My Name is Red : Perfumes That Evoke Scarlet

“I’m so fortunate to be red! I’m fiery. I’m strong. I know men take notice of me and that I cannot be resisted… Wherever I’m spread, I see eyes shine, passions increase, eyebrows rise and heartbeats quicken. Behold how wonderful it is to live! Behold how wonderful to see. I am everywhere. Life begins with and returns to me.”

This description of the color of blood and roses from Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, has stayed with me ever since I first read the novel while studying perfumery. At the time, one of the exercises we were doing involved matching scents to colors, and so I started looking for a fragrance that evoked the same intensity as Pamuk’s description.

The obvious suspects like roses and raspberries were cast aside. I was after drama, rather than mere associations. Once while leafing through an album of Indian miniature paintings, I had an epiphany—sandalwood smells red. The 16th century vignettes painted during the Mughal era depicted women making sandalwood paste, and their activity reminded of the time I had spent in India, especially of the bright colors and smells.

I tested my hypothesis by wearing Serge Lutens’s Santal de Mysore. Based on the scent of the prized Indian sandalwood, the perfume was sumptuous and rich. Its caraway and pepper tinged opening had an ochre undertone, but as the fragrance developed and its woody accord unfolded completely, it revealed layers of crimson and scarlet.

With one successful red redolent example, I continued my quest and came across Tom Ford’s Plum Japonais. Its combination of saffron, cinnamon and plum was decadent, and while the color I envisioned ranged from burgundy to dark violet, it had an unmistakable red cast. The drydown of woods and vanilla reminded me of red lacquered tableware from in Kyoto. In my attempt to hone my synesthetic skills, I conjured up different visions—red velvet, cinnabar carvings and pomegranate juice, and Plum Japonais evoked them perfectly.

Yet, the most dramatic red perfume for me turned out to be a classic, Chanel’s Coco. The house describes the composition as baroque, juxtaposing the freshness of mandarins with the opulence of flowers and balsams. I smelled yellow citrus and magenta jasmine, and just as these two colors can be combined to result in red, in my mind Coco assumed a ruby hue. The Eau de Parfum was brighter, dappled with orange, but the extrait de parfum was pure vermillion. “I do not conceal myself: For me, delicacy manifests itself neither in weakness nor in subtlety, but through determination and will,” wrote Pamuk about the color red. He could have been describing Coco.

What perfume evokes red for you?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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49 Comments

  • Damiana: I love this novel by Pamuk too! And I agree that Samsara smells red. Another fragrance that evokes this color for me is Vapeurs Diablotines by Sous le Manteau. January 31, 2022 at 8:05am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, that one does to me too! January 31, 2022 at 8:34am Reply

  • Michele Davis: I love Serge Lutens, Fille de Berlin, to which you introduced me. Yes, it is a rose but oh, it is so deeply red, so jammy and spicy. LOVE IT when in the mood. January 31, 2022 at 9:20am Reply

    • Iolanda: I would say the same, La fille de Berlin is definitely red! February 1, 2022 at 8:04am Reply

  • Figuier: I love this idea, and also how subjective and personal the associations are likely to be. For me clove and cinnamon are the ‘reddest’ smells, especially when paired with woods – I think the associations are with big red chewing gum and carnations. Opium is definitely red. January 31, 2022 at 9:24am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Fiery red is for me Opium edp or Youth Dew.
    Bright red is to my feeling a tuberose, like Fracas, or, if the red is more velvety, J’ Adore Infinissime.
    Dark red? Poison.
    I like this aticle, because I always try to adept my perfume to the colour I am wearing. Thefor I mostly wear black, goes with almost everything. January 31, 2022 at 9:29am Reply

    • irem: Hello Cornelia! Your comment made me realize I do the same: My perfumes and colors of clothing need to go with each other, too. Sometimes they can clash terribly: the other day, I was wearing Dior Dune while wearing a sapphire blue colored top and it felt so wrong. But then, I have almost always trouble with Dune because it does not go well with my color palette. And yes, black goes with everything – or almost everything. Wishy washy florals are the perfume equivalent of pastels if you ask me, and they do not even go with black. January 31, 2022 at 10:11pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Hallo Irem! Which wishy washy florals do you wear? I like Gabrielle and Flora Nymphea. If I wear my usual black, I put on a bright coloured silk scarf to match with these perfumes. February 1, 2022 at 5:07am Reply

    • JulienFromDijon: Same here for Opium EDP. The one around 2000 had red roses, red carnation (cloves), red myrrh.
      It also had a strange balance of acid and sweetness (the older version of the edp, called “secret de parfum”, are often ruined because of this acidic tension).

