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





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