Munnar, a hill station in India’s southwestern state of Kerala, is one of the country’s largest tea producers. Ensconced in the Western Ghats mountain range, the town is surrounded by plantations that cascade down the hills and hide in misty ravines. I was in Munnar for my honeymoon, and my recollections of long, languorous walks around the tea gardens, the tolling church bells and the opulence of garlands at the Sri Subramanya Temple are laced with the scent of tea leaves. Crushed in my fingers, they smelled green and tannic; when carried by the morning breeze, the aroma resembled violets and driftwood.
The fragrance of tea has captivated many perfumers, but it was Jean-Claude Ellena who created the tea accord that became a trendsetter – today known as Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, (£58 for 75ml EDC) – but curiously, the fragrance wasn’t meant to make a big splash. When Bulgari approached Ellena, the Italian jewellery house was merely looking to offer a perfume in its boutiques as an elegant addition to its adornments. Ellena had a sketch of a fragrance that his other clients had deemed a bit too innovative, an étude evoking the aroma of tea, and it proved perfect for Bulgari. However, as soon as the house started offering Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert in its boutiques, it drew so much attention that it had to stage a wider launch.
The appeal of Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert lies in its ability to present the familiar as novel. The scent given off by tea contains hundreds of aroma molecules, and Ellena had spent hours at the Mariage Frères boutique smelling different grades and varieties of Camellia sinensis leaves. He built the composition on the accord of two important materials in the perfumer’s palette – violet and jasmine – with violet being played by the velvety, hazy ionones and jasmine by luminous, lemony hedione. Ionones are naturally present in violets, red wine and berries, while hedione exists in jasmine. Yet in Ellena’s olfactory trompe-l’oeil, or trompe-le nez, violet and jasmine made up the scent of green tea.
Another surprise is that Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert reinterprets the classical citrus eau de cologne. Ellena blended his tea accord with bergamot and cardamom for a bright, exhilarating opening, then he rounded out the composition with woods and orange blossom. It’s a refreshing, airy perfume, but with a soft, tender finish. Created for men and women alike, Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert anticipated the androgynous minimalism of CK One (£29 for 50ml EDT) and inspired a large family of tea perfumes, from Elizabeth Arden Green Tea (£30 for 100ml EDP) to L’Artisan Parfumeur Thé pour un Eté (£97 for 100ml EDT). Subsequent creations by Ellena, such as The Different Company’s Osmanthus (£94 for 50ml EDT) and Hermès Eau de Narcisse Bleu (£77 for 100ml EDC) continue the artist’s reading of tea leaves.
Wearing Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert recently, I realised that even more than reminding me of the aroma of tea, the perfume conveys my idea of Munnar. It evokes the freshness of mountain air, the bitterness of fresh leaves and the sweetness of night-blooming jasmine dissipating with the morning mist. Like many notable perfumes, Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert is an invitation to reverie.
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, she has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.