Warm, exotic and sensuous, we explored the heady world of oriental perfumes this month at PLL. The evening was presented by Lila Das Gupta and below is a summarised version of events.
In her introduction, Lila told us a little of the background to modern day oriental perfumes.
In terms of art – there was a fascination with all things Eastern – you had Chinoiserie, and the fashion for all things Chinese, and even more important was Japonisme. When Japan ended its isolationism in the 1850s, artists like Van Gogh and Gaugin were enthralled by the colours, poses and details in Japanese pictures, and they picked up some of the sensuousness too.
Then in the 1920s there was the exploration of the Pyramids in Egypt and films like “The Sheik” with Rudolph Valentino. People living in a very buttoned up society were captivated by what they imagined to be the freedom – including sexual freedom – experienced in “The East”. Perfume was the commercial face of this preoccupation and an easy way to take a magic carpet ride to this new and exciting world.
Thirty-Three, Ex Idolo Perfumes (from Roullier White)
Notes: soft black pepper, candied mandarin, caoutchouc, Chinese white tea, Chinese rose, Taif rose, orris, Damascus steel, rare, natural vintage ouds, aged patchouli, heliotropin
Lila: I’ve chosen Thirty-Three as an example of a modern oriental and Matthew Zhuk from Ex Idolo is here to tell us a bit more about it.
Matthew, why did you choose this particular oud?
Matthew Zhuk: The oud in Thirty-Three was distilled in 1980 and over time it loses that barnyard note. It’s quite dry and less animalic. I used to collect ouds and this was one of my favourites (my absolute favourite was not commercially viable) so I bought up most of the stock and initially made the perfume for myself.
Lila: How long will that supply last?
Matthew: There’s enough for a while. If it sells well…
Lila: It’s my favourite perfume release of the year. It makes me feel really lovely and I love the rose. What do we think of it?
Sounds of positive appreciation from around the room.
Notes: bergamot, iris, jasmine, rose, vanilla, opoponax, tonka bean.
Lila: No evening of orientals would be complete without Shalimar. I’m never sure how I feel about it. It’s one of those perfumes that has been around for so long and I feel I should I love, but it’s not always my first choice – I have to be in the mood to wear it.
Thomas (The Candy Perfume Boy), what do you put its enduring popularity down to?
Thomas: It’s iconic and timeless. It’s effortlessly sexy.
Lila said that she had thought about what the definition of an ‘Oriental’ was and decided it was the alignment of three things: a set of ingredients, a sense of place – obviously, the East! and a mood –obviously sensuous.
Sandalwood Oil (New Caledonian)
Lila: Sandalwood is woody, sweet and creamy. It’s still burnt during Hindu wedding ceremonies. Mysore sandalwood is the best but because it’s endangered it now mainly comes from Australia. Sandalwood is used in a lot of oriental perfumes because it blends well with a lot of things, it smooths off jagged edges and it’s a good fixative.
Carbon, Nu Be (available at Les Senteurs)
Notes: ginger, cardamom, red chilli pepper, iris, resins and sandalwood
Lila: I ignored this brand at first because of the packaging and concept, I had a similar reaction to the Blood Concept perfumes – if there’s too much style going on can the perfume be any good? Luckily Carbon is a lovely update of a traditional genre. It’s a nice sandalwood with an edible note. It’s gorgeous and creamy. I came across it because I was standing next to a young man at the Gare du Nord in Paris and I asked him what he was wearing!
Some mirth as Lila tries to crack open the polystyrene packaging…General positive reaction around the room
Lila: We talked about definition of orientals and I wanted to read you an interesting bit from Karen Gilbert’s new book. She’s talking about the two parent groups of orientals – the ambreie accord – often with Bergamot on the top and with vanillin, coumarin and civet – eg. Shalimar is a good example as is Ambre Sultan. The second kind derive from what’s known as the mellis accord – these are much spicier and based on the relationship between benzyl salicylate and eugenol. This will help you when we smell our next two perfumes.
Shanghai Lily, Tom Ford
Notes: bitter orange, clove, pepper, jasmine, rose, vetiver, guaiacwood, amber, benzoin, castoreum, frankincense, and vanilla
Lila: This perfume is inspired by the film Shanghai Lily rather than the flower, lily. In the film, Marlene Dietrich is Shanghai Lily, who is described as a ‘coaster’ – a woman who lives by her wits on the South China Coast. It’s a return to the glamorous perfumes of the 1940s with a lot of eugenol in it – the stuff you get in cloves. I love this perfume because it brings back the smell of carnations, something that has never gone away on the continent, but people have been afraid of here. I hope it’s starting a trend.
Audience member: It’s very retro.
Audience member: It’s a little filthy.
(This ended up to be the most requested sample of the evening by both men and women.)
Notes: coriander, amber, oregano, bay leaf, myrtle, angelica root, sandalwood, patchouli, benzoin, vanilla
Lila: Birgit spoke about this when she did her talk on amber perfumes. It’s the gold standard amber. Serge Lutens is so good at translating the East to Western audiences in perfume. I believe he has a beautiful home in Marrakesh.
Audience member: There’s a medicinal note.
Lila: To me it’s something I can wear at any time.
Indian Oud Oil
Lila: we are very lucky that Saheel is here, a member of the group who deals in Oud. I wanted everyone here to have an odour profile of real oud in their heads, because there are so many bottles that have the word ‘oud’ on it, and although they may contain oud, they won’t educate you in how it smells. You have to smell the raw material first.
This real oud caused quite a stir. It smelt quite startlingly of very ripe blue cheese with a backdrop of barnyard. Nothing like any oud perfume I’ve ever encountered. One person described it as “cow pat and milk”. Over time it mellowed out slightly and the next day it had lost that dairy connotation. It was still very dirty and animalic but it was much more leathery and woody and recognisable as oud. Apparently natural ouds all smell very different and the best oud is from Cambodia, but is extremely expensive.
Notes: cumin, cardamom, pink pepper, date, rose, neroli, incense, saffron, leather note, oud, Atlas cedar, castoreum, civet, sandalwood, patchouli, myrrh, vanilla and tonka bean.
Lila: This is not very oud-y in comparison. It’s quite soft, though it is a bit dirty. It has a little cumin but it’s very wearable. It’s by Bertrand Duchaufour who has done many orientals and I think is a master of orientals.
Comments from around the room included “Dirty”, ”Rosy” and ”Turkish Delight”.
Notes: benzoin, cinnamon, oriental rose, patchouli, sandalwood, frankincense, musk.
Lila: Thomas described this as a blockbuster. It is of such high quality, it really does stand out.
Thomas: It’s Godzilla. It puts all those cheap mainstream rose/patchouli perfumes in the shade.
Audience member: It doesn’t smell sensual enough to be classed as an oriental to me.
Well, what a great evening…
I really appreciated the opportunity to sample real oud and sandalwood oil. Thirty-Three is a soft rose oud which has won a lot of fans in a crowded market. I genuinely love Shalimar, but like Lila, I don’t often wear it. I’d forgotten how good Ambre Sultan is and I especially love its dried herbs. Carbon was well done, but had a little too much curry spice for my taste and Al Oudh was just too dirty. Shanghai Lily is a glam, throwback carnation and Portrait of a Lady takes no prisoners but radiates confidence.
Have you tried any of these perfumes? What are your thoughts? Do you have a favourite oriental perfume?