A Magpie and Violets

A Magpie and Violets | Illustration by The Perfume Magpie

A Magpie and Violets | Illustration by The Perfume Magpie

It’s officially spring. This time of the year, I always seek out for new violet scents. It all started in 1998.

I was working for an art gallery combined with a field museum then, and I got newly appointed as a local wildlife surveyor there. As a part of the job, I was required to walk around the local woodlands and meadows extensively and to know everything inhabiting the area, which included birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants. Spring came and soon the whole area was filled with the cacophony of renewed life.  I was busy researching and creating new outdoor exhibitions every single day. Then I was met with a great challenge. Violets (genus Viola) started popping out everywhere. Not one, but over 20 different species and varieties. I don’t know if you are into botany but identifying similar looking species can be truly challenging and it demands a very close and precise study. I was out in the field every day with a magnifying glass in one hand and a sketch book in the other, crawling low and scaring occasional unsuspecting visitors. The sense of satisfaction in correctly identifying the species was like a detective solving cold cases. I buried myself deep in reference books day and night and I ate, slept, and breathed violets during the whole spring of 1998. Within 2 months, I got trapped in the depth of violet abyss and I quickly became a violet fanatic. The more I got to know about violets, the more I sought after the species I had not yet seen. You might think I’m crazy but I trekked up the snow-filled valley wearing crampons and travelled across deserts just to see the rare violets. In some occasions,  violets got me into some troubles and mishaps. I got surrounded by soldiers at a gunpoint, nearly fell off the cliff, was almost washed away by a flush flood, had close encounters with bears, and even found a body in the forest set deep in mountains while I was searching for violets.

Collection of Violets from Magpie's Sketchbooks | Sketches by The Perfume Magpie

Collection of Violets from Magpie’s Sketchbooks | Sketches by The Perfume Magpie

The distinctive sweet and powdery violet scents as we know in perfumery are similar to the flowers of Sweet Violets (Viola odorata) and Parma Violets (scented violet comes from a mysterious origin. Botanically, their taxonomic affinity has not been found to link to any other violet. Viola odorata is the closest relative genetically), although the natural extraction of flowers is rarely used nowadays. Originally the perfume from violet flowers was extracted by the enfleurage method, followed by the solvent extraction of the leaf at the end of the 19th century. Until the 1940s both flower and leaf were used in the production but the yield of extraction from the flower was so small that it became more profitable to use synthetics and concentrate on using the leaves. So the violet flower notes in modern perfumes are likely to be created from isolated molecules like ionones or methyl ionones. (Yeah, if you are an avid perfumista, you’ve probably heard of it.) The ionones range from a scent that is reminiscent of violets in full bloom to an aroma of soft wood overlaid with violet sweetness. The methyl ionones are stronger, have more oomph, with pronounced orris and woody facets.

Have you ever smelled a bouquet of violets? Have you ever experienced that violets smelled so strong at one point and suddenly seemed to have lost their scents completely in a split second? One peculiar aspect of violets is the elusive scent of their flowers. Violet scent is primarily caused by the presence of ionones which temporarily desensitise the receptors in the nose. They essentially short-circuit our sense of smell. It is only a temporary thing though; the effect fades away very quickly and we can enjoy the smell of violets again. It’s an olfactory  peek-a-boo.

Besides Sweet Violets and Parma Violets, the smell of other species of violets are pretty enjoyable too. A lot of them are scentless but, for example, I came across some Viola grypoceras with a floral-minty aroma, Viola obtusa with a hyacinth like smell, and Viola inconspicua subsp. nagasakiensis with a juicy grape-like scent. Now I live 10,700km away from the little violet paradise where I had learnt so much about them; it was a shame that I didn’t try to enfleurage them to keep their unique scents in bottles.

Some Wild Violets | Photos by The Perfume Magpie

Some Wild Violets | Photos by The Perfume Magpie

I can write about violets on and on but I don’t want to torture you, so let’s move on. 😉 As I love everything about violets, I thoroughly enjoy violet in perfumes too. I thought I’d share my favourite violet flower perfumes.

My absolute favourite violets:

Bois de Violette by Serge Lutens
Rays of spring light shine through the dark cedar forest. The damp earth, warmed by ribbons of light,  emits aromas of the forest life; the air is filled with smells of peppery leaves, fruits from the last season unfound by the forest dwellers, bark peeling off trees, and sweet dainty violets among the ancient trees. The season is still young but the nudging gentle light awakens the fragile early-spring bloomers one by one. It is the time; the forest floor, once again, celebrates  the return of life.

My image of Bois de Violette is Viola eizanensis. It is a pale-pink-flowered violet with most gorgeous deep-cut leaves. I often saw them in cedar forests.

