Dianthus in Abstract

– a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Vitriol d’Œillet’

Life, John Lennon said once, is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. For my first review since Tuesday and some badly needed days off, I had, don’t you know, other plans…Plans to do a grab bag of mini reviews of whatever random samples my greedy little hands hauled out of the ‘yet to try’ cakebox, just so I could ease myself into the swing of things again. That should teach me.

Once in a while, something happens in a stop-press moment, where you just have to give up, give in and roll with it. Like yesterday, when the only thing in my mailbox was a plain padded envelope postmarked Paris, and I just knew it…drop everything, stop the press, OMG!!!….it’s le nouveau Serge Lutens…Vitriol d’Œillet!

Understand, I don’t do this for just anyone. But if I can blame any perfume house for my slippery slide into Vice I Can Ill Afford, it would be Serge Lutens. It was M. Lutens and his eponymous perfumes that reeducated my nose and realigned my amygdala and made me appreciate things I could have sworn I hated until that day I didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t even live without them.

So there I was yesterday afternoon, dancing around my living room like a Red Injun on the warpath with this plain white envelope. Breaking my rule of one perfume free day a week to clear my nose, tearing it open, yes, that’s what it is, extricating that tiny little sample vial and applying a discreet spray and…


I had to sit down. I had to sit down for a moment, take a deep breath or two, a sniff or three at my wrist, and… laugh.

Laugh, because once again a Lutens perfume has pulled the rug from beneath my feet and foiled all my expectations and misconstrued ideas as to what an ‘angry carnation’ might be. If press releases and debates among perfumistas were anything to go by, this could be the most exciting thing to happen to carnation since…CdG Series 2 Red maybe? Poison, vitriol, acid, caustic, passion…there was no shortage of adjectives and similes on several social networks as to what an ‘angry carnation’ might be.

In my own head, I had an idea that it might be something the editor in my story, nicknamed ‘Caustic Cyd’, would wear for intimidation purposes.

Instead, I had a bad fit of the giggles. I always had an idea there were puns in those bottles and not just their names but puns of an olfactory kind, an unexpected twist on expectations as to what a perfume can be without ever compromising on a vision, a bit of strange, another, more compelling kind of beauty.

Carnations have all sorts of connotations, political, personal or in perfumes. Once upon a time, said Theophrastus, they were sacred to Zeus/Jupiter, later they were purloined and dyed green by the aesthetes of Oscar Wilde’s age (There’s a wicked parody in Robert Hichens’ book ‘The Green Carnation’), used as a symbol of a mother’s love, or in wedding bouquets to symbolize love, fascination and distinction, or alternately, if they’re variegated, an elegant way to say ‘your love cannot be returned.’

Trust the French to put another twist on the carnation. Purple carnations in France are traditionally used in funerals and symbolize misfortune and bad luck.

This vitriol of carnation is dyed a delicate, rather wistful violet hue…

First, forget everything you’ve heard. In fact, forget everything you know about carnation and carnation perfumes. The glories of, say, Caron’s ‘Tabac Blond’, or their famous carnation soliflore ‘Bellodgia’, forget Floris’ ‘Malmaison’, forget Nina Ricci’s ‘L’Air du Temps’ or Etro’s ‘Dianthus’. Please do forget the clove/cinnamon RedHot that is the Comme des Garcons’ Red Series version. Vitriol is nothing like it, and like none of them. It doesn’t have the vintage perfume-y vibe of Tabac Blond or Bellodgia, nor the lush floral bouquet of L’Air du Temps, and certainly not, at least to my nose, anything remotely resembling RedHot. It doesn’t smell old-fashioned in the slightest, and it doesn’t smell like anything else modern, either.

It starts out with a searing punch in the nose of pepper, black pepper, the sweeter and softer pink pepper, and an airy, fragrant carnation as they once were in some expensive florist’s, as cool and as fresh as the dew that still clings to those pinked petals. I do mean it smells fresh, and I do mean it is cool, but wait for it, this is a Lutens, after all, and soon enough, a fiery sotto voce whisper of cayenne pepper kicks up its heels and dances out into the limelight for a pas de deux cancan with that frilly flower as it whirls around and around a still clove center that spins it like a pinwheel. Now peppery, now fiery, now with a slight touch of dentist’s office and oil of cloves, but even as it heats up, it also manages to keep its cool. If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s precisely the kind of contradiction no other perfume house does quite so elegantly.

As it dries down, the clove grows stronger and a bit more emphatic, the nutmeg and the cayenne add a slightly human touch before fading away to a cool, powdery, nutmeg-woody whisper of past dreams of pinks. No floral notes are listed, so I must be imagining that light touch of rose and something that could be a suggestion of violet or is it orris for that melancholy air, that wistful, final wink of fire and pepper.

This won’t knock anyone sideways with sillage, so if that’s what you expect, you will be disappointed.

I can honestly say I wasn’t. Easily unisex, easily wearable, and easily blowing my preconceptions to frilly smithereens, it took me a while to understand the joke. The vitriol is that this is an abstract carnation, a deconstructed dianthus, taken apart to atoms and rebuilt from scratch into another, different kind of pink, an unusual carnation with tiny cayenne teeth to remind you that no matter how beautiful, no matter what color or associations you find in those toothsome petals, it still has enough fire to punch you in the nose if it so pleases!

Nothing like a carnation with an attitude problem. ‘Caustic Cyd’ wouldn’t wear this, but I certainly would, at the drop of a violet carnation…

Notes: Nutmeg, clove, black pepper, pink pepper, cayenne pepper.