      The closer perfume to Opium EDP of yore is “Sinbad” from Lubin exclusive line. It smells more of warm burning lemon tree wood. It has pink pepper, orange flower absolute, red roses, fine cinnamon, and the dandified wood. But it goes the same fine line between sweet floral and too acidic. It smells more cosy and friendly than adventurous, despite its name. (and lacks of Opium EDP unsettling mystery)

      I fail to find a perfume that cast a vivid optimist red, one without something mysterious lurking behind. One carefree poppy red. I’ve never smelled Guerlain’s “Fleur de feu”, but that could be it. February 7, 2022 at 6:47pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: As always, your comment is instructive! February 8, 2022 at 3:02am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: ”article” and ”therefore” sorry. I hate my computer, can’t get used to Windows. January 31, 2022 at 9:34am Reply

  • Debi Sen Gupta: I haven’t given this much thought but amongst my collection, probably Jo Malone velvet rose and oudh fits the bill. It’s this sultry rose with the oud adding the spicy notes. January 31, 2022 at 10:31am Reply

  • Donna: Cinnabar… a dangerous, mysterious red January 31, 2022 at 10:39am Reply

    • Invicta: Dangerous indeed! So dangerous I had to sell it. hehe In another era, in another gender, in another lifetime, it might’ve worked for me, but not in my current reality. March 5, 2022 at 1:38pm Reply

  • AndreaR: The first thing that popped into my mind was Frederic Malle’s Lipstick Rose. January 31, 2022 at 10:51am Reply

  • Ava: for me, it has to be the Rose Pompon eau de parfum, not edt. the EDP is so lush and complex. raspberries, jammy rose with vanilla and a bit of wood, not too sweet, but surprisingly sultry and long-lasting. it was a massive surprise to me as I have not cared for any new goutal releases since…maybe ninfeo mio? it is absolutely a “red’ perfume and I hope others try it as a I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem in the line! January 31, 2022 at 10:51am Reply

  • Alityke: There are the usual suspects, Cinnabar & Opium. I have always suspected the names preceded the actual scents. Do tge scents were made to smell “red”. Coco falls into this genre as per your article.
    Carnation & cloves are the ultimate red smells in nature. Red Moscow, Belladogia & Terracotta Voile d’Ete are all heavily imbued with frilly red petals. Of course, Comme de Garçons have released a whole Red Series & recently released Rouge with a central beetroot note January 31, 2022 at 11:11am Reply

  • Elisabeth Genest: I initially thought of Guerlain’s Nahema 🙂 January 31, 2022 at 11:57am Reply

  • Ewan: It’s not easy for me to imagine the smell as a colour, aromas tend to evoke in me spaces, rooms, artefacts in those rooms, times past, imaginary and real.

    Nevertheless a book that might interest some:

    Juice of Life: The Symbolic and Magic Significance of Blood.
    Prof. Piero Camporesi

    The original is in Italian. January 31, 2022 at 12:03pm Reply

    • Christine: For me crimson, Scarlett, blood red that’s none other than Une Rose by Malle. It is pure gorgeousness. And it evokes the blood of a thorn-pricked finger. And I will say that the cinnamon and clove redolent Opium gives me a very fiery impression, of flames like red banners embroidered with golden thread. January 31, 2022 at 3:50pm Reply

  • Dorothee Teboul: At the momment “ Au Couer Du Désert” evokes red for me. I frequently use travel atomisers for my perfumes, and try to pick a colour that evokes the sense of my perfume. I picked a deep rich red for this one. January 31, 2022 at 1:36pm Reply

  • matty1649: As already mentioned by other posters…
    Lipstick Rose
    Velvet Rose and Oud
    Rose Pom Pom
    Opium

