic or what not ,when one wants to convey the general idea of a perfume’s character? The idea of having a 1-to-1-replacement for “oriental” strikes me as odd. What purpose does it serve? (except perhaps as a selling point for Mr. Edwards) July 1, 2021 at 3:41am Reply

          • Anouk: Hi Sebastian, thank you for your perspective on the topic. It is proven that German women, even from the East, are less likely to apply for jobs if the job descriptor (“Ingenieur”, “Arzt”) is not gendered. So in order to create equal opportunity for women, it can be crucial to use the right language. July 3, 2021 at 2:38pm Reply

            • Sebastian: You have missed my point, at least somewhat. My point is that the circumstance that you nention wasn’t so in the German Democratic Republic. Gendered language was not used, and yet a larger percentage of women than in the Federal Republic today were engineers and doctors.

              I suppose that it is defects in the structure of society that make women shy away from opportunities unless they are specifically targeted. Trying to remedy the situation by using targeted language strikes me as an unnecessarily roundabout way to achieve change, and using a tool not wholly suitable. If women from kindergarden on were instilled with a sense of equal opportunity, and if there were adequate support for families to make it possible for everyone to work and have children, then there wouldn’t be any need (and in fact no desire) to use gendered language. As, I maintain, was the case in the GDR.

              This is only tangentially related to the topic of this thread. I don’t want to cut you short, but I fear people will complain if we take this any further. If you like, I can tell Victoria to give you my email address if you want to continue the discussion. July 3, 2021 at 3:00pm Reply

              • Anouk: Dear Sebastian, thank you for your reply.

                Actually, almost half of the practising German doctors already are female. That is one of the reasons why pay was reduced and the profession was continuously described as ‘feminized’ and less prestigious during the 2010s. Studies also show that both professors and patients perceive the work of female doctors as of less quality.

                That unveils a more complex dynamic between gender, profession and pay, as history shows again and again that once more women enter a profession, it is devalued in both social and financial aspects (and it works the other way round, too). Trying to get women into ‚men‘s jobs‘ (e.g. engineer) is only a short-term solution, because what is a man‘s job today could be a woman‘s job in the future, or might have been a woman‘s job in the past – with significantly less pay and recognition.

                That was also true in the GDR. Women had more rights and were welcome in so-called men‘s jobs (which I admire), but in reality did not earn as much and also rarely got higher positions, while doing all house and care work. Career chances weren’t that rosy.

                And yes, I agree with you that an equal sense of opportunity should be instilled in kindergarten children, but how will that happen? Isn’t that a question of representation? How do you want to make women‘s accomplishments in science, technology and politics visible, when history is continuously rendering them invisible?

                Language is only one of several tools, but it is a powerful one. So why not make use of it? July 15, 2021 at 8:14pm Reply

                • Sebastian: Dear Anouk,

                  thanks for writing. I’m still trying to sort out the implications of what you’ve said. You seem to be implying that equal representation, at least in Germany, hasn’t had the desired consequence: instead of being good for women, it has been bad for the jobs. Even in the case of a highly prestigious job like being a doctor. This has come as a surprise to me.

                  I can only suppose that this effect cannot continue when women will be better represented in all professional areas, because then there will be no more “masculine” type of career that men can switch to. (If that’s what is happening.)

                  On the other hand, the effect throws some doubt on whether making women better represented in “men’s jobs” would indeed be a successful strategy in reducing discrimination in the short term. But then what would?

                  It might be interesting to see whether the effect occurs only in Germany, which I believe to be rather conservative regarding gender-roles. Perhaps things are different in Scandinavia, for example?

                  Equal opportunity could be created by society taking over the cost of specific burdens, such as for child-care, and – useful also in cases of discrimination in general – having exams conducted remotely and anonymously, as well as job applications being forbidden to contain gender information, having external review committees for company-internal promotions etc. Using gender-neutral language in job advertisements would be in the same vein.

                  This is quite the opposite idea to having quota for specific groups. Honestly, I have no idea whether this idea might work better and be fairer than quota, but quota so far also haven’t done much to improve the situation in Germany, obviously.

                  Clearly, there are many layers of complexity here, and (I believe) a sore lack of studies. Or perhaps they are just not being recognized? July 16, 2021 at 9:13am Reply

      • Carla: Nick you are right. It is absolutely ridiculous to imply oriental is a racist term. You are welcome to that opinion but others do not share it Victoria; the argument is very weak. The scent of woke is not good…I come here for beauty and inspiration, not to find colonialism and racism wherever I can possibly stretch and imagine it into being. The path to happiness and progress lies not that way June 25, 2021 at 9:53am Reply

        • Heidi: It’s not imagining colonialism and racism when Somalis are suffering so that light-skinned people can indulge in real frankincense in their perfume. But I get it — you want to enjoy your perfume without being bothered by how you may be complicit in that exploitation. Let them eat cake. June 25, 2021 at 12:04pm Reply

          • Ella: Not only ‘light skinned people’ Heidi. There is a big market in Arabia for that incense. June 25, 2021 at 3:03pm Reply

            • Heidi: Colorism is an issue even among people of color, Ella. And there’s also a difference between a culture preferring scents featuring their own cultural notes (Arabic countries enjoying incense or oudh) and a Western culture projecting a fantasy — similar to the difference between an Irish Catholic school calling itself the Fighting Irish, versus a school with a largely Nordic, white population calling itself the Fighting Sioux. June 25, 2021 at 5:46pm Reply

        • Annie: The scent of woke now follows us everywhere and it is loathsome. June 25, 2021 at 9:14pm Reply

      • Truc Nguyen: As an Asian person I’m here to say that hell yes the word Oriental can be offensive. It’s not just a marketing word, it has been used as a blanket term to refer to people and cultures of many different Asian countries, usually when the speaker doesn’t care enough to differentiate which people and which cultures. It’s outmoded, and I am pretty sure that when it was more prevalant people weren’t using as an antonym to Occidental. It’s not acceptable, just as it’s not acceptable to say Negro anymore. Your comment sounds like gaslighting, especially since the only people who get to decide if a term is offensive to a group of people are individuals within that group. June 28, 2021 at 7:26pm Reply

        • Nick: @Truc Nguyen, if indeed the only people who get to decide whether a term is offensive are from within that group, then I do have a say in deciding! I am of Chinese descent too.

          Certainly, I am not trying to gaslight a group of people. It has simply been my experience
          that it is not used in an offensive manner–just personal experience. Also, no one has ever referred to me, nor have I heard of anyone using the term for describing a person–and even when the speaker did not care enough to differentiate, it was ‘the Asians’. I might even say that this seems more insulting, but I forgive the ignorance.

          To some, ‘oriental’ may not seem as flagrant as ‘negro’ or ‘mulatto’ and even deceptively benign in the fragrance context–no pun intended! But, to many, it will always carry the burden of discrimination and racism. How these words came into existence in the first place will forever associate them with the discrimination and racism. That I understand and if it must change to keep it neutral, so be it.

          My only qualm is that it feels like hyper political correctness and tokenism–just changing it for the niceties and no real efforts to revamp the exploitative practice. For me, the change should not be simply to make descriptions sound neutral and erase every inkling of the horrible history. It ought to be at the heart of the practice, and not just words.

