Thursday, June 28, 2012

Perfumery Material: Heliotrope

Among the most popular and beloved notes in perfumes, heliotrope evokes images of goose down comfort, almondy yumminess, fluffiness and powdery goodness. A pliable note, despite its characteristic odor profile, it can twist slightly here or there. Coupled with violets and iris it gains on intensity reminiscent of retro talcum powder; embraced by bitter almond, vanilla or frangipani, it gains on a mouth-watering quality that is delectable, like a billowy dessert you can't resist. A high pitched and curiously deep, at the same time, smell, this fascinating butterfly-attracting plant is but the introduction to a delightful and ubiquitous perfumery material.

Arcane Connections

The name comes from the Greek words "Helios" (the sun) and "tropein" (turning), denoting the propensity for turning towards solar rays. Thus is explained the old English name "turnsole" (via the French "tournesol"). But apart from the plant and its delicious scent, it also refers to a purple-pink shade of color: the first use in that regard recorded in English comes from 1882.

Allied to puccoon, forget-me-not, and beggar's lice, the heliotrope comprises 100 kinds of varieties throughout the world's warmer zones. The fragrant garden heliotropes have sprung from two species only though: One is native to India, the other to Peru. The most usual heliotrope variety grown is heliotropium arborescens, like its name suggests resembling a small tree. Garden heliotrope has been a constant feature since at least the Victorian times, thanks to its delicious scent that oscillates between marzipan, vanilla, cherry pie and almond (hence its alternative name "cherry pie flower"). Indeed vanilla essential oil contains an amount of piperonal (heliotropin) in its composite, drawing the two close. It comes as no surprise that in mythology heliotrope is associated to the god Apollo, god of the sun and of the light. Hence the plant's connection to healing, prophetic dreams and exorcism. Apollo was the pre-eminent god of insight, bestowing his gift of prophecy to his acolytes and to the oracle of Delphi.

How Heliotrope Notes are Created in Perfumes 

Both maceration and enfleurage (enrobing blossoms in clarified fat and then treating the fat with volatile solvents in order to catch the pure essence of the flower) yield heliotrope essence from heliotrope peruvianum, but it is neither sufficient nor totally accurate. A Japanese study from 1995 identified some odoriferous components as major components in the flowers, such as benzaldehyde, anisaldehyde and benzyl acetate, but these notes do not comprise the scent of the flowers adequately. On the contrary 3,4-          methylenedioxybenzaldehyde (heliotropin) does smell like heliotrope flowers, to an adequate degree, although the ingredient is not actually found in the blossoms' scent profile!

Therefore in perfume formulae, heliotrope is routinely replicated with heliotropin. Also known as piperonal or oil of sassafras, heliotropin derives from sassafras indeed (Sassafras albidum) and has been in wide demand for perfume and soaps for decades, especially for reasons of cost. The odour profile is powdery, like vanilla meringue with a helping of almond. The characteristic comforting scent of heliotrope has been proven to induce feelings of relaxation and comfort, a pampering atmosphere that finds itself very suited to languorous oriental fragrances and delicious "gourmands" (i.e. fragrances that recall culinary desserts by their scent).

Teaching your Nose into Recognizing Heliotrope Notes

To get an education in heliotrope notes in perfumery one needs to look no further than classic Guerlain fragrances: From Guerlain's ultra rare Heliotrope extrait from 1890 to the ethereal Après L'Ondée (1908), which is mainly the pairing of warm heliotropin with cool and shy violets, and the troubling yet nostalgic L'heure Bleue (1912) ~which pairs the vanillic facet of heliotropin with anise on top, soft flowers in the heart (violet and carnation) and benzoin, iris and Tonka bean in the base to compliment the floral-oriental character~ Guerlain is the definitive house for heliotrope.

