At first glance, soliflores — fragrances replicating the scent of a single flower — might not seem worth much attention. Why spend money on something you can smell for real in the garden when there are so many interesting compositions out there? Where's the art in that?
Along the same lines, you might ask why photography or figurative painting are arts. After all, a photograph is just a two-dimensional picture of something real, even if it's staged. Every day we probably see people who are walking Diane Arbus photographs, and a hike in a national park yields scores of Ansel Adams images. Give me a wig and I'll show you Cindy Sherman. You've seen one circus freak or sunset and you've seen them all, right?
I used to think so. Not any more. First of all, photography requires craft and vision. A photographer has to choose an image that is meaningful, whether it's beautiful, thought-provoking, or just plain strange. The photographer also has to know how to capture that image, too — how to exaggerate or clarify or wipe away anything that takes away from the photographer's vision. The perfumer faces even more complex questions of craft when creating a soliflore. I'm no expert, but I do know that a perfumer can't just put roses in a cuisinart, add a shot of rubbing alcohol, and end up with Yves Saint Laurent Paris.
But beyond craft, each soliflore is a perfumer's vision, an interpretation of the scent of a flower. Here, like art, good soliflores bear the stamp of their creators, just as a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of an orchid is both a clear depiction of a flower and distinctly a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. Nahéma is the sort of lush, fruity rose you'd expect from Guerlain. Parfums de Nicolaï Mimosaïque shows mimosa as the airy, elegant, French scent you might anticipate (especially after smelling Parfums de Nicolai's iris-based Odalisque), while Caron Farnesiana, predictably, turns mimosa into a wonderful but heavier vanilla, heliotrope, and powdered milk scent.
From soliflores, we realize that a flower isn't just one smell but a whole range of smells. For instance, iris can be rooty (Hermès Hiris) or creamy and earthy (Le Labo Iris 39) or a captivating hybrid of the two (Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist). Compare the mud-laden rose of Frédéric Malle Une Rose to the wine-like rose of Annick Goutal Ce Soir ou Jamais to the Rosine line of fragrances that run the gamut of rose and you see that — apologies to Gertrude Stein — a rose is not a rose is not a rose. At least, not exactly the same rose.
I think for me that the greatest benefit of smelling a soliflore — or seeing a photograph or a portrait or a landscape painting, for that matter — is that it focuses my attention. I'm lucky to have roses, narcissus, osmanthus, and lilacs in my garden to smell when they bloom, and I appreciate them, but because perfume is for smelling I pay more sustained attention to the barely woody lilac scent of Patou Vacances, for instance, than I do to the flower. Now I smell the difference between my neighbor's sweet vanilla-white lilac and the sharper pale purple lilac in my yard. Similarly, lilies of the valley smell a little less innocent thanks to Christian Dior Diorissimo, and Annick Goutal Des Lys shows me the delicate side of a big, meaty lily.
I'll never give up my complicated old Diors, but I've come to appreciate a soliflore. What about you? What are some of your favorites?