Ionones : Sweet and Powdery Fragrance Ingredients

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.

Photography by Andy Gerber



  • kaie: Thank you for such an interesting article! I love reading about fragrance ingredients. November 4, 2005 at 7:58am Reply

  • Håkan Nellmar: Wonderful, wonderful article! Thank you. Reading about perfume ingredients is like porn for me. I love ionone. November 4, 2005 at 10:19am Reply

  • Laura: Your erudition is so impressive. There’s quite a lot packed into that petite frame. November 4, 2005 at 8:31am Reply

  • Marina: All hail ionones! I love Feminite du Bois, Lipstick Rose, L’Heure Bleue. When I finally get to try Bois de Violette, I am sure I will love it too… November 4, 2005 at 9:01am Reply

  • Evan: I love violet notes, especially when they tend toward the melancholic orris-wood tone. It’s easy to slip into “Choward’s violet gum” mode with violet notes, but used properly they have such a poetical tragic potential. I think “Bois de Violette” is very close to my ideal, but it appears beautifully in a supporting role as well, as you mentioned with the extinct “L’Origan”. Have you tried Caron’s “Violette Precieuse”? I feel like I should get a bottle while there are still a few available.

    I’m currently working with one of the ionones (methyl ionone gamma “extra”) and find it to be a very versatile material. By comparison, I think this is the prominent one in “Bois de Violette”. November 4, 2005 at 9:36am Reply

  • Tania: How you have time to do this research on top of PhD coursework in an entirely unrelated and substantially difficult academic field, I have no idea. It’s all I can do to go to work, stumble home, and write a few pages of my novel. And here you are, for FUN, writing essays on ionones. You’re such a smarty-pants, V. 😉

    I avoided violet fragrances for years because of my experiences with some tawdry confectionary violets, but Violette Précieuse changed my mind. I was supposed to get a bottle of it a few days ago, but circumstances prevented me. But soon, I hope to have some soon. November 4, 2005 at 10:30am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Kaie, I am glad to hear it! It is a fascinating topic. November 4, 2005 at 10:51am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, thank you, you are very kind! I try my best. 🙂 November 4, 2005 at 10:54am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: M, I predict that you would indeed love Bois de Violette. It is a beautiful combination, and its exploration of wood and violet is very interesting. November 4, 2005 at 10:56am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Evan, it is quite true that some ionones have a tendency to lean towards the sweet violet. I can definitely see how adding certain sweet powdery notes to a composition with methyl ionone would just amplify its sweetness and lead to the effect you are talking about. Everything is contingent upon careful ornamentation. I love a touch of green in violet notes, and Violette Précieuse is definitely among my favourites. It has a dark, green tinged violet over a mossy Caron base, and even those who tend to dislike violet find it very appealing. I, of course, cannot get enough of violet/orris, therefore I bought a bottle as soon as I heard about possible discontinuation. I would definitely recommend it highly. November 4, 2005 at 11:06am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Håkan, I am glad that you liked my article and that reading about fragrance ingredients has such an effect! 🙂 Those macrocyclic musks… Ok, so you know, there will be more in the future. November 4, 2005 at 11:10am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: T, My brain needs a rest from an onslaught of reading about the electoral volatility in Eastern Europe and foreign direct investment flows. Writing on the ionones is my way of remaining sane, which incidentally may be an indication of my deviation from what is normal, but whatever… Of course, I love the topic of fragrance and fragrance chemistry, therefore it is a pleasure.

    I would not underestimate the amazing nature of your writing! You put so much effort in it, and that is obvious.

    As for Violette Précieuse, it is still available at various online discount stores. For now, at least. November 4, 2005 at 11:19am Reply

  • parislondres: Wonderful article dear V! Love many of the perfumes that you mentioned with ionones.

    Have a super weekend. :)) November 4, 2005 at 2:12pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Thank you, dear N! I am a big violet fan, just like you.

    Have a wonderful weekend! November 4, 2005 at 3:21pm Reply

  • Anya: Dear V, what great information you’ve presented here on the lowly orris root. I’m just starting to dabble with it in perfumery, having allowed my tincture of old, old powder to age a year and a half, and I recently obtained some 8% ionone “butter”. The powdery, flinty, dirty scent is wonderful, and I must say you’ve put it all into perspective.

    I had a great sexy, sweaty, golden photo jpg of a worker pushing a huge, fat, just-harvested root at the camera, but i can’t find it now. I will keep searching and send it on to you if I find it, because well, really, it says it so much better than a photo of the frilly flower 😉 Big ol’ grunty, dirty sassy root needs proper recognition! November 5, 2005 at 2:26pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Anya, thank you very much. I find orris to be a fascinating material, and while gathering the materials for the article, I was curious to discover that when Tiemann and Krüger conducted their experiments, they used orris oil because it was cheap. How times have changed!

    The scent is of course wonderful! I cannot agree more. I bet a photo of a sexy … wait, who is sexy, the worker or the root? 🙂 Either way, I would love to see the photo if you find it. November 6, 2005 at 1:00am Reply

  • Gretchen Watkins: I just purchased Oscar de la Renta’s Violet. Have I just succumbed to a cheesy mall-type eau de toilette that has no true “violet” in it? Your writing is very interesting. November 23, 2005 at 10:29pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Gretchen, I have not tried Oscar de la Renta Violet, however I cannot think of many fragrances that contain real violets. Their essence is very expensive and not particularly commercial to produce. Synthetic violet is quite good, and if the fragrance is done well, I am sure it does not matter whether it is natural or synthetic. Enjoy your new fragrance! November 23, 2005 at 10:51pm Reply

  • Ana: A long time ago I fell in love with Fidji (still an all time favourite) for its luscious violet note (so well blended yet still clearly beckoning!).. and found out later that it is orris… anyhow, it’s just beautiful. September 2, 2006 at 3:41pm Reply

  • Michaela: Your old article is dear to me, maybe because I love many of the perfumes mentioned here, especially old L’Air du Temps and Tresor.

    Just curious, is it true that violet scent temporarily blocks our smell receptors? I found the logic of violet scent persistence really interesting : April 9, 2015 at 6:53am Reply

    • Victoria: I read that too, and some people can’t even smell ionones at all. April 9, 2015 at 11:45am Reply

      • Michaela: How interesting! Now I’m happy I can 🙂 April 10, 2015 at 5:07am Reply

  • Judith Smith: Great! I’m beginning my journey as a dabbler in perfumery and ordered methyl ionone gamma coer before reading about the Grojsman accord…I seem to have included it’s skeleton in my small initial order… curious about all things perfume. So glad I found you just now! April 16, 2021 at 9:17am Reply

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