‘Vitriol d’Œillet’ is in the export line of Serge Lutens perfumes, and will be made available worldwide in September. For European customers, It can be bought now from the Serge Lutens website.

The Madonna of the Pinks

– A review of Caron’s Bellodgia
Soliflores can be tricky propositions, especially for those of us with short attention spans. Either too linear or too literal, too fleeting – or too much. If like me you have a penchant for certain odiferous blooms – in my case, lilies, roses, lilacs, wisteria, carnations, orange blossom to name but a few, it stands to reason that some days, you simply want to take that joy with you, hopefully without being bored halfway through the day.

Not so long ago, I went on an Oscar – as in Wilde – binge, and naturally enough, carnations popped up. But have you noticed something? Those rarified, ostentatious hothouse blooms have lost their scent these days. Even those glorious dark red carnations – surely a visual statement of no small order – don’t have much more than a fleeting, peppery note, nothing like the rich and heady flowers of Oscar’s day.

Failing the Real Thing, I next went on a mission to locate The Ultimate Bottled Carnation. Sadly, Floris’ ‘Malmaison’ has been discontinued, and good luck finding any – you’ll need it. Next up, I found Comme des Garçons Red Series 2 ‘Carnation’ – and thank you, Dimitri, for telling me where to locate it in my remote perfume desert. I spent an afternoon with it, and I’m telling you, if any perfume should be titled ‘Red’, or more likely, ‘Red Hot’, this is it. Wheee! Pepper and clove and Cinnamon with a capital C, this stuff puts the ‘carnal’ in carnation. Carnal or venal, I’m not sure which, but not for me. It nosedived into the pepper pot on my skin in a way I probably wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate, or maybe it was a question of time. The bottom line was…no.

I tried to locate Etro’s ‘Dianthus’, and just like with ‘Malmaison’, had rotten, lousy luck. It has also been discontinued.

Nina Ricci’s ‘L’Air du Temps’ – a classic for a reason – was another perfume that highlights carnation, and again – not for me. Almost anything my mother wore is by default out of the running. It just felt…wrong, like a four-year-old getting into Mommy’s lipstick and stilettos. I just wasn’t…woman enough!

Which was when I found Caron’s ‘Bellodgia’. Created in 1927 by Ernest Daltroff, it is considered one of the world’s finest carnations, created to evoke the town of Bellagio by Lake Como, ‘carnations soaked in sunshine’.

I took a deep breath, crossed my eyes and toes and wished for a birthday bottle of the eau de parfum.

Reading about a perfume and trying to evoke it in your olfactory imagination only gets you so far. It is…perfume by proxy, and nothing can quite prepare you for The Real Deal. Which explains the Try Before You Buy ethos of perfumoholics like myself, unless, also like me, you like surprises!

Therefore, it was with some trepidation I opened that birthday package, crossed my fingers and – sprayed. Yowza! What was that slightly…weird thing going on, that thing that said…PERFUME, BABY! The old-fashioned kind, the kind they don’t make like this any more, but right before I was ready to swallow my disappointment…it was National Carnation Day chez Maison Tarleisio, and the most opulent, heady, dizzying, erm, incarnation of well, pinks – of carnation and clove and thick, sweet vanilla, underscored by what to my nose smelled like rose, but according to the notes is actually lily-of-the-valley and jasmine – bloomed and radiated and emanated in all directions.

This was the carnation to slay all carnations, this was stupendously beautiful and viciously addictive. This carnation was a loyal soul – it never strayed and stuck like duct tape to my perfume-eating skin, finally drying down to a soft, powdery, mossy vanilla-clove-musk finish that on me reminds me of sandalwood, but sweeter, with a vanilla edge that is not at all gourmand but definitely edible. So good, I nearly wanted to eat my arm, or sub-contract the job to someone else who would. Nothing funereal about it in the slightest, but very much a living, breathing, emanating joy.

I’ve worn this at the height of summer, and I’ve worn this on icy, windy, snowy days and it behaves differently according to the weather. Heat amps up the floral notes, but on cold days, this is snuggly, vicuña comfort in a bottle. My five-year-old adores it. When I wear it, he can’t get close enough, so long as it’s on my lap and he can bury his nose in my neck. He likes most things I wear, but of them all, Bellodgia is his favorite. Eau de Maman, if you ask him. That is all, and for a five-year-old, that’s enough.

I haven’t had the opportunity to try this in parfum – vintage or reformulated – so I’m not in any position to say how much it’s been altered/ruined by reformulation. I’ve also read that in the newer eau de parfum, there is a green tea note, but I don’t get that at all. What I do get is a soliflore that holds my attention throughout the day, that is much admired by my surroundings for being in an entirely alternate universe from the usual perfumes of today, and that I have grown to love far more than I ever expected.

If Bellodgia were a painting, it would be the Raphael-attributed ‘Madonna of the Pinks’, for being so true to the scent of pinks, with their spicy, fiery heart, and if it were a Tarot Card, it would be the Major Arcana card called The Empress – the essence of motherly womanhood, caring, compassionate, comforting.

As it is, it’s what carnations are supposed to be, but sadly, no longer are. It is also what perfumes should be, and all too often, rarely are.

Image: The Raphael-attributed ‘Madonna of the Pinks’, National Gallery, London
Image of vintage Bellodgia parfum: Il Mondo di Odore

Notes according to Fragrantica:
Top notes: Carnation
Heart notes: Jasmine, lily of the valley
Base notes: Musk, clove and vanilla