Category Archives: Violet

the first time I ever smelled violets









The first first time I ever smelled violets was yesterday.



It amazes me somewhat to write that sentence, since I know the smell of violets like I know the colour of my eyes, but that smell has only ever been in perfume or in Parma candies : a chemical appropriation thereof. For some reason I have never before, in this lifetime, come into contact with the breathing, fragrant flowers themselves.



Yesterday, walking in the cold, in the pleasant but mundane town of Fujisawa where I mostly work ( life has been quite dreary since coming back from Cambodia : it is as if I am shellshocked by reality and the drop in temperature and have had to try in vain to tame my recalcitrant, wayward inner spirit which just wants to live in dreams: :  a lot of turbulent and discordant stress of late being the result ) –  I did a double take when walking past one of the standard florists as my sight alighted on some pots with the label ‘nioisumire’; or fragrant violets ( the ones that live in the woodlands near our house have no smell : these flowers are doubled in petal, more bunched up, I think Parma)……..and as I leaned in, like Snow White, I could smell violets – just as I always imagined the smell to be : sweet, pretty, velveted, but with green edges and a breath of soil – and I had to buy them.




During my lessons last night – fraught; perspirated; overcompensating for my lack of enthusiasm with frenetic ‘energy’, while the students were writing, I came down for a few minutes to the teachers’ room. And, when no one was looking, I plunged my face into the paper-wrapped potted plant. The smell of the nestled, living flowers hidden within the paper was nothing less than thrilling : as if all the history of violets in literature, and perfume, were condensing in one true moment and I was smelling them in their raw and pristine state: delicate; beautiful ;  emotional.





Filed under Flowers, Violet

PINK AND FLUFFY: : INSOLENCE eau de toilette by GUERLAIN (2006) – review II








In my old review of Guerlain’s Insolence, I describe my first, initial memories of experiencing this pink ultraviolet vanilla with bemusement.


I can still see myself outside Yokohama’s Takashimaya on a cold winter’s night and actually laughing, so over the top, harsh, swirling and unwearable I found it to be.


And yet the other day, a beautiful, sun filled afternoon I spent by myself in glorious solitude scouring the junk shops in downtown Tokyo (heaven on earth when you are in the right mood and have been stuck down in the sticks teaching pre-examination classes for a solid month), I came across a full bottle of this luscious Guerlain little treat for just 1,400 yen (about twelve dollars, under ten pounds), smelled it again, and just knew on the spot that had to have it.


I now kind of think that I maybe do actually love it. Spraying it onto the back of my hand as the wind blew around me at Asagaya station –  the train delayed for thirty minutes by yet another suicide –  this sweet, irisian violet with lashings of hair spray and fruit formed a bunny pink halo of comfort  around me like the softest, most succoring blanket.


Dryer sheets; felt, fabric-softened baby grows, orange blossomed-vanilla;  love.


Filed under Floriental, Gourmand, Violet



“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, 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.


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.


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. 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.




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.



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.




Filed under Violet




In its attempt to reach a younger audience, and to rid that most poetic flower of its timid, knees-clenched legacy, Guerlain audaciously chucked a synthetic neon-violet cannonball at department stores back in 2006. It was a funky, monstrous thing I immediately knew would be a flop (especially given the choice of Hilary Swank for the ad campaign, which to me felt totally ill-matched..)



But I was wrong.

Apparently Insolence has had its fair share of takers, and the scent now has its place assured in the Guerlain mainstream line-up, targeted primarily at a younger audience who will presumably later then grow into the illustrious stable’s grands classiques. Maybe it’s the sense of Guerlain’s Finest Moments  re-segued for the modern age (the marzipan of L’Heure Bleue; the powdery iris-violet of Après L’Ondée; the vanilla sexy of Shalimar, cleverly concealed within the caterwauling mix…) but it all felt so totally wrong yet ever so strangely familiar….














On top we have:


pink, purple and red laminated ra-ra skirts of lacquered, lacquered violets (the eau de toilette famously beginning with an indigestible, raucous Indian hair spray note that really takes you by surprise): then, a back-of-your-throat sheen of plastic red fruits: red currants, red apples, and all manner of other synthetic fruits rouges whirly-gigging frantically about the glo-stick violets…..but if you survive the hilarious first ten minutes of Insolence, as  you careen about from all the scintillating lacquer that is pinking up the oesophagus, you can actually have a lot of fun with this party-crashing violet



( for me, in truth, part of the very enjoyment of this scent is that opening, as it does what the name suggests: shock, slightly, with its brash impudence. The ‘reformed’ woman of the eau de parfum, for which another perfumer was roped in to apparently smooth things over, and where everything is blended just… so to make this lady smoother and more palatable to a wider mainstream audience, is to me so….. bustily bourgeois: more wearable yes, and more seamless, but with a slight suggestion of feminized lobotomy – though that might be somewhat overstating it.)



In Maurice Roucel’s more ‘vulgar’ original edt, Insolence has a girl’s- night-out vibe: shrill, fun, and very loud in a slightly late eighties/early nineties manner. It gradually dies down, though, to a perfectly nice vanilla-violet perfume with softer, blurrier, gourmand edges, those traditional notes of the Guerlinade base, that really let you know that despite all the ‘acting out’ of the perfume’s foot-stomping opening, THIS IS A GUERLAIN,  and that the girl in question fully intends, at a pre-destined age, to follow unquestioningly in the faultlessly chic footsteps of her immaculate, Jardins de Bagatelle wearing maman.


