Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chanel Gardenia vintage vs. modern Les Exclusifs Gardenia: fragrance review & history

The original Gardénia, issued by Chanel in 1925 and composed by legendary perfumer Ernest Beaux who created all the early opi/opera of Chanel, was built on a fashion premise: The deco motifs of the 1920s exalted the almost cubist arrangement of flower petals, resulting in designs which were transported into impressive jewellery. Gardénia was not conceived as, nor was it meant to be, a gardenia soliflore, although the heavy-smelling blossom was picked thanks to its optical resemblance to Mademoiselle Chanel's favourite flower: the camelia, which doesn't hold a scent. The name in reality derives from the English word "garden" (it's jardin in French): a popular reference of the times, especially if we recall the Shalimar story and the gardens of Lahore that made the imagination run wild. That was then.

But gardenia fragrances in particular re-entered the consciousness of the public with a vengeance in the next decade, the 1930s, in a different manner. This was a time of financial difficulties and a more conservative cultural milieu, when every company was launching or re-issuing their own gardenia fragrance; advertising them as a return to neo-romanticism, the gardenia boutonnières of Edwardian dandies and the gardens in the South of France which provided welcome escapism. Indeed an American advertisement for Chanel Gardénia mentions how it's meant to evoke romantic gardens at the Riviera and tags it as a youthful fragrance. [Chanel is no stranger to capitalizing on advertising to promote specific perceptions of their products, as it famously did with No.5.]
It was 1936 after all when the hit song "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" by Eric Maschwitz & Jack Starchey included the infamous lyric "gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow"...alongside "an airplane ticket to romantic places". Is it any wonder that in the economically "tough" decade of the 1970s Brian Ferry & Roxy Music chose to bring this song back doing their own cover on it (1973)? Chanel would eventually bring their Gardénia back from the dead too; but almost two decades later. And as recently as the end of the 2000s yet again, this time in their boutique line Les Exclusifs where's it's still available.

Olfactorily, the two versions cannot be any more different, providing a valuable history lesson for any inquisitive perfume lover:

The vintage Chanel Gardénia was composed on a narcissus base with a green accent of styrallyl acetate; a freshly green note, naturally present in budding gardenias and a very popular inclusion in many classic floral chypres: It provides the gardenia greeness in the heart which compliments the mossiness of the background, from Miss Dior to Ma Griffe. The trick of composing a "gardenia chord" instead of using an extract from nature was necessitated by technical complications: No essence could be rendered (till very, very recently in fact and then only in some extremely limited distribution niche fragrances). The gardenia in the hands of Chanel is oscillating between green and creamy, as it's allied to other white florals with a powdery veil.
The top note of the vintage Gardénia however is surprising in that it's built on a violet accent, composed through octin and heptin methyl carbonate. The progression from the sweeter violet to the feminine floral harmony in the heart, featuring natural jasmine, makes for a rounder experience with woodier base notes recalling those in Chanel's own Bois des Îles or even Coty's Imprevu, with a spicy whiff of vetiver lingering.
The vintage came in extrait de parfum (a very round and feminine smell) and later Eau de Toilette in the standard square bottles with the round black screw-on cap. Opening one, made me realise how different the perceptions of a floral were in those eras back contrasted with today: Although I can feel the delicate rendering of petals, there is no immediate "department-store atmosphere" of a hundred florals sprayed simultaneously into the air. Drop by drop, it's silky and polished, like a strand of patina rose pearls in slightly differing diameter.

The original version of Gardenia circulated well into the 1950s, but it disappeared at some point when other Chanel fragrances such as No.19 and Cristalle entered the scene. Sometimes the labels did not have the French accent aigu for the American market.
An effort was made to bring it back alongside the more faithfully rendered classics Cuir de Russie and Bois des Iles in the Chanel "Rue Cambon" exclusive boutique circuit at the cusp of the 1990s: Regrettably, it was the least resistant link in the chain, accounting for a rather destitute white floral. The bottle in extrait was rectangular with a white label like standard Chanel extraits (depicted) and the colour of the juice a light yellow. There was also a limited edition Eau de Toilette in a rectangular bottle edged in gold, with white label and white cap in the 1990s (shown on the right).

The modern version of Gardénia as part of Chanel Les Exclusifs more upscale line, reworked by Jacques Polge, conforms to the latest regulations and changing tastes. Thus it is comparatively much thinner, stretched to its limit, based on a standard white floral chord with fresh & green jasmine/hedione, "clean" orange blossom cologne-ish notes and just a smidgen of tuberose (and absolutely no gardenia whatsoever). A delicate vanilla base is the only other detectable note, very light and soft without much sweetness. The fragrance's popularity and reception is no doubt accounted by its transparent and easy demeanor which lends itself easily to any wearer. There is a young, ice-princess vibe about it, rather classy in its sex-denying way.