          Still, as I have come to learn from many comments here: a change has to start somewhere and I concur that it could be with words. As some of the comments here put it: ‘never underestimate the power of words’. June 29, 2021 at 2:29am Reply

          • Victoria: I also didn’t think that you were gaslighting. For my part, I don’t think that it’s as simple as one group deciding what’s offensive or not offensive and the rest following suit. For starters, where does the Orient begin? For some, it’s east of Vienna! “You Slavs are so oriental,” a French colleague used to say to me without a shade of irony.

            It’s up to us as consumers to hold the industry responsible for real changes on issues that we care about. By the way, it was the perfume lovers who put pressure on Le Labo to reformulate Jasmin 17 Plus and to stop using civet (because of cruelty involved in the treatment of civet weasels), so we have more power than we realize. June 29, 2021 at 8:20am Reply

          • Victoria: No, Henna, we don’t want overly politically correct without engaging into a proper discussion. I said it before as did many commenters, but simply stopping the use of the term won’t do much. We cannot push people to eliminate one word and not engage with the deeper issues–sourcing, sustainability, farming practices, etc. Empty gestures are just that–empty. July 1, 2021 at 4:37am Reply

      • Henna: Wow, we wouldn’t want to be too politically correct. June 30, 2021 at 11:36pm Reply

    • Carla: Yes, changing Oriental to Amber is just virtue signaling. June 25, 2021 at 9:56am Reply

    • niche: I am Asian and I find the word Oriental offensive. And you should respect that. Of course, I wouldn’t put it at the top of the list of racist or offensive words or actions against Asians. But it has connotations of exoticism and is rooted in colonial past. It is not necessary to use that word and we can collectively retire it. Occidental was never used to ‘other’ westerners nor was it used to refer to colonized people or areas. (I also acknowledge that many Asian companies have the word Orient in their names but that’s a reflection of the colonial past and I do think they should remove it.) Dismissing political correctness as tokenism is to ignore the power of language and words.

      It’s also amazing how a human being can care about two things at the same time. I wouldn’t even describe that as multi-tasking. So at the same time, I am horrified to learn about the treatment of those that grow and harvest the raw materials in fragrances. We cannot perfectly fix everything but luxury perfume houses, for a start, need to do better about transparency and fair trade. If coffee can do, why not perfumes? June 25, 2021 at 10:09am Reply

      • Melanie: I absolutely agree with everything you said. June 25, 2021 at 10:26am Reply

      • Ella: Indeed I do respect your position and your opinion especially as a person who may have been affected by the term though I also have friends who are from Cambodia, Malaysia, mainland China, Hong Kong and Japan who aren’t too bothered about it and yes, they are aware of the connotations you mention. Each person is different and each lived experience is different so there will never be concensus. Words also come in and go out of fashion – we only have to look back at an old episode of something like ‘Friends’ to see how terminology changes. My Chinese friends like to tease me by calling me ‘Gweilo’ so they recognise that racism exists in their own culture too. In fact there isn’t a culture on earth that doesn’t ‘other’ another group whether that be in terms of race, colour, religion, tribe etc but where it DOES matter is when it has real world consequences to stir up hatred, incite violence or keep other people trapped in subsistence living. June 25, 2021 at 10:31am Reply

        • niche: I was only responding to your post that Oriental is not offensive and you went on a tangent about many issues that are irrelevant to whether the fragrance industry should just stop using a word rooted in colonial racism to describe a certain subset of scents.

          To address your argument that since all people ‘other’ each other, we should just let it be? What kind of perspective is that? Perhaps we should be fixing all the prejudices. It’s not easy but why not? The path to violent hatred is filled with many small slights and prejudices.

          The fact you mention ‘gweilo’ means you know it can be perceived as offensive but that you don’t mind that your friends affectionately insult you. That’s between friends. But if a company started referring to white people as white ghosts/ghouls/monsters (choose your own translation of what gweilo means), I think that would not be appropriate. Like if some HK retailer had a category for ‘gweilo fragrances’, I would definitely find that weird and offensive. June 25, 2021 at 12:25pm Reply

      • Robin: Agreed. Thank you for sharing your perspective. June 25, 2021 at 10:32am Reply

      • Lydie: Thank you for expressing it this way. You’ve captured my thoughts. I find the term uncomfortable and offensive, and it’s shocking to see people defending it. June 25, 2021 at 10:38am Reply

        • Ella: I am not defending it as I am fine with it being replaced by other terms and I recognise that some people are offended by it but my real objection is that though on the surface an objectionable term may be removed, objectionable practices that continue under a new guise are just as if not more objectionable! I dislike tokenism and sometimes I like to play devil’s advocate 😉 June 25, 2021 at 10:58am Reply

          • Nick: Exactly. I am fine with the word in the context of giving an idea of a perfume character. But if the word has to go because for many people it still carries that connotation regardless of context, all the more that the practice should be revamped even before discussing the etymologies.

            I find it hypocritical to simply replace the word so that any negative association is removed from conscience, so that everyone feels good and is not troubled by what is going on. In that case, I would rather it is there as a stark reminder of what used to be and continues to be the practice. June 25, 2021 at 11:26am Reply

            • Victoria: On the whole, I agree with you both. If we count on manufacturers to jettison oriental, then we’ll waiting for a long time (so, those who like this term, you can rest assured that it won’t be going away anything soon 🙂 I don’t see the manufacturers having these discussions. Anyway, did I say that it was enough to remove one word and all would be well? My post wasn’t about the manufacturers doing something, it’s about us, consumers and perfume users, having the power to demand real changes, educating ourselves and demanding changes. Framing the discussion is important. June 25, 2021 at 11:55am Reply

      • Jane Daly: I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with this term & now the overt racism in this comment thread.

        Thank you for this informative (as always) post Victoria June 30, 2021 at 9:46am Reply

  • constancesuze: Hi Ella! I think this is a really good point and I agree with most of it- it seems like a lot of ‘progress’ industries are comfortable making rarely has a concrete impact on those being exploited (the global South and people of color).
    But I do think that the word ‘oriental’ is more offensive than ‘occidental’, given the connotations and history of its use, while you rarely if ever see the word ‘occidental’ floating around. One is seen as the norm/standard so it isn’t seen as necessary, but ‘oriental’ has been used with the purpose of exoticizing and other-ing for a long time. June 25, 2021 at 9:13am Reply

    • Victoria: Indeed! How does a consumer make sure that their farmers are compensated fairly? They simply cannot. What’s more, even suppliers themselves can’t be sure of it, because of the non-transparent way in which it happens. June 25, 2021 at 9:35am Reply

