Friday, May 1, 2009

Distant cousins: Lily of the Valley & Lily~part 1: Lily of the Valley

Although in nomenclature lily of the valley is easily confused with lily and its own varietal richness, the two are completely different flowers and in this scent guide I will try to analyse their olfactory differences, their participation in the bouquet of classic and modern fragrances, the materials used to render them in perfumery as well as a list of perfumes that highlight their graceful beauty. The first part deals with Lily of the Valley or Muguet, while the second part will deal with Lily.

The raindrenched earth after spring showers and the wet foliage remind me of the lyrics by songwriter George Brassens:

"Le premier mai c'est pas gai" / "The first of May isn’t cheerful"
"Je trime", a dit le muguet / "I slave away", the lily of the valley said
"Dix fois plus que d'habitude" /"Ten times more than usual"
"Regrettable servitude" / "A regrettable encumbrance"
Muguet, sois pas chicaneur / Lily of the valley, don't be a quibbler
Car tu donnes du bonheur / Because you make people happy
Brin d' muguet, tu es quelqu'un... / Nosegay of lily of the valley, you’re somebody...
~Georges Brassens, Discours Des Fleurs

May 1st has been inexctricably tied to Francophiles’ minds with one of the loveliest spring blossoms and its neo-Victorian image: lily of the valley (Lys des vallées) or, as the French commonly call it, muguet (pronounced mygɛ). And it’s for a reason: it’s the traditional flower offered on this day and one can routinely see street vendors selling nosegays on the French streets. The tradition goes back to Charles IX who on May 1st 1561 inaugurated the custom.It is also a symbolic gift for 13 years of marriage and is traditionally used in bridal bouquets thanks to its enticing scent.

Etymology and symbolism

The etymology of muguet is said to derive from muscade (nutmeg), since the smell of the flower has an indefinite nuance reminiscent to it, which became mugade, and finally muguet. A lucky symbol ~it means “return of happiness” in the language of flowers~ the delicate beauty of lily of the valley is however poisonous (especially its reddish fruit) due to convallatoxine, convallamarine, and convallarine; a brave irony on the part of Creation!
Lily of the valley/muguet (Convallaria majalis) is a herbaceous perennial plant prevalent in Asia, Europe and the Eastern USA, with characteristic bell-shaped little flowers, hence its other name May Bells. But its alternative names "Our Lady's tears" and "Male Lily" are more poetically evoctive: Legend wants Eve to have shed bitter tears after the Lapse from the Garden of Eden which falling onto the ground transformed into the white little blossoms. Another medieval legend wants Saint Leondard de Noblac, a knight in the court of Clovis I (of the Limousin region of France) and patron saint to prisoners of all kinds, to have battled with a dragon (a common medieval theme) in which his shed blood trasformed into lilies of the valley. But although one usually associates the delicate green floralncy of its aroma with females now, the term "Male Lily" has another explanation: It has been a favourite perfume for men ever since the 16th century, to the point that up till the 19th century the term muguet was linguistically used to denote an elegant young gentleman!
Another legend wants the Greek God Apollon to have tapestried the mount Parnassus with lilies of the valley so that the Muses wouldn’t hurt themselves if they fell...Classical antiquity paid great attention to the seasonal celebrations of nature and the zenith of the Roman celebrations of Flora, goddess of flowers, culminated on May 1st.

The role of lily of the valley in perfumery and construction of the accord

Lily of the valley is technically a green floral with rosy-lemony nuance*, whereas lily is a white, spicy floral. The former has known a profound and extensive use in perfumery, despite its resistance to natural extraction methods which yield a very miniscule amount of no great significance. Apart from soliflores (fragrances focusing on highlighting the beauty of one kind of flower), the lily of the valley accord has been adequately used in classical fragrances as a catalyst to “open up” and freshen the bouquet of the other floral essences in the heart, much like we allow fresh air to come in contact with an uncorked red wine to let it “breathe” and bring out its best. The effect is wonderfully put to use in Chanel No.19, Guerlain’s Chamade and Jean Patou’s L’Heure Attendue. Its lack of sweetness is also an important aspect in the creation of masculine fragrances: witness Chavelier d’Orsay, Équipage by Hermès, Insensé by Givenchy and Riverside Drive by Bond no.9 to name but a few.

