Among the many blooms adored by perfumers and perfumistas alike – the regal lilies, the imperious irises, the fatal tuberoses, sensuous jasmines, opulent orange blossoms and that Empress of them all, the rose – one tiny, unassuming spring flower stands half-concealed among this distinguished bouquet, not doing much to call attention to itself, unless it is to confer its own sweetly green air of innocence and youth, so charming yet so modest. Or else it reminds us of dear, departed grandmothers and aunts and their fondness for posies and pastilles, candied petals on chocolate cakes and tiny, mauve soaps languishing in a porcelain dish you never dared to use, stamped with ‘Savon Violette’.
There’s a vintage if not old-fashioned aura around the humble violet, something that smacks of nostalgia, bygone eras, scented with a tinge of melancholy and the ephemerality of time. Marry the violet to rose in certain proportions and you get the fragrance and flavor of lipstick, pair it with its companion violet leaf, and you have an approximation of spring-in-a-bottle, all exuberant greens and bashful blooms playing peekaboo among the greenery. Many of those violets are lovely, sugary, as sweet and as substantial as fleeting promises you just know will never be fulfilled.
All the same, something haunts me about violet, something that tugs insistent on the edges of my mind and gives me an urge to bury my face in a tiny bunch of violets in a woodland glade, something that makes me want to grasp that ethereal perfume and bite it…
Which means I’m no fan of those sweet, restrained, grandmotherly violets. I like my violets with a Gothic edge, their dulcet melody of early spring tempered with an alto counterpoint. In other words – a violet that surprises me.
Here is Serge Lutens’ Bois de Violette, and as any reader of this blog knows, any Serge Lutens perfume is nothing if not surprising.
Bois de Violette and I did not get along the first few times we said hello. A glorious violet, so said the reviews I read, so I felt more than a little cheated when I smelled the ashen cedar tones of pencil shavings, and nary one violet beneath my nose.
It was a red flag in front of this Bull! When all I wanted to do, just as in the story of Ferdinand the Bull, was to sit in a sunlit spring field and smell the flowers.
Some time ago, a perfumista friend asked me if there were anything I would like to try from her extensive collection, and when Bois de Violette came up in the conversation, I jumped at the chance to finally grasp these elusive blooms and banish the pencil shavings to the cedar box they surely belonged in.
Many have stated that Bois de Violette is the sister scent of Feminité du Bois, and it isn’t hard to see the family resemblance in their structure, or indeed to recognize the jazzy riffs of improvisation over a familiar theme of cedar – and surprises. For all her heritage, Bois de Violette is not another Feminité du Bois and has none of her sister’s plummy, Bourgogne-tinted depths.
Instead, she sings in a different, higher register, and begins her own violet revolution by conjuring forth a fairy forest in emerald tones of green, and somewhere in the background, an intimation of shadows with that pine-cedar accord that never remains too far away. This may be a forest, and fairies may dwell here, it seems to say, but secrets and ghosts lie somewhere just beyond. Heed them well.
Except you won’t, for next thing you know, the fairies arrive, which is to say, the very violets that give Bois de Violette its name, and those memories of old-fashioned, old-school, grandmotherly violets are banished forevermore to that cedar box of mementos they surely belong in.
These violets have other, wilder stories to tell, stories with sweetly worded phrases of twilit purple dreams and candied hexameter breaths of leather and anise that grow darker as the shadows deepen and the violets sing their siren songs of dark green cedar, and you listen enchanted as they fade, and the cedar steps forward again to remind you – the hour is getting very late, and not all that grows in this forest is what it seems, and not all that breathes is as entirely benign as those fairies that sang away the hours on your skin.
In this enchanted forest of Faërie lurks a Big, Bold, Cedar Wolf, and it just might bite if you’re not careful…
Bois de Violette won’t overwhelm your surroundings as you wear it. It stays close to you, but never strays.
Instead, this is what you would choose to wear for your own pensive pleasure, whenever the mood for a little needed introspection with just a touch of joy grabs you, when the melancholy grays of endless rainy afternoons are almost more than you can bear, and you want a peerless, perfumed reminder that some day, spring shall return again, and light and life as well, hidden in a woodland glade to catch you unaware.
As for me, with my predilection for the Gothic in les violettes, I find that Bois de Violette is a liquid bloom that Baudelaire would surely appreciate, if indeed he wasn’t referring to them when he wrote:
Charme profond, magique, dont nous grise
Dans le présent le passé restauré!
Ainsi l’aimant sur un corps adore
Du souvenir cueille la fleur exquise.
Or in a freer translation I couldn’t improve if I tried:
It’s by such charms that Nevermore
Intoxicates us in the Now –
As lovers to remembrance bow
Over the bodies they adore.
Quote from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Un Fantôme’ (1861), translated by Roy Campbell 1953, courtesy of Fleurs Du Mal.
With thanks to two perfume angels who made such Baudelairean blooms – and words! – possible.