It leaves something to be desired in fulfilling a powerful romantic imagery and rather much in providing an avant-garde entry in the field of white florals (which it could have tried if it wanted to); but its wearability provides options for casual & office wearing, which is more than can be said for some of the more sumptuous and demanding vintages. Among Les Exclusifs, in Eau de Toilette concentration with an even paler colour of juice than before, Gardénia is also one of the most fleeting, making for a brief experience that needs to be constantly renewed.

Notes for Chanel Gardénia: jasmine, gardenia, orange blossom, tuberose, clove, sage, pimento, musk, patchouli, sandalwood and vetiver.

Ella Fitzerald sings These Foolish Things

And Brian Ferry reprises it in his own innimitable style in a rare 1974 video.

pic of vintage parfum via Ebay & stock bottle photos. Pearl necklace & gardenia extrait bottle via the Romantic Query Letter.


  1. Anonymous15:15

    Wonderful review! I enjoyed reading about the history of Gardenia. I only know the EdT in the square bottle from the 1990ies and the current Exclusifs member. I wish I could smell the vintage. You made it come alive for me for a moment, thank you! :)

  2. I have a huge bottle of the Exclusifs and have not smelled any of the vintage Gardenia. The Exclusifs Gardenia seems a little bit weak. I don't like weak perfumes. I do love gardenia in perfume, but this is not exactly a go to perfume to me. I can't seem jasmine in it and it's another note I love to. Are there any good perfumes that have gardenia or jasmine?

  3. Fiordiligi16:51

    Lovely post! I had a bottle of the extrait in the late 80s and remember it as being very lovely but I haven't tried the latest version in Les Exclusifs.

    I adore Bryan Ferry's rendition of These Foolish Things. Thank you.

  4. O,

    thank you so much for stopping by to say so! Very touching to hear it resonated with you.
    The 90s stuff is better than the current for some reason, so not all is lost in your case, but the vintage extrait in particular is smoother and more substantial. It's worth perservering if anyone has some to split/share (wish I still did to send you some!)

  5. Eld,

    glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks the current is weak. I really can't smell it after half an hour and this rarely happens with me and perfumes! I mean, what the hell? Why is this happening? The other Exclusifs (even the lighter ones) have good tenacity.

    Good realistic gardenias:
    The best gree/cleaner/budding gardenia is EL Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia. The best ripe/wilting/browning gardenia is Tom Ford Velvet Gardenia.

    Good realistic jasmines:
    The best indoli, lush, sweet jasmine is A La Nuit by Lutens. The best greener, white floral jasmine is Jardin Blanc by MPG.

    Take your pick! ;-)

  6. D,

    oh groovy, I thought you might love the Brian Ferry version (it's so cool!)

    Thanks for the kind words. You know Gardenia in its better form. I suggest you skip the LEx. version, it's very thin. I find CdR and BdI also kinda thin in the EDT version in LEx. (vastly prefer the extrait), which is an utter pity, but nothing like the Gardenia...

  7. See, it always pays to read the comments, too. Thanks for the glimpse of Gardenia...and the gardenia/jasmine perfume recommendations.

    I do believe I would like a certain (vintage) foolish something. :)

  8. Nice article. :-)

    I was puzzled by the word 'opi' for a moment; then I realised what you meant. The plural of 'opus' is not 'opi', it's 'opera' - and, yes, that's why we use it the way we do. I would stick to the English plural 'opuses'.

    Oh, and Jacques is spelt with a 'c'.

    Verification word is 'togratol': sounds like a perfume ingredient. LOL!

  9. S,

    there are several interesting tidbits in the comments, I find. My readers provide the bulk of the interesting info, though!

    Vintage foolish somethings are the best :-)

  10. B/J,

    thanks! :D

    "Opi" I am using because of my musical training. I guess if perfumery is like music (focusing on notes, accords, chords and sonatas, symphonies etc.), we might resort to using opi as the plural of "opus". Can't bring myself to say opuses, that completely anal of me?

    Jacques is a typo. Of course I should edit it; looks like I have two tags two, one correct, one with a typo. Argh...

    "Togratol" is the newest ingredient meant to capture the effluvium of a dirty, sticky tongue first thing in the morning before anyone brushes their teeth or takes a leak even. It's all the rage at the laboratories in Paris right now by all the star perfumers working on super-secretive projects!


  11. There, fixed it. (and put both terms on the first paragraph)

    Again, thanks! Hope you're well and not too cold. It's so sunny here, although only 14C.

