‘Supermarket’ and ‘garage forecourt’ carnations are mostly a huge disappointment because the spicy, clove-y smell you get when burying your nose in a garden-picked bloom is generally missing. Actually, it’s a flower closer to the cottage garden ‘pink’ – similar to the variety so loved by British gardeners, and known as ‘clove-pink’ – which is used in perfumery. (Carnation absolute is only produced in the south of France, though.)
Unpick the chemical structure of this plant and you’ll find it’s incredibly rich in an aroma compound called eugenol – so quite often, what you smell in a perfume hasn’t come from a plant at all, but has been synthesised. The price of the natural ingredient probably doesn’t help: it takes 500 kilos of flowers to produce one kilo of ‘concrete’, and about one-tenth that quantity of absolute.
Once upon a time (in the Victorian/Edwardian era), carnation was hugely fashionable (and if you ever manage to get your hands on a bottle of Caron’s now-extinct Bellodgia, you can experience just why it was so beloved). Now it has a somewhat old-fashioned, great-aunt-ish image, which means carnation tends to be consigned the chorus of a perfume rather than placed in the spotlight. Nonetheless, this piquant spicy flower is a cornerstone of many, many Ambrée perfumes, adding a delicious, almost nose-tingling brightness, and complementing the floral notes: carnation and rose, in particular, were just made for each other.
Smell carnation in: