Sunday, January 13, 2008

Vetivresse Looks East


No perfume tradition has exerted as strong an influence on the things we love to wear––and smell others wearing––as that of the Middle- and Far East. Whether this has to do with a latent Orientalism (a term so packed as to warrant scant analysis on this humble blog) spawned during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or the simple fact that the better share of perfumery’s more precious ingredients (resins, spices, precious woods, lush floral oils like rose and jasmine) came, and continue to come, from those storied regions, is rich fodder for academic debate. But there was a time, not too long ago, when our mother’s and grandmother’s vanities proudly displayed scents with names like Shalimar and Nahéma in charming little bottles, sporting dangerously small amounts of perfume or simply left empty for occasional furtive sniffs. Then came the time of Opium, and love à l'orientale was replaced by torpid dreams of narcotic excess.

But these were mere fantasias, caprices if you will. They followed a presupposition, and a quite romanticized one at that. Most often, they ignored the actual perfume tradition from which they were drawing inspiration. Instead of The Thousand Nights and a Night, they were adaptations, bowdlerizations, Disneyfications of masterful originals. Nowadays, however, with thriving immigrant communities and improving (though far from perfect) lines of communication between countries and cultures, we are offered a rare opportunity to explore and study the customs surrounding, in particular, Middle Eastern scents.

First off, it is important to realize the climate of a better part of the Middle East: arid, hot and desert. For anyone who has read the Bible, dry and dusty are words that come to mind. Just witness all that foot-washing and anointing. For the nomadic tribes of the Arabian desert, tent dwellings were shelters which offered a respite from the harsh elements as well as spatial analogues to a type of paradisal place. As such they were a treat for the eye as well as the nose. Likewise, mosques were perfumed; in some, the mortar itself imbued with musk. And, more so than in Christianity where self-abnegation and mortification play a central role, for Muslims the cleanliness (i.e., purification) and smell of the body were important factors in the proper adoration of Allah (God).

Last month, I had the good fortune to come into possession of fragrance samples from Arabian Oud, a franchise founded in 1982 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and now operating storefronts throughout the Middle East and Europe. In the days to come I will be reviewing each of these scents, but for now I would like to concentrate on their masterful rose composition, Asala (from the Arabic, meaning “origins” or “roots”). As with the Montale Aoud scents (which have been widely reviewed on other fragrance blogs), the first impression is that the shape of the fragrance (i.e., how we envision it in our mind’s eye) is completely different from anything we know. Instead of something overt, there is something modest and veiled. Instead of something layered, there is something fairly linear. The notes: Damascus rose (from Syria), saffron (sweet and savory), Turkish rose (from Isparta), super-dry sandalwood and, underneath it all, a silky whisper of musk. What eludes me is how the perfumer managed to make this dusky to make the veil a black one. I’m assuming that the elusive, slightly medicinal note is oud (the resin from the Aquilaria family of trees). The fragrance is unique and without peer, and reinforces for me the sense of mystery that good scent is supposed to evoke ... the sense that, no matter how much is said, something has been left unsaid. If this is the golden fruit of “tradition,” why must there be novelty?

For my perceptive reader (and I hope he or she is legion), that is the question to keep in mind as we commence our journey eastward. Salam.

Image credit: Asala oil blend in handcrafted flacon, courtesy of Arabian Oud.

6 Comments:

Anonymous sweetlife said...

Well you know, I like mucking around in that academic fodder...and I think that orientalism and the source of the ingredients compound each other rather than it being a question of either/or.

I look forward to hearing more about traditions of Middle Eastern scent culture, the role it plays.

On the subject of novelty: I wonder how that scent smells to someone who grew up in that world? Does it smell "old-fashioned," for better or worse?

January 15, 2008 at 12:57 PM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

A., Western label-consciousness has influenced Middle Eastern tastes. Companies like Arabian Oud and Ajmal feature traditional blended oils as well as "modern" eau de parfums. When I was in Istanbul, a chain perfumery offered economy imitations of designer scents but nothing in the way of traditional scents. But that was a cosmopolitan center. As for your last remark, "old-fashioned" is one of those terms I bristle at. Asala is just beautiful and very pure. It goes straight to my soul, sans advertising hype and manufactured desire.

January 15, 2008 at 7:33 PM  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Oh, pardon -- I didn't mean to make you bristle! I too, find my hackles raised by tiresome comments about classic Western perfumes "smelling like a grandmother" etc. I was just wondering whether traditional oils there might face similar hurdles among younger audiences as, say, heavily animalic or powdery scents do here.

Asala sounds marvelous. I adore my Montale Oud Roses Petals but have heard that the the oud they use is actually quite poor compared with that to be had in Arabian fragrances.

January 16, 2008 at 3:50 PM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

A., I wear Montale's Aoud Cuir d'Arabie quite often in this just-above-freezing weather, and I love it. But comparing it to the Arabian Oud and Ajmal scents is like comparing applejack to Calvados. Montale's oud is rich and dark (in feeling) but it lacks the depth of the Cambodian and Laotian oud oils, which are natural and pure (from specific stands of agarwood trees, in the case of the most precious among them). A friends of mine concurred today that there still is a very resilient market for the traditional Arabian scents, though the bottles are becoming a tad minimalist in their design. That said, this is the luxury market and, thus, for a relatively minute portion of the population. Some of the pure oils are pushing USD1000 for 3mL, and I'm sure there are exceptions which fetch even higher prices.

January 16, 2008 at 7:08 PM  
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June 7, 2009 at 10:52 AM  
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June 7, 2009 at 10:52 AM  

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