Penhaligon’s Bluebell (Woodland Hyacinth): Fragrance Review

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Bluebell Penhaligon

Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.

A friend of mine quipped that the signature fragrance choice of Penhaligon’s Bluebell by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher gives new meaning to the term “mixed message.” Indeed, the tough Iron Lady and the fresh, unassuming flower did not seem to mesh in my imagination so I decided to revisit Bluebell. If you are looking for a light, delicate, gentle hyacinth, I recommend that you look elsewhere, because Bluebell is the most brash and jarring watery floral you can find on the market. Come to think of it, that is quite an achievement.

The English house of Penhaligon’s was founded in the 1860s by a barber, William Henry Penhaligon, who eventually became Court Barber and Perfumer to Queen Victoria. In 1975, the house was revived by Sheila Pickles, who tried to resuscitate not only the house, but also the traditional 19th century style of perfumery, light colognes and fresh floral blends. Bluebell, created in 1978 by perfumer Michael Pickthall, was the original bestseller and it still remains the most recognizable and well-known offering from Penhaligon’s. It is what could be termed a classic.

Being popular does not necessarily imply excellence, though it is possible that Bluebell has been reformulated since it was first launched three decades ago. In its current form, however, I find it essentially unwearable as a fine fragrance. Bluebell opens up on a metallic, green note of remarkable tenacity. The hyacinth impression is formed by the classical marriage of lily of the valley, rose and fruity, green banana notes, with the earthy galbanum enhancing the green effect. A big dose of clove gives hyacinth its characteristic spicy facet. All in all, it is a competent hyacinth accord, but it is as close to the scent of real flowers as the elevator music to the performance by London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is rasping and shrill, with a screechy synthetic feel, ending on the same metallic, high-pitched note that sets the fragrance in action. Given the price of $120 (100ml), one might as well try Demeter Wet Garden ($18) and save $100 for something else more worthwhile.

Penhaligon’s Bluebell (also known as Woodland Hyacinth) includes notes of citrus, cyclamen, hyacinth, jasmine, lily of the valley, rose, cinnamon, clove, galbanum. It is available from Penhaligon’s stores and online at store likes minnewyork.com and fourseasonsproducts.com. $120 for 100ml. Other fresh, hyacinth, watery rose dominated alternatives include Diptyque Do Son, Diptyque Ofresia, Histoires de Parfums Vert Pivoine, Trish McEvoy Snowdrop & Crystal Flowers #3, L’Artisan Jacinth des Bois (limited edition, if you can find it, it is lovely).

Photo of bluebells from gardenblog.

Sample: my own acquisition

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47 Comments

  • Olfactoria: I need to revisit that too. I remember it less harsh than you describe it, but I always smelled my great aunts age old bottle, maybe there has been a change of formula. That would be sad, I have fond memories of the scent from my childhood, I applied it stealthily every time we visited said aunt, and hoped it would not be detected. I think everybody played along and didn`t mention it. 🙂 February 15, 2011 at 7:01am Reply

  • Maria145: Bluebell always smelled shrill and sour to me. Maybe it’s gotten worse but your review describes well my own impressions of it. February 15, 2011 at 8:49am Reply

  • Jake: V, I have nothing to say on the topic of perfume, but your Margaret Thatcher reference had me laughing out loud. Thanks for a great morning read! February 15, 2011 at 9:04am Reply

  • Gardenfairy Mw: It always gave me headaches to Migraines. Compared with the real scent in my garden it is the worst scent I ever tried. I don’t get anything from any scent of Penhaligons. Well… February 15, 2011 at 9:14am Reply

  • Style Spy: In my imaginary movie, Margaret Thatcher found an old bottle someone left in a medicine cabinet at 10 Downing St., thought, “Eh, what the hell,” and kept on wearing it.

    Shame it’s not better – that bottle is so charming. February 15, 2011 at 9:16am Reply

  • Victoria: I absolutely love this story! I can just imagine a little girl stealthily applying perfume to her neck. February 15, 2011 at 10:10am Reply

  • Victoria: I do not have an old bottle to compare to the more modern samples, but I also remember Bluebell as thin and metallic. Never really liked it, although I always wanted to, because I simply loved the Penhaligon’s stores. February 15, 2011 at 10:11am Reply

  • Victoria: You are most welcome! I am even more pleased that I made you smile on this Tuesday morning. February 15, 2011 at 10:12am Reply

  • Victoria: I like Amarantine and Sartorial, but as hard as I try to like the older fragrances, I do not seem to succeed. February 15, 2011 at 10:13am Reply

  • Victoria: I am with you, Penhaligon’s packaging is fantastic! Even lotions and shower gels are packaged very nicely. Love the Victorian style graphics too.

