White Floral Fragrances & their Narcotic Notes
With jasmine in bloom and scenting my Mediterranean courtyard garden, the Perfume Files just had to turn its thoughts to white floral fragrances. White florals are the epitome and mainstay of fragrances, and not just feminine-oriented ones. As an example of a most-favoured white floral, let’s take jasmine. Apparently, some 83 per cent of fine fragrances include jasmine or jasmine-like notes and around 33 per cent of masculine fragrances incorporate its headiness too.
Jasmine has an indolic, ‘fecal-animalic’ note which lends itself to narcotic white florals aimed at both genders. Indole is a very powerful chemical constituent of jasmine, and most other white flowers to varying degrees. In its raw form it smells like old-fashioned mothballs. In the complex scent of a natural flower, it gives a deep, dirty, headiness to attract not humans of course, but insects.
White floral fragrances are typically associated with feminine perfumes. Apparently, Marie-Antoinette’s favourite flower was the night-flowering tuberose, which was first imported from Mexico in the 1500s. In the late 19th century and the early 20th, natural floral essences started to be replaced by or supplemented with new aromachemicals that isolated or recreated elements of real flower scents.
At this point, white floral fragrances morphed into sensuous, surprising bouquets. Aromachemicals changed the ultra feminine, squeaky clean image of single white floral notes into something classier, richer, more amorphous and less easily associated with any particular flower.
Expensive designer perfumes from the early 20th century such as Jean Patou’s ‘Joy‘ (1930) and Lavin’s ‘Arpège‘ (1927) made heavy use of opulent floral notes such as jasmine, ylang ylang, tuberose, iris, orange blossom and rose as well as aromachemicals to enhance and strengthen the bouquet.
Madame Chanel broke with the safe, overt use of florals, while still wishing to identify her signature fragrance with them, in the eponymous Chanel No.5 which was launched in 1928. Until then, early designer fragrances had tended to conform with the stereotype that women wanted to smell like flowers.
However, Chanel No.5 is an artificial construct, famous for its overdose of top-note aldehydes, which give it radiance and sparkle, and for its indeterminate but heady floral notes.
Chanel apparently told her chosen perfumer, Grasse-based Ernest Beaux: “I don’t want roses or lilies of the valley. I want a perfume that is composed. It is a paradox. On a women, a natural flower scent smells artificial. Perhaps a natural perfume must be created artificially.”
Beaux employed an isolate – benzyl acetate – found in jasmine but not a full jasmine scent to enhance the real jasmine. It was synthesized from coal tar back then but it is available as a natural (non-fossil) source today as well as a synthetic.
In today’s Chanel No.5, you will find little that yells ‘jasmine’ even though the original in 1930 did still contain a lot of the real flower oil. Chanel broke with tradition too by naming her perfume No. 5 (apparently because it was the fifth sample trial), and not giving it a flowery name.
When it comes to white florals then, a rose would not smell as sweet by any other name as there is much going on under the bonnet of a ‘simple’ white floral fragrance. Isolates – both natural and synthetic – and aromachemicals along with very, very little of the precious, expensive real flower oils are generally used to create both bouquet fragrances and soliflores (single flower fragrances).
In fact, Jean-Claude Ellena’s latest launch, Rose et Cuir, for the Edition Frederic Malle perfume house, contains no real rose despite its name; geranium bourbon doubles for rose, along with aromachemicals of course.
But I digress. Let’s get back to white floral fragrances not shades of red or pink, and discuss the heavy hitters of these intoxicating, never-far-from fashion, white flowers. First though, let me add that white florals are associated also with light and airy summer breeze-style perfumes. Estee’ Lauder’s ‘White Linen‘ spring to mind as an example of the lighter, white florals’ genre. They also get gourmand touch-ups from time to time as in Thierry Mugler’s ‘Angel‘, a giant floral-gourmand with notes of caramel, cotton candy and honey, plum and blackberry.
Narcotic white floral can be used sparingly or together to give intensity beyond compare. Rarely are they shy partners to other notes. They are also found as supporting, and equal partners in leather fragrances or with masculine notes as in ‘Jasmin & Cigarette‘ from niche house Etat Libre d’Orange.
