White flowers aren’t known for subtlety, especially tuberose. Its essence smells of petals and ripe fruit, but also of coconut, smoke and sun-warmed skin. It’s a disconcerting sensation to experience this voluptuous aroma only to realise that it comes from a modest lily-like plant.
Perfumers tend to play tuberose with a light hand. In Chanel No 22 (£140 for 75ml EDP) it’s layered with incense and aldehydes (compounds with a fizzy, champagne effect) to tone down its heady personality. Miss Dior (£59.50 for 50ml EDT) used it as a tasteful decoration on the austere green chypre and leather backdrop, while Caron’s Nuit de Noël (£192 for 28ml EDP) made do with a subtle accent to add sweetness to its dark undercurrent of moss and patchouli. The one exception was Robert Piguet’s Fracas (£95 for 50ml EDP), created by the renegade perfumer Germaine Cellier. The name means “crash” in French, and it is appropriate for a fragrance that explodes into a mass of white flowers and doesn’t hold back on opulence. It’s not surprising then that like its tuberose cousin Dior’s Poison (£46 for 30ml EDT), Fracas elicits a range of emotions, not all of them positive.
Designing a tuberose perfume with both richness and elegance was a challenge for perfumer Dominique Ropion, even though he is recognised as a master of white blossom accords. First of all, he needed to find the right kind of essence. Tuberose is grown and extracted in different places around the world, from France to India, but the scent varies from location to location. Some essences smell too heavily of coconut and feel opaque, while others have a biting edge reminiscent of smoldering rubber. Ropion sought the essence that was as harmonious as the scent of tuberose on the stem – floral and green, fruity and warm, spicy and sweet.
Once Ropion had his essence he set out to interpret it. He could have gone for the traditional green notes that lightened the richness of the tuberose accord, but found it too simple and predictable. So he jolted it with a note of eucalyptus. Strange as it seemed to add such a ubiquitous medicinal ingredient to a white flower, it made the tuberose shimmer. Carnal Flower (£165 for 50ml EDP), a fragrance Ropion designed for Frédéric Malle’s Éditions de Parfums collection, was an instant hit.
The mistake often made when assessing floral perfumes is asking whether they resemble nature. Ropion’s goal was the opposite – it was to make tuberose the centrepiece of his composition, while offering an abstract scent. Indeed, Carnal Flower doesn’t smell like anything one would find growing in a garden; its fresh, dark, woody and milky facets form an intricate mosaic, while on skin it feels like a warm embrace.
Since Carnal Flower appeared in 2005, other outstanding tuberose perfumes have debuted, from Estée Lauder Tuberose Gardenia (£62 for 30ml EDP) that plays with radiance to L’Artisan Parfumeur Nuit de Tubéreuse (£86 for 50ml EDP) that takes the white flowers into an Indian mango orchard. Meanwhile, Carnal Flower continues to cast its spell, a tuberose perfume that demonstrates that imagination is the key ingredient for a memorable fragrance.
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. To read more of her columns, click here.