If Muguet Porcelaine were a colour it would be: aqua green with a suggestion of pink
If it were a piece of music, it would be: Alone In Kyoto by Air
If it were a texture, it would be: the flesh of a ripe cantaloupe
It's difficult to know where to begin a review of Muguet Porcelaine... which is probably why, for several weeks, I haven't. Various angles have jostled for attention within my head, but because they're all equally important, they've cancelled each other out and led to nothing more than stultified inertia. For instance, it would be valid to view Muguet within the context of the Hermessence collection, the high-price-tag range devised by Hermès to showcase their perfumer's more impressionistic, haiku-like creative tendencies. It would be similarly valid to consider the perfume in terms of a technical accomplishment: thanks to restrictions on key materials, producing a convincing muguet (ie lily of the valley) has become something of a challenge for scent-makers across the globe. And it would also be valid - nay: crucial! - to evaluate Muguet as the final artistic expression of Hermès' aforementioned perfumer, the one and only Jean-Claude Ellena. Yes, you read that right: the UK release of Muguet Porcelaine was accompanied by official confirmation that this particular fragrance would, indeed, be Ellena's swansong for Hermès.
Of course, I realise that what I really need to do is find a way to hang all those ideas on a single line, like tiny, bell-shaped, white flowers on a delicate stalk. After all, they can't be separated from each other. The difficulty of producing a viable lily of the valley note becomes all the more significant in light of the fact that Ellena chose to make it the focus of his final effort. And this, in turn, adds poignancy to the perfume's inclusion in the Hermessence collection, which has, from its beginning, been Ellena's exclusive playground for technical/artistic exploration. Muguet Porcelaine comes to us as the final gift in a career that has marked countless enviable achievements (Eau De Campagne, Bois Farine, Déclaration, Cologne Bigarade, Terre... we could go on...) But it's also the conclusive Hermès composition from an admirer and student of Edmond Roudnitska, who created not only the very first scent for Hermès (the sweaty-chested Eau D'Hermès from 1951) but also what is widely considered to be the most heart-breaking lily of the valley perfume of all time, Diorissimo (1956). You can see how all these layers and connections tie themselves up in increasingly heavy knots.
Perhaps I should just take my cue from Monsieur Ellena and keep things simple. As an attempt to create a 21st century lily of the valley, Muguet Porcelaine is brave, beautiful and not entirely successful. Presumably in an effort to work his way around today's anti-allergen restrictions, Ellena has decided to create his lily with the help of a melon-like lychee note. This serves to make the muguet not, as the perfume's name would suggest, more fragile, but more aqueous and perhaps even more insistent. It can't be denied that the fruity aspect is incongruous, but even while it disappoints with its lack of realism, it impresses with its sheer chutzpah. You can almost picture Ellena in his lab, trying to formulate an epilogue to an illustrious career, cursing the regulations, refusing to be defeated. That determination - the bloody-minded pursuit of a hopeless cause - is what lends the scent much of its beauty.
Mind you, that's not to say that Ellena's attempt entirely misses the muguet mark. On the contrary, it comes pretty darn close to the centre of the target. Lychee facet aside, it is as green, translucent, rosy, sweet and plasticky as it should be. In addition, it doesn't shy away from the requisite civet note, whose barnyard funk warms the entire composition and - with a tenderness sure to get all us geeky scentusiasts smiling - also echoes Roudnitska's use of the material in both Eau D'Hermès and Diorissimo. In short, it is probably as perfect a lily of the valley as we're likely to get from someone who has to operate within today's rules and isn't willing to churn out mere copies of the work of his predecessors.
And that leads us to the most compelling reason for praising Muguet Porcelaine: Ellena's refusal to sit still. Even though he's long cultivated his own style - for which he's attracted a certain amount of criticism - he's been wary of letting it become static. In his own, distinctive way, he's always pushed himself to present familiar forms in unexpected ways. On the strength of this muguet, and also his recent Eau De Néroli Doré, his appetite for novelty shows no sign of diminishing. Even now, as he approaches the end of this much-respected, prestigious phase of his life, he isn't resting on his laurels. And if that isn't a cause for celebration and applause, I don't know what is.
The official Hermès announcement notwithstanding, I suspect we haven't quite seen the end of Ellena's work: I wouldn't be surprised if, before too long, it pops up in some guise or other somewhere. But if it doesn't, it will be missed. And so will Ellena himself, with his twinkling eyes, his thirst for artistic self-expression and his infectious, enigmatic chuckle.
[Review based on a sample of eau de toilette provided by Hermès in 2016.]