A Gardener’s Pride and Joy

Although this article arrives rather late, I have had it in mind to write about my lilies of the valley since the beginning of May when they were in bloom. During that time, bunches of these white porcelain bells could also be found wrapped in their green leaves and sold as bouquets. But since I much prefer the process of growing and coaxing a plant into blooms, especially one whose fragrance I have yet to smell in situ, I had planted their rootstocks or ‘pips’ in autumn last year. They lay dormant over the winter and only began to send out their leaves in mid-March when the weather warmed. A littler later, some flower stalks emerged, and I could enjoy the redolence of spring.

muguet pips

Pips emerging from dormancy in spring. The carpet of seedlings around the pips are violets, which also emerge from the seeds of last year.

The perennial lily of the valley or muguet (Convallaria majalis) returns every year to perfume the spring air. But despite its delicate-looking white bells, muguet is highly poisonous and, especially without blooms, often dangerously mistaken for the edible herb bear leek (Allium ursinum). Nonetheless, grow a small patch in a dedicated pot of its own for an olfactory pleasure and all the caution can be thrown in the wind.

Its ethereal scent smells fresh, obviously floral, even spicy, and with a watery green tone. I would describe it as a mix of rose, clove, jasmine, green saps, and musky sweetness. But in spite of these contrastingly opulent notes, the overall character of muguet is reserved, and it feels like a subtle and an elegant way of announcing spring. Lily of the valley, as such, has been a prime objective of perfumers who have tried to capture its mesmerising scent and, along with it, the allure of spring.

Lily of The Valley in Perfumery

Just as elusive as it is captivating, lily of the valley virtually refuses to be extracted. Steam distillation does not yield a desirable quality of essential oil and solvent extraction with either petroleum ether or butane, though sufficient to produce the concrete for research, gives too low a yield to be commercially tenable. Perfumers must therefore rely on their memory and headspace analysis of the natural scent to reconstitute and interpret lily of the valley with existing essential oils and aroma ingredients.

The first of such aroma chemicals were the aldehydes (-CHO), such as hydroxycitronellal, Lilial, and Lyral. These are some of the most well-known muguet odorants of this family. Hydroxycitronellal was the prototype; it encompasses all the facets of lily of the valley — despite itself not being naturally occurring. It had been discovered and marketed by Knoll & Co. in 1905, but soon various qualities from other manufacturers were available, such as Laurine (1906) and Cyclosia (1908). The next stage of muguet was, then, dominated by Lilial and Lyral, starting from the 1960s. They would eventually come to supplant hydroxycitronellal.

These muguet aldehydes found their use directly in a composition or alternatively in a compounded base. Hydroxycitronellal, for instance, first found its fame with the aldehydic floral perfume Quelques Fleurs (Houbigant, 1912). It had also been used to compound Lily 7 — a base comprising seven ingredients — which was employed in the composition of Arpège (Lanvin, 1927), another successful aldehydic floral perfume. Other classic perfumes such as Chanel N°5 (1921), Ma Griffe (Carven, 1946), L’Air du Temps (Nina Ricci, 1948), and Youth Dew (Estée Lauder, 1952) likewise benefited from this lily of the valley odorant. But hydroxycitronellal was just as popular in the enduring fragrance of Nivea Cream, which has notes of muguet, ylang ylang, rose, geranium, violet (ionones) as well as cinnamic and balsamic ones.

Later perfumes, however, relied more on the newly available odorants when they were first created. For example, Fidji (Guy Laroche, 1966) employed Lyral, imparting thus a green tone to its floral bouquet. Similarly, Calandre (Paco Rabanne, 1969) used Lyral in addition to hydroxycitronellal to give a green emphasis that accentuates its character of metallic rose. Even more so, the elaborate floral accord of Anaïs Anaïs (Cacharel, 1978) was based on hydroxycitronellal, Lilial, Lyral, and Cyclamen aldehyde. Interestingly, compositions such as Aromatics Elixir (Clinique, 1971), Coriandre (Jean Couturier, 1973), and Paloma Picasso (1984) used a combination of the muguet aldehydes partly for their floral notes that contrast beautifully with patchouli.