The reconstitutions of lily of the valley note are based on either combinations of natural essences (usually citrus with jasmine, orange blossom or rose and green notes such as vetiver) or more commonly on synthetics. The classical ingredient is hydroxycitronellal, as well as the patended Lyral and Lilial, all coming under the spotlight of the latest restrictions on perfumery materials {you can read all about them here}. Lilial has a cyclamen facet to it, used in good effect in Paco Rabanne pour Homme. Super Muguet is another lily of the valley synthetic which surfaces in Marc Jacobs for men, as a clean facet under the figs. Kovanol is very close to hydroxicitronellal, which is interesting to note. Restricted by IFRA is also the newest Majantol {2,2-Dimethyl-3-(3-methylphenyl)-propanol}, while Muguesia or Mayol are also used to give this green floral smell of muguet. The name Mayol has an interesting background: it’s a nod to comedy singer Félix Mayol who put a boutonnière of the muguets he had been offered by his girlfriend Jenny Crook instead of his usual camelia on the 1st of May of 1895 before going out to sing!
Phenylethyl alcohol and benzyl acetate (the former rosier, the latter jasminer) as well as dimethylbenzenepropanol also contribute in the creation of bases which are used to render lily of the valley notes. It all depends on which impression the perfumer wishes to convey!
The clean, almost soapy nuances of lily of the valley has been traditionally exploited in soaps, which is why all too often lily of the valley as a fragrance note reads as “soapy” in your perfume. It’s also why it’s terribly difficult to render a convincing lily of the valley fine fragrance that does not evoke functional cleaning products, due to the exagerrated use they make of this aroma in that sector of the industry.

Iconic Lily of the Valley fragrances

The definitive lily of the valley fragrance used to be the masterful Diorissimo (1955) by trismegistus Edmond Roudnitska who is said to have planted a bed of them in his garden, so as to study the smell attentively and to evoke the indefinable atmosphere of spring. Lily of the valley used to be the lucky charm of Christian Dior himself, who always sew a twig into the hem of his creations to bring them luck. The juxtaposition of virginal, celestial greenness in the lily-of-the-valley crystal tones of Diorissimo with only a hint at improper smells through the deep, warmly powdery aspect of civet and indolic jasmine in the dry-down is nothing short of magical. Alas, the latest formulation of Diorissimo has taken away that animalic warmth, leaving it with only the clean facet.
Roudnitska himself however had been quite appreciative of the pure and delicate innocence of Muguet des Bois (Muguets of the Woods) by Coty (1942). Guerlain’s seasonal limited edition of Muguet is a rich, sweeter rendition that is partly inspired by the original Muguet of 1906, while Le Muguet by Annick Goutal (2001) is an ethereal and sharper interpretation, quite true to the blossom, if only rather fleeting in Eau de Toilette (alas the only offering). Début by parfums DelRae is an intensely lovely and sylphid-like lily of the valley composition by Michel Roudnitska, which shines like ivory pearls on a long smooth neck. For those who prefer a soft and creamy treatment of the note, I suggest they try Muguet de Bonheur by Caron (1952).

Fragrances with prominent Lily of the Valley notes (in alphabetical order, click links for reviews):

Acaciosa by Caron
Anais Anais by Cacharel (along with lily)
Antilope by Weil
Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca by Guerlain
Aqua Allegoria Lilia Bella by Guerlain
Be Delicious by Donna Karan
Capricci by Nina Ricci
Chamade by Guerlain (along with hyacinth)
Clair de Musc by Serge Lutens
Climat by Lancôme
Dazzling Silver by Estee Lauder
Début by DelRae
Dior me, Dior me not by Dior (limited edition of 2004, along with sweet pea)
Diorissimo by Christian Dior
Eau d’Argent by Montana
Eclipse by Parfums De Nicolaï
Envy by Gucci
Helmut Lang Eau de Cologne and Eau de Parfum (discontinued)
Jessica Mc Clintock by Jessica Mc Clintock
Koto by Shiseido
Laura by Laura Biagotti
Lauren by Ralph Lauren
Le Muguet by Annick Goutal
Le Muguet de Rosine by Les Parfums de Rosine (discontinued)
Lily by Dior (limited edition of 1999)
Lily of the Valley by Crabtree and Evelyn
Lily of the Valley by Floris
Lily of the Valley by Penhaligon’s
Lily of the Valley by Taylor of London
Lily of the Valley by Winds of Windsor
Lily of the Valley by Yardley
Miss Dior by Christian Dior
Miss Worth by Worth
Mughetto by L'Erbolario
Mughetto by Santa Maria Novela
Mughetto di Primavera by I profumi di Firenze
Muguet by Cotswold Perfumery
Muguet by Guerlain (limited edition, launches for May 1st only each year)
Muguet by Molinard
Muguet by Slatkin
Muguet de Bois by Coty
Muguet de bois by Yves Rocher
Muguet de Bonheur by Caron
Muguet de Mai by Roger & Gallet (discontinued)
Odalisque by Parfums De Nicolaï
Remember Me by Dior (limited edition of 2000)
Sampaquita by Ormonde Jayne
Tiare by Chantecaille
Urban Lily by Strange Invisible Perfumes
W by Banana Republic
XS pour Elle Paco Rabanne

