Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Orientalism and the perfumer

oriental stories My dear friend Jessica, who has been a sweetheart and followed this blog from the very beginning, through some synchronicity always leaving encouraging comments  when I’m about to give up this foolhardy project, is a brilliant art historian who works on medieval Islamic art—cool right? She divides her time between Upstate NY, Minnesota, Morocco, and Spain. Her husband is a dashing young Moroccan man—I so envy her glamorous life.

SO, as she’s been following this blog, she has noted, with a specialist’s eye, how often Morocco seems to come up in modern perfumers’ portfolios. I’ll quote her response to my giveaway of Tauer perfumes (you should enter! Go here):

“Seems like the man has a thing for Morocco, no? If I win I can't wait to see how much I think this really smells like the Morocco I know.”

I doubt it would smell like the Morocco Jessica knows, the real Morocco—or at least her real Morocco, (since how do you make a smell that represents a whole country? I shudder to imagine what an ‘America’ perfume might smell like—Walmart?) because this Morocco is a special, imaginary place, that exists only in the fecund—and sometimes overheated-- minds of the perfumers and marketers. It is the borderlands, the entry point to that gigantic fantasy land known as the Orient, the land of the Oriental perfume. As we all know, Oriental perfumes don’t actually smell like attars found in middle eastern countries or India—they are a Western idea of richness and opulence, a branch of the Orientalism made so famous by Edward Said. The funny thing is, where the other arts have ‘cleaned up their act’ to a certain extent, in terms of projecting overtly eroticized and exoticized fantasies onto an oriental ‘other,’ perfumery is still unapologetically running with the idea—and producing some pretty awesome smells.

delacroix mort srdanapale

So, to avoid repeating what others have said better than I, I’ve rounded up some goodies on orientalism and perfume. First, see the amazing Moroccan palace of Serge Lutens (first brought to my attention by Perfume Shrine but originally featured in W magazine) This is an incredible abode, made especially incredible by the fact that the great perfumer has never lived in it. Just shows how strong a part fantasy plays in the perfumer’s connection with the East—he needn’t occupy this dreamspace; he only needs to know it is there.

The Scentimentalist has a good intro to orientalism in perfume that I’d recommend here, as do Perfume Smellin’ Things, The Scented Pages, and Nathan Branch, all in their own way. There is also an interesting thread on Basenotes debating ‘the smell of Morocco.’

Andy Tauer’s relationship with Morocco seems to be a little more straightforward and less intellectualized and intense than Serge Lutens’, if we trust his matter-of-fact account of the creation of Le Maroc pour Elle on Legerdenez—he claims (I reprint this paragraph of Legerdenez’ interview here :

“Morocco is for sure an inspiration to my work. I was there several times, visited the souks and travelled through the desert. Morocco is full of light and scents. But the Morocco perfume theme originated from a friendship. I have had a very good friend for years who owns a house in Marrakesh. It was his idea, after smelling my rose absolute and jasmine absolute and the cedar wood from Morocco, to create a perfume based on these three scents. I had no perfume on the market back then and he who almost forced me to create a perfume for his shop. That's how it all started. Looking back: I owe my friend a lot.”

he straightforwardly denies being very inspired by exotic locales here on the scented salamander.


Well, whatever the case, it can’t be denied that Orientalism—in a form unseen in many other arts since the mid-20th century—is alive and well in the world of perfumery. Whether done with a light hand, or with heavyhanded symbolic projection, this mode of thinking about scent is not going away anytime soon, and it certainly makes an interesting study.


(As a postscript, I must admit that Orientals are probably my favorite genre of Western perfume. )


“Oriental Stories” covers and delacroix “le mort de Sardanapale” courtesy of Wikimedia commons





  1. They are my favourites as well! :) Most of my winter fragrance wardrobe consists of orientals (and I don't think I'll ever have enough of them).

  2. Just in timd for this post, Perfume-smellin' things post this on the Italian house Via del Profumo:

    as you will see, if you follow the link, this house is heavily influenced by things arabian....

  3. ines, you and me both. Ahh, the voluptuous pleasures of the Oriental perfume...

  4. Oh, you have woven a wonderful tapestry of things Oriental...including the " " around "oriental." Fab post.

    So, of course, I want to go around the buffet of ideas. Let's skip Said--I'll come back--and go to the idea of "oriental" in perfume. It is an interesting construct, and one that is kind of like low hanging fruit when it comes to analysis, as the conceits are so transparent, both in formuae and in marketing.

    My own side bar to that--I, too, have a soft spot for orientals. Including the post-mod oriental, Celine Ellena's Oriental Lounge.

    Okay, circling back to Said, and his ideas of the creation of "oriental" in the west...oh, no, we could have a round table on that. Suffice to say it was fascinating to move from formal academic studies in literature/philosophy to film school, where I became friends with a guy from Morocco who brought crews back home with him to work on shoots. The stories from their experiences laid bare the dichotomies between the ideas and reality of romance and gender.

    A toast to your friend Jessica, who is clearly wise in many ways, and a shout out to the Divan Orchestra, which was an attempt at positive bridging of seeming disparate entities.

    Hmm, I wonder what perfume that would be...

  5. erm, that should be "formulae" in the second paragraph...

  6. I love the idea of a round table on the concept of oriental in perfumery--shall I organize a blog event? I could throw down the gauntlet--challenging everyone to write about their take on Orientalism in perfumery--and then we could harvest the fruits. What do you think?

    I didn't know about the Divan orchestra until now. What a cool idea! thanks for putting that on my radar.

    Your film-school friend sounds very interesting. Any works of his I could dig up?

    p.s. I think I always misspell/mistype things in my comments, so your scruples do you credit.

  7. All I know is that I love them and that when I wear a Oriental themed fragrance I finally feel like I've come into my own in my perfumista journey. Cue Aretha ~ "You make me feel like a natural womaaaaaaaaaan." Cheesy but true! ;)

  8. I wish there were more round tables, but I am a reader and love soaking that kind of stuff up, AND I get a lot of value out of teasing out meaning/discoveries via dialogue.

    i.e., sure!

    Haven't heard much in the past decade, but I will dig around and PM you a filmography...

  9. first of all, many thanks to you, sarah, for such an awesome post on a topic that has always interested me, not to mention the shout-out!

    and thanks to scentscelf for the toast; i'll raise a glass of tea and/or avocado milkshake to you from fez. :)

    i had so many thoughts while reading this post that i think that my response would be best done in a wordprocessor before sending it. i will say that i have been thinking about, and paying attention to, all the scents as i walk around in fez--both in the new city and the old city--and i'm excited to process them all a bit more formally when i have the chance. for now it's arabic grammar and hadith!

  10. Dude, take your time!!! Send me your thoughts when you're done, and I'll post them in the blog for reals. I am going to start a roundtable on this topic.


what thinkest thou?


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