There has never been a time for violet perfumes like the turn of the last century. No doubt their proliferation, like a purple tide through perfumery, was due to ionones, invented in 1893, and then the development of a chemical that imitated the scent of violet leaf in 1903.
By that time, violets had become the most popular scent in mass market fragrances. Sweet violets projected a delectable candor that was simultaneously edible and cozy, even though the woman wearing them might have been defiantly undomesticated, and anything but candid.
The earliest of these violet scents is Violetta di Parma; Borsari’s version was mine for years. They have replicated the scent of violets in the bottle.
But wait a minute – what is the scent of violets?
As flower scents go, the violet’s light without any trace of heaviness, or muskiness, the note is related to anise, which is probably why in perfumes like Apres L’Ondee, after the initial violet windrush, you get that anise/licorice twist.* Sugar is always there, and to specify I’d call it sugar and not honey, which has got a resonance just a bit deeper and rounder to it. Violetta di Parma marries its high pitched mauve sugar to the green violet leaf to produce a perfume that is just as much emerald as amethyst, perfection for little girls, and as my cousin once pointed out, used by Cuban mothers to scent their children’s hair.
If you want something nostalgic and sweet of a fin de siecle sort, Violettes de Toulouse is the classic, and Berdoues used to make a very good one. This is violet candied. You may recognize them cooked down and rolled in sugar crystals so that they’re purple and crunchy on the tongue? They’ve often studded the top of white frosted layer cakes or jostled marrons glaces for space in candy boxes. Berdoue’s violets are candied but not crunchy. They have no structure, and are as sentimental as a Victorian valentine, and about as original. I like them because the top note of the Berdoues reminds me of Apres L’Ondee’s in one of its earlier incarnations, before the perfume became thin and spectral.
The other natural partner of violets, outside of licorice or anise (for which see Caron’s Aimez Moi and Lolita Lempicka) is iris or its dried root, orris. Orris is darker than most irises I smell these days, because I guess that perfumers have learned to recreate irises that smell more like the iris in flower. But the orris has this tactile darkness, a purple smell so lightless that it’s almost black. This is probably where you get inspirations for fragrances like Tom Ford’s Black Violet. Another perfume in the same vein is the long gone Attrappe Coeur which was very velvety orris and violet and amber. I regret that Guerlain, because not many scents come along that have that sort of silky nap to them, but Attrappe Coeur did.
I’ve only come across it in two other places, the Aqua Allegoria Lavande Velours (Velours is a giveaway, and it is like velvet, or perhaps due to the drier lavender in it, velveteen) and my one old bottle of Violette Precieuse. This too is a velvety perfume, with the same texture as silk velvet.
Caron which seems to like to keep its customers in a state of permanent confusion, has released different variations since Ernest Daltroff created the original in 1913. The most recent green leaf/ dry violet woody scent, released in 2006 and discontinued now, was too green and dry to be very like the 1913 Violette. The one I’d owned in 2000, an edt in a polka-dot bottle, was a gourmand violet, with a distinctly sugary note in the heart and a long dry dark coda, that owed a good deal to orris and mousse de saxe (the toasted licorice and wood Caron signature you smell best in Nuit de Noel).
My current bottle is even older and is mostly this dark orris/mousse de saxe duet, and the effect is like a gentleman’s smoking jacket, cut out of velvet with frogs across the front. It is comfortable, soft to the touch, warm and surprisingly unisex. Violette Precieuse in this old form would do very well on a man, and makes me wonder if it is at all like the old Richard Hudnut perfume Dry Violet? I wear it and think of a Victorian gentleman who may have spent the day gallivanting with a woman in an oversized chapeau and undersized morals, but who repents by eight p.m. and sends a violet nosegay to the girl he knows he should propose to.
I wish men still sent nosegays….
* My violet scent descriptions come from my small patch of Viola odorata, that I grew in Vt. The picture here is ‘Marie Louise’ a double sweet violet sold by the only US stockists I can find, Logees of Danielson CT. My violets in Vt came from them.