“Errm.. is anyone going to mention the giant, tone-deaf elephant in the room?”
“I CANNOT believe they keep saying it. Have they been living under a rock?!”
Private messages are pinging between a journo friend and I during a Zoom event for a new perfume. I’m fidgety. Itchy. Like there’s a wasp in the room and I can’t relax.
ORIENTAL. This word is being repeated over and over during the presentation, and it’s written three times in the press release in front of me.
The founder of said luxury niche brand is chatting merrily away but is clearly oblivious to the immense and crucial movement rumbling through the perfume industry: the word ‘Oriental’ is being abolished from the fragrance vocabulary.
Despite it being a once-essential classification term for rich, opulent, and amber-style scents since the early 20th century, the term was thrown into the spotlight last year by a handful of fragrance bloggers who highlighted its inappropriate, racially-laden and deeply offensive connotations. In short: it needed to go. Fast.
In June 2021, Bois de Jasmin perfume blogger Victoria Frolova examined the term’s historical associations with exploitation and colonialism. She raised the question: Is it time to rename the Oriental fragrance family? It sent a shameful ripple through the perfume community, me included. I once reported for Glamour that the perfume industry had taken huge strides to become more progressive, ecologically thoughtful and socially inclusive. But racially sensitive? It hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’m ashamed to admit I had been naively unaware of the offense and pain the term might have caused, and stopped using it immediately.
Thankfully many brands were unequivocally in agreement, but not all. Whether stuck in the pressure of heritage compliance or in denial that this is actually A Problem, several brands and online shops ignored my emails when I asked them why the term was still in their copy. Their silence rung the loudest.
In a recent fragrance review on Instagram, the journalist, broadcaster and author Sali Hughes expressed this personal statement that sums things up neatly:
“This is the last video in which you’ll hear me describe fragrances as Oriental. There are a great number of people in the perfume community who want to keep using the word, saying it has nothing to do with negative connotations and it is the traditional classification for this type of ‘amber’ fragrance. I hear them and I understand them, however, I don’t feel the same way.
“However much you love perfume, appreciate it and want to protect its heritage, it is only perfume. It is not important that you use a certain word that is classically accurate, because we can do what we like with the language around perfumery. It is much less important that we use those terms than it is to somebody who has spent their entire lives on the receiving end of that word when used as a racial slur. It’s a word that has hurt people and caused pain to people for centuries. Perfume is meant to be a joy, and I don’t want to offend anyone when I’m meant to be describing a lovely thing we should all feel a part of. We shouldn’t alienate a group of people because we insist on using archaic language that has long since been associated with negativity and racism.”
One of the first fragrance leaders to act publicly was Linda Pilkington, founder of Ormonde Jayne Perfumery. “It was in July 2021 when the respected perfume writer Tania Sanchez brought the issues around the term ‘oriental’ to the forefront of our mind,” says Linda. “She pointed out how problematic this word was for many people and my decision was immediate that at Ormonde Jayne we needed to replace it. Although we have never experienced a situation where a customer has complained, we needn’t wait! There is a potential for offence and whether or not it is voiced directly as a complaint, we can make this simple change.”
Linda sent a press release to the entire beauty industry, adding that she had changed every mention of the derogatory and outdated term on their website and marketing materials to ‘Amberesque’. I didn’t see any other announcements like this, but big corporations quietly followed suit.
“Over the past year we have removed the word ‘Oriental’ from all of our training materials and replaced it with ‘Ambery’,” says Laurel Waldron, spokesperson for The Perfume Shop. “We have also removed all references to ‘oriental’ on our website, unless in copy that has been provided to us by our supplier partners. We are however requesting all suppliers to remove the word from their brand copy if we are unable to change it.”
Maria Allen, Director of External Affairs at The Estée Lauder Companies tells me they are committed to inclusive beauty that respects, embraces, and celebrates their consumer. The Company owns several fragrance houses including Tom Ford, Frederic Malle, Kilian, Michael Kors, Le Labo, Jo Malone London, and Estée Lauder, and as part of that commitment use the term “Amber” instead of “Oriental”, which they believe is a more modern and accurate way to describe this fragrance category of warm, gourmand, spicy and resinous fragrances.
The word still lurks on some big brands’ websites and in a few cases I’m sure it’s a design accident waiting to be rectified. As for today’s presentation? This is no accident.
Rather than address the issue on the public chat, I contact the brand privately for a comment. What I receive is some mildly patronising back-tracking and no actual accountability – ‘it is wiser to use another term to avoid confusion and prejudice’ – but ultimately an admission that they, too, got it wrong. ‘We will not introduce one blanket word [to replace Oriental] but instead look at each perfume individually by re-evaluating the olfactory family’, they said.
So where do we go from here? ‘Amberesque’, ‘opulent’, ‘embellished’, ‘smouldering’ and ‘spiced’ are just some of the delicious and hedonistic words you’ll see being used to express this once-blinkered category. And doesn’t that make you even more curious to explore such enticing treasures? Perhaps this cultural awakening will begin to shatter more archaic boundaries and dispel the classism that intimidates so many customers, finally turning perfumery into the welcoming sensorial fairground it should be.
To celebrate this historic turning point, we’ve gathered the latest ambery fragrances to wrap you up in the most sumptuous glow…