< Back to Newsletters

Violets of Grasse Newsletter

And down the lanes of memory bloom all the flowers of yesteryear,violets

And looking back we smile to see life's bright red roses reappear,
The little sprigs of mignonette that smiled upon us as we passed,
The pansy and the violet, too sweet, we thought those days, to last.

The gentle mother by the door caresses still her lilac blooms,
And as we wander back once more we seem to smell the old perfumes,
We seem to live again the joys that once were ours so long ago
When we were little girls and boys, with all the charms we used to know.
--Edgar Albert Guest

The perfume of the violet is unparalleled: sweet, warm and romantic, ready to make our lives more beautiful and easier.

The violet stands for humbleness and modesty. However, joy, reminiscence and reflection are also included in its power. Its perfume is a transient medium between the past and the present. It is impossible to get too much of it. It is intangible, no sooner has it been perceived than it is lost again. Violets deserve much more attention in our gardens. It is a pity that they have gone out of fashion and many delightful varieties have been lost. A renaissance would be highly welcome for both the violets and us - a request of the new millennium.
from: Viola (Violets) by Helga Urban

When my mother and I lived in the Sierra Nevada mountains where we had a small enterprise for growing fresh and dried flowers for the local farmers markets and for making botanical wreaths. It was a turn-of-the-century homestead which had a number of old fruit trees underneath which grew wild violets. Sometimes when one would be out on a warm spring day working in the garden the exquisite delicate aroma of violets would waft through the air filling the heart with a wonderful delight and joy.

As I began to research the history of Violets in and around Grasse the subject so much interested me that I decided to see if some of the old Parma Violets could still be procured for planting in the garden. My quest led to me to Canyon Creek Nursery in California with the result that I ordered a number of Parma violets and other scented varieties to plant beneath our Japanese maple trees. As I sit writing the newsletter I am waiting for the box to arrive containing these delicate botanical treasures which will help bestow an antique charm upon our garden.

In this issue we are going to continue on with the series of important perfume plants of Grasse and the role they have played in the world of natural aromatics over the years. Violets have been cultivated in France as early as the 14th century and as Grasse evolved into one of the worlds's great perfume capitols in the late 19th and early 20th century it was cultivated on a large commercial scale both for the extraction of the sublime perfume of the delicate flowers(Violet Flower absolute) and the unique aroma of the leaves(Violet Leaf Absolute) Today only the later absolute remains available for the creative perfume to use because of the great expense involved in picking the light delicate flowers but we can at least try to envision that era when millions of tiny blossoms were harvested by nimble deft fingers to be transformed into on of the most sublime essences imaginable.

Before continuing into the specifics of the evolution of the violet in Grasse's illustrious perfume history, I would like to briefly mention something about the human side of the story of natural essence production. It is comparatively easy for us to procure high quality essences in the form of absolutes, attars, co2 extracts and essential oils but in doing so we may forget how much hard work goes into harvesting or collecting the plants that go into their creation. When we examine the photos of the people involved in collecting the violet blossoms it may be worth while for us to spend a bit of time thinking just how time consuming, back bending, and delicate that work must have been. Hour after hour nimble fingers picked away very carefully at the low growing perennials to collect a small number of flowers. My recollection is that it required 40 million violet blossoms to make 35 ounces/1 kilo of Violet Flower Absolute. This is no doubt and extreme example of the labor intensive nature of the industry but still today many aromatic plants are cultivated and harvested by hand and it would greatly enhance our appreciation of the final product if we made a regular practice of appreciating and honoring the many unseen workers who play such a vital role in bringing into our lives essences of delight and joy.

The source of Violet Leaf Absolute and Violet Flower Absolute was originally the Parma Violet.

"Parma violets are the exotic members of the violet family. They appeared in Italy, in the 16th century, introduced by the Bourbons (the ruling dynasty of the times) who in turn brought them from Spain or Portugal.

The origins of this plant are still shrouded in mystery. Some experts claim they originate in North Africa while others believe they come from the Near East. Whichever proves to be true, the fact remains that these plants originate in a warm climate as all of them are, without doubt, sensitive to cold weather and should be given protection in winter, usually in a cold frame or greenhouse.

