Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Cruel Desires ~Cruel Gardenia by Guerlain: fragrance review

Leafing through Colette's book “Flowers and Fruit” I stumble upon this quote from “A Gardenia's Monologue”:
"That flower boasts of its heady scent [...]throwing the ignorant girl into a science I have taught her . . . and the round world reckons one more night of folly."
She then goes on to compare the heady aroma to orange blossoms and raw mushrooms, alluding to the flower's dirty underside that evokes the sweet, yet earthy decay that permeates its essence. I am wondering what she would have thought of Cruel Gardénia, the latest addition in the L’art et la Matière line by Guerlain. I had been postponing reviewing the fragrance immersed as I was in thought myself, dissecting it like an entomologist would do with a rare lepidopter for months.

Gardenias are elusive in that their heady sweetness cannot be accurately and abundantly extracted from the waxy petals. Therefore ingenious recreation should come to the play, trying to replicate the smell. Too often the compositions named "gardenia" smell anything but. Whether intentionally, like in Chanel’s paradigm ~which was actually inspired by a garden (therefore “garden-ia” and smelling of a mix of white flowers) and the decorative motif of the blossom popular in the 1920s~ or Goutal’s who driven by her dislike of gardenia despite advice that the US market asked for one went instead for rubbery tuberose in her Gardenia Passion, or unintentionally like by Floris, they pose their own enigma. Sometimes the experiment is quite successful in its photographic accuracy, such as in the budding Yves Rocher Pur désir de Gardenia or the creamy Lauder’s Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia, and other times in its tropical ambiance evoked such as in Kai.
Guerlain was faced with a dilemma: should they include a gardenia scent in their magnificent stable of exclusives? After all, gardenias with subtle clean musks backgrounds are supposedly very popular with American consumers and the fact that Cruel Gardénia in an unprecedented move launched first in the US and only some months later in Paris is quite telling in its own way. It seemed like hubris! Yet the result is exquisitely pretty and contradictory to its own name, being neither cruel, nor much gardenia-like. French wordplay on the expression l’art et la manière (=art and manner) produced fragrances that belie their baptism so far: the Rose wasn’t Barbare, Angélique was nowhere near Noire, Cuir Beluga was only imperceptibly leathery and only Bois d’Armenie was true to its name.

Perfumer Randa Hammami of Symrise worked along with art director Sylvaine Delancourt to ply damask rose, peach and neroli into this abstract gardenia accord, which is further enhanced by the popular rose-violet-orris combination that graces several powdery bestsellers of late such as Kenzo Flower or Guerlain’s own face powders in the Metéorites range and the accompanying limited edition scent. Indeed there is here the feel of an expensive makeup product along with a slightly metallic accord that rings melodiously throughout without ever being shrill. Examining the rose accord closer, I realize that it has none of the wine dregs or liqueur odor of many modern roses, such as Rose Barbare in the same line, or Stella Rose Absolute, which form the pillar of modern abstract roses in today’s perfumery.
In Cruel Gardénia this rose combination with orris is rendered powdery but not old-fashioned. It’s a beautiful white rose seen through a gossamer thin veil of fabric, its shape hazy although recognisable with a soapy latheriness that is very pleasant. There is none of the familiar dirtiness of ripe, aged cheese in the central stage, as there is no discernible gardenia in the way one is conditioned to expect it. The drydown of Cruel Gardénia has a mellow whisper of sandalwood and amber which garlands the innocent white musks lingering seductively for a long time and intensifying as time passes, reminiscent of other fragrances in the L’Art et la Matière line.

The overall intention was to render a skin veil (the "muscinade", a new Guerlain signature), a velvety soft aura that would put attention to the wearer instead of the fragrance’s profile itself. In that regard it is a departure from the classic French tradition of Guerlain and a wink to the American ideal of sensually “clean”, abstract musky florals such as Glow by J.Lopez, or contemporary clean “chypres” such as S.J Parker Lovely or Narciso Rodriguez for Her. This it does with conviction, pedigree and the air of cultured defiance to what is expected.
Cruel Gardénia is truly gorgeous, sensually feminine and ultimately a perfume that despite its lack of realistic depiction of a note or angular complexity will earn its wearer compliments on how sublime they naturally smell instead of how interestingly their perfume projects. A perfume to choose to seduce first and foremost one’s self. To quote Colette:
“a well-chosen perfume, linked to your moral person, to your physical charms, a perfume your friends love and recognize, one that surprises people you meet for the first time and that makes them dream”.
And for our readers, a small draw: a sample of Cruel Gardenia. Leave your name in the comments if you want to participate.