 It was therefore a fitting homage that perfumer Jean Claude Ellena was reinterpreting Après L'Ondée in a modern context when he created L'Eau d'Hiver for Editions des Parfums Frederic Malle. The aim was to create a light fragrance, inspired by the structuring of eau de cologne but creating an eau chaud (hot water) than cooling sensation of a classic cologne. In L'Eau d'Hiver heliotropin is almost reduced to its pure state for this purpose: fluffy, like a late afternoon cloud, salmon golden. Etro's Heliotrope is yummy, innocent and hazy, enveloping you in its comfort like a goose down duvet; it's no accident it's considered the finest representation of the note, coupled with white flowers for a light, floral, airy touch. Heliotrope Blanc by L.T Piver is charmingly more complex with a slightly naughtier note. Crown Perfumery also lists a Heliotrope amidst their wares, more restrained and balanced in its sweetness. Molinard makes a classic, simple Heliotrope in their line Les Senteurs, which highlights raw materials one by one.

 Several modern fragrances succumb to the charms of heliotrope, even when not featured in the name. In Kenzo Amour the heliotropin take is on the vanillic side, boosted by milky notes. In Love, Chloe we encounter the retro-smelling pairing of heliotropin and violet notes producing a powdery effect, reminiscent of makeup products. In Sicily by Dolce & Gabanna it provides the sweet anchoring of soapy aldehydes on top. In Lolita Lempicka eau de parfum heliotropin takes a anisic mantle and becomes a full-blown gourmand, while in the older Cacharel Loulou it's the comforting billowy background alongside tonka bean (with which it shares an almond and hay facet) and orris, producing a true floriental.

IFRA Concerns & Regulations

 Currently heliotropin is under reduced ratio of use in perfumery, according to IFRA regulations, because safrols in food have been proven to be carcinogenic and hepatotoxic. Therefore concerns about the inhaled and skin-absorbed quantity from scented products have resulted in a preventory measure, rationing heliotropin to much lower ratios than before. This may be why your favourite fragrance with heliotrope might start smelling less deep and almondy in the coming months or getting discontinued altogether (as happened with Jour de Fête already).

Fragrances containing prominent heliotrope notes

Ava Luxe Heliotrope
Avon Heliotrope
Barbara Bui Le Parfum
Boucheron Jaipur Homme
Bvlgari Omnia Amethyste
Cacharel Loulou
Caron Farnesiana
Chloe Love,Chloe
Crown Perfumery Heliotrope
D&G Feminine
Dolce & Gabanna Sicily
Etro Heliotrope
F.Malle L'Eau d'Hiver
Gucci Gucci Eau de Parfum (brown juice)
Guerlain Après L'Ondée
Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Angelique Lilas
Guerlain Heliotrope extrait
Guerlain L'Heure Bleue
Guerlain Quand Vient la Pluie
Herve Leger eau de parfum
Kenzo Amour
Kenzo Flower le Parfum (red bottle)
Lalique Le Parfum
L'Artisan Parfumeur Jour de Fête
Lorenzo Villoresi Teint de Neige
L.T.Piver Heliotrope
Lolita Lempicka Lolita Eau de Parfum
Maitre Parfumeur Gantier Secrete Datura
Miller Harris Fleur Orientale
Molinard Les Senteurs Heliotrope
Oscar de la Renta Esprit d'Oscar
Oscar de la Renta Volupté
Patricia de Nicolai Kiss me Tender
Paul & Joe Blanc (by perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena)
Philosophy Pure Grace
Santa Maria Novela Eliotropio
Serge Lutens Daim Blond
Serge Lutens Datura Noir
Trussardi Jeans for women

 heliotrope plant pic via factspage.blogspot.com, LHB bottle via guerlainhistoiredeparfums.wordpress.com


  1. And Nicolai's Kiss Me Tender, which is a beautiful almond-y heliotrope.

  2. What a great article! Love your blog !Thanks a lot for sharing , it is really useful to me!

  3. Yet another informative post that justifies that this is indeed a shrine for all perfume enthusiasts.

  4. Miss Heliotrope02:04


    Actually, I got my name from the governess in the old fashioned & lovely children's book The Little White Horse - older editions also have beautiful drawings...

    But several of these shall go on the ever-growing List.

  5. Mimi Gardenia05:27

    Elena- another great educational article ! Thank you.
    Golly, I am now worried about Heliotrope. How can some of those perfumes you listed survive without the necessary amounts of heliotrope in them ?
    L'eau d'Hiver , Farnesiana , even Tonka Imperiale ?
    Are we doomed or do the Powers That Be have a suitable alternative for heliotrope ?

