I love gardenias, I do. I do. I crave them. It’s a little too cold for them to grow here in the mountains, unfortunately. If The CEO ever asked me what flowers I wanted for a corsage, I’d tell him tuberose (no, I wouldn’t, they’re unavailable around here unless you do a $75 special order) and then gardenia. I love yellow roses too, but that’s another story.
Gardenias. Sigh. Our neighbor once brought us a gardenia from his bush, back when I was, oh, twelve? Thirteen? And I was standing there in absolute heaven, while my poor mother was trying to say thank you without turning green. So I understand that not everyone likes them… but me, I love gardenias. So overwhelmingly gorgeous.
Sr. Perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux speaks of re-creating a gardenia scent in a ÇaFleureBon interview: Gardenias are somewhat wild and raw, and you have to be careful not to domesticate the scent too much. The perfume must remain a bit unbridled. For a gardenia, the sharp green edge has to echo the milky, almost buttery sides harmoniously, and the animalic sides, which are both indolic and cresolic have to be very present as well. The descriptors “fruity,” “ripe,” “bitter,” jasminic,” “honey-like,” “smoky” and “fungus-like” also come into play.
Flores-Roux has it right: it should be very green but very creamy, lush but earthy. He calls gardenia “wild and raw,” but I think the word that comes most to mind for me with real gardenias is “narcotic.” As in, I can’t stop smelling them. A gardenia should make you weak at the knees.
Unfortunately it’s a difficult note in perfumery – because gardenia essence is extremely costly and labor-intensive to make, not to mention flower-intensive. And therefore it’s extremely costly. What usually happens is that perfumers “build” a gardenia on a base of tuberose plus other notes, and thus you rarely get something that replicates the flower.
Here’s an incomplete list of gardenia perfumes (whether smelling of gardenia, or just named for the flower), in no particular order. If you have suggestions, please add them in the comments, and I’d love to hear if you shrink from the real flower or melt in its presence. The ones I’ve tried are in pink lettering.
Tom Ford Private Blend Velvet Gardenia (discontinued since 2013) – this one is a kitchen-sinky gardenia, complete with earthy mushroom notes and a bit of bleu cheese. Divisive. If you love it, you love it. I didn’t, but I have issues with “earthy.”
Estee Lauder Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia (which I like to refer to as ELPCTG) – lovely stuff, a good bit primmer than the Tom Ford. Sort of bridal, but in a good and lush sort of way. No off-notes to my nose here. I hear the parfum is STUNNING.
Michael Storer Stephanie – buttery gardenia (I think it’s a composition done with tuberose, not some of that pricey gardenia extract) with some musk and a slug of pepper. The pepper can take you aback; it did me. It leans a little too lactonic, though, for me. I wanted more green notes.
Marc Jacobs – This is beautiful stuff. Really. Gardenia/tuberose/jasmine, on the delicate side. I don’t know why I don’t own any. (Edit: actually, I do still own a mini bottle of the parfum, but it had gotten sort of lost in amongst all my mini bottles. I’ve been wearing it since I located it.)
Marc Jacobs Gardenia – incredibly beautiful bottle, but word is that it’s more aquatic than the original and less gardenia.
DSH Pink Gardenia – Lush Marilyn Monroe kind of fragrance, but done on Dawn’s usual musk base, which means it goes a bit too sweet on me.
Serge Lutens Une Voix Noire – This is Uncle Serge’s dark look at gardenia, not just an homage to Billie Holiday but also with the classic Lutens weird twist. It could be the smell of the Lady Day as her show winds down, with the gardenia she always wore in her hair beginning to brown and wilt from the heat of her body and that of the club, with a whiff of body odor, and the smell of burning tobacco in the ashtrays on the tables, and the hot sweet smell of whiskey and brandy left in the glasses. Could be, if you choose to interpret it that way. Or you could interpret it as a hot mess: wilting gardenia, dipped in meaty Mexican food and then in buttery caramel sauce, and rolled in some stale cigarette ashes to boot. I have a decant of this I bought unsniffed, and I never never never wear it. Three guesses as to why.
Isabey Gardenia – lovely. I’m not overly fond of the citrus notes up top, nor of the ambery ones at the bottom, but in between it’s attractive.
Guerlain Cruel Gardenia – as Luca Turin says in Perfumes: The Guide, “Not a gardenia.” He’s right. It’s not even a gardenia built out of tuberose. Still, it’s a very pretty perfume.
Chanel Gardenia (Les Exclusifs) – Also not really a gardenia. Sort of a lightweight mishmash of white flowers. Nice, pretty, not gardenia.
Jovan Island Gardenia – The current version is thin and bare, gardenia blooming three blocks away across chlorinated pools and the gasoline fumes from the whole neighborhood’s lawnmowers. It used to be better. Now it’s strictly low-rent.
Coty Sand and Sable – This one used to be better, too; when I was in high school in the mid-80s, I craved a bottle of it. (This is the one my mother made me return to the store, insisting that I was too young to wear it and smell like a divorcee on the make. Well, not that she SAID that, but I knew what she meant by the way she said it.) It starts out pretty cheerful and radiant like a real gardenia, but a scosh of air-freshener lilac and that screechy synthetic jasmine that saws on my nerves make it smell super-cheap.
