J.W. DOTSON, MD
“Everything – form, movement, number, color, perfume – in the spiritual as well as the natural world is meaningful, reciprocal, converse, correspondent.”
RÉFLEXIONS SUR QUELQUES-UNS DE MES CONTEMPORAINS, 1885
Colors and perfumes call to each other, or as Baudelaire tells us , they “correspond” and propagate messages so that touching one causes a sympathetic vibration in another, humming through the luminous Ether. Violet is simultaneously a color, a flower and a perfume; they are mutually resonant and conflated in their qualities.
Violet is a rarity in the natural world of plants and animals, but it is present in deep space and shadows and is at the end of the visible spectrum, the threshold of the invisible.
It had a namesake era : the Mauve Decade of the 1890’s, a time on the edge of tomorrow, a time promising utopias and revolutions, and it was a period of newly discovered radioactivity and x-rays when astrologers first declared an imminent “Age of Aquarius.”
This window of time was named after Mauveine, a synthetic aniline dye first discovered by accident during an attempt by British chemist William Perkin to synthesize quinine in the 1850’s. After a few decades it had become very affordable for fabrics (along with other new synthetic colors) so that by the final decade of the 19th century it seemed to be blossoming everywhere. Purples and violets had previously been the exclusive domain of royalty. For thousands of years the source for this color was Tyrian Purple, a dye that required a secretive process of crushing thousands of rare mollusk shells in order to produce a few grams of color, only enough to color a single garment. Now this synthetic mauve hue became associated with decadent artists and outsiders and particularly belonged to suffragettes and sapphic lovers. It was the calling card of progressive politics , erotic pioneers and transgressors of gender norms. The astrological sign of Aquarius had only recently become associated with the invisible outer planet Uranus, and one of the first sexologists, Karl Ulrich , coined the word “Uranian” as a non-pathological term for same sex attractions. Uranus carries a Promethean push for rebellion and unorthodoxy, and by the early twentieth century it became linked by Theosophists with the occult powers of the Violet Ray and the immortal adept Count St. Germain.
1893: CHICAGO WORLD’S FAIR
It was a dazzling dream of innovation where more than 27 million visitors could watch the first moving pictures, ride on a mechanical walkway and ogle exotic Egyptian Hootchie Coochie dancers. It was a showcase for late Victorian science, on the cusp between classical and modern physics. Electricity as the very force of accelerating futurity had recently captured the imagination of the public with Marie Corelli’s best-selling 1886 fantasy novel A Romance of Two Worlds which featured the immortal Doctor Heliobas , a master of the mystical powers of Electricity who healed the heroine and launched her on an otherworldly out-of-body journey.
In the Electricity Pavilion of the Fair’s White City Nicola Tesla previewed some of his newest devices, including a prototype of what would eventually be know as a “Violet Ray,” a small Tesla Coil with a glass wand that emits an eerie purplish light along with high-voltage discharges like tiny lightning bolts, and the scent of ozone. It was soon appropriated by French doctors eager to exploit the wizard’s electricity to heal skin conditions and then later a multitude of ailments, and was later promoted by the early 20th century celebrity seer, Edgar Cayce, into a staple of metaphysical healing.
The Violet Ray had become a paratechnological cult object: a scientific device seemingly dropped from another dimension, an object with supernatural functions. This was of course the death knell of the device as it soon ran afoul of the FDA who needed to protect the public from medical quackery and they banished it from the world. But they could not banish the inherent magic of everything electromagnetic.
In the 19th century, mesmerists and spiritualists adopted the terminologies of vibrations , invisible rays and magnetic fields to give a theoretical framework and gravitas for paranormal phenomenon like ghosts and telepathy. In 1875 New York, Madame H.P. Blavatsky and colleagues founded the Theosophical Society, a group with a mission to join together perennial mystical wisdom and philosophy with modern science. This was to be a group destined to become an international phenomenon that was a forerunner of everything New Age and promoted the idea of advanced beings with superpowers known as “Ascended Masters” who guided humanity from behind the scenes. Blavatsky presented secret traditions that described an animistic view of electricity and its manifestations as living intelligent entities, as non-human elemental “devas,” and gave the name Fohat to a form of Cosmic Electricity a “One and Seven” life essence that she was later to develop into the color concept of “Seven Rays.”
Her teachings on color correspondences were reserved for her most advanced Esoteric Section students and the work was not published until after her death in 1891. It was left to her successors, Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant to develop the idea of the seven spiritual color divisions, each associated with a life path and a particular guiding Master.
