The Idea of Radiance and What It Means in Perfumery

Radiance in perfume is an elusive quality. The best way of understanding it is to envision a candle burning in a dark room, its glow lifting the dark shadows. A radiant fragrance is not necessarily a strong smell—it follows the wearer at a few paces, but it’s neither heavy nor overpowering. Capturing this duality seems impossible, but perfumers are adept at creating illusions.

Calice Becker is one such creator, and her fragrances illustrate the idea of radiance. Her Tommy Girl contains a green tea accord so luminous that it seems fluorescent. Another trendsetter is Becker’s Christian Dior J’Adore, a layer of flower notes as tightly woven as the millefiori ornaments of Murano glass. Perfumery students learn the craft much like artists, by copying the work of the masters, and when I was trying to achieve the variegated radiance of J’Adore, its complexity and nuances mesmerized—and confounded—me. Despite the conventional saying that too much knowledge kills the mystery, the experience made me appreciate both Becker’s craft and J’Adore’s lingering glow.

One of the recent creations by Becker is Kilian’s Moonlight in Heaven. It’s a complete vignette—an evening, the splash of waves, jasmine blossoms entangled in the hair, a banana leaf piled with sticky rice and mangoes, that famous Thai dessert, a salty kiss with an aftertaste of coconut cream.  On skin, it unfolds in soft layers, each as radiant as the one preceding it.

Another perfumer I admire for his ability to render scents luminous is Francis Kurkdjian. Having first studied ballet, Kurkdjian carries over the precision and grace of classical dance to his perfumery. For his eponymous line he has interpreted a variety of genres, from citrus to woods, and this year he has added Petit Matin and Grand Soir to the collection. The former is a bright orange blossom and amber theme. Grand Soir, on the other hand, is in the dark register, generous in resins and balsams. Such materials enrich a fragrance, but they also weigh it down and make it opaque. In Kurkdjian’s hands, however, the heavy notes are made as lucent as Renaissance enamels.

Finally, a discussion of radiant perfumes can’t miss the creations by Jean-Claude Ellena. From Van Cleef et Arpels First to Hermès Muguet Porcelaine, he has perfected the art of radiance. In one of my all-time favorite perfumes, Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, the eau de cologne theme is given a new guise. Instead of citrus and orange flower, it’s the tea and violet that set the mood. Initially Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert appears simple, but it soon reveals many unexpected contrasts—warm and bitter, spicy and sweet, shimmering and velvety. A delicate perfume, it has an impressive sillage, another surprise and Ellena’s trademark. Wearing this perfume is like being lit up by the soft morning light at all hours of the day.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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52 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thanks for writing about the phenomenon of radiance in perfumery; I’ve never fully understood the term. Methinks a radiant fragrance could especially suit those of us with pale complexions, which are essentially brighter than tanned ones.

    I was intrigued to hear that the task of reproducing J’Adore both mesmerized and confounded you. I really must try it again, because I’ve only sniffed it a couple of times.

    I also look forward to trying Petit Matin and Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert. November 16, 2020 at 7:32am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s not a correct term, of course, since perfumes don’t give off light, but as a metaphor for brightness and diffusion, it’s become widely used. Petit Matin and Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert are some of my favorite examples. The original J’Adore is too; the current one has lost some of the radiance. November 16, 2020 at 8:51am Reply

      • Merry D: Which of the flankers of j adore do you think is closer to the original? Or none of them? November 16, 2020 at 10:11am Reply

        • Victoria: I don’t think that any of them are close, since they take the idea of J’Adore further from what it used to be. I do like J’Adore Absolu, though. There was also a jasmine version, which smelled vivid and bright, but with a twist. November 16, 2020 at 1:35pm Reply

      • Natalie: Hi Victoria, I wore the original J’Adore and it was my most complimented perfume ever. It has changed and I no longer wear it, sadly. November 16, 2020 at 10:47am Reply

        • Victoria: Same for me. Whenever I wore it, I had strangers asking me about my perfume. November 16, 2020 at 1:35pm Reply

  • Damiana: Beautiful article that explains the concept of radiance in fragrance very well. An example I can think of is Neroli Intense by Parfums de Nicolai, which combines neroli, orange blossom, and petitgrain with beeswax and musk. Very luminous and chic. November 16, 2020 at 8:37am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s such a beautiful, well-made perfume. I also like it very much. November 16, 2020 at 8:51am Reply

      • Damiana: Victoria, would you consider Parfums de Nicolai Neroli Intense a radiant perfume? Perhaps the “light” sensation it emits is a bit brighter than that? I immediately thought of it when you mentioned radiance. Thank you 🙂 November 16, 2020 at 9:19pm Reply

        • Victoria: I think that it’s radiant. It’s a beautiful fragrance and has a nicely rendered brightness. November 17, 2020 at 2:53pm Reply

  • Hilde: Hi Victoria.
    The image You gave of a radiant perfume, is very well done. However I still can’t get it completely.