    I’ll add Rose Jam January 31, 2022 at 3:35pm Reply

  • Fazal: To me, one of the ultimate red perfumes is Lutens La Fille de Berlin. I also think that the red bottles of Givenchy Xeryus Rouge and Chopard Madness do justice to their compositions that do seem to embody red more than any other color. January 31, 2022 at 3:53pm Reply

  • Christine N. Kalleeny: For me crimson, scarlett, blood red that’s none other than Une Rose by Malle. It is pure gorgeousness. And it evokes the blood of a thorn-pricked finger. And I will say that the cinnamon and clove redolent Opium gives me a very fiery impression, of flames like red banners embroidered with golden thread. January 31, 2022 at 4:24pm Reply

  • Valentyna: That’s a headscratcher, haha! It took me a while, but probably carmin red would be a perfume with a strong and realistic saffron. Unfortunately I have not met one like that!
    And somehow Lutens Fils de Joie is red, just as red as the juice in the bottle – it smells like a drunk-on-red-wine jasmine, with all those tannins and a heavy dose of ylang! So this one will be kind of deep red shade. January 31, 2022 at 4:27pm Reply

  • Muireann: Gucci Rush is the reddest perfume of all in my opinion – the scent is as extroverted, loud and bold as its bottle! It always seemed to me like the perfumer has synaesthesia, and was instructed to create a “red” perfume. January 31, 2022 at 4:58pm Reply

  • Helen Miskin: Jo Malone Scarlett Poppy, which I am wearing today! Beautiful red bottle and certainly is a red fragrance. It’s beautiful and I adore it. January 31, 2022 at 5:12pm Reply

  • Joy: I agree w/FM Une Rose for sure. Also, I don’t know how many people have tried Mona di Orio’s Alinea collection but Vermilion Wood absolutely evokes red/crimson to me. I think the perfumer nailed it. January 31, 2022 at 5:23pm Reply

  • Emily: Not at all scarlet, but Papillon’s Anubis is definitely burgundy suede to me. January 31, 2022 at 6:19pm Reply

  • Marianne: Chanel no.5 evokes a lush red to me. Marilyn Monroe with bold sultry red lipstick, golden hair and a gleaming strawberry red sheath dress. January 31, 2022 at 6:49pm Reply

  • john: I look forward to the thought of more articles considering colour! Your article makes me wonder about a lot of the fragrances I own and how I might line them up if I were representing a colour wheel.

    I suppose it is part of the poetics of branding and sales to find names, labels and even the colour of the perfume, but I find that my notion of colour is strongly influenced by all of these extra-olfactory cues… Opium feels ‘red’ to me, as does Old Spice (I’ve always found some sympathy between the two!); in both cases, packaging may play a part, even unto the specific red… Opium’s cap (my bottle is vintage) is a sort of burnt oxide red (like Venetian red), which makes me think of resins, while both the packaging and the clean clove of Old Spice feels less complex, perhaps Napthol red (the colour of geraniums in travel photos of Greece) tinted down just enough to neutralize its glare by little by a splash of creamy white (confession: I am an oil painter.)

    I wear Habit Rouge very often and think of it as a rosy red, but not so much in essence as effect, rose-tinted glasses, or humming la vie en rose, or looking at the 1930’s painting of the same name by Raoul Dufy. I would the smell of Habit Rouge by taking a rich, kind of regal red like Alizarin Crimson and adding the cool and translucent zinc white. There would be a bit of honey-like stand oil and glossy damar resin solution in the mix. January 31, 2022 at 8:26pm Reply

  • Perfumatrix: Musc Ravageur, possibly, with the prominent cinnamon-red note? Portrait of a Lady too. The juicy red tang of Hermes’s Eau de Rhubarbe Escarlate.
    I am a carnation addict, so I would add Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier’s Soie Rouge (which no one on the planet likes except me), Vitriol de Oeillet, and Oeillet Sauvage. I would add the spicy feminine florals, Femme by Rochas (the 1940s original, and the cumin-laden reformulation) Jasmin Rouge by Tom Ford, and Contessa by Moresque.

