Some floral notes have appeared so often and for so long in perfumery that they feel like building blocks of scent: jasmine, rose, orange blossom. Other florals are known for being showcased in a classic fragrance, but have also been featured in many more recent compositions: the association between tuberose and Fracas, followed by any number of later tuberose-inspired creations, is a famous example. And a few flowers are recreated so infrequently that they remain linked with just one scent in our collective perfume memory. You can guess where I’m going with this: yes, bluebell.
Penhaligon’s Bluebell has been the best-known bluebell fragrance since its launch in 1978, as well as a longtime best-seller for this British perfume house. Developed by perfumer Michael Pickthall, and described as ”the pure and unadulterated distillation of the scent of bluebell woods,” Bluebell includes notes of citrus, hyacinth, lily of the valley, cyclamen, jasmine, rose, galbanum, clove, and cinnamon. It has reportedly been worn by women as varied as Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher, and Kate Moss.
Bluebell opens with spiky green notes of galbanum; its initial phase is almost androgynous, but it becomes more traditionally feminine as it develops. A warmer accord of clove and cinnamon emerges, followed by Bluebell’s floral heart. This involves a slightly soapy lily of the valley note, as well as muted (and somewhat synthetic-smelling) touches of rose and jasmine. Bluebell gradually softens a bit, but it never turns sweet, and a hint of its galbanum note persists to the end. Overall, Bluebell is a dry, crisp floral that telegraphs something along the lines of “look, but don’t touch.” It seems designed as a daytime fragrance, and it could easily be worn to the office. It also feels somewhat dated to the 1970s, but then again, so many 1970s styles have become new classics. (Think of Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dresses, for example!)
So, what has Jo Malone brought to its own interpretation of this quintessential English flower? Wild Bluebell is described as “an imaginative scent, drenched in the delicate sweetness of sapphire blooms…decidedly naughty…but nice.” It was developed by perfumer Christine Nagel, and its notes include bluebell, lily of valley, persimmon, and eglantine (according to the Jo Malone website), as well as clove, jasmine, white amber and musk (via Moodie Report). (To help preserve the actual English bluebell in its native habitat, Jo Malone has made a donation to the Woodland Trust as part of this launch.)
Wild Bluebell has been assigned to Jo Malone’s ”light floral” category, and I agree with that label. It’s quite different from Penhaligon’s Bluebell: no galbanum, no noticeable spice, no sharp edges. It’s sheer and contemporary and quite linear: if you like Wild Bluebell when it’s freshly spritzed, you’ll still like it a few hours later. It’s primarily a blend of youthful, airy floral notes. Yes, there’s something that does smell like lily of the valley, but you could probably also convince me that it’s snowdrops, freesia, or another dewy white floral. The heart of the fragrance contains a subtle fruity aspect, like a sliced apple, and the base is a thin layer of very soft, clean musk. The overall fragrance is pretty and straightforward, and it will probably appeal to Jo Malone fans who have already enjoyed the brand’s other light florals, such as Sakura Cherry Blossom or White Jasmine and Mint. I have a feeling that I’d prefer Wild Bluebell in its Body Crème or Body & Hand Wash formulations, so it’s a typical Jo Malone experience for me.
Jo Malone’s spokespeople have been touting Wild Bluebell as marking “a radical change of direction for the brand.” So far, the main change seems to be the style of the advertisements. Instead of using Jo Malone’s customary still-life formula of a perfume bottle surrounded by flowers, fruits, and other “ingredients” specific to the scent, the Wild Bluebell ad personifies the fragrance with a female model. (In other words, what most other brands do.) A pale and somewhat sickly-looking young woman wearing vaguely eighteenth-century costume reclines amidst piles of bluebell flowers and a few bunny rabbits; this is meant to be quirky and eccentric. Unfortunately, the overall look of the ads recalls Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette more than anything else, and it’s a reference that has already been used in so many other contexts over the past few years (including a Juicy Couture perfume ad) that it doesn’t feel fresh anymore.
For me, the most interesting thing about Jo Malone Wild Bluebell is that it releases this particular floral concept from its Penhaligon’s pigeonhole. Now I’m looking forward to further interpretations from other houses. I’d really like something that reminds me of the Bluebell Wood at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens: shady and lush, simple but all-enveloping. I don’t think the bluebell will ever rise to the same perfume prominence as jasmine or tuberose, but I’m hoping it will someday catch up with carnation or lily. It has such potential.
Penhaligon’s Bluebell Eau de Toilette is available in 50 ml ($80) and 100 ml ($120), as well as a solid perfume compact ($80) and matching body products; for purchasing information, see the listing for Penhaligon’s under Perfume Houses. Jo Malone Wild Bluebell Cologne is available in 30 ml ($55) and 100 ml ($110), as well as matching body products; for purchasing information, see the listing for Jo Malone under Perfume Houses.