Robert Piguet’s ‘Fracas‘ of the late ’40s, ‘Joy‘ and Arpège, as well as fragrances from more recent times, Viktor & Rolf’s ‘Flowerbomb‘ (2005) and Byredo’s ‘Flowerhead‘ (2014) are some of the greats and benchmarks of the genre of narcotic, intoxicating white floral fragrances.
6 Heavy-hitter Flowers in White Floral Fragrances
Few other white florals command such tomes of legend, myth, fact and fortunes written on them than the king of scents, jasmine. It dominates all perfume genres and has genderless appeal where rose may not. Jasmine attracts a vast vocabulary of perfume adjectives including narcotic, intoxicating, sweet, cloying, heavenly, heady, tenacious, sensuous, exotic, animalic, fecal, sexy, elusive, warm, intense, and far more. It is all of these depending on its variety, strength and how it is pared with other perfumery materials.
Jasmine is a legendary aphrodisiac and in certain centuries and cultures it has been imbibed with qualities believed to promote and prolong sexual intimacy. In Hindu and Moslem traditions, it is viewed as the perfume of love. For an in-depth write-up of its use in history and aromatherapy properties, see Jasmine, its Story.
Pure, unadulterated jasmine oil is extremely expensive as it requires around 8,000 flowers to create 1ml of oil. It is produced in India and Egypt and on a small scale in France. The varieties and terroirs (I use a wine term denoting geographic regions and different soils) make a difference to its scent.
Jasmine sambac, also called Arabian jasmine, is heady, aromatic and intense, and the most prized in perfume but it varies according to Indian or Egyptian production; the latter is sweeter and lighter. Jasmine grandiflorum is the other oil used extensively in perfumery. This is more ethereal, sweeter and less indolic (heady) than sambac varieties.
Our signature eau de parfum Acqua di Olentium has a floral heart dominated by jasmine – along with orange blossom.
This flower has less of a floral and more of a complex, ripe stone-fruit meets quality black tea scent about it. I find it almost earthy as well. Osmanthus to my mind is another white, waxy, heady floral that appeals to both genders on account of its less overtly floral aroma.
It is one of China’s seven traditional flowers and grown abundantly there as well as in Japan. It pairs well with other white florals and adds a darker note and although it can be sweet, I don’t find it cloying.
It comes and goes from perfume fashion in a way that jasmine never does. One niche, and all-natural perfume I came across which makes osmanthus centre stage along with some deep, leathery notes is ‘Black Osmanthus’ by Marina Barcinella. A past winner of the Fragrance Foundation UK Award for Best New Independent Fragrance, Black Osmanthus includes tuberose and jasmine along with myrrh, frankincense, saffron and woody-leathery notes. Sadly, as Barcinella no longer works in perfumery commercially, this risque’ osmanthus may be a thing of the past.
However, if you are seeking intriguing osmanthus perfumes, do read renowned perfumery consultant and writer Victoria Frolova’s FT article on Three Vivid Fragrances linked by Osmanthus which has some excellent suggestions in Serge Luten’s, Hermes and MDCI’s renderings of this unique white floral.
This is a polarising note in white floral fragrances and another exotic import to European perfumery that comes in and out of favour. At some point, most major perfume houses do make tuberose the star of the show; given it has French connections with Marie-Antoinette, it was never going to disappear when aromachems came to the fore in florals.
Tuberose has a sweet waxiness and is a smooth scent, though I know using ‘smooth’ seems strange. It also has greener, and sometimes ‘rubbery’ notes that you might associate with the snapped stem of giant stalk in a florist’s. In fact, the ‘tube’ has a fleshy, heavy voluptuousness to it as a flower that translates into how many have viewed its scent. In times past, it was seen as rather exotic and decadent. In some cultures, it was almost a forbidden fruit said to lure young women into temptation as its scent intensifies after nightfall.
The first perfume to really make it the star was Piguet’s ‘Fracas’ in 1946 by renowned perfumer Germaine Cellier. A later fragrance to feature tuberose is ‘Carnal Flower‘ from Editions de Frederic Malle composed by Dominique Ropion and launched in 2005. I find it intoxicating and a masterpiece even though I am not a huge tuberose lover. It is heavy, heady and divides the critics.
The first things to say about orange blossom is that it is not a citrus note in a heavier form. Orange blossom, from the same bitter orange that gives us neroli and petitgrain oils does of course have a citrus edge to it, but it is most definitely a narcotic, heady white floral fragrance, despite its deep orange hue. The intoxicating headiness comes from its indole content (that chemical component that gives an edgy, heavy, animalic tinge to most white florals).