First imported into Naples, the parma was taken by Count Brazza to Udine in the latter part of the 19th century"
from: Parma Violets by Peter Robinson

When France began its own violet growing industry it imported the parma violet from Italy and from the original plants they obtained, a hardier strain was selected which was given the name Victoria Violet. The aroma was not quite as refined as the original Parma violets but they were hardier and less disease prone so their cultivation was quickly adopted for commercial production.

The parmas are my favorite violets not only because of the mystery that surrounds their geographical and botanical origins, but because hey also have the best perfume and the sweetest of flowers. Unfortunately there are only a few varieties left now. As far as I know, the area of Toulouse ( South West France) is the last place on earth where a parma variety(Victoria) is still widely grown commercially.

The parmas first appeared in France around the 1750’s where they were mentioned as being in private gardens. From the 1850’s, they were grown in the green belts of numerous towns including Paris, Angoulème, Lyon and Toulouse.. Why then did they survive only in Toulouse ? It was probably because there was to the north of Lalande, avery special community of vegetable growers that had integrated an old and strong culture of violets. It is also true that the industries for perfume, liqueurs and candies that had occurred in the past when there was a lot of production ,are still surviving here, and have helped to restore the old emblem when it nearly died out, 20 years ago...
from: Those Wonderful Parmas-Nathalie Casbas

The violet has figured as a symbol of Toulouse since the 14th century, when annually a violet of gold was awarded the city's best poet. By 1854, a particular strain of Parma violet appeared in culture at Saint-Jory, near Toulouse. Its origins are clouded in mystery, but this very double and rather tender plant rapidly became established among area growers, largely thanks to a tome published on its culture by a botanist-pharmacist named Timbal-Lagrave. The plants were mostly sterile and so had to be vegetatively propagated.

The complex cultural cycle for this tender violet hasn't really changed since first described by Timbal-Lagrave. In September, stolons are removed from the mother plants and planted in a coldframe or greenhouse to produce new plants. These are planted out the following April through May in raised beds of fertile, well-drained soil. During summer, the plants are drastically cut back to reduce heat stress and disease problems. They are also sheltered with shadecloth from the brunt of the summer sun. The blossoms are harvested from October through March.

All of this requires lots of painstaking hand labor. And of course, this being France, violet growers have developed their own special tools adapted to the culture of this special plant. The most touching display I saw at the violet fair was a collection of antique tools used for growing violets (photo below left). Among these was a plantoir or dibble made from a branch of wood naturally shaped to the purpose (like a relaxed "L"). I have several such dibbles in my own tool selection and even have one for sale on this site!

I have always been somewhat puzzled by Parma violets. Just what are they, botanically speaking? No one seems to know, exactly. The plant first appeared in Parma, Italy, introduced by the Bourbon rulers of the time. It had been discovered in Spain or Portugal, but clearly had origins elsewhere--in North Africa or the Middle East. As far as I know, it has never been found in the wild.

A grower at the Toulouse market told me that the Parma is a hybrid of Viola odorata and V. suavis. In fact, Toulouse's violet is known officially as V. suavis 'Parme de Toulouse.' At any rate, my guess is that as the Parma violets are double and usually sterile, they are probably the result of natural or induced interspecific hybridization. One thing is certain: the Parma violet is a tender plant and must be overwintered under glass in all but the mildest climates. At the same time, it endures hot and humid summer weather very poorly. Not what you'd call an all-around great garden plant.
from: La Fête des Violettes

The image of the violet is inseparably connected with the name of Maria Luigia, second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla from 1816 to 1847.

In 1815, even before her arrival in Italy, she wrote from the Shonbrunn Palace to her lady-in-waiting in Paris: “Please obtain for me some Parma violets, with written instructions on how to plant them and have them bloom; I hope they grow well since I am becoming a botany scholar and I will be happy to grow this graceful little flower again…”

As soon as she arrived in Parma, she personally took charge of their cultivation both in the Botanic Garden she had wanted and the garden of her summer residence in Colorno. Maria Luigia also used the violet, and in particular its color, as a personal mark. In some letters a painted violet takes the place of her signature and she wanted violet to be the color of her Page’s uniforms, her courtiers’ dress, as well as that of her own capes.

