Of the Green and the Purple: Searching for the Souls of Good Violets
Long ago, before I had ever smelled a violet perfume, I read about them and I imagined they would be lovely, glimmering, deep purple scents. My very first order of samples included several named violette-something-or-other, and when they arrived I eagerly opened them and dabbed onto my skin. They didn’t make me cry—there are advantages to being a woman in one’s late thirties instead of an eleven-year-old orphan girl—but I was deeply disappointed by their strange, sticky-sweetness and it took me a long time to push my original ideas aside and return to my search for the souls of good violets.
My mistake was beginning with soliflores. Like most simple things, they are difficult to do well, and violet soliflores are haunted by Victorian ghosts dabbing their pale foreheads with violet-scented handkerchiefs, while they recover from another fainting fit. Much later, I realized there were stealth violets—ionones in their many roles and forms—in some of my favorite perfumes. They were hidden in the velvet heart of my beloved Coco, slipping in and out of Le Parfum de Therese’s elegant layers, blooming in the dark chill of No. 19’s upright spine.
It was another complex scent, the gorgeous Attrape Couer, that gave me my first glimpse of a violet I could love. I dabbed on a few precious drops from a sample vial on a frosty winter morning and took the dog for a walk. Twenty minutes later the initial burst of amber sweetness faded and I was brought up short by the most delicious smoky, deep purple violet imaginable. It wasn’t long before it began sinking back into the husky purr of Attrape’s seamless toffee contralto, but for those moments the dog waited in vain while I stood stock still, sniffing the cold morning air.
Later that spring, when the morning air was still fresh and all the trees were new and green, I had another violet revelation. My sample of The Unicorn Spell came along with the Les Nez sample set I’d ordered to get my hands on more Let Me Play the Lion (do check it out—it’s a real deal). I almost gave it away, but when I opened the vial and sniffed I broke into a grin. No hankies here, ma’am, just snap bean green sweetness that, on the skin, warms ever so slightly into cool violet—the new-leaved trees, their purple shadows and a touch of the cool dirt at their roots in a single bottle. I wore it all through the last precious days of spring before the Texas heat arrived, feeling as though I were inside the lovely world in the painting above and wondering: Was it just this fabulous beast, or had I learned to love violets?
With help from the generous Ms. Colombina, I dug in for a violet testing mini-marathon, working both ends, the green and purple, against the rosy, powdery middle. First I dug up my sample of L’Artisan’s Verte Violette and gingerly dabbed some on. Then I decanted and sprayed. What on earth had I found to dislike about this? Perhaps the fact that I don’t remember is the clue. VV starts out a mild green with just a bare touch of sweet spearmint, rounds into a transparent green violet, and ends a few hours later with a touch of powder. Just a bit of green and purple. The precious discontinued decant of Caron’s Violette Precieuse I received from Ms. C showed me, for an hour or two what VV wants to be when it grows up. The green violet is rounder and more fully present without a trace of powder. Fortunately, given its total unavailability, it dries down to a much more conventional vanillic-musk I also find at the end of the sweeter, but equally gorgeous Aimez-Moi, and which I also wish would stay put in its unabashedly beautiful rosy violet phase. All violets, it seems, must turn into powder, melt into warmth, or simply fade away into nothing…
Speaking of which, I would say Christopher Brosius’ Violet Empire is similar to Violette Verte but I seem to be almost totally anosmic to it. After generous application of the oil I get a burst of sweet spearmint followed by…something. It might be violet. Then again, it could be sweetened cardboard. It was tenacious—I caught a whiff of it hours later—but so slight I could hardly count it as a perfume. Do chime in if this one works for you.
Next up were the cedar-violet heavyweights from Lutens, Bois de Violette and Feminité de Bois, and the amber/incense of Bond’s purple-hearted Silver Factory. God and L.Turin forgive me, but as much as I love and admire Les Bois, and cannot deny that they bring the deep purple, I prefer Attrape Couer’s ambery base to their sweet dense cedar. However, given my compulsive re-testing of Bois Violette, I sense a volte-face in the offing. (You know the drill: I absolutely must sniff that strange, slightly irritating thing one more time...maybe I need a decant.) Once I get past the blaring manly-amber opening of Silver Factory—I have bad-trumpets problems with the openings of nearly all the Bonds—I enjoy the way the violet flavors it’s beautiful smoky incense, but find myself wishing I did not have the Guerlain quite so recently in mind.
I approached the rose-violet family at the heart of the green-purple continuum with trepidation. Frederic Malle’s Lipstick Rose is not my friend, and every time I approach her for another try I am summarily ejected from her dressing room. I was surprised, then, to find myself thoroughly enjoying the Marilyn-in-angora-sweaters sweetness of Stephanie St.-Aignan’s Le Pot Aux Roses lightly powdered confection and Norma Kamali’s cheerfully trashy burst of soapy raspberry-rose-violets. Happy Birthday Mr. President and sign me up for an occasional go-round.
Two violets Marina sent were simply lost on me—Parfums d’Histoire’s Violette Blanc (no hour of the wolf for me, just burnt vanilla and powder) and Scent Systems Wild Violet, an all natural blend that seems to have achieved a leaden, unfinished quality at great expense. No doubt it’s just me. Drop a note in the comments if you’d like to be in the draw for these, and do share your own experiences with violets—was it love at first sniff? Are you as picky about your posies as I am? Help me understand what I’m missing.
For example, I’m sure you are asking, where is the ur-violet, the Great Classic, Apres L’Ondee? Where is my paen to its melancholy beauty, my admission that it is the one true violet, the indispensable, the nonpareil? I’m sorry, I couldn’t quite hear what you were saying. I seem to have violets coming out of my ears…
The gorgeous painting, which I’ve had on my desktop for months now, is Reinhold Edelschein’s Rhythm in Green and Violet.
For more on violets please see Victoria’s amazingly compact and erudite essay on ionones over on Bois de Jasmin and Heather Ettlinger’s lyrical and informative reflections on her own troubles with violets on her blog, Memory and Desire.
If you’ve never read the children’s classic, Anne of Green Gables you can, amazingly, do so here. God bless the searchable texts of the web, that passage had been haunting me for months and I never thought I’d find it.