|A sea of lilies in the film of C.S. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader|
At this time of year lily perfumes seem to blossom in the warmer weather, becoming creamier in tone, yet they can have an appealing green/peppery note too.
A common misconception around lily is that it's similar to lily of the valley (muguet), but though often combined these two are quite different florals.
One thing they do have in common, in perfumery at least, is that both are created in a lab through 'headspace' technology, or the process of chemically analysing the air above a flower. Famously, Edmond Roudnitska was the first to analyse the notes of lily of the valley in his exuberant spring floral Diorissimo.
Apparently both lily and lily of the valley don't yield enough perfume in extract to enable a commercially viable absolute or distillate (those with knowledge of chemistry could elaborate on why). You'd probably have to sacrifice acres of lily to yield a small amount of extract But as with all the best perfumes, aroma chemicals or synthetics add to the complexity, radiance and longevity of perfume.
To me, lily has a more 'sunny' feel, more sensual, waxy, usually slightly sweeter and in some interpretations there's something similar to vegetation about to 'turn' - a note of decay. Just think about a vase of madonna or stargazer lilies and you know what I mean. They also have what many perfumers have called a 'briny' or 'meaty' note. Lilies in their unfurling stage though, have green, peppery qualities - a smell you might associate with a high-end florists; crisp, fern-like and slightly spicy (I always think ferns in nature smell peppery).
Although lilies have sunny qualities, they also have funereal associations because of the fact they're used to adorn wreaths and coffins, which in turn means that they have spiritual associations and therefore, for some, they represent purity.
Lily of the valley, in contrast, is brighter, cleaner, and in nature is far less heady than the lily with its more exuberant and waxy tones.
Lily in perfume varies quite widely and it can often become an abstract idea in the hands of a perfumer. Probably your favourite style will depend on associations and the aspects of lily that you enjoy (the following is by no means a comprehensive list, but they represent a few popular, iconic or interesting takes on lily)...
Crisp, spicy lilies
Baiser Vole by Cartier
Composed by perfumer Mathilde Laurent for Cartier, the brief for Baiser Vole was to create a popular, yet unique perfume to appeal to mainstream buyers. Laurent has composed some very high-end perfumes, so although Cartier wanted a crowd pleaser it seems they sought high quality too.
I must confess that when deciding to buy this I was partly seduced by the bottle (inspired by the design of Cartier's flip-top silver lighter). I'm impressed that this perfume is affordable (in sizes of 5ml miniature also 15, 30, 50 and 100mls to suit your budget) yet combines this availability with a bottle that's sheer pleasure to behold and use. But enough of my havering about design and cost! What's the actual perfume like?
Essentially Baiser Vole is a green floral and has a peppery tang that's reminiscent of that catch-in-the-throat spicy greenness of freshly opened lily and it does in fact remind me of a florist's too
I first tried it at a perfume and poetry event held in a palm house in Edinburgh's Botanic Garden . There was a particular aroma that tantalized my nose, and when I investigated the perfumes on display I discovered it was Baiser Vole. When I bought it later, I was prepared to find my perception of peppery greenness and airy lily was affected by the scent of greenhouse from the Botanics event, but it was green and peppery exactly as remembered! The opening notes feel rather clean, but settle quite quickly.
Laurent has created a beautiful and, I think, unique accord of airy lily, pepper, green notes and the tiniest hint of vanilla. Elena Vosnaki at Perfume Shrine describes it as 'meringue' like and that's about right.
Elegant, slightly quirky and contemporary, it also makes me think of Scandinavian houses and experimental salads! Great quality in every way.
Anais Anais by Cacharel
An icon of lily perfumes, popular to this day though it was first introduced in the 70s.
As an arty teenager I gravitated toward the more unusual or enigmatic perfumes. But in recent years I've taken the occasional sniff of Anais Anais when in perfume departments and was surprised at the rush of nostalgia! It's a beautifully composed perfume with main notes of lily, hyacinth, lily of the valley, with a complex floral accord, a tiny touch of leather and oakmoss.