    Van Cleef & Arpels is a perfume that belongs for about 20 years to my favourites. And when I imagine the smell of it (it is some years ago that I have worn it), I must think of Cartier Baisé Volé (I don’t know why).

    Should You classifie Baisé Volé as a radiant perfume? November 16, 2020 at 9:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, Baiser Volé is a radiant perfume. November 16, 2020 at 9:40am Reply

    • Peter: Hello Hilde. I’m also a huge fan of VC&A First. I recently sampled Baiser Vole and I was hooked. I don’t have a Lily perfume, so it’s next on my wish list (especially with Victoria’s seal of approval). November 16, 2020 at 5:56pm Reply

      • Victoria: The EDT and the EDP are quite different, although both are good. It’s worth trying them side by side, if you have a chance. November 17, 2020 at 2:53pm Reply

  • Lema: Victoria, I love the idea of radiance, but what would the opposite be-in a perfume. You often hear that some scents are sad, or nostalgic but that’s not the opposite of radiant… November 16, 2020 at 9:54am Reply

    • Figuier: Lema, I really like Mona de Orio Violette Fumee, yet for me it’s the opposite of radiant: it’s dense, almost chewy, and although well made it’s difficult to tease apart the different components. So maybe ‘dense’ would be the opposite of radiant? November 16, 2020 at 11:11am Reply

    • Nina Z: I also love Love and Tears, but a little goes a long way for me. Once I dabbed on a bit before going outside to meet a friend at current social distancing rules and standing in my front garden she said, “You smell so good!” I was so surprised. Haha, at least she liked it. I do admire Calice Becker’s work in general, and now that you’ve described it, I really want to try Moonlight in Heaven. (Although I sniffed all of the original By Kilian releases, I’ve completely fallen behind on the ones since then and feel overwhelmed.) November 16, 2020 at 11:24am Reply

      • Nina Z: Oops! Wrong place for this one. Meant it to be at the top level. November 16, 2020 at 11:27am Reply

      • Victoria: It’s hard to keep up with everything. The original core collection still remains my favorite. November 16, 2020 at 1:37pm Reply

      • Figuier: Nina, that’s a clear proof of radiance! With social distancing plus mask wearing I take it for granted I can wear more perfume, but I suspect that sometimes I’m wafting more than I should – tho I guess at least it’s a prompt to others to keep their distance 🙂 November 17, 2020 at 6:13am Reply

    • Nina Z: I would say a scent that is darker and more dense and wears closer to the body. I need some time to come up with some examples. November 16, 2020 at 11:26am Reply

      • Nina Z: Many of the Amouage fragrances are what I’d call the opposite of radiant. They are rich, dense, and complex. I love several, but they are not exactly filled with “light.” For example, Ubar is a lily of the valley fragrance but with a lot of sandalwood and frankincense, it’s beautiful but not radiant. November 18, 2020 at 4:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: A great question! Powdery would probably be the opposite for me in terms of effect. Or perhaps something heavy, sweet, caramel and cotton candy-like. November 16, 2020 at 1:33pm Reply

  • Figuier: Lovely article, Victoria. Calice Becker is great at rasiance, I agree. Her ‘Love and Tears’, also for By Kilian, is one of my favourite jasmines. November 16, 2020 at 11:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you!
      It’s also one of my favorites. Such a polished, elegant jasmine, but with plenty of opulence and luscious heft. November 16, 2020 at 1:37pm Reply

  • Peter: Mahalo Victoria, for this radiant post. You are so gifted with descriptive imagery. I know that when I smell Moonlight in Heaven, I’ll be at your tropical beach with a fragrant breeze. November 16, 2020 at 5:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Peter! I’m glad that you liked the piece. 🙂 November 17, 2020 at 2:52pm Reply