The perfume “Violetta de Parma” owes its very existence to Maria Luigia and her love of this flower. It was she who encouraged and supported research by the monks at the Monastery of the Annunciata who, after long and patient work, succeeded in obtaining an essence from the flower and its leaves which was identical to that of the violet. The first bottles of the Violetta di Parma, produced thanks to the skill of the monks, were made solely for the personal use of the Duchess Maria Luigia. It was around 1870 when Lodovico Borsari, obtained from these same monks the jealously guarded secret formula for the preparation of this perfume and, with a great foresight, had the idea of producing it for a wider audience.

from: Borsari Italian Fragrance History
Violet scents had thus an extraordinary vogue throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, a phenomenon for which there is no other explanation but the strength of the symbolism this flower engenders, synonymous with the ideals of modesty expressed in the language of flowers ó an idiom women of the time mastered perfectly. The manuals of manners raised then a unanimous cry: “Iris, violet are to be recommended”. Both economic and social factors interacted to sustain the longevity of the vogue for violet : the end of the century was consecrated to its reign when, in 1893, Tiemann and Kruger, at the end of lengthy research on this subject, succeeded in synthesizing ionon, which smells of both violet and iris. In 1910, there were six lines of violet-perfumed products that co-exist in the catalogues of Roger & Gallet. In 1905 the Vera Violetta range included thirty-one references to sixteen different products, testimony to the continuing power of this scent. This huge success must not mask however the gradual loss of prestige linked to its social diffusion.

On 2 October 1861, Prince Charles Egon of Furstenberg orders three little jars of Pommade de l’Impératrice scented with Violette de Parme from Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain. But this scent did not remain an élite commodity for every long. In February 1869 Octave Mouret put a silver fountain of violet water in the middle of his department store, Au Bonheur des dames, on the day of the linen sale he organised; this scent was now synonymous with bourgeoisie. By 1880, violet had become Nana’s perfume, in Zola’s classic tale of a prostitute’s reign in the fashionable demi-monde. Thus violet perfume went through various cultural associations over time, as well as permeating various social ranks. Its diffusion was facilitated by both the drop in production costs and in price, its fashion kept alive by the tendency to imitation described by Georg Simmel, its reception among consumers sustained by the complexities within the cultural matrix through which it diffused. from: Fashion Sprayed and Displayed:The Market for Perfumery in Nineteenth-Century Paris

Napoleon Bonaparte selected the violet as his signature flower. When Josephine died in 1814, he had her grave covered with violet plants and when he left for Elba he promised his confidential friends that he would return in the violet season. He became known as Corporal Violet. When it was known that he had landed at Fréjus, a multitude of women appeared on the streets of Paris selling violets for his friends to wear without arousing suspicion. The code was, ‘Aimez vous les violettes?’ (do you like violets?) and on answering ‘yes’ it was certain they were of the party and not the confederation. Shortly before he went was finally exiled to St Helena Napoleon visited Josephine’s grave and picked some flowers from it. After his death, these were found in a locket he had always worn around his neck.

The popularity of violet scented fragrances (sweet powdery notes) was particularly high during the 19th century and the demand for essence of violets was far greater than the manufacturers were able to supply. At the time the violet note was derived from Parma violet (Viola odorata L., fam. Violaceae). Using natural violet, in 1924, in honour of the flower of his native Toulouse, perfumer Pierre Berdoues created “Violette de Toulouse”.

Violets in production
The first plantations in Grasse date back to 1867. To begin with, the perfume from the violet flowers was extracted by enfleurage, followed by solvent extraction of the leaf at the end of the 19th century.

In 1900, 200 tonnes of Parma and Victoria violet flowers were distilled and 100 tonnes of leaves. The Parma violet, replaced little by little by the Victoria, had disappeared completely from Grasse by 1932. Until the 1940s both leaf and flower were used but the yield of extraction from the flower was so poor that it became more profitable to recreate it with synthetic products and concentrate on using the leaves.

