When Life Gives You Lilies

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?

  • Anna Egeria says:

    Can anyone tell me if Passage d’Enfer is only an EDT or available as EDP as well? I think that I will love it.

  • Ann says:

    Howdy, dear!! So many great lilies mentioned on here. I like FM’s Lys and the Anais and used to love Donna Karan’s. Need to go revisit these and others ASAP!! Hope you’re doing well!

  • Robert says:

    You may not see this, but Passage d’Enfer was named after the street of the original L’Artisan shop.

  • hczerwiec says:

    Not a huge fan of lilies, either the flower or as a scent! I wore Anais Anais in high school, and I don’t mind FM’s Lys Mediteranee, though that lily gets mixed with tuberose, jasmine, et al and is more of a BWF scent. But otherwise, not really my thing.

  • AnnieA says:

    Still wear Anais Anais as a bedtime scent.

  • Berengaria Liedmeier says:

    Passage d’Enfer is named after an alley near the original Artisan quarters. No direct relation with hell, only in a reminiscent way As AP says: Passage d’Enfer pays homage to the Parisian location of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s office in the 1970s. It conjures up images of chilled cathedral walls and echoes of rituals and incantations. Translucent lily and white musk sweeten the balsamic smoke of incense. Passage d’Enfer is also a wicked play on words, the symbolic “Hells passage”, a moment caught between two worlds. The name may be dark and unsettling, but the scent itself is tranquil and contemplative.

  • Jo says:

    I’m an actual priest. I don’t associate lilies with funerals at all. Never done an actual funeral where there was any lily scent at all. *shrug*

    Lily’s for me smell like EASTER. That’s when they actually get used in church. Spring, bright, joyful, celebratory. I adore lily’s.

    My current favorite is White Peacock Lily D.S. & Durga. It is so crystal clear, bright, and beautiful.

  • Musette says:

    as you know (from my interminable photos) I have prolly 30? 50? 10,000? Oriental/Orienpet lilies in my garden – July and August smells like a whorehouse on payday out there! For all that, I tend to steer clear of the hugely indolic lily perfumes, because the almost-always present musk drydown nauseates me, alas. I wear the snot out of Cartier’s Baiser V, Lys Rose – in fact, I’m wearing it this morning! DK Gold is lovely but I can’t wear it in warm weather (alas). I’ll have to revisit Passage d’Enfer – I think I tried it during my MUSTTRYEVERYTHINGNOW phase (the Early Years) and it got lost in the mix. Also, I always confuse it with Fou d’Absinthe, for no other reason than I’m ridiculous.


  • Cara says:

    For me, Donna Karan Gold was only good in one of the concentrations. The others were disappointing, but I loved the one. I think it was one of the higher concentrations and possibly also the lotion. I made a counter rep smell them with me, and she agreed.

    And I like Cartier’s Baiser Vole and find I can also layer it with rose soliflores to good effect.

  • Queen Cupcake says:

    I share your love for the early l’Artisans perfumes, March. I have always thought that “Passage d’Enfer” would mean passage *from, or out of* hell, because the “d'” is short for “de”, usually meaning “of”. I’m not fluent in French but one could argue for the “passage out of hell” interpretation, no? Sorry, your post brought out my language nerd, haha.

    Nice to think of l’Artisan’s shop on the “Street from Hell”. 🙂 Thanks, Tara C.

    I’m excited to try layering, as Rosarita has, the Passage with le Jardin sur le Nil!

  • Kathleen says:

    I not as familiar with lily fragrances; however I adore the flowers and their scent, especially stargazer and Casablanca. I can bury my nose in them forever. If any perfume smelled exactly like that, I’d happily wear it.
    I recently purchased Donna Karan Gold after reading reviews, and was disappointed. It was too woody for me and doesn’t smell nice on me.

  • rosarita says:

    Love the scent of lilies and Donna Karan Gold. I have to be in the mood for it but the balance of amber makes it gorgeous. March, I remember on the old Posse that you referred to Passage d’Enfer as an “all purpose fragrance enhancer” and I went through a period of layering it with everything – a favorite combo was Passage d’Enfer with Un Jardin Sur le Nil. I should replace my bottle.

  • Gina Tabasso says:

    I love lily. And narcissus. Ostara is a fave. And so is Yosh Stargazer.

    • sara levy says:

      You must be my scent twin! I was going to mention both of these as my favorites. I would also recommend Shiseido Koto.

  • Tara C says:

    Passage d’Enfer is actually the street name where L’Artisan had their first shop, if I recall correctly. I love that one. I also wore Anais back in the day, and SL Un Lys. I also have Lys Mediteranee. Despite all that, I don’t consider myself a huge lily fan, especially as a soliflore.

    • March says:

      Aha! That explanation for the name makes more sense…. lots of Anais fans on here! And I don’t consider myself a lily super-fan either — it’s just a LOT to deal with. My go-to for over the top white floral is FM Carnal Flower, or something gardenia. I have two Strange Invisible Perfumes gardenias that are nuclear-level.

  • Flora says:

    Lilies are my favorite flower, and I am always looking for the perfect lily perfume. So far my favorites are FM Lys Mediterranee, Un Lys, DSH Perfumes 1,000 Lilies, Anais Anais, and an all-natural one called Forbidden Love from La Fleur by Lily. Passage d’Enfer is very good, and so was the late lamented Penhaligon’s Lily & Spice. I can’t wear Donna Karan Gold, it’s all cedar shavings on me, sadly. I swapped my bottle away.

  • pjmcbride says:

    Passage d’Enfer. Glad you mentioned it!

    • March says:

      Passage d’Enfer left me gobsmacked. All those L’Artisans were so interesting, and many I found lovely. Pretty sure PdE was the first L’Artisan I bought back in the day.

  • Anais Anais by Cacharel – back in the nineties, a powerhouse. I got it as a gift, liked it a loooot, but it made me sneeze. I gave it to mum… The 100 ml bottle was drained in less than half a year 🙂 On her smelled SPECTACULAR

    • March says:

      A couple of mentions of Anais Anais — on other people I thought it was lovely; on me, it smelled off. I’m glad you gave it to someone who loved it!

  • bijou1960 says:

    Donna Karan Gold!! That was a little too funeralesque for my taste, but l hate throwing out perfume so l found a good home for it….

    • March says:

      Giggling at “funeralesque”– I’m not sure that’s what the brand was going for (insert shrug emoji here) but I think a lot of folks agreed…

  • KB says:

    My newest lily favourite is the new Diptyque candle Lys. Marvellous!!
    For perfumes i agree with you about Un Lys. Also nice though toned down is Cartier’s Baiser Vole

    • March says:

      The Cartiers, in general, won’t play nicely on me…. it’s like I’m not good enough for them, lol. I bet that candle is a stunner.