Post by Anne-Marie
A while ago a generous perfume penpal sent me a sample of Mary Chess’s White Lilac. I liked it, but nothing about it struck me very forcibly. Maybe this was because the lilac in my own garden had just finished, and there were roses, jasmine and gardenia on the way. Wisteria was blossoming in public gardens near where I work. I was surrounded by natural floral scents and perhaps I didn’t need another at that moment.
With summer flowers now gone, I spritzed it again and was delighted at last by the fresh, spring-in-a-bottle aroma that leapt joyfully out of the sample vial.
White Lilac by Mary Chess 1932
Fragrantica gives these featured accords:
Lilac, wisteria, lily-of-the-valley and musk.
Information about Grace Mary Robinson, née Chess, is scanty and inconsistent, but she was an American woman who, after her marriage in 1907, moved with her husband between London and the US. She loved flowers and in what sounds like a hobby turned into a business, she sold flowers she made herself from metal, clay and parchment. She also created perfumes and White Lilac was the first of many mostly single-note perfumes released between 1932 (some sources say 1930) and the 1990s. She died in 1964.
Chess must have understood perfume as a lifestyle commodity. She sold scented sachets, smelling salts, and even a scented paste that could be painted on the inside of drawers and cupboards. She experimented with charming bottle designs, including a bottle for every chess piece, from a King to a pawn. A chess piece became the symbol of Mary’s flourishing business.
You might think that she was more interested in the decorative and lifestyle aspects of perfume than the actual scent, but White Lilac was popular for many years. Perfume historian Nigel Groom says it was once named as one of the eight great perfumes of the world.
If so, perhaps it was because it offered an alternative to other best-sellers like Chanel No 5, Arpege and Evening in Paris. It is an innocent, rather dainty fragrance with little overt sexual allure, once sometimes marketed to brides. It works best in the opening hour or so, after which it becomes paler and less interesting. That probably just encouraged women to carry it about and spritz again, for the opening is indeed gloriously vivid. I smell mostly lilac and wisteria, green, but also slightly round and fruity.
There are some reviews on Fragrantica and Basenotes. One Fragrantician exclaims:
How can a 50 year old scent smell so fresh and alive? The lilacs are blooming right here in my bedroom.
I don’t know when White Lilac was discontinued but you still see it on auction sites. Mary Chess has gone now, but undemanding floral fragrances never really go out of style. These days several of the niche houses charge dearly for them.
Is this your style of fragrance? Have you tried anything from Mary Chess?