Michael Edwards renounces Oriental

Many perfumista’s will be aware of the debate surrounding Oriental, the name of the genre that contains Shalimar and Opium. According to Bois de Jasmin, Michael Edwards will no longer use it in Fragrances of the World. He said that from now on the name will be Amber, and he proposes three categories: Soft Amber, Floral Amber and Woody Amber.

In the light of his decision, those of us who write about perfume are faced with a choice. We can choose to ignore his lead and continue to use Oriental, we can adopt his terminology and talk about floral ambers etc and there is a third way, we can invent our own names.

But this isn't straightforward; and it raises a question:
Won’t it lead to confusion if different people use different names to describe the same thing?

Well, the fact of the matter is, that already happens and it doesn’t lead to confusion, quite the opposite.
From what I have read, student perfumers are encouraged to develop their own vocabulary of terms to describe smells. And what’s more, certain labs have a kind of shorthand, a code that allows their perfumers to share olfactory ideas that are otherwise hard to express. So no, a certain amount of subjective language is always going to be the case in our field, and it hasn't stopped people talking about perfume so far.


But whatever words are used, putting a name to an odour is not easy - for two reasons.
First of all the human brain isn’t wired for this. The language faculty and smell centre are distant from each other, and it’s difficult to forge connections between the two parts of the brain. This is one reason why there is so much imprecision when it comes to describing a smell.
The other reason is, we tend to use metaphors that belong to the other senses: taste being the main one but sight and touch also play a part. While they are useful, references to the other senses inevitably take us away from the idea of the smell itself. It's like we come to perceive the smell by a roundabout route, and this only gives us a second hand idea of the odour, not a direct understanding.

Citrus, spices and fruit; many of the odours people know well are derived from the smell of food. We are acquainted with their smells thanks to a phenomenon known as retro nasal olfaction; when a foodstuff goes into the mouth the smell goes up into the nasal cavity and provides us with much of our sense of taste. So when we smell pot pourri for example, anyone who’s eaten apple pie will easily recognise Cinnamon.

But why call it cinnamon? There’s no reason except convention. Once people started to use the word cinnamon to describe the dried bark of a tree in the genus Cinnamomum, everybody else followed suit. But it could have been called Zyglax, and if everybody had used that as opposed to Cinnamon there would be no confusion; it would still be the same smell, the smell of the dried bark of a certain tree, regardless of what we call it.


The name in itself means nothing, it’s just a sign, pointing to an object to which it has no inherent connection. The connection is an arbitrary one, supplied by language alone; words are only signposts that point to different things in the world. For example, the word Paris has nothing logically to do with the city of boulevards and cafés, it’s just a sign for it; so when somebody says I’m going to Paris for my vacation, you know what they are talking about because you make the conventional but arbitrary connection between the word Paris and your idea of the city of boulevards and cafés.

And so, if all names are arbitrary, and nothing more than sign posts that point to objects, ideas or smells in the environment, there’s nothing to stop us changing the name on the sign post - as long as everyone understands that it's been changed. It didn't stop botanists changing the name of Douglas fir from Pinus taxifolia to Pseudotsuga menziesii, and it shouldn't, in principle, stop perfumista’s from changing the name of the Oriental to Amber.


People may object and say Amber isn’t clear, it’s a perfume accord.
I would reply, absolutely, it's a key accord of the genre.
If you want to distinguish between them use a capital A. Amber for the genre, amber for the accord. And then I would say - what's so clear about Oriental ? It doesn’t say anything about the smell.
The only way people could know what an Oriental was, was to smell Shalimar and Opium - and compare their similarities, and then smell No5 and Mitsouko etc - and contrast them with the other two.
The genre, whatever it's called, is what Shalimar and Opium smell like - and what the others don’t.
Whatever you call it is after the fact, it doesn't change the smell.