    • Ella: Hi constancesuze, thanks for the response. I thought I would get the debate started. I agree that ‘oriental’ can and does have some exoticizing that has played into a Western fantasy but given that the whole world of perfumery is built upon exoticizing, eroticizing etc, surely the ‘fantasy’ is part of it. I think most people alive today realise that people and women especially, from other places do not conform to those ideas of passivity, sexualisation and inferiority that men from the Victorian and Edwardian era had. The world is much, much smaller now and even those who can’t travel have the lives of others beamed into their houses each night via TV or the internet. I have no objection to the word Ambree either as Victoria has suggested but my fear is that many people, not just perfume manufacturers think that by featuring people of colour or changing a word somehow radically alters things. I lived in a country that produced frankincense and the villagers there were far more pragmatic and were more concerned about educating their children, getting healthcare when needed or help if they could no longer work. We, of all colours, who are privileged to live and work in wealthier countries forget that for many people, the day to day basics of survival matter far more. I believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and kindness and I also believe in a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work so I would like to see far reaching change rather than just a tag along in an attempt to stay au courant. I have heard as well from friends of different ethnicities that they get fed up of being lumped together into one group purely on the basis of their skintone (and there are very many) and they feel that their cultures (and there are very many) and the richness and wealth it gives them and that they share with us often gets bypassed and ignored as a result. It is a very tricky one as the word ‘oriental’ may be offensive to some but not to others. I don’t believe that words of themselves are the problem (unless of course they are seriously perjorative with the intent to hurt or belittle or demean) but rather how they are used. You are also right that the word Occidental isn’t floated around which I think is a shame as it is a fine word that again has some exoticizing and fantasy element attached (when I hear it, I think of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the language in the South of France and knights and ladies for example). June 25, 2021 at 9:41am Reply

      • Carla: Ella you state everything very well, I agree. Getting up in arms about a word is just virtue signaling which is a cheap way to feel self-righteous. I’m glad you think of the workers and their families instead; they probably don’t care at all that we use the term. I like what you remind us about the fantasy of perfume, and even what you said about “Occidental”. I prefer old words like that, and like Oriental. They have stood the test of time. June 25, 2021 at 10:04am Reply

        • ascentofdreams: Carla- I believe the heated debate around the use of the word Oriental is a signal that this word has NOT stood the test of time, otherwise wouldn’t be so triggering to so many people. July 7, 2021 at 5:24am Reply

  • Jenni: I agree, you have to start somewhere- and semantics do make a difference. “Ambers” seems like a good start with the various categories like floral amber, soft amber that the press release mentions and is certainly more descriptive and helpful to the buyer. I also found the term “Oriental” not only offensive but confusing.

    With that said, yes, we should be talking about the exploitation of people in the trade. I believe that was one of the main reasons Anita Roddick started her company, as well as other misc small batch perfumers. The industry requires allergen restrictions, why not some sort of fair trade requirements? June 25, 2021 at 9:24am Reply

    • Victoria: As I mentioned to Constance, the suppliers themselves can’t always guarantee this, if they’re working with the local middlemen. Actually, this is such a vast and complicated topic that it deserves its own article, but I’m glad to take it up here too. June 25, 2021 at 9:38am Reply

  • Heidi: I agree that changing the name without also changing the underlying exploitation is a problem — it’s whitewashing (literally) the marketing of its colonialism without actually stopping the colonial exploitation. But I disagree with some of the other commenters that the issue of the term is ridiculous political correctness — the words we use matter, and reducing cultures to a white fantasy has real-world consequences. June 25, 2021 at 9:32am Reply

    • Victoria: One only has to look at the civil rights movement to know that words matter and matter a great deal. June 25, 2021 at 9:40am Reply

      • Heidi: Yes! In fact, “Orientalism” makes me think of the treatment of indigenous peoples worldwide, as artifacts of the past rather than living, breathing, contemporary peoples. June 25, 2021 at 11:19am Reply

        • Ella: This exactly – an old fashioned word! June 25, 2021 at 11:51am Reply

        • WARA: THANK YOU!!!!!
          We are HERE….as many of our ancestors were killed, their blood were seeds that made all of us bloom!!!! We honor our ancestors and stand on their shoulders!!! June 30, 2021 at 2:58pm Reply

      • Bettina: I agree Victoria. Words matter. And consumers have a lot of influence. There is a large British chocolate maker (not a niche brand) that makes a point of letting you know they have “responsibly sourced cocoa”. They must believe it will influence sales. Perfume makers who use these raw ingredients will be susceptible to consumer expectations too. We just have to educate ourselves and ask. June 25, 2021 at 11:46pm Reply

        • Victoria: For instance, it has happened with the production of some animalic ingredients, a topic that was even more secretive and sensitive than the growing of roses or benzoin. So, I’m confident that more can be done. June 26, 2021 at 2:14am Reply

    • Ella: The thing is that every culture has its own ‘idea’ and fantasy about what other cultures are. That is human nature. I came across it a lot in the Middle East and in Africa outside the big cities and with tribal peoples and had great fun setting people right about some of the more outlandish ideas of certain elements of my particular culture that they held. It is about interchange, exchange, being open, being kind to each other, listening etc. These days people know better with the advent of mobile phones, TV, internet and actually just immigration and meeting others. I don’t have an issue with replacing the word Oriental with Amber. Great to read everyone’s opinions here – very informative! June 25, 2021 at 10:08am Reply

      • Heidi: Yes, every culture has fantasies about other cultures — but the fantasies of white colonial powers have the potential to do the most damage. June 25, 2021 at 11:16am Reply

        • Ella: Those Empires have collapsed now. The neo-colonial powers currently at play in the world are not the ones that held sway 70 years ago. June 25, 2021 at 11:43am Reply

          • Heidi: They’ve shifted somewhat, but there’s still an enormous power differential between the Westernized cultures who have fantasies about the exoticized Other (they’re more primitive, more sensual/sexual), and the fantasies those cultures have about us (we’re all cowboys). And that power imbalance creates these issues. The both-sides argument doesn’t work here. June 25, 2021 at 12:10pm Reply

  • Dorothy Van Daele: Words have power. « Oriental » lumps cultures and lands together. It’s a word that’s shorthand for « other. » « Amber » means very little to me, but at least the term doesn’t conflate Turkey with China and Oman. Awareness of working conditions and environmental degradation depends on specific knowledge—which terms like « Oriental » disguise. Producers will respond to the pressure of consumers who withhold their money when they become aware of exploitive conditions. So viva « amber »! It’s about time. June 25, 2021 at 9:45am Reply

    • Ella: And yet the phrases that we use to try to avoid offence such as ‘people of colour’ also lumps together Indonesians with First Nation people with Turkic peoples with Aboriginal peoples with West Africans with SE Asian people etc. It is very tricky as what offends one person may not offend another though they be from the same background and heritage. June 25, 2021 at 9:59am Reply

    • Victoria: The term is indeed vague. As I mentioned in my post, it wasn’t originally a perfumery term. Amber or balsamic was more common among perfumers themselves. June 25, 2021 at 10:11am Reply

    • Andy: I’m sorry to have missed this article at the time of its original publication, but am happy you’ve shared it again here. I’ve begrudgingly used the fragrance term “oriental” up to this point, to be easily understood in the common terminology of fragrances, but never felt fully comfortable with it due to the reasons mentioned. I believe our terminology does matter, and will embrace a transition toward language that is less vague and more descriptive of the intrinsic qualities of the fragrance itself (e.g. sweet incense, spicy amber, etc.). Regardless of one’s point of view, I think the prospect of reducing confusion and moving toward more precise terminology is a reason we can all agree upon to retire orientalism from the fragrance jargon. June 25, 2021 at 10:32am Reply

      • Andy: My apologies, I misplaced my comment. Though it appears in good fit with Dorothy’s here 🙂 June 25, 2021 at 10:34am Reply

