In just a few weeks we will have lilacs again. Looking out of the front window at half a foot of snow on the ground that is hard to believe, but true. Lilacs populate the end of April here and have usually concluded their life cycle by the end of May. They are lovable flowers though it’s hard to say why. The bushes are tall, often flowering on hard to reach tips, are therefore hard to prune, sucker, get powdery mildew, and if you don’t dead head them the seed heads remain on the bush like dessicated shrunken heads.
When we lived in Vermont we had half a dozen bushes on the property most of them enormous old things probably grown from suckers that came from neighboring gardens. One of them was fifteen feet tall and had a wide circumference that I dreaded during mowing season. The scent of lilacs in full bloom when there are hundreds of panicles all at once is dizzying,it made me trudge around the bush with the push mower like a narcolept.
No lilac fragrance I’ve ever smelled has reproduced that compelling heavy lidded smell. Most of them by contrast are prissy little essays on floral reconstruction, which many people now associate with the scent of soap and paper tissues. You have to know lilac flowers to understand the range there is in the natural smell.
The biggest difference is between blue and lavender lilacs and white ones. The white lilacs- which always used to feature as individual scents*- were lighter with a distinct aniseed quality. White lilac was just that tiny bit more delicate than mauve. I haven’t smelled the famous White Lilac of Mary Chess for years, but that perfume was once considered one of the greatest in the world, and the talent of that house for floral compositions like lilac and tuberose went almost uncontested back in the thirties and forties.
Besides the Chess White Lilac in vintage bottles, you have a few other Lilac soliflores these days. The most famous is En Passant. I wish that I liked it. I find the bread and cucumber aspect of Olivia Giacobetti’s composition distracting. The sheer prettiness of the initial lilac accords seems to deliquesce on skin. You lose the scent in a watery cucumber infusion with what smells like a few croutons bobbing about on top, waiting to become a soggy mess. I don’t find that they improve on the fragrance of a plain old lilac soliflore, and so am not one of those romantics who recommend this perfume.
Better I like Roja Dove’s Lilac which is quite true to the mauve lilac (not the white please note) and has a phenomenal lasting power on me. I tried it one morning at Bergdorf’s and found myself scrubbing the remains off my wrist some twelve hours later. This was almost too long a tenancy. I don’t mind a little evolution in a fragrance but Roja’s was almost linear and tremendously tenacious. Lilac is a true soliflore and although a large number of parts are assembled for this amalgam of a scent, such as clove and ginger, ylang-ylang, vanilla, cinnamon and Peru balsam, all I really smelled in passing was the bergamot opening and the jasmine and heliotrope in the heart. He has succeeded in producing a true lilac perfume which smells pretty natural except at the very end where Roja probably had to use a synthetic extender to keep his scent on skin for so many hours. This mars the fragrance for me, I would prefer to smell his lilac for four hours and then let it go like the lovely ultimately ephemeral thing it is. He’s done so well here that I would like to see if he could recreate a white lilac as well, but no doubt he has had enough of lilacs.
Pacifica’s French Lilac suffers from the opposite problem. I like the fancy soap and lilac accord you get from this one, but you only get that for forty minutes and then the perfume goes away. I’m not sure that it merits the bother of so many re-applications in a day, and so this one too I pass on.
I find myself rather liking Aerin Lauder’s Lilac Path. This one was passed on to me by the always friendly counter people at Estee Lauder’s and I think that it is very true to the lilac note, particularly at first when the scent is almost identical to what you or I might smell on a Spring evening with the windows open and a bush in bloom ten feet away. Lilac Path can’t maintain this level of exactitude and eventually you find yourself smelling the clean soapy lilac from your grandmother’s bathroom, but that’s not so bad, and may be what Aerin remembers from her grandmother’s bathrooms. You could smell a lot worse I guess, than Estee Lauder’s powder room.
* You can find several formulas for white lilac perfumes in old perfume texts from the beginning of the twentieth century.