*In a study on the headspace of lily-of-the-valley flowers using GC-MS and GC-sniffing/GC-olfactometry techniques, Brumke, Ritter and Schmaus from the company Dragoco (today Symrise, Germany) identified some 23 compounds contributing to the lily-of-the-valley fragrance, among these several newly detected trace constituents. The odorants could be divided into floral-rosy-citrusy notes: citronellol (9.6 %), geraniol (8.4%), nerol (1.3 %), citronellyl acetate (1.1 %), geranyl acetate (3.3 %), geranial + benzyl acetate (0.96 %), neral (0.02 %), benzyl acohol (35 %), phenethyl alcohol (0.78 %), phenylacetonitrile (3.0 %), farnesol (1.9 %) and 2,3-dihydrofarnesol (0.88 %), green-grassy notes: (Z)-3-hexen-1-ol (11 %), (Z)-3-hexenyl acetate (7.8 %), (Z)-3-hexenal (trace) and (E)-2-hexenal
(0.18 %), green pea and galbanum-like notes: 2-isopropyl-3-methoxypyrazine (trace) and 2-isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine (trace), fatty, waxy, aldehydic notes: octanal (0.15 %), nonanal (0.1 %), decanal (0.07 %) and fruity, raspberry notes: beta-ionone (trace). In another study of lily-of-the-valley, phenylacetaldehyde oxime was identified (source Bo Jensen).

Muguet pic via mes-passions.over.blog.net
Adrien Barrère, illustration of F.Mayol, chromolithographie via imageandnarrative.be, Diorissimo bottle via Dior


  1. Anonymous17:10

    Ooops. . a funny little typing error. We know you mean "sweet pea", not "sweat pea". English spelling is a tough mistress.
    -- Gretchen

  2. Fiordiligi19:09

    What a delightful and informative piece, my dearest E. You must have known that I was wearing vintage Diorissimo today!

    I'm quite surprised by the long list of lily of the valley scents, including my beloved Chamade, Miss Dior, and of course the Guerlain limited edition (I have a bottle from the late 90s).

    And all this for a note which has to be reproduced synthetically.....

  3. What an amazingly comprehensive compendium of lily of the valley fragrances and so much info on how the accord is made by perfumers! Superb work, Elena!
    I admit I am in agreement with Fiordiligi, nevertheless. Rather ironic that all this trouble is for a flower that cannot be rendered naturally, isn't it?

  4. What a lovely piece to read this morning. It makes me want to run and dab on some muguet, though (1) I only have one perfume with me now, and (2) I'm not even that fond of lily of the valley. I hope you're feeling better.

  5. Absolutely fantastic Helg, and so timely! I am currently working on a bespoke Lily of the Valley perfume, this us really helpful.

  6. Hello, E. Thanks for the lovely and incredibly informative article. I was just this evening mulling over the difference between lily of the valley and lily notes, and, voilà, here is your article to enlighten and elucidate. Very interesting to see the "fatty, waxy, aldehydic" notes listed as an important component.

  7. Thank you Gretchen!! (Eagle eyed, you are). I have corrected it now.

  8. D,

    indeed in chypres lily of the valley is quite common!

  9. D,

    great minds think alike: vintge Diorissimo was also my choice. I cherish those batches as they offer the really intimate touch than inhaling a nosegay of the tiny bells offers deep down. The newest formula is a little screetchily clean for my tastes.

    I believe the importance of the lily of the valley note is edged on its enhancing the aspects of other ingredients: aids diffusion and sharpens too narcotic flowers as well, freshening them up. It's amazingly popular as a note in most feminine fragrances today.

  10. Sue,

    thank you honey for your kindest words. (btw, did you get my mail?)

    As to its importance, please see my comment above as response to Fiordiligi/D. It's an invaluable "acessory" note, when not starring.

