Carnation Pickup

    by Maureen Gibbon, 17 September 2008

    Carnation Pickup
    If a pink carnation was the only flower Don McLean’s “lonely teenage broncing buck” had in “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie,” there was a good reason he was out of luck.

    The pompom-like flowers made up almost every corsage I ever got in high school, and their clammy blossoms were about as appealing as their straight-from-the-refrigerator temperature. Still, each time I received a carnation, I’d stick my nose into it, hoping for a scent. Each time the petals disappointed.

    Knowing all that, it’s hard to explain why I picked up a bottle of Caswell-Massey’s Carnation in at tiny perfumery in 1990. Maybe it was the heart-shaped bottle, or maybe the artful and old-fashioned graphics did it – I don’t know. I do know that when I got that spicy sweetness in my nose, I realized how wrong I’d been about the flower.

    Carnation was exotic and sexy.

    Of course I bought a bottle of C-M Carnation that day, and I splashed it on all that summer. It had a high alcohol content, so when I put it behind my ears, it sometimes stung. But that was part of its charm. The stinging somehow matched the peppery sweetness, and they both somehow matched me.

    I wasn’t the only one taken by the smell. When I was walking in a park one day, a man sent his son running after to me to find out what perfume I was wearing. An instructor asked me on the last day of class what my fragrance was so he could buy a bottle for his girlfriend. But women liked it, too. By the copy machine one afternoon, a co-worker stopped beside me, closed her eyes, and inhaled.

    “You smell so good,” she told me as she came back from her dreamy moment.

    You’d think with all those reactions, I would have kept wearing the stuff, but I didn’t. When I moved to a new state, I wanted something different to go with my new life. You know – new city, new phase, new fragrance. I met and fell in love with Coco Chanel. And left Carnation behind.

    But just as I kept a flame burning for one or two old boyfriends (or romantic versions of them), I never forgot that carnation cologne. Anyone who has ever tried to find an old love can guess what happened next: when I went to buy the fragrance again a few years later, I found time and the world hadn’t stood still. Caswell-Massey had stopped making Carnation. It was gone.

    I searched for alternatives, but in those pre-Internet days, I didn’t know where to look beyond local Minneapolis stores. I ended up contenting myself with Roger & Gallet’s Carnation soap, which had just the right kind of luxurious, pungent spice. But it was soap. I couldn’t dab it behind my ears or splash it on my breastbone.

    This spring I found myself again thinking of that heart-shaped bottle with pink flowers, and I decided it was time to try and find a new carnation fragrance to wear. I know memory can be like quicksilver, reflecting what it chooses, so I told myself I didn’t need a replica of C-M Carnation – just something equally spicy and intoxicating. While I found clove to be a common note in many of the fragrances I sampled, I also found notable differences.

    Dawn Spencer Hurwitz / Oeillets Rouges EDP: At the start, a strong citrus dominates, and it can be almost turpentine-like, especially out of doors. But this harshness quickly evaporates, and a warm mix of clove and nutmeg emerges. Curious and heated, the nutmeg initially kept me surprised – and satisfied. In the dry down, powdery and only delicately dangerous.

    Comme des Garcons / Series 2: Red Carnation EDT: Sheer, like the lightest lover’s touch. A moment in, pepper separates slightly from clove to reveal jasmine, and all this adds to seven-silk-veils quality of this scent. The more I wore it, the more the jasmine in the spice pleased me. Sweet without being powdery or cloying.

    Caron / Bellodgia EDP: Many people swear Bellodgia is a premier carnation scent, but for me the description doesn’t fit. Once the top lemony note fades, geranium and floral take over, but the floral isn’t carnation. If perfumes were colors, this wouldn’t be red, pink, or white – it would be chartreuse or forsythia yellow.

    Molinard / Oeillet EDC: This mature eau de cologne has a strong carnation note. In the dry down, spicy clove remains, along with powder and a hint of root beer. (What can I say? I like drive-ins, and root beer does have a smell.)

    Villoresi / Garofano EDT: Garofano is the Italian word for carnation, and this green smell morphs into a spicy floral after just a few moments – but again, the floral isn’t carnation. I had to sniff and sniff until I figured out this is an old-fashioned and intense rose scent. I liked it and it wore well all day, but it’s rose, rose, rose. Oh, and did I say it smelled like rose?

    Santa Maria Novella / Garofano EDC: Straightforward carnation. Sweet without being powdery, orangey without being sour, and clove-spicy. At times I think it comes close to the old Caswell-Massey Carnation, but if I compare it to CDG, it has a much stronger tangerine note. None of the powder that makes some carnations seem babyish.

    Fragonard / Billet Doux EDP: Fragonard sent this love letter to oeillet de poete, or sweet william, a member of the carnation family. But for me there is no carnation here, only a complex, floral soapiness. It didn’t surprise me to read this fragrance is a recreation of a 1950’s classic Fragonard scent – it feels dated in a way that Diorissimo (1956) or Joy (1930) don’t.

    Caron / Coup de Fouet EDT: This whip-cracking fragrance is said to be the lighter version of Caron’s Poivre, which I’ve never smelled. Taken on its own, it’s a sweet pepper and clove scent with a hint of carnation that develops over time. Is this a grown-up carnation? Edgy oeillet? I don’t know, but I liked finding my flower in such a provocative get-up.

    There are more carnations out there to try – Coty’s Oeillet is on my list, as well as Prada’s. But I did buy a bottle of one of the fragrances listed above, and now it’s time to kiss and tell. For me, the jasmine and pepper of the CDG Carnation was irresistible. When my pocketbook allows, I’d like to get the Santa Maria Novella Garofano, too. end of article

    Maureen Gibbon

    About the author

    Maureen Gibbon's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy and She is the author of the novel Swimming Sweet Arrow.

    All articles by Maureen Gibbon

    From the Basenotes Fragrance Directory

    The following fragrances and houses are mentioned in this article. (In order of appearance...)

    Roger & Gallet

    Carnation by Caswell-Massey.
    Oeillets Rouges by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (2003).
    parfums*PARFUMS Series 2 Red: Carnation by Comme des Garçons (2001).
    Bellodgia by Caron (1927).
    Oeillet by Molinard.
    Garofano by Lorenzo Villoresi (1995).
    Garofano by Santa Maria Novella (1828).
    Billet Doux by Fragonard (2006).
    Coup de Fouet by Caron (1954).
    Poivre by Caron (1954).
    Oeillet by Coty.
    2 Oeillet by Prada (2004).

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