Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) : Perfume Note

Dianthus is derived from Greek, meaning di, Zeus and anthos, flower, “the flower of Zeus,” indicating its importance in the religious context of Ancient Greece. In Italy, Bologna in particular, the plant has been associated with Saint Peter and celebrated widely, with a special day at the end of June dedicated to carnation. In the Middle Ages, it was one of the most popular flowers for fragrance gardens. No monastery herb garden would be complete without carnation, the medicinal uses of which were referenced as early as the Han Dynasty texts (23-206 A.D.). In European herbal medicine tradition, carnation flowers have been prescribed for the nervous and coronary disorders. However, its probably most interesting usage has been recorded in the late 1600s, when the Countess of Dorset, England, made her own love potion, including carnation, lavender, bay leaf and marjoram. It is rather ironic that the flower of the most licentious of all Greek gods is supposed to have powers to cure wayward lovers. Interesting to note is that carnation signified devotion and loyalty in a variety of traditions, from European to Asian.

I have always associated carnation with the Soviet holidays, especially November 7th and May 1st, celebrating Russian Revolution, the successful Bolshevik coup d’ état against the Provisional Government (also called October Revolution, as Russia used the Julian Calendar, in which November 7th corresponded to October 25th) and the Soviet workers, respectively. Neither would be complete without some dreaded parade, after which we, young pioneers, would have to give red carnations to the various party functionaries present. Moreover, Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow), a rich carnation-based fragrance, was used liberally and widely, due to the fact that hardly much else was available. Therefore, for the longest time, carnation was associated with my Russian language and literature teacher, who would call me “a vestige of aristocracy,” because I exhibited an anti-working class spirit by refusing to attend the young pioneer choir practice and to collect paper and iron objects for our school (to heaven knows what purpose). I suppose that now these memories are heavily tinged with nostalgia for me, because I hardly mind the scent of carnation anymore, which is also a scent of my great grandmother’s garden, where I spent many summers of my childhood.

The flower, native to the Mediterranean region and India, has been at the height of its popularity in France of Louis XIV reign, when it was selected as a flower of the court. In the 19th century, carnation (dianthus) lovers formed clubs, and although carnation fever never reached the level of tulip obsession, the flower had many devotees. In fragrances, the same tradition can be observed, with the classical compositions featuring carnation in a variety of ways, particularly to add a peppery warth to the floral compositions. However, the modern treatment of carnation has been to deem it old-fashioned and trite. Yet, the solitary flowers, with the corolla of dark red fringed petals have an intense spicy smell that lends itself wonderfully to oriental blends. Combined with rose, it lends a spicy note that adds complexity to the sweet rich glow of rose.

Essential oil is present in the small amount in petals of the carnation variety, which is called “clove pinks,” hinting at the similarity between the smell of carnation and clove. In Russian, carnation and clove, although unrelated species, are bound by etymological ties. “Gvozdika”, with the root “gvozd’” referencing the nail-like shape of the spice clove, is the common name for both the flower and the spice. Both are rich in eugenol, which gives carnations and cloves their characteristic sweet heavy scent.

Produced mostly in France and Holland, carnation absolute is rare, with a heavy, spicy floral aroma tinged by sweet dark honey notes. It is a blend of clove, black pepper and exotic sweetness of ylang ylang, which incidentally are often used to reproduce carnation scents. Absolute is a greenish jelly like substance. 500kg of flowers are required to produce 100g of oil. In perfumery, it is common to employ synthetic substances like eugenol, isoeugenol and eugenyl acetate to accentuate floral character and to lend clove and carnation like scent.

Carnation solifores: Caron Bellodgia, Floris Malmaison, Lorenzo Villoresi Garofano, Comme des Garcons Carnation, JAR Parfums Golconda, L’Artisan Parfumeur Oeillet Sauvage.

Classical perfumes containing carnation: Caron Poivre and its EDT version Coup de Fouet, Caron En Avion, Caron Or et Noir, Caron Tabac Blond, Caron Fleurs de Rocaille (1933), Guerlain Après l’Ondée, Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, Je Reviens by Worth, Givenchy L’Interdit (original), Nina Ricci L’Air Du Temps, Schiaparelli Schocking, Estée Lauder Youth Dew, Robert Piguet Bandit, Dior Dioressence.

Modern perfumes containing carnation: Yves Saint Laurent Opium, Guerlain Vétiver, Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Soie Rouge, Carthusia Fiori di Capri, Mon Classique by Pascal Morabito, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Red Door by Elizabeth Arden, Gucci No. 1, Boucheron Jaïpur Homme, Cartier Must II, Yves Saint Laurent Jazz, Molyneux Quartz, Hermès Bel Ami, Fendi Theorema, Estée Lauder Cinnabar, Estée Lauder White Linen, Estée Lauder Estée, Estée Lauder Spellbound, Guerlain Samsara, Balenciaga Cristobal, Gaultier Fragile, Dior Jules, Dior Fahrenheit, Gucci Envy for Men, Lanvin Lanvin for Men, Bvlgari Bvlgari for Men.

