Penhaligon’s new Ostara is an ode to Springtime and daffodils. It is also one of those rare scents whose opening left me wishing I had poetic talent in order to convey its exquisite beauty and the multitude of images which it inspired in my head. I wished I could paint like an Impressionist master, so that I could capture its rare sense of luminosity. I wished there were a way I could adequately express its essence, its intricate delicacy, and Bertrand Duchaufour‘s technical brilliance — which is on full display here, more than usual, in my opinion. I looked for sonnets, paintings, something, to convey just what the spectacular opening felt and did to me, but I failed time and again, because everything seemed trite or a clichéd in comparison. Perhaps that is because Ostara’s deceptively simple, seemingly unadorned opening is ultimately more of a rapturous sensation than a bouquet of notes. It’s as though a moment in place and time — as well as all the radiant light of that day — had been squeezed into one bottle. I wish I had the poetic words….
Ostara is a new eau de toilette that was released a few weeks ago. On its website, Penhaligon’s describes the scent as follows:
Introducing Ostara, the beautiful new solar floral inspired by the ultimate spring time bloom, the daffodil. Master Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour created the fragrance, using his own childhood memories of abundant, sweet narcissus flowers in Auvergne, in France to capture the optimism and sunlight that spring brings. Named after the Goddess of Spring, Ostara represents resurgence from bulb to bud to bloom.
Ostara opens in an affirming burst of green and yellow: Juniper, Violet Leaf Absolute and Spearmint are layered against vibrant notes of Aldehydes, Blackcurrant and Clementine. Narcissus Absolute leads the sun-drenched floral bouquet, gathered with Hyacinth, Hawthorn, and Cyclamen, which are given depth by the humming warmth of beeswax. The fragrance then settles into a powdered, resinous base of Benzoin, Vanilla, Styrax, Amber and White Wood effects.
Penhaligon’s official list of notes omits a few things mentioned in that description while adding several others, like bergamot, red berries, ylang-ylang, wisteria. As a result, places like Luckyscent (which just posted the fragrance yesterday on its site) combines them all together for a more complete list:
Clementine, Bergamot, Red Berries CO2, Juniper, Spearmint, Blackcurrant Bud CO2, Violet Leaf Absolute, Leafy Effects, Aldehydes, Hyacinth, Narcissus Absolute, Beeswax Absolute, Cyclamen, Ylang Ylang, Hawthorn, Wisteria, Styrax Resinoid, Vanilla, Benzoin, Musk, Amber, White Wood Effects.
That note list is a very long one, but I think it is significant for one key reason: many of those elements share facets similar to those of a daffodil. I think we’re all familiar with the flower’s aroma as a whole, but have you ever stopped to think about the various parts which, together, make up that bouquet? While many people know that daffodils have an undertone of dry hay, others may not notice that the flower also bears tiny whiffs of something herbaceous and grassy like mint. As for their floral sweetness, it is simultaneously: heady, nectared, and dewy in a manner similar to hyacinths; and creamy and sometimes indolic like jasmine (or ylang-ylang). As perfumer Ayala Moriel explains on her blog, Smelly Thoughts, it even sometimes sharing a green-white floral nuance similar to tuberose. Yet, all those intoxicating layers also come with a bitter greenness that resembles tomato leaves, an astringency that can be replicated via the scent of violet leaf and black currant (which I call “cassis”).
If not handled deftly, narcissus absolute (which is the concentrated form used here) can take on rotting, indolic, and/or smoky undertones, similar to that which may come, respectively, from: hawthorn; an indolic flower like ylang-ylang; or smoky styrax resin. Yet, a lot of the time, daffodils have a clean freshness, which might be similar to a restrained use of aldehydes. (As a side note, the word “daffodils” is commonly used as a generic, blanket description for three different flowers: daffodils, narcissi, and jonquils. Technically, all of them belong in the over-arching narcissus genus, but “daffodils” are the large, yellow trumpeted sort, while narcissi are the white or white-yellow variety that are sometimes called paperwhites. I’ll just use the two words interchangeably, since I can’t tell any difference in scent.)
