Perfumes are a true invitation to travel for our senses. By stimulating our imagination with notes from elsewhere, they carry us away in a few drops. In this new series of articles, we propose you a scented world tour to discover the traditions and raw materials from the four corners of the globe. For our first stopover, we have chosen to discover the perfume of Asia, a land rich in colors and odors. Flowers, spices, but also fruits and plants enhance the inhabitants and travelers olfactory palette. All these scents perfume ancestral rituals, infuse places of life and worship, and renew themselves to conquer new generations. Between tradition and modernity, the perfume of Asia reveals itself to be full of mysteries…
On the road of Asian perfumes
During a trip to Asia, besides the humid and intense heat, our sense of smell is overwhelmed by a scent as striking as it is indefinable. And if landscapes, people or language are not alike, it is easy to agree that there is a real perfume of Asia that lingers beyond borders. Like a blend of scents present on the continent, this fragrance so characteristic will accompany us throughout our journey and will remain firmly anchored in our olfactory memory.
Markets with a thousand smells
The first stage of this Asian stopover begins at sunrise, in the noisy maze of typical markets. On a boat in the heart of the Thai floating markets, or in the middle of the alleys of the covered market of Yogyakarta, your senses evolve in a colorful and fragrant effervescence. First titillated by powerful notes, your nostrils will guide you straight to the impressive mounds of spices: cumin, turmeric, or lemongrass and coriander, you will find here all the smells of traditional kitchen.
A little further on, another smell takes over your nose, that of durian, a fruit that Asians love! Its powerful and, for many, nauseating aroma spreads over the market. It blends with the scent of fruits and vegetables sold on the ground. Salak (or snake-fruit) can be found alongside apples, citrus fruits, all kinds of chilli peppers, banana leaves and many others. A few meters away, the smell becomes sweeter but just as powerful. We are now surrounded by flowers with intoxicating perfumes. Frangipani flowers, ylang-ylang, tuberoses, jasmine buds and carnations from India are as beautiful to see as they are to smell. Here and there, women skillfully prepare offering baskets and necklaces that will blossom around statues and necks.
The mesmerizing dance of incense
After this perfumed walk into the market, our nose as our only guide leads us to a temple. Present in all the provinces of Asia, these places of devotion are steeped in tradition. As we enter, the smell of incense catches us. This mystical perfume, used in religious rites, creates a warm and comforting atmosphere. We are then willingly overwhelmed by the addictive dance of its smoke, with its sacred powers. In all its forms, from enormous serpentines that can weigh almost a quintal in India or Japan, to the smallest sticks in Southeast Asia, you would be feel soothed by its balsamic and resinous fragrance.
Perfume of Asia tickles nose and taste buds
The last stop of our olfactory journey ends at nightfall, when the streets come alive again with a swarm of people and smells. It is time to eat in the street restaurants that are omnipresent in Asia. Welcome to the heart of Asian street food! The flavors of spices, vegetables and hot oil are accompanied by a fruity and gourmand perfume. Fruit juices of all kinds and sweet cakes pricked on skewers, finish to charm our sense of smell and our taste buds!
The use of perfume in Asia
While the continent abounds in raw materials with powerful scents, the perfume ritual is much more simple.
The culture of cleanliness
In Asia, and particularly in Japan, perfume occupies a much less important place in everyday life than in the West. In the Land of the Rising Sun, men over the age of 60 have nearly ever worn it, and certainly never will. Women, on the other hand, will use it sparingly, and only for special occasions. Unlike in France, where perfume is rooted in our history, Japanese cultural habits are even opposed to the idea. In a country where respect for others is paramount, smelling the smell of the others, and therefore disturbing them, is quite inappropriate. If in European culture perfume is synonymous with elegance and assertion of personality, in Japan elegance means not being noticed in a crowd.
Perfume as a gift
In Asia, women’s attention is particularly focused on skin care and make-up. And while they have no trouble buying their favorite products, perfume is traditionally based on a gift culture. It is an important act and always shows great refinement. A bottle is thus offered as a beautiful object and will often be kept in a collector’s spirit. The package that wraps it up is easily given away and often the composition itself is never worn. It is a gift that travels between homes, from family to family. When the package is opened, the bottle becomes a real decorative object.
