In the biographies of many perfumers, there is a childhood memory of gathering flowers from the garden and making “scents” by steeping them in water or alcohol. The results are invariably noxious, and the exercise reveals the complexity of making fragrances. I’m no exception in this regard, and many a flower from my grandmother’s garden fell victim to my attempts to capture its aroma. Her beloved lilac shrubs particularly enticed me because of their heady scent of warm marzipan. Why then did my concoctions smell of a compost pile, rather than of the pink blossoms?
Years later, as a student at the IFF Perfumery School, I had the chance to make my first lilac. No lilac blossom suffered as I blended rose and almond like materials, finishing the accord off with a touch of green galbanum and spicy clove. It may come as a disappointment to the romantics, but lilac for perfumes is made in the lab. The delicate flowers do not lend themselves to traditional methods of producing essence – either steam distillation or solvent extraction. In each perfumer’s hands, lilac is a different fantasy, an artistic combination of notes, both natural and synthetic.
Like a charming ingénue on screen, lilac can add romantic flair to the main plot. In Caron’s Farnesiana (£123 for 100ml, second picture), it suggests a salty breeze and dew-drenched flowers. In En Avion(£123 for 100ml), another legendary Caron fragrance, lilac is warm and inky, a perfect ornament to the brooding darkness of this mossy citrus composition. It softens the rich woods in Chanel’s Bois des Iles (£210 for 200ml, first picture) and adds a tender note to Molinard’s Habanita (£68 for 75ml).
Over the years, lilac, along with carnation, has become the epitome of old-fashioned. To add insult to injury, many people also associate lilac scents with household chores, since the main ingredient used to create a lilac accord, terpineol, is often used to scent popular cleaning and air freshener products. However, it hasn’t stopped perfumers from reviving this unfairly neglected note and interpreting lilac in novel ways.
One of the best is Frédéric Malle’s En Passant (£115 for 100ml, first picture). It smells not simply like flowers, but a complete étude – asphalt glistening after a May shower, wet leaves and rain-soaked blossoms. A trendy take is Gucci Guilty for Her (£43 for 30ml), an effervescent confection that pairs lilac with earthy patchouli and juicy peach. In Estée Lauder’s Tuberose Gardenia (£92 for 75ml), lilac is a green layer between the creamy white flowers. It deepens the velvety sensation of Love (£58 for 50ml, second picture), Chloé’s rice powder accord, and plays up the floral brightness in Lanvin’s Eclat d’Arpège (£52 for 100ml, second picture).
Lest I leave you with the idea that lilac is all about frills and sweetness, consider its effect in Gendarme Cologne (£40 for 60ml, second picture) and Jo Malone’s Lime, Basil & Mandarin (£85 for 100ml, first picture). In these perfumes, lilac has an earthy, green almond-like effect, and it adds complexity to what would be simple colognes. The result is both intriguing and sophisticated.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog, boisdejasmin.com, since 2005. Since receiving her professional perfumery training, she has been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.