“As violets so be I recluse and sweet”
(‘Who hath despised the day of small things?’ Rossetti)
This is the legacy of violets, in literature as in perfume – the retiring archetype: virginal, breast aflutter. The clasped idealist.
Nestled in their heart-shaped leaves, with heads downturned, these are the flowers that Diane Ackerman, in her passionate sensorial treatise ‘A Natural History Of The Senses’ describes as ‘burnt sugar cubes ….dipped in lemon and velvet’.
In truth, I can hardly smell them and am definitely slightly violanosmic. Duncan will say wow, violet, and I only get a slight hint of it, which is strange when my sense of smell is usually so sensitive. But since the flowers contain ionone, which we lose the ability to smell after a few minutes, the scent of violets does literally play a kind of hide and seek with our senses. This makes them, then, the most elusive of flowers, toying with flirtation……………..Now you see me, now you don’t – which for me only adds to their allure.
The Victorians, of course, uptight prigs with desire leeching secretly from their tense, oleaginous pores, loved them. As an antidote to the corrupting dangers lurking among the musks, civets and tuberoses, light violet toilet waters were deemed ‘appropriate’ Victoriana for young women to wear, with their tender, coy privacy.
And although I am not exactly the shy, retiring wallflower type myself ( except sometimes), I do occasionally have a yen for the taste and smell of violette. For personal use, my favourite violet to wear is definitely Caron’s sensational Aimez Moi, although I also, when the mood hits me, enjoy the ironically chest beating leather of Balmain’s Jolie Madame in vintage extract. Recently in this cold weather in these hard, dizzyingly inexplicable times, I find I am also enjoying Guerlain’s paradoxically soothing, throw-all-caution-to-the-wind Insolence. , a violet to end all megaviolets.
Violets can smell quite interesting on male skin – a refreshingly ungendered tonic. As a young man I was quite often drenched in Geoffrey Beene’s green violet leaf Grey Flannel as well as Dior’s violet gasoline Fahrenheit, although now in terms of more elegant and gentilhomme-centred violets I think you can’t really beat Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria Lavande Velours, in which Duncan smells exquisite.
There are plenty of other violet perfumes out there on the market now that violet has made a (very minor) comeback, such as The Different Company’s garish I Miss Violet, or Tom Ford’s anemic (and strangely hideous) Violet Blonde, but below are some more traditional, posyish numbers and a couple of more modern, violet oddballs as well just for the sake of it- violets that smell mainly just like violets (if you can smell them), that go more for the eye-fluttering, classical route, but as usual with this flower, leave you wondering what is beneath.
VIOLETTES DE TOULOUSE/ BERDOUES (1936)
Violettes de Toulouse, candied violet flowers preserved in egg white and crystallized sugar, have been made in this French city since 1936. The fragrance of the same name, presented in charming old-fashioned atomiseurs, is apparently made from true violet absolute extracted from flowers that grow on the hills outside. Taking 6000 lbs of violet flowers to obtain just 2.2lbs of essence, the scent of freshly picked violets is enhanced with other flowers (lilac, iris, and cyclamen), almond wood, and musk, for the classic, and pretty, satin-ribboned posy.
VERTE VIOLETTE/ L’ARTISAN PARFUMEUR (200?)
Anne Flipo’s creation for L’Artisan has her trademark fleeting evanescence. Similar to two other of her creations, the beauteous Mimosa Pour Moi and the pale Jacinthe Du Bois, this is a delicate violet with very green top notes. It is perhaps to violet what Hiris (Hermès) is to iris – an alternative to the standard bleeding hearts, powder and musk, if a touch on the precious tip.
VIOLETTA DI PARMA/ BORSARI (1840)
For English people like me, ‘Parma violets’ are a confectioner’s curiosity that you either love or hate. They are essentially like sucking on little sugary, perfumed circles of talc. To say they are an acquired taste would be an understatement, but those of a certain generation remember them with nostalgia (they are still made by Swizzels of Matlow, a Derbyshire company whose ‘Refresher’ chews I developed an almost dangerous addiction to when a teenager, only stopping when my mouth was too sore to go on).
The sad thing about the existence of these little discs of powdered confectionery though, with their simple, sucrose and synthetic violet flavouring, is that for those who know them, almost any violet perfume of the classical variety will just automatically remind them of the sweets, and thus smell cheap. I can hear the cry ‘Ooh it smells just like ‘Parma violets’ (done in a thick northern accent), as a British person sniffs a perfume such as this, though Violetta (Penhaligons) might still win the Swizzels trophy.
VIOLETTA / PENHALIGONS (1976)
Violetta. With big, purple velvet bows in her hair, she stares out with mourning, indigo eyes…
Emerging in 1976, when such a scent must surely have been deeply unfashionable (or maybe the vogue for Gothic horror, in movies like Carrie, was the inspiration?) this deliciously candied violet has made into her thirties, and is now apparently a cult, secret favourite of the dandyish Penhaligon’s man.
VIOLETTE MENTHE/ BROSSEAU (2007)
Depressed Debbie Gibson.
This violet-mint is a strange little thing: powdery and fruity, but with a perpetual frown, like a cabbage patch doll with eyebrows drawn in angry felt pen. Amazingly my friend Laurie got the same on me – petulant teenage girl from the 80’s. We both loved it.
DANS TES BRAS/ EDITIONS DE PARFUMS (2008)
A skunk pissing in a violet, this bizarre salt-floral-musk is seemingly an intellectual exercise from master perfumer Maurice Roucel (creator of Musc Ravageur) and like that fragrance it is a fusion of traditional, romantic ingredients and notes of sweaty warm skin. Dans Tes Bras (‘In Your Arms’) smells extremely synthetic, odd, but riveting: once the sour, mushroomy endocrines of the ‘violets’ fade, you are left with a very personal smell that is unforgettable.