      • Victoria: For instance, it happened with chypre already. Now, it’s mostly called “mossy” or “woody-mossy.” It’s interesting that on the whole the language we now use to describe fragrances is starting to becoming more like that of perfumers, not perfume marketers. June 25, 2021 at 11:15am Reply

        • Ella: Why was it called Chypre Victoria? I know that it literally means Cyprus in French but why that connotation with those woody/mossy scents? June 25, 2021 at 11:53am Reply

          • Victoria: Cyprus has been famous for its fragrant herbs and mosses since ancient times. Even the Romans had an accord called chypre, which was a blend of moss with other aromatics. Eventually, the Cyprus-moss association stuck, so the accord of moss, woods, bergamot, rose and patchouli become known as chypre. June 25, 2021 at 11:57am Reply

  • N: The perfume world can cancel culture the word Oriental, however that would not make any real change unless the dangerous working conditions and unsustainable practices also stop. Changing a name is not enough. June 25, 2021 at 10:09am Reply

    • Ella: Indeed and the hideous practice of animal testing in places like China! June 25, 2021 at 10:17am Reply

    • Ella: I should add (with tongue very firmly in cheek) that the one area that White westerners are happy to pander to ‘Orientals’ is where money is concerned and marketing in new territories so ghastly animal testing goes on in certain countries in the East that have been outlawed in the West. These beauty and fragrance houses have lots of areas that they need to clean up! June 25, 2021 at 10:20am Reply

      • Kiwi: China has mandatory animal testing for imported cosmetics (which is probably what you were referring to by Western companies ‘pandering’). However, some other Eastern countries restrict or ban animal testing for cosmetics including India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey (Israel may also be considered as Eastern). All of these countries have historically been considered ‘Oriental’ at some point or other. One shouldn’t generalise what happens in China to the rest of this politically and culturally heterogeneous region.

        The term ‘White westerners’ is also a bit odd considering the ethnic makeup of e.g. the US, but I acknowledge that you were being tongue-in-cheek.

        On a related note the term ‘white’ is a bit generic too, given the diversity of European ethnocultural groups and their lived experiences. I have ‘white’ friends whose ancestors were colonial settlers, and ‘white’ friends who fled their war-torn Balkan homeland. It’s fun to listen to their old family stories, recognising that they are connected, but not synonymous, with their forebears. June 28, 2021 at 3:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sure, the change of one word is not much by itself, but the point is not about the manufacturers changing labels, it’s about consumers asking the right questions. Do many people know that someone risks their life to pick frankincense in Somalia? I think not. It’s easier to hide these difficult, ugly topics behind clichés and fantasies. June 25, 2021 at 10:29am Reply

      • Ella: And in Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Yemen! Perhaps manufacturers themselves should take the lead and stop being so lazy about these matters – only too happy to keep it all under wraps until forced to change and then jump on the bandwagon about how ‘progressive’ they are. Hypocrisy! June 25, 2021 at 10:34am Reply

  • Filomena: When I hear the words Oriental or Orient, I think of an exotic place of beauty that is far away. One of the very best Asian restaurants not far from where I live is called “The Orient” and is run by an Asian family. Oriental rugs were beautiful and expensive rugs. When I hear “Oriental” in a fragrance, I know I will most likely enjoy it. That all being said, I have absolutely no problem with calling it Amber. June 25, 2021 at 10:28am Reply

    • Victoria: I admit that I do as well (in part). It’s just that it’s important for me personally to question my assumptions and my own prejudices.
      I will try to find old perfumery books with the examples of fragrance descriptions before the oriental family became the standard term. I think that the classifications were better, because they were more precise, but of course, there were more of them (Amber, Balsamic, Leather, etc,) so it could be complicated to explain to perfume buyers. June 25, 2021 at 11:02am Reply

  • Mingzhe Wang: Thank you for such a thoughtful article!! I have long been uneasy with the word oriental, even in perfumery. For those who argue that oriental is no more offensive than occidental, I beg to differ! It is not about what the literal meaning is, it is about how they have been used! One could say the word negro simply means black, now, try and use that to refer to a black person in their face! I encourage everyone who hasn’t grasped the nuances (or perhaps willfully so) to research more! The word oriental is loaded with euro-centric, colonialism undertones. It is way past time that we stopped using it! June 25, 2021 at 10:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for reading! It’s such a loaded, big topic, and it’s very good to talk to all of you about it. June 25, 2021 at 11:13am Reply

  • Lydie: Thank you for this article, Victoria. I read it with much interest. I never liked the term oriental, because it didn’t mean anything to me perfume-wise, and also because of its meaning and history.

    Well, I think that most reasonable people would agree that changing only the name of one family will not do much, but even this discussion already makes us to talk about the plight of workers and to raise many important topics related to perfume and ingredients. I say, yes, let’s have these discussions together and let’s have more of them. June 25, 2021 at 10:46am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Lydie!
      I also want to thank everyone who participated in the discussion and shared so many thought-provoking observations. June 25, 2021 at 11:26am Reply

  • Jill: Victoria, where does sandalwood fit into the classification? Thanks, Jill June 25, 2021 at 10:56am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a classical Woods family note, but it can be used across the whole fragrance wheel. It mostly depends what it’s blended with. June 25, 2021 at 11:22am Reply

      • Jill S: Thanks so much, Victoria. June 25, 2021 at 1:22pm Reply

  • Kait: Perfume is much smoke and mirrors. A massive part of the allure is the fantasy. It sounds like so many people would rather not be awoke and removed from the Lotus eaters island. That would require not inhaling the fantasy for a moment and see the the real world consequences of a cultures being objectified-how many women do you think I’ve been pushed into prostitution or dominated because this aura of submissiveness-“ it does not take going far into the past & looking at perfume ads to see an example where this saturated. I find it a little selfish and repugnant the usage of words like “politically correct, cancel culture, and so on- which actually was political campaign tactics used to brainwash people into repeatable catchphrases to spread like wild fire to use without actually letting the people consider further. I enjoy the smoke and mirrors as much as anyone having found Perfumes actually led me to a feeling of esscape and beauty. But I do not want anyone suffering anymore from the usage of a word that directly objectify‘s another human. Something that I love- and use daily -and put directly on my skin -perfume. Words have immense power. And perhaps we should all think about following the money-It sure would be probably easier just not to do anything and keep asleep on the “island” or be distracted in the “smoke and mirrors” where you can keep buying perfume while other people suffer. June 25, 2021 at 11:30am Reply

    • Ella: Indeed, even more so when you consider that the traditional image of the ‘Orient’ was actually Ottoman Turkey and the harem, that all of the Odalisques were women on non-Muslim origin as it was haram to enslave a Muslim. Mainly women from around the Empire, many of whom were snatched to be sold into slavery. The cousin of Empress Eugenie of France was snatched and sold into slavery in such a way and went on to become one of the four kadin ‘wives’ before giving birth to one of the Ottoman sultans – so the slavery and exploitation is not only confined to Europe. June 25, 2021 at 11:56am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with you. The fantasy element of fragrance is what attracted me to this field since the early days, but the more I work with small farmers and raw material producers in countries like India, Indonesia, and Laos, the more uncomfortable I become about this “smoke and mirrors” aspect. I recognize that it’s too uncomfortable of a topic for some people, but I still think that it’s important to raise it. June 25, 2021 at 12:03pm Reply