  • Sherry Frantz: I smelled Petit Matin today and was instantly.in love. It’s radiant and yet gentle. I purchased Bulgari Au Very thanks to you. It’s stunning and I love it so much. Sometimes it reminds me of Elizabeth Arden’s Green Tea. Why? November 16, 2020 at 9:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Green Tea is inspired by Bulgari, so you’re spot on in zeroing in on the similarities. November 17, 2020 at 2:54pm Reply

      • sherry: Aha! Excellent. I’m learning finally 🙂 November 17, 2020 at 2:56pm Reply

        • Victoria: Brava! You’ve nailed it. 🙂 November 17, 2020 at 2:57pm Reply

  • Fazal: Great article, I agree with almost everything. I also love Bvlgari Eau the Vert but Extreme version though Extreme is a bit harsh on the nose when you just spray it.

    Kurkdjian is def. pursuing the radiance path. I think this is more evident in the compositions for his namesake line. He is more adventurous when creating fragrances for brands. With the exception of BR540, I am more a fan of his compositions for other brands than the ones under his namesake line. Kurkdjian is a brilliant perfumer but I think his real talent emerges during collaborations with talented creative directors.

    And I am just reminded of the fact that even BR540 is not exactly his own idea; it emerged from his collaboration with Baccarat. He first made it for Baccarat before the composition found its way to its namesake brand. I think he nailed the brief quite well. I don’t know what the brief might have been but I imagine it to be something like this “Capture the essence of molten glass”, given the nature of the craft Baccarat is renowned for. November 17, 2020 at 4:03am Reply

    • Victoria: One of the problems of perfumer-led lines is the lack of coherence and editing. It’s like being free from evaluators, they’re unable to pare down the collection. Or even pare down the formula. I do think that the best results happen when a great perfumer works with a great evaluator. Sadly, the work of evaluators is rarely lauded the way it should be. November 17, 2020 at 2:56pm Reply

      • Fazal: Yeah. It took such a long time for the perfumers to be acknowledged and Malle does deserve the credit for being the one who started this trend. Hopefully, others involved in the process such as evaluators get their due in the future also. I think brands and even perfumers can start this trend by namedropping the evaluators and others whose creative input influenced the final product in a major way. November 17, 2020 at 3:39pm Reply

  • Jodee: Au Thé Vert is stunning. I sampled it for the first time at the Georges V in Paris where they use Bulgari Au Thé Vert soaps and shampoos. Now I always associate the scent with that lovely hotel.

    Recently I discovered Wulong Cha by Nishane and it struck me as light and airy with the same radiance as the Bulgari scent. It is also a tea scent but maybe has a stronger floral element? It is definitely one that radiates happiness and light. November 17, 2020 at 6:24pm Reply

  • Aurora: There is one perfume that strikes me as radiant but also chilly, it is Wrappings. November 18, 2020 at 6:33am Reply

    • Old Herbaceous: Ooh, I love Wrappings! Thanks for the reminder to pull it out, this is a great time of year for it. November 18, 2020 at 8:55pm Reply

      • Aurora: Oh yes, perfect for this time of year. November 20, 2020 at 1:56am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: Wonderful article! I think of radiance in fragrance in two different aspects. One is the light kind of radiance, with a brightness that lifts the whole fragrance. The second is more about warmth, a glow that diffuses the other notes. An example of the first, for me, is Cartier’s Carat, by Mathilde Laurent. An example of the second is Hermes’ L’Ambre des Merveills, by Jean-Claude Ellena. I love them both. November 18, 2020 at 8:53pm Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hello Old Herbaceous!
      You describe the two types of radiance so beautifully. I immediately see what you mean. Radiance in perfumes is a concept I find easy to grasp. On the other hand, I find the word “solar” as a perfume descriptor very fuzzy. Where would you place “solar” on the spectrum of light diffusion in perfumes? You refer to brightness and glow for the two types. What would fit solar?

