Penhaligon’s Violetta : Perfume Review and On Sweet Violets

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Pinkroom

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

Swan down puffs, white lace camisoles, candied violets, ivory fans, tulle skirts, satin shoes… If these words evoke a romantic vision for you, then Penhaligon’s Violetta will be a pleasing discovery. Although a modern fragrance, created in 1976 by Penhaligon’s perfumer Michael Pickthall, it aims to transport its wearer to the 19th century. Like the Fairy Godmother’s wand transforms Cinderella into a princess, complete with tiara and crystal slippers, a whiff of Violetta makes me forget my jeans and t-shirt. I might as well be sporting a crinoline, corset, bonnet, with the stiffness of tight “sugar” curls replacing my usual messy bun.

In 19th century perfumery violet played the same role as oud does today. Prior to the discovery of ionones, the main component that gives violets their distinctive fragrance, fragrances based on violet were derived from Parma violet. The painstaking work of collecting tiny blossoms meant that violet fragrances were affordable only to the elite. The discovery of ionones had a dramatic effect on the fragrance market but much like modern oud fragrances, violet perfumes made from synthetic compounds retained their luxurious connotations for most of the 19th century. Therefore, it is not surprising that during the revival of the English house of Penhaligon’s, which was originally founded in the 1860s,the classical Victorian violet became its important theme.

The violets of Violetta, reminiscent of Flavigny pastilles and rice powder, are formed in a very simple accord. A hint of citrus lightens up the warm powderiness of the violet, while green rose notes lend a pleasant freshness. One should not expect anything overly complicated, but the minimal embellishments are the reason I find Violetta so appealing. It smells of violet flowers with nothing to distract from their dark, powdery sweetness. The composition opens up on this Victorian note and retains its character well into the drydown.

Nevertheless, unlike many violet soliflorals, Violetta does not smell like a cosmetic preparation, or worse a soap bar. Like Annick Goutal La Violette or Borsari 1870 Violetta di Parma, it balances the powdery sweetness of violet flowers with green notes of violet leaf. More substantial than green and wistful L’Artisan Verte Violette or verdant and limpid Balenciaga Paris, it lasts well and creates a nice sillage. For more cerebral violets, I turn to Serge Lutens Bois de Violette and Balenciaga Le Dix, however as a reference violet, Violetta has few rivals. Plus, I do not mind indulging my fascination with the Victorian era.

Penhaligon’s Violetta includes notes of bergamot, geranium, violet, musk, sandalwood, and cedarwood. It is available from Penhaligon’s stores and online at store likes minnewyork.com and fourseasonsproducts.com. $120 for 100ml.

Photo by Bois de Jasmin, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, France.

Sample: my own acquisition

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23 Comments

  • Kym: My favorite violet scents are Caron Aimez Moi and Malle’s Dans Tes Bras. Have you tried those? Love to hear your thoughts! August 12, 2011 at 12:12pm Reply

  • Andy: Such a lovely post! Violet is a favorite floral of mine. It’s amazing how the ionones in fresh violets can make the scent so elusive. In the spring, during walks through the woods, I’ll often smell a strong scent of violets. By the time I find the flowers, the scent will be undetectable, only to eventually return again! So mysterious, but so lovely! August 12, 2011 at 12:40pm Reply

  • sweetlife: Yum! Have been on a violet jag lately, though mostly the dark ones. Love thinking about contrast/compare between violet and oud. Says so much about each eras taste and fantasies. August 12, 2011 at 6:25pm Reply

  • Tracy: my grandmother wore violet… August 13, 2011 at 8:51am Reply

  • Carrie Meredith: I’ve been wanting to give Violetta a try for some time now, I’ll have to just go for it. Last night, I tried Ayala Moriel’s Viola for the first time- it was stunning. Another violet soliflore, this one is a bit of a shapeshifter due to the natural essences. Very much successful at what it tries to do, and full bottle worthy for me. August 13, 2011 at 12:35pm Reply

  • Elizabeth: I love having Violetta around, just for the hit of pure violets. I also love your crinoline-and-sugar-curls imagery! It makes me think of Buddenbrooks, or a high-born character in a Dickens novel. That historical period happens to be one of my favorites. Time to go put on some Violetta and imagine that I am Tony Buddenbrook! August 13, 2011 at 6:29pm Reply

  • Elizabeth: And as a February-born girl, the violet is my birth flower! August 13, 2011 at 6:51pm Reply