      • Ella: Exactly Victoria! This is why it so great to open this conversation up because I think it is too easy for people to (quite rightly) deride the past colonial practices but many people just stop right there thinking the job is done by stamping out vestiges of white/western or changing terminology without realising that there are other, more insidious, subtler forms of ‘colonialism’ are still with us and not necessarily being peddled by those who historically held the power. Neo-colonialism is every bit as awful, degrading and damaging to people and animals and the environment. June 25, 2021 at 12:10pm Reply

  • Debby: While I’m alive I’m happy to learn and adapt my language and behaviour to respect others. I see it as being a decent human being, not ‘woke’, ‘PC’, ‘cancel culture’ or any of the other phrases bandied around. I can’t understand why some have a problem with adapting, and if there are people offended by a term then it is up to those with the privilege of not being in that position to help to effect change, not whine that their freedom of speech is being taken away.
    All this talk of not bringing politics into what we perceive as escapism, well, I’m sorry, but politics shapes the very fabric of our society. And if takes being ‘woke’ to help to address the many injustices that humans and animals experience on a daily basis then I’m all for it. June 25, 2021 at 12:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. I’m always glad to adapt and learn. I recognize that I have my own assumptions and prejudices and I try to question myself. It’s not about some abstract notion of political correctness, it’s about empathy. June 25, 2021 at 12:26pm Reply

  • Mridula: I am glad you are giving space to the need for change and glad you are changing to a different term from oriental. Those who are talking about real change for workers should know that language is an important tool of exploitation and change in language and change in terms of trade and working conditions are not mutually exclusive. Change is the only constant, the question is the direction of change, toward greater or lesser exploitation. Power dictates change and so does resistance. June 25, 2021 at 12:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Can’t agree more! June 25, 2021 at 12:47pm Reply

    • Mingzhe Wang: Perfectly said! June 25, 2021 at 2:12pm Reply

    • Fazal: Exactly! We can think of historical progress following a ‘zig-zag’ pattern. Overall, economic, social, and scientific progress have been in the positive direction over time but there are moments in history from time to time when we take a step or few steps backwards.

      There are certainly some backwards developments occurring at the moment such as growing threats of fascism in certain countries, voter suppression in even established democracies like the U.S., and exploitative capitalism but the general public is pushing back against these threats so there is also a lot to be optimistic about. June 25, 2021 at 4:48pm Reply

  • Fazal: Good points! I especially like the historical aspects of it such as the link between the term ‘oriental’ and colonialism.

    I am glad we are having these historical debates in all areas now. The other day, someone commented on the social media that they are trying to teach liberal history now. I countered that there is no liberal or conservative history. There is only one history. You may teach anything to the general public at a certain point in time but that does not change the fact that there is only one set of facts and those facts will come out sooner or later no matter how long it takes. You cannot just celebrate good parts of history and pretend that the bad parts did not happen. June 25, 2021 at 2:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: So true. I’m glad that we’re having these discussions, and the tones of some of the comments suggests that it’s the right time to have it. In fact, I was looking at the comments under the same article that I posted back in 2016, and the consensus was that it was indeed time to think of another word. Nobody came to defend orientalism. Today, we’re much more polarized, but I think that it means that we can push for real changes and for transparency. June 25, 2021 at 3:45pm Reply

  • Wild Gardener: A better quality of debate than I have seen on another perfume based website, but putting the politics aside, can I suggest
    soft amber (but probably not what Michael Edwards means by that) and
    resiny amber
    as the two basic categories, and then you can have fruity, spicy, floral etc sub categories. June 25, 2021 at 3:38pm Reply

    • Wild Gardener: Powdery amber
      Resiny amber June 25, 2021 at 3:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like this very much! This adds more nuance to the descriptions. June 25, 2021 at 4:15pm Reply

  • Evie: I don’t find the term Oriental offensive and I’m Asian. I know how it’s used in the context of perfume. Not every Asian person is offended by the term. I’d hate for non-Asians to feel like they have to tiptoe around us all the time, worrying about words.

    Perfume classification should be more precise. For a long time I’ve wondered how so many fragrances that smell so different, can be classified as Oriental. A change is due. But please not because of political correctness. June 25, 2021 at 3:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve done that too! In perfumery school, we weren’t taught that term, so it took me a while to figure it out. The fragrances that typically are described as oriental were broken up in several categories, so it was easier to classify them. I always notice that whenever I have to use the term oriental, I add a sentence or two explaining what it is. June 25, 2021 at 3:59pm Reply

      • Qwendy: I am with Evie. I don’t find the term Oriental for perfumes particularly offensive, but I have always found it misleading and uncommunicative. I also don’t find the term Chypre very enlightening since the trio of essences are most often used as their base are so often obscured by the other ingredients. While I love Fougeres, I can’t imagine that anyone outside Perfumistas could have any idea what they are.

        I am all for more practical perfume categories – I can happily avoid Gourmands and Fruity Florals – and leave the magic and mystery to speak to us from inside the bottle. I love the way Luca T and Tania S come up with their two word descriptions for each perfume, and creating a bit more generalized terms in favor of better communication about perfume gets my vote.

        The subject of the exploitation of perfume workers definitely deserves more time and attention, but to me is a separate issue. June 25, 2021 at 6:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yet, it’s not a separate issue. How we frame the discussion and how we talk about stories behind fragrance and people who make them possible determines what information we demand from fragrance brands. June 26, 2021 at 2:24am Reply

  • kat: Language lives, words have a history – and the history of orient/oriental is rich and storied. To focus on one specific usage and then hone in on all its negative connotations (and by doing so implying that its usage reflects a certain mindset) is destroying language and open discourse. And open discourse is something that we’re about to lose. I’m sad to see its happening here too. June 25, 2021 at 5:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: How can a suggestion to use a better descriptor for a fragrance family that was never meant to be called oriental “a destruction of language and open discourse”? And yes, we need more discourse and more conversation about how perfume is produced and people who help produce it. This is long overdue. June 25, 2021 at 5:38pm Reply

      • kat: Banning a word that has been around for centuries is destruction of language. This is not a word that was coined with the intent to hurt or belittle yet it’s treated as such. Whether it’s appropriate to use in perfumery? Why not – it as over the years assumed a specific meaning within this context. A meaning it did not have in the Middle Ages for example and it worked pretty well. And I welcome discussions about working productions in perfumery but that’s not what I meant with open discourse. But I came here for getting away from all that turmoil – so I better leave it at that. June 25, 2021 at 6:25pm Reply

        • Victoria: Did I ever say “ban” anywhere in this post? Keep the word and use it, if you wish, but you have to at least be aware of its connotations. Arguing that oriental is a positive or even neutral term simply doesn’t work, given the history of the word since the 17th century. June 26, 2021 at 2:20am Reply

    • Annie: Open discourse? You mean like freedom of speech?

      Time was, one could come to America and say whatever you damn well please.

      Now there is no where to go to have that freedom.

      That’s been gone for a long time and it ain’t coming back in any of our lifetimes.

      Our freedom of speech was a defining characteristic of America. June 25, 2021 at 9:39pm Reply

      • Hannah: Are we not having a free and open discussion here? I see many people with varying opinions – each allowed to express their thoughts, and others allowed to respond.