    Your imaginary story is hysterical! Good thing I finished my tea before I read your comment. February 15, 2011 at 10:15am Reply

  • Marina: That charming blue of the packaging is so deceiving 🙂 February 15, 2011 at 10:19am Reply

  • Victoria: It sure is! 🙂 February 15, 2011 at 10:23am Reply

  • kjanicki: Oh I agree! It is certainly jarring. The last time I tried it I couldn’t believe that Lady Di and Tilda Swinton used to wear it. There’s something sour in there, and the clove was too strong. Do you think it’s because of reformulation? Maybe if they hired Duchaufour to update this one too, it could be rescued? February 15, 2011 at 10:30am Reply

  • OperaFan: I loved Bluebells – My bottle was purchased in the mid-90s. Frankly, I can’t explain why I love it except perhaps for that unusual over the top hyacinth note. Otherwise, the spicy, bracing quality was not at all like my preferred fragrances at the time. My actual favorite Penhaligon was Victorian Posey, yet I purchased the 100ml splash bottle (mainly for the stoppered bottle which didn’t come in the 50ml size). It does go nicely with a crisp linen dress.
    I must have given it away though because try as I might, I haven’t been able to find it since I moved about 5 yrs ago. February 15, 2011 at 10:36am Reply

  • Victoria: And Kate Moss, apparently!
    I always remember Bluebell as metallic, sour and thin, but without having an older bottle for a side by side comparison, I cannot say whether it is how it always smelled or whether it has been reformulated.
    To me, Bluebell smells artificial and rough. I smell L’Artisan Jacinthe des Bois, and it is such a dramatic contrast. That being said, it is still a top-seller for Penhaligon’s, so there must be people who love it and appreciate it. February 15, 2011 at 11:00am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for reminding me about Victorian Posy, which I recall was quite pretty (and Violetta). I have not smelled either one in ages, so maybe it is time to revisit. February 15, 2011 at 11:05am Reply

  • sweetlife: LOL! February 15, 2011 at 11:08am Reply

  • sweetlife: Ha, ha, ha! You so rarely pan something outright I found this very refreshing, V.

    It seems like Bluebell is a great example of suggestion trumping reality. With all those great ladies wearing it, the pretty packaging, the sheer BRITISHNESS of it all, one can see why it would keep selling in spite of the scent itself. Indeed, given the long tradition of British self-denial, maybe it sells *because* it is not a dangerous sensual delight… February 15, 2011 at 11:10am Reply

  • Victoria: 🙂 You would be surprised, but most fragrances created today are not bad, just extremely boring. It is hard to pan something outright, if it is quite well-made, but dull.

    You sum up the reasons behind my own fondness for Penhaligon’s. I am excited that I like Amarantine, because I can finally buy into that Victorian fantasy (and still find some seduction in it.) February 15, 2011 at 11:27am Reply

  • Mals86: I thought Bluebell was just gorgeous for five minutes, after which it turned into the most hideous chemical nastiness that I couldn’t stand it and had to scrub it off (and I rarely do that, I try to suffer through in case something good comes up later). Aaaarrrgh. I love hyacinths – as a matter of fact, I succumbed to a $12 pot of white ones, still mostly in bud, at the grocery store just this morning.

    I have a sample of Bas de Soie in my pocket, and am just about to put it on. I do wish I could find some Jacinthe de Bois…

    Violetta is awesome, though. February 15, 2011 at 11:28am Reply

  • Victoria: Real hyacinths have the most wonderful scent! I am very tempted by the ones sold at my local grocery store (already blooming.) Perhaps, once I get home from my trip, I will splurge on a pot. To have that scent of spring in the house would be wonderful. February 15, 2011 at 11:33am Reply

  • Warum: Ooops, I tried it and found it pretty soft and nice! I try not to smell real hyacinths too much since I am allergic to them, but I do well with a hyacinth accord in perfumes. Maybe I just forgot what they smell like? But I thought Bluebell was pretty nice! February 15, 2011 at 6:40pm Reply

  • Victoria: I am glad that it works for you. Like I mentioned to Alyssa, I wish it smelled good on me. I find the whole presentation so pretty and charming, almost irresistible.

