The original Chanel Gardénia – available now only very intermittently from vintage, rare perfume web sites – was by all accounts a masterful, creamy floral aldehydic typical of its creator, the genius Ernst Beaux: a perfume of its time, now gone forever.
The reformulation and relaunch of the perfume in the late 1980’s, however, exciting as it must have been for those in the know, was apparently an affront to lovers of the original. Where Bois Des Isles, Nº 22 and Cuir De Russie by all accounts retained the essential character and formulae of their original incarnations, the rebooted Gardenia was by far the least faithful to the original formulas of the first four ‘secret’ Chanels, and Luca Turin famously hates it (but really; who gives a damn..)
Knowing only the later version of this perfume myself, though, I have nothing to compare it to, and in any case fell straight in love the moment I smelled it, chiefly because it reminded me very strongly and vividly of my first ever love: at primary school, the friend who sat next to me every day in class had a wonderful smelling cedar-wood pencil case that then fused completely in my mind with her: and to me – this sharp, woody smell, unmistakably, is Rebecca.
I can picture the yellowish interior of that pencil case perfectly; can smell that intense, almost sour scent again and can conjure it up my mind upon demand, when I would sit there in lessons when bored, inhaling it deeply, and rapturously, and dreaming. I was infatuated; weirdly so for a boy of six. I could hardly sleep at night I was so besotted.
We had little romances at six, at nine, and at fourteen, were kind of besotted with each other, and are still friends (although she now lives in the south of France and has no recollection of this pencil box at all….)
But back to the perfume that jolts this memory. Compared to the soft beauty of those other Chanel extraits (all of them so soft and elegant and beautiful), I admit that Gardénia is quite an artificial creation, but I do think that it is very original in the way it steers away from the standard, southern belle creamy white shoulders and flor in the hair and goes for an entirely different interpretation.
Here, a fresh, piquant gardenia flower is fused with other florals – tuberose; orange blossom, and jasmine; a very chic, a classic white floral that might be too heady a scent were it not chastened, and freshened with a sharp, spiced note of clove, sage and pimiento, on a subtle, wooded base of cedar and sandalwood.
To me, the cedar and pimiento are key, bringing her back down to earth and resulting in a perfume that is lovely: crystal sharp, like freshly cut flowers placed on a box of brand new pencils in September.
GARDENIA ROYAL/ IL PROFUMO (2004)
The Chanel gardenia, though much maligned (Why? I love it!)) is perhaps, despite its negative reputation, much more influential than we perhaps realize, because this beauty by Il Profumo, a company that make very vivid, colourful fragrances, strikes me as smelling very much like the Chanel take on the flower but transported, illustriously, to the jungle; that same, piquant scent, but denser, greener, lusher. This is a gorgeous and potent blend indeed, gleaming and effulging with notes of tuberose, jasmine and peony over a rich powdered base that according to the creators, ‘renders a woman sure of her fascination.’
GARDENIA/ SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
What I like about the Santa Maria Novella exotic florals (Tuberosa, Gardenia, and the frankly bizarre Frangipane) is the sense that the flowers have simply picked at the height of their erotic power; been forcibly submerged by the Florentines in some scent-releasing liquid, and, the liquid saturated, presented to the public as perfumes. Santa Maria Novella’s gardenia fully captures the strange, medicinal, green and fungal side, and the milky allure of gardenia flowers on a humid, summer night.
Tactile, oleaginous, green-brushed and ‘thick’, it is rounded, cool, wide-eyed and fleshy, and in some ways a quite splendid perfume (if perhaps a little torpid).
Wear it and wilt.
GARDENIA / ISABEY
Drunk at a giant mansion looking frantically for the powder room (marbled, orchid-fringed; elaborate) this gardenia is the obviously self- proclaimed leader of the pack, a gorgeous, sluttish gardenia with a patina of ingenue; sheening, plush, blooming: unaware that her shoulder strap has just fallen down.
A revived classic from the 1920’s (though the formula smells more 1980’s big-haired to me), Isabey’s Gardenia is sweet, curvaceous, and is unique in supposedly containing actual gardenia essential oil, one of perfumery’s rarest essences.
ELLENISIA/ PENHALIGONS (2005)
Putting my theory of the indefatigable Chanel’s perennial influence, Penhaligions’ Ellenisia is yet another reinterpretation of the Chanel gardenia, but done the English way (ie. utterly unthreatening).
This is a bright vaseful of perfumed white florals, modern, pretty and very wearable, with a taut, marbled, shine that shows no thigh.
GARDENIA/ LE GALION (1937)
Le Galion is an old French company whose old-fashioned perfumes I occasionally get to smell when they wash up in Japanese antique stores and fleamarkets. Their jasmine was truly excellent, and I wish I could find another bottle. Gardenia, an extrait, is very much of the old school; the dark, tweed-suited gardenia of Miss Dior with a fearfully potent surge of fur and scent-soaked anthers – an exciting, if difficult, delving into the perfume past (when women presumably smelled like purring, powdery moths). When this initial flower-smog clears, balmed and vaulted with the unguents of passion’s dust, the perfume steadily attains an interesting beachy note – like rock flowers bathed in midday sun and the whirring hot-sand smell of the air.
In summertime, as little kids, my brother and I used to crawl into the canopies of broom on the sand dunes of Bournemouth (for a child, like exploring Borneo), and this curious gardenia brought those exciting times flooding back to me beautifully, and immediately, with a vengeance .
An intriguing scent that is not what you might imagine from this semi-venerable institution, this gardenia perfume is more like one of the power florals of the 80’s than the white and trembling French white floral I was expecting; a beautifully-made, adult, and very sexy perfume somewhat redolent of the fearless Giorgio Beverly Hills.
An interesting option if you want something rich, dusky but not overly sweetened; a glamorous gardenia to get dressed up for, douse yourself in, and marry the night.
All clothes by Coco Chanel.
FOR MORE ON GARDENIAS, AND MY JAPANESE ILLEGAL ACTIVITY INVOLVING THE FLOWER, PLEASE SEE MY PUNGENT POST ‘GARDENIA CRIME’.