Confession: I don’t actually like soliflores. I mean, I don’t like to wear them. I like sniffing them from a sample and I consider them useful to have around as a reference, but wearing them simply wears me down. Soliflores say one thing, and one thing only. I admire the single-mindedness of their message, but as the day goes on, it grates. Flowers must be part of a more complex composition for me to wear them.
I will say this, though, and my apologies if this sounds like a contradiction – there is nothing like a good soliflore to move me to tears. The smell of a Bourbon rose, a tuberose bloom, or newly opened jasmine flowers are so astoundingly beautiful in nature that any successful attempt at recreating their smell in perfume has a similar effect on my senses and emotions.
Sa Majeste La Rose by Serge Lutens is one such perfume. It harnesses the blowsy scent of dripping wet, yellow and pink tea roses in a bottle. The smell is somehow “fat” without being overly rich or exotic – this is definitely not the rich, red rose of Persia and Turkey but the waxy, nostalgic domestic roses growing in damp gardens all over Ireland. Ever stick your nose into one of those overblown, loose roses after a shower? Sa Majeste replicates that smell with precision. I love its superb literalism for all of five minutes, and after that it is torture. Roses like these have a greenish, cat-pee acidity to them even in nature, and here in Sa Majeste it is a pitch that rises higher and higher as the day wears on.
Fleurs d’Oranger by Serge Lutens is a perfume that I’d consider as a real benchmark for orange blossom in perfumery. I do not like orange blossom at all as a note, but I have a sneaking fondness for how it’s done in FdO – at first juicy-sweet and dripping with honey, and later on, its sweetness reined in by quite a nice dose of cumin. If it were not for the cumin (and the sultry tuberose in the base), Fleurs d’Oranger might come off as most orange blossoms do on my skin – far too sweet, bubblegum-like, and juvenile. The cumin gives the happy-go-lucky, sunny orange blossom an adult, sexy edge, a shot of much-needed sweaty armpit, let’s say.
However, I hear the reformulated version took away all the cumin and left behind a simple orange blossom. My decant was the pre-reform version; when I went to retrieve it to send it to a friend as part of a swap recently, I noticed that the bottle had smashed and the contents leaked out all over the box. I felt kind of sad, because although I didn’t like it enough to keep it, I did like its sunny, sexy, slutty goodness every now and then as a mood-enhancing drug.
I recently did a swap with a lovely Basenoter in America and received a package of decants and samples from American Indie perfumers that I had been long dying to try out. Among the goodies were soliflores from Dame Perfumery, whose Black Flower Mexican Vanilla I had quite liked and reviewed here.
I thought Narcissus was the clear standout in the Dame Perfumery soliflores, although they are all very true to their source materials. Narcissus smelled extremely dirty when first sprayed, like a men’s bathroom that had been hastily (badly) cleaned with cheap disinfectant, a nuance that runs very true to the flower’s fetid, inky barnyardy smell in nature.
But given a few minutes to settle, the sillage bloomed with all the nicer aspects of narcissus itself – the yellow, oily pollen, the stemmy green aroma, the pale sweet powder, honey, grass – a heart-warming mixture of green and yellow hues, a ripped-from-nature smell that was both rudely animalic and elegant.
Wearing Narcissus allowed me to recognize just how important a role narcissus, the flower, plays in the grander compositions of Chamade and Le Temps d’Un Fete. It also confirmed that Romanza by Masque is stuffed to bursting with the stuff. Excellent work, and the one soliflore on this list that I would consider wearing for more than a few hours. A strange fact about this fragrance, though – it smells much nicer in one’s sillage than close up, on the skin, where it retains that dirty bathroom facet.
Gardenia from Dame Perfumery was a no-go for me, I’m afraid. I admit I’ve never smelled a gardenia in real life, but if it smells like this, then keep it far away from me. I am quite willing to recognize that this is very true to life, given that all the other Dame Perfumery soliflores are remarkably true to their source material. But tell me, does gardenia really smell like moldy butter, melted candy canes, and plastic? Because this is what Gardenia smells like.
Upon spraying it, I was immediately assaulted by the stench of butter that has developed black spots, and forgive me if this reference strikes you as being overly specific, but it is a clear olfactory memory from my time living in Belgrade in 2001. Back then, the country was just opening up after years of NATO sanctions and obviously German producers were dumping all their stock on us cheaply. I would buy Meggle butter from the supermarket, and maybe 1 time out of 3, there would be black spots on it. If you have ever smelled butter that has gotten to this stage, then you’ll know that it is one of the worst smells in the world. Sometimes, the black spots would be slow to emerge and you’d eat some of it, and immediately your mouth knew that, shit, this was black spot butter.
Later, it developed into a creamy candy-like smell that my five year old son identified as “sweeties”. He thought it was pleasant and asked me to buy it. I guess he never smelled black spot butter – his father and I had only begin dating when black spot butter was a part of our lives, otherwise he never would have dared ask me. I have bought a fair few perfumes on his request (Un Bois Vanille, Etro Heliotrope) but I’m afraid I can’t indulge him here. Even the memory of it is making me dry-retch.
