Have terms like oriental and fougere become obsolete ?

On Basenotes.net recently, a thread (titled “Jaipur Homme: For Those of You Who Don’t Like It…”) was started in which the person asked:

What don’t you like about it?

In your reply, please specify whether you’re referring to the EDT or EDP.

Later in this thread, responding to a post in it, this person said:

I have a hard time with orientals as I find many too formal and “fancy” smelling for my tastes, kind of hard to wear and sort of over-the-top in their opulence. For example, Cristobal by Balenciaga sounded great on paper–but I couldn’t tolerate its…”orientalness.” I found it very much a ‘perfume’ as opposed to a ‘scent’ or ‘fragrance.’ And on a physiological level some give me headaches (Cristobal for example). I’m trying to determine if I’ll have a similar experience with Jaipur.

I posted after that one, saying:

I’ve tried the EdP a few times and it has a searing quality to me. There’s not enough note contrast; it’s like all the notes go off in one direction, so to speak, and the density is quite severe. If that’s what you want then sure this will likely please you. By contrast, I found Cristobal Pour Homme to have the note contrast I seek. I only used one spray so if you used more that may be why it caused irritation over time. In fact, I’d prefer to wear Fancy Nights, which I regard as “unisex,” because the notes contrast well, it’s reasonably natural smelling, and well balanced. The One Gentleman is also this kind of “nouveau” oriental (that is, it’s simpler, offers some note contrast, and doesn’t have a substantial animalic quality, if any).

After this, I came across a post a the FromPyrgos blog entitled, “The Polyphonic Oriental.” The concluding words to that post are:

…Classic orientals are materially and culturally polyphonic, capable of infusing their appreciators with the kind of mystical song that the ancient Greeks supposedly played. Maybe it’s about time we ditch our liquid soap regimens, and turn our attention back to the sooty, woody, ambery, herbal, wonderful earth.

Among the scents mentioned in that post are Old Spice, Sex Appeal, and Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur cologne. Creed’s Bois du Portugal, Avon’s Mesmerize, Lagerfeld Classic, The Dreamer, and Joop! Homme. I’ll leave aside the reformulation issue here, which is important to me, and continue as if there aren’t any for hypothetic purposes. I’ll also neglect Cristobal Pour Homme because I view it as a gourmand (or perhaps a “gourmandiental”) rather than an oriental. Instead, I want to follow up on my response to that Jaipur Homme thread, because I think as is the case with the chypre and fougere, the word oriental is often used in an overly broad way, at least in practical terms.

This subject comes up from time to time on the major scent sites. The title of the thread is often something like, “What makes a fragrance an oriental?” To me the “basics” of an oriental are spices and an “ambery” quality, which could be opoponax, benzoin, etc., but they also tended to be complex. Often you’ll see labdanum listed, for example, and the scent has a sweet/syrupy quality, sometimes with a clear vanilla note, but for most people it doesn’t smell like a food item. Nearly a hundred years ago, I’d guess these kinds of scents would usually be musky and animalic (from what I’ve been able to sample of them), but today simplicity and a lack of anything animalic is more common, as I’ve pointed out with Fancy Nights, for example (and The One Gentleman).

Patchouli is common in orientals, in both older ones and the most recent releases. And it’s uncommon for there to be no floral notes (in the case of “masculines,” you would expect at least lavender to be present, though jasmine or at least one more is common). Wood notes are also common, especially sandalwood (and even more specifically, in an incense-like form). What’s happened in recent years, however, is that the lines have been blurred considerably. If we go back to the 1980s, we can find scents that started out with a strong fougere quality but then largely segued into an oriental direction, so this is certainly not a very recent development, but these days the variation has become extreme, to the point that I’m not sure if using the word oriental is meaningful if we go beyond the most obvious way to think of them.

I’ll mention some examples. One that comes to mind is Polo Double Black. It’s not clear what the notes are for this one. Luca Turin, for example, has called it a fougere, and I do think there is such an accord (lavender and coumarin), though mild (and more on the gourmand side than on the herbal one). Other than that element, it seems the notes include mango, pepper, coffee, nutmeg, wood notes (apparently including fir), and juniper berry. Some view it as gourmand while others consider it an oriental, aside from the mild fougere accord (which presumably makes it “masculine”). Another example of a questionable oriental is Obsession Night Men, along with others that possess a similar structure (in this case, amber/vanilla, patchouli, and a spice note, along with vetiver or other notes one does not necessarily associate with orientals); that would include Dior Homme (newest formulation), Roadster, and Jacomo for Men.

Dior Homme has no spice but cocoa is used instead, whereas in Roadster it is mint. In Jacomo for Men there is no patchouli, but there is spice and amber/vanilla, along with vetiver (and as with Polo Double Black, coffee). In the “feminine” (and considerably more complex), Le Baiser du Dragon, there is amaretto instead of spice and benzoin along with amber, as well as patchouli and a vetiver note. In this case there are more obvious florals, which makes sense in terms of gender-based marketing, but there’s also a wood note, which makes it “unisex” to me (along with the vetiver). And then there is the complex Barolo, which has the following notes (according to Fragrantica.com):

The top notes are citrusy, spicy and fruity: bergamot, mandarin, lemon, strawberry jam, rhubarb, saffron, black pepper, carambola and fig. The heart is floral and gourmet: rose, iris, geranium, black currant, chocolate and vine. The base is oriental – woody: amber, cedar, patchouli and vetiver.

Thus, it seems like the author of FromPyrgos is suggesting a return to “old fashioned” orientals, though I’m not sure if he understands the social reality of the situation. For example, don’t quite a few young (and not so young) men wear Le Male? The notes for that one are:

The top notes are composed of mint, lavender and bergamot. The heart is composed of cinnamon, cumin, and orange blossom. The base contains vanilla, tonka bean, sandalwood and cedarwood.

It’s not like there aren’t a huge number of popular scents that are said to be orientals. And as I’ve tried to show here, if you want to posit a restrictive definition of an oriental, you might find that some you have called orientals in the past do not qualify! Lastly, I’ll mention KISS Him, which was released, in 2006 and apparently never was very popular. It possesses a cumin note that several reviewe,rs have described as being similar to “body odor,” but otherwise I don’t remember anything else said a,bout it that seemed negative. Hasn’t “the market spoken” in this context? And do we really need ,to concern ourselves with questions like, “should I wear orientals” when it’s not even clear how the,,y should be defined at this point? I’d prefer to be specific and talk about the notes and co,mposition, because it’s easy to imagine the response you might get if you tell someone that vintage T,abu is an oriental, just like Fancy Nights is!
UPDATE: The author of the FromPyrgos blog tried to leave a comment, but I did not approve it because I found it to be incoherent and illogical. My point here is that there is really no “correct” way to define an oriental scent (even if there was at one time),, and that the term is used very loosely today. He mentioned someone he considers an “expert” on this subject, and that may be fine for him but it means little to me, nor apparently to just about everyone else on the planet who wears scents and has a notion of what an oriental one is. Once again, if you define an oriental scent as one possessing certain notes, then you open the door to a huge number of them being described as orientals, because you can’t tell other people that those notes are not strong enough in that composition – you can only speak for your own experience. If you don’t mention specific notes, then you are in some sort of mystical realm of your own, which may be great for you, but it doesn’t necessarily help anyone else understand the world of scents.


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