  11. D,

    thank you honey, I do feel much better although seasonal allergies are afecting me a bit. Appreciate your concern!

    Are you en route? Do mail me as soon as you have a shipping address available ;-)

    Yes, muguet is a funny little thing, with a radiant projection, but not always the easiest to make one's own. I really think you should try Debut, though: it manages to inject a lustrous pearly finish that is quite sensuous... :-))

  12. Rox,

    how fabulous! I would be very interested in finding out how you construct the accord, as natural perfumers don't have the shortcuts of synths. I deduce it varies with each artist, of course. I'm sure your fragrance will turn out wonderful.

  13. J,

    thank you honey. I guess I try to make useful reference articles, so that people can find info beyond one day's read. So glad it serves a purpose!

    I believe you will enjoy the second part on Lily, which will try to illustrate the nuances between the different kinds and do a comparison between them.

    Do you have a favourite LOTV scent?

  14. Thank you Datura! Sweet of you to say so.

  15. E: Diorissimo (of course!). I have stocked up on some vintage EdC, EdT, and parfum. The EdT smells a little funny up top, so it may be slightly bruised, but other than that it smells great.

  16. Oh good on you dear J!!
    I think the vintage parfum is the one which keeps best. I had some EDT which was a little bruised muself, the initial freshness was gone. The top notes are a little fragile in this one.

    I highly recommend Debut too! Give it a try if you haven't already (I think I have some someplace, would be my pleasure to send it to you if I manage to find it; or when I upgrade to a bottle)

  17. Hello E and thanks for such an informative article. I love the list and I was surprised to find one or two fragrances on there. Clair de Musc? I never would have guessed LotV as a note. Must resniff. In fact, I love it and someone has offered me a decant that I just need to pick up.

    I have not been a huge fan of fragrances with dominant LOtV notes. It is, however, a note that blends nicely in so many classic floral aldehydes. Revillon Detchema comes to mind. Most recently, I have been wearing Odalisque, so maybe I'm ready to move up to the soliflores. It is a stunner!

  18. Can anyone suggest any lily of the valley scents that skew masculine? I find many bring out a heavy jasmine, which I find undeniably feminine (and I'm a man who wears tuberose). I also associate masculine with "not sweet," but I'm willing to hear everyone out on their suggestions :-)

  19. Nubelia13:39

    Helg , thank you for the Lily of the Valley article, most enjoyable and one of my very favourites in perfumery. As you know I am also mad for lilies , I cannot wait for that installment.

  20. M,

    thank you honey for chimming in!Often when you get a sharp clean or soapy note in a given fragrance it's some lily-of-the-valley hiding in there ;-)
    Detchema!! Of course! How could I forget it, am adding it as we speak. You're absolutely right.
    And of course I agree on Odalisque.

  21. Billy,

    just saw your comment, sorry for the lateness in replying.
    I think the re-issued Insense by Givenchy, as well as the discontinued Helmut Lang can be worn without qualms. I also think you can give a shot to Le Muguet by Goutal: it's not jasmine-y to my nose.

  22. N,

    thanks for your sweet words. I find lily entrancing as well. Hopefully I will have part 2 uploaded by next week, so hoping to "see" you there.

  23. more etymology: both nutmeg and muguet originate in Late Latin muscade and Late Greek moskhos, in turn from Persian mushk, in turn from Sanskrit muska-s: musk. And the musky smell is what caused people to name the related musk-ox, muskrats, muscat grapes, as well as the nutmeg. The Sanskrit word means 'a testicle', since the gland of the deer it comes from was thought to resemble a scrotum. It is a diminutive of mus: a mouse and related to mouse and muscles as well (when you flex your muscles it looks like a little mouse under the skin). More than you ever wanted to know. But if muguet perfumes smell sexy, maybe it's that musk affinity.......

  24. It's actually fascinating Robin, thanks!

    I had included a couple of these on the Musk articles, but not everything, surely. And it's truly astounding to find muguet having the same root as musk!

  25. Ann at (coming soon) Indigo Perfumery12:09

    Thank you for such a well-researched presentation.
    I always learn so much!

    I began with Diorissimo years ago (before the regs). When I want to smell like spring and fresh and clean, I now go to Lily of the Valley by Floris. It never fails to get compliments.

  26. You're most welcome, Ann.
    LOTV is very spring-like and when done as superbly as in vintage Diorissimo it can also be quite romantic. I need to try the Floris. I remember I liked their night-scented stock (?)


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