In the heart of the big white peony known as Festiva Maxima there’s a very subtle scent. You simply poke your nose in among the petals and you get many fragrances rolled together in the circumference of a single flower. This is ready made perfume, perfection and not so many other plants produce fragrance so rounded and so complete. Festiva Maxima does though. I can only think of the Silk Tree as competition for another fine female fragrance finished down to the last molecules; an entirety of organic perfume.
Pink peonies have a similarly sophisticated scent but it’s just a bit more pronounced and carries further. Pink peonies have a sillage, and one of my Mother’s dogs used to adore their perfume. She was the only dog I ever knew who would literally go and smell the flowers. A German Shepherd labrador mix, she had an acute nose, but a delicate, almost feminine sense of what smelled respectively good or bad, peonies were her clear favorites. She never was too much into my dog’s preferred scent Eau de Dead Squirrel.
Some years ago now, around the turn of the century you got quite a number of soi disant peony perfumes. You could color me skeptical then and you still can these days. Most of the time given the size of perfume budgets allotted to perfumers they will never have a snow ball’s chance in Havana of recreating the opulent fragrance of the peony. You simply can’t do it with cheap ingredients, or at best you can do some of it for fifteen minutes and then your perfume will smell as most do now, of industrial perfumery
scenting detergent. Currently the residue of Dreft on our washing smells better to me than many a dry down, and most peony fragrances suffer this same dwindling effect on skin.
Still with that proviso in mind, I will recommend two perfumes. One is with some trepidation because it is really expensive, but the Cartier Heure Diaphane (VIII) does seem a true floral portrait of the peony. Of the whole series I really only liked two and this was one of them. It is fearsomely priced though for eau de toilette so this is a must try before purchase and one time when I’d recommend a decant. (Usually I don’t since you can often find samples in major cities, and I prefer to see creators, particularly small companies benefit from their releases) The Cartiers are hard to come by though. This is the work of Mathilde Laurent and displays her delicate touch with florals. (My other favorite in this line is L’Heure Convoitee or II the only good modern carnation.)
Much easier to find and also by a highly talented nose is Jo Malone’s Peony and Blush Suede composed by the new Hermes perfumer Christine Nagel. This is chic and if slightly less realistic, also perhaps more versatile as a scent. Good for the summer, office work, and layering with other fragrances. Peony and Blush Suede is also a great deal more affordable, something you can try out for a season without breaking the bank.
Peonies though still escape perfumers to my mind. In the end the best way to enjoy them is to do what I’m doing now. Inhale. I get: jasmine (Egyptian at least) white rose (light rose only- not much) cream, beeswax, hard milled soap, the faintest touch of delicate leather, and maybe… ambergris? No one radiates that except the peony itself.