The Tsar’s violets — the signature scent of not one but two Imperial Romanov rulers. How many fragrances can make that claim? Oriza L. Legrand‘s Violettes du Czar can — and now the imperial favorite has been brought back to life after more than 150 years to be made available to the modern man.
It’s the coolest thing imaginable for someone like me who loves history even more than perfume, but almost everything about Oriza L. Legrand (hereinafter just “Oriza“) is historically fascinating to me. For one thing, out of all the European perfume houses who created scents for royal or imperial courts (there is a difference), only Oriza was chosen as “Purveyor to the Russian Court.” Oriza made a number of fragrances for the imperial court, but their Violettes du Czar was the signature scent of two of the more significant Romanov rulers.
In fact, it was made specifically for Alexander II or “Alexander the Liberator” who emancipated the serfs. Later, it was worn by his grandson, Nicholas II, whose actions were one of the causes that helped bring about the end of the Russian Empire and who was murdered in 1918 by the Bolsheviks. Of course, Oriza also made fragrances for other imperial courts as well, including another violet one for Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, but it is the Romanov violet that is the subject of today’s tale. It is a scent with several kinds of violet in it, from a particular variety from Nice (France), to the crunchy green of its leaves. In the ultimate symbolic parallel, the coup de gras comes in the form of Russian leather and golden amber. The end result is a scent that not only takes me back in time but, in all honesty, feels like something which a man like Alexander II would wear.
Violettes du Czar is an eau de parfum that was originally released in 1862, but re-issued a few weeks ago. Oriza tweaked it lightly for the modern era and to pay heed to current regulations, but kept the fragrance as true as possible to its original character and recipe. On its website, Oriza describes the fragrance and its notes as follows:
Of all French perfume makers, only the House of Oriza L. Legrand was chosen as “Purveyor to the Russian Court”. In recognition of this honour, it developed a line of fine and delicate fragrances, of which the “Violettes du Czar” stood out for its unmatched quality, making it a favourite of the well-to-do and the Courts of Europe.
The violet of Nice, infinitely finer, more delicate, and more distinguished than others, married to the virile accents of pedigree Russian leather, balsam and amber, is less restrained than the words that describe it.
“Violettes du Czar” is an audacious perfume that will appeal to elegant men and women alike.
Top Notes: Violet Leaves & Wild Violet.
Heart Notes: Violet from Nice, Iris & Heliotrope.
Base Notes: Tolu balm, Leather, Amber and Gaïac wood.
Violettes du Czar opens on my skin with the namesake flower and a citrusy, lime-like green undertone, followed by dark wisps of smoky guaiac wood, leather, and tarry birch. Like a pale grey, translucent ghost, the iris hovers in the background, adding a strong coolness that is only vaguely floral in nature. The primary bouquet is centered almost entirely on purple and green notes, all the different facets of a violet. There are the delicate flowers growing wild in the woods and taking on the cedary quality of the trees they are nestled in, but there are also the sweeter aspects of pansy violets, along with the crunch greenness of a violet’s fuzzy, peppered leaves.
After 5 minutes, the fragrance shifts and the nuances change, though the primary bouquet remains the same. The leathery, smoky wisps retreat to the sidelines, popping up only occasionally for the next hour, but the guaiac grows stronger, adding to the sense of wild violets growing deep in the woods. The mysterious, lime-like freshness feels stronger, too, as does the iris which is slowly creeping onto center stage. It adds the faintest suggestion of something powdery, cool, and clean to the fragrance, a suggestion which is indirectly accented by the heliotrope.
Violettes du Czar has a very classic, almost old-fashioned feel to its opening phase, and it consistently evokes images in my mind of gentlemen dandies who take great care with their appearance. The perfume has gender-crossing qualities to it, both masculine and feminine, that leave me imagining the Tsar in 1862, putting on a grey frock-coat, fixing his cuffs and cravat, and then splashing on his cool, clean, crisp, violet-iris-leather fragrance with its accent of lime, woods, and smoke. The darker notes may not be the main focus in the first hour, but they exist just enough to ensure that Violettes du Czar is never a purely feminine or floral fragrance.
All of that brings me to my next point: I think it’s important to consider Violettes du Czar within the context of its times. The world was a very different place in 1862. There were no ridiculous gender classifications driven by marketing groups, no “masculine” or “feminine” associations with certain notes. Back in the 1500s, a young Catherine de Medici wore what would later become the basis for the first “cologne,” a creation that women today would probably view as a “masculine” scent. Sultans and sheikhs wore jasmine and roses, King Louis XV of France wore powdery carnations (also made by Oriza L. Legrand, by the way), while Prince Albert of England and the Romanov tsars wore violets. The key in many of these instances was not whether a particular scent felt “manly” or “feminine,” but whether it was aromatic and clean. Europe was still a filthy, smelly place in the mid-19th century, and not even an imperial palace had running water and flushing toilets. People opted for clean, fresh bouquets dominated by crisp citruses and powdery florals in order to mask the stench that greeted them in the streets. The aristocracy and royalty in particular wanted to smell fresh with refined floral scents that would be suited for a ball, rather than skanky, spiced scents that they would associate with uncleanness or the kitchen.
Violettes du Czar was made for its times, though I want to stress that it is not heavily powdered. Nor is it hugely “clean,” at least not in the way that we define that term today with all the laundry-like fragrances out there. But the first hour of the fragrance definitely has a very crisp, tonic-like quality, as well as an ineffable, old-fashioned style to it by modern standards. To expect anything else from a fragrance recipe dating back to 1862 would be foolish, but I think that is the very charm of Violettes du Czar. It’s like an olfactory time-machine, and it’s exceedingly well done. It also becomes more modern in feel once its drydown kicks in.
Yet, Violettes du Czar has a way to go before we get to that point. Roughly 30 minutes into its development, the fragrance is centered primarily on the violets, fused within every inch of its life with the greenness of its peppery, crunchy leaves, then trailed by a lime-like citrusy freshness, along with slightly smoky guaiac woods that smell a little cedar-like in nature. The iris feels much weaker, and starts a rather rapid retreat to the sidelines. The whole thing sits upon a base that feels as though it has another layer of greenness added in, with only slight streaks of something leathered and dark. It doesn’t really feel like leather at this point, largely because the violets overshadow everything else so thoroughly.
I’m not hugely enamoured by green florals or citrus notes, but somehow everything works here. That said, I wish the violet were less sharp on occasion, perhaps due to that citrus-like quality that it has, but at least it’s not metallic the way some violet ionones can be. I also wish the fragrance didn’t feel so translucent at this point, and that the leather wisps had not retreated so quickly to the background. At the 30-minute mark, Violettes du Czar is mostly just violets with greenness, lightly flecked by a citrusy note, and faint traces of woodiness. Deep, deep in the base and background, there is a subtle suggestion of something vaguely dark and smoky, but it’s certainly not leather and it’s certainly not strong. It’s more like an ephemeral, ghostly suggestion.
The whole thing is a very airy bouquet with light weight and soft sillage, though the scent is quite strong up close. Using 3 spritzes from my atomizer, equal to 2 sprays from an actual bottle, Violettes du Czar opened with 2.5 to 3 inches of projection. That number dropped to 1 inch after 30 minutes, then to somewhere between 1 inch and half-an-inch at the end of the first hour. By the 90-minute mark, the perfume starts to be a little too quiet, green, and violet-dominated for my tastes because, I must admit, violet is not at the top of my list of favorite florals. But then, thankfully, things suddenly change with an abrupt shift in focus about 1.75 hours into Violettes du Czar’s development, and it is a definite improvement.
The main reason is because the amber wakes up in the base, and starts to slowly seep upwards, transforming the scent into a warmer one. There is now a slightly golden quality hovering behind the violet and leaves, and it serves to smoothen the occasional sharpness of the green notes. The amber also seems to suddenly activate the birch or cade oil, triggering a return of the smoky leather which was noticeable in the first 10 minutes. There is almost a tannery undertone to the leather, a roughness that calls to mind how birch was used to cure and waterproof the Cossacks’ leather boots. It’s a fantastic touch here because it’s refined rather than brutishly raw, animalic, or fecal. As the amber and birch leather move to the foreground, the iris vanishes, along with its lightly powdered side.