In the 1970s, 300 to 400 tonnes of leaves of Viola odorata were distilled. Violet leaf lends a cut grass and sliced cucumber note to fragrances, quite different from the sweet and powdery scent of violet flowers. Egypt is a major producer of violet leaf absolute. The leaf is an exceptional addition to the perfumer’s palette and synthetics do not offer the same diffusion or colour. Along with galbanum it also offers the only other natural green tint that can be used in perfumery.

After some years of decline, the 80's saw a revival of the flowers, with Tourettes sur Loup regenerating its plantations with more than 12 hectares of plantations. Toulouse has remained a centre for cut flowers ever since.

from: Fragrance: The sweetness of violets
The flowers are picked between 15th October and 15th March, in bouquets of 25 flowers, surrounded by a halo of leaves. At the end of the season, when flowering is more abundant, the flower is picked without its stem for sweet-making (7600 flowers per kilogram). At the beginning of May and at the end of July, the leaves are torn out and delivered the same day to the perfume factories in Grasse to be transformed into the essences that are used in the fabrication of numerous famous perfumes.

from: Tourrette, City of Violets

Violet Flower Absolute is a greenish-olive colored or cream green, viscous liquid of very delicate, sweet-floral odor, truly reminiscent of the violet flowers only when diluted below 1 percent in an odorless solvent... True violet absolute could be used in high class perfumes along with cassie absolu†e, mimosa, boronia,costus, orris, clove bud absolute, ylang absolute, sandalwood oil, bergamot oil, etc-
--Steffen Arctander

Violet Leaf Absolute is a viscous liquid, intensely dark green and possessing a very powerful, peculiar odor, truly a green-leaf odor, but with an indisputable floral and delicate note which makes it immediately reminiscent of violets in a bouquet(flowers, stems, and leaves).
...Violet leaf is used extensively in perfumery where its tremendous diffusion and delicate naturalness is obtainable at very low concentrations of the absolute in a perfume or base.
...In certain floral bases , e.g. hyacinth, mugeut, reseda, violet, and in high class chypres... it lends an unsurpassed elegance when skillfully used.
It blends excellently with tuberose, narcissus, tea leaf absolute, michelia leaf eo, kadam attar, boronia, clary sage absolute, tarragon eo, cumin eo, basil eo, etc.
--Steffen Arctander

Violet in Literature

"That was the thrush's last good-night," I thought,
And heard the soft descent of summer rain
In the drooped garden leaves; but hush! again
The perfect iterence,--freer than unsought
Odours of violets dim in woodland ways,
Deeper than coiled waters laid a-dream
Below mossed ledges of a shadowy stream,
And faultless as blown roses in June days.
Full-throated singer! art thou thus anew
Voiceful to hear how round thyself alone
The enriched silence drops for thy delight
More soft than snow, more sweet than honey-dew?
Now cease: the last faint western streak is gone,
Stir not the blissful quiet of the night.
The Singer
by Edward Dowden (1843-1913)

All things that pass
Are woman's looking-glass;
They show her how her bloom must fade,
And she herself be laid
With withered roses in the shade;
With withered roses and the fallen peach,
Unlovely, out of reach
Of summer joy that was.

All things that pass
Are women's tiring-glass;
The faded lavender is sweet,
Sweet the dead violet
Culled and laid by and cared for yet;
The dried-up violets and dried lavender
Still sweet, may comfort her,
Nor need she cry Alas!

