Every year in early spring I watch the buds appear on the camellia tree by our front door. With the air still cold, one single flower bursts into full bloom early, its sacrificial duty to test the conditions for the others. Its survival seems miraculous, but these first flowers are surprisingly tough for something so delicate-looking. They remind me why I love floral scents so much – they are symbolic of good things to come.
Flowers are the paradox of the fragrance world. They’re the foundation on which the £33bn global industry is built, and the heart of nearly every bestselling perfume. Of the 5,000 raw materials that modern perfumers work with, more than half are made from flowers. There is seemingly no aroma you can’t conjure with a floral note; they can be fruity, spicy, ambery, woody, leathery, green. They can be almost unbearably sexy, like the tuberose in Frédéric Malle’s Carnal Flower. They can be cerebral and aloof, like Chanel No 19. Pretty and uncomplicated, like Jo Malone’s Vintage Gardenia. Darkly intoxicating, like Tom Daxon’s Crushing Bloom.
But many perfume aficionados – or those who seek out niche or less commercial scents – often think of true, unabashed florals as lacking in sophistication. I’m not entirely sure why: maybe it’s because they are often so wearable, or too instantly pleasing for those who like their scents to feel more “thoughtful”. Maybe they’re too nostalgic for modern tastes, like choosing an Old Master over a modernist print. And despite the fact that in many parts of the world men choose to wear scents of rose and jasmine, maybe floral perfumes just feel too stereotypically “feminine”.
This spring, though, fresh, fully committed floral fragrances are flourishing once more. The season’s launches celebrate flowers with a new emphasis on the uplifting and the celebratory. Whether trying a new scent or rediscovering a forgotten classic, there seems no better time to embrace florals wholeheartedly.
“Come springtime, I’m yearning for them,” says the perfumer Lyn Harris, whose label Perfumer H makes some of my favourite modern florals. “It’s like a glimmer of hope on the horizon. About now I just start thinking about wearing jasmine and honeysuckle and roses.” Harris is particularly drawn to making what she calls “tomboy florals”, with a musky, balsamic or spicy undertone to bring more of an edge. During consultations in her Marylebone shop, she says many people reject the idea of wearing florals, so she’s careful not to go into too much detail about specific notes. “I often give my perfumes impressionistic names that don’t give too much away,” she says. “My perfume called Rain Cloud is actually white flowers with a ‘rain’ accord – it’s about how flowers smell in heat and humidity, and it’s full of ylang ylang absolute, orange flower and jasmine. Lots of fashion people wear that, and they almost always come in saying they don’t want florals.” Similarly, her Suede perfume is “a white floral with things like musk and also cucumber pulp, so there’s more of an interesting texture”.
Harris thinks the resurgence of interest in floral scents is because, over the past 18 months, “we’ve learnt to notice how nature speaks to us”. For her, flowers – more than anything else in perfumery – symbolise hope and new beginnings. This thought, of flowers as a conduit for hope, is something that Mary Katrantzou has been exploring too: as part of her ongoing collaboration with Bulgari, the designer has turned her hand to the house’s fragrances, reimagining the bottle of Bulgari’s Omnia fragrance collection as a vase of flowers, and also creating a new perfume, described as an “explosive floral” brimming with the gardenia she smelled growing up in her garden in Greece. Katrantzou says flowers are completely connected with optimism – “that’s why we choose to send people flowers” – and believes that applying your perfume each morning, just like getting dressed, is an opportunity to “surround ourselves with positivity” for the day.
Whitney Bromberg Hawkings understands both flowers and perfume better than most. For 18 years she worked in communications for Tom Ford (she loves his Tubéreuse Nue perfume, but is a committed, lifelong wearer of Fracas) and left to open Flowerbx, a particularly chic online flower-delivery service. She says that right now, she can see how intimately flowers are being connected with messages of hope in the cards people send with their bouquets. “There are so many messages of positivity and love and strength, and that things will get better,” she says. It brings to mind the French tradition of giving lily of the valley, or muguet, to others on the first of May as a symbol of optimism and good luck.
By that measure, a floral scent is a bouquet you send to yourself. It’s not something you wear for other people, or to seem sexy or alluring – you can leave that to the spicy orientals or the chypres. Finding the right floral scent feels more personal than that, because of how it makes you feel. There’s one floral scent I love above all others, and barely a day goes by when I haven’t worn it. I first smelled it in Grasse, and it is very much an olfactory interpretation of that place – but boy, does it travel well. It’s called Rose Des Vents (which, in fact, is French for “compass”) and was made by Jacques Cavallier Belletrud, master perfumer at Louis Vuitton.
It is such a big, committed floral scent that it’s built around not one but three types of rose: a Bulgarian rose, which is sweet and slightly fruity; the almost metallic-smelling Turkish rose; and Rose Centifolia – the big one – from Grasse. Despite this almost overdose of flowers, it’s much fresher than most floral scents; it has an almost soapy, lemony opening that feels totally right in spring and summer, but also brings a crispness that works in winter too. It dries to something that feels not like one rose but hundreds, as if you’re right there in the field, and I think it’s the outdoorsiness that makes it so special. Bottling the naturally ephemeral scent of flowers can sometimes feel constricting, but here it’s like throwing the windows wide open.
Capturing the scent of flowers as they exist outside has always been one of Cavallier Belletrud’s quests. The 59-year-old Vuitton-trainer-wearing giant of perfumery works from LVMH’s restored château in Grasse, a stone’s throw from where he grew up (he used to pass the then-dilapidated building on the way to school). “I often say that the best perfume in the world is the breeze,” he says, “especially in Grasse in May, when you have the wind coming across from the sea to the rose fields, combined with the leaves from the orange blossom trees and the damp soil beneath. That, really, is the scent of Rose Des Vents.”
And it’s precisely because of the special part they play in nature that he believes flowers are the greatest symbol of optimism too. “They are the messenger of hope, love and what is delicate, sophisticated, wild, natural…” he says. “Flowers are one of the best expressions of what is beautiful in life.” Today – 1 May – he will be keeping the “date with the rose” that he has had every year since he was a child. “Every year, flowers meet you at the same moment,” he says. “Maybe eternity is that.”
Spring Bouquets: eight evocative new floral scents
OLFACTIVE O Floral
This fledgling British brand believes that anything you spray on should be an extension of your own scent, like a second skin – consequently this riot of florals wears its sweetness remarkably lightly. 30ml, £60
AERIN Rose De Grasse Pour Filles
A youthful take on florals that can be worn alone or layered to give a flowery overtone to an existing scent. 50ml, £150
LOEWE Aire Sutileza
From the Aire collection, which is inspired by the air that surrounds us, this scent bottles the sensation of walking past blooming flowers, with notes of jasmine, lily of the valley and pear. 50ml, £70
Legendary perfumer Jacques Chabert has created a collection of five perfumes inspired by some of the company’s luxury resorts. Ayom conjures Amanjiwo, Indonesia, the citrus giving way to floral depths of jasmine. 50ml, £220
FFERN Spring 21
An organic eau de parfum from one of the most exciting new British perfume brands. The spring equinox scent captures the aroma of an English greenhouse, with bitter orange tree as a centrepiece. 32ml, £69
ANTOINETTE POISSON Bien Aimée
Created for the French interiors company by the perfumer Lyn Harris, this fragrance has a vintage vibe but, like a good tea dress, it never gets too prim. 100ml, €220