“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)