For lending a sweet and powdery quality to fragrance, a central role in the perfumer’s palette is played by the ionones, a group of fragrance materials that range from violet sweetness to woody floral tonality. Prior to their discovery in 1893 by Tiemann and Krüger, the violet note was derived from Parma violet (Viola odorata L., fam. Violaceae). Violet is a flower replete with hidden meanings and legends. The ancient Greeks made it the official symbol of Athens, while Napoleon Bonaparte selected the violet as his “signature flower.” The popularity of violet scented fragrances was particularly high during the 19th century.
The discovery of the ionones led to the substitution of the violet toned synthetics for the extremely expensive violet flower oil. Viola odorata is still used, however for its leaves rather than flowers. Violet leaf lends a cut grass and sliced cucumber note to fragrances, quite different from the sweet and powdery scent of violet flowers. …
Thus, the ionones and methyl ionones, which were also discovered by Tiemann in 1893, are among the most important and versatile aroma-chemicals. Calling this discovery revolutionary would not be an overstatement, as currently the ionones (along with their analogues and derivatives such as irones, damascones, Iso E Super, Koavone, Timberol, and Georgywood) are incorporated into almost every fragrance. While the ionones range from a scent that is reminiscent of violets in full bloom to an aroma of soft wood overlaid with violet sweetness, the methyl ionones are stronger, with a more pronounced orris and wood tonality.
Their chameleon like character predisposes them to function as the bridge between the middle and the base notes in a variety of composition. Thus, methyl ionone decorates the chypre accords of both Rochas Femme (1942) and Parfums Grès Cabochard (1959). In green chypre such as Chanel No. 19 (1971), a high dosage of methyl ionone serves as a natural link between the iris and the woody base of the composition. The woody floral character of the ionones is also explored in fragrances such as Serge Lutens Bois de Violette (1992) and Shiseido Féminité du Bois (1992). In an oriental such as Chanel Coco (1984), a presence of methyl ionone lends a soft sweet effect, which layers beautifully over its rich sandalwood and cedar notes.
The role of methyl ionone in the floral-oriental genre represented by fragrances such as Coty L’Origan (1905) and Guerlain L’Heure Bleue (1912) is undoubtedly important, given its ability to round out the notes and lend a sweet softness to the floral accords. In L’Origan this quality conjures a sensation of brushing a swan down puff against the skin. Inspired strongly by L’Origan, Oscar de la Renta (1976) incorporated methyl ionone into its base, embellished with ambreine note, carnation and orange blossom. The sweet luscious heart of the fragrance is foiled by the musky powdery notes and resins.
An influential classic floral that relies on a high concentration of methyl ionone in its base is Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps (1948). Woody iris tonality of methyl ionone overlaid with carnation, sandalwood, vetiver and musk forms the instantly recognizable accord of the fragrance, which inspired many perfumes.
Another quite legendary creation using methyl ionone is Yves Saint Laurent Paris (1983), which explores a violet facet of this aroma-chemical by ornamenting the composition in such a way as to present a voluptuous rose underscored by violet sweetness and fruity vibrancy. A theme of rose laced with violet and raspberry can found be in Frédéric Malle Lipstick Rose (2000) and L’Artisan Parfumeur Drôle de Rose (1996), albeit with different results. Incidentally, raspberry can contain the ionones, therefore its association with violet is quite natural.
By composing a fragrance where almost 80% of the formula was made up only of four ingredients, Sophia Grojsman represented a new style of perfumery—a composition that dispenses with the traditional top note and instead presents a panoramic vista that largely remains unchanged over time. The four main ingredients she selected for Lancôme Trésor (1990) were Hedione, methyl ionone, Iso E Super, and Galaxolide. The violet facet of Trésor’s apricot and rose marriage is enhanced by pairing of Iso E Super with methyl ionone, and the finished result is the epitome of a sweet, soft, and gently powdery fragrance.
References: Calkin, Robert and J. Stephan Jellinek. Perfumery: Practice and Principles. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1994.
Kraft, Philip. “Designing Damascone and Ionone-like Odorants,” in Swift, Karl A.D., Advances in Flavours and Fragrances: From the Sensation to the Synthesis. The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2001.
Pybus, David and Charles Sell. The Chemistry of Fragrances. The Royal Society of Chemistry, 1999.