What Mr. Duchaufour has so cleverly done here with that long list of notes is to layer a variety of materials that share some facet or another with a daffodil in order to recreate the flower’s smell in the most photorealistic way possible. He’s covered every whiff, every subtext, and every possible angle imaginable to go beyond the mere floral sweetness that lies on the surface. He’s done so in a manner where each note is individually clear, up close, if you focus, during the first few hours and, yet, you’re primarily struck by the sum total — the larger picture, so to speak. I think the naturalism of the bouquet is such that some people won’t realise all the underlying cogs and wheels that have created that portrait, so perhaps Mr. Duchaufour’s greatest magician’s trick is the way Ostara’s seamless complexity creates the illusion of simplicity. Or, perhaps, it’s the fact that you’re left feeling as though you’ve bathed in luminous light at the very pinnacle of Spring, creating a mood and situation in time rather than simply a cocktail of raw materials.
So, that is the general overview of Ostara, a framework within which we can discuss the perfume’s specifics. Ostara opens on my skin in a burst of floral luminosity centered on the nectared sweetness of daffodils. Their fat, buttery, sunny petals are caressed by the green fingers of its astringent-smelling leaves, smudged with the dewy, purple liquidity of hyacinths, and then sprinkled with strands of hay and straw. A trace of earthiness lingers at the base below, the dark earth of sweet, slightly damp loamy soil through which green shoots of grass, mint, and violet leaf are poking out their heads in response to Spring’s clarion call. They are the most fragile of notes at first, but they start to grow, sprouting through the sweet earth to wind their way around the two flowers at Ostara’s heart. It’s a breathtaking bouquet that imbues you with shining light, but my main feeling was that a breathless floral tenderness had kissed my skin with the very embodiment of Spring’s fragility, hopefulness, and budding sweetness.
It’s a tableau that is always evolving, deepening, and gaining new layers. 15 minutes in, a shadow of darkness falls upon the yellow prism, smelling of the cassis absolute that Mr. Duchaufour loves to use these days. It’s a subtly musky note that is surrounded by green leafiness, rather than juicy fruitiness. Truth be told, I smell nothing fruity about Ostara, regardless of the 3 or 4 varieties in the note list. Instead, I smells slivers of smokiness and a drop of woodiness. Much more noticeable, however, is the green astringency of the narcissus. On Ms. Moriel’s site, I read that narcissus absolute can take on a noxious odor akin to rotting, gaseous wet weeds, which may be why one of my blog’s commentators said she often experiences a gasoline aroma. The latter isn’t present here, but Ostara definitely has an undercurrent which, up close, if you really focus, truly does resemble the smell of wet, rotting, green weeds.
That sounds far worse than it is, especially as it is a subtle nuance and it actually works really well here. For one thing, it counterbalances the sweetness of the daffodils (which is starting to share some overlap with the sweetness found in fresh jasmine), as well as the growing prominence of the hyacinth with its equally sweet, floral liquidity. For another, it adds to the realism of the bouquet. Let’s face it, both those flowers have a definite bitter greenness in nature, whether it is the crushed sap of the hyacinth’s stems, or the more piquant, tomato-leaf aroma of the daffodil’s stalk, sepal, and leaves. Mr. Duchaufour has cleverly incorporated just enough of the murky, bitter, and astringent qualities to create a true-to-life rendition of the flowers, rather than a laboratory-made concoction that is merely sweet floralcy. Plus, the darker, green sides adds a more unisex quality to the scent, thereby enabling men who enjoy daffodils to wear Ostara without feeling their scent is excessively “femme.”
