Gardenias, we were told for the longest time, do not yield a usable essential oil. That meant that every gardenia you smelled in perfumery was a reconstruction, either a base, or an approximation created by the perfumer. Now however you can actually buy gardenia essential oil, some of it obtained by en fleurage, which is the old extraction method that involves picking flowers and heating them gently in a fat or oil to saturate the substance and then using sugar and alcohol to separate the transferring oil or fat from the essential oil. Apparently there are some growers in South America who actually produce the EO this way.
The result is wildly expensive. 2mls. cost above 50 $US, and that certainly puts gardenia EO beyond the (accountant defined) perimeters of the mass producing perfumer, and possibly even of the niche perfumer. Even so, it’s worth a try, surely, when you think how many consumers love the smell of gardenias. In the States, if you can produce a good gardenia scent you are practically guaranteed sales. If you are a perfumer, you must want in on action like that. So okay, gardenias - but the problem remains, because, you recall, I used an adjective, and that adjective was: good.
Just what is a good gardenia perfume? Patty of Perfume Posse filed a comprehensive recent post on the subject, which see, but it does not answer all the questions. Such as, if gardenias smell of blue cheese, just how much blue cheese should there be? Should the perfumer work through the note or with it? Should they camouflage it? Then there’s the related question of how heady the fragrance should be? Gardenias in force can be over whelming, but one or two gardenias in a room are heavenly; gardenia soloist, gardenia chorus?
It was in this context that I spent a recent very rainy afternoon with two gardenias, both made by California perfumers and both with a distinctly wet quality. The first is Strange Invisible Perfume’s Epic Gardenia. The perfumer Alexandra Balahoutis makes no effort to hide gardenia’s whiffy cheesy aspect. Instead she celebrates it. After a very brief intro Epic Gardenia, is epically gardenia and nothing else. It is not shy, not retiring, not subtle, and if I had to be pinned down, I’d have said that she opted for gardenias in chorus, all reading from the same sheet of music like some of the heavenly choirs you see in Della Robbia sculpted reliefs. Epic Gardenia has in common with these fat babies a fleshiness and a solidity- if you can claim such a quality for something as incorporeal as perfume – as those panels. Here is the Seventh Heaven of Harmony, now park your gum under your chair and siddown. If unsubtle unapologetic gardenia is your thing, then Epic Gardenia is too.
The second of my rainy afternoon gardenia guests was Hothouse Flower, the gardenia centric perfume of Ineke Ruhland. This one was different because it was early obvious that Ms. Ruhland did not want the all Wisconsin cheese tray in her gardenias. She decided to try for the more ethereal and green gardenia, and in my view she’s almost succeeded here. The reason for the qualification is the fig note she put square in the middle of this composition. It also has cypress and greenery and absinthe (which I liked, but it was fleeting) and then there’s the gardenia note and then there’s FIG.
In fact there’s so much fig that I wasn’t really sure if this perfume wasn’t a fig perfume with a gardenia note in it. It was green, it was graceful, it is not too sweet, and Hothouse is wearable but you will have to love fig notes or you won’t love this. Hothouse Flower is however a very worthwhile perfume for the fig lover, and there is that wonderful quality of humidity in this perfume. Hothouse it is named and Hothouse it is. There is a wonderful honesty about that aspect of this scent.
So far neither of them strike me as unseating the two gardenia champions: Estee Lauder’s Tuberose Gardenia (which I wore one summer) and Van Cleef and Arpels Gardenia Petale (which I currently own). One was more literal and the other was more gourmand/ delicate but both of them really do smell like gardenias to me, although neither is perfect which means that the gardenia jackpot is still out there waiting to be claimed.