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.

Notes on Notes logo
Notes on Notes; image by Portia Turbo.
Scent Semantics, September 5

Scent Semantics, September 5

The word for this month’s Scent Semantics posts is “misanthrope.” If you haven’t read one of these posts before, “Scent Semantics” brings together a group of us fragrance bloggers in a collaborative project called “Scent Semantics“, the brainchild of Portia Turbo over at A Bottled Rose. On the first Monday of each month, we all take a word — the same word — as inspiration for a post that has some relationship to a fragrance, broadly interpreted. There are six participating blogs: Serenity Now Scents and Sensibilities (here), The Plum GirlThe Alembicated GenieEau La LaUndina’s Looking Glass, and A Bottled Rose. I hope you’ll all check out the Scent Semantics posts on each blog!

One definition of “misanthrope” is “someone who dislikes and avoids other people.” Now, I am not normally a misanthrope myself, although I am definitely an introvert (and if you’ve never seen author Susan Cain’s TED talk on the subject, click on that link — it’s a treat!). However, I think we’ve all become a bit misanthropic during the last two and a half years of a global pandemic — we were forced to avoid other people starting in March of 2020, then we disliked many people because of their varied responses to the pandemic. Layer on top of that the American elections of 2020 and their aftermath, so full of rage, and I think it’s safe to say that many of us, misanthropic by nature or not, have been slowly emerging from a phase of misanthropy.

My semantically matched fragrance this month is vintage Chanel No. 19 eau de toilette. I’ve been wearing it almost daily for the past week as my green armor at work, due to the difficulties I’ve encountered leading up to a long overdue personal leave (which started this weekend, yay!). No. 19 always makes me feel that I can be tougher than I actually am; it stiffens my backbone. Some might say that it helps me set and keep healthy boundaries, lol!

Why? I think it’s because of the hefty dose of galbanum that heralds its arrival: a bitter, green opening chord that announces, as the Chanel website says, a “daring, distinctive, uncompromising composition.” Perfect for setting boundaries! The other top notes reinforce the lack of compromise: astringent bergamot, assertive hyacinth, aromatic neroli. All have a distinctive tinge of green supporting the star of the show, the galbanum, which Fragrantica sums up as an “intense and persistent bitter green .” Indeed. If galbanum were a person, it would be Bette Davis playing Margo Channing in “All About Eve”:

“All About Eve”, 20th Century Fox.

If you’re not familiar with the movie, it is about a star actress who is turning forty, fears for her career, and is manipulated and ultimately upstaged by a much younger woman. Fittingly, No. 19 was the last Chanel fragrance created while Coco Chanel herself was still alive, in her 80s, though I don’t know that anyone ever succeeded in either manipulating or upstaging her. Master perfumer Henri Robert put the finishing touches on the formula in 1970, Chanel died in early 1971, and No. 19 was released the same year.

The blog “Olfactoria’s Travels” has a wonderful review of No. 19, referring to it as a “magic cloak”. The reviewer takes a more benevolent view of No. 19 than Tania Sanchez did in the guide to perfumes she co-wrote with Luca Turin, where she compared it to the wire mother monkey in a famous experiment about nurturing or the lack thereof. Blogger and author Neil Chapman, of “The Black Narcissus”, is famously a devotee of No. 19, scarfing up vintage bottles of it in all formats from second-hand stores in Japan, where he lives. You can read all about it in his amazing book, “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent”, available in the UK and the US, and elsewhere in other languages, which I highly recommend!

Luckily for me, since I adore green fragrances, on my skin the greenery lasts and lasts, joined in the heart phase by some of my favorite floral notes: iris, orris root, rose, lily-of-the-valley, narcissus, jasmine and ylang-ylang. The green astringency of the opening notes is carried forward by the lily-of-the-valley and narcissus, while orris root adds earthiness, iris adds powder, and jasmine and ylang-ylang add airiness, sexiness and warmth. My sense of No. 19 as “armor” is aided by my vintage spray, a refillable, silvery, aluminum canister that has protected its contents for many years.

No. 19 has had many “faces”, my favorite being English model and iconoclast Jean Shrimpton. And guess what? Based on her own words, she may actually have been a misanthrope, having walked away from her superstar modeling career and life of celebrity in her 30s, becoming what she herself described as a recluse running a hotel in Cornwall. Although the photo of her below is not an ad for Chanel, to me it captures the spirit of No. 19‘s opening — inscrutable, distant, mingling shades of green, white, and earthy brown with the unexpected intrusion of purple:

Model Jean Shrimpton sitting on an ancient tree root.
Jean Shrimpton; image by Patrick Lichfield for Vogue, 1970.

As No. 19 dries down, to my nose the galbanum never leaves, though it recedes into the distance as the oakmoss enters the glade. Because I have the vintage EDT, the base includes oakmoss, leather, musk, sandalwood, and cedar. It is a true chypre, a genre I love. It reminds me of the Jackie Kennedy Onassis of the 1970s: elegant and even haughty upon first appearance, with a warmth that reveals itself over time to the patient; breaking free from the fashion conventions she mastered so skillfully and embodied in the 1950s and 1960s, and far from the cold “wire mother” of Tania Sanchez’ imagining while retaining an aura that commands respect.

I’m choosing to adopt Laura Bailey‘s interpretation of No. 19, which she described in Vogue at the height of pandemic lockdowns in 2020, as the scent of new beginnings and dreams of future adventure:

No 19, the ‘unexpected’ Chanel, the ‘outspoken’ Chanel, created at the height of the first wave of feminism in 1971, and named for Coco Chanel’s birthday – 19 August – is, for me, the fragrance of freedom, of optimism, of strength. (And of vintage campaign stars Ali MacGraw, Jean Shrimpton and Christie Brinkley.) The heady cocktail of rose-iris-vetiver-jasmine-lily-of-the-valley remains shockingly modern and original, bolder than any sweet fairy-tale fantasy.

If you had to relate a fragrance to the word “misanthrope”, which would you choose?

Ad with perfume bottle of Chanel No. 19
Chanel No. 19 ad; image from