 De Profundis by Serge Lutens
The sun slowly sets beyond the hills and the memorial garden, now empty, basks in the last breath of the evening light. The light breeze stirs the scent of chrysanthemums, placed in front of a memorial plaque, up in the air and carries to her nose. She sits on the bench under the tree, filled with old longings that will never come back. As day rolls into night, the dying light paints the sky purple – the same colour as the violets around her feet. The last remnants of pink fades into the darkness and the night tenderly envelops the garden and her. Everything melds into the black oblivion. Only the smells remain vivid.

The violet for De Profundis is Viola vaginata. I wouldn’t go into detail why it is so but there is a strong link between this blue violet and death & life in my mind. Everything about this violet is beautiful, especially its young leaves. The young leaves have otherworldly shimmering silvery hue.

Violets I love:

Violet Blonde by Tom Ford
An elegant nymph in the bright forest. Violet Blonde is not a sugar coated sweet violet. It has a good down-to-earth vibe and it’s positively foresty.

Misia by Chanel
Misia is a high society violet. But not to be fooled by her lady-like appearance. She may be adorned with smooth silk and flawless makeup, she is a Bohemian at heart.

Ormonde Woman by Ormonde Jayne
If you go down to the woods today … No, you are not going to see teddy bears, instead, you’ll encounter a wise woman enjoying her solitude. Some might call her a witch. She is strong, self assured, but has an air of hidden sadness.

La Danse des Bleus et des Violettes by DSH Perfumes
A lovely English garden in the early summer morning. Dew glistening on spider webs and on petals of violets flowering along the wooden fence. Beautiful and positive, and makes me feel like it is going to be a fantastic day.

Opus III by Amouage
Decadent, elegant, and luxurious. Opus III is the richest of all violet perfumes I’ve tried so far. Resinous and buttery combination is rather enchanting.

Violets I like:

My Queen by Alexander McQueen
I was taken aback at first but now I enjoy wearing this on cloudy days. To me, it is a perfect violet for a thunderstormy weather. It is creamy but somewhat spicy for a violet perfume and it has some darkness about it.

Francesca by House of Matriarch
An oriental violet. For some strange reasons, Francesca smells very different every time when I wear it. Sometimes it’s very incensey, and some other times it’s green and dewy. Usually oud comes out quite strong on me.

Après l’Ondée by Guerlain
“After the rain” is a perfect name for this radiant but melancholic perfume. I strongly associate Après l’Ondée with the piano version of La Fille Aux Cheveux De Lin by Debussy. Both make me feel serene and calm.

And other violets I enjoyed sampling:

Violet Disguise by Imaginary Authors
Youthful and full of energy and life. Dangerously innocent.

Insolence by Guerlain
A cheerleader violet. If you are not familiar with the TV series, I apologies but the only image I keep getting from Insolence is the character Caroline Forbes from Vampire Diaries.

Love in Black by Creed
I have reviewed this in the past. If you are interested, here’s the link to follow.

Violetta by Penhaligon
A classic violet with dry, peppery twist. It’s not too powdery like many other violet perfumes. This is definitely a wild violet in the open field.

Zen by Tan Giudicelli
A subdued and calm violet. If you ever feel like experiencing the mindfulness of the moment, I’d recommend this one. “Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form…”

Putain des Palaces Etat Libre d`Orange
Isn’t there cumin in it? It’s not listed on Fragrantica but I’m sure there is. This is one of the most unique violets I’ve found and I would love it if the cumin doesn’t come out so strong. Only if I can manage the 1 hour-ish cumin dominant period… This “putain” is not a modern-day lady of the night; she is Violetta Valéry from La Traviata.

Well, that’s it for now. Once again, like other springs, I’m hunting for more violet perfumes to try. If you have some recommendations, let me know.

23 thoughts on “A Magpie and Violets

  1. What a great post. I have and love Bois de Violette, De Profundis, Misia, Opus III (large decant) and Woman (seldom wear it). Perhaps we will find a new one together, that would be cool huh? I didn´t search these out because of the violet, but I love it. Have gone through at least a third of the Misia bottle over the last four weeks. I had no idea violets could be so dangerous. 🙂 There are a number of different varieties in the woods here, at least I assume they are violets. Hmmmmmm. Definitely related though. See you soon. xxxxxx

  2. Have you ever considered calling yourself the Thinking Violet, not to be confused with the Shrinking Violet, on account of your stupendous botanical knowledge? I had no idea there were so many kinds, and am in awe of your efforts to track them all down. And also still chuckling at the Vaginata and Inconspicua varieties…;) And what exquisite mini-reviews of your favourite perfumes featuring the note. I didn’t know violets were in some of the scents you feature and am curious to sample them again with this new insight. I also smiled at your description of Insolence as a ‘cheerleader violet’.

    Oh, as I may have said already, if you run out of Violet Blonde, do let me know!