        Freedom of speech doesn’t protect the individual from having his or her opinions critiqued or disagreed with.

        The liveliness of this debate demonstrates to me the relevance and necessity of discussing “oriental” labels. Considering the historical context of words isn’t erasing history – I would argue that considering the context is necessary to understanding both history and the world around us today. June 28, 2021 at 2:11pm Reply

  • Emma: Victoria, your arguments about colonialism and the environmental impact of perfumes was wonderfully put. As an Indigenous person of Australia, I am finding the appeals to nostalgia as a reason to keep the name, similar to the, frankly obscene, arguments to continue selling golliwogs. Let’s decolonize perfumes and also be responsible global citizens. June 25, 2021 at 6:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: I thought about it too. Oriental used to have mostly those kind of exotic, incense swirls and cinnabar carvings associations for me. I read Said, but it didn’t really sink in. Then a few years ago, I was in Delhi, and I took a city tour with an American and European group. We had two guides, an American girl living in Delhi and a local Delhiite. They gave us an amazing tour, and then we debated as a group how much we should tip them. An elderly gentleman then said, “We should give the American guide more money, since the other one is Oriental.” It was like a slap, and I understood what the term really meant. June 26, 2021 at 2:32am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Fascinating article. Excellent and thoughtful like everything you write. June 25, 2021 at 8:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for reading! June 26, 2021 at 2:14am Reply

  • Victoria: I want to thank everyone for a lively discussion and for engaging with a topic that is complicated and difficult. I very much appreciate all of your thoughts. Let’s continue the discussion on Monday! June 26, 2021 at 2:44am Reply

  • G: Thank you for a thought-provocing article, and interesting debate in the comments. This may be off tonic, but the last few years I have completely shifted my buying habits, and now mostly buy second hand. It stems from an environmental and ethical perspective. But I love perfume, and realise a need to hold the brands I do buy accountable. Perhaps you could suggest brands and perfumes which actually are transparent and, in lack of a better term, fair trade? I know a few brands are vegan, some are labelled ecological, but are the people involved in the whole production treated fairly by these brands? Help to navigate this area would be very welcome indeed. June 28, 2021 at 12:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a great question, although it’s hard to make a definitive list at this point. The way perfumes are created is that we have a handful of fragrance suppliers that produce or supply raw materials. Perfume brands then buy fragrances from them. Some materials are sourced ethically. Others are not. There has been some push from consumers for brands to disclose whether they source animal-based materials, so now this is much easier to find this information. But to know whether oud in your perfume is sustainably sourced is hard. Generally, if you push the brands, they will in turn put pressure on the suppliers. But to call out one brand, Le Labo has been more vocal than others about their sourcing and they’ve been doing this for quite some time. They usually supply information if you ask for something specific. June 28, 2021 at 2:07pm Reply

      • Hannah: Victoria, thank you for starting this conversation and replying to the above poster’s comments.

        I second the request for an overview of brands that have been attempting to produce their products in ethical and/or environmentally considerate ways. Even brands that offer documented supply chain transparency would be appreciated.

        I understand that much of brand’s claims about labor standards and environmental impact is marketing; that’s why I think your readers would value your expert analysis of brands that are doing “better.”

        During the pandemic, with so much shopping moved online, I have had the time to research clothing brands that are trying to do “better” with respect to labor rights and environmental impact. Comparing labels in stores doesn’t give anywhere near the full picture, but buying online, I can choose a brand that has verified supply chain transparency from the fabric production to the manufacturing, and uses factories and dye techniques that have lower polluting impact than common alternatives.

        Disclosures and standards in textiles are far from perfect, but the labor and environmental standards of fragrance seem even more opaque in comparison. June 28, 2021 at 2:23pm Reply

        • Victoria: I agree, the fragrance industry is much more opaque. Partly, it’s the lack of copyright protection for perfume formula. Partly, it’s because we accept the “smoke and mirrors” aspect too much and don’t question it. The kind of cringe-worthy purple prose that fills perfume press releases would have been subjected to criticism in any other field. Perfume brands, however, can get away with describing Palmyra as lush and green, fill the sands of Syria with spice-laden caravans and claim that it is all a vibrant tribute to femininity. (I wish I were making it up, but it comes from a press release I have on my desk.)

          I will be highlight more brands as I do my research. For instance, Yosh Han shared this link, which also has links to other resources.
          https://www.sustainableperfumery.org/ June 29, 2021 at 8:37am Reply

  • Yosh: Just seeing this today,,,,catching up,,,

    Why are people who are so concerned about manufacturing and the supply chain in the fragrance industry not acknowledging it’s a direct result of colonialism and not connecting the correlation between horrible farming practices and “Orientalism”?

    HQ in their fancy Western offices dictating raw materials prices and marketing “Oriental” perfumes IS what is continued colonizer mentality. You cannot say, “oh let’s make sure we give them fair wages” but still call it “oriental” perfume because “my (deeply colonized) Asian friend said it’s alright.”

    Why are people here agreeing that it’s ok to use Oriential because it used to mean “The East” when we KNOW Africa is South – so why are people saying Moroccan, Egyptian and Somaliland fragrances are Oriental?

    Is it because you want to hold onto a Western fantasy of the East? Sorry, we are not your concubines, geishas or harem.

    Why hold onto that fantasy and not use specific olfactive terms to describe fragrances from 50+ countries and cultures? Like why don’t people adopt Mukhallat “mix” in Arabic for the saffron-rose-oud accord found in The GCC? If people can learn French words, people can learn Arabic words, unless of course, you’re deeply colonized and somehow thing French words are superior (but still want to champion the farmers).

    Why not use olfactive descriptors like amber, spice, resin, vamber (vanilla + amber), leathery, wood, incense, etc. NO OTHER INDUSTRY uses “Oriental” in their descriptions – not wine, whiskey, chocolate, tea, coffee or beer.

    It’s high time the perfume industry actually participate in the 21st century. We need more BIPOC leaders, creators and founders at the heads of the tables, not just supporting roles or staying in the field.

    People championing the farmers and still insisting on using Oriental…ummm, yeah, might need to revisit priorities and what you’re actually saying. And WHY hold on to it KNOWING it harms people. Stop gaslighting, it’s not a pleasant odor. Deodorize Racism. Decolonize Scent!! June 28, 2021 at 7:05pm Reply

  • Yosh: Thank you Victoria for this thoughtful article and for bringing this topic to light. Michael Edwards and others are working to update the language. Instead of gaslighting, I wish people would work towards being more productive.

    We need to hold the institutions to task – like the Fragrance Foundation and all the Fragrance Houses – instead of gatekeeping, I hope people find the courage to demand change.

    For people wanting to know more about sustainability – visit Coalition of Sustainable Perfumery and check out the RED LIST.

    https://www.sustainableperfumery.org/
    https://www.iucnredlist.org/ June 28, 2021 at 7:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! I was going to ask you for some resources, so it’s very helpful! June 29, 2021 at 8:22am Reply

  • Scent Festival: Some resources:

    BBC video – terrific 3 minutes explaining Edward Said’s Orientalism.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZST6qnRR1mY

    Harper’s Bazaar & Flare – articles on the problematic use of Oriental
    https://www.harpersbazaar.com/beauty/a36503673/oriental-perfume-and-fragrance-backlash/

    https://www.flare.com/fashion-beauty/oriental-perfume-problematic/ June 29, 2021 at 11:35am Reply

  • Scent Festival: Also – if you feel passionate about this topic, kindly sign the petition to reclassify Oriental. There are also bullet points including making sure the industry has adequate BIPOC representation.

