Once upon a time, I hated the scent of violets. Not because of the actual smell, but more because of the way it made me feel. As soon as the scent hit me, melancholy wistfulness would come rushing up to the surface like an unstoppable tide. It was my opinion at the time that perfumes should evoke sensuality and luxury or replicate something in the natural world. I resented the rush of emotion triggered by simple wildflower’s scent when more favored flowers such as Rose and Jasmine couldn’t seem to evoke anything close to that intensity, no matter how much I admired and enjoyed them.
My understanding of fragrance’s effect on emotion has changed since then, despited my initial resistance, and I now deeply value perfume’s ability to comfort, vitalize, inspire, bemuse, and so readily shift the mood the wearer. Being somewhat inclined to melancholy myself, I’m now much less resistant to the nostalgia and darker feelings certain scents can trigger in me. With this change came a dramatic shift in my feeling about Violet, going from one of my most hated notes, to one of my absolute favorites, alongside Oakmoss, Orange Blossom, Tuberose, Rose, and Labdanum. For a while, Violet became an obsession, and every perfume had to contain at least a little Violet in it, and even now my shampoo is Violet scented, my soap is Violet scented, and yes, many of my favorite fragrances contain the note. Hell, even my little silver colored kitten is named Pearl Violetta!
The scent of Violet seems to most often inspire feelings of melancholy, wistfulness, otherworldliness, nostalgia, and sometimes outright tears. And of course, Violet also has an association with death. For example, in England, it was long believed that Violets blooming in autumn were an omen of death for whoever had the land that the plants were growing on.
European folklore and literature is rich with references to this wildflower. A kind of Violet, love-in-idleness, was used by Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by squeezing the juice of the plant into Titania’s eye so that she would fall in love with the ass-headed Bottom when she woke. In the British Isles, there is still a belief that picking Pansies during good weather will cause it to rain.
Violets for beauty and perfumery is nothing new, and the ancient Britons specifically steeped violets in goat’s milk to apply to the skin to increase the beauty of the complexion and Violet often appears as a symbol of beauty in Irish mythology. There is also the tradition of adding Violet scent to cosmetics, perhaps especially lipstick and powder, leading to the common perception of some powdery Violet fragrances smelling like makeup and some perfumers playing off of this by purposely creating scents that smell like expensive vintage makeup.
So we see that the current associations of Violet with rain, sadness, death, and beauty have longstanding roots in both story and superstition. My preferred violet fragrances tend to be of the melancholy and dark sort, the ones that remind me of cold dew in a lost woodland or of the scent of tears falling. Even Guerlain’s Insolence edp, with all of its pretended brashness and coy looks, is at its heart a sad and dreamy perfume with the power to pull its wearer from the brightly lit ballroom right back into some strange primeval woodland in old Europe where Sweet Violets bloom in the dark shadows of autumn, portending death and invoking a cold rain on the forest’s mossy floor.
When reading about Violet perfumes the differences between the leaf and the flower, but the scents of the two are quite different. The leaf tends of have an intensely green, crisp, and slightly peppery scent, and can even tend toward leather in certain situations. It’s frequently used in classic fougeres and green chypres to impart a lush grass-like note.
More about this important perfume component can be found on the highly recommended Perfume Shrine website http://perfumeshrine.blogspot.com/2011/02/perfumery-materials-violet-violet-leaf.html
Not all violet flowers are fragrant, and many species native to North America only have a faint green smell rather than the strong sweet aroma we associate with violet perfumes. The most commonly known fragrant violet is probably Viola odorata, well known in Europe, and now considered a weed in many parts of the United States.
Violet flowers are not distilled or otherwise used to extract the scent of violet blooms these days, but instead the ionones they contain are synthesized to replicate their scent. In natural fragrances, ionones may be extracted from other plants such as cassis into a natural isolate and used in that form to impart a violet scent to a perfume. Additionally, fragrant violet flowers can be tinctured in alcohol to capture some amount of their smell, and enfleurage can also extract the scent into absorbent fat. Neither of these latter methods are efficient for the perfume industry and are thus very rarely used at this point in time.
Looking at a modern perfume box or label one can generally ascertain the presence of violet or iris note by looking for alpha-isoethyl-ionone amongst the listed ingredients, along with any other ionones. This includes many perfumes that do not list violets (or even iris) as a note, including Parfumerie Generale’s Bois de Copaiba and Rochas Tocade and Femme.
Conversely, I have noticed that since violet as an aroma has fallen out of popular fashion many people cannot actually place the scent when smelled, and additionally, several well known perfumes with violets in the name or notes do not actually smell of violet flowers, but rather of the leaf or some other vaguely purple floral note.
For some reason, ionones have always stood out to me strongly in perfumes, and for a good long while I actually avoided anything that had THAT NOTE even if I didn’t yet know what it was. Despite the cliche of the shrinking Violet, and the way Violets are often subdued or placed in the background in many modern fragrances, I find their scent remarkable and worthy of study and regard. Which is exactly why I’m beginning this series on Violet perfumes, were I’ll be looking at more than a dozen of my favorites, covering the range from delicate, quiet Violets to lush, opulent Violet orientals that take the note to a sensual crescendo few expect from such a small flower.
More about violet flowers in perfumery can be found again at