Muguet Porcelaine is the 13th Hermessence fragrance by French luxury brand Hermes. The fragrance’s theme is lily of the valley or Convallaria majalis, a spring flower that perfumers have called “the mute flower” because it evades scientist’s every attempt to extract fragrance from its delicate bell-shaped petals. This also makes lily of the valley one of the most intriguing floral notes in perfumery because its presence is always based on the perfumer’s interpretation through his or her accord, rather than it being taken directly from nature in the way rose or jasmine extracts are produced by steam distillation and solvent extraction.
Muguet Porcelaine is the work of Jean-Claude Ellena. It has been over a decade since he joined Hermes in the exclusive role of in-house perfumer. Under his care the house has further cemented its reputation for being a luxury brand that takes fragrance seriously. Ellena’s work has added to Hermes’ already illustrious history alongside classics such as Edmond Roudnitska’s Eau d’Hermes (1951), Guy Robert’s Caleche (1961) and Francoise Caron’s Eau d’Orange Verte (1979). Jean-Claude Ellena’s most personal contribution to Hermes is his Hermessence collection, which is sold exclusively in selected Hermes boutiques. From the collection’s inception to this latest release, it is, in my opinion, one of the best fragrance collections by a luxury brand, which exemplifies quality, creativity and beauty.
Changes at Hermes H.Q make Muguet Porcelaine an even more significant launch as it is Ellena’s last creation as the brand’s in-house perfumer. After an extended hand-over period, perfumer Christine Nagel officially took over in January as Perfumer – Creative Director, although Hermes says Jean-Claude Ellena “maintains close links with the House and still acts as Adviser to senior management at Hermès Parfums.” Ellena chose a fitting theme to close this chapter in his career. Legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska is one of Ellena’s idols and many of Ellena’s significant creations use specific notes or accords to pay homage to the mid-20th century perfumer. Lily of the valley was also an important theme for Roudnitska and Muguet Porcelaine shares some elements in common with Roudnitska’s Diorissimo. Typical of Ellena, it is not a carbon copy but the perfumer has redressed the theme in modernity and he presents it in his own unique style.
Looking back at fragrances of the past gives me better appreciation and a richer experience of the fragrances of today. The Musee International de la Parfumerie in Grasse offers an excellent account of how the lily of the valley note evolved over the past century as scientists discovered new lily of the valley odours and perfumers created new bases to represent the flower in their compositions. Visitors to the museum can smell this series of milestones. The first milestone is Formule Muguet Triple created in Grasse in 1900. This base is a blend of natural floral extracts, infusions and lavages. Then in 1916, Givaudan perfumer Marius Reboul created a new lily of the valley base called Muguet 16. He used newly discovered synthetic molecules in his composition, in particular, hydroxycitronellal, a molecule that didn’t exist in nature however its scent has a close resemblance to lily of the valley flowers. Going forward, hydroxycitronellal became a key ingredient in all lily of the valley accords. Henri Robert created Coty’s stunning Muguet des Bois in 1942. Twelve years later the perfumer created a lily of the valley base for Delaire called Mayciane. Unlike the dewy freshness of Muguet 16, Mayciane incorporated jasmine notes of benzyl acetate and indol. It became an important base used in many classic fragrances of Robert’s era. Then in 1970, I.F.F, who were on a roll and dominating the American fragrance market with creations such as Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew and Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir, created Longchamp Lily of the Valley. This new base was the work of perfumer Bernard Chant who revamped the floral aspect of lily of the valley by incorporating carbinyl notes. Perfumers were later offered Lilial (Givaudan) and Lyral (I.F.F), two important molecules used to create modern lily of the valley accords. Advances in chemistry continue and this year Firmenich launched a new lily of the valley molecule called Lilyflore.
Even though new fragrant molecules continue to be discovered, the evolution of the lily of the valley note is, perhaps, driven more by the fragrance industry’s self-regulations on what can and can’t be used in fragrance formulas instead of being driven by new ingredients. Under IFRA’s code of practice, perfumers are now restricted by the maximum amount of hydroxycitronellal, Lilial and Lyral they can use in their formula. This has caused many of the classic 20th century fragrances that contain a dominant lily of the valley theme, Diorissimo included, to be reformulated to comply with IFRA’s code of practice regarding potential (skin) sensitisation. Although evolving regulations have had an impact on classic fragrances of the past, the silver lining to this situation is that perfumers are challenged to find new and innovative ways to express classic notes and accords that have been used by perfumers over the past century. Muguet Porcelaine is a good example of how this can be done successfully.
Chandler Burr, Curator of Olfactory Arts at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design once described Jean-Claude Ellena’s work as “maximal minimalism.” Burr’s description really captures Ellena’s style and Muguet Porcelaine demonstrates his point perfectly. According to Fragrances of the World, the notes in the fragrance are simply bamboo, lily of the valley and leather. Within this olfactory haiku, a poetic analogy Hermes have used to describe Ellena’s Hermessence collection, these three lines are packed with detail. The bamboo note is transparent green with a cool watery quality that mirrors the cool wet note that is integral to the flower. Ellena’s lily of the valley accord is perfectly balanced with nuances of jasmine, rose and linden blossom. The overall note runs the length of the fragrance from the diaphanous top notes all the way to the base of the fragrance. Within the flower there is an ambiguous melon note that scent-shifts between watermelon, rockmelon and cucumber. From here the fragrance simply hovers, like time standing still. The composition is short and succinct as are most of Ellena’s recent works. Further down towards the base, Muguet Porcelaine dries and the flower becomes like finely powdered white chalk. I struggle to find the leather note, at most, I perceive a light transparent musk note that holds the flower to skin, making it more human. Within 30 minutes the fragrance is a soft whisper.
The lily of the valley note is almost exclusively feminine. Although many men’s fragrances contain molecules like Lilial and Lyral, it is rare to find a complete lily of the valley accord headlining in men’s fragrance. The flower’s scent is soft, delicate and curvy so naturally the fragrance industry has assigned it a female gender. With this in mind, Muguet Porcelaine would have a niche male audience; probably men with an interest in fragrance and fragrance history or fans of Jean-Claude Ellena, of which there are many. There is something nostalgic about the fragrance. On a practical level, this water coloured flower is perfect for wearing on a warm spring or summer day relaxing by the ocean. The salt air and the fragrance’s floral-melon note contrast beautifully. The attraction is similar to that of Italians who enjoy the culinary contrast of salty prosciutto and refreshing rockmelon. Guerlain is another perfume house with a lily of the valley tradition. Every year Guerlain releases its Muguet fragrance on the 1st of May in line with the French tradition Fête du Muguet, which began with King Charles IX. The king gave bunches of the flower to ladies in his court as a token of good luck. Guerlain’s Muguet is a very limited edition. If you are one of the lucky ones to purchase the fragrance, it costs more than $600 a bottle. Naturally there are differences when you compare the two fragrances but Muguet Porcelaine is a more-than-sufficient alternative to the high cost and hard-to-buy Guerlain Muguet.
Further recommendations: Guerlain – Muguet, Christian Dior – Diorissimo, Louis Vuitton – Apogee, Etat Libre d’Orange – Don’t Get Me Wrong Baby, I Don’t Swallow, Van Clef & Arpels – Muguet Blanc, Coty – Muguet des Bois (Osmotheque version)
Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Creative Direction: Catherine Fulconis
Release Date: 2016
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Floral