People get tangled up in lilies. Half the time they confuse little lilies of the valley with towering Regale lilies, and that is why you sometimes notice posters on perfume websites complaining that a “lily perfume did not smell like lilies of the valley”. The scents are quite different.
But the world of lilies is almost as crowded as that of niche perfumes. It’s not as though you simply have Easter lilies, or Asiatics, you also have Orientals, Tiger lilies, and a whole assortment of lilies from China, which usually have been hybridized to produce huge blooms and sometimes an even more ginormous scent, a miasma of perfume.
None of these is the Lily of the Annunciation. You know, the lilies blooming chastely in a pot near the Madonna when the angel Gabriel comes to visit her? They’re Madonna lilies, and usually heck to grow in a garden.
I had beginner’s luck with them. Although they are far less impressive to see in bloom than Regales or Orientals being not much bigger than gladioli and white, plus prone to the vapors and apt to swoon unexpectedly, they are wonderful to smell. If I ever bothered with them again, the scent would be the reason. Madonna lilies are supposed to be one of the fragrances of heaven.
If there is such a thing as a Christmas floral – as opposed to a wintertime floral- then it’s likely to be this, the Madonna Lily because of its biblical association. And here’s the kicker, there are very few portraits of this lily in perfume.
You would think that the Madonna lily would be a natural subject, but that’s not the case. Only one perfume that I know of is listed with the scent and that’s Cacharel’s Anais-Anais, and besides that there is Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s Madonna Lily, which is a little too spicy to be a realistic representation. Someone on Fragrantica likened ML to Ylang and Vanille, the Guerlain Allegoria release, which is pretty much Terracotta Voile d’Ete anyway. You are dealing with vanilla more than with Madonna lilies in both cases and the result is an Impression of lilies.
How can I bring myself to mention such a cliché of a perfume as Anais-Anais? Simple, there’s a distinct Madonna Lily note right at the beginning, and a fairly accurate one at that. My sister wore Anais-Anais and I know the scent well, and although the rest of the fragrance does open out into a sizable, zaftig, Renoir of a scent, AA is still more lily-centric than many soi-disant lily perfumes. If you have or can find un-reformulated bottles, you’ll soon smell what I mean.
Apart from this, the only other option is Serge Luten’s Un Lys, which is creamy and rather indolic, but has less of the green note than I smelled in my own lilies. As a recommendation, this comes in second for me, but still, Lys is the closest approximation I can think of. Every other lily perfume out there from Vanilla Galante to Gilded Lily is referencing another species of lily, even Donna Karan’s excellent Gold is an Oriental, and Yosh Han’s Stargazer is as well. You get a huge bouquet of lilies in perfumery these days, but the small white lily of the Annunciation is crowded out of the vase.
Those lilies are still languishing in blue and white terracotta pots, near a very young girl in some very old paintings.