The Seventh Ray, ruler of the color Violet was guided by the Count Saint Germain, aka the Master R. or Master Rakoczi. Saint Germain was an 18th century aristocrat who appeared mysteriously in Paris, apparently the scion of obscure Hungarian royalty. But he was primarily known as an alchemist, rumored to be immortal. Later he was associated with various Rosicrucian and other secret societies, and then resurfaced in the 19th century as one of Mme. Blavatsky’s teachers who also appeared to her successor, Annie Besant, in 1896.
In the summer of 1921, the ageless Count met the American musician and occultist Paul Foster Case at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and instructed him in the esoterics of sound and color. Shortly after that, Case moved to Los Angeles and founded his mystery school, the Builders of the Adytum.
And later in the 1920’s, the theosophist and clairvoyant Charles Leadbeater met him walking down the street in Rome, and was taken to his home where he revealed his ceremonial magic regalia including a cloak of Tyrian purple and an amethyst and diamond seven-pointed star medallion. He describes this in his 1925 book The Masters and the Path.
By the 1930’s The Master R. had become associated with a number of neo-theosophical groups, and was described as the “Hierarch of the Aquarian Age” and a commander of elemental spirits.
The first group to definitively assign perfumes to colors and rays was the AMICA Master Institute of Color Awareness founded by Ivah Bergh Whitten. She was a clairvoyant artist and theosophical lecturer on the metaphysics of color, active in Los Angeles in the 1930’s. After a near-death experience in the hospital when she met an “Elder Brother” who is hinted to be the Master R. she was shown that her life work was to give Violet Ray teachings to the world. Her work is mostly known through the writings of her student Roland Hunt, and his 1937 book, Fragrant and Radiant Symphony: an enquiry into the wondrous correlation of the healing virtues of Colour, Sound and Perfume, and a consideration of their influence and purpose. The fragrances were used to deepen the virtues of the colors , and also the color spirits could radiate particular perfumes into a person’s aura as a means of healing. Hunt placed the flower and the perfume of violet under the rulership of the Violet Ray and clearly states that both the natural flower perfume as well as synthetic ionones are on this ray vibration.
1893: GERMANY, THE DISCOVERY OF IONONES
The late 19th century was blooming with both synthetic colors and synthetic scents; coumarin (another discovery of the chemist Perkin) arrived first in 1868 and then in 1893 the chemists Tiemann and Kluger isolated ionones from orris root, soon making these woody/berry/violet scented synthetics available for fragrances and flavors.
In 1894, the first synthetic violet soliflore, Vera Violetta, was released by Roger and Gallet, and over the following decades ionones became extraordinarily popular in a multitude of compositions, eventually eclipsing natural violet products.
Violets (Viola odorata) were among the first fragrant flowers to be cultivated extensively, more than 2,000 years ago in Classical Greece . They were popular for garlands and chaplets and could be obtained even in the winter, and became so ubiquitous that Athens was referred to as the City of the Violet Crown.
They were found in food and wines, and also had medicinal uses. They lived in Medieval and Renaissance gardens, were featured in herbals, and became more widely cultivated for fragrance in ancien regime France.
But in was in the 19th century when violets became exponentially popular for both bouquets or corsages to be worn to a ball or opera. By the end of the century it was estimated that there were 6 million bouquets sold annually in Paris alone, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of flowers were harvested for fragrance , mostly in the south of France. The yield from violet flowers is miniscule so it took a staggering number of the delicate blossoms to produce the solvent-extracted absolute, and at an astronomical price, said to be about eight times the price of jasmine absolute. Because ionones were inexpensive and abundant they became the primary source for violet fragrances and the violet flower naturals were no longer manufactured after the 1930’s.
The smell of the cut flowers is subtle and they fade quickly. And due to the phenomenon of olfactory fatigue with ionones , violet scents are transient and tend to disappear and re-emerge like ghosts. With time the aroma of the fresh flowers was something fewer people knew and it was replaced by a fantasy bouquet of “violetness”, a perfume like an idealized memory of a half-forgotten dream of a flower, something hyperreal. But this ideal ionone-charged violet was still resonant with Aquarian Age futurity, with utopia, with the powers of the secrets of Master R. It was once part of the underworld bouquet of Persephone, and remains a fragrance charged with the Violet Ray’s subterranean psychic powers.