Time hasn’t been kind to lily-of-the-valley perfumes. Stylistically they’ve fallen out of vogue. They are considered quaint and proper, two descriptors nobody with a ‘social presence’ would ever want applied to her. Add to that the conditioned olfactory association with toilet cleanser and it’s no wonder muguet perfumes aren’t trending.
Another culprit is the often-overstated limitation on perfume materials, one in particular. According to experts the restriction of hydroxycitronellal, the principal component of Diorissimo, has changed muguet perfumes drastically. As with all perfumes from the mid-20th century, other limitations on materials apply, but this one is considered fatal. There are other materials that can be used, and most aromachemical manufacturers have muguet bases for sale, but like a chypre that’s skimped on the oakmoss, muguet perfumes just ain’t what they used to be. The genre known for a pearls-and-white-gloves gracefulness now looks clumsy.
The cases of Coty and Dior are revealing. ** Henri Robert’s Muguet des Bois for Coty (1941) and Edmond Roudnitska’s Diorissimo (1956) are the two Muguet Grandes Dames left from the heyday of the lily-of-the-valley solifor and are in fairly dismal states. They come off as skeletal and shrill, nothing like the voluptuous descriptions of the vintage versions. The other lilies of the valley from the time have an equally disheartening history. Muguets from Lentheric, Corday, Isabey and Borjois are long discontinued. Caron Muguet de Bonheur and Guerlain Muguet are considered to have a retro charm but like Diorissimo and Muguet des Bois, they are limited by restrictions on the materials used in the original versions. Praise of them doesn’t typically rise above “nice.”
A few bright spots redeem the muguet.
First, while the limits on materials might have hobbled the classic soliflors, many accomplished mixed florals cite lily-of-the-valley notes and accords. Apparently current materials and methods support muguet notes but not the traditional soliflor perfumes. Soapy, snowy features give mixed florals a cool, ‘florist fridge’ vibe and the olfactory proximity of the muget to hyacinth and lilac evoke Springtime’s combination of innocence and arousal. Muguet accords typically have an indolic element that allows them to bridge green and white floral ranges and keep green perfumes from becoming too sharp. I noticed that many of my favorite green florals and chypres had prominent lily-of-the-valley notes: Givenchy Insensé, Chanel 19, Bruno Fazzolari Seyrig, Paco Rabanne Metal, Guerlain Chamade, Parfums de Nicolai Odalisque. The green/white bridge makes lily-of-the-valley accords a hand-in-glove fit for mixed florals.
Second there are a few modern versions of the lily-of-the-valley soliflor that cleverly find ways to beat the limitations that have hamstrung so many of the classics.
Roudnitska’s Diorissimo is commonly cited as the ‘reference’ lily-of-the-valley so I’ll put it to the test and use it as a baseline for three other lilies. My specific point of comparison is a voile de parfum from the ’80s-’90s, a potent but nuanced perfume built on balanced contrasts. It is cold like marble but has a gauzy sillage and the soapy lather doesn’t quite rinse away the scent of garden soil. The creamy woody-floral accord is underlined by a bitter animalic edge. The play of brightness and shadow points out the deficiencies of the current formulation which is the olfactory equivalent of fluorescent lighting.
Diorissimo was a commentary on convoluted compositions and needlessly long formulae. Roudnitska chose lily-of-the-valley, a fragrant flower that resisted attempts to distill its essence, to create an alternative to the overly adorned perfumes that were in fashion. Rather than decorate the central accord, Roudnitska tempered it until it was fully saturated. Diorissimo was a floral still-life that captured the flower in full but remained poised and restrained.
In order of release date: Gucci Envy (1997), Tauer Perfumes Carillon pour un Ange (2010) and Hermès Muguet Porcelaine (2016) are three lily-of-the-valley perfumes that defy the genre’s fall from grace. Each comes from a different corner of the perfume industry gives a very different view of the flower.
Envy. Perfumer Maurice Roucel.
Though discontinued, Envy was available widely at department stores, online retailers and at most venues where Gucci products were sold. Roucel was a perfumer with a winning track record in independent and mainstream markets. At the time that Envy was launched, Gucci was expanding from boutiques to shopping malls. The brand’s approach to mainstreaming was to sell a suburban sensibility with glossy Hollywood style. Ford’s Gucci skimmed the surface of gay clone culture, cribbing the notion of a uniform appearance but stripping it of all subversive potential and identity. Tiny stylistic differences within the women’s and men’s lines were intended to carry distinctions noticeable to brand aficionados who would compare themselves to Gucci’s manic normalcy. Of course, by comparison we suffer and the brand sold envy on a number of levels.
