Heliotrope Eau de Toilette by Etro Review

Collage of Etro's Heliotrope and its notes, including vanilla, rose, iris, tonka bean, jasmine, ylang, bergamot, and almond.

This is the ultimate playdough vanilla.

At first whiff, Etro’s iconic Heliotrope is all ice cream cherries. Anisaldehyde galore. Cherry, almond, an almost anise sort of situation, rich brown and red, warm and a little spicy. Nutty, almond-y, rich and lovely.

A plastic toy Barbie doll with blonde hair and posable limbs sitting and smiling in a professional pink skirt and blouse.

Then that opening impression fades into the body of Etro’s iconic Heliotrope, which is all playdoughy heliotrope vanilla. Powdery and doughy and… well… a little plastic-y. Sharp, acrid plastic-y.

Like a doll’s head plastic-y — not subtle, faded nostalgic suggestion doll’s head, but an actual literal plastic doll’s head that’s been melting in somebody’s attic all summer. Just a light hint of iris softens the powdery edge of it all, keeping the plastic note from being too jagged and pointy, but the smell of old degrading vanilla-scented plastic is significant. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your nostalgic associations with the scent.

Okay, this is strongly plasticky. Sometimes. It seems to depend on the day, on the temperature, on one’s skin chemistry. It even seems to vary by location. One of my arms is more cherry and plastic. The other is more dark resinous tolu balsam. The scent from the vial is all playdough all the way down.

Botanical illustration of a vanilla flower, leaves, and bean.

The atmospheric effect floating around me is of a pleasant, soft, iris-powdery cushioned vanilla. This cumulative effect of Etro’s Heliotrope is its summary. You will most likely smell to most people like delicious, almost-edible playdoughy vanilla, soft makeup powders, and yummy almond-y heliotrope.

Close up, its disparate components can come apart into a number of different accords, ranging from fruity to nutty the powdery to plastic. Close up, things get weird.

But I don’t want to detail that weirdness much more than I already have. Its development and presence will vary greatly from person to person, from place to place, time to time.

Heliotrope is diaphanous and strange. And also, not at all. On some level it’s the most typical perfume in the world, for a certain time period: all fluffy powdery doughy vanilla and heliotrope flowers.

A heart-shaped amber charm on a pendant and chunky wire chain.

The amber notes in the base of Heliotrope — musk, tonka bean, balsam de Peru, tolu balsam — add just a hint of darkness, richness, and cushioning to the deepest depths of the perfume. A nice hint of gray smokiness, textured and resinous and raw, especially from the tolu balsam.

All the rest of the listed note pyramid, to me, feels like gauzy window dressing. I don’t get any notable florals here, besides the eponymous heliotrope, which is more of a vanillic note anyway. Orange blossom, ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose? Nope, not to my nose. Accents of green petitgrain and fresh bergamot? Not at all, to me.

But then, maybe they’ll show up on you. That’s one of the loveliest things about perfumes: the incredible amount of surprises folded into its variability, its performance in different places, on different people, perceived by different noses.

For the most part, Heliotrope is a doughy heliotrope-almond-vanilla. At times it’s gloriously fluffy, like slightly powdery marshmallows edged with marzipan. The presence of the plastic-y note waxes and wanes, but when it wanes, there’s something gorgeous and oh-so-comforting about Heliotrope. if Hypnotic Poison is the Wicked Witch of the West, Heliotrope is Glinda the Good. This is the fluffy, innocent white doughy vanilla perfume. At its best, it is sugar-vanilla-almond cookies, dotted with cherries and marshmallows, with just a little powdery makeup in the background.

Is Etro’s Heliotrope all about heliotrope? Maybe. Kinda. Sorta. It’s certainly high in heliotropin, the heliotrope-cherry-almond aromachemical now heavily restricted by IFRA.

A small white bowl of light brown almonds.

But to me, at the end of the day, this is clearly a powdery vanilla perfume. It’s not heavy on the cherry-vanilla facet — at least, not to my nose — and, though the vanilla accord is powdery and doughy, it just doesn’t feel as much like actual heliotrope flowers to me than the heliotrope accords in other perfumes (like Lacoste’s Lacoste Pour Femme and Zoologist’s Bee) do. Much of the time it doesn’t smell like almond very much on me at all, except perhaps in an over-saturated doughy state.

There’s marzipan at times around the edges, saturated and rich, but it comes and goes at will, and it’s dense, soaked in sugar and baked just a little too long. In that way, I suppose it really is the ultimate heliotrope and almond perfume: not in being precisely photorealistic, but in being an overly dense, saturated baked candy on the theme, simultaneously fluffy and sticky, crumbly and tacky.

Heliotrope, to me, is a light and fluffy note, faintly powdery, almond-y, marshmallow-y and rich. Etro’s Heliotrope is too rich and concentrated, heavy and heady, too cut with vanillin, for me to really associate it with heliotrope flowers. But opinions do differ, and skin chemistry differs perhaps even more so. To others, this may be an unquestionable heliotrope soliflor.

Etro’s Heliotrope is not for me, but it’s iconic. That’s unquestionable. This was the department store vanilla perfume in its heyday. Released in 1989, it predates the original Hypnotic Poison by almost ten years, and doubtless was a major inspiration for the smoky-almond-playdough-vanilla beast.

A faded round vintage bottle of perfume oil from the Body Shop with a rectangular cap.
Does anyone else remember these Body Shop perfume oils?

Despite being an Eau de Toilette, like many vanilla perfumes, Heliotrope will last all day on you. And, if you love the smell of freshly-baked vanilla almond cookies and makeup powders, it will be your ultimate comfort scent. It’s so incredibly rich, yet it floats in a decadent almond-vanilla cloud all around you. This is the sort of perfume you smell all over someone that’s hugging you and smile.

This sample was passed along to me by an incredibly generous dear friend on the Basenotes forums. I passed it along to my childhood best friend. She absolutely adores Etro’s Heliotrope. She’s a lover of vanilla generally, and was ecstatic to discover that Heliotrope smells just like a discontinued Body Shop perfume oil from the 90s that she loved that was simply called Vanilla. I’m not familiar with this particular scent, but I’m so incredibly happy she found a dupe.

Of course, Etro’s Heliotrope is also, by now, sadly discontinued. But, for those who love powdery vanilla, it’s the ultimate comfort scent, and you can still find bottles and samples easily enough on eBay, Etsy, or at some resellers’ websites.

I can only wonder who the perfumer of this iconic scent is. I’m surprised I cannot find this information online. Does anyone know?

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