Anais Anais is now very affordable and widely available as it's still a best seller
Un Lys by Serge Lutens
This appears to have a touch of lily of the valley or lilac alongside lily and musk, lending it a slightly crisp tone, or perhaps fresh is more accurate. Again a green floral, yet quite soft in feel. Very popular amongst lily fans for its authentic lily feel, this is however a more 'clean' take on lily - transparent and, though lasting, delicate in feel.
Lys Mediterranee by Frederic Malle
This is on the cusp of 'crisp', especially in top notes, but it quickly develops on skin into a very creamy (not buttery!) textured lily. It feels elegant, thanks in part to its tingling aspect of ginger - again this is a lily paired with a spicy note to enhance lily's naturally peppery factor.
But perfumer Edouard Flechier has added an unusual marine note - a salty quality that's extremely subtle but lends this glowing white perfume an airy quality, like lily scent on a breeze
Gold by Donna Karan
This is unusual for its golden and warm amber notes alongside lily, which for me creates an odd juxtaposition of grounded and ethereal at the same time. At other times I associate it with a tropical or beachy feel - a creamy or even oily texture that recalls sun tan lotion.
It conjures up a sun-tanned relaxed feel - warm skin and soap. I bought it during my lily quest, but gifted it to my sister who suits this golden style far more than I do (she has abundant reddish gold hair!).
Excellent value and usually findable on Ebay
Lys Soleia by Guerlain
Reviewed in my previous post on summer florals - the appropriately named Lys Soleia is perfect for carefree summer parties - a perfume that seems to let its hair down, it has a fun loving feel to it, yet it's beautifully composed. Where Karan's Gold feels creamy and sun tan-oil-like, Lys Soleia is 'buttery'. I don't mean rancid butter mind you, more a sort of cream cake feel, and this is combined with one of my favourite citrus notes, Amalfi Lemon, a proper juicy Mediteranean lemon. There's a very subtle astringent green note, probably palm leaf (listed in ingredients) and a dry down of slightly gourmand buttery vanilla/lily
One of the sunniest takes on lily in perfumery; it always seems to be smiling, like a slightly ditzy 'it' girl at an exotic beach party who never seems to touch down to earth. Not really 'me' again, but it is pretty!
La Vierge De Fer
'The iron maiden'! Refering not to the heavy rock band but rather Luten's vision of
Joan of Arc - faith, courage and purity in shining armour. I love the fact that Lutens seeks more than a 'pretty' or 'sexy' crowd pleaser, but is it wearable?
It does have a metallic note (listed in its ingredients) but it's hard to tell how that translates without testing. There are some metallic notes in perfumery I find repugnant, but thankfully this is more about a luminous quality - the sun glinting on armour, than a taste of iron from the battlefield itself! It reminds me faintly of frankincense resin
La Vierge de Fer is mostly about the idea of a light glowing lily, and in that sense this is recognisably a very lily scent - waxy, fresh and in this version slightly cool and light, no butter, suntan oil or cream in the sunny or tropical lily sense, it's definitely not grounded in the senses. So in a way it's polite, elegant even, but the idea is of an ethereal transience. Although snowdrops have no scent, this seems to suggest the fragility and tenacity of these wild flowers. Very poetic
Passage d'Enfer by L'Artisan
I reviewed this in an earlier post about perfumer Olivia Giacobetti (scroll down to review) but in brief this is the idea of lily and incense. Despite the name this feels light and summery, the incense is, again, frankincense-like in feel, but it's also woody, reminding me of sun-warmed antique furniture. In a sense it has something in common with Chanel's No 22 (white floral/incense) but Passage d'Enfer is more relaxed and soft, less spiritual in tone perhaps
The lily here adds a subtle, fresh and airy counterpoint to wood and incense.
Lys Fume by Tom Ford
A quick mention of Lys Fume as it's not strictly speaking a classic lily. There's quite an amalgam of notes in
And lastly on a similar trajectory of BIG lilies, Le Labo's Lys 41 combines tuberose with lily, and to be honest, since I'm a bit tuberose-sensitive, this cancels out the lily for me! But if the thought of one of Georgia O'Keefe's enormous flowers leaping from the canvas into real life and filling the room with ferociously floral fumes appeals (I quite like the idea of that in principal) this is for you!