Filed under Floriental, Flowers, Perfume Reviews, Violet

In our melancholy twilight: LE DIX by BALENCIAGA (1947)











I have had two full vintage bottles of Balenciaga’s classic Le Dix, both of which I gave to people I knew would cherish and wear it more than I ever could (there is still one small, perfect bottle of the eau de toilette upstairs somewhere for reference, but I myself am simply not built for this pallor….)




I adore smelling it on a woman so much more – on alabaster skin; a wrist concealed beneath a coat…..












In vintage parfum especially, Le Dix is timeless and beautiful; an almost mournful scent of chalk-white powder, musk; and a cool, dust-laden quality like an old French library in November.





Haunting, sad violets (pale, thoughtful; quietly rapturous) are sorrowfully captured in the fading dusk, as light filters through thick, stained glass…













Such rarified feminine wistfulness was not destined to last in this world of ours, and one can see why Balenciaga would choose to freshen up and ‘purify’ Le Dix for the modern audience. In any case, the current version is quite captivating, a stunning violet aldehyde with sparkling citrus top notes that you should try if you like others of its type (as a cooler, more contemplative Nº5)…




The reformulation of Le Dix has a certain sparkling uplift, vivacious, elegant and great for the evening and grand events. But for pure poetry, the vintage  – so fine, so knowing and wildly introverted – is inescapable.







Filed under Floral Aldehydes, Flowers, Perfume Reviews, Powder, Violet







Ombre Mercure is a woozy, classical modern – a salted, thicker Apres L’Ondée, diffused with the modernistic fumes of Violet Blonde, a touch of Une Fleur de Cassie, and some of the floral warmth of the first Gucci Eau de Parfum….


‘Reminiscent of loose powder, red lipstick and the classic chypres, it is especially designed for passionate characters’ says Mlle Gunzburg, a renowned makeup artist who released her first collection of fragrances last year, and I can quite easily imagine some people falling for this soft, gauzy perfume, which is definitely shadowy, as its name suggests, though not in the least mercurial.


Essentially an earthy iris butter with powdered violet over a ducksdown of patchouli, benzoin and musky vanilla, it is a very slow, drifting perfume, like mauve-reflected clouds in a painting. Seamless and unjarring; enveloping.











What it lacks, though,  is that indefinable something, or ingredient – wit? – that would take it into the realms of the irisy sublime. On the other hand, its anchored slowness and immediate romantic appeal could easily make it someone’s signature.













Lys Fumé is another immediately likeable perfume, though one that is not remotely worth its extravagant price tag. Having said that, it is an interesting take on the lily. Unlike many spotless, altar-inhabiting lilies, this is more like a lys of the underworld……….


As a part of the Jardin Noir collection, it succeeds in being, if not quite ‘smouldering’, then certainly, at the very least,  shifting and quixotic – a hip young Gucci-clad beauty sitting downstairs in some private members’ club, a bit unsure of herself, perhaps, but defiant. This perfume would rise in coils from her shoulders and slowly seduce.



The lilies are not smoked, as you might expect, but underlying the top notes of lily, mandarin and pink pepper, is a strange dusting of nutmeg and turmeric, an unusual note in a floral perfume that gives it a blurry, caliginous edge. A dollop of rum and a sultry base of styrax, oak and labdanum take this impression even further.




Lys Fumé is not as intriguing as I am perhaps making it out to be – like most Tom Ford perfumes there is something plasticky and self-conscious about the scent. At the same time, I can imagine being sat next to this girl with her fixed, restless gaze, and being intoxicated.


































Filed under Flowers, Iris, Lily, Perfume Reviews, Powder, Violet








Jolie Madame.


Or, SWARTHY Madame as I like to call her, as there is nothing ‘pretty’, petite or eye-lashed about this scent, coming as it does from a time (the late fifties) when women’s perfumes could be quite genuinely risqué and ripe, moving under surface, acceptable presences of civility.


I have never smelled this extrait as originally intended ( ie. on  a woman),  much as I would love to (WHY DON’T PEOPLE SMELL MORE INTERESTING?!!!!!!!!)  but I can quite happily tell you that Jolie Madame, in vintage parfum, can also smell quite wonderful on the right man’s skin, if he can take the dense, rich tuberose and jonquil absolutes, percolating down rich, and dirty with  leather  (I, of course, can).









This gorgeously viscous floral accord, unusually accentuated with coriander and artemisia, remains throughout the long duration of the perfume, but is not the main theme, which is in fact an extraordinarily earthy blend of cedar, beaver, patchouli, leather, musk and civet.


Quite ‘PERVY Madame’, in other words.



Complemented by the rich floral entrance, particularly a thick, syrupy violet that floats on top of the perfume like a slick, Jolie Madame makes for a very intriguing scent :  an aphrodisiac liqueur, utterly uncontemporary,  but in my view all the better for it. Unusual, unforgettable, it is a perfume meant for warm spring days, a lumberjack shirt, and no deodorant.










Filed under Chypre, Flowers, Leather, Violet