    Thank you so much. I hope it’s alright to include it here.
    https://www.change.org/p/lvmh-reclassify-oriental-and-floriental-in-the-fragrance-industry June 29, 2021 at 11:37am Reply

  • Yosh: I want to second what someone wrote above about no longer using Negro when comparing Oriental. The Obama Administration signed legislation back in 2016 to remove both words in U.S. Govt documents.

    I recognize many are not U.S. Citizens but racism is a global issue. It’s terribly annoying when discussing the topic of Orientalism when Eurocentric colonists say there’s no racism in their own country.

    Asian hate crimes have risen since the rise of the pandemic. We are not your Enemy #1 when we don’t serve your purposes. This is the hidden ugly truth behind fetishizing – it dehumanizes. Nobody wants to talk about these things because it somehow mars the experience of Oriental perfumery but there’s no fantasy for victims of oppression.

    We’re not saying get rid of the perfume, we’re just saying, think about the consequences and for starters, call it Ambery, Vamber, Resin, Wood, Mukhallat, or something else more specific.

    Scent has the power to transport. Let’s transform this into the future – a place that’s a dream for all, not just a few. June 29, 2021 at 11:45am Reply

  • Q: Hi Victoria,

    I adore your blog and have been silently following it for many years, even though my interest in perfumery is quite casual. You are a wonderful writer and I always feel your respect and genuine curiosity in the people and places that produce these olfactory delights, beyond the product itself. I am glad you raised this issue on your blog. I have long had complicated feelings about the use of this word as a person of East Asian descent.

    A few years ago, I received a fellowship meant for women from ‘the Orient’ (i.e. the entire geographical expense from Turkey to Japan) to help support my studies. It was wonderful to have funding, but the term bothered me. I didn’t think ‘the Orient’ was offensive or derogatory in itself, but it is dated, recalling a time when power relations led to exploitation, dehumanization, and countless other cruelties to many groups of people. Reminders of this history bothers me, especially at times when I acutely feel that I am still living it, in different guises. But in the context of sense pursuits, ‘oriental’ is a fantasy that I, too, indulge in. It’s a beautiful Chinoiserie vase or a Delacroix painting or a scent that is meant to capture some romantic, imaginary place. The datedness of the term has a distancing effect, and its vagueness, I think, supports my fantasizing and free-association. It’s a bit of escapism that I don’t find out of place in perfumery.

    All this to say, I won’t miss the term if it were removed from the lexicon, but I can see why it is still being used. I am unsure if phasing out this terminology will help precipitate more significant changes in labor conditions and supply chains. It is easy to get PR teams to re-brand and engage in a bit of ‘woke-washing’ that makes everyone feel like they’ve done their bit. Far more difficult to change and scrutinize actual practices. In my opinion, for consumers to effective in changing industry practices, demands have to be specific to problems rather than symbolic. But this is beyond my depth.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this blog. June 29, 2021 at 2:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your kind words and your thoughtful comment. In general, this has been one of the most interesting comment threads we’ve had lately, and I’m glad to meet more of you. You’ve pointed out very well that the datedness of oriental is what makes it so safe and acceptable in the context of perfumery, and that’s why whenever I have to use it, I don’t feel particularly troubled. In a sense, “oriental” is an easy target, as it might already be on the way out without much fanfare, given that it’s so vague as an olfactory term. When I first published this article in 2016, that was the general consensus and the discussion was much less lively. Removing the word “oriental” from the fragrance wheel won’t remedy the structural problems, but nothing will until we identify the problem. Until now, we weren’t even talking about it. Messaging is only one aspect of the whole issue, but from my perspective, it’s significant. Perfume marketing comprises a big share of perfume’s creative process and costs, so changing the marketing language is also about changing the very nature of story-telling and the process of creation itself. It’s also about correcting the assumptions about consumers and what they are interested in. The industry is very small, and changes have ripple effects. And we absolutely have to be ready to challenge brands to show us more meaningful changes in regards to sourcing, environmental impact, etc. In my article, I wanted to highlight one possible link, but I’m sure that others can come up with better ideas.

      Finally, I don’t want us to “deorientalize” Shalimar or Opium, fragrances that reflected their time and history. I don’t want a creator like Serge Lutens to stop deriving inspiration from his adopted home in Morocco. We should feel free to create our own imaginary spaces and fill them with fantasies. However, I would like fragrance brands to become more self-conscious about their dated marketing, and in 2021, to offer new stories and new themes. June 30, 2021 at 4:41am Reply

  • Zazie: Dear Victoria thank you for the enlightening article. I know the power of words very well, and my use and abuse of the term oriental shall come to a halt.

    I am sorry if my comment comes too late for anyone to see, but as fair trade practices go, I wish to give a shout out to the Sana Jardin brand. You can read about their stance and what they do on their website. It is a women owned company that appears to give back to a community of women harvesters in Morocco.

    Anyway. They received some snarck on NST for being both luxury and engaged, which doesn’t seem an oxymoron to me, but I digress.

    What I wanted to say is that their fragrances are soooooooo worth it (I admittedly tried them out because of their sample program), they are just perfect, easy and interesting and varied, I hope they get some attention.
    If it’s because of their fair trade practices or because they are truly wonderful no one could tell.

    I hope you give them a try. If consumers support certain types of business models, I am sure more brands will find motivation to change and improve. June 29, 2021 at 3:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for mentioning Sana Jardin. I heard about the original kernel project some time ago, and it’s interesting to see how much it has evolved since then. Luxury and sustainability or social engagement don’t sound mutually exclusive, because small-scale creation is always more expensive.

      I’ve been buying rose and orange blossom water from Feryal, a Lebanese-based outfit. They also work with local growers, and while their orange blossom water is more expensive than an average brand we get here, it’s worth every penny. The scent is just stunning, and I can use these waters in food and for skincare. June 30, 2021 at 4:51am Reply

  • Scent Festival: Victoria — THIS!! I love what you wrote in your latest comment…

    “Messaging is only one aspect of the whole issue, but from my perspective, it’s significant. Perfume marketing comprises a big share of perfume’s creative process and costs, so changing the marketing language is also about changing the very nature of story-telling and the process of creation itself.”

    For people who are saying, changing the word won’t make a difference, they are not realizing that the word itself, represents all the deep rooted colonial practices that continue to keep farmers at the bottom.

    Orientalism was born from the a Eurocentric view that the East was LESS than. So by not changing it, people are being complicit and gaslighting the issue.

    One must ask, whose fantasy is it and were these “others” consensual in that fantasy. And for whom does this continued fantasy exist for and for whose benefit?

    The farmers and growers hardly ever have a say and yet, the big fragrance houses and brands continue to profit off consumer fantasy. So if you care about sustainability, then changing the word Oriental becomes absolutely necessary. It signals that you care about the farmers and no longer buy into modern day colonialism.