Interestingly, such muguet aldehydes was also used in the formation of Schiff bases. When an amine (-NH2) reacts with an aldehyde (-CHO), a Schiff base and water are formed. For example, methyl anthranilate reacts with hydroxycitronellal and Lyral to form Aurantiol and Lyrantiol, respectively. The Schiff bases produced can give odours of orange blossom, linden blossom, or tuberose. Perfumes such as Oscar (Oscar de la Renta, 1977), Poison (Dior, 1985), and Lou Lou (Cacharel, 1987) derived much of their sweet floral character in such a manner at the time.

Even in the last few years, the classic muguet aldehydes, such as hydroxycitronellal, Lilial, and Lyral could still be found. In adr_ett (Nomenclature, 2015), the lily of the valley, which lends a green floral touch to the fruity musk, was based on the combination of hydroxycitronellal and Lilial. And, as much as 12% Lyral was used in Inflorescence (Byredo, 2013) to build its lily of the valley character. Indeed, these muguet aldehydes have proved to be one of the enduring ingredients of perfumery.

But that is about to change.

Due to their skin-sensitising potential, these muguet aldehydes are facing restrictions. Hydroxycitronellal is allowed only up to certain concentrations depending on the end use, but Lilial and Lyral are severely restricted. According to the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), Lilial is considered ‘not safe for use as fragrance ingredient in cosmetic leave-on and rise-off type products’ even at the concentrations set by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), and Lyral ‘should not be used in consumer products’.

New odorants are therefore being developed to replace these restricted ones. Amongst them, the aldehydes  account for a broad range of muguet odour profiles that includes names like Dupical, Florhydral, Melafleur, Floral Super, Cyclemax, et cetera. There are also the alcohols (-OH), such as Mayol/Meijiff, Florol/Florosa, Mugetanol, Majantol, Lilyflore, Muguesia, and Super Muguet, and these are a sought-after class of muguet odorants because of their non-sensitising nature. Super Muguet, for instance, was first used in contrasting the fig accord of Marc Jacobs Men (2002), and it was later used in the oriental-gourmand Noir Pour Femme (Tom Ford, 2015). Amongst recently debuted ingredients, I had the chance to smell Mahonial, which offers a diffusive, creamy lily of the valley note reminiscent of the yellow blooms of Mahonia japonica, from whose name it is derived. Mahonial was first employed in the floral heart of Missoni (2015), and now one can smell its transparent yet creamy note in L’Homme (Prada, 2016) and La Femme (Prada, 2016), both containing Mahonial at approximately 4% and 2%, respectively.

As reflected in the many examples of perfumes, the muguet note is a part and parcel of many different styles of fragrances. It follows then that the quest for safe, stable, and impactful lily of the valley aroma chemicals must continue.

Lily of The Valley in Perfumes

The fresh watery appeal and creamy sensuality of muguet lend a special touch to a composition. For this reason, it is not limited to soliflore perfumes, and forms an important part in many styles of compositions.

But, of course, if one wishes to know how perfumers interpret lily of the valley, exploring soliflore perfumes is a good option. There have been several other muguet soliflores since the eighteenth century, from Lily of The Valley (Floris, 1750), Premier Mai (Houbigant, 1908), Muguet de Chaville (Cheramy, 1910), Muguet des Bois (Coty, 1941), Muguet du Bonheur (Caron, 1952), and Muguet de Guerlain (1998 by Jean-Paul Guerlain), to name a few. But I would rather offer a few favourite choices of this flower.

Naturally, one of these is the most well-known and appreciated lily of the valley: Diorissimo (1956). Considered to be the gold standard, its fresh green floral and surreptitious animalic notes conjure the vernal impression of damp woodlands covered in infinite patches of lily of the valley. In the current eau de toilette, its muguet has lost some radiance and its woodlands short on their animalic richness, but I think that its curious paradox of an ethereal flower with a veiled depth still rings true.

However, the lily of the valley that I find most captivating is far from the time-tested repertoire of classics. Muguet Porcelaine (Hermès, 2016), I feel, takes after the spirit of Diorissimo in simplicity and subtle depths, but its singular focus is where it diverges. Whereas Diorissimo is an impressionistic rendering of blooms in their woodlands, Muguet Porcelaine is a careful treatise dedicated solely to muguet, examining its accents and shades. Led by fresh accents of rose and clove, its green floral is not only depicted in detail, but also underpinned by watery melon and green sap that remain fresh until the dry down.