    I once fell asleep in a room full of blooming hyacinths, and I was extremely ill the next day. There is something quite narcotic about their scent. February 15, 2011 at 6:51pm Reply

  • hongkongmom: i am with operafan and warum…i like it…also for the over the top hyacinth note February 16, 2011 at 12:57am Reply

  • hongkongmom: ps…also love lavandula, violetta and artemisa!!! February 16, 2011 at 12:57am Reply

  • Linda: Thank you so much for this review – being a Brit, I am familiar with the Penhaligons shops, and I really love them! Like you, I cannot get on with Bluebell (although hyacinths have the most divine scent and are real harbingers of spring): but I’m delighted about Bernard Duchaufour becoming the inhouse perfumer.
    I recently bought Amaranthine (the Penhaligons shop in Cambridge was prettily decorated with butterflies and the S/As all were wearing floaty faery clothes!) and I love its skankiness. Also I like Victorian Posy, which does indeed go well with a linen dress and an English summer garden…
    Sorry – just a few thoughts, didn’t mean to ramble on. Thank you again! February 16, 2011 at 6:09am Reply

  • Victoria: 🙂 After all, it is still the best-seller from Penhaligon's. February 16, 2011 at 8:42am Reply

  • Victoria: Artemisia… I completely forgot about that one. Also, Lily and Spice was nice too. February 16, 2011 at 8:44am Reply

  • Victoria: Linda, thank you, very interesting! I would have liked to see the store decorated like that. I have not been to Penhaligon's stand alone store in a while. Amarantine might be my next purchase. February 16, 2011 at 8:51am Reply

  • Bela: As you know, V, I worked as a dispensary assistant at Penhaligon’s in 1979-80. Sheila Pickles was my boss. I don’t know where this erroneous information comes from: she never was a fashion designer. She worked for a large theatrical agency and she was Franco Zefirelli’s assistant for a while before buying the shop in Wellington Street and relaunching the perfume house.

    I’ve said it often: Bluebell was the only perfume I always asked someone else to deal with. I couldn’t stand it: it was so strident.

    Victorian Posy was launched while I was there. It was rather nice. February 18, 2011 at 9:34pm Reply

  • Victoria: J, thank you for the clarification on Pickles’s background. Very interesting! So, she was connected to the theater world, rather than fashion and then ended up buying the shop…

    You know, whenever I think of Bluebell, I remember your story of hating it so much that you had to ask someone else to weight it out. I wish I had saved your Penhaligon’s story to re-read. February 19, 2011 at 8:22am Reply

  • Bela: Yes, she was connected to the theatre world – on the management side. I’m emailing you an article that was printed in the London Evening Standard in 1992: it explains it all.

    My story (if anyone else is interested) can still be found here: http://belabela.posterous.com/pages/my-adventures-in-the-perfume-world February 19, 2011 at 9:29am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for the article and for the link, J. I am so pleased that you have the story saved. I love the part about the Arab sheikh, who bought one of everything in the store! February 19, 2011 at 10:02am Reply

  • Sarah: Oddly enough, I just tried this perfume and I liked it. It was unlike anything I’d ever tried before. I’m pretty sensitive perfumes and was unaffected by the scent. I don’t think it could ever be a go-to perfume for me, but it was like spring in a bottle but without the allergies.

    Anyway, I can tell by your descriptions you have a much more finely tuned nose for scents than I do. Good job on the description and stated opinion, even though I disagree. 🙂 August 4, 2011 at 12:18pm Reply

  • Flor: this review almost actually aggravated me as i love this scent, and the author does seem generally to take particular delight in having a go at penhaligon’s, but i then a recalled a friend trying some on as she loves it on me so much she considered buying it for herself… and it was, in fact, awful on her. but i consistently get compliments when i wear it – the sharper, metallic notes fade off right away and don’t come back. for a casual brunch or analogous event it’s really, really pleasant. it’s worth trying to see if might work for you. August 19, 2011 at 2:59am Reply

  • Daisy: I’m just slowly reading up on the archives whenever I take a study break. So apologies for joining the discussion so late!

    In honor of today’s Opening Ceremony for the Olympics, I busted out a sample of Bluebell.