All of that brings me to my next point: one of the things that I appreciate about Ostara’s opening phase in the first two hours is the very deft balance of notes. Nothing about the scent is too sweet or, at this stage, too astringent. I never feel as though I were wearing a green floral and, while the notes mention bergamot as well as the often lemony-green scented violet leaf, Ostara doesn’t feel at all citrusy either. There is no fruitiness, and even the dark shadows from the cassis and dark earth can’t alter the fragrance’s glowing orb of radiant sunniness. As for the flowers that are Ostara’s focal point, they never feel gooey, syrupy, or like molasses. More importantly, they aren’t shrill and don’t smell synthetic. Instead, they are smooth, their sweetness offset by other elements, and only their very best features are highlighted.
Take the hyacinth, for example. It is one of my favorite flowers, both in life as well as perfumery, so I’m rather thrilled by its power here. It never smells nebulously abstract or noxiously bitter, two things which characterized the flower in Mugler‘s Supra Floral (Les Exceptions Collection). In Ostara, though, it has the narcotic, intoxicating, concentrated pastel sweetness that is the most beautiful part of the flower, along with a liquidity that rings out as clear as bell, almost the way orchids do. Yet, at the same time, this heady floralcy is surprisingly refreshing and crisp in Ostara. It’s also laced with the dryness of hay, though the latter isn’t hugely prominent. To my surprise, the hyacinth almost overshadows the daffodil near the end of the first hour, and then, again, much later during the drydown. There is a weird back-and-forth dance with the note on my skin, because it occasionally surges forth as a leader, usually remains as the daffodil’s equal, but sometimes is so weak that it feels as though it’s finally fading away, only to come back 25 minutes later to entwine its purple arms around its sunny playmate. I happen to be delighted over the hyacinth’s prominence, but those with less enthusiasm for the flower may not be quite so keen.
The only parts of Ostara that I don’t like are the clean musk and the extent of the greenness later on. The first time that I tried the scent, I applied only a small quantity: a few spritzes from an atomizer that were roughly equal to 1.5-ish sprays from an actual bottle. The clean musk was noticeable from the start, and grew excessive for my tastes by the start of the 2nd hour. A big part of the problem was how it amplified the narcissus’ tomato leaf-like aroma, while also turning the cassis leaves muskily sharp. In essence, there was simply too much sharpness about the notes as a whole.
Things were better with a larger dosage (roughly equal to 3 large sprays from a bottle) because the other elements bloomed more strongly to alleviate a portion of the sharpness, causticity, and clean freshness but, even then, it still wasn’t as smooth or gentle as I would have liked. After Parfums d’Empire‘s Corsica Furiosa, I’ve concluded that I really dislike tomato leaf when it is a strong note. While the aroma in Ostara is not as prickly or overpoweringly caustic as it was in the PdE scent, there are times from the 3rd hour onwards where I would have preferred much less of that tomato-leaf-like side altogether, especially when mixed with aldehydic cleanness.
Still, the first two hours are spectacular. Ostara is primarily a beautiful dance between the daffodils and hyacinths, encircled by various forms of leafy greenness like druids bowing before Spring’s floral gods. Once in a while, there are ripples of something that almost feels like heady wisteria coated with honey water, though it could be just part of the hyacinth since the two flowers do share a bit of an olfactory overlap. Adding to the loveliness is the creaminess which awakens in Ostara’s base roughly 90 minutes in. It is simultaneously a textural quality that evokes images of velvety petals coated in clotted cream, but also an olfactory chord whose creamy sweetness mimics lush jasmine. Somehow, it does all that while smelling of nothing else but daffodils. Intellectually, I’m impressed by how the cogs turn; emotionally, I’m floored by the intoxicating quality of the scent, cannot stop sniffing my arm, and keep having visions of radiant light.