      I would really like to hear your description, because you described the other two so well. Thanks! November 19, 2020 at 4:31pm Reply

      • Victoria: The term solar simply means a warm and radiant effect, but since it’s a marketing term, rather than a perfumery term, sometimes I see used for just about anything, almost like a positive descriptor! November 20, 2020 at 5:52am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! In perfumery, without materials that give brightness, warm materials won’t appear radiant. So, it’s more of a complementary idea, rather different types of effects. I don’t know Carat, but if you compare L’Ambre des Merveilles and Jour d’Hermes, both radiant perfumes, both by Ellena, you’ll see that it’s similar types of materials that give them a radiant feeling. On the other hand, the other elements in the composition will determine whether they smell bright and fresh or warm and soft. November 20, 2020 at 5:47am Reply

  • Melissa: I appreciate the topic and the discussion. The line that comes to my mind is Ormonde Jayne. This doesn’t apply to all of the fragrances in the line, but Osmanthus, Champaca, Tiare and even Ta’if, which one would expect to be more dense, all shine off of the skin. I don’t wear all of these, in fact, what some might find radiant (or bright or luminous) I sometimes experience as high-pitched or intrusive on my own skin. But a friend who wears quite a few of the OJ florals practically glows when she approaches. November 19, 2020 at 7:22am Reply

  • Lily: My go-to radiant perfume is YSL Cinema. I call it Sunshine in a Bottle. I also feel radiant fits Hermès Galop and ELDO Noel au Balcon, but is less the dominant descriptor for them for me. November 19, 2020 at 11:55am Reply

  • Klaas: L’Air du Desert Marocain is one of the most radiant fragrances I know. I find it a bit hard to wear (it overwhelms me, and my partner even more), but when I do wear it, it is like my skin is aglow with warm light. The perfume realy lends an aura of light to the wearer; I find the effect quite spectacular! Maitre P&G Parfum d’Habit is the same, but on a smaller scale, and more trasparent, which makes it a lot easier to pull off.

    Ellena’s Osmanthe Yunnan and Eau de Neroli Doree also shine, I find. November 19, 2020 at 4:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: Ellena is the master of radiance! November 20, 2020 at 5:52am Reply

  • Klaas: Yes, he is…..and of transparency, and of lightness, and of simplicity, and of understated chic. I am a big fan 😉 November 20, 2020 at 6:55am Reply

    • Victoria: I find that Ellena’s fragrances are easy to wear, and yet they keep my interest and don’t get too predictable. November 20, 2020 at 7:45am Reply

  • Klaas: Indeed Victoria. They are elegant and simple, but also incredibly clever. Even though a lot of his fragrances are linear, they stay very much alive on skin. They keep on drawing you in so to say. Especially the Hermessences…….(almost) all of them are so special! November 20, 2020 at 9:36am Reply

  • Nick: Creating radiance can be tricky and requires experiences–I’ve recently learnt this first-hand when I’ve been asked to come up with a perfumistic gardenia.

    I dosed ‘too much’ of the material that, I think, adds to the piquant, green freshness aspect but ended up having a flat, languid accord. I contemplated about all the components in terms of evaporation to find the culprit and then decided to reduce the dose of this material by 15%. Et voilà: it breathes, shines, and even retains this fresh aspect through to the drydown.

    Such ingenius to have explored the raw materials so thoroughly and painstakingly! November 21, 2020 at 6:31am Reply

  • John: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this article! It now has me longing for an exhaustive list of particularly radiant perfumes. With this in mind (and with no intention of distracting with too great a tangent), I was recalling your comparison of vintage and current (well, circa 2007) Guerlain formulations, specifically of Shalimar, in which you remarked that the vintage was more radiant owing to its natural ambergris content. On the topic of Shalimar, I have a question concerning its varied formulations if anyone is interested in addressing it…

    Some months ago, I gifted my 17 year old daughter the newer ‘Shalimar Cologne’ EDT (not the EDC — confusing name!) Though the opening has a transparent melange of citrus and freesia, the heart is absolutely the lemon custard and contagious, sticky-shadowed vanilla we all know and love. She certainly loves it. Now that I know she and Shalimar get along, I’ve been wanting to find another version for her to try out. I had my eye on either the current EDT (baby steps) or the more winter-appropriate EDP, but recently a very, very reasonably priced sealed, boxed bottle of what looks like the 1990’s-era EDT appeared on my radar (taller urn-like ribbed bottle, big blue label, golden box). Does anyone have any thoughts as to whether this seems like a bottle worth buying? I know some reformulations have actually been smoothed out since the turn of this century, and also that true Shalimaniacs (like the richly expansive reviewer on Kafkaesque) would reject a 1990’s bottle out of hand, but I’m just getting acquainted with this lovely cult!

    Thank you for any thoughts you may have, and again, please pardon my intrusion. I should have waited until ‘recommend me a perfume’ came around again but you all know so much that I’m hoping you can help me with some time-sensitive Christmas shopping… November 22, 2020 at 10:09pm Reply

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