‘Vitriol d’Oeillet – the carnation, alias the clove pink. The fragrance fraught with anger. It’s petals, laced with tiny teeth, hold out the solution; a burst of fragrant spikes…’
Thus, in 20II, Serge Lutens’ entered his curious foray into the fragrant obscurity of the carnation: a much maligned flower, long out of fashion for its bland, mumsy, truck-stop associations; its banal intimations of death; cheap mother’s day bouquets; and the wreath.
Carnations and pinks: who really loves these floral run-of-the-mills now?
Once, however, many moons ago, these flowers were considered the height of elegant fashion. By ladies, gentlemen, dandies, and fops; worn ostentatiously in the buttonhole, or on hats at the end of the nineteenth century. But what might once have been considered decadent, (Oscar Wilde famously dyed his carnations green to wear on his lapel, as well as sporting Floris’ carnation perfume, Malmaison), has, unfortunately, become disdained.
Still, there are many carnation and clove lovers out there (myself included), and the concept of a Lutensian vitriolic pink had many in a frenzy of anticipation upon its release. What would the provocateur do this time? Would there be a scandalous, reinvented floral along the lines of his legendary Tubereuse Criminelle? How angry would these carnations actually be?
Not enough, it would seem. The perfume’s reception was a collective sigh of disappointment, as it was not the flurry of eye-blinding cloves we were perhaps expecting: somehow, by the majority it is seen as too tame, insufficiently vicious, given its fiery, provocative title.
I must say that am personally rather drawn to this scent, however, and have recently really enjoyed wearing it (particularly when layered with the vintage extrait of Feminite du Bois to rather elegant effect, though I say it myself). But to some extent I can understand its detractors: we always expect grand theatrical flourishes from Monsieur Serge, and Vitriol d’Oeillet has a subdued, almost melancholic air to it – aeons away, for instance, from the carnationy spiced joy that is Santa Maria Novella’s Garofano (by far the best carnation in my view) – a plushly, burningly exuberant Italian creation that fangs forth from the flesh, piercing the air all around it with its St. Sebastian pinkness. If Garofano is the feel-good king of carnations, hyperreal and fresh ( I feel like John Travolta wearing it with an open-necked shirt of a Saturday summer evening ), then Vitriol is his dour, imperious queen.
The scent is a two-faced Janus – Lutens also refers to it in the press release as a Jekyll & Hyde – with two competing facets: a pretty, even somewhat prim, rose/lily/wallflower accord (with none of the creamy, clovey ylang we associate with the traditional carnation soliflore); and then an acerbic, almost corrosive cold/heat accord that favors pepper and red spices over the expected warming buds of clove (which are there, but in a background role). The peppers (black, pink and Cayenne, along with an unexpected note of pimento) adorn the flowers like a claw-sharp, iron-spiked petticoat. Further beneath is a quiet, gnarling murk of nutmeg and woods that on me smells very much like a light Japanese incense.
At first, while I found it difficult to reconcile the two sides ( I received my bottle as a Christmas present from my sister, who likes to give me a surprise Lutens each year – I love it when you are given a scent you might not have chosen yourself but have the luxury of getting to know it anyway, having the impetus to try….) and felt, initially, that somehow something was missing (a heart?) . Gradually, though, I have come to appreciate this perfume’s unique qualities. I wore it constantly during the New Year period, sprayed it inside the house during those cold winter months on blankets and curtains, loving its frosted, supercilious air; living with it daily until it became part of my memories ( I still get a shiver of pleasure now every time I smell it from the bottle).
The tingling, graphite-grey peppers; the pale, quietly seething, cayenne-tinted flowers in those watery, minor chords, all, for me, despite the perfume’s slight conservatism, add up to a delicate, hard-hearted chic. Vitriol d’Oeillet might be thought of, then, not as the failed carnation soliflore that it is often perceived to be, but ultimately, more a curiously beautiful, and fractious, floral spice. Alone, cold and remote.
Notes: black pepper, pink pepper, cayenne pepper, pimento, nutmeg, clove, carnation, wallflower, lily, woods.