So if the name has no influence on the smell, does changing the name to Amber have any advantage over staying with Oriental, or is it better - from a 'perfumistical' point of view to stick with the original?
I think Amber is better from this point of view, because – as with cinnamon – there is a real object we can relate to, which (even if it has no smell) has well known associations; amber is warm, it has a rich colour and it's been prized for jewellery since the bronze age. I think this resonates well with the genre.


It is possible to follow Michael Edwards’ tripartite terminology, but I prefer a simpler one.
I find the term Amber by itself too loose, and that’s maybe why you have the soft, floral and woody prefixes.
Personally, I find them too prescriptive, and anyway, the use of 'soft' for aldehydic scents is confusing to me – it doesn’t fit my personal scent vocabulary.

So I am going to use Powdery Amber and Resiny Amber. These divide the genre into two easily understood categories, which, like Amber itself have the advantage of drawing on visual metaphors.
And to give an example, here are two Ambers; Obsession for Men - which is powdery, and Zino Davidoff which is resiny. They appear to derive from, and divide up, the structure of Boss No1 - which combines both powdery and resiny facets, as, in practice, many perfumes do.

So, as well as being politically neutral, I think the term Amber is more useful to the perfumista because it fits the pattern of sensory metaphores that we are used to using. And so, by its resonances, Amber evokes Shalimar, Opium and all those other warm and sensual perfumes, better than Oriental does.
 

Blog Comments

Jolieo

Well-known member
Feb 18, 2018
Unfortunately oriental- does have connotations, at least for older folks - the orient isn’t even a specific place - it’s a place holder for the silk train-laden with spices, and all sorts of exotic smells- and by extension oriental was a descriptor of that. The lands implied were from Eastern Europe to Japan , and russia to the Indonesian islands. There was nothing precise, it was away of describing exotic, expensive, mysterious.
I believe it became problematic when used specifically to describe something/someone who had a solid cultural identity.
I understand the need to change- it’s just that amber, no matter the xtras- just won’t bridge the gap- and that’s alright .
If we let go of the old , something new will come.
 

Wild Gardener

Well-known member
Apr 26, 2013
I agree. There is already a genre called Amber, and stretching it into a grab bag that includes all the ex-orientals is problematic. How do you differentiate Ambre Antique from Shalimar without going into a full Compare & Contrast?
It ain't easy, but yeah, it's early days.
Unfortunately oriental- does have connotations, at least for older folks - the orient isn’t even a specific place - it’s a place holder for the silk train-laden with spices, and all sorts of exotic smells- and by extension oriental was a descriptor of that. The lands implied were from Eastern Europe to Japan , and russia to the Indonesian islands. There was nothing precise, it was away of describing exotic, expensive, mysterious.
I believe it became problematic when used specifically to describe something/someone who had a solid cultural identity.
I understand the need to change- it’s just that amber, no matter the xtras- just won’t bridge the gap- and that’s alright .
If we let go of the old , something new will come.
 
Last edited:

Bal a Versailles

Well-known member
Feb 15, 2012
I get conflicted because of labdanum being the extract of cistus and often used in woody amber perfumes and ambergris being that elusive early perfumery additive and fixative. Often people get their ambers mixed up. I own several amber necklaces, a couple are made from NZ amber, it washes up on the beach near my house. Two thousand years ago the Kauri trees grew down to the coast, a fire destroyed the trees and many were swept into the sea. Today the Rangitoto channel gives up pieces of raw amber and I find them on the beach. There is a museum 100 kms North that has magnificent amber beads and displays. When we have sorted out what amber is please let me know.
 

Wild Gardener

Well-known member
Apr 26, 2013
I get conflicted because of labdanum being the extract of cistus and often used in woody amber perfumes and ambergris being that elusive early perfumery additive and fixative. Often people get their ambers mixed up. I own several amber necklaces, a couple are made from NZ amber, it washes up on the beach near my house. Two thousand years ago the Kauri trees grew down to the coast, a fire destroyed the trees and many were swept into the sea. Today the Rangitoto channel gives up pieces of raw amber and I find them on the beach. There is a museum 100 kms North that has magnificent amber beads and displays. When we have sorted out what amber is please let me know.
In his 1961 book Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, Steffen Arctander refers to Oriental type perfumes as ambre (which seems to derive from the French ambré meaning amber) and also ambra, which looks like his own invention.
Maybe ambra, which has no other meaning (that I can think of) would serve us better.
 

