Serge Lutens Une Voix Noire: Billie Holiday’s Gardenia

Photo: "52nd Street, New York, N.Y.," circa 1948, by William P. Gottlieb.

Photo: “52nd Street, New York, N.Y.,” circa 1948, by William P. Gottlieb.

Last call was hours ago, and the nightclub is closing down. In the harsh glare of the neon overhead lights, the room — once so entrancingly mysterious and secretive — now looks merely seedy. The tables are littered with the remnants of glasses, many holding the congealed thick dregs of a brownish liquid, and a few used in place of an ashtray. The stale smell of cigarette smoke lingers in the air, and in overflowing ashtrays all over the room.

Dexter Gordon. 1948. Photo: Herman Leonard via vk.com

Dexter Gordon. 1948. Photo: Herman Leonard via vk.com

Up on the black, velvet-draped stage, a lone musician has stayed behind his band mates, sitting on a crate and holding his saxophone with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He looks up at the singer who has returned to retrieve her gardenia from where she tossed it out into the dark room filled with her adoring fans. She finds it at one of the rickety tables closest to the stage, fallen into an almost-empty glass of scotch and cigarettes. It’s dying, covered in brown juices and ashes, and with its once-bright, velvety petals curled up at the edges. Yet, in the midst of all the booze and smoke, it still releases a rich, sweet smell that lingers in the air like a kiss before dying.

Billie Holiday. Source: Soundcloud.com

Billie Holiday. Source: Soundcloud.com

The images that fill my mind when I wear Une Voix Noire from Serge Lutens are the exact ones that he intends you feel. The perfume is an intentional homage to Billie Holiday, whose beautiful, dark voice thrilled so many and who was known for the gardenia that she wore tucked behind her ear. Une Voix Noire (“A Dark Voice” or “A Black Voice”) is a gardenia soliflore — a perfume centered around one dominant note — which seeks to replicate the feel of Ms. Holiday in the smoky nightclubs she packed to the rafters by imbuing the floral with tobacco and boozy alcohol. Sometimes, it feels laden with rum, often it feels like rum mixed with scotch, but it is always paired with a smoky tobacco, and the two elements transform the gardenia into something very unusual. This is not your fresh, bright, green or white gardenia. This is a flower that has the richness of age, and the melancholy of the dying. 

Serge Lutens Une Voix NoireUne Voix Noire is an eau de parfum that was created with Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 2012. Though it is a Paris Exclusive bell jar, the fragrance is available in the U.S. at Barneys in New York, or anywhere in the world directly from the Lutens website. Le Grand Serge” describes the fragrance succinctly but extremely accurately:

The stars rise in chorus. The night sky is filled with the light of the moon.

Une voix noire : jazz, drinks and the night, and, beyond all that, a troubling line of white, gardenia-scented smoke.

As always, the full list of notes in a Serge Lutens fragrance are unknown but, at a minimum, they consist of:

Gardenia, Tobacco, and Boozy Alcohol notes.

Une Voix Noire opens on my skin with gardenia and rum, followed moments later by tobacco. It is a brown gardenia, on the edge of decay, and with its petals wilted. It’s drenched with the remnants of last night’s alcohol, the final dregs turned caramel, potent, and a little sharp. There is a pungent acridness underlying the brown liqueur in these early moments: ashes. Someone stubbed out their cigarette in that almost empty glass of scotch and rum. Together, the stale smokiness and concentrated, slightly bitter booziness sharply evoke the feel of a nightclub after last call. You can almost see that empty room filled with smoke and the sad lingering note of the clarinet hanging in the air as servers buss away the dirty tables.