Speaking of light of a different sort, Ostara turns soft and wispier by the end of the 2nd hour. It was always an airy scent, even at the start, but it’s turning thinner in body now, despite the daffodil’s creaminess. The projection is only an inch above the skin, at best, and I find myself having to lean in closer and closer to my arm to detect the fragrance’s nuances. There is barely any sillage, either, unless I move my arms quite a bit. On the plus side, though, it takes Ostara 7 hours to turn into a true, full skin scent, even if the vast majority of that time the scent hovers at perhaps 0.5 inches of projection. The 7 hour part is good but, still, how I wish Ostara were an eau de parfum instead of an eau de toilette. Those first two hours would probably blow my mind.
Ostara’s middle or heart stage begins at the start of the 3rd hour. I’m more ambivalent about it, for the reasons previously explained. Though the aldehydes first stirred about 75 minutes into Ostara’s development, they grow really noticeable at the end of the 2nd hour. Or perhaps it’s the blasted white musk that Penhaligon’s likes to employ in all its fragrances that I’ve tried to date. Whatever the source, I’m not keen on it. At around the same time, the green bitterness really surges ahead. The cassis and violet leaf (perhaps the hawthorn as well) have combined into something that really mimics the fuzzy, caustic pungency of crushed tomato leaves. It not only emphasizes the narcissus’ weedy, green legs, but it also cuts through the hyacinth’s heady sweetness, weakening it substantially, at times blotting it out as though it were a dying note. Meanwhile, the sense of darkness is growing stronger, too, though it no longer smells like dark, loamy soil. Rather, it’s more like styrax, a quiet smokiness that creeps at the edges of the daffodil’s sunniness.
By the time the fourth hour rolls around, the balance of notes has shifted quite a bit. The hyacinth has faded away (for now, at least), leaving only a creamy daffodil sweetness blanketed by bitter greenness. The latter is too strong for my personal tastes, and too imbued with aldehydes and/or clean musk. It is even worse when you apply only a small amount of the scent which is why, in my first test, I veered from thoughts of buying a full bottle of Ostara to being much more cautious. Again, quantity makes a difference and my issues are alleviated to an extent when I apply a larger dosage, but I’m still hesitant when I think of Ostara’s middle phase. For other people, I think the matter will come down to a personal taste preference for both clean freshness and astringent greenness. My threshold for the latter is low, and my tolerance for aldehydes or white musk even lower still.
One other issue was noticeable regardless of how much scent I applied, and it’s partially related to the strength of the greener elements. Midway during the 3rd hour, the notes have blurred to such an extent that the daffodil is starting to feel abstract on my skin, more indeterminate and hazy than the clear bell of the first two hours. From afar, I have difficulty in picking it out at times because there is merely floralcy that is sweet, fresh, creamy, and vaguely sunny or spring-like. I should add that “from afar” is technically a bit of an exaggeration because Ostara hovers just above my skin at the 2.5 hour mark and the sillage is extremely low. I think the “tomato leaf” greenness has simply blocked out some of the daffodil’s light (and aroma), muffling it to the point of abstraction.
Ostara continues this way for a number of hours without significant change. Both the creaminess and the aldehydes/musk fluctuate in strength; the daffodil’s nuance of jasmine-like sweetness comes and goes; and the hyacinth pops up in a ghostly manner in the background once in a while. Ostara’s tiny rivulets of styrax smokiness fade away by the 4th hour, and a subtle suggestion of hay replaces it. I think. It’s a little hard to detect the finer details given just how soft the fragrance is, and how all the notes overlap. That said, when I put my nose right on my arm, the scent continues to puff away with decent strength. But the bouquet itself is a bit of a blur centered on sweet, yellow, daffodil-ish floralcy covered with bitter leafiness that is shot through with clean whiteness.