All things that pass
Are wisdom's looking-glass;
Being full of hope and fear, and still
Brimful of good or ill,
According to our work and will;
For there is nothing new beneath the sun;
Our doings have been done,
And that which shall be was.
Passing and Glassing
by Christina Georgina Rossetti

It is called the Laughing Valley because everything there is happy and gay. The brook chuckles to itself as it leaps rollicking between its green banks; the wind whistles merrily in the trees; the sunbeams dance lightly over the soft grass, and the violets and wild flowers look smilingly up from their green nests. To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content. And throughout the Laughing Valley of Santa Claus contentment reigns supreme.
A Kidnapped Santa Claus
by L. Frank Baum

BUY my English posies!
Kent and Surrey may—
Violets of the Undercliff
Wet with Channel spray;
Cowslips from a Devon combe—
Midland furze afire—
Buy my English posies
And I’ll sell your heart’s desire!
The Seven Seas
The Flowers
by Rudyard Kipling

Here now stood the tomb as the men had stated, snow-white and shapely in the gloom, consisting of head and foot-stone, and enclosing border of marble-work uniting them. In the midst was mould, suitable for plants.Troy deposited his basket beside the tomb, and vanished for a few minutes. When he returned he carried a spade and a lantern, the light of which he directed for a few moments upon the marble, whilst he read the inscription. He hung his lantern on the lowest bough of the yew-tree, and took from his basket flower-roots of several varieties. There were bundles of snow-drop, hyacinth and crocus bulbs, violets and double daisies, which were to bloom in early spring, and of carnations, pinks, picotees, lilies of the valley, forget-me-not, summer's-farewell, meadow-saffron and others, forthe later seasons of the year.
Far From the Madding Crowd
by Thomas Hardy

There was in this room a harmony, a quiet order and a soothing quality which made it a haven of rest to a literary man with jagged nerves. Two big bronze bowls were filled with early violets, another blazed like a pale sun with primroses, and the early woodland flowers filled the room with a faint fragrance.
Clue of the Twisted Candle
by Edgar Wallace

It was a splendid world. From the tall pinnacle of rock on which they stood it looked like a great sea of sunlight, with only here and there patches of white snow where the winter winds had piled it deep. Their ridge rose up out of a great valley. On all sides of them, as far as a man's eye could have reached, there were blue and black patches of forest, the shimmer of lakes still partly frozen, the sunlit sparkle of rivulet and stream, and the greening open spaces out of which rose the perfumes of the earth. These smells drifted up like tonic and food to the nostrils of Noozak the big bear. Down there the earth was already swelling with life. The buds on the poplars were growing fat and near the bursting point; the grasses were sending out shoots tender and sweet; the camas were filling with juice; the shooting stars, the dog-tooth violets, and the spring beauties were thrusting themselves up into the warm glow of the sun, inviting Noozak and Neewa to the feast. All these things Noozak smelled with the experience and the knowledge of twenty years of life behind her -- the delicious aroma of the spruce and the jackpine; the dank, sweet scent of water- lily roots and swelling bulbs that came from a thawed-out fen at the foot of the ridge; and over all these things, overwhelming their individual sweetnesses in a still greater thrill of life, the smell of the heart itself!

Nomads Of The North
A Story Of Romance And Adventure Under The Open Stars
by James Oliver Curwood

Now from the shuttered east a silvery bar
Shines through the mist, and shows the mild daystar.
The storm-wrapped peaks start out and fade again,
And rosy vapours skirt the pastoral plain;
The garden paths with hoary rime are wet;
And sweetly breathes the winter violet;
The jonquil half unfolds her ivory cup,
With clouds of gold-eyed daisies waking up.
--Edward Booth Loughran

From violet-banks the scent-clouds float away
And spread around their fragrance, as of sleep:
From ev'ry mossy nook the blossoms peep;
From ev'ry blossom comes one little ray
That makes the world-wealth one with Spring, alway
Soft, low and sweet.
--by Maui Victor

Though all these transactions had been widely reported by the Jacksons a sporting minority still clung to the belief that old Catherine would appear in church, and there was a distinct lowering of the temperature when she was found to have been replaced by her daughter-in-law. Mrs. Lovell Mingott had the high colour and glassy stare induced in ladies of her age and habit by the effort of getting into a new dress; but once the disappointment occasioned by her mother-in-law's non-appearance had subsided, it was agreed that her black Chantilly over lilac satin, with a bonnet of Parma violets, formed the happiest contrast to Mrs. Welland's blue and plum-colour. Far different was the impression produced by the gaunt and mincing lady who followed on Mr. Mingott's arm, in a wild dishevelment of stripes and fringes and floating scarves; and as this last apparition glided into view Archer's heart contracted and stopped beating.
Age of Innocense
by Edith Wharton

