Penhaligon's Lily of the Valley (1976): The Birds, The Bees, and Spring {Perfume Review & Musings}


Lily of the valley or muguet flower is one of the most characteristic notes of spring to a French nose. It is a smell that has come to ring in what some will see as the advent of May-Pole festivities, which are not celebrated anymore at least in urban quarters in Paris from what I can tell. I would love however to revive the tradition albeit in a less ostentatious fashion by encouraging everyone to place a table-top DIY May tree decorated with flowers and flower garlands at home (I am inspired by the awesome fragrant bouquets made at Chenonceau.) The muguet as a celebratory gift was instituted by French Valois king Charles IX on May the 1st 1561 when he was offered a sprig of muguet for good luck and henceforth decided to offer one to each lady at the court in the ensuing years...

It seems that Parisians have been particularly eager to aller au muguet (go to the muguet) as one of the popular names for lily of the valley is muguet des parisiens (Parisians' lily of the valley.) The flower very interestingly to me can be seen to historically epitomize a recognizable set of Parisian values: fashion, elegance, joie de vivre, love, seduction and sensuality. Indeed, long before couturier Christian Dior adopted muguet as a symbol and mascot of his art and trade, it had already been perceived as a symbol of elegance and seduction as the different historical strata of the word reveal...

A reportage on muguet on the 1st of May by Robert Doisneau -- another picture from the series here.

"Muguet" was a synonym for "dandy" in the French language of the 19th century, this in reference to muguet perfumes worn by fastidiously elegant men. Before Hydroxycitronellal came to inject a new sparkle to the genre, muguet fragrances and balms were made by recreating the scent with various essences, the old-fashioned way, like patchworks of scented pieces turning into one big enveloping and harmonious cover. An 1854 recipe uses for example rose, reseda, sweet pea, jasmine, rosewood, amber and musk to recreate the scent of muguet. But even before the 19th century, the term designates foppish sorts in reference to the musk perfumes they wear as "muguet" and "musc" are two related words. The verb "mugueter" (to muguet) means to court a lady. Last but not least, the etymology of "muguet" comes from an 11th century word in Old French "mugue" which means "musk" and comes from French "musc." Its origin is unclear but we can note that lily of the valley has a natural musky facet.

This tradition of appreciation of muguet perfumes was given significant impetus with Diorissimo by Dior (1956) a fragrance which is popular in France and whose sparkling and happy quality is a staple of springtime fragrance libraries. It has been subjected to some distortions before being reshaped more to form recently. But more about that later. A perfume which is less well-known but has contributed to the popularity of the smell for me and I am sure for other French kids is the Berdoues version which used to be sold in tiny bottles alongside their violet fragrances. This spring the house has released a new Bal des Clochettes.

A recent addition to the muguet library of fragrances has been Muguet Blanc by Van Cleef and Arpels but to me it is an interpretation influenced by the rise of the toiletry reference in fine perfumery and therefore a little too aseptic and squeaky clean for my sensibilities. The Penhaligon's Lily of the Valley dates from 1976. Coming from an era when green florals were in fashion, it not surprisingly belongs to that popular then family of fragrances. It is a balanced composition contrasting fresh and warm facets, clean and musky ones. I appreciate the fact that the etymology and origin of muguet was paid due homage by offering a long, very well-done and very enjoyable musky drydown. People who love musky florals ought definitely to consider it.

The perfume was a favorite of Princess Diana's according to one of her biographers and friends, Simone Simmons, the author of Diana The Secret Years who revealed in an interview to the Daily Mail "She loved the Penhaligon perfume, she loved Lily of the Valley and Bluebell. She liked perfumes very much - natural fragrances. And very light, not heavy....she also loved the bubble baths and bath oils which went with them." One can note that both Penhaligon's Bluebell and Lily of the Valley have clean openings and musky finales which is even more marked in the case of Bluebell. Lady Diana Spencer is also said to have loved Diorissimo and to have worn it on her wedding day. Both muguet compositions have this mix of nice girl and unmistakable sensuality about them. One may debate whether one is more falsely virginal than the other and more worthy of its history of seduction, but I'll let you decide.

Lily of the Valley by Penhaligon's was created by perfumer Michael Pickthall, a third-generation nose. According to the perfume house, Lily of the Valley " a deceptively complex interpretation of the delicate flower." Indeed, while the fragrance leans strongly in the direction of a soliflore, it is not linear and monochord. In fact, I would say that borrowing again from a textile metaphor, it offers an understated moiré effect with its light, supple ambery body and changing shades of gold and green (exactly the color of the jus in the bottle.)

Penhaligon's Lily of the Valley is - I am going to add another liquid "l", a lovely lily of the valley composition, certainly one of the best available. It is realistic without being devoid of sensitivity, both fresh and round. It is a green floral with subtle fruity touches and a nice contrasting warmth and sustained freshness. The perfume opens on a rush of green galbanum (not listed) which is quickly enveloped by round, sweet notes minus the metallic flashes from geranium and rose. The drydown is long-lasting and brings out the natural musky facet of muguet while the animalic facet of a honey note and the hushed spiciness of sandalwood add further sexiness to it.

The composition is very much that of a soliflore although with time the rose note becomes quite prominent; the muguet is paired with a fruity and metallic Bulgarian rose while the scent develops a green, citrusy facet which is soft and verbena-like rather than straightforwardly about lemon and bergamot as the listed notes indicate. The jasmine here seems to have a softening, rounding and fruity effect and the ylang ylang is blended-in, perceptible but not prominent. The vanilla, oakmoss, sandalwood bring warmth to the fragrance.

The long drydown the next morning is a very pleasant light, honeyed and lasting musky scent smelling of meadow flowers, cut grass and hay in the springtime. It is an understated yet unmistakably sensual perfume hinting at spring renewal in all of its vegetal and animalic tender effusiveness.

Top notes: bergamot, lemon, geranium. Heart notes: lily of the valley, rose, ylang ylang, jasmine. Base notes: oakmoss, sandalwood.

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