    Also, for a pink-tinged cerise colour, we’ve got Rouge Smoking by BDK Parfums, and –yes–Lost Cherry by Tom Ford. January 31, 2022 at 10:36pm Reply

    • Perfumatrix: Also, has anyone mentioned Oncle Serge’s Sa Majeste la Rose? Also, Sisley’s magnificent chypre, Soir d’Orient, or Tom Ford’s Noir de Noir (a very red rose and chocolate, not black at all–and his Noir pour Femme and Noir Extreme are cinnamon-brown). February 4, 2022 at 12:39am Reply

  • Cyndi: Red fragrances for me are Chanel Coco edp, SL La fille de Berlin, Guerlain Nahema, YSL Opium, and Guerlain Shalimar. This seems like my staple winter perfume collection! January 31, 2022 at 11:26pm Reply

  • Ramin: Un jardin sur la lagune
    .
    I feel this perfume red, with a little yellow and blue.
    I do not know where the red color is, rose, rhubarb?
    Or the mental image of a perfume designer?
    Or the spectrum of light that was in the mind of the perfume designer?
    Do you feel it red too?
    #d64015
    .
    .
    .
    Her true color is in her shadow. The rose is not white, she is red. February 1, 2022 at 2:43am Reply

  • Fleurycat: Opium (the spice route and red lacqueur)
    Lancôme Magie Noire (original EDP)
    Chanel Coco EDP
    I don’t really know Samsara but it sounds Red
    Oha EDP (though a rosy red)
    Marnie (peppery red) and Marnie Rose
    Hermes Eau de Rhubarbe Escarlate though light and bright, a juicy red;
    Although I understand the carnation association, many carnation scents like Bellodgia have a powdery aspect that I don’t associate with the red.
    A lovely exercise. So subjective. I’m sure to think of more tomorrow. February 1, 2022 at 4:15am Reply

  • Aki: Off the top of my head, I will say Coromandel by Chanel Les Exclusifs.. I think of it mainly because each time I wear the perfume, I think of the Coromandel reddish screens of Coco Chanel’s apartment at 31 rue Cambon.. The lacquered wooden panels – only seen in various photos – really defined her interiors and made them look so unique and mysterious. February 1, 2022 at 8:20am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for your delightful article. Many years ago, I made a list of colours and the perfumes I associated with each one. It is somewhere on a flash drive, but I have gone through my perfume list and identified the ones I think of as “red”. There were significantly more than I thought there would be. It turns out that I am heavily influenced by the fragrance name and the colour of the packaging.

    1. Red Apple (Yves Rocher) This was actually a fragrance for children, but it looked so pretty that I bought a bottle, many years ago now. It smells just like toffee apple!

    2. Strawberry (Body Shop) Of course, it smells just like strawberries.

    3. Paris (Yves Saint Laurent 1983) This beauty makes me think of deep true pinks merging into true reds.

    4. Bellodgia (Caron 1927) I associate this one with either hot pink or red.

    5. Ivresse d’Été (Yves Rocher) (from the Folies de Saisons range) The scent contains citrus, fruit and flowers, and I think of it as orange-red.

    6. Nina (Nina Ricci 2006) The bottle is shaped like an apple, and the juice is red. What more need I say!

    7. Red Door (Elizabeth Arden 1989) Red door and red box…

    8. L’Aimant (Coty 1927) I think of this fragrance as extremely versatile, in that it can go with any colour and be worn for any occasion, but I especially think of it as red, due to its bright and classic nature, like red nail polish.

    9. Bal à Versailles (Jean Desprez 1962) This is a deep red.

    10. Tocade (Rochas 1994) This is a bright, true red.

    11. Ombre Rose (Jean-Charles Brosseau 1981) This is a burnt red.

    12. Lipstick Rose (Frédérick Malle 2000) This is a purply red.

    13. Phul-Nana (Grossmith 1891) This could be any red at all, from pinky reds to corals, as in an Indian paisley print.

    14. Rare Rubies (Avon 1999) Avon’s version of Elizabeth Taylor’s “Diamonds and Rubies”…

    15. Loulou (Cacharel 1987) This is a highly pigmented true red.

    16. Rose Ispahan (Yves Rocher 1996) The box is red and the fragrance is rich. This is another burnt red, on account of the rose, amber, spices and vanilla in the scent.