Source: Scoopweb.com

Source: Scoopweb.com

Underneath it all, gleaming a tobacco-stained cream colour, is the gardenia. The decayed, brown nature of the flower renders it all the more concentrated, ripe, and full-bodied as compared to its vibrant, living version with its bright freshness. Yet, that tobacco stain is flecked with an interesting colour: purple. Streaking its way across the creamy, velvet petals is the purple of dark, sweet Concord grapes, and perhaps a tinge of pink strawberry as well. This is a dying gardenia that opens with fruited notes, in what I’m guessing is a clear manipulation of the indoles at the flower’s creamy heart. The way that Christopher Sheldrake deconstructed the tuberose flower in Tubereuse Criminelle, manipulating the indoles and methyl salicylate to bring out the flower’s chilly, medicinal side, so too has he played around with the gardenia.

Source: co.marketmaker.uiuc.edu

Source: co.marketmaker.uiuc.edu

One of the natural organic compounds in gardenia is methyl anthranilate which also exists in Concord grapes. According to Wikipedia, as a synthetized aroma-chemical, it is also used a lot in perfumery. Whether here, in Une Voix Noire, the grape element comes from the natural side of gardenia or something else, I don’t know, but the floral component in the fragrance is definitely fleshed out by the sweetness of fruit.

Source: rededgeimages.com

Source: rededgeimages.com

Twenty five minutes in, the tobacco note grows substantially more intense. Une Voix Noire now smells like the bottom of an ashtray into which booze was accidentally spilled. The gardenia is there, but it’s lying below the cigarette butts. It’s a disconcerting scent, and part of me recoils sharply from it. I’m not a fan of stale, fetid, acrid ashtray notes. Yet, there is more to Une Voix Noire, and one can’t so easily dismiss it on the basis of the surface notes. That gardenia gleams too richly at the fragrance’s core, and its sweet richness is incredibly heady. And, in a symbolic parallel, the sillage of Une Voix Noire matches the dark, smoky, husky forcefulness of Billie Holiday’s voice, as the fragrance is very potent at first.

Billie Holiday. Photo: Herman Leonard. Source: morrisonhotelgallery.com

Billie Holiday. Photo: Herman Leonard. Source: morrisonhotelgallery.com

I can see why some bloggers have said that the unusual amalgamation of notes requires patience, time, and openness before the fragrance’s strange beauty shines through and overtakes you. Though I can see it and understand it intellectually, the scent still throws me off-balance emotionally. Perfume reviews are a subjective, emotional, personal thing at their core, and we all project something of ourselves into how we interpret smells. Still, I’ve struggled with how to express the emotions it inspires in a way that doesn’t sound excessive. I know I’ll fail because, for me, Une Voix Noire evokes the final, last moments of an aging beauty before she dies. I find an incredibly melancholic, wistful sadness to the wilted, drooping, curled, brown petals of a once vibrant, glowing, fully erect flower. The ravages of the smoke and drink don’t help.

Ninety minutes into Une Voix Noire’s development, the proud, aging flower feels buried at times under the weight of ashes. The boozy notes have receded in dominance, leaving an increased dryness. On occasion, there is almost a leathery nuance to the tobacco, adding to its tough forcefulness. It accentuates the melancholy of Une Voix Noire for me. Like the volcano at Vesuvio spewing out its ashes over Pompeii, the smoky nightclub has covered the gardenia, drowning out its sweetness. Even its deep, booming voice has been muffled a little, as the sillage drops and Une Voix Noire hovers quietly just a few inches above the skin. All the notes, except the tobacco, feel blurred and less distinct. Somewhere in the background, the lone musician in that empty bar is playing a mournful, single note on his saxophone in the smoky room.