Bal a Versailles

Well-known member
Feb 15, 2012
In his 1961 book Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, Steffen Arctander refers to Oriental type perfumes as ambre (which seems to derive from the French ambré meaning amber) and also ambra, which looks like his own invention.
Maybe ambra, which has no other meaning (that I can think of) would serve us better.
I will probably pace around muttering 'Bah, Humbug'
 

PStoller

I’m not old, I’m vintage.
Basenotes Plus
Aug 1, 2019
In his 1961 book Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, Steffen Arctander refers to Oriental type perfumes as ambre (which seems to derive from the French ambré meaning amber) and also ambra, which looks like his own invention.
Maybe ambra, which has no other meaning (that I can think of) would serve us better.
“Ambra” is Italian for “amber.”
 

GoldWineMemories

Well-known member
Nov 22, 2019
I get conflicted because of labdanum being the extract of cistus and often used in woody amber perfumes and ambergris being that elusive early perfumery additive and fixative. Often people get their ambers mixed up. I own several amber necklaces, a couple are made from NZ amber, it washes up on the beach near my house. Two thousand years ago the Kauri trees grew down to the coast, a fire destroyed the trees and many were swept into the sea. Today the Rangitoto channel gives up pieces of raw amber and I find them on the beach. There is a museum 100 kms North that has magnificent amber beads and displays. When we have sorted out what amber is please let me know.
It's the clear and reasonable reason why "amber" as a category doesn't work. Ambre Narguile, Shalimar, and Opium aren't at all the same, and if you call them ambers as a vague category it doesn't make sense -- they are all however orientals.
 

PStoller

I’m not old, I’m vintage.
Basenotes Plus
Aug 1, 2019
Ambre Narguile, Shalimar, and Opium aren't at all the same, and if you call them ambers as a vague category it doesn't make sense -- they are all however orientals.
I’m not clear why one word for a vague category doesn’t work and another does.

In what way is Ambre Narguile, Shalimar, or Opium not amber? Which lacks anything one could fairly call an amber note? In what way is each one oriental? Is it the same way as the others? If not, why does that label make any more sense?

Unless “amber” is a well-defined category that excludes some likewise well-defined “oriental” fragrances, I’m not seeing how it’s any less accurate or more confusing.

The main thing “oriental” has going for it is familiarity/tradition. The main things “amber” has going for it are 1) it’s descriptive of smell (however vaguely) and it eschews any potentially objectionable racial connotations.

For the time being, I’m going with the familiar, as I don’t see how “amber” is more precise, and the majority of self-described Asian BNers who I’ve seen weigh in have said they don’t find “oriental” problematic when applied to a perfume, rug, etc. rather than a person.

I’m open to change, though, as I don’t find this a strong argument. Tradition is just the path of least resistance, and “oriental” is the devil we know.
 

Cook.bot

Common Lackey
Basenotes Plus
Jan 6, 2012
I’m open to change, though, as I don’t find this a strong argument. Tradition is just the path of least resistance, and “oriental” is the devil we know.

My feelings exactly. I don't care one way or another what it's called, and unless/until the Asian community itself voices a strong objection, either nomenclature is fine by me.
 

GoldWineMemories

Well-known member
Nov 22, 2019
I’m not clear why one word for a vague category doesn’t work and another does.

In what way is Ambre Narguile, Shalimar, or Opium not amber? Which lacks anything one could fairly call an amber note? In what way is each one oriental? Is it the same way as the others? If not, why does that label make any more sense?