  • columbine: my favourite violet is “the Unicorn spell”…and my favourite violet dessert is the Lily Valley, a violet St-Honoré by Carl Marletti August 14, 2011 at 7:55am Reply

  • Lynn Morgan: Lovely image, Victoria; that photo is to swoon!
    I love candied violets- Katrina Markoff does a luscious truffle topped with a tiny candied violet- but the scent leaves me cold. At the risk if inviting more accusations of geriatric-phobia, it is just too damn elderly and reactionary for me! It evokes Dickensian things- like brutal orphanages and torn wedding dresses and rotting wedding cakes! And this from a woman who collects vintage clothes, hates all architecture post WW II and has actualy read a substantial chunk of Proust as opposed to merely name-checking him when I want to look superior! Some forms of nostaglia just aren’t cute, and violets make me think of the dusty and tragic, rather than the romantic and byronic. Remember, things do not go well for Violetta in the opera! I am mad for the color violet, though. August 15, 2011 at 6:56pm Reply

  • Victoria: Kym, I love Aimez Moi, which is such a beautiful dark violet with a candied, caramelized streak. One of the best violets, to be sure. I like Dans Tes Bras too, although I have not worn it as much lately. You’ve inspired me to revisit it and to consider reviewing it soon. August 16, 2011 at 9:27pm Reply

  • Victoria: There are plenty of violets growing around my apartment building, but unfortunately they are unscented. In Ukraine, you could buy small bunches of scented violets in the spring, and it is such a strong scent memory for me. August 16, 2011 at 9:28pm Reply

  • Victoria: So true! On the other hand, the Victorian era also had plenty of fascination with the East. August 16, 2011 at 9:29pm Reply

  • Victoria: Mine wore carnation based scents, I don’t remember violets on her. August 16, 2011 at 9:29pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, it sounds very lovely! Must add to my to-sample list. August 16, 2011 at 9:30pm Reply

  • Victoria: Mine too! I have a couple of books on the Victorian fashion, and it seems so intricate and interesting. Would have loved to try wearing one of those dresses! August 16, 2011 at 9:31pm Reply

  • Victoria: The Unicorn Spell is another favorite. I also love Annick Goutal Duel for its soft violet notes. August 16, 2011 at 9:32pm Reply

  • Victoria: The entire villa is amazing, but that pink boudoir enchanted me!
    You know, I can see why some might find the scent of violet old fashioned. I myself do not associate it with anything like this. On the contrary, it is innocent, romantic and uplifting for me. August 16, 2011 at 9:34pm Reply

  • Breck: Something that drives me up the wall is the blurb on Santa Maria Novella for their Violetta. They talk about how their violet comes from the rare flower of Africa grown only in greenhouses b/c it is so tender and precious.

    Balderdash! What they are talking about is the African Violet (Saintpaulia ionantha) which is a gesneriad, has no relationship botanically with violets (genus Viola) and has NO SCENT!

    I’ve actually written to SMN and Aedes about this, with no response. October 19, 2011 at 12:31pm Reply

  • Domestic Goblin: I have added Violetta onto my wishlist. Just had a look at the website for the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and the interior photos are amazing. June 18, 2012 at 1:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: That place is so beautiful, especially in the summer when the gardens are full of flowers…. *daydreaming now* June 18, 2012 at 4:59pm Reply

  • Domestic Goblin: Victoria, I just bought a 100ml bottle of Violetta today with 40% discount! Bargain! Am very happy! And it smells great! Apparently Penhaligons are redesigning the packaging… have a great weekend! 🙂 June 23, 2012 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Great deal! Congrats. 🙂 June 23, 2012 at 4:07pm Reply

  • Megan: I first met Violetta in my mother’s bookcase as a young girl. She had several of the Penhaligon’s scented treasury books and my favorite was the Language of Flowers scented with this perfume. Thou much faded every time in pick the book up over the years I would burry my nose in the endpapers trying to capture that elusive scent. 🙂 Finally, I got my own copy’s of the books, even used them as centerpiece a for my wedding reception. And last spring on my honeymoon trip I was able to visit one of there London shops and buy myself and my mother a bottle of perfume. Peaoneve for her, and of course Violetta for me! To me it’s elegance in a bottle, and that little boost of confidence when I need it. Though is funny, when I first wore it going out with my husband his first response was ” smells like Dr. Pepper”. Which I now can smell in the initial few min it’s after I’ve sprayed it! Maybe violets one of their secret 23 favors? Lol June 9, 2014 at 3:16pm Reply

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