Walking home I caught the scent of lilies and stopped dead in my tracks. They were stately Casablancas; I could smell them ten feet away. I made a hard left, leaned over the iron fence into my neighbor’s garden, and inhaled like a madwoman.
Some people (a lot of people) hate the smell of oriental lilies – too strong, too green, too soapy, too indolic. I’ve always found it funny that a flower associated with church-going purity and Easter smells so rank. In my former life I was on the flower guild at my church, and for several years we weren’t allowed to use stargazer lilies (which I adore) because the rector despised their smell. I was pleased to see him go, and not just because it meant I could use stargazers again in my arrangements for the altar.
“Lily” in fragrance is, in my opinion, often a shorthand for “eh, it’s a white flower, I guess” – some generic combo of tuberose, lily of the valley, gardenia, etc. rather than the smell of an actual oriental lily (which has its own variety and nuance, just like roses do). I think the majority of mass-market fragrances with lily listed as a note are using it that way – white floral, often counterbalanced with something spicy and a sweet musky drydown.
The first true lily scent I thought of off the top of my head is Donna Karan Gold, which doesn’t get as much blog love as I think it should (although it was certainly popular enough back in the day.) I have an old bottle here and I gave it a spritz and man, it’s fantastic. It’s on the cleaner, meaner, greener end of the spectrum. It’s a smack in the face with Casablanca lilies, which I seem to recall were her favorite flower, although don’t quote me on that one.
Serge Lutens Un Lys can be pretty close to straight up lily, although it wanders back and forth a bit between lily and muguet. Un Lys belongs to that happy period when Uncle Serge was making a variety of scents, not just syrupy ones over and over (and I like his syrup, but come on). Un Lys is a little dirty, as it should be, which is I think why the words “bathroom air freshener” appear in online reviews – lily in fragrance (as in life) can be both intensely strong and more than a little indolic.
Then there’s L’Artisan’s Passage d’Enfer, the Olivia Giacobetti wonder, which I’m wearing as I write this. Passage d’Enfer fills me with joy for all sorts of reasons. It (and L’Artisan in general) represent everything I found entrancing about fragrance at the start of my perfume journey. I knew Passage d’Enfer was an incense scent before I tried it, but the lily, which comes forward after a few minutes, was shocking and unexpected. I have no idea why something so lovely is called passage to hell; Passage d’Enfer has an ethereal, soaring quality I never tire of.
What are your lily favorites? Or would your world be better without the fragrance and/or the flower?