Thursday, December 25, 2008

...of Orient Are

“Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”

- Edward Said

One needn’t share Edward Said’s overstated view of Orientalism, as developed in his eponymous classic study, to acknowledge that there frequently has been a strong European (and by extension American) tendency to see the ”East” – whether “near” “middle” or “far” in starkly binary terms. The Christian, prim, rational, enlightened, democratic, egalitarian, progressive, technological West has often defined this significant other in terms of heathenism, superstition, despotism, decadence, backwardness and inscrutability. Such stereotypes were used to stabilize one’s own fragile self-image and to assert a supposed general superiority which, in the military realm, became a reality beginning in the late 18th century, when the conquest of India commenced in earnest, while the power of the Osmanic empire slowly began to wane. In cultural terms, the mystical East – always also the geographical location of Paradise and Jerusalem for Christians and thus far from being a negative - has served from the earliest times as an imaginary space on which to project fantasies of immeasurable wealth, the luxuries of what really was a superior civilization – silk, spices, precious essential oils and balms - and unlimited sexual indulgences of dominant men and submissive women sequestered in harems - perhaps the locus classicus of the orientalist imagination. The harem as we know it from the semipornographic kitsch of 19th century Western novels and painting is simply the return of the Victorian repressed. Smell Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet even in its declawed modern form and you know it signified the other oriental H-word to contemporaries with its dirty floral prowess and musky sexuality.

Needless to say that the “oriental” is a defining category in European perfumery and fragrance history, from the spices and balms brought to the infant Jesus and craved by the medieval nobility, to Guerlain’s exotistic Shalimar or the recent Idole de Lubin. But what do Westerners expect of actual “oriental”, i.e. Arabian or Indian perfumes? When I placed my order for 5 perfume oils at a Berlin purveyor of everything from Islamic fashion to religious artefacts, incense and fragrance, could I possibly escape the cliché of being initiated into some sort of “secret of the orient,” of luxurious fantasies of Attar, oud and jasmine-rose excesses, of “authentic” Shalimar decadence? And wasn’t there, in the back of my head, the inevitable imperially-tinged hope that I could score the rarest of essences from a "naïve peddler" at a fraction of the price that firms such as Montale or Amouage charge for their Eastern delights? Well, I had had a few previous brushes with Arabian perfume products which brought home very clearly the messages of a globalized economy: good oud (agarwood) or sandalwood will cost a fortune anywhere, and you will always get cheap synthetics in a $4 perfume oil. No less a perfume scion than Jean Paul Guerlain recalls, in his My Journeys in the World of Perfume, a laborious trip to highly recommended Indian sandalwood producers in the town of Kannauj, as he was seeking a source of good raw material for his new oriental Samsara. What he discovered were “neatly-lined up drums bearing the labels of companies well-known in the perfume industry.”

So my expectations were tempered and I deliberately avoided going for the popular recreations of Western designer scents or anything that sounded like just another Calone-aquatic. Besides four typical blends at roughly 5 Euros for 3ml I decided to buy the shop’s top offering, an undefined Attar for 7.50 Euros per ml – still light-years from the outrageous cost of high quality ouds, which can sell at hundreds of dollars for one millilitre. And you thought investing in gold was clever. We’ll leave those treasures to the Sultan of Oman and see what the postman, rather than three kings, brought your financially strained perfume blogger. A caveat. I have smelled lenty of Western-sytle perfumes but only a few real ouds and attars, so my frame of reference is highly Eurocentric. But inspired by the Enlightenment, I do entertain the vague hope that quality can be universally recognized.

Bakhoor al Madni: Patchouli, indian Agarwood (Oud), Jasmine, Sandalwood, Saffron, Rose.

Bakhoor is actually the term for woodchips soaked in fragrant oils for burning as a form of incense. The ingredients sounded perfectly oriental. Unfortunately it smelled exactly like good ole American 100% artificially flavoured grape soda – a strong childhood memory of mine. The floral oils must either be cheap synthetics or really inferior naturals. The supposed woods and spices didn’t even get a chance here. Ghastly.

Mukhallat (=Blend) El Emirates by Al Haramain (a low to mid-price producer). No notes given. Rose and Oud, a Montale on the cheap. The rose is rather candied-sweet and the oud is probably synthetic – it is extremely mild and nearly more woody than typically pungent. It proceeds to move into a slightly soapy direction. Not bad at all considering the price – Montale’s rose is often similarly sweet, e.g. in Black & Royal Oud, but there is not enough oud power here to check that. To make a fairer comparison price-wise, this is way better than the awful Opium pour homme with its wretchedly synthetic vanilla-bomb orientalness worthy of Disneyland.

Misk Hindi: Patchouli, Castoreum, Rose, Indian Agarwood (Oud). This one spontaneously reminded me of Creed’s Royal English Leather, as well as of the typical smell in Indian convenience stores that sell spices, cosmetics, soaps and incense. Sweet leathery notes of castoreum, patchouli, balanced florals, no explicit oudh note. In direct comparison, REL is brighter, drier in the top, more leathery, and generally fuller, while there’s more herbal patchouli and muskiness to Hindi. Hippie associqations are inevitable, but I liked this a lot and it’s the winner among this selection.

Mukhallat al Oud by Al Haramain: Indian Oud, Musk: a boring synthetic oud on a synthetic skin-scent musk base. Next, please.