    The dream should work for everyone, not just a privileged few. June 30, 2021 at 1:32pm Reply

  • Scent Festival: Dana El Masri from azmin Saraï has been teaching the Genealogy of Scent through the Institute for Art and Olfaction. I think many here would enjoy that workshop. She has been teaching about raw materials from different regions.

    She and Rawya Catto from Scent Creatives in Dubai share their expertise about the Middle East.

    In particular, I love the word Mukhallat, it’s Arabic for Mix. It is specific to the rose-saffron-oud accord in The GCC.

    This is a modern day accord that has a rich history and is not only olfactive but also geographic and cultural. June 30, 2021 at 1:36pm Reply

  • Yosh: I love Serge Lutens fragrances that are inspired by his native Morocco. Chergui is my favorite. The boutique in Paris is so dreamy. Everything about the brand is enchanting.

    But to keep calling his fragrance Oriental is problematic because for those saying Oriental means East, do you not realize Morocco is in Africa, SOUTH of Europe?? But because way back when, they viewed everything outside of Europe, as The Orient.

    Chinoisserie and Japonaise — those artistic styles — still convey a Western perspective of the East. It’s the OUTSIDE looking in. Rather than the INSIDE looking out.

    Like truly, when someone tells me they love “Oriental food,” I’m just like…whut?

    I’m a big fan of amber, wood, oud, resin, incense, leather, spice, mukhallat fragrances. These also, from a perfumer’s creative talents, are more specific. Sometimes, when I smell “Amber” I just smell brown soup.

    When I teach newbies, who want to create amber fantasies, I ask them to be more specific in their vision and to create something with an X factor. This usually results in something new and original rather than a copying of someone’s style. June 30, 2021 at 1:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: But is the outsider perspective problematic per se? Is it problematic because it’s a Western perspective? One could also argue that Lutens as a French artist interprets Morocco as a Western outsider, but where would such a discussion lead? In case of Lutens, it’s his unique perspective as an outsider and the blend of ideas that he creates that so many of us find so enchanting. I agree that we need to reframe the discussion, but I don’t agree that we need to reframe it by creating more boundaries. July 1, 2021 at 4:49am Reply

      • Sebastian: I find this view of perfumes unexpectedly intellectual. I myself must admit that I just enjoy the scents, and disregard the ideas.

        I also enjoy originality, surprises and good handicraft, when I happen to notice it. But ideas really are totally unimportant to me when I choose a perfume to wear for a day.

        I’m probably simple. July 1, 2021 at 5:40am Reply

    • Sebastian: No, they didn’t. Morocco has definitely never been part of “The Orient”. And hasn’t the whole starting point of the discussion been that “oriental” in perfumery is a generic term based on a fantasy? (A possibly racist fantasy, as some have claimed?)

      I find nothing incongruous about calling Chergui “oriental”, or Au coeur du desert, for that matter, although both have been inspired by geographical regions that are not in the Orient.

      As to food, “Oriental” in a more narrow sense, at least in Germany, would not be “Indian” or “Asian”, but rather “Near Eastern”, going back to the Ottoman Empire being the epitome of anything oriental. So “Oriental food” would most probably be understood as Near Eastern food: Turkish, Syrian, Palaestinian etc. It’s not that this wouldn’t make any sense, these cuisines do share a similarity.

      However, as I have remarked in earlier comment, I’m all for being as specific as possible. If factor X makes the soup less murky, by all means let’s have it. July 1, 2021 at 5:27am Reply

      • Victoria: If we’re talking about the general usage of the term in the 4th century, the Orient referred to what is Syria today, because that was the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Later, the term would encompass most of the Levant and North Africa, including Egypt and Morocco. Only in the late 18th century-19th century, did it begin to include India and later China, Japan, etc. In other words, its geographical dimensions shifted as Europeans and later Americans explored different parts of the world. I’d say that here in Europe the term mostly evokes the Levant, while in the US, it’s almost exclusively Far East. There is a book by Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen called The myth of continents that I recall reading a grad student. A bit dry, but quite interesting if one is curious about the history of writing about history. July 1, 2021 at 6:05am Reply

        • Sebastian: Thank you for that pointer. That book is still available. I’ll check it out. I have always been interested in the history of science, but metageography is a new topic to me. Very nice. July 1, 2021 at 6:15am Reply

        • Sebastian: Lewis/Wigen make for interesting reading. Here’s a quote that I find captures aspects of some of the disagreements that have been voiced in the present context:
          >>>
          Said calls for a globalist perspective that eschews reliance on any kind of large-scale, cultural-geographical categories. “Can one divide human reality,” he asks, “into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?” For Said, the answer is no. He appears to find the very business of organizing knowledge into regional frameworks distasteful and to be skeptical of the chance that interesting work will ever be produced when the units of analysis are delimited in geographical terms. A Western scholar might study “discrete and concrete” problems of specific Islamic societies, in his view, but the attempt to grasp the world of Islam as a whole invites contamination by the “doctrines of Orientalism.”

          We disagree. It remains our conviction that human diversity is geographically structured and that some if not all of the relevant geographical patterns precede the development of discourses about them. While the Orient of European imagination is a fictitious entity, an area like Southwest Asia and North Africa (Said’s effective Orient) is in significant respects a real region, the home of a historically constituted civilization. Like all regions, it is fuzzy and ill defined. Nor is it a totalizable entity, imbued with some sort of Platonic essence. Yet it remains an indispensable unit of historical and cultural analysis. Denying the existence of geographically definable arenas of human affinity is, to our minds, as great an obstacle to global understanding as is objectifying them into timeless natural essences.
          <<<

          May I ask what led you to read geography as an undergraduate? I had always assumed you had trained as a chemist. July 1, 2021 at 6:24pm Reply

          • Victoria: Graduate student. I was studying political science.
            Said refined many of his ideas in his later book, Culture and Imperialism, but people don’t seem to read it as closely, and I don’t blame them, it’s quite dense. Having heard a few of his seminars, I think that he would also disagree with some aspects of that interpretation. July 2, 2021 at 4:26am Reply

  • Anouk: Dear Victoria, I am late, but I just want to say thank you for not shying away from political topics. Would love to hear more about it! July 3, 2021 at 3:04pm Reply

  • Dana: Hi Victoria,
    I am immensely late to this discussion but I want to say thank you for sharing this topic with as much research and respect as possible.
    I have lots to say on this but I am happy to see most of what I wanted to say and have shared has been shared by others, including you and Yosh.
    I would like people here to stay open minded, and embrace nuance, give space to new narratives and respect that now is the time for change.
    One word will absolutely not change everything and the issues brought up here are very valid and layered. I believe they are all related (sustainability, who benefits in the harvesting process, how diverse are the teams at these brands)? All of it.

    As an Arab, Southwest Asian, Levantine and North African, I find it important to learn the differences. As a perfumer, I make sure to tell that through authentic stories and perfumes.
    And I KNOW that perfume lovers care a lot more about where they get their perfumes, who makes them, why, where etc…

    Please believe that not only was it hard to bring this one small change about, it is only the beginning of diving deeper into how our industry can evolve in the right way. It is not at all virtue signaling, trust me, it’s been tough on the people dealing with this issue for years. Please be mindful of other perspectives and please understand that this matters. July 10, 2021 at 3:29pm Reply

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