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.
 

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