Violettes du Czar is now two-parts violet and greenish notes, one-part leather, all flecked by smoke and lying upon a thin layer of subtle ambered warmth. This is no longer the scent of the dapper Tsar in his elegant frock-coat, but the Tsar amongst his Cossacks, bearing the traces of his morning violet cologne amidst the new smells of cavalry leather and gunpowder smoke. And that smoke is one of the nicest parts of Violettes du Czar, in my opinion. Instead of the more typical tarriness that usually underlies this sort of leather, there is a campfire quality, as if cade oil had been used to add a veneer of outdoorsy smokiness.
It’s so good that I wish it were a much stronger note than merely an undertone or background nuance. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest, I would rate the smokiness at a 3, the leatheriness at a 4.5, but the woodsy, still-green violet is at a 9. It may not be quite as green as before, and its underlying citrus-like note may have weakened substantially, but the violets are still 85% of the bouquet. I would have liked much more leather, but I suspect true violet lovers will be happy that the flower is the only star of the show, especially as the scent is called Violettes du Czars, not Cuirs de Czar. (As a side-note, if memory serves me correctly, next year Oriza plans to re-release one of their former creations that actually is a Russian leather fragrance. It’s called Cuir de Russie and, if the leather note here is anything to go by, it’s bound to be fantastic.)
The wonderful side-effect of the amber and leather’s emergence is that it seems to have strengthened the fragrance in other ways, even if it’s only to a small degree. The sillage seems better, even if it is only fractionally so, because Violettes du Czar no longer seems like it’s going to die an early death. The scent also seems deeper and richer. Again, these are all tiny, relative changes since Violettes du Czar remains a light, airy fragrance with very soft sillage that hovers an inch to an inch-and-half above the skin at the end of the 2nd hour.
At the start of the 4th hour, a lovely creamy softness seeps all over the violets, and it’s due mainly to a change in the leather. It is no longer dark, smoky, or outdoorsy, and no longer evokes images of Cossacks on horses. The leather has now turned into supple calf-skin and creamy suede. It has also merged fully into the violets, becoming more of a textural underpinning than a strong, clearly delineated “suede” in its own right. What that means is that Violette du Czar’s main focus continues to be the violet — both floral and leafy green — but its character has morphed away from the cool, cologne-like briskness of the first hour into something that is now texturally buttery and warm. In short: creamy violets.
The fragrance hugs the skin with an elegant smoothness that has a subtle, “je ne sais quoi” French chic-ness to it. I’m less keen on the greenness which I continue to find a hair sharp, even if it’s only a whisper now, but I really don’t like greenness at all. Plus, I think that it must be something innate to the ionone synthetic in general. (Almost all violet notes in fragrances these days are from ionones.) Still, for the most part, Violettes du Czar’s entire drydown consists of lovely, creamy, vaguely suede-like softness infused with violets that are slowly fading away into something more abstract. The scent hovers just half-an-inch above the skin for the next few hours, only becoming a true skin scent at the start of the 6th hour, though Violettes du Czar is still easy to detect up close without my having to put my nose directly on my arm for a few more hours to come.
In its final moments, all that’s left is a creaminess with a subtle, ghostly suggestion of something floral, woodsy, and clean about it. All in all, Violettes du Czar lasted just a bit under 9.75 hours on my skin with the equivalent of 2 sprays from an actual bottle. I should note, though, that when I used a lesser amount that was roughly equal to just 1 spray on my other arm, Violettes du Czar started to fade after about 5 hours and only lasted 7 hours in total. Quantity clearly makes a difference.
I like Violettes du Czar quite a bit, but I think it’s a fragrance that also benefits from some time and patience. The first time I tested it, I was a little disappointed with the greenness of its opening bouquet and its crispness, as well as the perfume’s overall airiness, and the way that the sharp undertone (whether from the green notes or the violet itself) lasted so long. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, violet is low on my list of favorite flowers, and I had hoped for much more leather.
