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 – no oil wells 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 the orientalist flavour of the 19th century. 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. One illustration, Guerlain Shalimar (£69 for 50ml EDP), came much later, in 1925, but it reprises all of the hallmarks of the genre – opulence, warmth and an exotic backstory.
But the reason I’m dissatisfied with the term “oriental” has more to do with ambiguity than political correctness. Oriental can mean sweetness on a scale from the dry and austere Frédéric Malle Noir Epices (£170 for 100ml EDP) to the gourmand feast of Lolita Lempicka (£68 for 100ml EDP). Other scions of this family take the incense route – Papillon Perfumery Anubis (£98 for 50ml EDP), Czech & Speake Frankincense & Myrrh (£80 for 100ml cologne) or Lorenzo Villoresi Incensi (€105 for 100ml EDT). A new ilk comes laden with oud, a traditional eastern material derived from the rapidly vanishing species of aquilaria trees. Kilian’s Rose Oud (£275 for 50ml EDP) circumnavigates this ethical problem by using a splendid synthetic accord.
In a curious twist, Amouage, the one house that could have been forgiven for exploiting the clichés, has chosen to take another approach. Founded by the Omani royal family, it employed perfumer Guy Robert to compose Amouage Gold (£185 for 50ml EDP), a jewel in its crown. Robert built his signature powdery-mossy accord around Omani rose and frankincense, the latter a source of the region’s wealth before a different kind of oil was discovered, and the result was luxurious in the truest sense of this word. Amouage’s collection has grown exponentially since 1983, but Gold remains its most outstanding offering.
While I’ve been pondering alternative names to “oriental”, a friend attending the Lahore Literary Festival sent me an email from Pakistan. “I’m visiting the Shalimar Gardens today. Quite grand. Wasn’t there a perfume inspired by them?” Indeed. The only difference being that the Shalimar gardens are preserved as a Unesco World Heritage Site, whereas the Shalimar fragrance is constantly being reformulated to keep it in line with various regulations. The extrait de parfum is closest to the original. The day when perfume is considered a cultural treasure is yet to dawn.