The final drydown begins at the top of the 7th hour and marks a return to form, as well as the bouquet of the first two hours, albeit in a much simpler and softer manner. I’m surprised by two things. First, as the blanket of greenness lifts, the individual notes snap back into focus, regaining clarity, and being much easier to pick out. Second, the hyacinth reappears and, once again, it sometimes overshadows the daffodils. The purple flower is heady, sweet, almost coated with honeyed water, but also imbued with drops of bitter green sap from its stems. The daffodil weaves in and out, occasionally hiding behind its cohort’s skirts, and varying its aroma from sweet hay to fresh, green, bridal jasmine. Once in a blue moon, in Ostara’s base, there is something that almost feels like silky, creamy beeswax meshed with a drop of benzoin-ish vanilla. As a whole, the fragrance is now warmer, smoother, and softer in feel. It is also finally a true skin scent at this point as well.
Ostara continues to be a marriage of daffodils and hyacinth in a Spring wedding until its very end when it final hours when it turns into simple, abstract green floralcy. In total, it lasted just under 12 hours which superb not only for an eau de toilette, but for a floral one on my wonky skin. I rarely experience such numbers for either floral soliflores or floral-dominated mixed scents (which is how I would classify Ostara), and I’m talking about eau de parfums, not the even weaker concentration at play here.
I’m really thinking about buying a bottle of Ostara for myself. While I hesitate for the reasons stated here, something about the opening has entranced me so much that I keep pondering how much I am willing to put up with the green and clean sides later on, not to mention the very low sillage. That last part is another big sticking point for me personally, though it does make Ostara a scent suitable for a conservative office environment. One positive is that Ostara is reasonably priced, though at some places more than others. It officially retails for $150, €120 or £110 for a 100 ml bottle, or $120/€95 for a 50 ml one. The large bottle is obviously a better deal, per ml, and I have my eye on the ones at Luckyscent where the old Penhaligon pricing seems to be in place: only $135 for the 100 ml, and $110 for the small size. (Please don’t tell them that they’re below market!) Even at the regular $150/€120 rate, though, I think Ostara is worth it for those who absolutely adore both daffodils and hyacinths.
On Ostara’s Fragrantica page, the few people who have tested the scent are quite positive about it. One person called it “exquisite,” while another said “this fragance is really something very special.” The one ambivalent review stems from the strength of the hyacinth note which the person found to be “garish” and “discordant” amidst all the daffodils. As I remarked earlier, the strength of the note here will not be to everyone’s tastes, and it clearly wasn’t for that poster though she says that she will probably buy a full bottle nonetheless. One thing I noticed was that the Ostara’s longevity votes tend to be on the low side with the majority (4) choosing “Weak” which translates to a terrible 1 to 2 hours. I think Ostara’s very intimate sillage creates an impression that the fragrance has died rather rapidly, because how many people are going to put their nose right on their skin to detect what’s left after a few hours.
In terms of blog reviews, Mark Behnke of Colognoisseur raves about Ostara. He writes that daffodil is one of his favorite notes in all perfumery, so I think it says something that he finds Ostara to be rarity in how properly it conveys the flower’s true scent. One reason why is because of Ostara’s bitter greenness:
For me the difficulty in getting a daffodil accord correct is in the real flower there is a green astringency that is usually not seen as an asset in a fragrance. In the new Penhaligon’s Ostara perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour makes what I consider a real daffodil perfume.
How M. Duchaufour goes about doing this is to use a cassette of notes made to create that astringent underpinning to the narcissus that makes me think daffodil. Early on he lets Ostara be expansive and sweet before tilting it into something that carries the scent of renewal.
Later, he discusses how Ostara’s heart may be based on the narcissus, “but the green accord is an equal partner in this part of the development.” He obviously liked that part more than I did, but we share a common appreciation for the hyacinth note and how it “really does make this like smelling daffodils growing in the earth after a spring rain.” I encourage you to read the full review if you’re interested in the scent.
The bottom line is that Ostara is a fragrance that all daffodil lovers should try. Really, you should. Forget the technical brilliance and how exceptionally it’s been put together. Ostara succeeds in the most important way of all: it’s an intoxicating fragrance with rare luminosity and great evocative power that makes you come back again and again for another sniff.