Other than the soliflores, the lily of the valley note, as evident in the examples heretofore, finds itself in various genres. Indispensable to the bouquet of the aldehydic florals, lily of the valley is a part of perfumes such as Chanel N°5, Arpège, Madame Rochas (1960), Calandre, Rive Gauche (Yves Saint Laurent, 1971), and White Linen (Estée Lauder, 1978). It is also found in the multiplex bouquets of L’Air du Temps, Fidji, and Anaïs Anaïs. Beyond these floral bouquets, it finds contrast and harmony in many interesting accords. In perfumes such as Aromatics Elixir, Coriandre, and Paloma Picasso, the lily of the valley accentuates the floral complex that is set against the patchouli and woods. This contrast between muguet and patchouli is also employed in the mellis accord of oriental perfumes such as Opium (Yves Saint Laurent, 1971) and Coco (Chanel, 1984). But the lily of the valley also shines brightly with green notes, where its green floral character finds harmony. In Chamade (Guerlain, 1969), a hint of muguet bridges between the green galbanum and hyacinth opening and the floral heart. This bridge between green galbanum and floral heart is similarly found in Chanel N°19 (1970). As the green notes are making a come-back, so too is the lily of the valley note, and this is seen in the green, dewy floral introduction of Miu Miu (2015).

But ultimately the perfume that has a special place in my memory of May is that of the lilies of the valley which I had coaxed into bloom. They were my pride and joy.

Sources: M. Meunier, Ind. Perfum., 5, 26, 1950; Naves and Mazuyer, Les Parfums Naturels, Paris (1939), p 250; Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors p 13, 108; SCCS Opinion on HICC SCCP/1456/11 revised 27 July 2012; SCCS Opinion on BMHCA SCCS/1540/14 revised 16 March 2016.

*Lilial is a tradename for butylphenyl methylproprional (BMHCA).

*Lyral is a tradename for hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde (HICC).

Review: Christian Dior Diorissimo — 4.5 points

In the years following the post-war austerity, perfumes took on a new level of sophistication with increasing number of complex compositions entailing long formulae. These included the grand chypres blending citrus top, floral heart, and woody, mossy, animalic fond in perfumes like Ma Griffe (Carven, 1946), Miss Dior Originale (1947), and Jolie Madame (Pierre Balmain, 1953). Even other styles such as the exhilarating floralcy of L’Air du Temps (Nina Ricci, 1948) or the oriental seduction of Youth Dew (Estée Lauder, 1952) were just as puissant.

They were beautiful, of course, but perfumer Edmond Roudnitska differed in his ideal of aesthetics. Why not a simple formula that could just as well bring out novelty, signature, and beauty clearly? And, perhaps, when he collaborated with Christian Dior — whose lucky charm was a boutonnière of muguet — the chips fell into place, and Diorissimo (Dior, 1956) was conceived.

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It came along and threw everyone back to the soliflores of the early nineteenth century when flowers that did not yield scents to extraction were being rendered by perfumers. There was no abstraction of elaborate ideas. Diorissimo felt as though it were against the idea of baroque grand parfums: it was just a flower.

Was it not?

One ought to smell again to see the concealed complexity beneath the white porcelain bells. The current Diorissimo is rather intense in the opening blast of ylang ylang. Its spicy solar note spearheads the brightness, whilst its fruity and heady notes also hint at the underlying depths.

As the jarring debut settles, the shimmering white bells emerge. It is coloured in layers, from the rosy top, the narcotic floral volume, to the green depth. These are interspersed with the watery shades of lilac. The infinite patches of muguet are to be admired along with the accompanying crisp, cold spring.

However, the current eau de toilette is not as radiant and rich as it should be. It has certainly been reformulated. Lily of the valley odorants are now limited to a certain concentration and animalic tinctures that once suffused the composition with a vernal impression of damp earth is banned. This likely accounts for some lost radiance and depth.