  12. Thanks for this, E. I recently swapped for a decant of vintage Gardenia EDT. The swapper was unsure she had the real thing because the label was printed with a different version of the type than that Chanel uses now, but I've seen that font on some very old bottles so suspect it is very old and good. It has a strong white lily note to my nose, and I'd swear there is some soft vanilla in there too. Sound right?

  13. P.S. Aren't those ginormous screwtop bottles fabulous? Am lucky enough to have one of No. 19.

  14. Alyssa,

    you're welcome! How are you? :-)

    Yeah, there are so many versions of Chanel due to the different markets (european vs.US) and the different eras and we have all heard SO much aqbout the fake Chanels that most are more wary than they should. I believe that since the typeface and label is correct, you've got a good deal. Having a seller who is honest about not being sure when she's not is always a good sign.
    As to notes, can't say I detect lily per se, but there is spiciness, an effect from the base notes.

  15. BTW, I have the No.19 in that bottle as well! It's glorious!

  16. There really is no such word as 'opi': the Latin plural of 'opus, operis, n' is 'opera'. Most people use 'opuses' in English b/c using the Latin plural would make them sound pretentious. 'Opi' is an aberration, probably created by someone who only had vague notions of Latin and who thought all words ending in 'us' had their plural in 'i'.

    I had no idea that some musicians used 'opi' (apparently, as I've just read on Wiktionary, in informal contexts) but why would you use that form in the context of perfume anyway?

    I may not have much Greek, but Latin was my best subject and I did nine years of it (from the age of ten) so...

  17. Thank you for posting the videos. Ella's voice is so smooth! wow!

  18. Fascinating post, great cultural history! Am I the only one who doesn't find Gardenia green (nor clean, god forbid!) in the least little bit??? The new Chanel sounds awful to me! Can't wait to try it :) Xxx

  19. Awesome post! Oh and the Bryan Ferry video is pretty great too!

  20. Bela,

    naturally no one is disputing your superiority in Latin. :-)
    It's just that perfume IS indeed often associated and referenced in tandem with music. I think it's intentional on the industry's part, so they can't be offended.

    It's nice to hear from you, hope you're very well and had a great weekend!

  21. Dixie,

    Ella is an angel come down on earth in my books :-)

  22. Wendy,

    glad it's struck a chord with you.
    You're the lucky owner of the vintage, eh? That one is much smoother and polished, the new is so thin! I do find it cleaner/greener than some other gardenias (like that skanky TF one, which is so realistically browning on the lapel of a courtesan)
    Love your shoe avatar!!

  23. Jamie,

    thank you for stopping by and saying so.
    Yeah, that Bryan fellow is might fine, isn't he? Love his version as well.

  24. Thanks for the recommendations on the perfumes. Tom Ford's perfume looks like it has been discontinued. Looks like I am off to look for a decant and start getting those!

  25. Eld,

    Murphy's Law in action: as soon as something is hailed as successful artistically, it's dropped like a hot potato.
    They say it's always's been in the cards for some TF scents to be cut off for others to take their place, but I don't particularly "buy" that. Anyway...decants are available.

  26. PSA to all: the vintage dauber bottle of Gardenia listed by ebay seller 52855285randall is "by" polkadotpatty aka Marks Carlton Lane. If you look up my profile on mua there's a pic of it *empty*, when it was initially sold, a few mos. ago.

  27. Thanks Noisome! I think I have mentioned your pics on MUA on another article of mine on how to spot fakes: you do a great service!

    Ewwww, his bottle looks gross!!!

  28. Anonymous13:17

    After years of being sickened by most scents - I'd buy them and have to give them away because of allergies, I bought the large bottle of Gardenia. For me, it was outrageously expensive. While I can wear it, I have yet to have received even one compliment and I have had it for about three years! I seem lately
    to better tolerate fragrances and am on the look-out for a signature scent with more substance.

  29. Anonymous23:41

    I have an unopened full bottle of vintage chanel gardenia from 1925/26. It is priceless. Looking for a collector

  30. Thank you for your article on Chanel's Gardenia.It is the most helpful one I have found. I bought many years ago a very old bottle of the extract in an antique dealer's shop.This is pure perfection (for me).Having very little left,I just bought on ebay a restangular bottle of the limited edition, hoping it is close to Beaux's original I really dislike the clear formula currently part of the 'Eclusifs'.

  31. I am the proud possessor of a 3/4 full bottle of the first Gardenia Parfum. The crystal stopper is stuck therefore the fragrance never evaporated!! It is included in an exquisite and very old and rare box containing four Chanel parfums...Gardenia, Cuir de Ruissie, No.5 and Bois des Isles. I love to just sit and sniff each one separately and drift away to those lovely exciting days when these fragrances were being worn by alluring women everywhere.


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