A new enthusiasm from the younger generation
While more than 75% of the inhabitants of France, Spain or the United States wear perfume every day, only 12% of Chinese citizens say they include this gesture in their ritual*. Traditionally and culturally, the perfume market has had a hard time establishing itself in Asia. But today the trend is changing. While it remains accessible to a certain elite segment of the population, the younger generation has been wearing perfume on a daily basis for a few years now. From floral notes to fruity scents, all olfactory families seem to be conquering younger consumers. The use and choice of fragrances remain strongly linked to a fashion phenomenon. In Asia, big names in French perfumery, symbols of a Parisian way of life, have made a name for themselves.
The woody and chypre notes are widely acclaimed. They evoke the forest, dear to the Japanese, whose country walks remain the family’s favorite outing. Recurring raw materials such as hinoki wood are also used. Its woody-aromatic perfume evokes the strength of cedar, combined with the freshness of aromatic herbs.
Emblematic raw materials
Sandalwood from Indian Lands
While sandalwood is found in Australia, white sandalwood comes exclusively from a tree found in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Known and used for thousands of years, sandalwood is an integral part of many funeral rites, particularly in Hindu and Buddhist cults. In perfumery, wood and roots are distilled to deliver the essence of sandalwood whose smell is hot, smoky, waxy, woody. Its scent is warm, sensual and even milky and velvety. Sandalwood improves the olfactory power of a fragrance. It is found in our fragrance ïōdé at the heart of a woody and amber base note.
In India, the cities of Bangalore and Myosore are famous for sandalwood-related craftsmanship, both in the carving of divine statuettes and in the making of scented compositions.
Tonkin musk from Vietnam
Originally, musk is a raw material of animal origin that comes from the secretion of a gland of the musk-deer. The most powerful musk, but also the most recognized, was the Tonkin’s. This species lives notably in Asia, and more particularly in the heights of the Vietnamese plains. And it is moreover in Vietnam, around the year 1000, that the city of Hoa Lu was the capital of Tonkin musk. The inhabitants used it for its therapeutic virtues. This very animal scent crossed borders and became a flagship ingredient in perfumery as much for its sensual notes as for its persistence. Today the species is protected, and musk is reproduced through synthesis.
The ylang-ylang of the Philippines
Native to Southeast Asia, ylang-ylang flowers have been used by Filipinos since the dawn of time. And it is still the case today when some of them make boori-boori. It is a kind of ointment that mixes these fragrant flowers with coconut oil. While it is now used to protect the skin and hair from salt and sunlight, it used to be applied on the body during the rainy season to protect against diseases and infections.
It was in Manila that the first ylang ylang flowers were distilled around 1860. Today, cultivation has greatly intensified, and the tree has gradually been introduced to all the Pacific islands. The flowers are harvested every week, first thing in the morning. They are then steam distilled. We find ylang-ylang in many of our fragrances as kilim, musc and the original musc.
Sakura or the cherry blossom
Emblem of Japan, the cherry blossom is celebrated every year at an event that now attracts tourists from all over the world. It is in spring, and more precisely during the first week of April, that the Hunami festival celebrates the blossoming of the Sakura, cherry tree in Japanese. These majestic trees embellish the landscape with shades of white, red and pink. The symbolism is very strong. Stemming from the philosophy of Mono No Aware, it advocates the beauty of ephemeral things. And we understand why when we know that the flowering lasts barely two weeks. In addition to its beauty and symbolism, sakura also gives off a scent that Japanese women love. Very sweet and feminine, cherry blossoms are a far cry from the sweet smells of summer fruits. The petals release a fruity yet slightly bitter scent.
It is on this spring note that our olfactory journey of perfume in Asia comes to an end. We look forward to seeing you again next month for another perfumed stopover. Imminent departure for the heart of Africa…
*How to sell your perfume in China? March 2018
Discover the fragrances mentioned in the article