Notes on Notes: Narcissus

Notes on Notes: Narcissus

Welcome to another installment of Notes on Notes, a collaboration with Portia of Australian Perfume Junkies! This month’s note is narcissus.

As many of you know, I am not only a perfumista but an avid gardener. And of the many flowers I love, a favorite genus is Narcissus. Some of the common names for members of this family are daffodils, jonquils, narcissi, paperwhites, etc. Most have a fragrance that I find very alluring; and I love the succession of spring blossoms they provide over a long season.

The flower is often said to have been named after a Greek myth recounted by the Latin poet Ovid, in his “Metamorphoses.” The story tells of a remarkably beautiful youth, Narcissus, who scorns the love of the many people who become infatuated with him, including the nymph Echo. The gods decide to punish him by decreeing that he would never know love, but any love he felt for another would be unrequited and unattainable. One day, while he was out hunting, he went to a spring to drink water and saw his own reflection. He fell instantly in love, but of course he could not embrace or converse with his watery double. Consumed by this unrequited love, he stayed by the pool, gazing only at himself, until he wasted away and died. When the nymphs came to bury his body, in its place they found only a beautiful flower – the narcissus.

However, there is another origin story for the narcissus, told by Homer in a hymn to Demeter, which says that the flower was created to lure Persephone away from her friends and her mother Demeter, so that Hades, god of the underworld, could abduct her: “a marvelous, radiant flower. It was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy. And the girl was amazed and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy.” (translated from the Greek by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library).

Narcissus absolute is extracted from real narcissus flowers, usually Narcissus poeticus, but sometimes Narcissus jonquilla or Narcissus tazetta, through a solvent method. It takes huge amounts of flowers to create a single kilogram of absolute, so it is an expensive ingredient. It is also very complex, with hints of its close cousins the lilies, but also echoes of jasmine, green notes, a touch of hay or tobacco, and even some animalic notes. Some people detect notes of leather in narcissus absolute. It is also possible to extract narcissus oil by using the traditional method of enfleurage.

Luckily, because natural narcissus absolute, concrete, and oil are all very expensive, there are excellent synthetic alternatives. Perfumer Sarah McCartney has a series of related fragrances in which she experimented with varying amounts of naturals and synthetics, the “Clouds” series, named after Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now.” The first two fragrances, Clouds and Clouds’ Illusion, were the same scent, crowd-funded by the Eau My Soul Facebook group, but Clouds used the more expensive naturals and Clouds’ Illusion used more synthetic versions of the same substances (with some of the less expensive naturals). Both Sides of Clouds is a remix, using both naturals and synthetics. I have and love all three, plus a later and darker sibling, Complicated Shadows.

The narcissus-based fragrances I like best are those that really evoke the flowers themselves, so I gravitate to the ones that combine green notes with the narcotic aspect of the blossoms that rely on indoles (like jasmine). Clouds’ Illusion fulfills that wish, and so does one of my all-time favorites, Penhaligon’s Ostara.

Penhaligon’s Ostara eau de parfum among daffodils

But I’ve written about both of them before, so today I’ll focus on Tom Ford’s Jonquille de Nuit. Launched in 2012, it was part of a group that included Ombre de Hyacinthe, Café Rose, and Lys Fumé. It was reissued in 2019 as part of Tom Ford’s “Private Blend Reserve Collection”. Jonquille de Nuit is a beautiful floral. The name deceives, however – it is not dark or sultry, as one might assume from “nuit” (night). TBH, it smells to me more like mimosa than jonquil, but it’s very pretty and sunny.

The opening notes are mimosa, violet leaf, angelica, cyclamen, bitter orange blossom; heart note is narcissus; and the base notes are orris and amber. The mimosa accord especially gives the impression of yellow pollen, somewhat like Ostara, which does not have mimosa listed as a note. Right from the start, Jonquille smells soapy, in a nice way, without smelling like aldehydes (I like aldehydes, but I don’t smell them here). The soapiness may be coming from the angelica accord.  There is a pleasant, understated greenness to the opening also, doubtless from the violet leaf accord. Overall, Jonquille smells quite synthetic, though not unpleasantly so.

To my nose, Jonquille de Nuit is a fragrance that evokes jonquils rather than representing them. Ostara, on the other hand, smells like an actual bouquet of daffodils. A favorite blogger and author, Neil Chapman of The Black Narcissus, calls it “frighteningly hyper-realistic” in his book “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent.” (I can’t write a post about narcissus without mentioning his eponymous blog which I highly recommend). I like Jonquille de Nuit and I’m glad I have a couple of decants from a scent subscription, but I wouldn’t pay the exorbitant prices I see for it.  Personally, for that amount of money, I would go buy another back-up bottle of Ostara! Or another bottle of the parfum version of Both Sides of Clouds, which I’ve been enjoying this spring and which I believe contains real narcissus absolute.

Speaking of insane prices, one of the fragrances I considered for this post was Narcisse, by Chloe, as I have a 30 ml bottle. It still has its price tag from a brick and mortar discount store: $14.99. Discontinued, it now lists online for three figures! While I like Narcisse, and it captures the narcotic, indolic aura of the flowers, it rests pretty far down my list of fragrances, so I’m glad I snagged my one small bottle when I did. I don’t feel the need for another.

Do you have any favorite fragrances named for, or containing, narcissus? Also, happy May Day – I won’t be doing a May Marathon on the blog this year as I’ll be traveling again this month, but do enjoy my “May Muguet Marathon” and “Roses de Mai Marathon” from prior years! Check out what Portia has to say about narcissus; and look for our next collaborative post, “Counterpoint“, where we choose a fragrance and each of us answers the same list of questions about it.

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Notes on Notes; image by Portia Turbo.