Lady Molly was at work with the chief over some reports, whilst I was taking shorthand notes at a side desk, when a card was brought in by one of the men, and the next moment, without waiting either for permission to enter or to be more formally announced, a magnificent apparition literally sailed into the dust-covered little back office, filling it with an atmosphere of Parma violets and Russia leather.
I don't think that I had ever seen a more beautiful woman in my life. Tall, with a splendid figure and perfect carriage, she vaguely reminded me of the portraits one sees of the late Empress of Austria. This lady was, moreover, dressed to perfection, and wore a large hat adorned with a quantity of plumes.
Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910, 1926 ed.)
by Baroness Orczy

I closed the windows and returned to a further inspection of the room, stopping before the open trunk to examine some of the many books it contained. One by one I opened and examined the volumes; a few of them were romances of the Laura Jean Libbey school of fiction, but the majority were hymnals inscribed severally on the fly-leaf with the names "Faith Manners," "Hope Manners," "Patience Manners." Across the room the bottles on the mantel shone vaguely in the shadow. I carried the lamp over, and placing it in the little cleared-out space among them, began to examine the bottles with idle curiosity. "Wild Crab Apple," "Jockey Club," "Parma Violet," "Heliotrope," I read on the dainty labels, lifting out the ground-glass corks and smelling the lingering fragrance which yet attached to each empty vial. Of these there must have been two dozen or more.
The long day
the story of a New York working girl (1905)
by "Dorothy Richardson"

Spring Violets Perfume
This new addition to the recipe collection features those essential oils, c02 extracts and absolutes which share qualities found in the violet range of aromas. Violet Leaf, of course, is central to the creation of a violet themed aroma with its penetrating green leafy herbaceous notes concealed within which one finds the delicate floral notes of the delicate flowers. To bring the violet flower notes out the orris root co2 extract is drawn upon as it contains the lovely ionone aroma molecule which predominates in the flowers. A number of other precious essences contribute to the overall bouquet which is meant to create the rustic feeling of warmth, simplicity, and innocence that surround this sweet and humble plant.

Here is a brief description of the different essences that contribute to the overall bouquet of Spring Violet Perfume:

Cassie (Acacia farnesiana) Absolute-dark yellow or pale brown viscous liquid, with extremely warm, powdery spicy odor which is at the same time herbaceous and floral with a deep and very tenacious cinnamic-balsamic undertone.

Mimosa (Acacia decurrens, A. dealbata and several other Acacia species) Absolute-a very viscous, amber or yellowish viscous liquid or semi solid mass. It has a very rich , floral-woody, slightly green odor resembling cassie . It is sweeter, more natural flower like but less spicy complex than cassie

Oakmoss (Ervenaria prunasti)Absolute-a dark green semi-solid or solid mass with a dry, woody-earthy, slightly tar-like but delicate and pleasant odor, reminiscent of seashore, forest, bark, green foliage, wood and tannery

Orris Root CO2-solid pale beige waxy mass with a woody, fatty-oily, distinctly violet-like odor, with a fruity undertone, sweet-floral, warm and tenacious

Ambrette CO2-solid pale beige waxy mass to transparent viscous liquid with rich, sweet, floral-musky, distinctly wine-like or brandy-like odor with a bouquet and roundness rarely found in any other perfume material

Costus Root Essential Oil -pale yellow to brownish yellow, viscous liquid with a peculiar soft, but extremely tenacious odor, reminiscent of old, precious wood, orris root, fatty (but not rancid) acids with a distinctly animalic or sebaceous undertone.

Spring Violets Perfume recipe

1/4 ounce Violet Leaf Absolute
1/2 ounce Cassie Absolute
1/4 ounce Oakmoss Absolute
1/8 ounce Orris Root CO2
1/4 ounce Mimosa Absolute
1/4 ounce Ambrette Seed CO2
1 ounce Sandalwood New Caledonia
1/8 ounce Rose Otto
1/8 Costus Root Essential Oil