Unless “amber” is a well-defined category that excludes some likewise well-defined “oriental” fragrances, I’m not seeing how it’s any less accurate or more confusing.

The main thing “oriental” has going for it is familiarity/tradition. The main things “amber” has going for it are 1) it’s descriptive of smell (however vaguely) and it eschews any potentially objectionable racial connotations.

For the time being, I’m going with the familiar, as I don’t see how “amber” is more precise, and the majority of self-described Asian BNers who I’ve seen weigh in have said they don’t find “oriental” problematic when applied to a perfume, rug, etc. rather than a person.

I’m open to change, though, as I don’t find this a strong argument. Tradition is just the path of least resistance, and “oriental” is the devil we know.

In my mind if you say the word oriental, then that encompasses all the vast differences in this style of perfume. If you say amber, well Shalimar is not an amber, and it is so different to Amber Narguile they shouldn't be considered the same, if you're calling them amber. I take the same problem with the word chypre in modern times, in that chypre can mean so many different things the word is useless if we're not talking about vintage perfumes. I don't believe the same needs to be done to the oriental category.

As far as I'm concerned Montale's Cafe Intense for instance is an oriental perfume. Someone who seriously wants to say we should categorize that, and Shalimar as amber is insane.
 

PStoller

I’m not old, I’m vintage.
Basenotes Plus
Aug 1, 2019
In my mind if you say the word oriental, then that encompasses all the vast differences in this style of perfume. If you say amber, well Shalimar is not an amber, and it is so different to Amber Narguile they shouldn't be considered the same, if you're calling them amber.

I’ve seen other people discuss Shalimar as an amber. I’m agnostic about it: Shalimar is so many things in any one formulation, and so varied across different formulations, it’s practically its own category.

Yes, it’s quite different from Ambre Narguile (and both from Opium). So, why should we consider them in the same category by any name other than “amber?” What unifying element defines “this style of perfume?”

You're arguing that “amber” is a specifically problematic label for a group of perfumes without articulating any way in which “oriental” is better, save for being “not amber.”

I’m not saying you’re wrong; I’m saying you haven’t explained why you’re right. You’ve simply asserted it. I’m inviting you to convince me. If we could pinpoint a way in which “oriental” fragrances adhere to an Asian tradition/construction rather than a European one—even if “Europeanized”—that might validate the name.
 

Brooks Otterlake

Basenotes Plus
Basenotes Plus
Feb 12, 2019
Shalimar, Opium, Ambre Narguile - these are all examples of fragrance houses trading on the myth of the "exotic east." It's right there in their names.

In that way, the term oriental is quite appropriate, since they really are works of the broader movement of Orientalism. But if we use that to determine the boundaries of genre, then almost anything could qualify as long as the ad copy is framed in a certain way.

So to go back to smell - amber seems relatively appropriate as a way of identifying a throughline between them, and does so in a way that doesn't conjure unpleasant associations. Accordingly, I'm content to use it, but it does seem to miss the mark a bit, insofar as I think of "amber" as a base element of perfumery - like sandalwood - that is used across genres rather than a defining feature of a genre.
 

GoldWineMemories

Well-known member
Nov 22, 2019
I’ve seen other people discuss Shalimar as an amber. I’m agnostic about it: Shalimar is so many things in any one formulation, and so varied across different formulations, it’s practically its own category.

Yes, it’s quite different from Ambre Narguile (and both from Opium). So, why should we consider them in the same category by any name other than “amber?” What unifying element defines “this style of perfume?”

You're arguing that “amber” is a specifically problematic label for a group of perfumes without articulating any way in which “oriental” is better, save for being “not amber.”