    17. Habit Rouge (Guerlain 1965) All those red riding jackets!

    18. Shalimar (Guerlain 1925) This could be burgundy or just a dark red (like my favourite crushed velvet jacket).

    19. Chantilly (Houbigant/Dana 1941) Maroon

    20. Moschino (Moschino1987) This is another true red.

    21. Ciara (Ultima II/Revlon 1973) This is raspberry!

    22. Diamonds and Rubies (Elizabeth Taylor 1993) A ruby-red beauty.

    23. Unforgettable (Revlon 1990) This is so strong and long-lasting that it has to be red. Soon after it was released, a colleague made the mistake of wearing it to work, but only once!

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline February 1, 2022 at 9:16am Reply

  • Carys: I agree with Coromandel. I also think that Kenzo Jungle Elephant’s an orange toned red. Amouage Lyric is blue red. For me, FM Lipstick Rose is a rich pink, rather than red. February 1, 2022 at 12:09pm Reply

  • Shelley: What about Majda Bekkali’s “Mon Nom est Rouge”? It’s wonderful, sexy, and very long lasting. Anybody else know it? February 1, 2022 at 12:57pm Reply

  • patricia: Hermès Rouge – formerly known as Parfum d’Hermès: very elegant spicy deep red rose. Masterpiece. Nowadays very difficult to find. February 1, 2022 at 1:18pm Reply

  • Neroli: Birmane invokes red to me, as well as Samsara. February 1, 2022 at 2:59pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: And what do you all think about the New Red Offerings: L‘eau rouge No 1 by Chanel? Red, red camelia flowers greeting me from all Chanel ads. I guess as a body mist it‘ll be the vaguest of pale pink, but yet the name and the bold, signal red flacon! February 1, 2022 at 4:11pm Reply

  • Hilde: At first instance, it was difficult for me to think of a perfume which has a connotation with the colour red. But there is one and in fact the only one that comes up in my mind: Givenchy Ysatis.

    It is classified as a chypre, but it is not a green chypre. It is at the same time also powdery floral at the extreme. It are the spicy notes in combination with the tuberose and orange blossom, that makes it also very sultry. A lady in a glamorous satin red evening dress is just what I can imagine with it. February 2, 2022 at 2:57am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Cedar-centric fragrances seem ‘red’ to me. Some cedar and other coniferous trees in the US have reddish bark so these types of woody scents evoke the color ‘red’ for me. Also, fragrances with lots of cinnamon and amber, like Cinnabar, make me think of red colors. February 2, 2022 at 11:55am Reply

  • Danaki: Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady is a dark burgundy red. Aromatics Elixir is orangey brick red. I recently bought Dior Rouge 999 which is a pure red but can’t seem to match it yet with anything I own. February 2, 2022 at 6:08pm Reply

  • Madaris: My reds are Tom Ford’s Lost Cherry, Frederic Malle’s Lipstick Rose, Replica’s Lipstick On, YSL’s Paris, Kenzo’s Elephant, and EL’s Cinnabar. Lost Cherry has become my signature fragrance (for all seasons except summer) though it’s deep red emotional quality suits winter best. February 2, 2022 at 10:53pm Reply

  • Muriel: Thank you Victoria for this nice exercise of bringing smells and colors together. I must admit that doing this exercise brings me some peace of mind! So… I tried to find smells that would evoke red to me, but I don’t know enough perfumes to do so, but I have quite a few essential oils and the first ones I thought of were Atlas cedar wood and juniper…now I have no idea if those were ever used together in perfumery and if the result would smell red to me… but since you know so many perfumes, maybe you might have some examples of such perfumes? do they smell red? February 4, 2022 at 6:31am Reply

  • Invicta: Here’s an interesting thought, Hypnotic Poison as a quiet red, if there could be such a thing. And not only because the bottle is red, but it evokes in me a sense of passion, but in a softer, more come-hither way. Not bold, not loud, not the least bit aggressive, yet still irresistibly powerful of its own accord. March 5, 2022 at 1:45pm Reply

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