Notes: rose damascena, peach, neroli, ylang ylang, violet, sandalwood, vanilla, tonka bean, white musks

$220 for 80 ml bottle with detachable atomiser, available in Guerlain boutique in Paris, Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and Neiman Marcus in San Francisco.
Adding: One of our readers, Kim, mentions that the Toronto boutique in Canada also carries the line.

For another take on the perfumery standpoint of it, check out Octavian's entry on 1000fragrances.

Painting Desire by Pino, courtesy of progressiveart.com


  1. I think you've nailed it- the 'wink' to American hygienic animalics, so to speak.

    I think it is beautiful- but not very cruel, nor particularly gardenia.

    A lovely thing, much like your photo depiction- and very ladylike.

  2. Anonymous12:19

    I was so distracted during sniffa that I only took a brief sniff of this ( on someone else's arm ? )but I remember mumuring and purring when I did sniff...I would love a sample of this !

  3. Anonymous12:40

    As I live far away from Paris, NY and SF, I would like to participate in the draw. I have no experiences ever with gardenia perfumes (generally find many white flower perfumes much to sweet), but like very much the name of this one! :) And I like the rose-violet-orris comb.

  4. Dear I,

    thank you! I agree with you completely: no gardenia, no cruelty.
    It's very pretty to be sure and quite the lady as well. Unusual for a Guerlain, but a successful take.

  5. Carol,

    you had the right reaction!! Of course you're in the draw, good luck!

  6. Dear S,

    I have included you in the draw, so good luck!
    Be prepared that this is not much a gardenia scent despite the name, nor is it anything dark and sinister (again despite the name).
    It's nuzzlingly soft and feminine :-)

  7. Anonymous13:25

    ooh.. count me into the drawing! It's a little out of my budget though, so I hope I don't fall in love, haha. It sounds lovely, and I love the name.

  8. Dear Rachel,

    what can I wish you, then: that you'll hate it? LOL! It is quite lovely, alas...
    In any case, I am including you in the draw of course and hope you win so you satisfy your curiosity, for better or for worse :-)

  9. Oooh, include me in the draw. I'm always on the look out for a guerlain and a gardenia that actually work on me. And well this sounds so opposite of either of those, it probably will.

  10. Anonymous16:24

    i didn't realize it wasn't so focused on the idea of gardenia. still sounds lovely, even with its nod to american hygiene. i'd love to sniff it, so yes, please include me in your drawing. thanks! - minette

  11. Anonymous16:49

    Do please put me in for the draw. I've been dying to try this one!

  12. Jen,

    maybe your wish will be granted and you will find a Guerlain to love! (on that note I also rec Rose Barbare for a modern, young rose)

  13. Dear M,

    indeed going by the name might result in serious mistakes for consumers. Still, it's a very pretty, very elegant thing and worth sampling: you're in!

  14. Dear PQ, you're in the draw: good luck!

  15. Seconding Chaya here: this is definitely a scent geared to the American market (no harm in that at), almost more of a glorified skin cream fragrance than a full-blown perfume. I'm definitely leaning towards a dirtier gardenia, one that has the "mushroom" note (maybe the Tom Ford?). Seredipitously, I was just re-reading Colette's piece on gardenias last week-end. Orange blossom and raw mushroom: she nailed it. But she goes on to say that among the flowers that exhale their scent in the evening, gardenia must bow to tuberose, "fresh as the tip of a young breast"...

  16. Cruel Gardenia sounds fabulous! Please include me in the draw. :-)

  17. Dear Denyse,

    I think that was the intention all along: the fact that they launched in the US first had seemed scandalous to me, I recall. I had to ask a friend to procure some for me, so I could make up my mind, as I had mentioned on a discussion forum we attend. And yet it took me quite a while to decide on its message and properties.
    I find it very feminine, very sensual, but not gardenia0-like. For that I have other things.

    That book by Colette I mentioned is a decent enough translation. How wonderful that we have been both leafing through this amazing author (I have the Claudine books on re-rotation).