Hmm, ok, so that wasn’t the most objective review around, was it? Moving quickly on! The next one was much better – if not a little strange – Mimosa. I lived in a country that held a mimosa festival every year, with parades and little girls wearing head garlands of mimosas threaded together – so I know what mimosa smells like. Honestly, mimosa smells a bit odd at first. The perfume, Mimosa, is very true to the bloom in that it comes out of the bottle smelling like a golden, clear vegetable oil, slightly flat and oily to the nose. Within this oil aroma, there are small puffs of something quite like heliotrope – almond-like, puffy, sweet, reminiscent of Johnson’s Baby Oil, only not as “purple” or “cherry pie”-like. There are also whiffs of glue, the kind you give your kids to use for art projects. All in all, a very odd but childishly appealing aroma. Not terribly floral, but very true to life.
Later on, a powdery “yellow” pollen tonality develops, which in turn ushers in a sweet, translucent cucumber note. From this point onwards, the scent of Mimosa is mostly about that cucumber and pollen combination, which suits me just fine. I like this aspect of mimosa. The second part reminds me very much of Jo Malone’s Mimosa & Cardamom, which in turn reminds me a bit of the milky cucumber/dill/gripe water side of Le Labo Santal 33. But if you want to experience mimosa on its own, then this soliflore – Mimosa – is an excellent point of reference.
After my scarring experience with Gardenia, I was almost wincing the thought of having to try Tuberose, the last Dame Perfumery decant included in my swap with my American friend. Thankfully, Tuberose smells just like the tuberose used in Tubereuse Criminelle, which is to say, beautiful and slightly ugly and a bit weird (in a good way). It goes on smelling like spilled fuel, rubber, camphor, and Listerine – you know, tuberose. It’s just tuberose, doing its tuberose thang. You either like it or you don’t, but this is a good, straight-forward rendition for the purists out there that can’t hack the oddness of Tubereuse Criminelle, the smoky tobacco of Tubereuse 3 Animale, or the hallucinogenic green freshness of Carnal Flower. Me, I will stick to the more evolved stuff. I got bored of this quite quickly.
Grandiflora Madagascan Jasmine by Michel Roudnitska for the florists “Grandiflora” in Australia is a bit of a revelation. It’s a jasmine soliflore but instead of taking the more common grandiflora or sambac types as the starting point, it takes the varietal of Stephanotis floribunda, or the so-called Madagascan jasmine.
This is the type of jasmine that Australians like to use in their bridal bouquets and headdresses because it performs exceedingly well in conditions of extreme light and heat. In terms of aroma profile, Madagascan jasmine is not as sweet as other varieties and features instead a clear, green stemminess that plays so well against the heady, creamy smell of the waxy petals themselves. In order to best replicate the smell of the plant, Michel Roudnitska was sent a plant of his own, and he studied it over a period of months.
And wow, is the end result beautiful. I don’t normally like fresh, green leaves but this is done so well. It is sort of euphoria-inducing, which is embarrassing to say, but the aroma of crushed, watery green stems is true to life in a way that is familiar to me. One whiff of this divine elixir and I could be lying in a meadow with my children, absent-mindedly helping them to snap off dandelion and daffodil stalks. It also has the coolly elegant crispness of freshly cut flowers from a florist – you know, that heavenly, intense scent released by the stems as you chop them down to fit your vase. Here you can smell the dew, the sappy sweetness of plant juice, and the slightly soapier green of the leaves – mixed in with the headier pull of the white flowers themselves.
What is most impressive is the way that Roudnitska has sustained the freshness of the green stem accord while the scent itself cycles through creamy, (slightly) indolic), fruity, and back to creamy. Ít gives you all the advantages of a good jasmine without any of the attending sweetness or bublegummy facets. The green nuance really is handled well – it reads almost like the cool, green watery tone of hyacinth or narcissus without any of their floral or earthy characteristics.
For people looking for dirty jasmines, well, I’d try this one anyway, if only because it’s a perfume of outstanding natural beauty. And while it leans to the fresh rather than indolic side, jasmine is naturally a little bit dirty-sexy-money anyway, and this shines through a little. There are times when I thought this verged on the edge of soapiness but each time it pulled back. For me, this perfume sets the bar on what a soliflore can and should be aiming for – not simply verisimilitude, but the type of wide-bellied beauty that moves you, despite yourself.
This brings me to my last soliflore on my list for today – A La Nuit by Serge Lutens. Technically, this is the jasmine to end all jasmines. And it really is beautiful. The first 15 minutes in particular are like burying your nose in a bridal wreath. And for those 15 minutes, I breathe it in and I think, “Life can’t possibly get any better than this smell, right here.” It contains all the rich, life-giving aspects I love so much about jasmine – the memory of heat, fleshiness, jammy sweetness, and toe-curling, inky dirtiness all wrapped up in the petals of one gorgeous flower. Impossible to wear this perfume and not feel as happy as a cat stretching under the hot midday sun.
It’s almost too much of a good thing, like gazing directly at the sun, or looking at a photo of Claudia Schiffer in a magazine, a woman about whom Karl Lagerfeld made the remark that it was impossible to take a bad photo of, but whose placid, milch-cow beauty always leaves my eyes a little glazed and my imagination a little drowsy. A La Nuit has, in its utter single-mindedness of intent, a sort of stultifying effect on my senses – it induces me to languor and little else.
But whatever – I could live with its slightly boring grandeur if only for those narcotizing 15 minutes. I don’t mind re-spraying. The greater problem is, however, that A La Nuit does not last very long on my skin. I suspect that I am anosmic to the type of musk used in the base because past those glorious, slightly stupefying 15 minutes, all I get is a white blur of something amorphously perfumey.