    Geez. Man. I made the face! You know that face? Like the smooshy-whaaaa!?! face! It just smells so chemically and fake. And cloves! Like the inexpensive ground stuff that comes in plastic shaker containers at the supermarket. So sad. Once the top notes calm down, I get kind of a pretty rose — but it’s not really a very special rose to me. And I wish I didn’t have to wade through the beginning to get to it 🙁

    It’s such a shame since the bottle is so charming (I love the bow!) and the juice is such a pretty color.

    Anyway, scrubbing now 🙁 July 27, 2012 at 3:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: No worries! I keep the comments open, regardless of when the article was published, and it’s a pleasure to revisit some of these older topics.

      Bluebell was a major disappointment to me, because it felt so pungent and sharp. And that’s a shame; the bottle is so pretty, and I really wanted to enjoy this perfume. Plus, the scent of bluebells is wonderful. Have you ever been to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens when they are in bloom (around May)? That’s such a wonderful experience. July 27, 2012 at 5:19pm Reply

      • Daisy: It was harsh on me as well. I had a real feeling of disconnect between what I wanted it to smell like (soft, green, pretty English garden) and what it actually smells like.

        I think it’s the clove note that does it. Sometimes my father uses this liquid bandage with has a lot of clove oil in it as an antiseptic. That’s what Bluebell was like for me: hyacinth bathed in liquid bandage 🙁 That’s a horrible smell-thought, right? So sorry! July 27, 2012 at 7:43pm Reply

        • Victoria: The clove notes are very difficult for the very reason you mention–they are associated with antiseptics and dentists. Which is why carnation accords are hardly ever used in perfumery these days. In order to make a carnation, you need to add a whopping dose of clove to a rose and ylang ylang. July 28, 2012 at 5:44am Reply

          • Daisy: It’s so fascinating to read about what combinations make which accords. Each time I learn about it, I always feel like it’s magic 🙂 July 28, 2012 at 2:04pm Reply

      • Daisy: Oh, I forgot to add: I actually have never been to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden! I was a member for several years of the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. Kind of shameful I have yet to make it to Brooklyn. Must be rectified this May! July 27, 2012 at 7:45pm Reply

  • shacherezade: i own this fragrance and it is unusual. I disagree with it being 1 star because i feel it is more complicated than is described above. It is somewhat a straight forward hyacinth but it also has this unmistakable wet, after the rain earth smell. Plus, the strong note is only in the beginning, the dry out is quite pleasant. it is not for everyone but if you like the flower you should be fine. with flowers like this (spring/forest flower) it is easy to have cheap, soapy/room spray fragrance, this is not the case with this bluebell. Also, this reminds me of a true hyacinth (the way it smells when it’s dying.) i can see how it can be displeasing to some but nothing metallic in it that i can feel. November 18, 2012 at 7:02am Reply

  • Alessandra: Ahaahahah thank goodness I’ve found someone who does not make me feel insane anymore!!! I have tried to like Bluebell with all my heart and soul – essentially out of a weird need to make the beauty of the bottle and the colour pleasantness match with the scent – but by Jove, I find it sooooo unpleasant. It smells like medicine, to me.. and yes, definitely metallic. Far too sharp, without necessarily having the charm of something sharp. You know what? It *does* suit Thatcher.

    If there is one Penhaligon’s fragrance I adore, it’s Violetta. November 28, 2013 at 2:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: Violetta is my own favorite from Penhaligon’s. It’s such a charming perfume. November 29, 2013 at 11:19am Reply

  • Kate Cleverley-Pritchard: I have loved this Perfume for many many years, I have it on all day long, and wear it to bed sometimes, i love to be elsewhere, like sleeping in a Natural Bluebell woods. It reminds me of my Mamma and her delicate beautiful fragrances. i truly love this Perfume, It reminds me of my childhood , happy days , and the bottle is divine September 26, 2015 at 3:59pm Reply

  • Sarah: I hope it’s ok to comment on an old post. Today I received a 1999 bottle of Bluebell bath oil. After having read how awful it was, I didn’t have high hopes. But it’s lovely. Applying a drop directly to my skin, I get a lot of galbanum, hyacinth, rose and a bit of lily of the valley. It’s smooth and bright and perfect for spring. There’s nothing metallic or harsh to my nose. So perhaps it is an issue of reformulation. I think I will get a lot of wear out of it as we head into Spring downunder. August 10, 2016 at 11:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s always a pleasure to read comments on old reviews, and I appreciate you adding a vote in favor of Bluebell. August 12, 2016 at 9:15am Reply

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