Pity the humble violet. Today, violet perfumes as they were originally made have a slight bashful whiff of Miss Havisham and Victoriana, of simplicity, humility and faithfulness, as if, in other words, the perfumes made from this modest but heavenly scented flower have somehow been imbued by default with all the loaded trappings of Proust’s notorious madeleine – offering nostalgia in a bottle.
It’s hard to imagine in these anything goes days, but once upon a time in the decadent, alluring Belle Èpoque era of Paris with its equally alluring swirling, whirling, dizzying lines and mysterious femmes fatales, with its Symbolist poetry, Pointillist paintings and louche air, back in the day when all the world was perched on the brink of momentous change, that shy little violet ruled supreme in the perfume world. Ladies of distinction and easy virtue alike were so enamoured of its sweetly fragrant, verdant spring air that violet perfumes were in effect the perfume bestsellers of their day.
No matter what these mesdames and demoiselles of the Belle Èpoque might have thought to the contrary, those beloved, sweetly romantic violet perfumes did not in fact contain a single bloom, but another newly synthesized aromatic component that had recently arrived for the perfumer’s organ – ionone (alpha- and beta-ionone, to be precise). Coumarin may get all the justly celebrated press for Houbigant’s Fougère Royal and Guerlain’s equally revolutionary Jicky, but ionone was just as important, not least for the enormous bouquet of violet soliflore perfumes that began to bloom in liquid at around the same time.
Let those dandies and Des Esseintes-wannabes wear their narcotic ambers and tuberoses, their oh-so fashionable fougères, those ladies seemed to say.
‘Give me la violette and my heart shall always be an eternal Spring.’
I’m not sure about the previous statement, but it is a fact universally proven on this blog and elsewhere – I love violets. The flowers themselves are my favorite part of spring, candied violets do wonders in tandem with dark chocolate (never more so than in that great Baudelaire poem of violet, aroma M’s delicious Geisha Violet), and not a few other violet perfumes have also stolen my own fickle heart – Tom Ford’s Black Violet, Sonoma Scent Studio’s Forest Walk, the neon violet of Guerlain’s Insolence and perhaps my favorite of them all, Serge Lutens’ Bois de Violette. I also once managed to imbibe violet (violet liqueur is a thing) in the form of a virulent purple concoction known as Parfait Amour since hope springs eternal, but I didn’t find it there…
Yet somewhere in those curvilinear, asymmetrical lines of perfume, in the vibrant Pointillist paintings of Hippolyte Petitjean and the overall arc of the Denver Art Museum’s Passport to Paris exhibition now on show, perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz managed to reinvent this now classic perfume trope, le parfum violette, and make it new into something that feels not at all out of place or step with the 21st century.
Her inspiration came from Hippolyte Petitjean’s painting Village from 1893. I’m not sure it’s the painting above, since Google Images was not cooperating, but if Dawn were somehow hoping to translate that hazy, sun-drenched landscape painting into a perfume, she certainly succeeded.
For Vers la Violette is never less than violet, and nevertheless as state-of-the-art modern as this day, this moment, this instant I type away on a machine not even Jules Verne could have imagined. Just as I think I can say with some justification the august Aimé Guerlain could never have imagined anything like Vers la Violette, but if anyone could understand it as something more and more audacious than the mere sum of its parts, surely he would.
In my opinion, no one in perfumery today on either side of the Atlantic can touch Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ innate and slightly uncanny understanding of the historical context of perfumes. Whether recreating some of the fragrances of ancient Egypt or reinterpreting a comprehensive work of fashion as she did for her YSL retrospective, she not only manages to convey precisely what those pivotal perfumes meant and how they were perceived in their time, but also to refine them and improve them, and with Vers la Violette, she gives the world a violet to make the heart sing and the mind dream of purple haze over a country field, of spring and future possibilities.
Except somehow in this pale gold liquid filigree, an urban heart beats beneath it all which gives it an edge on the violet competition and takes it far away from any nostalgic memories of bashful blooms on a forest floor.
Make no mistake – Vers la Violette is also a pun – on ‘vert’, and green is precisely how it starts to sing. I detect bergamot, galbanum and lemon certainly, along with a quite a lot of violet leaf, but there’s nothing at all bashful about this purple flower. She sings a little softly underneath the orange blossom, the rose and the iris to begin with, which makes this about very much more and more multi-dimensional than simply ‘violet’, but when she finally enters the spotlight, she stays. And stays. Winding her delicate vines around that ethereal floral heart and on through a mossy, soft suede drydown with a hint of hot summer concrete splashed by a passing purple-violet thundercloud.
As much as I like violet notes, and violet leaves, and violet leaf perfumes with their grassy-green optimism, it’s this suede-y, violet-flavored wet steamy concrete thing that slays me. It takes a bit more than the mere name ‘violet’ to make me sit up and pay attention to what I’m sniffing, so I’m partial to the unusual, and Vers la Violette, for all its fabled historical associations with ionone, with violets, and with Les Femmes Modernes of Belle Èpoque Paris, is a most unusual violet. I’ve consistently called it ‘she’, but Vers la Violette is easily, breezily unisex and more modern and certainly more elegant than any mere blushing bloom could ever be.
I’m not quite sure how many more ways I can say I love it – most deeply and sincerely – except that sample vial is going fast, for give me a violet, give me this violet and I shall remain forever young…
Notes (from Fragrantica): Galbanum, bergamot, lemon, violet leaf absolute, cyclamen, orange flower absolute, ionone, orris CO2 extract, Bulgarian rose, wood violet, Mysore sandalwood, oakmoss, labdanum, suede, civet.
Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, for which I thank her from the bottom of my hugely grateful heart.