2021 . 07 . 16 | written by Karen Marin

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As a child I was always fascinated by stories of the Arabian Nights, by the tales of Sinbad, by the lure of souks and markets in faraway lands selling artisan products and spices in a world that was so very different from my California suburban stores. As an adult I was able to visit some of these places when I traveled to Beirut, Istanbul, Marrakech and Tunis. I appreciated each country’s individual culture, history, art and above all, the people. Perhaps this admiration is part of the reason why I had a special affinity for the fragrances classified as “oriental”. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that this term was derogatory or offensive, but the world is not the same as it was in my youth.

Recently Michael Edwards notified his international community that as of this month he will make a change to his Fragrances of the World Wheel by eliminating the term “oriental” and adopting “ambery” in its place. The change extends to the entire family, so Soft Oriental becomes Soft Amber, Floral Oriental changes to Floral Amber and Woody Oriental is now called Woody Amber.

This decision was a long time coming as Edwards indicated it came after years of consultations with industry leaders, influencers, brands, bloggers, oil houses and the Fragrance Foundation. He succinctly sums up the change by explaining, “Within the context of perfumery, the term Oriental was never intended to be offensive, but perceptions change. After long consultation, we have decided to use our position of influence to provide a more inclusive vocabulary.”

In his communication Edwards mentions “Critics point out the word is a reminder of colonialism, of a time when Anglo-countries saw themselves as the center of the world and everything east was exotic.” Indeed the term “oriental fragrances” comes from a western, and primarily European, idea of the orient dating back to the last century. The Orient was anything east of Europe (though clearly North African countries are south) and was used as an antonym to the Occident which referred to the Western World. Fragrances in this classification are recognized for warm, rich notes such as vanilla, amber, sandalwood and resins. But in today’s world, does this mean anything to a consumer? In addition, this term was the only one left on the fragrance wheel that did not refer to specific notes. Revising the terminology is a definite step towards demystifying fragrance and ceasing to use vague descriptors.

In researching this article, I decided to reach out to a few individuals to get their point of view.

Barcelona-based Anne-Laure Hennequin, creator of MasterParfums, the Olfactory Game, and former trainer at Kenzo and Education Director at Puig, told me she uses the word Ambery when talking about the facet – in conjunction with accords that produce the amber note – and she does use the term Oriental when talking about the family. “It’s mostly because I am more in favor of adjectives that describe moods or feelings, or images which speak more to customers than technical terms. If they want to know more, I will talk about how and why a fragrance is oriental : the ambery accord, mystical, gourmand, woody, spicy facets. The challenge is to train salespeople to know the technical terms and for them to be able to translate the terms into moods or feelings that will create desire in the heads of customers. But I understand Michael Edwards' approach as all the other families deal with ingredients (floral, aromatic, citrus, woody...) so it makes sense.”

According to Nathalie Pichard, Essencional advisor and founder of Paris-based agency ToPNotes, “It's not easy to replace a word that has been part of our common language for decades. The challenge and solution is to find a global term that doesn't hurt anyone, that’s a more inclusive word.” She explained to me that the term is meant to evoke a bit of mystery with a dream factor because “perfume makes you dream.”

Dana El Masri, who is of Lebanese and Egyptian roots, is the founder of artisan brand Jazmin Sarai. She also teaches the Genealogy of Scent class for the Institute of Art and Olfaction. “What Michael has done is an excellent step in the right direction. Focusing on notes helps the consumer understand scent more because scent is so subjective and, for the most part, if you’re not in the fragrance industry people are very intimidated by scent and how to describe it for themselves. They get more concerned about how to express it rather than what they feel. When it comes to notes, especially with the oriental category, it was very misleading. I think the more specific you can be, the better, while I also understand that we don’t want to get too wordy and have too many classifications.” She recognizes though that “It’s very tricky to change things that are heavily cemented in place, but it’s possible.”

Bear in mind the fragrance wheel is only being changed for anglophone countries where the cry out is most prevalent. In thinking about this conundrum I began to wonder, is this term being maintained to appease a group of people and maintain the status quo? Is the fragrance industry very slow to progress? Not even one day later I came across an article about a new collection of fragrances from L’Artisan Parfumeur entitled L’Orient. According to the brand’s website “This collection of tales and legends offers an East praised by dreams and fables and celebrates a rich and opulent nature.” It does seem rather shameless given the fact that the question of changing the fragrance family name has been brewing for several years. I followed this over to a discussion thread on NowSmellThis in which Robin quotes Tania Sanchez from a Harper’s Bazaar article before adding a closing comment:

Tania Sanchez from Harper’s Bazaar:

“European cultures have historically fetishized and sexualized Asian people and cultures, and perfume marketing has unfortunately often played into this harmful fantasy.”


I mean, yes, and I have no beef at all with replacing the word oriental as a fragrance family (actually I think it’s a good idea), but consider for a moment who/what/where hasn’t been fetishized and sexualized in perfume marketing? Seriously.