One of my favourite childhood pursuits was making perfume. At least, that’s what I called it –my grandmother’s description was “pestilence”. I scoured the flowerbeds, collected rose, carnation and dahlia petals, soaked them in water and waited until they turned into a fragrant brew. Eventually, the whole lot would rot and smell more beastly than beautiful, but undaunted, I persevered. Faced with a garden that her granddaughter pillaged on a daily basis, my grandmother gave me a bottle of perfume called White Lilac and hoped that my interest would soon fade.
Years later, I’m still fascinated by floral scents. Their variety is immense, from jasmine to marigold, from rose to ylang ylang. More than any other family, florals are susceptible to change as technology moves on and regulations strike. The sheer green effects made possible by hydroxycitronellal and Lyral, restricted and banned respectively, have given way to the radiance of Hedione. Few florals are made without this material that smells like lemony jasmine in soft focus. Its touch can be noticed in classics like Christian Dior’s Diorella (£82 for 100ml EDT) and in Mizensir’s White Neroli (about £135 for 100ml EDP), a modern niche example.
To engineer a flower takes a combination of art and science. While rose, jasmine, mimosa and tuberose yield their essence via either steam distillation or solvent extraction, most other blossoms are temperamental creatures. Lilac, gardenia, lily-of-the-valley and hyacinth are recreated by perfumers using their imagination and headspace technology, the study of aroma molecules emanating from the flower. The latter is also used to create more nature-like floral impressions.
Ever since Ralph Lauren’s Romance (£51 for 100ml EDP) and Estée Lauder’s Pleasures (£37 for 30ml EDP) were established as benchmarks in the 1990s, flowers have often been depicted as clean and wholesome. This is the reason why some people describe them as “boring”. Yet according to fragrance expert Marian Bendeth, it is a mistake to reject the whole genre. “Each flower has its own characteristics and not all are sweet or pretty,” she says, mentioning that even some of the most delicate blooms like lily-of-the-valley, rose and lilac can be interpreted in a subversive manner.
One way to accomplish this is to layer flowers with balsams, woods, incense, spices and animalic ingredients. If after indulging in fresh jasmine à la Miller Harris’s Le Jasmin (£155 for 100ml EDP), I’m in the mood for dusky and risqué, I turn to Papillon Perfumes’ Salome (£98 for 50ml EDP). Perfumer Liz Moores amplifies the animalic growl of jasmine with cumin and patchouli and then uses the citrusy freshness of rose and bergamot to make the composition shimmer. Salome smells so dangerously seductive, it should come with a warning label.
Even lilac, a note with a reputation for primness, can be made smouldering. In Vero Profumo’s Rozy (£138 for 50ml EDP), it’s part of a rose accord, with plenty of honey and sandalwood to sharpen the edges. Instead of a garden party and chintz, Rozy is Mumbai’s Dadar flower market and midnight jazz. In other words, it’s dazzling.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.