Oh, we’ve all heard about the lure of the so-called ‘Orient’, not least here in the fantasy world of fragrance.
A cheerful – if lazy – conflation of anything falling vaguely eastwards of Bulgaria, this mythical clime has gifted us fruits as choice and rare as frankincense, myrrh, aoud, lotus, sandalwood and Rosa damascena. The art and technologies of perfume making are firmly in the Orient’s debt.
Such is the pull of the exotic, erotic ‘East’ that the noble house of Guerlain boasts largely Orient-inspirited scents among its ‘feminine’ perfume classics.
Chief among these is the stately Shalimar, inspired by Emperor Shah Jahan’s exquisite ‘Temple of Love’ (Shalimar) gardens in Lahore. Its jazz-age sister, Mitsouko, a fruity chypre of impeccable pedigree, is named for the winsome Japanese heroine of Claude Farrère’s novel La Bataille. And Samsara, an otherworldly, Eighties floriental, takes the Sanskrit term for ‘eternal birth’ as its conceptual brief and name.
For Occidentals and others living beyond the nebulous ‘East’, what are the olfactory associations of the Orient?
The Perfumed Garden? The Kama Sutra? Opium? Cinnabar? The path to Nirvana?
Perhaps predictably, the imagined ‘Orient’ may be reduced to clichéd stereotypes and binarisms: sensuality rubbing up against Zen-like serenity; ripe voluptuousness spilling over into spirituality. The East is a compelling, vaguely scandalous, fragrant paradise; women who wear its scents become bewitching, inscrutable odalisques.
Even the estimable Yardley of London, most famed for its Old English Lavender and other toilet waters, was seduced by the marketing pull of ‘Eastern promise’. Possibly titillated by Guerlain’s discontinued treasure Kadine, in 1968 Yardley launched its own Khadine, a Delacroix floral elixir of roses, silks and perfumed pools.

And who was the feminine paragon around whom this scent was created, even as women’s liberation snapped at the heels of the modern woman? The kadine, the ‘Chosen One’, the Sultan’s favourite of the harim. A fragrant, fetishised fantasy. A courtesan in cologne.
What do ‘Oriental’ scents mean to you? Share your fantasies here with The Scentimentalist.


  1. My dear all these terms oriental, fougere, chypre. Well I vaguely know what they mean but,,, to me they don't mean a hell of a lot in terms of olfaction... I mean I am ignorant but... these classifications... are a little outmoded in terms of modern perfume aren't they really? I'm happy to be educated to the point of knowing myself wrongggg though! But this guy told me recently "first you must decide which kind of perfume you're going to make, oriental, fougere, chypre... etc and I thought "oh really?"

  2. I think you make a valid point, Mr Supermarky: if the term 'the Orient' itself is too vague and nonsensical as to be useful, then arguably we could say the same about the 'Oriental' classification of scent. I suppose what intrigues me most about this subject is how the so-called Orient is conceptualised by perfume companies, with a view to making and marketing their products. This will no doubt be a subject for another column, but what amazed me when I looked at all the marketing stuff for Shalimar is that it has almost exclusively been promoted by Caucasian models. Ditto Mitsouko and Samsara. The Khadine advert above has a white (possibly English!) woman wearing pseudo-oriental garb. Most peculiar, don't you think? :)

  3. I'll go with the cheerful and lazy definition of east of Bulgaria...

    My only bottle of perfume prior to the onset of this hobby was EL Intuition, billed as a vanilla floral oriental, though it smells more of grapefruit. 18 mths on, it is apparent that orientals are not as prominent in my taste as I once thought, comprising just 31% of my collection a few months back, with florals and floral woody musks hard on their heels. The main class of oriental within the 31% turns out to be woody, so I should change my screen name really to "woodyorientalgirl", but it isn't quite so snappy, arguably. However, my all time favourite perfume remains a floral oriental, Guerlain's Plus que Jamais. Thinking about it, that doesn't smell as though it is from much east of the Rue de Rivoli, but never mind...

  4. I am your opposite, floriental girl, my wardrobe comprising very few orientals indeed. For some inexplicably stupid reason, I had always persuaded myself that, as a blonde, I could not wear them -- that I needed olive skin and dark hair to pull such a sultry, spicy genre off. Another example of kneejerk closedmindedness and shallow stereotyping, no? Begs the question as to where (and from whom) we imbibe such essentialist messages?