Contempory Casablanca: Play It Again, Sam

Soliflores are really hard, as I’ve had occasion to write before. I think they’re as hard for perfumers to produce as comedy is hard for writers and actors, and in the same frustrating way. The perfumer is just reproducing the scent of a flower thinks the public,  how difficult can that be?   Surely the perfumer must just be messing about in the lab, not seriously composing something serious, right? Rather like the comic novelist is just fooling around, or the actor is just taking a pratfall?

But I think it’s hard.  Try smelling a flower you love and then ask yourself how many times you’ve smelled a perfume that comes close to reproducing that scent?  Better yet, go and spray some of your favorite soliflores near the flower they’re mimicking and-smell the difference?  A world of complicated chemical analyses go into the floral palettes that perfumers use now, and still, even  thoroughly equipped and possessed of all that expertise, the perfumer seldom catches the true likeness of the flower sitting for her portrait. 

I remember when the whole notion of “headspace technology” came in.  The idea was that the smell of a living flower was different from that of an essence reproduced by enfleurage, or distillation using dead flowers.  You got pictures of orchids or roses in bloom with what looked like a glass cloche over them and tubes leading out of the miniature greenhouse, presumably extracting miniature greenhouse gasses that were probably analyzed by gas chromatography.  Then you had the read out and you were able to recreate the scent of the living flower as it would smell on the air.  What this told perfumers about live flowers and the kind of chemicals they emit was probably fascinating but has since devolved into a long re-iteration of linalool mixed in with various other things like indoles (if they are white flowers) or ionone beta if you’re talking yellow flowers.

The trouble, as Jean Claude Ellena points out in his book Le Parfum, is that Nature is unexpectedly complex,…” four hundred molecules for a jasmine flower and five hundred for a rose”.  Now who among us would suggest that much complexity in a soliflore scent?  Most contemporary perfume formulas don’t average half that number of ingredients, if so many.

No doubt  if I understood chemistry (and I don’t), I could hold onto a tenuous thread of memory and inch my way through the maze of double and triple carbon bonds successfully,  that is, with comprehension. But, along with most consumers, I have to take it on faith that this molecular labyrinth can be simplified, as Jean Claude Ellena suggests, without destroying its architecture.   Let’s agree that the simplification of such immense intricacy can be achieved without having to sacrifice beauty in the process.  What sort of success is possible?

Sometimes it’s startlingly good, even despite cheap formulas and cheeseparing clients.  Now, since this is a matter of opinion, I can’t be sure that everyone will agree with my choice, but at least in the field of lilies, I think I can nominate a recent winner: Donna Karan Gold.

You were expecting Stella McCartney’s L.I.L.Y.? Or Cartier’s Baiser Vole, or Hermes’s Vanille Galante?  Well, no, there is something to be said for all of those particularly the Cartier, but I went with Gold because it struck me as being one of the most complete and living lily portraits I’d ever smelled.

Donna Karan must like lilies anyway.  They’re in a number of her perfumes.  Her very first perfume Donna Karan New York had casablanca lily as a top note.  Now for those of us who garden, there’s a distinction we all recognize among lilies and that’s that different kinds are differently perfumed, some green and light in scent, Madonna Lilies, and some heavier, like Easter Lilies, but Oriental lilies (and that includes the Casablanca cultivar) are not light at all.  The smell is one of those you either love  or you hate.  Evidently Ms. Karan loves it.

Gold seems to be an attempt less at a soliflore than at a floral oriental, but the smell of the Lily so dominates this one, that despite substantial notes (like amber and acacia, cloves, pollen ? and patchouli) nothing else ever shouts that lily down, at least not on my skin they don’t.

It follows that Gold itself polarizes people into lovers or haters of its opulent heavy floral note.  Some cannot get too much of the perfume and others can’t wait to wash it off.  But this is I think, not the fault of the perfumers, Yann Vasnier, Calice Becker, and either Stephen Nilsen or Mr. Roux Flores, or both.  Rather, it’s a matter of the flower.  Consider this quote from garden writer Eleanor Perenyi on oriental lilies,…”they smell like the winds of paradise…The stupendous lily bouquets that stand on our grand piano during July and August send an essence up the back stairs that finds its way into my bedroom and my dreams at night, and I am sorry for those whose senses don’t allow them to enjoy this pleasure.”

Your senses have to be of the sort that do allow you this unique pleasure, but if they do, Gold is one of the best ways to go.

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2 thoughts on “Contempory Casablanca: Play It Again, Sam

    1. It really is one of the best lily fragrances out there, and I used to own Un Lys. Vanille Galante was a no go for me, and the Cartier fragrance too faint. Good lilies are hard to find.

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