Twelve Smells of Christmas – Day Seven: The Christmas Flower

Is certainly not poinsettia, which isn’t a flower anyway, only a set of colored bracts around a stunted central flower head.  The only bloom with a scent that you can easily find in December is the carnation.  It tends to crowd plastic buckets in supermarkets (along with pink and blue dyed chrysanthemums) and is the Christmas floral of choice.  It’s pretty inexpensive too, so that what with the affordability and the ubiquity, the carnation bouquet has become the discount bouquet.

Who knows if tastes in perfume reflect the availability of flowers or their rarity?  In my lifetime, the carnation has never been considered elegant.  Therefore, it has fallen out of the perfumers’ lexicon. Or, to put it another way, carnation has become archaic.   Almost any other flower is more common: lilies, roses, mimosas, jasmines even tuberoses and gardenias are more frequently reproduced in perfume (perhaps because of the banning of eugenol often used to recreate the scent of carnations). 

Once when I was writing to a perfume critic years ago, I asked him why it was that carnation notes were so rare.  “They are old fashioned”  he wrote back. All of which circumstances lead to the paradoxical result that for an inexpensive flower, good carnation perfume is now very expensive.

There are three classics I can think of straight off the bat, none of them affordable: Bellodgia (Caron) Malmaison (Floris, and discontinued) and Golconda (JAR perfumes).   I am trying, by the way, to boil down my results to the very best of them, because I love carnations and have looked for years to find the ones I thought most elegant and best wearing, though if anyone has any new suggestions let’s hear them!

I have not included Garofano (Villerosi or SMN), or Fiori di Capri (Carthusia), or for that matter Etro’s Dianthus which was too watery, or L’Artisan parfumeur’s Oeillet Sauvage, which smelled like pinks,  and have not mentioned the niche work of Ava Luxe or Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, though I liked the waxy scent of Ava Luxe’s Oeillets Blancs quite a bit.

So here I am, stuck at three.  I own a small bit of carefully guarded Bellodgia in extract.  It is vintage, very dark, and has to be applied sparingly.  Too much makes for an olfactory impasto on skin, smudging the lilies of the valley of the heart into a brown indistinguishable mess with the red roses of the top note and the carnations of the dry down, but if you are careful not to over do it, the perfumer’s intentions come across with startling freshness for such an old perfume, and a lush floral generosity that has to be smelled to be believed.  Bellodgia in extract ceases to be sprightly and becomes regal and quite Christmasy just as much- to me, anyway- as Caron’s official Christmas scent Nuit de Noel.

Golconda, which I smelled in New York, is pretty outrageous, $500 an ounce, but what an ounce it is! Easily the best carnation perfume in production these days, and available now in its original formula, which as I recall it, is half way between the flowers and the spices of clove, a gorgeous, opulent composition, which also smells largely natural to me, especially in the older version. I would buy it, but there are already so many other things to do with that kind of money, that I find myself putting the credit card back where I found it.

And then there is Malmaison.  That has to be one of the best names for a carnation perfume ever used.  Napoleon’s wife Josephine grew parterres overflowing with carnations in her gardens around Malmaison.  She probably grew more roses proportionately than carnations there, if Redoute’s work is to be credited, still Malmaison is the British firm Floris’ version of a spicy carnation perfume, formulated with what must have struck their staid British souls as Gallic panache.

There were (you’d already guessed it right?) different versions, and the one I smelled in the nineties, when I foolishly preferred Edwardian Bouquet to Malmaison, was spicy, carnation-y and soft, but the earlier version was a good deal more assertive.  This is the version I wish that I could smell now. Truth be told, since I already own and wear Bellodgia, this is also the perfume I would want to acquire but, it ain’t happening. Malmaison appears to have vanished off the face of the earth.

Carnation perfumes should come back. Let me point out that they are close to being perfectly unisex, good choices for men and women alike, and they are devoid of the indolic notes that make tuberose and jasmines difficult for men to pull off.  Perhaps a white carnation note would be a good choice, a lighter option that the incense and ambers people use in winter weather, a crisp floral option for the crisp cold air of Christmas.

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19 Responses to Twelve Smells of Christmas – Day Seven: The Christmas Flower

  1. mals86 says:

    Ahhhh, carnations. My birth month flower, and a true favorite of mine. (I notice that even the florist-shop carnations don’t smell the way they used to, though you can sometimes find white ones that waft beautifully. Boooooo on breeding for longevity and deselecting for scent.)

    Malmaison is wonderful. I have a treasured and dwindling 5ml decant. Also have a small bit of vintage Bellodgia parfum de cologne (strange concentration, isn’t it?) which is lovely. As we’ve discussed, I really love DSH Oeillets Rouges, which is rosy as well as carnationy/clovey. Dawn used to make a dupe of Golconda, which she called “Fleuriste,” but I think it’s gone now, and I have absolutely no idea how close it was to Golconda anyway. I liked the Etro Dianthus, myself, as well as Fragonard’s pretty-pretty Billet Doux, but they are more of a floral mix with carnation notes and some vanilla, IIRC.

