Suzanne's Perfume Journal

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I’d be willing to bet that you could pose this type of question to a serious collector or connoisseur of anything—cars, antiques, wines, cigars, perfumes—and get the same kind of definitive answer. If someone asked me, “What was the bottle that did it?” I’d reply in an instant, “Carnal Flower.”

It wasn’t the first bottle I purchased when I discovered the perfume blogs in 2006 and decided to order a few things; Bigarade Concentree, Jicky, and a mini of Bal a Versailles parfum hold that distinction. I remember being pleased with those purchases and curious to try more things, not to mention utterly fascinated to discover that there existed this online community of perfume lovers who viewed perfumery as more or less an art form, and who collected what seemed to me (then) as an ungodly number of fragrances. But I had no intention of joining their ranks; I’d merely stumbled on the blogs when I was searching for Jicky parfum, and having already dropped a good chunk of change on that purchase alone, I considered myself done.

Then I found a store on Ebay that was selling the 10-ml. “discovery”-size bottles of the Frederic Malle fragrances (the only place, at that time, where you could buy them singly rather than as part of a set), and that’s when the doors to perfume obsession blew wide open for me. Though I’d always loved perfume, never in my life had I smelled anything so exquisitely, acutely beautiful as Carnal Flower. To say it touched a chord, something deep inside me, as corny and clichéd as that sounds, that’s how it felt. I ended up going through two 10-ml. bottles of Carnal Flower in only two months; it’s a miracle I didn’t kill anyone with my sillage during those early days of my infatuation with this intensely heady scent.

The über-talented perfumer Dominique Ropion, who created Carnal Flower, reportedly worked on its formulation for two years, and when it launched in 2005, Carnal Flower was said to have the highest amount of natural tuberose absolute of any fragrance.

“The frequent stays of Frederic Malle in California, where the odor of Tuberose and Gardenia is everywhere, were very inspiring and led him to encourage Dominique Ropion to reinforce the solar and carnal character of the flower,” states the description on the Frederic Malle website. This single sentence says so much about the fragrance and would be even more accurate and concise if you crossed out the “carnal” reference. In my opinion, the “solar character” is what epitomizes this fragrance and distinguishes it from the other two scents—Robert Piguet Fracas and Serge Lutens Tubereuse Criminelle—that, along with Carnal Flower, form perfumery’s triumvirate of iconic tuberose perfumes.

Carnal Flower, despite its name (and even though I love the name), is, to my nose, a whole lot less carnal than it is the perfume personification of sunlight. It has such a saturated floral smell that when I wear it, I feel like I am in sunny California or even the south of France—Nice, maybe—the kind of place where grapes and olives grow, and artists and tourists flock to take advantage of that certain “quality of light.”  Having spent most of my life in central Pennsylvania—where a basin of land edged by mountain ridges traps clouds and makes for lasting periods of gray skies and rain—I’ve always longed to live in a place with a fairly dry atmosphere and lots of brilliant sunlight. I believe that’s why Carnal Flower exerts such a strong pull on me: it smells the way I imagine a flower stall in a farmer’s market in sun-drenched Provence might smell. It smells the way I imagine an orchard (or vineyard) in bloom in Southern California might smell. It smells, in other words, like my deepest longing. Let others dream of grand houses and fancy cars: I want to live in a land fecund with fruit and heavy sun.

May 28, 2009:

Though a fairly linear scent, on initial application Carnal Flower exhibits not only its solar floral character, but also a bit of greenery. One detects the lightly camphorous facet of the tuberose flower and a hint of stems and leaves. Then, rather quickly, it waxes so lushly floral and warm, you might feel as if you are the bloom receiving the full weight of the sun on your small frame. In this regard, I suppose it is a carnal fragrance—for what a sensual pleasure to be touched by the sun!—and, too, it is a rather intense perfume experience. Tuberose never plays coy, which is why Carnal Flower’s potent beauty thrills fans like me, and, conversely, overwhelms others. I’ve learned so much about fragrance through this one scent, with the most important lesson being: don’t over apply.

It also taught me that, if you fall in love with something, allow yourself to own it in every sense of the word. I never imagined myself as a collector of anything, let alone pricey perfumes, but here I am, and what a gift!  I feel like I’ve discovered what others have known (and what the characters Miles and Maya in Sideways come to express in that film): Being a collector (a connoisseur, an aficionado) is not so much about amassing stuff as it about learning to make the kind of studied choices that lead you to define what you want and—in the process—who you really are.

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Carnal Flower can be purchased from the Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle website or from Barneys.com ($255 for 50 ml.).

Images: (top) actors Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen in a scene from Sideways is from NPR.com; wine picnic scene from the 2004 film Sideways is from IMDB.com.

“How long have you been into wine?” Paul Giamatti, playing the role of Miles Raymond, a bitter divorcee whose

The Bottle that Led Me Here: Frederic Malle Carnal Flower

heart is shuttered except for this one passion, asks his date and fellow oenophile, Maya (Virginia Madsen), in a scene from the film Sideways.

“I started to get serious about seven years ago,” she tells him.

“What was the bottle that did it?” he asks.

“Eighty-eight Sassicaia,” she replies.