Recently I wrote a blog post about Lavender in perfumes and mentioned something along the lines that Lavender is considered by some to be ‘old smelling.’ If you think that about Lavender, I can almost hear your reaction when I bring up Violets! The running joke seems to be, “That perfume reminds me of my old Aunt Violet.” But, I made the case for Lavender, so bear with me while I make a strong case for Violets as well.
Let me state this now and get it out of the way: violet, rose, gardenia, iris, jasmine, tulip, lavender, honeysuckle…these flower scents are still around and going strong. You may not realize that the perfume you may be wearing has one or more of these flower notes in it, but chances are, it does. Most of the flowers I mentioned above still make up a large portion of the perfume market. Whereas a ‘soliflore’ perfume is based on the actual flower and generally will use the flower name in the perfume name (i.e. La Violette by Annick Goutal), a large majority of perfumes contain these flowers in them without your even knowing, unless they use the ‘notes’ for marketing purposes. A good example is Quimbaya pour Homme, by Jean Pascal, which contains violet notes alongside Rosemary, Citruses, Clove, Thyme and Lavender.
As it happens with some flowers, violet flower essential oil, in the form of an absolute, is rather difficult to come by (if you can even find it) and is very high in cost (if you do find it). The alternative, then, is Violet Leaf Absolute. While this essential oil is lovely, if a bit herbaceous, it is not what many people would consider a ‘violet scent.’ Once again, we’re faced with the ongoing question of: what creates a violet scent in a perfume? If one has to point the finger at the main representative of violets in perfumes then it must be to the Ionone family, starting with Alpha and Beta Ionones. If there is a violet note in a perfume, there is Ionone in there, often in large quantities. Ionones form the basis for any Violet note in a perfume. However, a Violet note will also have many other aroma elements such as Orris Root, Vetiver, Eugenol, Undecavertol, Heliotropin, Violet leaf absolute, nonadienal, melonal, Ylang, Jasmin, Anisaldehyde…the list can be quite long.
The scent of violet flowers is different from the scent found in the Violet Leaf Absolute. This is where the Ionones come in. The flower possesses a sweet powdery, woody-floral scent imparted by Ionones. These Ionones were first extracted from the Parma violets by Tiemann and Kruger in 1893.  The discovery of ionones changed the landscape of perfumery, allowing the production of synthetic violet notes that were identical in scent. Nowadays, it is hard to find many perfumes that do not contain ionones and methyl ionones in them because the Ionone family is not restricted solely to the scent of violets. As Steffen Arctander explained: “The use of lonone in Rose bases is very common and generally well liked, and smaller amounts of lonone are used in woody, herbaceous, floral, balsamic, piney or Citrus-like fragrances. It is almost not possible to name a fragrance in which Inonone has not been tried for modifications, blending, floralizing, mellowing, etc. It is often part of the highly desirable complex that displays ‘powdery’ undertones in a fragrance.”  The list of Ionones in use is rather extensive, such as the aforementioned Alpha and Beta Ionones, but also others including Alpha Methyl Ionone, Dihydro Ionone, Dihydro Alpha Irone, Alpha Ethyl Ionone, etc.
The formula below , albeit a bit vintage, presents an example of what constitutes a Violet base. Notice the high levels of Alpha Ionone in it. As with many of Louis Appell’s formulas, in case you were wondering when looking over the formula, it also contains another base of his: Jamin 70.
|15.00||methyl heptine carbonate|
|20.00||aldehyde C-12 lauric 10%|
|50.00||alpha-isomethyl ionone (90% min.)|
|25.00||orris rhizome concrete 10%|
|5.00||rose absolute bulgaria|
|25.00||violet leaf absolute 10%|
|25.00||aldehyde C-14 1%|
|25.00||musk ambrette replacer|
What makes working with a Violet formula a bit complicated is that Ionones are pretty harsh on the olfactory bulb, so it takes no time at all for the perfumer’s sense of smell to flatline after smelling these. This is called ‘Olfactory Fatigue,’ and it is truly an odd experience. Personally, I do not find Ionones to be massively strong (I can certainly name many other aroma-chemicals that can make me fall off my chair!). However, after a few whiffs of an Ionone, I find that when I am smelling a formula my sense of smell is greatly diminished for some time. It is like your mind is telling you there is more to the scent you’re smelling, but your nose is just not getting it. Musicians experience this in the form of ear fatigue. I have experienced, after spending hours in the studio mixing an album with a sound engineer that, at some point, my hearing became compromised. I remember one experience in particular, where I knew the strings were there, and I heard them before, but I could not hear them at that point. The next morning, with my hearing rested, the strings were there for me to hear once again. I go through the same with perfume compounds. This is not uncommon, however, and it happens to all of us. It is the reason why a perfume counter has coffee beans for you to smell after you have sampled so many perfumes that you can no longer tell one from the other — not that this is a stretch considering the lack of originality in today’s perfumes so that many smell the same. What they don’t tell you at the perfume counter is that the coffee bean system does not work for everyone. It does help me some, and I have a small jar of coffee absolute or coffee beans on my work desk that I tend to sniff once in a while, when my sense of smell is reaching that point where I cannot smell accurately. But it does not solve the olfactory fatigue completely.
Perfumers have kept the scent of violet trendy by modernizing the fragrance with the changing times. With the addition of aroma-chemicals like Calone, Iso E Super, Dihydromyrcenol and the likes, a perfume containing violet in it can smell up-to-date. The state of modern perfumery aside (a future blog post perhaps?), Violet continues to add its beauty to every perfume it graces. Next time you’re at a perfume counter smelling new perfumes, keep Violet in mind and see if you can spot it!
-  Fragantica
-  Perfumer and Flavor Chemicals Vol. 1, Steffen Arctander, Allured Publishing Corporation, 1994. Pg. 741.
-  Cosmetic, Fragrances and Flavors, Louis Appel, 1982, Novox, Inc. pg. 310