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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Violets on Mother’s Day

This is the third in my series of articles for the Shropshire Magazine on matters perfume, this time featuring an exploration of some of the traditions of Mothering Sunday and the special place of violets in perfumery.

You can see a pdf scan of the article as it appeared in the magazine, under the title Heaven Scent for Mum or a plain pdf file of the unedited article, which is what appears here.

Article: A Posy of Violets on Mother’s Day
Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday has been celebrated here in Britain for a very long time.  The tradition of children giving little posies of spring flowers – especially violets – to their mothers in church on this day isn’t so much observed now, but giving cards and gifts is still very popular.

The terms Mother’s Day and Mothering Sunday are used more-or-less interchangeably, but historically they are different events.  The modern Mother’s Day was ‘invented’ in the United States by Julia Ward Howe who wrote The Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870 and Ann Jarvis and her daughter Anna who, in the early years of the 20th Century first founded work-groups and later started a campaign for an official US holiday.  President Woodrow Wilson signed that into US law in 1914, establishing the holiday and fixing the date as the 2nd Sunday in May.  Many other countries, often replacing or incorporating existing traditions, have taken up this form and date since.
Mothering Sunday was an older,
Church tradition while Mother’s Day
is a 20th
Century secular holiday 

Here in Britain, the much older tradition of Mothering Sunday retains its status as a movable feast, celebrated on the 4th Sunday of Lent.  Thought to go back to the 16th Century practice of returning to one’s mother church – usually the nearest Cathedral – on this day, dispersed families were thus enabled to be united.  This in turn is thought to derive from an earlier Roman festival honouring the mother goddess Cybele which was held in mid-March.  In the Church of England, during the Mothering Sunday service in many churches it became usual for children to give small posies of flowers to their mothers and violets in particular often featured in these: the practice was common in the 50s and still happens in some churches today.

Violets – the scented kind from Viola odorata – have a special place in perfumery.  The scent of violet flowers is sometimes described as ‘flirty’ because it seems to come and go – a feature of the ionones from which the scent is mainly composed.  It has been valued in perfumery for at least 400 years but the scent has always been difficult to capture.  Around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – just about when Mother’s Day was being established in the United States – violet perfumes were all the rage.  At this time something very special was available – violet flower absolute – made by solvent extraction from violet flowers and distilled down to the essential principle of the scent of violet
Even then it was very rare, very expensive and exclusively used in the very best perfumes. We think that the last time violet flower absolute was extracted was around 1902: after that the increasing cost of labour and approaching war made it uneconomic.  Estimates of what it would cost to produce today vary from $10,000 to $500,000 a kilo – not even the biggest perfume houses can afford that.  Today when you smell violet in a perfume it will be made with a clever combination of synthetic ionones and other chemicals present in the natural scent, recreated and combined by skilled perfumers at a fraction of the cost of extraction.  Perhaps surprisingly, that is true of many flower scents.

Oddly enough though, the little violet has the last word: even today perfumers the world over use one of a tiny number of natural green notes: violet leaf absolute with just a touch of the violet flower hidden within it, it is a lovely material.  You’ll see this romantically described in the scent notes of a perfume as crushed violet leaves – so next time you see that in a description, you’ll know what it means.

Look out for crushed violet leaves
in perfume marketing

Flower Essences
A posy of violets isn’t something you’ll see in many florists any longer and you certainly shouldn’t pick wild ones, but you could give the perfume equivalent of the posy of spring flowers as a gift this Mother’s Day. If you want real, natural essences they are few: the only spring flower still routinely extracted is narcissus – a fabulously beautiful, complex material made from Narcissus poeticus – unfortunately it has two disadvantages, first that it has a fabulous price to match it’s beauty and second that, however lovely, it does not smell at all like putting your nose to a narcissus flower: a challenge to the perfumer.

One option is a posy of mixed flowers – in my own range I have Jacinth – a sparkling mix of roses, orange flower, ylang and lily and that precious narcissus absolute is in it too.

Alternatively I’m releasing a Spring Flower Collection of light transparent and cheerfully springlike fragrances in which you will find notes of violets, narcissus, and hyacinth plus of course, crushed violet leaves . . .

Chris Bartlett is the owner of Pell Wall Perfumes; a Shropshire based perfumery producing exclusive fragrances for men, for women, for the home and specialising in making unique bespoke fragrances. For more, see the website: 

1 comment:

  1. A perfect gift for this coming Mother's Day. Thanks for the info! :)

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