Source: Trumpetland.com

Source: Trumpetland.com

At the end of the third hour, Une Voix Noire is a skin scent, but somehow, it feels as though a ray of hopeful light has started to shine through the smoke. The gardenia starts to fight back, brushing off the blanket of ashes, and rising to take a stand. Billie Holiday and her flower have come to take over center stage, returning Une Voix Noire to a gardenia scent with just a tinge of smoky sweetness. At the 4.5 hour mark, the fragrance is soft gardenia with tobacco that has almost a nutty, sweet undertone to it. There is a hint of a vanillic resin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Siam benzoin with its slightly smoky sweetness were at play. Soon, Une Voix Noire is merely just a dusky gardenia that’s infused with slightly vanillic sweetness. The tobacco has receded to the edges, leaving only a nutty residue behind. In its final moments, the fragrance is a nutty, husky whisper of a flower mixed with vanilla. All in all, Une Voix Noire lasted 10.5 hours on my skin with generally moderate sillage that turned into a soft, gauzy skin scent at the start of the fourth hour.

Source: SnapperOne Blogspot.

Source: SnapperOne Blogspot.

As noted up above, Une Voix Noire evokes a lot of sadness for me. Perfumes generally transport me places, or conjure up visuals. They rarely make me feel blue and melancholic. Perhaps some of it stems from my own personal issues; I fear the death of those I love, and that becomes more inevitable as you (and they) grow older. Rational or irrational as it may be, Une Voix Noire feels as though it’s about aged beauty, twilight years, and a kiss before dying. It’s not only me, though my feelings and interpretation are much, much more extreme or blue than others. Mark Behnke of CaFleureBon also found Une Voix Noire to be quite wistful:

as the rum accord rises the gardenia takes on a wistful quality, a world-weary floral having a shot at the bar before closing down for the day. The tobacco adds the nicotinic headiness missing from the gardenia and it takes Une Voix Noire deeper into that good night. […] After I moved my expectations of a bluesy riff on gardenia out of the way and took the time to appreciate the creativity of focusing on the dying moments of the gardenia on display in Une Voix Noire; that was when it came alive for me.

For Bois de Jasmin, Une Voix Noire took some time to show its “unpredictable” beauty and sweetness, but she grew to love it:

I admit that this Lutens wasn’t love at first inhale the way Bois de Violette or De Profundis have been for me.  I anticipated the heady, the dark and the bittersweet, and I missed them in this soft perfume.  Nevertheless, I’m glad that I went along for the ride, because Une Voix Noire forced me to take our courtship slowly and to fall in love with it one layer at a time. […][¶]

Une Voix Noire is not a heady big white floral like Tom Ford Velvet Gardenia or Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower. There is nothing of the dewy, fresh blossom about it, and although the gardenia impression is obvious, it’s a flower on the brink of turning brown. It smells caramelized and woody, with a lingering sweetness that makes me think of chestnut honey and gingerbread. […] 

What sways me the most about Une Voix Noire is its ability to weave a story. It’s unpredictable, yes, but every element of this perfume is compelling and beautiful. It’s a blossom that spent most of its life on someone’s corsage, rather than on a branch in the garden.

Others are transported by Une Voix Noire’s story too. On Basenotes, where the fragrance has an 89% rating and seems quite a hit with some guys, my favorite review comes from the commentator, “Diamondflame,” who writes:

A floral incense or an incense floral? Probably neither. And that’s exactly where the beauty of UNE VOIX NOIRE lies. It is sweet, it is smoky, it is floral. It refuses to be pigeonholed, adroitly straddling across known sub-genres. It is a deconstructed gardenia, bereft of indoles, interwoven with similarly synthetic supporting players – smoke, vinyl, metal, etc. Amazingly the composition works; the sum of individual parts being somehow greater than the whole. I really do not know what these have to do with Billie Holiday but if the back-story is anything to go by, I’m almost sold. I could picture myself in the early 1950s, slow-dancing in a shadowed corner of a club, breathing in the strange yet familiar mixture of exhaled smoke and the intoxicating fragrance of a female companion in my arms, enjoying the haunting vocals of a jazz legend. While this is probably not the easiest fragrance to wrap your head around I find it compelling, an evocative reinterpretation of classic film noir and femme fatales much in the same vein as Tabac Blond and Habanita. I applaud the house for taking this bold step outside its comfort zone.

