Ah, June, the wedding month. In my own adolescent wedding dreams, I’d be walking down the aisle with garlands of orange blossoms in my hair. That tradition has gone the way of innocence, at least in the U.S. -- it took me awhile to even find a photo of a bridal bouquet that looks as if there might be some in there -- but the symbolism is intact, if not exactly accurate. Innocence, chastity, eternal love, marriage and fruitfulness. (Especially fruitfulness, as the orange tree often blooms with last year’s ripe oranges still on the branches.) But there is little innocence about orange trees, or their pretty white flowers.
If you’ve ever walked through an orange grove in bloom, you’ll know that there is nothing light or girlish about this scent. It’s heavy, intoxicating, even indolic. It speaks to the dark corners, and this is the aspect of it that the three perfumes I chose address.
But first a little background; as with so much, the orange tree associated with these flowers, citrus sinesis, originated in the far east -- China, apparently. Cultivation of orange trees spread through India, the Near East, then to Spain with the Moors, the North African tribes that ruled that peninsula for about eight hundred years. Seville, one of their most beautiful cities, is still known for the scent of orange blossom. The courtyards of the Moorish mosques in Andalusia are thick with orange trees.
Christopher Columbus brought saplings to the Caribbean, and they flourished in Cuba. Spanish missionaries took them to California, and it was the irrigation needed to cultivate them that provided motivation for the land-grab scheme featured in the modern film noir classic “Chinatown.” Even in the Seventies, there were still orange groves in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, which, if not for that brutal diverting of water needed to grow them, would still be desert.
Of the fine perfumes based on orange blossom, I chose three: Le Labo’s “Fleur d’Oranger 27,” L’Artisan’s “Fleur d’Oranger” and Serge Lutens’ “Fleur d’Oranger.”
All of these use the orange blossom flower as a mere starting point. Of the three, Le Labo’s smells the simplest, the most linear, to me. They use a steam-extracted absolute of the real flower, according to press; on paper, the opening seems to have a slight mintiness, then a fleeting note of well-used sneaker, but not on skin. On my skin, it’s pleasant, with a nice slug of bergamot, but it doesn’t knock my, er, socks off; it rises to a plateau, and stays there. As with all Le Labo scents, the number refers to the number of ingredients, in this case 27; the perfumer is Francoise Caron, who also did Hermes summer standard “Eau d’Orange Verte.”
The Gold Standard of orange blossom fragrances seems to be L’Artisan’s. This perfume has been produced in two “vintages,” 2005 and 2007, and I suppose a perfume connoisseur, which I am not, yet, would be able to tell them apart; whatever those differences, it is a gorgeous fragrance. It has breathtaking breadth and depth. It opens with a tiny shriek, but then blooms into the citrusy orange with lots of greens -- the company says that all parts of the best Tunisian trees were used. It’s a little edgy, a little pushy, and stays on its feet the whole time -- and, considering the price, it had better. The later stages contain a note of honey. It’s the sweet orange tree distilled, the whole experience of it, including the bees buzzing around it. The perfumer, Anne Flipo, also created L’Artisan’s “La Chasse aux Papillions.”
Finally we get to Serge Lutens' take on the orange blossom. I own this one, albeit in large-decant form, and I wear it when I want to make an impression. This is the Big Mack Daddy of orange blossom perfumes, meaty, nearly hammy, not quite clean, almost attaining armpit territory (but not quite). It starts out sweetly orange, and then the cumin sneaks in -- funny, until I smelled the others, I didn’t realize there was cumin in here -- and then the party gets really interesting, with Tuberose and Jasmine cat-fighting in the courtyard, Rose, with a hibiscus in her hair, knocking back a shot of something with a little nutmeg in it and, well, it’s like "The Women” (the George Cukor version, not the remake, mind you) in a bottle. The perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, is one of the modern top-tier; his other creations include most of the Lutens line, and Chanel’s Sycomore and Coromandel.
If I was a blushing bride, which I most definitely am not, I would choose the L’Artisan for myself, but I’d give my bridesmaids generous samples of the Serge Lutens to wear at the reception, just before turning them loose upon the groomsmen. That seems somehow in keeping with the true nature of this sweet and delicate flower.
photo of bride (hey how about than manicure?) used under license from Dreamstime.com.