The founding concept of Amouage is the hybrid that results from a meeting of cultures. Eastern materials and sensibilities, Western methods and composition. Omani direction, European perfumers. Combining cultures shifts power and transforms identity. It's not easy and although the outcomes can’t be predicted, some consequences can be expected: assumptions will be exposed, borders will be redrawn, mores will be dissected, and the full ramifications will play out over a timeframe of generations.
Notions of beauty reflect cultural ideals and changes can be examined as bellwethers of larger societal change. Early hybrid models of beauty, such as Amouage Gold (1983), might appeal to one generation, seeming opulent and dramatic, yet not meet the needs of the next-generation. To them the style might be objectionable, ie. offensively orientalist or melodramatic.
To a younger perfume wearer or someone new to all perfume, the original Gold Woman looks like the perfume equivalent of The King and I, dated, out of step, presumptuous. Jubilation XXV reflects more of the contemporary school of multiculturalism. It exposes differences rather than smoothing them over. Each perfume is a reflection of the perfumer’s sensibilities and artistic approaches. Guy Robert, who composed Gold, is a classicist, and therefore a traditionalist. Gold is considered both Robert’s crowning achievement and the realization of Amouage’s goal of ‘the finest, damn the expense.’ The fact that the apotheosis of French perfumery came from Oman might have shocked at the time, but can be seen as a best-foot-forward approach sometimes taken at a meeting of polite strangers.
Bertrand Duchaufour, perfumer of Jubilation XXV (2004) is more of a postmodernist, and is known for breaking down form in order to rebuild it into the vision he prefers. There is a logical through line from his previous work to Jubilation XXV. From his work for Comme des Garçons, where he stripped wood down to its essence, to his use of fruit as spice, to his fascination with frankincense, there is a direct line from his seminal Timbuktu to Jubilation XXV. I don’t mean to imply that by having come after Gold, Timbuktu is the product of a more enlightened sensibility. The multi-culti world-arts philosophy that Timbuktu’s post-modernism refers to is starting to look a bit long in the tooth in retrospect.
From Shalimar to Opium to Ambre Sultan the perfume industry is so steeped in cheap 20th century Euro-orientalism, that its cultural bigotry, often couched as fantasy, often passes unnoticed today. Gold and Timbukto are styles of a cultural myopia that is common to the perfume industry despite long-standing criticism. (Don’t get me started on by Kilian’s full-blown orientalist new lines. It makes the 1920s French Oriental fantasy perfumes seem positively PC.)
So, here's the thing. Does any of this after-the-fact interpretation matter? My point is that it matters if you bring yourself to it. If you give it your attention, an art object, a perfume, can be read. It deserves examination and deliberation. Consideration and pleasure are two non-mutually exclusive sides to perfume use. Why not take both?
Here’s the real fun, though: what if your experience of a perfume doesn't fall in line with the reading? Which side is true? Critical thinking and the pleasurable use of perfume are both parts of the art of perfumery. But the two aspects collide for me. Gold does have that King-and-I feel to it, that old-school western colonial flavor. It's a flavor I would kindly call distasteful, and more likely call historically naive and ignorant. Yet despite my better angels, I love Gold. It is sumptuous, it is decadent. I love to spray it on and embrace the extravagance! Does this make me a hypocrite? My cold, poststructuralist soul tells me that Jubilation XXV should win my heart, that I should refuse the the thoughtless chauvinism of Gold. But in spite of my appreciation, I actually don't like Jubilation XXV. On anesthetic level, it's not pleasurable or satisfying. On the compositional level, it feels as if Duchaufour tried to shoehorn the entirety of an Arabic sensibility into a bottle of Timbuktu.
Perfume discussions very infrequently play out as an argument of gut versus intellect. Why not? The uncommonness interests me. There is a contemporary assumption that perfumery is not, cannot be, an intellectual practice, neither for the perfumer nor the wearer. This presumption is false and goes unquestioned because we’re not taught to think about or discuss perfume. The Gold versus Jubilation XXV argument tells me that there's much more that can be unearthed from perfumery than we imagine. If an art-form works rigorously with aesthetics, intention and expression, as perfumery does, then it holds that our discussion should rise above opinion and preference.
Let’s be thoughtful about perfume.