Fragrantica commentators are more mixed in their feelings. Some dislike it immensely, in part due to the tobacco and, in part, due to a perception that the fragrance has a dirty “civet” note. For a few, the fragrance is merely a dull, boring gardenia, and little else. A number of people find various fruity notes in Une Voix Noire, ranging from peach to raspberry, strawberry, and even something a little grapey. Others pick up a metallic undertone, as did Bois de Jasmin. One commentator finds the Lutens fragrance similar to By Kilian‘s Beyond Love, but thinks Une Voix Noire is superior in both its dark and light notes. Going by the overall vote bars, far more people seem to “dislike” the fragrance than “like” it.

I don’t think Une Voix Noire is an easy fragrance. Like most of the Lutens’ Bell Jar perfumes, it is deceptively complex and requires patience to let its sometimes thorny beauty unfold. And, like almost all the Lutens’ Paris exclusives, Une Voix Noire seems to be a “love it or hate it” proposition. I don’t hate it at all but, for me, personally, the wistful melancholy at the fragrance’s heart is a little too much, as is the ashtray element that I experienced for a few hours. I’ve rarely seen other people talk about the tobacco manifesting itself that way on them, so it’s obviously an issue of skin chemistry. Still, regardless of how the tobacco comes out, Une Voix Noire is a fragrance that sings on a few different levels. Strange, raspy, dark, dusky, haunting, heady, sweet, and endlessly smoky, it feels like the very essence of Billie Holiday with her velvet gardenia. The lady sings the blues.

 

 

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Un Voix Noire is an eau de parfum that is available only in a 2.5 oz/75 ml bell jar which retails for $300 or €140. You can buy it directly from the U.S. Serge Lutens website or from the International one.
In the U.S.: Un Voix Noire is sold exclusively at Barney’s New York store for $300.
Personal Shopper Options: Undina of Undina’s Looking Glass reminded me of Shop France Inc run by Suzan, a very reputable, extremely professional, personal shopper who has been used by a number of perfumistas. She will go to France, and buy you perfumes (and other luxury items like Hermès scarves, etc.) that are otherwise hard to find at a reasonable price. Shop France Inc. normally charges a 10% commission on top of the item’s price with 50% being required as a down payment. However, and this is significant, in the case of Lutens Bell Jars, the price is $225 instead. The amount reflects customs taxes that she pays each time, as well as a tiny, extra markup. It’s still cheaper than the $290 (not including tax) for the bell jar via Barney’s or the US Serge Lutens website.  Another caveat, however, is that Suzan is limited to only 10 bell jars per trip, via an arrangement with the Lutens house. There is a wait-list for the bell jars, but she goes every 6-8 weeks, so it’s not a ridiculously huge wait, I don’t think. If you have specific questions about the purchase of Lutens bell jars, or anything else, you can contact her at shopfranceinc@yahoo.com. As a side note, I have no affiliation with her, and receive nothing as a result of mentioning her.
Outside the US: In Europe, the price of Une Voix Noire is considerably cheaper at €140 from the French Lutens websitethe International one, or from their Paris boutique. Other language options are available, though the Euro price for the item won’t change. To the best of my knowledge, the Paris Exclusives are not carried by any department store anywhere, and the only place to get them outside of Barney’s New York boutique is the Paris Serge Lutens store at Les Palais Royal.
Samples: You can order samples of Un Voix Noire from Surrender to Chance starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. It is also available as part of a Five Piece Non-Export Sampler Set, where you can choose 5 Lutens Paris Exclusives for a starting price of $18.99 for a 1/2 ml.
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33 thoughts on “Serge Lutens Une Voix Noire: Billie Holiday’s Gardenia

  1. Oh, goodness – I wish I hadn’t read this review because I’m totally lemming this. As a fan of gardenias, Serge Lutens, and a huge fan of Billie Holiday (also, you put my favorite of her songs as the clip! If not my favorite, at least top 3!) – this is a total must try for me. I love melancholic scents, too, and it sounds like this really captures the spirit of Billie Holiday. I’ve recently become more okay with boozy things as well, so I think I may be maturing in that capacity. Lovely review, and I can’t wait to smell it one day!

