The first time I entered a Penhaligon’s store several years ago, it confirmed the vague suspicions in my head – upscale Caswell-Massey-type old fashioned scents, with names like Elisabethan Rose and Victorian Posy. It wasn’t love at first sniff. Some of their fragrances are strongly aromatic/fougere, which wasn’t my thing, and about Bluebell the less said the better. Who shopped there? Perhaps they’re a good travel souvenir for Aunt Joan, only when I visited the exchange rate was one measly pound for two American dollars, so Aunt Joan, if she existed, would have gotten a box of tea from Fortnum’s instead. Eventually I was gifted with Malabah, which I like, and I haven’t crossed paths with the rest of the line since.
And then came Amaranthine. Notes from their website: green tea, freesia, banana leaf, coriander, cardamom, rose, carnation, clove, orange blossom, ylang ylang, Egyptian jasmine, musk, vanilla, sandalwood, condensed milk, tonka bean.
Immediately and humorously nicknamed Amaranthigh by perfumistas, Amaranthine was a shot across the bow in terms of our expectations from staid Penhaligon’s. Bertrand Duchaufour’s bizarre, refulgent twist on a boudoir scent would have been about the last thing I expected from the house, and I wasn’t alone there. From its peculiar, discordant wet/green top notes right through the sweaty, heady florals and on to a drydown someone on Basenotes described (not lovingly) as burnt milk, Amaranthine is a head-scratcher. The Penhaligon’s website says “Amaranthine is a corrupted floral oriental for those private moments when everything is anticipation,” and certainly the cumin-like presence throughout (which signifies sweat for many of us) indicates something corrupt and perhaps private is going on. The word amaranthine indicates both eternal, unfading beauty and (as related to the flower) a deep purple-red, and at least on me, Amaranthine is close to eternal – I get a good 24 to 36 hours of fun, and I wouldn’t want to overspray. I am not BD’s number-one fangirl but I found this both extraordinary and (once you know that offputting wet-tin-fork top is going to fade) quite beautiful.
Playing with it more, particularly in our recent spate of 90-degree days, I’ve also decided Duchaufour’s having us on a bit. Once Amaranthine’s finished with the lap dance, it flops down next to me on the couch, shifts the wool afghan over a bit, wraps its arms around me, and settles in for a nap. Yes, it’s true. Amaranthine is in fact a comfort scent in the drydown, full of lightly spiced, milky-woody deliciousness in spite of those sweet, dirty whispers in my ear.
There are several new reissues from the house, including Extract of Limes and Gardenia, both from their back catalog (1963 and 1976 respectively) and now part of their Anthology Collection. I’m still a little unclear on how much Duchaufour’s hand is in which scents in the Anthology – Orange Blossom appears to be the only Anthology scent on the site that’s characterized as reformulated (“transformed”), and directly attributed to him. (Orange Blossom I tried once in Paris and am ashamed to say I can’t remember anything about it other than it smelled like orange blossom.)
Extract of Limes is described on their site as “shattered sherbet and blossom honey. A classic citrus, penetrating and pure, with straight up West Indian lime, lemon oil and neroli. High, clear and instantly uplifting.” Notes are lime oil, lemon oil, petitgrain oil and neroli.
I wanted to love this. I did. I really did. I love limes, and lime fragrances, and I’m still kicking myself for not buying Floris Summer Limes when it was stocked locally a year or three ago for all of 30 seconds, because I had no idea it would then disappear from the face of the earth. Extract of Limes isn’t lacking the effort – it’s a bright, effervescent scent, trying to please, and if it smells a bit too sweet on me at first (like a green sourball hard candy rather than the fruit), the sweetness fades and then it’s nicely tart, which any self-respecting lime scent should be. However, and I’m wondering whether this is just me and maybe allergy issues, I can’t escape from the faint, offputting waft of something sickly-sweet like mildew, which pops up periodically in this scent on my skin. If there’s a short list of things I don’t want to smell like, mildew’s on it. Along with skunk. And Angel. Anyway, then it’s back to the lime-y love. I have no idea what that’s about. Has anyone else tried this? Lasting power is decent for a citrus.
Finally, there’s Gardenia, “a translucent watercolour in soft washes of tuberose, jasmine, gardenia, ylang-ylang, spice and vanilla. A radiant magnolia-tinted portrait of one of nature´s most sensual blooms…” (from their website.) Notes are violet, rhubarb, bergamot, hyacinth, magnolia, green leaves, gardenia, rose, ylang, orange blossom, tuberose, jasmine, clove, cinnamon, lily of the valley, benzoin, sandalwood, musk, vanilla.
Gardenia is as multifaceted as that list of notes suggests, although it’s perhaps not so translucent as to make it breezy and delicate. It´s got the full-on swagger of white flowers from the first spritz, and spends maybe a minute a bit on the soapy side. Then the note that signifies gardenia, which smells a bit cheesy to some and mushroomy to others, makes its welcome appearance, so the scent isn’t too clean. Magnolia is shaping up to be the new pink pepper of perfumery, and I’m not sure there’s a perfect magnolia fragrance, but this feels wet without being aquatic, and woody without being too obvious about it. And it’s more naturalistic than the spiced gardenia of, say, Jo Malone Vintage Gardenia.
I put on the Van Cleef & Arpels Gardenia Petale on the other arm for comparison. Both scents contain a breath of other white flowers, including gardenia’s near-constant companion, the rubbery tuberose, along with jasmine and ylang, and certainly VCA more closely approximates the impression of gardenia, the way it would smell if you stuck your nose in the flower. I take nothing away from the Penhaligon’s by saying it’s more diffuse. While it’s less ripe than the VCA, it doesn’t smell like Glade, either, and the musky gardenia drydown, slightly smoky and tinged with vanilla, is rich without being too sweet.
Gardenia, like tuberose, is traditionally a love-it-or-hate-it among perfume fans; personally I’m fascinated by how many folks like one but not the other, considering how often they’re mated in perfumery. For some people, a single gardenia fragrance is one too many. Others can’t get enough. I can’t say, smelling this, that it is so similar to anything else I have that I could cross it off my list. It doesn’t pack the wallop that VCA has, although it’s still pretty heady. If I could only have one, I’d take the Van Cleef. But I’d cheerfully take both.
I imagine I’d appreciate the Penhaligon’s store more these days. I was still very much on my new/strange bender, and had no time for things like Blenheim Bouquet. If you have a favorite Penhaligon’s, or you’ve tried any of these newish Anthology ones, please say so in comments.
Sample sources: Amaranthine and Extract of Limes, courtesy of LuckyScent; Gardenia, private source.
drawing of Gardenia thunbergia from Curtis Botanical Magazine