The perfume fit Gucci perfectly. It was frigid and hyper clean and smelled like the laundry powder of the gods. It suited the emaciated and depilated ideal that the brand fostered and had the cocaine-corrosive nose feel that you get from putting your face too close to laundry powder. Viewed separate from the Gucci aesthetic, Envy has the perfectly judged balance of functional product and abstraction. The top notes flash out of the bottle with enough feedback to grab your attention but not so much as to distort. Envy’s picture of lily-of-the-valley is the furthest thing from creamy or smooth. Rather, it is sharp and crystalline, a hair’s breath away from brittle. Though an ostensible soliflor it is the modern successor to the insecticide mixed florals of the 1960s. It lacks the abrasive tinniness of that era’s perfumes, but riffs on their plastic stylings. Envy shares Diorissimo’s focussed abstraction but lacks its buttoned up formality. Fitting for an idealized detergent, the soapy-smoothness combines with a residual whiff of laundry starch for a vaguely comfortable but not terribly comforting drydown
Carillon pour un Ange. Perfumer Andy Tauer.
Tauer is an independent, artisanal perfumer whose methods and style became the blueprint for many niche brands. Known initially for his incense and resinous perfumes, Carillon demonstrated his talent for florals. Of the three perfumes compared here, Carillon is the only one composed by a self-trained perfumer. Roucel and Ellena, like Roudnitska, were all formally trained in classical French perfumery. Roudnitska, however, also held progressive views on artistry in perfumery and in his writing praised creative inspiration broadly. It is fitting that Tauer’s perfume is the closest in spirit to Roudnitska’s.
If Diorissimo was a nosegay or a bridal bouquet, Carillon is a forest filled with wildflowers. It is an enormous, swooning vernal fantasy. It is the opening scene of The Sound of Music in a bottle. Carillon presents an entire alpine landscape where wild lilies are found. Its covers a huge range, from the mucky, leathery forest carpet to grassy fields to the soprano of the tiny flower. Both Diorissimo and Carillon create their flowers through depiction. The images they create are wonderfully different and the perfumes make an interesting pair. Each perfumer creates a representation of the same flower. Roudnitska’s is a painstakingly staged still life. Tauer’s landscape-portraiture reminds me that before flowers were cultivated, they were wild.
Muguet Porcelaine. Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena.
Appropriate to Hermès, Ellena’s is the luxe lily of the bunch. Ellena has been likened to Roudnitska. Both share a passion for the intellectual, theoretical side of perfumery. Each pursued a method and style of work that reflected his vision and philosophy. The perfume’s name suggests a pristine product reflecting the Hermès brand’s characteristic refinement. Forget gilding the lily, Hermès would encase it in hard, pale enamel. Ellena is known for achieving the house’s luxurious restraint while still managing to pump some blood into the perfumes. His lily-of-the-valley goes a step further and blanches, or better, bleaches the lily.
Lilies-of-the-valley have a watery aspect that makes them seem perpetually fresh when compared to other white flowers. Jasmine and orange blossom strike a jaded pose, as if their beauty is always waning, nearer to decay than to first blush. Though muguet has a seedy side, one that Ellena tends to very carefully, it always seems in early stages of bloom. Ellena creates a watery sensation from two angles. A cucumber note gives a slight brine that puts a cap on both sweetness and luminosity. It matches the chill of the tiny flower and gives the tiniest metallic ring to the perfume. The second piece, a hint of bleach, comes at the flower from a 90° angle and gives the perfume a queer edge. Pure bleach crushes most anything in its path. Diluted, though, its antiseptic touch gives a distinct freshness.
Does Ellena’s lily-of-the-valley, with its sinister olfactory reference to cleaning products and name suggestive of commodes, have a buried message of subversion? Maybe so, but more likely, Ellena found this particular abstract property fit his vision of this iconic flower.
It’s possible that the downfall of the contemporary Diorissimo is precisely what made the original so impeccable. In distilling the formula to diamond clarity, Roudnitska created a composition that would be easily toppled when one leg is knocked-out. A more complex formula might have been more adaptable to reformulation, but Roudnitska took a stance with Diorissimo. It was glove-slap to perfume orthodoxy phrased as an aesthetic question: What is the significance of representation in perfumery? Roucel, Tauer and Ellena are well-versed in perfume and its history. Whether or not is was their specific intention, they took up Diorissimo’s legacy of intellectual provocation and their work poses the same question that Diorissimo did. They carry Roudnitska’s exploration of perfume’s artistic meaning into the present.
Fragrance expert Elena Vosnaki places the flower historically in Distant cousins: Lily of the Valley and Lily–part 1: Lily of the Valley at her site Perfume Shrine.
(Image, gilded lily of the valley by Tommy Mitchell)
I purchased all perfumes sampled.