    We will be left with hogwash by the time the IFRA are done .

  6. SS,

    good eye, yes! Even the automated Blogger widget referenced it as "might like" reads. Had forgotten it, will add it. Thanks!!

  7. Thank you Anne, you're sweet for saying so! :-)

  8. Nikos,

    glad to hear it's enjoyable. :-) Thanks!

  9. C,

    and it's a sweet name, isn't it!
    Do try some of them, they're very cuddly.

  10. Mimi,

    thank you for your kind words, you're welcome.

    I fear that adjustments are made and not always revealed. I do know that some of them are actually below the restriction level and thus can surpass. I find most difficulty with Apres L'Ondee which has already become more of an heliotrope than a violet (though I never pegged it as a predominantly violet scent anyway) in the recent batches, so what gives?
    L'Eau d'Hiver hasn't suffered last I checked. Farnesiana is definitely losing some of the heft, inevitable as it was so rich and concentrated... :-(
    I do think that there are some alternatives though, even though heliotropin had been a relatively cheap panacea for everything, so not all is lost. Courage!

  11. Being on vacation, I am missing many of your always wonderful and informative articles. I was not a fan of the note, but IFRA edicts have made me develop an inexplicable fondness. As Mimi was wondering, it is probably too late to stock up at decent prices.

    But at the next occasion, I must purchase the patently IFRA noncompliant JAR Jarling (I suspect Profvmvm Dolce acqva is also noncompliant, but the frag likely causes diabetes).


  12. M,

    thanks for catching up and hope you're having a wonderful vacation!

    It's wise to stock up on anything that takes your fancy, always. Things are so flexible all the time, it makes sense.

  13. I know you had this discussion ages ago, but I have no idea if you have every gotten your hands on Trussardi Jeans which is respectively basically a dupe of Jour de Fete except and this where I think shoes might be thrown at me, in my opinion better. Utterly gorgeous full of rain water, almonds, freesia, and iris. I consistently get compliments on it my ultimate serenity scent.

  14. jen,

    I think I have tried some Trussardi Jeans perfume in the past, but can 't for the life of me remember if it was the men's or the women's. I do recall I was favorably impressed, but didn't catch a sample (bad me!!). Now after this super endorsement I will definitely try to sample it in full. Perhaps it might even garner inclusion in a post (and have you cited as the inspiration!).


  15. Well did some research on the men's edition and I'm pretty positive that it must have been the women's that you tried because the men's edition does not get good reviews. Well it should be definitely easier to find in your neck of the woods. Please do add it to the heliotrope list.

  16. Jen,

    you must be correct. I remember it was casual sniffing at a friend's bathroom (she has many bottles and so my memory can be forgiven for not being 100% accurate on this).
    I have just added it to the list, thanks for the suggestion! And will find it for sniffage too. ;-)

  17. heliotrope strikes me as both innocent—baby powder—and dangerous for the bitter almond/cyanide association. I am getting more and more attuned to this note, and find it most pronounced in Habanita EdT by Molinard. Is it really hepatotoxic when applied to the skin? Really?

  18. J,

    but it's an interesting association because just how many of us have really smelled cyanide? We have all read about it in detective stories though and it has stuck. (same as with WWI gas which supposedly smelled of mustard). Isn't that fascinating if you think about how the mind works?

    Heliotrope is a wonderful thing, exactly because it's so pliable and soft: in Habanita it's the powdery halo that creates that mysterious flou around the other elements.

    I would suppose that dermal application would need stupendous amounts of material used to render any ill effects to the liver. Inhaling it is something else.

  19. Anonymous20:52

    I own a bunch of these fragrances and use them liberally on my neck and around my face. Is there a chance I could be damaging my liver? I can't find sufficient information about this anywhere. There's quite a difference between something being an allergen, and being a carcinogen! I'm disturbed.

  20. Anon,

    as I said above to other commenters, you can relax. Diadermal transition (i.e. traveling from outer skin to blood & tissue) should be so minimal as to not cause any alarm. Unless you drink your perfumes. :-D
    But I'm quite sure that's not the case.
    So relax and enjoy! Great choices. ;-)


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