Despite that, Diorissimo is still excellent and surprisingly modern for a fragrance concocted half a century ago. In any case, the composition settles after some time into the distinct lily of the valley note of cool white flowers. It stays close to skin for six hours, and occasionally wafts out its crisp green floral sillage.

Diorissimo came at a time when perfumes were fuzzy formulae. Its impression of a single flower might seem like a reversion to the tradition of soliflore at first, but the depth of Diorissimo begs to differ. Its character leaves a strong impression with simplicity and veiled complexity found in shades and nuances of muguet. In Diorissimo, Roudnitska painted a vernal backdrop for the lily of the valley. He did so with the Impressionistic touch of Debussy. No longer are the lilies of the valley confined to a delicate vase. The result is redolent of the muguet in its very habitat deep in the damp, earthy woodlands.

Source: dior.fr

Review: Chanel N°19 — 5.0 points

Mademoiselle Chanel once told the press an anecdote of how a stranger had stopped her on the street outside the Ritz, where she lived, just to inquire what her amazing perfume was. ‘Not bad at my age,’ thought the mademoiselle. She was eighty-seven years old, and the perfume was Chanel N°19 (1970) named for the date of her birth.

Chanel N°19 deserves its classic status, not the least of which is its quality materials that range from Iranian galbanum, Florentine iris, to May rose and jasmine from Grasse. More importantly, however, it is the way perfumer Henri Robert creatively explored the brilliant ideas of his contemporary, namely  in Cabochard (Grès, 1959) and Aramis (1965), that gave birth to a milestone in perfumery. He created an object of fascination and contemplation even amongst perfumers.

chanel fr

The piercing verdancy of galbanum, tinged with bitterness, is a hallmark of Chanel N°19. This addition of galbanum to the chypre structure is perhaps a reference to the green galbanum opening of both Cabochard and Aramis. And, despite the non-aldehydic nature, it still feels like being splashed with a pail of cold water.

As Chanel N°19 develops, a rich bouquet of rose and lily of the valley unfurls. A hint of rich jasmine absolute dallies with the floral heart. These are backed by as much as 13% Hedione so that the florals diffuse and come to life. Interestingly, orris butter at 1%, especially noticeable in the extrait de parfum, provides a contrast of soft rooty powder to the sharp galbanum. Moreover, it is backed by ionones. Together they sweeten the chypre accord of Chanel N°19 and act as a bridge between the floral heart and the woody fond.

The dry down of Chanel N°19 is a dusky combination based on the woody-musky 12% Vertofix Coeur, vetiver notes, sandalwood, and guaiac wood. There is also a spicy carnation accord. These are darkened by a rough-hewn accord of oakmoss, mossy Evernyl, and a bit of leather based on isobutyl quinoline. In addition, the use of animal tinctures such as natural musk, ambergris, and civet in trace amounts probably provides the sumptuousness in the vintage composition. The chypre dry down recalls those of Cabochard and Aramis — leathery, mossy, and woody.

Chanel N°19 certainly has a striking character. Its leathery chypre is atypical of feminine perfumes. And, whilst its florals and woods may recall a floral aldehydic perfume, the abundance of galbanum and orris, the oakmoss, and the overdosed Hedione beg to differ. Interestingly also, its chypre accord contains little or no patchouli and musks. It also has little or no aldehydes, floral salicylates, and vanillin. These alone are perplexing.

And through the imaginative use of such materials and structure, perfumer Henri Robert cemented the classic signature of Chanel N°19. The verdancy of galbanum is set against the soft powder of orris, contrasting the texture. The green of galbanum also contends with the dusky woods. This potent ménage à trois of galbanum, orris, and chypre in Chanel N°19 is so original that few perfumes can remotely be considered as successors of this style. And, by a stroke of ingenuity, he added a large dose of Hedione, setting the composition aloft and diffuses its florals — it was the highest dose of Hedione used at the time since its introduction in Eau Sauvage (Dior, 1966). The result firmly established Chanel N°19 amongst the great milestones.

