Lists, Perfume, Random Asides, Reviews

In Honor of the Royal Wedding This Weekend, Let’s Rank the Penhaligon’s Fragrances I Own

Every time there’s a royal wedding, I forget how much I don’t really care for royal weddings just long enough to be convinced I should pay attention. In my mind, royal weddings should be occasions for once-in-a-lifetime fantasy eleganza, so I want a church full of rich people flaunting their wealth in front of the rest of us peasants, not a bunch of tasteful outfits and fascinators that make the Kentucky Derby look gauche. After all, if you’re going to give me a globally televised event meant to maintain and extend the mythology that your figurehead monarchy is anything more than a bunch of randos who hit the ultimate jackpot by being born or wed into this family, I at least want some next-level glamour to help zhoosh the history books. The only person who seemed to get this memo was, of course, The Queen, who wore lime green to the royal wedding. May we all have have as few f*cks to give in life as Her Majesty.

Anyways, in honor of this weekend’s royal wedding, here’s an entirely unscientific ranking of the five Penhaligon’s fragrances I own, because seriously, it’s easier to talk about other people’s nuptials and my crippling perfume addiction than the recent shooting at Santa Fe High School and America’s crippling addiction to the Second Amendment:

5. Artemisia

Artemisia feels a bit like British properness bottled. It’s essentially musks, musks, and more musks: powdery and clean–but never really soapy–with some pale florals and woods thrown in to suggest character and an odd bit of vanilla that nudges it a bit towards a whipped cream gourmand vibe. I’ve read people compare it to Cashmere Mist, but I was just beginning to get into fragrances when Donna Karen made like the Wrong Side of Feminism’s most tone-deaf Carrie Bradshaw and got to thinking about if Harvey Weinstein’s victims had been “asking for it”, so later that day I got to making a conscientious decision to never buy or try any of her fragrances. As such, I can’t say how Artemisia stacks up to Cashmere Mist, but I can say that it feels like the blanched cotton to Estee Lauder’s White Linen.

There’s nothing wrong with Penhaligon’s Artemisia, per se, but it’s about as interesting as one of those middling dramas Miramax would regularly trot out during Oscar season that audiences assume to be de facto award-worthy because it stars somebody, anybody with a British accent. Fine Fragrance at its finest, basically, though great for allaying my fears that I might be missing out on something with Cashmere Mist.

4. Ostara

As Penhaligon’s scents go, Ostara seems to have a particularly vocal fan club online. They celebrate it’s daffodil-iness, bemoan it’s gone-too-soon discontinuation, and discuss post-Ostarapocalyptic hoarding measures. Needless to say, my hopes were high.

When I wore Ostara for the first time, I spent a good bit of time wracking my brain to pinpoint the heady floral note at the center of it, even as I found myself easily appreciating its decorative spices and damp green notes and flirtations with a banana-y ylang ylang (banana-ylang ylang?) and the delectable base it’s all served upon. By the time I got home, I was pretty sure it was narcissus, so I compared it against the bottle of Chloé Narcisse I have, and lo and behold, we had a winner! I find it quite odd that the fragrance said to be inspired by daffodils is actually a narcissus scent, and I feel a slight shame, almost, for preferring Ostara’s less refined distant relative by virtue of it being dirt cheap and readily available. No matter.

Ostara is quite good, and certainly worthy its cult of devotees, but I can’t help but wonder how many of them might be satisfied by something you could probably find for a pittance at your local TJ Maxx.

3. Iris Prima

Iris Prima is uncomplicated and utterly delicious. It’s a straight-forward affair full of iris, leather, sandalwood, and a bit of benzoin, all fit together seamlessly and played up for maximum pleasure. It’s buttery, powdery, and oh so seductive. Added to that, Iris Prima bucks the Penhaligon’s trend by having some truly impressive longevity. This one smells like luxury.

My only qualm, quite frankly, is that it’s just so damn good it feels instantaneously a bit less exciting, like the way even great beauty can run the risk of becoming rote. Smashing stuff, all the same, and probably would’ve been at the top of the list were not stacked against some real weirdos.

2. Bluebell

Bluebell is well known for being one of the late Princess Diana’s favorite perfumes. It’s also well known for smelling terrible. I don’t know about the former, but the latter is at least half true, and that, I’d insist, is its charm. I don’t know what bluebells actually smell like, but Bluebell offers up this fantastically damp, wan floral bouquet that’s green and woody and–I’m assuming–the smell of bluebells. Even if it didn’t smell so lovely, I’d still probably give Bluebell an automatic edge up on so many other floral fragrances for at least having the respect for its audience to do something different, which brings us to its notorious stank.

See, Bluebell’s infamy is born from this pungent accord that has aptly been liked to stale water in a flower vase by Fragrantica commenters, though there’s a savory, herbal quality to it that I’d compare to something like tarragon or dill pickle brine, perhaps. When this odd odor hits you in full effect, you get a strange contradiction between beauty and decay that plays something like a game of olfactory hide and go seek, and when it isn’t, you can still find its stank skulking about the edges. Stranger still, this infamous smell is more a caveat than a guarantee. I’ve worn Bluebell out before, eagerly expecting to turn heads for all the wrong reasons, only to have just its prettiest bits show up to the party. I was even told I smelled nice while wearing it. Gorblimey, y’all! 

Simply put, Bluebell can be far too odd and unpredictable to recommend to the legions of bland, Anglophile girls who think of Princess Di as a style icon with unimpeachably perfect taste, but it’s well worth it if you like your perfumes to have a bit of funk and gallows humor in them.

1. Amaranthine

Most perfumes insistently peddle sex appeal but never really have it or know where to find it, and I’ve only come across a handful of fragrances I’d even call outright erotic (here’s lookin’ at you, Etat Libre d’Orange’s Putains de Palais), but Amaranthine is a true first for me: this one’s pornographic.

Amaranthine is the smell of the private made public, a heaving, raunchy cocktail of banana leaf, condensed milk, tea, and the most fetish-friendly indolic notes to be found in jasmine and ylang ylang. It conjures up thoughts of primal fluids and rutting bodies with all the subtlety of a portrait of your lover’s genitals. Amaranthine is everything that some people find upsetting about the words vulva or moist, and wearing it is a bit like stumbling upon ground zero of the world’s largest bukkake orgy: it’s utterly improper by polite society’s standards, but there’s also something intimate and beguiling about the sight of human desire so uninhibitedly in action.

I’m not even remotely surprised that this one has been discontinued, though I’m as shocked as I am grateful that perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour was able to get something so brazenly f*ck-hungry out to market. Amaranthine is a rousing, arousing achievement–in perfume and art–that puts the most private parts of ourselves out there so nakedly on display.

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