    • I think you’d find Une Voix Noire quite fascinating, my dear. I will save the remnants of my vial for you. Any fan of Billie Holiday *must* try this! For me, the issue will be how you feel about the tobacco and how it translates on your skin.

      • Oh. My. God. I just tried this. Stunning. I’ve only had it on for 20 minutes-ish, but it’s gorgeous. Oh how I adore the opening. But this perfume definitely captures more melancholy, so while “The Very Thought of You” is one of my favorite songs ever, perhaps for me, Une Voix Noire is a bit more “Good Morning Heartache.” Anyway, Serge Lutens really knocked it out of the park on this. What do you suppose the chances are of him having a buy one, get one free sale on his bell jars so I can have this and De Profundis. 😛 😛 😛

        • Oh, I’m so, so, so glad! I shall have to look up “Good Morning Heartache,” as I don’t know Billie Holiday’s repertoire as well as you. Do you get any ashy bits, or is it more tobacco-floral on you? It’s definitely melancholic, either way, no? More so for you than for me?

          As for the Buy One, Get One Free deal…. if ONLY!!! My God, if only! BTW, I think I’m pretty much settled on De Profundis being my bell jar when I go in October.

          • I would say closer to tobacco-floral than ashy. Maybe some ash, but not to any large degree. Definitely melancholic for me, through and through. But honestly, that’s something I love in perfume – and specifically in De Profundis. I think that is a good choice for a bell jar, as I think if I could choose one that would be mine as well. It’s just too perfect to *not* get one.

  2. I’m not in the mood for any melancholy scents right now but this sounds great. I doubt I’ll smell it anytime soon. I do love gardenias and Serge Lutens so perhaps someday I’ll get around to it.

    • I’m not in the mood for such blueness myself these days, but it’s quite possible I’m projecting my own weird feelings about that aged gardenia onto the scent. Others, in contrast, merely seem to feel transported to a bluesy jazz bar in the 1950s — a much nicer emotional visual. 🙂

  3. “I find an incredibly melancholic, wistful sadness to the wilted, drooping, curled, brown petals of a once vibrant, glowing, fully erect flower.” – You couldn’t have put it better! I also loved the comparison to Billie Holiday. “The Very Thought of You” summed it up perfectly! Inspired!

    • Hey, Vagabond, so lovely to see you again! Did you have a nice summer? Thank you for your kind words on the review. And I’m glad to see another fan of “The Very Thought of You.” There have been a lot of artists who’ve covered that song, but Billie’s version is one of the best, I think. 🙂

  4. I tried this one only in a wax form but knowing it’s a big gardenia perfume and a one from Lutens (for God’s sake!) I’m sure I wouldn’t understand that one and I’ll let it be that way. Sorry Kafka.

    Anybody’s seen my cone of shame?

  5. Thank you for this beautiful review, the imagery hearkens back to the time when my parents lived on Riverside drive as a newly engaged couple – this is the song we chose for mom’s memorial service last year. Adding this to the list of my must try frags, but must be careful not to fall in love with another $300 a bottle perfume – gah!
    I am a Fracas, Carnal Flower and Tubereuse Criminelle fan, not to mention Tabac Blond, so I think it’s pretty certain I will appreciate Une Voix Noire.

    • LOL! I know how you feel about not wanting to fall in love with another super-expensive perfume!

      I’m very sorry to hear about your mother’s passing, Reneetamara. You chose a beautiful song for her memorial service. I hope the pain of her loss has become a little easier to handle with time.

  6. Ditto! I am intrigued by that concord grape note in combination with the tobacco and booze. I haven’t tried De Profundis either so I see a Serge sample splurge coming.