    I did NOT do well with Ava Luxe’s Oeillet Rouge but haven’t tried the Blanc; CdG SEries Red: Carnation didn’t work on me either – bitter/soapy and acrid. When carnations go wrong on me, they go really, dreadfully, wrong… and it’s such a shame. Carnations are wonderful.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      The carnation smell is less, that is true. Now why? Do they ship badly when they smell good? Hm.

      Honestly if money were no object I would buy Golconda, but as it is, like you, I hang onto my Bellodgia and eek it out. I’ve been wearing it for years despite my late Shih Tzu’s hatred of it, but only in edt. Now however I really get Bellodgia. Maybe the Oeillet Rouges are the best we can do for carnation scents in this vail of tears and banned eugenol.
      Actually what I want, (what I really, really want) is a white carnation perfume over lots and lots of banned opopponax with some boozy turkish rose, galbanum, and a few aldehydes.Oh baby!

    • Meg says:

      Mals– my birth flower too! And my reaction was exactly the same as yours: “Aaaaah, carnation…”

  2. fleurdelys says:

    January is my birth month, and carnation my birth flower too! That’s why I’ve always had a sentimental attachment to it; I used to get carnation corsages from my parents. And I remember the days when they actually had a smell! This post reminds me that I have to go home and test the sample of vintage Bellodgia that you so generously gave me. I’ve heard whispered rumors that Caron may discontinue it, could that be true? Unfortunate that this beautifully spicy fragrance gets so little respect. Even Roger & Gallet discontinued their wonderful carnation soaps. I did try the Comme des Garcons carnation, and thought it was pretty close to a true carnation scent.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Aaaaah! Discontinue?!?! Help! I am so buying up all the carnation essential oil at Eden! Oh, man! But at least you got the real carnations from thoughtful parents, I was born in January too, but corsages- well, my folks weren’t that romantic.

      Are you girls Capricorns or Aquarians? Me, I’m Aquarius, unlike all my family who are Virgos. Aquarians’re supposed to know what everyone else knows, only five minutes earlier.

      (This never works on the stock market or betting on the ponies – I tried.)

    • Alexandra says:

      I second CdG Carnation for a very realistic carnation rendition in perfume! Also I would like to try the Santa Maria Novella Carnation/Garofano Cologne, along with the other by products of the same house (soap, bath oil, room fragrance). Carnation is such a lovely spicy note!

      • Blacknall Allen says:

        Hi Alexandra, haven’t actually tried the CDG carnation, and now that so many perfume carnations are being uprooted, maybe I’d better! Didn’t have much luck with the SMN Garofano, think it was something to do with the dry down being off. But definitely agree that carnation is a wonderful floral, really beautiful and under-rated.

  3. Meg says:

    When I was a kid, exposed only to the odorless florist-shop carnationa whose reputation
    as “the cheapest flower” rendered them so depressing, I felt totally gypped by the fact that I’d been born in January. But when my mother began to homegrow carnations of all kinds, I smelled the scent (so incredibly concentrated within even the tiniest pink) of fresh clove and black pepper… and realized that my birthdate had been entirely fortuitous. LOVE this tribute to my favorite flower (and the vintage Bellodgia we share!).

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Your Mother was a very good gardener if she could get the carnations to grow and behave! I only ever grew the pinks or the old biennial Sweet William, which always fell over on top of something else.
      And the pinks do have a concentrated scent,though they spread like Organized Crime, and terrorize the rest of the perennial bed. All this makes me think I should try carnations in the garden again if I can find old whiffy varieties!

  4. fleurdelys says:

    Hey, Meg’s post just made me think of something – do you think Caron’s Poivre could be counted as a carnation, or carnation-like, fragrance? Its notes include clove, pepper, and carnation. I only tested this once a few years back and can’t remember its character. Anyone else have experience with it?

    • mals86 says:

      Poivre, from the sample I have (extrait, of course, but of unknown year or provenance), is carnationlike but lacks the greenness of the fresh flower. I like it very much – it’s largely clove, pepper, rose, carnation, woods – but for a true carnation scent I want that green floral freshness.

      • Blacknall Allen says:

        (Wearing Poivre while writing) Yes, pow! Right in the nose with that pepper, I mean this stuff is pepper and cloves and no fooling! This is an Oriental and not a floral, and I like it,but it is seriously hot. I’d forgotten how hot this thing is.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Yup, yup and I just ran over to Fragrantica and they say “carnation bouquet” among the notes of Poivre! Going to get my sample ASAP.

  5. Undina says:

    I’m working now on the post about carnation perfumes, so I can add a couple – Euphorisme d’Opium by DSH Perfumes (I like it a lot), Vitriol d’oeillet by Serge Lutens (meh) and Terracotta Voile d’Ete by Guerlain (not bad but not for me).

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Euphorisme d’Opium is in the YSL series? I really want to try that, and have to get a move on.
      Vitriol d’Oeillet doesn’t seem to be wowing people, maybe not one of SL’s best?
      Terracotta I once owned, but like you, ultimately it wasn’t for me, although curiously, I did like it better in Winter than in Summer, but you’re quite right, I didn’t mention Terracotta and should have.

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