violet: 9 posts

Fascinating Perfumery: How Violets and Ionones Made History

It’s not an understatement to say that without the humble violet we wouldn’t have perfumery as we know it today. At the end of the 19th century when the fashion for violet perfumes was all the rage, several German chemists set out to isolate the aroma-material that gives this flower its delicate and yet persistent scent. Until then violet essence was distilled from the flowers of Viola odorata, a process that required more than 33,000 kg of flowers to obtain a kilogram of violet oil. The search for Veilchenduft, the scent of violet, led to the discovery and isolation of ionones, a class of materials that are sweet and powdery.

In today’s film, I describe how this violet-scented revolution happened and compare different types of ionones. The term ionone is derived from the Greek word “iona,” which means violet, and “ketone” referring to its chemical structure. Several isomeric ionones occur naturally in flowers like rose and violet as well as in different fruit and berries. Fine grades of Japanese green tea are rich in ionones as is milk–if a cow eats ionone-rich alfalfa, ionones will then be found in its milk.

I mention several violet gold standards such as

Coty L’Origan

Guerlain L’Heure Bleue

Chanel No 19

Chanel Coco

Rochas Femme

Yves Saint Laurent Paris

Lancôme Trésor

This episode focuses more on the classics, and in the next film I will discuss modern fragrances featuring ionones. Ionones: Sweet and Powdery includes even more perfumes and information on these fascinating materials.

Of course, I would love to hear about your favorite violets, vintage or modern. 

How Artist Serge Lutens Revolutionized Perfumery

In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness, and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without,” he says. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.

Inspired by Calvino, I decided to draw up a personal list of perfume classics, creations that reflect their moment and yet have timeless relevance. The first I selected was Serge Lutens’ Féminité du Bois, a fragrance conceived by the artist and photographer for Japanese brand Shiseido in 1992. Lutens wanted a perfume based on the Atlas cedarwood, and he sought to convey the softness of the ingredient that beguiled him ever since he came to Morocco in the 1960s. Initially when Lutens talked to the perfumers about his idea, he encountered a lack of comprehension. Cedarwood was traditionally treated as a sharp, masculine note and few fragrance professionals understood how to reinterpret it in a different guise.

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Why Violet Perfumes Retain Their Timeless Appeal

Swan down puffs, lace camisoles, ivory fans, tulle skirts, satin shoes… If these words evoke an appealing vision for you, then you’re the right candidate for a Victorian violet perfume. While the 19th century under the reign of Queen Victoria is often described as conventional and stuffy, the favorite aromas of the period might likewise be seen as uninspiring. Nothing could be further from truth. Despite its reputation for being overly dainty and demure, violet has a complex aroma with a fascinating history–and it retains its timeless appeal.

The Victorian era was a period of great changes in society, and the simple example of a violet cologne is a good illustration for the dynamics of the time. Violet waters became popular long before Victoria was crowned a queen, and they were highly sought after for their sweet scent with nuances of raspberry and rose.  At first, fragrances based on this flower were derived from Parma violets via the painstaking process of collecting tiny blossoms and extracting their essence.  It made violet a costly and luxurious perfume available only to the select few.

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Penhaligon’s The Favourite : Perfume Review

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I try not to read the marketing material before testing a perfume–and with good reason. If I had learned that Penhaligon’s The Favourite was inspired by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, I wouldn’t have described it as soft, ethereal and tender. It’s hard to imagine those adjectives applied to the favorite of Queen Anne and a prominent personality of 18th century Britain. A strong-willed woman who wielded power behind the throne, she evokes for me something more assertive than a musky floral. That being said, The Favourite is a lovely thing, and however mismatched its character and its story might be, I’m reaching for it whenever I want something comforting and elegant.

The appealing aspect of The Favourite is how it combines floral and fruity notes with a hint of powder. It starts with a bright and sweet citrus and immediately plunges into a floral accord combining soft, rose-like notes with violet. The effect is delicate, but once the musk becomes more prominent, The Favourite gains more richness.

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Vintage Violets

Despite its reputation for being dainty and demure, violet has a complex scent with a fascinating history. This perfume note is the subject of my latest FT column, Vintage Violets.

I explain how this flower became one of the favorite scents during the Victorian era and what made it even more popular–and ubiquitous–in the 20th century. Then I describe some of my favorite violets, both the sweet and powdery ones associated with the Romantic era and the modern green ones.

To read the article post-the FT website update, please click here.

As always, I’d love to hear about your favorite violets.

Image via FT

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