Bibliography: Bown, D. 1996. Encyclopaedia of Herbs and their Uses. Dorling Kindersley, London; Morris, Edwin T. 1984. Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. E.T. Morris and Co., New York, 233.

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12 Comments

  • Katie: Thank you for sharing your personal ties to the carnation, that was terribly interesting. It seems exotic to me, I guess, having grown up instead on the prairie amongst mostly farmers.

    I now associate the actual flower of the carnation with my rather inconsiderate father-in-law, who likes to brag that carnations are the appropriate gift anytime you don’t feel like paying for roses. It’s amazing how one little association can shift your opinion, even if you try not to let it.

    Another scent containing a carnation note: Mon Classique de Morabito. June 20, 2005 at 8:25am Reply

  • Robin: Lovely post, V. Are you going to do flowers only, or can I vote for an incense post? And will add a vote for sandalwood too. June 20, 2005 at 8:28am Reply

  • Victoria: Katie,
    Yes, it takes just a small remark to ruin a scent. The thing is that carnation scent is so complex, ranging from spicy slightly sweet burst to oozing honey and clove-like sharpness that it is impossible to generalize and say that “oh, it smells like a Soviet parade.” I loved the clove pinks my great grandmother used to grow in her garden as well as wild carnations we picked to make a moisturizing lotion. Now, I wish I could find that scent. June 20, 2005 at 11:14am Reply

  • Victoria: R, I was actually going to do a post on cedarwood next week and Serge Lutens. Can do either incense or sandalwood the week after! See, it is a democratic system here, or rather a benevolent dictatorship! 🙂 June 20, 2005 at 11:17am Reply

  • Jennifer: Like you Carnation reminds me of my Grandmother’s garden. After my mother died my father often sent us to my Grandparent’s house where my grandmother often spent most of her day outside in the garden. My little brother and I wandered around the garden and I remember often stopping at her carnation bush to smell it and loving the heady and spicy scent of it. The scent that comes closest to a carnation to me is CdG Carnation. June 20, 2005 at 12:20pm Reply

  • mreenymo: Thank you, Victoria, for your wonderfully informative review of the carnation. I had no idea it was so popular, especially in Russia!

    A modern classic that contains carnation is Lauren. Other than Lauren, L’Air du Temps and Opium, I really do not know much about carnation-based fragrances. I look forward to this week’s reviews!

    Have a great Monday. Hugs! June 20, 2005 at 12:30pm Reply

  • carole: I am looking forward to the reviews this week! Used the last drop of Coup de Fouet just now-Bellodgia is the only other carnation fragrance I own. Carnations are my birth flower (January). Yuor descriptions of your memories of the Soviet occasions are incredible. thank you for producing this gorgeous blog-it is obviously a labour of love.

    Isn’t Red Door a carnation fragrance? I don’t care for it personally, but in high school I thought it was divine. This was before I was introduced to Guerlain. June 20, 2005 at 1:13pm Reply

  • Victoria: Dear J, thank you for sharing this bittersweet memory. I have realized only recently how multifaceted the scent of carnations can be. I love the scent of tiny wild carnations that grew all over the meadows in the Southern Ukraine. I wish something could capture that smell.

    Dear R from LA, until I started delving more into art history, I did not realize what an important role carnations played. In the European art work from ancient to modern times, most of the flowers featured would be carnations (Da Vinci’s Madonna of Carnations, Raphael’s Madonna Aldobrandini are the ones that come to mind now). It is fascinating!

    Dear Carole,
    I did not realize that carnation is associated with January. It is interesting, esp. since January’s etymological origins are traced to Janus, the Roman god of all beginnings. Thank you for this bit and for your kind comments!
    Yes, Red Door contains carnations as well, and I just added it to my list. I think that it is the closest thing to Krasnaya Moskva perfume I was talking about earlier. June 20, 2005 at 3:25pm Reply

  • Tania: Wow, carnation. I too have always thought of carnations as “the cheap flower.” Poor things don’t deserve that. The ones I’ve gotten from cheap dates never smelled in the least bit spicy, as far as I remember. Now I want to go sticking my nose into a florist shop and check them again. June 20, 2005 at 5:32pm Reply

  • Victoria: Dear T, I think that most commercial carnations do not even have much scent, more over the variety that is used in perfumery are tiny carnations called clove pinks, like those in the photo. I do not like the plastic tinged scent of store bought carnations, but clove pinks smell like honey with a heavy dash of white pepper. June 20, 2005 at 6:14pm Reply

  • Atreau: Thank you V for the history of the carnation, I think it’s such a beautiful yet underrated flower! June 21, 2005 at 10:49pm Reply

  • Ülkü: We started product carnation in Turkey.We sent our carnations mostly export countries we are too young firm because we start this summer to work.We have 3500 meter square producting area.We have lots kind of colours for carnations; red, yellow, pink, white,..etc. August 25, 2006 at 5:43am Reply

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