I’m not saying you’re wrong; I’m saying you haven’t explained why you’re right. You’ve simply asserted it. I’m inviting you to convince me. If we could pinpoint a way in which “oriental” fragrances adhere to an Asian tradition/construction rather than a European one—even if “Europeanized”—that might validate the name.
I don't really think there's a rational reasoning that you might be looking for. When I see or hear the word oriental, then in my mind that word encompasses all the three before mentioned perfumes, along with all the other orientals. When I hear or read amber it does not. I think from just a detached linguistics logic there's not a reason to use either, or. We're not detached though, and also I'm from the West, so of course the tradition/construction is going to be Eurocentric -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Oriental isn't used in an offensive way, if anything it's a celebration of thousands of years of intermingling culture.
 

PStoller

I’m not old, I’m vintage.
Basenotes Plus
Aug 1, 2019
When I see or hear the word oriental, then in my mind that word encompasses all the three before mentioned perfumes, along with all the other orientals. When I hear or read amber it does not.
OK, this sounds like familiarity: “oriental” feels correct because we’re used to it. That’s not without value: words regularly acquire new meaning through sustained usage. “Amber” could acquire that meaning, but only if it’s accepted by enough people.

I think from just a detached linguistics logic there's not a reason to use either, or. We're not detached though, and also I'm from the West, so of course the tradition/construction is going to be Eurocentric -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Oriental isn't used in an offensive way, if anything it's a celebration of thousands of years of intermingling culture.
Michael Edwards may know Asian people who have complained and been influenced by that, but I’ve thus far seen it as a minority position amongst Asians. It’s not for me to decide it is (or isn’t) offensive, beyond weighing the arguments put before me and deciding from that what word I’ll use.

But this debate raises other issues of terminology that have nothing to do with politics. Specifically, what constitutes “oriental” in perfumery?

You’ve noted how “chypre” is losing its meaning through breadth of application and changes in legality of key ingredients. But at least we could describe what, at one time, a fragrance had to have to be called a chypre.

How would you describe the necessary elements for a fragrance to qualify as an oriental? Something other than the word itself encompasses Shalimar, Opium, and Ambre Narguile. So, never mind the word. What unifies them?
 

naylor

Well-known member
Oct 24, 2011
OK, this sounds like familiarity: “oriental” feels correct because we’re used to it. That’s not without value: words regularly acquire new meaning through sustained usage. “Amber” could acquire that meaning, but only if it’s accepted by enough people.
I definitely agree with these thoughts. The problem that I personally have with "Amber" as a category name, however, is that it refers to an actual ingredient ... and even more problematic is that it refers to multiple ingredients or accords interchangeably, which are all quite different. Would we then consider any perfume that lists an amber-type ingredient to fall under this category, going forward? The lines get very muddled for me here, which leads me to think that's it just too vague of a classification.

Just off the top of my head, "amber" is often used as a common name for each of these accords/ingredients:
  • Amber, a sweet fantasy accord that often contains labdanum, vanilla, and/or benzoin
  • Ambergris, the natural ingredient which itself can have many different scent profiles
  • Ambroxan, a synthetic interpretation of ambergris that has its own signature profile
  • Fossilized amber, either the natural ingredient tinctured or an accord designed to replicate it
 

PStoller

I’m not old, I’m vintage.
Basenotes Plus
Aug 1, 2019
Just off the top of my head, "amber" is often used as a common name for each of these accords/ingredients:
  • Amber, a sweet fantasy accord that often contains labdanum, vanilla, and/or benzoin
  • Ambergris, the natural ingredient which itself can have many different scent profiles
  • Ambroxan, a synthetic interpretation of ambergris that has its own signature profile
  • Fossilized amber, either the natural ingredient tinctured or an accord designed to replicate it
I rule out ambergris and ambroxan as “amber.” I think that’s just linguistic laziness. To me, the only one of these that applies to “oriental” as a determining factor is the first. (Not that real or synthetic ambergris can’t be present, but that doesn’t render a frag more or less an oriental.)
 

