Monday, November 24, 2014

Anatomy of a Flower

Narcissus is an elusive flower that has been possessing this perfumer's imagination for as long as could be. Vivid memories of the fresh wild flower begin with a folk song about picking narcissi in the fields, and encountering a white horse. The rhyme does not end too well.  

לַשָּׂדֶה יָצֹא יָצָאתִי
נַרְקִיסִים קָטַפְתִּי,
סוּס לָבָן רָאֹה רָאִיתִי
וְעָלָיו רָכַבְתִּי.

וְהַסּוֹס דָּהַר דָּהַר
וַאֲנִי נָפַלְתִּי,
וְאֶת כָּל הַנַּרְקִיסִים
בַּשָּׂדֶה הִשְׁאַרְתִּי.
Living wild narcissus flowers have an unusual scent, heady and intoxicating, both freshly green and white-floral in character. Native to the Mediterranean basin, these bulb flowers for Narcissus tazetta come to bloom in the late fall and wintertime, in different months depending on when the rainy season begins, and also depending on the particular habitat. It is grown commercially for perfumery, primarily in Southern France, where the method of enfleurage was discovered first to extract its precious aroma. Nowadays it is processed by solvent extraction, to produce an absolute. This particular type of narcissus is also referred to as "Narcisse des Montagne" (Narcissus of the Mountain), which grows in the Esterel area (vs. Narcisse des Plaines" which grows in Grasse area, and is sweeter, more honeyed but also quite faint fragrance). Narcissus poeticus, also known as Poet's Daffodil is another sub-species that is grown for the fragrance industry, both in the Netherlands and Southern France. Jonquil (Narcissus jonquilla) is native to the Western Mediterranean countries, and is also grown for extraction purposes, but in even lesser quantities, as it is rarely used - case in point is Vol de Nuit.

Paperwhite (Narcissus papyraceus) are a cultivar of this wild narcissus species as well, forced to flower around Christmas time, for their symbolic purity of Virgin Mary. In the Language of Flowers, narcissus symbolizes unrequited love and selfishness

Wild narcissus (Narcissus tazetta) smells both green and fresh, and also heady and almost sickeningly sweet. The scent invites from afar, with this heady melange that permeates the air around its modest surrounding among thorny bushes and garrigue shrubs. It invites you from afar, but if you get very close to smell it - you'll be hit by its lethally rotten aroma of excrement and dying flesh. This is due to the presence of two molecules - indole (not surprisingly, also present in jasmine and civet); and paracresol, which is reminiscent of leather (and is responsible for sickeningly sweet, intensely fecal notes that permeate Youth Dew).

Narcissus has a very complex, unusual and sophisticated odour. According to Bo Jensen, while many odorants have been identified as common to narcissi (benzyl acetate, methyl benzoate, p-cresol, phenethyl alcohol and indole), none are unique to this flower. Van Dort et al. attempted to identify the characteristic compounds of narcissus, but while they found additional molecules (8-oxolinalool, 3,7-dimethyl-1,3,5-octatriene-7-ol, methyl 2-methyl-6-methylene-2,7-octadienoate, 8-hydroxylinalool, 2-methoxy-2,6-dimethyl-3,5,7-octatriene and lilac aldehyde), neither could be held responsible for the flower's personality.

Poucher delves deeper into the world of narcissus compounding, and offers an extensive list of no less than 73 raw materials to recreate the living flower's impressive aroma, including (in addition to narcissus and jonquille absolutes), natural essences such as bergamot, orris, rose otto, styrax, orange flower water absolute, ylang ylang, ambrette, and many other floral absolutes (orange flower, jasmine, rose, tuberose), sandalwood, labdanum, civet, costus and benzoin. Key synthetic materials revolve around various paracresyls (p-acetate, p-iso-butyrate, p-phenylacetate), floral molecules (methyl anthranilate, phenylethyl acetate and benzyl acetate), coumarin, vanillin, heliotropin, musk ketone, and the peach aldehyde undecalactone, among others.

I've been meddling with a beautiful narcissus absolute that my friend Jessica September Buchanan has sent me from France and to me, it is dense, rich, not nearly as heady as the fresh flower, but rather leaning onto the green side. It is reminiscent of hay fields, honey, waxy tuberose, and is both woody, sweet, green and powdery. In my search for the perfect narcissus companions that will accentuate its eccentric and subtle beauty, I have selected angelica, ylang ylang, clary sage absolute, liatrix, pinewood, pine moss, pine needle absolute, palmarosa, cabreuva, szechuan pepper, balsam poplar buds and fire tree. It's been a great challenge to work with this absolute, and neither of these complementary essences is particularly easy either, but it's been a rewarding journey which I will share with you over the next few days, leading up to launching the new creations that resulted from this process.

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