Of course, Chanel N°19 has been reformulated over the years since its creation. With its galbanum, for example, sourcing from Iran was problematic in 1979 when the revolution erupted. Natural animal tinctures that used to give Chanel N°19 its complexity have been excluded from the composition. The rich floral absolutes are now reserved only for the extrait de parfum due to the rising costs. Even the source of its orris is different as Chanel now uses the rhizomes of both Iris pallida and Iris germanica grown in its own fields in Grasse instead of the Iris pallida traditionally sourced from Florence, Italy. Despite all of this, Chanel N°19 is still recognisable and easily puts many modern creations to shame.

Its originality and quality are so enduring it deserves a hall of fame. And, the words of perfumer Christopher Sheldrake reaffirms that notion: ‘Chanel N°19 is a perfumer’s perfume, a connoisseur’s fragrance, it is a great tribute that so many people have been inspired by it’.

A note on the concentrations: The richest formula of Chanel N°19 is no doubt the extrait de parfum. Here, the galbanum is round and complex, with green and musky notes. The richness of roots and dusts in orris is palpable throughout the development. The florals are sumptuous with the luscious confit note of May rose absolute and fresh lily of the valley complex competing for attention. The dark mossy woods, the vetiver, and the leather accent buried within feel round and mellow at first, but gradually become dramatic. The interplay of verdant galbanum, rooty iris, and dusky woods is sublime, not only because of the dramatic contrasts, but also with each part unveiling subtly its facets and complements. The extrait is incredibly rich and complex it deserves a place on the pedestal of classics.

The eau de parfum formula created by perfumer Jacques Polge in the 1980s is the most diffusive, with sharp floral notes and rough woods. The verdancy of galbanum is penetrative, but short-lived. The floral heart is bright and diffusive, but not rich and buttery as in the extrait. The lack of orris is certainly felt. The fond features a rough-hewn accord of leather, vetiver, and mossy woods. The emphasis falls on the juxtaposition between verdant florals and dusky woods.

The eau de toilette follows the development of the extrait closely, save for its more radiant style. The sparkling green of galbanum is bolstered by the freshness of citrus. The floral components fuse into a well-blended accord. The dusts of orris is noticeable – even more so than in the eau de parfum. The leather accent is also buried amongst subtle vetiver and mossy woods. Overall, the eau de toilette feels balanced and substitutes the brightness for the richness in the extrait.

Sources: chanel.fr, savoirflair.com, faz.net, vanityfair.com, Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors, Perfumery Practice and Principles, SweetspotQC’s videos 

Review: Hermès Muguet Porcelaine — 5.0 points

Lily of the valley or muguet is a classic example of flowers that refuse to yield a feasible quality or quantity of essence. Perfumers make it their eternal quest to capture its delicate scent. They initially constructed muguet based on combinations of essential oils, but later painted their ideas of the flower with the help of new aroma chemicals such as hydroxycitronellal, Lyral, and Lilial. But these were later found to be able to induce allergic reactions and are therefore restricted or even banned. Given such limitations, it is a creative challenge for perfumers to compose and interpret the scent of these white bells.

muguet ukhermes

Enter Muguet Porcelaine (Hermès, 2016), a testament to the mastery of perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. The lily of the valley is vividly captured here with notes of fresh rose, spicy clove, jasmine, and green sap. A surprising melon accent makes the accord full-bodied with its fruity voluptuous touch. Its vivid beginning is as bright as the start of a fine spring day.

But as the clove-like freshness of its floral evaporates, the dewy greenery becomes more apparent. The interplay between peppery floral and watery green note keeps the muguet accord fresh. The sum is spot-lit, radiant lilies of the valley amidst their lush foliage. It also leaves a crisp green dry down that lingers for as long as six hours on me, and it has a green trail.

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I adore it with just as much enthusiasm as I do Diorissimo (Dior, 1956). Whereas the latter is an impressionistic take that paints a mélange of muguets and damp woodlands, Muguet Porcelaine is a close study of muguet. Here, the white porcelain bells are clearly delineated with floral, spicy, and green nuances, and then nestled amidst their dewy leafy stalks. Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska gave a fantasy of vernal woodlands for Diorissimo, but Jean-Claude Ellena draws our attention also to its evergreen foliage — it provides just as beautiful a lush ground cover in summer and through to autumn. With Muguet Porcelaine, he met the creative challenge successfully and in his own way.

Source: uk.hermes.com