Autumn scents that hint at the promise of spring

The distilled essence of the narcissus flower has a fragrance unlike any other blossom, smelling of sun-warmed petals, but also of leather, warm spices and earth

L’Artisan Parfumeur Mont de Narcisse, £115 for 100ml EDP
L’Artisan Parfumeur Mont de Narcisse, £115 for 100ml EDP

Every spring, the hills near Aubrac, a village in Lozère in southern France, are draped in a carpet of daffodils. Narcissus poeticus is renowned for its fragrance, and the narcissus of Lozère has such a sweet, rich aroma that it’s one of the few varieties used in perfumery. Its essence is also one of the most expensive, since not only does a kilogram of narcissus absolute require a whole field of flowers, the process of obtaining the aromatic substance from the petals is complex and time-consuming.

The result, however, is prized, because distilled narcissus has a fragrance unlike any other blossom. It smells of sun-warmed petals, but also of leather, warm spices and earth. It never fails to amaze me how such a delicate spring flower can hide an autumnal aroma and such a range of nuances.

From left: Guerlain Vol de Nuit, £85 for 100ml EDT. Papillon Perfumery Dryad, £130 for 50ml EDP
From left: Guerlain Vol de Nuit, £85 for 100ml EDT. Papillon Perfumery Dryad, £130 for 50ml EDP

Perfumers have long recognised this paradox of narcissus and have used its essence to convey the contrast and drama between flowers and woods. Vol de Nuit (£85 for 100ml EDT), one of the crown jewels of Guerlain, was created in 1933 in homage to the aviators of the 1920s. Its name is inspired by the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novel and its composition relies on the interplay of light and dark. Narcissus crowns the central accord of moss, sandalwood, musk and tonka bean. Its leathery darkness plays up the smoky, earthy edge of Vol de Nuit, while its brightness makes the composition seem airy and transparent.

Because of the high price of its essence, narcissus is often a secondary player in perfume formulae. Rose or jasmine can be suggested with a clever combination of aroma materials, but narcissus is too unique to be easily replicated. It’s also considered a difficult note to tame because of its bold character. Some perfumers, however, find narcissus fascinating enough to allow it to take centre stage.

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When perfumer Anne Flipo visited Lozère during the flower harvest, she became enthralled by the scent of the narcissus and created a series of fragrances inspired by this blossom. This year, L’Artisan Parfumeur released her new creation, Mont de Narcisse (£115 for 100ml EDP). Flipo lets narcissus unfold in all of its dark beauty. She brightens up its spicy facets with cardamom and osmanthus, another floral note that approaches leather, and wraps the soft petals into woods and musk for a velvety finish. 

Narcissus can convey many moods, from seductive to bucolic. The latter impression is what I enjoy in Dryad (£130 for 50ml EDP), a fragrance from British house Papillon Perfumery. The perfumer Liz Moores weaves moss, salty vetiver and green balsamic notes with narcissus to evoke a walk in the forest. Yet, Dryad’s is not the manicured grove with neatly laid-out paths and trimmed trees. It’s a wild, mysterious place where one could get lost, happily. Dryad’s woodland is autumnal, filled with fallen crimson leaves and chestnut shells, but the whisper of narcissus is a reminder of the blossoms, sunshine and spring to come.  

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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.

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