Tuvache Jungle Gardenia – what I’ve smelled labeled as Jungle Gardenia was NOT the stuff I remember from my childhood. Man, could this thing knock you out from down the street: narcotic in the best sort of way. Now me, I loved that sensation. If you run across the vintage, snap it up. And if you don’t like it, send it to meeeeeee.
Edit: for full disclosure the sample I tried was secondhand, and I don’t know its provenance. It smelled thin and barely-there; like I say, the stuff I smelled growing up in the 70s was incredibly lush and powerful. If you notice in the comments, Jeffrey Dame says that the current version (since 1998) is made according to a 1974 formula. He’s kindly offered to send me a sample, which I’m going to accept with alacrity! I’ll report back when I have tried the new stuff.
Tauer Perfumes Sotto La Luna Gardenia – what am I to make of this thing? I still haven’t figured it out (need to review). It reminds me quite a bit of Tableau de Parfums Loretta, and it’s weird. It hits the mushroomy highlights though not the bleu cheese ones, but there’s that Tauerade Ambrox stuff in the bottom, and it’s… well, remember what I said about Une Voix Noire? It’s a little like that, minus the cumin and the ashtrays: sweet and wilty. Plus fruity. Plus balsamy. SO MUCH going on. Incredibly radiant, too. Look out.
Jo Malone Vintage Gardenia – if you like your gardenia with incense and a big mantle of grape Kool-aid*, this is the one for you. Pleasant, if you can get past the grape-flavored stuff. (* This effect, to me, is a sure sign that the gardenia in question is built out of tuberose, and maybe a bit of orange blossom. Methyl Anthranilate occurs naturally in certain white flowers; it’s isolated from natural sources and added to grape flavoring to intensify the grapeness. I have a range of tolerance for Methyl A., and this one is at least twenty decibels higher than the top end of it.)
Illuminum White Gardenia Petals – The former Kate Middleton reportedly wore this one when she married Prince William. It is quite innocently bridal, and has gentle sillage. It’s not very gardenia-like, either; it also boasts notes of lily, jasmine and muguet. Really, there’s a ton of that screechy synthetic jasmine in it. It’s not for me, but it’s at least inoffensive.
Annick Goutal Un Matin d’Orage – Nice. Not very gardenia, either, more a watery version of soft-focus white florals (gardenia, magnolia, jasmine sambac). That said, I think it’s lovely and if a bottle came to live at my house I’d wear it. It’s close to Dyptique Do Son, but where Do Son smells highly artificial to me (it has some clearly-synthetic tuberose in it as well as the watery accord), UMd’O smells more realistic. Pretty stuff, if you don’t mind aquatic notes.
Ineke Hothouse Flower – haven’t smelled this one, but Ineke Ruhland comments that she added creamy lactones and extra green notes like galbanum and fig leaf to tuberose to make it smell like headspace gardenia. I generally do very badly with Ineke fragrances, and I haaaaaate fig leaf, so I have not put this on skin.
JAR Jardenia – apparently a properly green-and-mushroomy-and bleu-cheesy version of gardenia. I haven’t smelled it.
Aftelier Cuir Gardenia – leather and gardenia as the name suggests, I’m told.
Arquiste Perfumes Boutonniere No. 7 – another indie version that is geared toward men. I’m not sure how that works (is it a gardenia fougere? I don’t know).
Jovoy Paris Gardez-Moi – Nice. Something along the lines of ELPCTG, but with a bit of grape Kool-aid up top. I’d rather have ELPCTG.
Penhaligon’s Anthology Gardenia – a reconstruction of an early fragrance by B. Duchaufour. No bloggers have anything to say about it, apparently. Shrug.
Strange Invisible Perfumes Epic Gardenia – I haven’t smelled this one, or any SIPs. Word has it that this one is good but not as good as SIP’s first gardenia perfume, Lady Day, which had to be discontinued because of the disappearance of a crucial raw material.
Creed Fleurs de Gardenia – apparently not a realistic gardenia, more a mixed floral.
Evyan White Shoulders – Like the Tuvache and the Jovan gardenias, this one used to be rich and lush and overwhelmingly narcotic, and easily bought in a drugstore. I remember it very well from church! (What else did church ladies wear? Youth Dew, of course, which is an entirely different story.) These days it’s made by Parfums International – whoops, no, Elizabeth Arden bought P. Intl. As you might guess, it’s only a shadow of its former self. Sad. Fortunately, you can still find Evyan-produced vintage bottles on eBay for not a lotta cash.
Parfumerie Generale Gardenia Grand Soir – Everyone I know was disappointed in this one’s being so ladylike and not very gardenia-y, by which I suppose we mean, well, ladylike. Gardenias are not ladylike. Gardenia screams “sexy” to me far more than tuberose ever does. Anyway, some people find a bunch of blackcurrant in this one, which I admit intrigues me. I love blackcurrant.
Aerin Lauder Gardenia Rattan – Reportedly, another “delicate” and office-friendly gardenia scent, which probably means that it isn’t gardenia-ish at all.
Parfums MDCI Nuit Andalouse – gardenia, jasmine, and orange blossom. A really lovely white-floral blend that reminds me somewhat of the original Marc Jacobs. Of course on me the orange blossom takes over, but that’s okay because it doesn’t go soapy.
VC&A Collection Extraordinaire Gardenia Petale – another I haven’t smelled; it’s reportedly one on the ladylike side.