Fragrance vocabulary is becoming more inclusive
From mid- July 2021, Michael Edwards have announced that changes will be made change to their Fragrance Wheel and some of their Fragrances of The World family names. According to the press release (available on the British Society of Perfumers website) this core change comes after years of consultations with oil houses, perfumers, brands, bloggers and the Fragrance Foundation.
Fragrances of the World is the largest independent guide to fragrance classification. First published in 1984 by Michael Edwards the guide was originally named The Fragrance Manual before becoming Fragrances of the World in 2000. It has since been printed annually in a bilingual English-French edition. An online companion, the Fragrances of the World database, was launched in 2004 and, as of 2015, profiles over 17,000 perfumes, updated weekly.
The reason for the change? A more inclusive vocabulary as part of the company’s Time for Change Campaign.
The Fragrance Wheel will doing away with the outdated fragrance term “oriental” and replace it with the term “ambery.” In a press release, Edwards stated, “In the world of fragrance, there is a growing sentiment that the word [oriental] is outdated and derogatory.”
He continued, “While many might recall the oriental sensuality evoked by such fragrances as Opium and Shalimar, younger people often feel no such connection to the description Oriental.” Edwards concluded, “Within the context of perfumery, the term Oriental was never intended to be offensive, but perceptions change.”
The history behind the category term
To better understand the use of the word we need to understand that the term ‘oriental’ in the perfume world refers to a historic fragrance family classification that encompassed notes like amber, sandalwood, coumarin, orris, vanilla, jasmine, orchid, orange blossom and gum resins. Considering that the word ‘Oriental’ is used as a ‘catch-all’ to describe fragrances with notes of sandalwood, patchouli, incense, and the others listed above, it’s not so easy to find a logical substitute. However, “spicy” and “resinous” are two starting points for the major fragrance houses that will looking at their own fragrance genealogies.
There has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the US and the UK where Michael Edwards work is used extensively, about the term Oriental being outdated, and in some contexts, offensive. The word was accompanied by stereotypes that engendered fear, which re-emerged strongly in the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic, manifesting in violent hate crimes against those of Asian descent. In 2016 Barack Obama enacted legislation banning the word in government documents as a description for people of Asian heritage, in favour of “Asian American.”
Driving change in the fragrance industry
This shift in the fragrance industry is part of the larger discussion we touched on above, which was highlighted in May 2021 by Harper’s Bazaar, where the historical ‘Eurocentric’ view of the Oriental category was discussed by industry insiders.
“Orient comes from a word meaning ‘East,’” says Tania Sanchez, co-author of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. “The question is, East of where? In this case, France, where the perfume genre was born. This vague, ever exoticized, mysterious Orient includes the Persian Iran of the carpets, the Taj Mahal of Shalimar, and what is sometimes called the Far East,” she says. “It’s far from France, at least. China and Iran have little in common except their East-ness from Europe. There seems no good reason to stick with the term, when we could use clear, descriptive language instead”.
One industry organisation taking a stand is The Fragrance Foundation, the leader in education in the field.
Linda Levy, the group’s president, describes the term as “outdated and offensive,” adding that “other terminology should definitely be applied instead.” Every brand, fragrance house, and retailer has the freedom to determine its own language. So the term Oriental is not formal or official, she says.
One thing is official though – now the dialogue has been opened, discussions will start to take place. It will be interesting to see where fragrance houses, fragrance manufacturers, retailers and brands go with their own wheels/maps and genealogies as 2021 progresses.