    • I like that, Thinking Violet. I’ve got to use it somewhere. 😀 Inconspicua is quite an apt name actually. It’s so tiny! Vaginata is a laugh, isn’t it? In plant taxonomy, a name is supposed to provide a way to communicate information… Well, what can I say? 😀 I sometimes wonder about the naming sense of botanists…
      I’ve been wearing Violet Blonde quite a bit recently and it is getting low. I’d love to adopt yours if you don’t mind. I’ll be in touch when I come back from Milan! 😉

  3. Wow, what a post! I loved it. Especially the lengths you ending up going to to search out those rare varieties. All that from an art gallery job! Life is amazing. I can well imagine the thrill from identifying a new species.

    I’m still looking for my own perfect boudoir violet scent. Putain des Palaces would be ideal if not for that curry spice first hour.

    • You never know when and where you encounter a new obsession and what it does to you. 😉
      I was so close to really love Putain des Palaces… As you said, it’s that spice. When that particular note fades away, it becomes a gorgeous perfume. Such a shame.

  4. I loved your violet botanical journey Ms Magpie – learning something new about you every time you write your wonderful blog. The only ones i could add to the list are perhaps soft with violet; Jimmy (Bruno Fazzolari) and The Unicorn spell (Les Nez). – both light and pretty. I only have a teensy little bit of both so not even enough to send on a sample – sorry! I liked Putain des Palaces but i don’t remember a curry note – bet i smell it now though because its in my head. lol. Ohhh and Opus III – be still my beating heart…I enjoyed reading as always. xox

    • Oh, Jimmy!! I’ve completely forgotten about that! I do have a sample so I’ve got to go back and try again. The Unicorn Spell is new to me. I’ll definitely look into it. With all new suggestions from fellow perfumistas, I’ll be busy trying even more violets. Violet full of spring again!!

  5. Sorry, but I have to bring a dissonance to the general position: It’s an awful post!!! You just teased us with all those “soldiers”, “bears” and “bodies” (ok, a singular “body”) – and then went on describing such a mundane subject as perfumes! Most of us tried at least half of the perfumes you’ve mentioned but how many, do you think, have ever discovered a body or were held at a gunpoint?! 😉

    Ok, kidding aside (though I would still love to hear those stories), it’s an amazing post and I enjoyed it even though I personally have never come across live violets that smell. So I’m familiar with them only in their perfume form.

    My favorite violet perfumes are Violet Blond and Black Violet (both by Tom Ford and both, sadly, discontinued). As to the recommended “try” I have to name Sonoma Scent Studio’s Wood Violet. If you have time, you can take a look at my old “In the Search for the Perfect Violet” post for more information on perfumes I mentioned, a couple more impressions from me and recommendations from the commenters.

    • Hahaha, Undina, crazy things happen to a crazy magpie! Now I have a flood of good violet perfume suggestions, I have to do the follow up of this post. Maybe I’ll include more detailed stories. 😉
      I’m waiting for a decant of Black Violet to arrive now. I’ll be able to refresh my memory of this perfume soon! I’ll definitely have a good read of your violet perfume post. It really is about time I give Sonoma Scent Studio a try.

  6. Beautiful post, magpie. I love the sketches of violets, it reminds me how I find that the old botanical sketches, even the ones which try to personify the flower, are way better than any photo, because the catch the ‘essence’ of the flower in a way that a photo can never do.
    I do love De Profundis, even if I’m not sure I wear it as a violet fragrance. Others that I love include: Jolie Madame( leather and violet), Aimez-Moi, Meterorites and I love Après L’ondee too.

    • Hi Asali! I so agree with you on sketches. As you said, it definitely catches the essence of the subject and gives better understandings. I also love the meditative aspect of sketching. 🙂
      I’ve totally forgotten about Aimez Moi. Not surprisingly though, since I haven’t smelled it for 10-15 years. I should find a decant and have another sniff. Thank you for reminding me!

  7. Great post. I want the background stories too!
    I have a few different violets in the yard. Not yet though because its still feeling like winter here. I’m not quite so fond of them outside though I like them in perfume. They tend to take over in the garden, in the lawn, everywhere. They are everywhere I don’t want them to be it seems. Plus, they don’t even smell of anything really. If I could smell them I might not keep yanking them out like weeds.

    • I guess I’ll have to write the background stories! 😉
      I used to have loads of violets growing in the lawn too. Of course I kept them and warned my hubby not to dig them out. But when my aunt visited my house while I was away working, she cleared them all!!! She couldn’t stand seeing all those “weed” growing there.
      Sometimes something odd happens in nature and some of those unscented violets develop scents. Keep sniffing, Poodle! 😉

  8. Violets call to my mind “Ode to a Nightingale”, Keats:
    “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
    Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
    But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
    . . .
    Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;”

    I like the idea of having violets with different scents growing; one day, perhaps.

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