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February 15, 2011

Penhaligon's Bluebell (Woodland Hyacinth): Fragrance Review

Bluebell Penhaligon

Star rating: 5 stars--outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars--very good, 3 stars--adequate, 2 stars--disappointing, 1 star--poor.

A friend of mine quipped that the signature fragrance choice of Penhaligon's Bluebell by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher gives new meaning to the term “mixed message.” Indeed, the tough Iron Lady and the fresh, unassuming flower did not seem to mesh in my imagination so I decided to revisit Bluebell. If you are looking for a light, delicate, gentle hyacinth, I recommend that you look elsewhere, because Bluebell is the most brash and jarring watery floral you can find on the market. Come to think of it, that is quite an achievement.

The English house of Penhaligon's was founded in the 1860s by a barber, William Henry Penhaligon, who eventually became Court Barber and Perfumer to Queen Victoria. In 1975, the house was revived by Sheila Pickles, who tried to resuscitate not only the house, but also the traditional 19th century style of perfumery, light colognes and fresh floral blends. Bluebell, created in 1978 by perfumer Michael Pickthall, was the original bestseller and it still remains the most recognizable and well-known offering from Penhaligon's. It is what could be termed a classic.

Being popular does not necessarily imply excellence, though it is possible that Bluebell has been reformulated since it was first launched three decades ago. In its current form, however, I find it essentially unwearable as a fine fragrance. Bluebell opens up on a metallic, green note of remarkable tenacity. The hyacinth impression is formed by the classical marriage of lily of the valley, rose and fruity, green banana notes, with the earthy galbanum enhancing the green effect. A big dose of clove gives hyacinth its characteristic spicy facet. All in all, it is a competent hyacinth accord, but it is as close to the scent of real flowers as the elevator music to the performance by London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is rasping and shrill, with a screechy synthetic feel, ending on the same metallic, high-pitched note that sets the fragrance in action. Given the price of $120 (100ml), one might as well try Demeter Wet Garden ($18) and save $100 for something else more worthwhile.

Penhaligon's Bluebell (also known as Woodland Hyacinth) includes notes of citrus, cyclamen, hyacinth, jasmine, lily of the valley, rose, cinnamon, clove, galbanum. It is available from Penhaligon's stores and online at store likes minnewyork.com and fourseasonsproducts.com. $120 for 100ml. Other fresh, hyacinth, watery rose dominated alternatives include Diptyque Do Son, Diptyque Ofresia, Histoires de Parfums Vert Pivoine, Trish McEvoy Snowdrop & Crystal Flowers #3, L'Artisan Jacinth des Bois (limited edition, if you can find it, it is lovely).

Photo of bluebells from gardenblog.

Sample: my own acquisition

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