Because we see twee illustrated images of orange blossom on bars of soap, detergent and other functional perfumery products, we might tend to write it off as commonplace and old-fashioned. However, don’t be fooled; orange blossom absolute (the waxy, semi-liquid extract from the flower) is very expensive (as is neroli oil) and a heavenly, deep, beguiling note. I find it’s best used along with other white florals, which is why I use it to a lesser, not greater extent in Devoto EDP along with soaring jasmines. It does a base note job alongside styrax which it pairs with amicably.
Some orange blossom note perfumes to enjoy are: Serge Lutens Fleurs d’Oranger; Hermès 24, Faubourg; and Ellie Saab, Le Parfum. All three conjure up, either in their marketing verbiage or in the wearing, sun-kissed Mediterranean shores.
The flower we give in potted version to mum on mothers’ day, or leave granny when we visit. Though, given its intensity and all-pervasiveness, perhaps not a scent to leave anyone other than a true gardenia aficionado. For all its incredible natural scent, gardenia oil is rare; so rare and expensive to extract that commercial fragrances will be using synthetic gardenia or recreating it with smell-alike oils of jasmine with other pairings of white florals. I have a gardenia recreation and I must admit it is overpowering and I can imagine using it only diluted well down.
The gardenia is a member of the coffee family and is a small shrub grown in Africa, Australasia and Asia. It is the national flower of Pakistan. It is an incredible, narcotic white floral fragrance and for that reason makes its way into a lot of feminine fragrances. It has the advantage of being photogenic with its voluptuous blooms and also being well known. Easy then to add a bit of gardenia into almost any commercial fragrance wishing to call itself a white floral and romantic.
Some florals it makes itself known in are Narciso Rodriguez Narciso EDP for women in its white, opaque flacon; Tocca Perfumes Florence in a suitably romantic flacon; and Gucci Flora Gorgeous Gardenia, which marries gardenia with frangipani, which I cover next.
The frangipani (Plumeria) comes in various colours from deep to light pink and creamy whites. I know this as it is ubiquitous on Sicilian balconies and patios in summer months. Their scent is tropical, sweet, diffusive and lightly heady and somewhat waxy. They are a kind of innocent white floral scent that brides might have in their bouquet; the kind of girl-next-door floral that is sweetly romantic with none of the indolic, animalic narcotic connotations of other florals we’ve covered.
It is described as fruity, sweet, creamy, lush and honey-like with hints of the tropics in the aroma; think of coconut for instance. The link with the tropics is down to a French colonist who came across a flower in the West Indies that had the self-same scent as a perfume created by a Renaissance Italian noble family by the name of Frangipani (whose perfume in fact had no florals in it!). A strange tale of a plant being named after a perfume, not the other way around.
Frangipani is usually an accompanying white floral note but does stand alone in some notable fragrances such as Ormonde Jayne’s ‘Frangipani‘. Annick Goutal’s Songes, which is dreamily tropical, places frangipani alongside jasmine, tiare’ and ylang; while Chantcaille’s Frangipani is enhanced with our friend orange blossom, together with water hyacinth and vanilla – this one is to love.
There are other white floral notes like peony, rose, lily and freesia that I could add to the list, but these have less narcotic, opulence than the 6 heavy hitters above. As you can see, some endure in perfumes across the decades while others flit in and out of fashion. One year, it’s all about tuberose, the next osmanthus, but jasmine is forever loved.
Finally, I must add a note about the isolates that boost narcotic white floral fragrances: indole, benzyl acetate and methyl anthranilate. As chemical names, they sound less appealing than the botanicals they can be extracted from, if natural isolates. But, in traces, or sometimes even overdosed, they make all the difference to so many of perfume history’s iconic white floral compositions.
Coco Chanel was so right to say that a white floral needs to be known by a different name, and that to recreate nature’s white florals into the alluring fragrances we love today, the perfumer must use some artifice.
Olentium Fiorissima EDP has a citrus top and then blossoms into a narcotic heart of four of the heavy hitters: jasmine sambac, ylang ylang, gardenia and tuberose to dry down with a soft enveloping musk and vanilla.
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