Andy the frenchy

Well-known member
Sep 16, 2018
Unfortunately oriental- does have connotations, at least for older folks - the orient isn’t even a specific place - it’s a place holder for the silk train-laden with spices, and all sorts of exotic smells- and by extension oriental was a descriptor of that. The lands implied were from Eastern Europe to Japan , and russia to the Indonesian islands. There was nothing precise, it was away of describing exotic, expensive, mysterious.
No. It's a word that has been invented by French nomenclature (for fragrances), derived and still commonly used in France to describe 'the east part', even if it is about the east part of Corsica (island), people will say 'la partie orientale'. (meaning: the Eastern part).

This is a semantics debate that has originated in the US (like every semantics debates), that as usual is more aimed at having bloggers and the press talk than solve the real in-depth issue.

Even if assuming you are right in your perception of te word ("lands implied were from Eastern Europe to Japan , and russia to the Indonesian islands'), that would indeed refer to a land, noot to specific population. It includes also the Middle East and the Russian as you stated, but in th US it has been inappropriately used to limit it to the Asian community. Not ok. Again an attempt to distort things in order to mix some air. A bit like the 'latinos' who are defined in the US as primarily Spanish-speaking people, while that word has been ALSO originated in France, and also includes French, Italians and Greeks. If anything, Oriental is an hommage to the Eastern culture in general, at least in perfumery.

As much as a democrat (and even more) that my ideas stands, the cancel culture is a form of fascism I will resist with all my forces, because it only empowers their leaders without resolving any problem.
Oriental is not offensive anywhere else than in the US, and the US are not the center of the world (despite what some might think). I have no problem with that word, BN is a worldwide platform, and this issue is an American political thing that only regards Americans. Not my business.

What about the Chypre fragrance? Is it an offense to Chypriots? What about French vanilla or French Fries? Racism against France because people think we look like vanilla bean or potatoes? C'mon....
 

Andy the frenchy

Well-known member
Sep 16, 2018
I rule out ambergris and ambroxan as “amber.” I think that’s just linguistic laziness. To me, the only one of these that applies to “oriental” as a determining factor is the first. (Not that real or synthetic ambergris can’t be present, but that doesn’t render a frag more or less an oriental.)
I agree. But spicy or incense fragrances without Amber (as defined by resin+vanilla) are also called Orientals because they come from Orient (and that includes the Middle East). Amber doesn't fit at all.
 

Andy the frenchy

Well-known member
Sep 16, 2018
[..] Accordingly, I'm content to use it, but it does seem to miss the mark a bit, insofar as I think of "amber" as a base element of perfumery - like sandalwood - that is used across genres rather than a defining feature of a genre.
Exactly my thoughts. Amber = resin + vanilla.

Incense and spicy fragrances without amber are often defined as oriental fragrance, but wouldn't fit under the 'amber' umbrella.
Please note my use of the word 'oriental' without capital 'O'. That could be a solution, like in France. The word oriental without capital is just an adjective referring to the East.
 

teardrop

Well-known member
Sep 1, 2010
What happens to all the perfumes with "Oriental" in their name, for example Oriental Pearl, Oriental Flowers, Fleur Oriental etc.? Do they all have to change? Are we expected to stop buying or wearing them?

This seems hugely problematic, & l really get the feeling that some "virtue signalling" people are getting offended on behalf of others who aren't actually bothered by all this. We are referring to perfume here, not people.
 

PStoller

I’m not old, I’m vintage.
Basenotes Plus
Aug 1, 2019
What happens to all the perfumes with "Oriental" in their name, for example Oriental Pearl, Oriental Flowers, Fleur Oriental etc.? Do they all have to change? Are we expected to stop buying or wearing them?

This seems hugely problematic, & l really get the feeling that some "virtue signalling" people are getting offended on behalf of others who aren't actually bothered by all this. We are referring to perfume here, not people.
Precisely my thoughts. That's called appropriation.
Let’s not overstep. A modicum of research shows that the primary impetus for the change comes from Asians in the perfumery/cosmetics industry. That doesn’t mean it’s a majority Asian position, but it’s more than a stretch to accuse them of virtue signaling and appropriation.
 

Add your Comments

Latest News

Top