Some perfume materials have an unwavering place of honor—rose, jasmine, sandalwood. Ylang ylang, on the other hand, has often been called “a poor man’s jasmine” and given various inferior descriptors. Today, of course, that proverbial poor man must be swimming in cash to afford ylang ylang oil in his perfumes, but ylang ylang still loses in a competition with jasmine. I would like to come to its defense and explain why ylang ylang is such a fascinating material that should be compared to nothing but itself.
Obtained either by steam distillation (oil) or solvent extraction (absolute) from the flowers of Cananga odorata tree, ylang ylang has a unique character. It is complex enough to work as a perfume! The unusually vivid top has a verdant richness that alternates between wintergreen and orange leaves. The delicate heart note is redolent of ripe apricots and spicy florals, while the sweet, balsamic drydown is warm and enveloping. Add various accents like crème brûlée, apple or rubber, and you have a multifaceted raw material that can be used for ethereal florals like Dior Diorissimo as well as sumptuous chypres like Rochas Femme. Ylang ylang is also sometimes used in fruity accords such as apricot and pear for the food industry.
Those who love ylang ylang will find themselves in good company. The creator of Chanel No 5, perfumer Ernest Beaux, was devoted to it as much as to rose and jasmine and said that without ylang ylang he would not have been able to use a high dosage of aldehydes in his masterpiece. He often referred to it as “my priceless Manillan ylang.” The buttery, luscious heft of ylang ylang wrapped the starchy and metallic facets of aldehydes, rendering them soft and muted.
Chanel No 5 is not the only legendary fragrance where ylang ylang plays an important role. Chanel No 22, Chanel No 19, Givenchy Ysatis, Guerlain Nahéma and Chamade as well as Caron Poivre are unimaginable without this sultry note with a chameleon character. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg—there are numerous fragrances in which versatile ylang ylang is used either to give a warmer facet to the drydown, a lush sweetness to the floral accord, or a wintergreen brightness to the top notes. I love its accent in Hermès 24, Faubourg, Serge Lutens À La Nuit and Estée Lauder Amber Ylang Ylang. Finally, the undercurrent of ylang ylang in a sparkling citrus like Annick Goutal Les Nuits d’Hadrien lends it an alluring richness.