Attar: no details on anything. The only one with a distinct oud note – pungent freshly chopped wood in a saw-mill, dry leather notes like in a cramped shoestore, drying lacquer paint on a boat in drydock with faint whiffs of smoky-petroleum lubricant. Very solvent/chemical like. No obvious sweetness of florals, just some resinous balsamic note tucked way at the bottom somewhere. This may be natural or not, it certainly reminds me more of the natural ouds I have tried – which often smell so decidedly unnatural to a Western nose. Interesting rather than beautiful and requires more exploration. An interesting conclusion to a pleasant trip into a different and yet not-so-different perfume world that yielded at least two keepers.

So much for the Christmas edition of state of the [car]nation. Happy holidays to everyone out there and may good smells be yours in 2009.

Illustration:Fabio Fabbi, Harem Dancers (1885)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

making history, faking history II: the carthusian candidate

A cynic might say that the contemporary art of perfumery consists of putting 50 cents worth of materials into an expensive looking bottle which is then cleverly wrapped into the folds of a prestige brand that will allow charging $80 or $150 or $250 for the product (the price point may be part of the prestige sell). For companies not backed up by a strong designer brand – be it Calvin Klein or Boss in the mass market, or the more upscale Prada and nichey Etro, a flowery history can form the basis of high prestige. Age and continuity in volatile markets have always been considered markers of quality and dependability, and they offer the marketing opportunity of romantic narratives about glamorous dandies, passionate princesses, and secret forgotten prescriptions of eternal youth and beauty.

Monk myths in particular have enjoyed great popularity throughout the history of perfume marketing and they carry a kernel of truth, since monasteries were indeed the keepers of medieval societies’ botanical wisdom and antiquity’s heritage. These were harnessed towards the concoction of medicinal products out of which European perfume culture emerged – Eau de Cologne began its success story as a tonic to be imbibed or inhaled. In fact, the legend of what is Europe’s oldest documented perfume – Eau d’Hongrie or Hungary Water recounts that a hermit monk presented it to Queen Elizabeth of Hungary (a composite character uniting different historical figures) with the assurance that it would preserve her perfect beauty forever – which would help explain why the Polish King proposed to her when she was seventy-two.

Variations of this story abound and they frequently feature Carthusians, the herbal cracks among monks who are perhaps best known for their green Chartreuse liqueur. The legend promulgated by the House of Carthusia (as legend) recounts a gift of flowers by the Carthusian monks on Capri to a visiting Queen, which accidentally macerated, turning the flower water into a wonderful fragrance (unlikely when I consider the smell of week-old water in a vase of wilted tulips). The supposedly real history is that the monks’ old recipes were rediscovered in 1948 and were then reissued by a small laboratory in Torino and that the industrial synthetic-natural formulas now marketed under the brand name are made using “the same methods as the Carthusian monks.” I Profumi di Firenze has a remarkably similar secular version of this story in which a pharmacist rediscovered the ancient perfume prescriptions of Catherine of Medici, who is said to have brought culinary and perfume culture from Florence to the French court. Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci, known to be ahead of his time, invented the synthetic perfume molecules prominent in this house’s fragrances before they were rediscovered by modern chemistry? Now that would make history and perfumery journal headlines!

The many monks populating perfume mythology raise the question of whether the clergy should be incensed (no pun intended) by these ecclesiastical borrowings for crude commercial purposes? Well, when it comes to matters of business, the spiritual men of the cloth and the monk’s cowl have always taken a rather pragmatic approach themselves. Witness the monks of Caldey island, whose lavender water was highly praised by Luca Turin. If you read the ad copy of retailers such as manufactum, you get the impression that local lavender is lovingly distilled by Brother Lewellyn himself according to some old book of herbal prescriptions. But according to Turin, the formula was actually developed by a professional Belgian perfumer (hopefully Catholic, at least), Hugo Collumbien, who used the finest French lavender from the Vaucluse and provided it with longevity by fixating it with a (nowadays) synthetic musk called Exaltolid. Next time your at the Caldey monastery listen closely whether its really "Exulte Deo" the friars are singing.

But back to the Carthusians and the making of perfume history: one of the best known and for a long time most successful perfume products was 4711. And guess what? Company founder Wilhelm Mülhens acquired the secret recipe for his Eau De Cologne from a Carthusian monk who had fled the chaos of the French Revolution in Grenoble and was taken in by the Mülhens family of Cologne. A different version tells of the valuable scroll having been the monk’s gift on the occasion of Wilhelm Mülhens’ marriage, a scene imagined in the post-WWII painting you can see on the upper left. As it happens, the monk’s name was Farina- the Italian surname borne by the established and reputable cologne-producing families in the city. As Eau de Cologne became big business, it became common practice for Germans to buy the Farina name off Italians in order to establish their own Farina cologne operation. Alas, the historical record shows that Mülhens, listed in the Cologne registry as a “speculator,” bought the name off one Carl Franz Maria Farina in Bonn, Germany, who had been producing Eau de Cologne under the privilege of Franz, Archduke of Austria and Elector of Cologne. Thus 4711 began its history as “Franz Maria Farina” on not-quite-so-Carthusian ground but as a "phony Farina" - in fact he resold the name thirty times to other entrepeneurs. Only when the strenuous efforts of the original Farinas to protect their name resulted in the first pan-German trademark law in 1874 was Mülhens forced to drop the Farina name and adopted the ingenuously recognizable 4711 moniker, leaving the competition behind in the dust as the number became nearly synonymous with German Eau de Cologne in the 20th century and particularly after WWII.

This story leads us to the third part of this little series, in which we will compare the histories and mythologies of the two oldest operating family-owned perfume companies: Farina Gegenüber, makers of the original Eau de Cologne (1709) and Creed (1763), a well-known niche perfume house. We’ll see how Farina’s obsession with presenting facts and Creed’s obsession with avoiding them is deeply rooted in both houses' actual histories and the need to handle them in a way that ensured their economic survival.