Yet, even in the early hours, I appreciated just how evocative the fragrance was and how it actually did manage to make me envision the Czar. (Well, Alexander II, at least, because I think Nicholas II was an idiot and weakling, and I prefer to block him out.) The whole “Czar” thing may have been the power of suggestion to some extent, but only to a small extent, I think. The first half of Violette du Czar really seems to be from another place and time — in a really good way.
Later, though, as the perfume developed, the amber bloomed, and that wonderful smoky Russian leather came out of the shadows, my feelings became even more positive. A good portion of that is due to my personal issues with greenish, crisp florals, and my preference for warm, ambered scents. That said, I think everyone would enjoy the super touch of outdoorsy smoke and Russian leather, not to mention the wonderful creaminess of the drydown. So, if you’re like me and you’re more into the leather and less into the green, be a little patient. Things start to change before the end of the 2nd hour, and the real heart of the fragrance around the 4th hour onwards is where things get good. Of course, if you’re a hardcore violet fiend, you should be happy from start to finish.
The same issue of patience applies to the more old-fashioned aspects of the first two hours. Violettes du Czar may open with a very vintage feel reminiscent of 1862, but the use of amber and birch leather later on is a very modern touch. Only it happened more than 70 years before Coco Chanel turned her attention to Russian leather with iris, and 132 years before Serge Lutens combined violets with woodsy and leathery notes in his Feminité du Bois mother/child series. Oriza L. Legrand mixed all those up first. So, if you think that Violettes du Czar’s opening is totally dated in feel, give the base some time to come to the forefront, and you will get what we consider today to be a “modern” combination. Patience will also serve any guys who thinks powdery scents are too “femme,” because the iris note really only lasts for a short while and the rest of the fragrance should have enough of either a citrus-y, green briskness or other qualities to compensate. After all, do you really think the Tsar of Russia would wear a girly scent in front of his entire court?
Violettes du Czar is too new to have even an entry page on Fragrantica yet, and there is nothing on Basenotes, so you’re stuck with my opinion for now. I think it’s a lovely scent with a very high-quality feel and a definite elegance about it. I also think that it’s well priced at €120 or $165 for a 100 ml bottle of eau de parfum. It has not yet arrived at Luckyscent, Oriza’s American distributor, or at any of Oriza’s European retailers, but it should soon.
However, Violettes du Czars is already available from Oriza L. Legrand, along with several other new scents which I will be reviewing in the upcoming days. First, there is there is Heliotrope Blanc (1886) which is, as its name suggests, a heliotrope fragrance that also includes almond, orange blossom, mimosa, rice powder, benzoin, and tonka. Then, there is Marrions-Nous (“Let’s get married”)(1928) whose notes include orange blossom water, rose, iris, carnation, jasmine, tonka, civet, aldehydes, sandalwood, and musk tonkin. I’ve been told that shipping to the U.S. is free for all full bottle purchases. [Update 12/14: I have posted full reviews for Marrion-Nous and Heliotrope Blanc.] [UPDATE 1/8/15: Luckyscent just received Violettes du Czar and the other two, new fragrances.]
All of this brings me to something that I love about Oriza as a modern brand: they go out of their way to make things easy for people to try their scents because they have a super, very affordable sample program that they ship worldwide. It’s gotten even better now, in my opinion, because it’s expanded to let you choose whichever 7 scents you would like to try out of Oriza’s full range of 14 fragrance. It’s only €20 or roughly $24, and each of the 7 samples come in a generous 2 ml glass spray atomizer. It’s a very good deal, if you ask me. I’ve covered all the older Oriza releases, so you can look at my reviews if you want ideas on which 7 fragrances might appeal most to your tastes.
At the end of the day, if you love violets but also want something a little more to go along with it — a little extra edge as in perhaps leather, iris, and amber — then you really should try Violettes du Czar. After all, don’t you want to know what His Imperial Majesty, “By the grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of Russia, Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, and Novgorod,” as well as “Tsar of Kazan, Astrakhan, Poland, Siberia, Tauric Khersones, and Georgia,” and Prince of about 9,000 other places smelled like?
Disclosure: My sample was courtesy of Oriza L. Legrand. That did not influence this review, I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.