Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Santa Maria Novella Gardenia: fragrance review

“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”
~Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Smelling the little known Gardenia by the Florentine pharmacy brand of Santa Maria Novella, thanks to the inquisitive generosity of a special reader, I am reminded not of cookies exactly, but of cachous, the French candies that are composed of minty, bitter elements (minus their licorice), and of another candy conflated, popular with elder ladies, those chalky rounds flavored with violet and aniseed but seemingly without much sugar. Gardenia, you see, has the rare ability to go for the effect of not one, but two candies at the same time, eschewing allusions to syrupy delights, as it goes about its business; more the ghost of candies past than real ones.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, detail from Visitation, at Capella Tornabuoni at Santa Maria Novella, Florence

But that's half the story. In Gardenia there's detectable camphor on top, a hint of mothballs, surely lent by either a small tuberose facet (close kin to natural gardenia, but its advantage is that contrary to gardenia it can be sufficiently extracted), or via organic chemistry.
The mushroom dampness that evolves in a potted gardenia plant surfaces too in the Santa Maria Novella perfume (much like it did in the since discontinued Velvet Gardenia in Tom Ford's Private Line of fragrances), the earthiness of the soil in which the stems grow, the greenery, the humid air of the tropics that is its natural habitat. The end result smells little of the total that makes a lifelike gardenia perfume (all the more so a soliflore, a fragrance imitating the scent of a single flower), highlighting in odd focus elements of the live gardenia, like a super-sized vision through a microscope, germs appearing like monsters of the abyss or engulfing other micro-organisms via tentacle-like arms and legs: the green, the undergrowth, the musty note, the camphor….they're there in giga size. It also adds elements that are unfamiliar to our perception of the gardenia plant, copious ionones, smelling like violets & wood, and anethole (the molecule recognizable in anise).

It feels green & mauve, not white. It's demure long dresses in dove grey rather than a silky top over a hugging the curves pencil skirt. It's unkempt chestnut hair in matted tresses rather than glossy waves licking bronzed shoulders. It's John Dowland's I saw my lady weep, not Manuel de Falla. It's melancholy with a dash of neglect and abandonment, rather than boiling passions. To me at least.

For a photo-realistic gardenia fragrance you need to access either the discontinued Yves Rocher Pur Desir de Gardenia (in which the effect is rendered via jasmolactones) or Estee Lauder's Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia (in which the latter floral effectively upstages the usually diva- esque former one). Santa Maria Novella's Gardenia is an atypical one, a "difficult" to get scent but quite interesting all the same, and probably better appreciated as an earthy, non sweet violet scent trampled in undergrowth than the waxy petaled white flower of the tropics that induces ultra-romantic reverie.
(For one such, read a different take by Jane Daly)


  1. Well you had my attention at the use of a quote from American Gods by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite books and a favorite author. I wish I understood the appeal of gardenia more, I admit they only really work on me when they are the cleaned up versions, but even then it can go wrong. Still I do enjoy it when a well loved note is taken down a different path than the usual.

  2. I love gardenia scents but I am troubled with this one. Does it smell like candies that are not too sweet? The camphor and mothball doesn't kill me but any ultra syrupy thing does. I don't like aniseed either. I am torn. I guess a sample order is in place to decipher this weird feeling I have now. Have you tried their Tuberose or Frangipani? I adore this flowers and now I am curious to know if SMN's renditions are true to the flowers' beauty or if they take a difficult path.

  3. Anonymous05:16

    I love the "photorealistic" Yves Rocher -- it feels rich yet light at the same time. A very happy blind buy, unfortunately discovered only after it was discontinued. Suspecting I wouldn't like the SMN very much and am curious as to how it compares to Andy Tauer's new gardenia.
    As for SMN the one I most want to sniff is Calycanthus which I think it what one of my no longer clearly labelled samples is -- it reminds me of Diorella from the 80s.

    -- Lindaloo

  4. I had not paid attention to it in SMN stores, influenced by LT-TS's (mostly correct) implication that "gardenia" in a perfume name implies no gardenia and no interest. But after your description I need to go and smell.

    And references to Diorella always get my attention, so Calicanthus too.

    My favorite, true to the name (though non necessarily hyperrealistic) gardenia is $$$ JAR Jardenia.


  5. Jen,

    glad it caught your attention. The quote is so perfect it seemed like a waste not to use it in this instance.

    This is nothing like a real gardenia (unless one supersizes particular elements in isolation), so it's best taken into the green violet frame of mind. Deceptive, eh?

  6. FTG,

    sorry for the delay. HOpe the sample order is successful.

    I haven't had great experience with SMN, but I do love their Calycanthus (excellent).
    This Gardenia is nothing like a gardenia, it's more like a mushroomy earthy violet. It's not sweet, which I seem to prefer. But given the aniseed aversion, maybe it's not 100% your thing.
    Keep me posted on your trials!

  7. Lindaloo,

    the YR is so perfect (and came so decently priced) that substituting with the much posher EL PCTG (that's a mouthful) seems like hubris. It's a mystery which one of the possibilities was the reason for the discontinuation; didn't seem like a non_IFRA_compliant. :-/

    Anyay….Calycanthus is wonderful and I love it dearly. In fact I'm looking into replenishing my empty bottle with a decently priced decant.

  8. M,

    I don't give much credence, as you know, to much that LT/TS said in that publication, because the snark and invested interests are palpable, yet their assertion that most of the gardenias do not smell like real gardenias is absolutely true. The truest as of this minute that can be smelled and is still in production is the Lauder Private Collection TG one. Go sniff! (if you haven't).

    The SMN one isn't a gardenia, but an earthy violet plus mushrooms and greenery. Very interesting, totally mismatched name, even though natural gardenias do have both camphor and mushroom facets (but they get lost into the sweet floralcy and that browning decaying note). I don't think you'd fall in love, but it's an interesting fragrance because of its oddity. Do try the Calycanthus because it's fascinating and very lovely indeed!!

    The JAR is a mess in my memory; precursory sniffings have resulted in distinct likes, but I can't remember exactly which; lightning bold? Probably.
    I need to re-jog my memory before pronouncing a statement.

  9. Miss Heliotrope02:28

    Interesting, if only bc I find that flower scents often forget/ignore that flowers do come from the soil & plants & so on - not from florists.

  10. MH,

    this is definitely NOT a florists' flower scent. Very green and earthy. ;-) (Just not gardenia, only segments of it plus violet)

  11. Anonymous16:05

    A beautiful description of S.M.Novella Gardenia. I wholeheartedly agree. You have such a gift for putting our thoughts into words.


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