    I had mentioned this passage of hers while speaking of Lauder's PC Tuberose Gardenia:

    "She, the tuberose. She would set off on the sirocco wind, cross the road, force open my door with all her flowerly might and softly climb the stairs...a cloud of dreams burst forth and grows from a single, blossoming stem, an unthreatened peace"

    I absolutely love it! :-)

  18. Claudia, you're of course in!

  19. Anonymous02:43

    Thank you for a wonderful review - I agree that it is a lovely and light soap/powder scent although not sure if I want more than a decant. And I was able to pick out the metallic accord after reading your review (the newbie blushes!) - thank you for the excellent descriptions.

    By the way, staff at the Guerlain Boutique in Toronto say they carry the L'Arte et la Matiere and Les Parisienes and will ship within Canada.

  20. Anonymous05:08

    Hello, What a beautiful review of my latest love /obsession. Cruel Gardenia should indeed be renamed to Creamy Gardenia or Tuberose. i was instantly seduced by this new guerlain. Please include me in the draw ! I am worried that it's sillage is weak !

  21. You're very welcome Kim and if I helped in any regard, that's a bonus.
    Thank you for the info on the Canada availability: I will be adding it for the benefit of our Canadian readers. Good to know!

  22. Thank you very much Madelyn for your wonderful compliment.
    I don't know if I would go even that far as naming it creamy. Maybe soapy? Powdery? And I would probably dispense with the gardenia part as well.
    I can understand how you love it, it's very pretty :-)
    As to the sillage, it garnered two compliments on the same day, so I believe it was nicely perceptible even though I wasn't smelling it strongly.

    Yu're in the draw, of course!

  23. Anonymous06:30


    I would love to be included in the draw. But my question is this: what is the most accurate gardenia?



  24. I would think that would be a toss between the Lauder (creamy, smooth with a touch of tuberose), Rocher (green and budding) and Tom Ford, by all accounts (in the cheese direction).

  25. Anonymous06:39

    The cheese direction??


  26. You know...gardenia having an aroma deep within like aged cheese. You have to strain to catch it, really. Hope I'm not ruining it for you, A.

  27. Anonymous07:37

    Right, gotcha!


  28. Anonymous07:57

    Will you please enter me in the draw?
    Wow! That was a magnificent review and if Cruel Gardenia is half as magnificent I am sold ;)

  29. You're in, Aline.
    Thank you for your profuse compliments.

  30. Anonymous13:34

    I just hope that I can come to terms with it being non gardenia like. I wonder what Lutens would do with the gardenia theme.

  31. That's an eminently interesting question, you know!!

  32. Anonymous09:55

    Please, enter me in the drawing :)

  33. You're included of course, Elve :-)

  34. Hm, tried to leave a comment, but it disappeared! Trying again! Would love to be entered into the drawing, as I'm looking for a gardenia perfume for a friend who loves the scent of the flower. Cruel Gardenia probably isn't it, from your description, but it still sounds lovely, even if not "cruel" nor "gardenia."

    Perhaps the Lauder might do -- even though I've read the scent is a bit of a creamy, sunny beauty lacking the mournful, 'noir' notes my friend often enjoys, it still sounds fantastic!

  35. Please count me in as well. I hope I'm not too late :-)

  36. Lovely review!! Please include me in the draw 'cause I've been dreaming about this Guerlain for a long time.

  37. I have now tested Cruel Gardenia too, it smells quite lovely, but unfortunately a bit fleeting on my skin :-(.

    Btw, have you got the package yet?

  38. The draw has now been closed, but I saw there are some answers I have to give, so here they are.


    Sorry about the comment disappearing. Blogger does that from time to time :(
    The Lauder is wonderfully realistic, so I have hopes for you.


    no, you weren't too late, but out of luck this time. But always welcome to participate in the next one and win! :-)


    thank you for your kind words! When I get some more of it myself, it would be a pleasure to send a sample gratis to someone who has been dreaming about it :-)


    It is a bit light in the lasting department although it projects quite well for something so delicate.
    No, not yet, but mailed you.

  39. Milla19:26

    A-a-a, I'm afraid it's too late... for the draw. But, thank you for the review - it's great to find a person who describes a perfum the way you would but couldn't..Love this Cruel G, and really wanted to win some :))

  40. Milla,
    just saw this after a long time, sorry about missing the draw.
    Thanks for commenting though and you're welcome!

  41. Hi, I hope you will include me to sample this. I am fan of gardenia but haven't found the right perfume yet. I remember a gardenia scent my mother wore but have never found it.

  42. Your description is so evocative i might be imagination-smelling it now! Please enter me in the drawing.

    Carol B


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