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