    • You’d *love* De Profundis, Vicky! I don’t know about this one, though. It’s a much more difficult scent, and it may all depend on how that tobacco manifests itself on your skin.

  7. Lovely writing Kafka! Ever so emotive and melancholy. I really love gardenia in perfume but I tend to enjoy it in a big, blooming floral bouquet with other petals. I also love a bit of leather and cigar smoke but it seems that maybe this might be a more ashy smoke rather than the pure, burning tobacco leaves that I like.

    So three elements that I enjoy very much, but maybe not together, how intriguing! Btw, I have a decant of De Profundis on the way, I’m very excited 🙂

    • Hurrah for the De Profundis, Susie! I’d be interested to see what you thought of Une Voix Noire if you ever got a sample to test. Personally, I don’t think it would really be your cup of tea, but I may well be wrong.

  8. This one was surprising to me, I was expecting a big white gardenia and it was very subdued and sweet on me. Not a lot of tobacco, contrary to your description. I like it, but it has grown on me – I didn’t like it immediately, it had something in it that at first smelled too much like decay, but now I enjoy it every time I wear it. It hasn’t replaced Tubereuse Criminelle or Sarrasins in my favourite SL floral category, but I am happy to have my bottle.

    • It sounds pretty on you, Tara. My skin chemistry amplifies base notes, and yours may not, so that may explain the differences. As for the decay, yes! I think that’s why I found it to be such a melancholy scent.

  9. I smelled this one only from a bell jar at Barney’s NY and wasn’t moved to put it on skin. I will give it a try eventually since I like gardenias in perfume and some of SL’s perfumes are great on me but it seemed like “not me” at the time.
    Nevertheless, you wrote a beautiful review that makes me want to try the perfume.

  10. Sorry for the late post but, I’m behind on my reading again….
    I just had to say that I am so glad you enjoyed this one. It was my first bell jar (although just a partial one through a split) and it does rank up there as one of my favorite Lutens scents (of many). Like Tara, I also don’t get so much smoke and tobacco from it as sweetness and gardenia but, it really is one that you must try a few times to appreciate. Of course, that could be said of so many of his scents. It was interesting to compare this to Lady Day by Maria Candida Gentile, another one in Billie Holiday’s honor which to me was a much more realistic fresh gardenia while Une Voix Noire was a no question, Lutens type gardenia done in a way nobody else has done gardenia! Absolutely loved your review!

    • I’m so happy you enjoyed it, and I can’t thank you enough for the sample. As for the tobacco, well my skin seems to generally bring it out more than perhaps it does on you. Remember my experience with Fumerie Turque? *sigh* It doesn’t always turns into ashtrays though (witness how wonderful Amouage’s Tribute was), but Une Voix Noire is a simpler fragrance in terms of counterbalancing elements, so maybe that’s why. It sounds absolutely fantastic on your skin, though, my dear. Do you find it melancholy and blue at all? For me, that was the real stumbling block.

  11. What an absolutely transportive review, darling Kafka. So full of melancholy … that oddly compelling mixture of ache and beauty that breaks a heart even as it bids it to come nearer.

    On one hand, I want to say I won’t be seeking out Une Voix Noire anytime soon (which is probably true) – for various reasons, but one of them being the same one you and Poodle mentioned. I’m trying to limit the amount of melancholy in my diet – the end of summer is melancholy enough. On the other hand, my reaction to your tender and evocative review is proof that I can never quite stay away from this type of thing.

    • Thank you so, so much, Suzanne, for your incredibly kind words. The generosity underlying them touches me so much, as does your friendship. I’m glad you enjoyed the review and that I could convey some of the fragrance’s emotional weight or power. Alas, the feeling of decay and loss was not something easy to just shrug off, but perhaps it’s just me? Others seem to have had a much less melancholy experience. They had jazz clubs of the 1950s, or very little acrid tobacco at all. So, perhaps you might have a more joyous time of things? 🙂 xoxoxoo

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