Swan-down puffs, lace camisoles, ivory fans, tulle skirts, satin shoes… If these words evoke an appealing vision for you, then you’re the right candidate for a Victorian violet perfume. While the 19th century under the reign of Queen Victoria is often described as conventional and stuffy, the favourite aromas are anything but. Despite its reputation for being dainty and demure, violet has a complex scent with a fascinating history.
The Victorian era was a period of great change in society, and the simple example of a violet cologne is a good illustration of the dynamics of the time. Violet waters became popular long before Victoria was crowned, highly sought after for their sweet scent with nuances of raspberry and rose. At first, fragrances based on this flower were derived from Parma violets via the painstaking process of collecting tiny blossoms and extracting their essence. It made violet a costly and luxurious perfume available only to a select few.
Violets and other floral notes were usually blended with musk and amber to give them depth and character. Guides to contemporary etiquette urged women to select light and delicate perfumes, but fragrances rich with sandalwood, balsams and ambergris were much loved. Queen Victoria herself favoured Ess Bouquet, a bold choice that during her 1855 trip to France confounded Parisian mavens. A perfume “with a detectable hint of musk” on a royal persona seemed surprising, risqué and yet intriguing.
The late 19th century saw a scientific revolution that also changed the art of perfumery. In 1893, two chemists, Ferdinand Tiemann and Paul Krüger, discovered ionones, the class of aroma compounds that give violets their distinctive aroma. This discovery had a dramatic effect on fragrance creation, because the violet-like notes could now be made in the lab, without needing to process several tons of flowers. Violet perfumes became more varied and more widely available.
One of my favourite romantic violets is Annick Goutal’s La Violette (£78 for 100ml EDT). It conjures vintage elegance with its soft scent of Parma violets. La Violette is not overly complicated, but it has several memorable touches. The top notes are made bright with green leaves, while the velvety softness of the violet is made richer and warmer by rose — and, yes, a hint of musk. It’s unlikely to scandalise anyone, but it will delight those who like the scent of Flavigny bonbons and rice powder.
Should you wish for a perfume closer in spirit to the 21st century, then L’Artisan Violaceum (soon to be available) and Bottega Veneta Parco Palladiano IX (£190 for 100ml EDP), with their radiant combinations of woods and floral notes, would be good choices. Otherwise, try The Different Company’s I Miss Violet (€190 for 50ml EDP) that colours its violets green and darkens them with leather. It might make you understand why Napoleon Bonaparte, a character far from demure and retiring, selected the violet as his signature flower.
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.