Perfume Review – Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque

I had high hopes for this one. Very high hopes. Smoke, tobacco, leather, vanilla, and spice. The famous, beloved Chergui supposedly ratcheted up a notch. Turkish rose, smoke, and honeyed pipe tobacco in a sensuous, opulent, oriental fragrance done by Uncle Serge and that mad wizard, Christopher Sheldrake. Well, not on my skin…. 

The old, discontinued, vintage 1.7 oz/50 ml version of Fumerie Turque.

The old, discontinued, vintage 1.7 oz/50 ml version of Fumerie Turque.

Fumerie Turque is an eau de parfum that was created by Serge Lutens‘ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 2003. Though it is primarily an expensive Paris Bell Jar perfume that is exclusive to Serge Lutens’ Paris headquarters, Fumerie Turque came out at some point in a regular, cheaper, import-version, 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle that is still sometimes available online. And, somewhere along the line, the fragrance was reformulated — quite drastically, according to some — to become a softer, less tobacco-centered, more vanillic, sweet fragrance. My sample is of the current version, and it leads me to wonder what on earth it must have been like before.

The Bell Jar of Fumerie Turque that is now the only version sold by Serge Lutens.

The Bell Jar of Fumerie Turque that is now the only version sold by Serge Lutens.

Serge Lutens describes Fumerie Turque on his website as follows:

Smoking can kill you.

That’s one reason why I like using leafy blond tobacco as a raw material together with honey, underpinned with a few, slightly obscured hints of rose petal.

For some reason, Fragrantica has two entries for Fumerie Turque. There is no indication of which is the entry for the current version, and each lists slightly different notes. I haven’t seen that before, even for reformulated fragrances. Whatever the explanation, if one compiles both versions, the notes in Fumerie Turque would seem to include:

white honey, candied Turkish rose, juniper berries, chamomile, Egyptian jasmine, smoked leather, beeswax, Balkan tobacco, red currants, Peru balsam, patchouli, tonka, styrax, suede, and vanilla.

Styrax resin via themysticcorner.com

Styrax resin via themysticcorner.com. (Website link embedded within photo.)

Fumerie Turque opens on my skin with smoke, vanilla, leather and spices. The fragrance is dominated by styrax, a resin which has a very dry, smoky, spicy, leathery nuance. It infuses everything it touches, including the rose note which starts out being sweet, but which quickly turns dry and smoky. Alongside are tobacco curls, nestled amidst sweet vanilla and a light touch of vanillic powder. In the background is the faintest chilly touch of a woody, pine note that feels syrupy and resinous, almost as if it were juniper resin instead of juniper berries. Wafts of a floral, slightly tea-like note flit about, as if the chamomile has been infused with the same, spicy, chewy, dense styrax as everything else.

There is something a little bitter and sour about the blend, despite the sweet, smoky, somewhat leathery notes underneath. It must be the honey with its slightly sulphurous undertones. Honey is an extremely tricky note for some people, as their skin chemistry can turn it sour, urinous, skanky, animalic, raunchy, or some combination thereof. I happen to be generally lucky with the element, which I adore, even on those rare occasions when it can feel almost sulphurous as it does here. But, I must say, I am not at all keen about its sour nuances in Fumerie Turque. I’m even less enthused as it gets worse, quickly turning into a smell that is simultaneously stale, sour, bitter, sharp, acrid, and, eventually, almost rancid in feel. The beautiful, sweet, freshness of the rose has receded along with the vanilla, its powder, the juniper berries, and the dark, tea-like chamomile, leaving the harsher, animalic notes utterly untamed. Rank bitterness is what comes to mind, and I imagine that people who traditionally have always had problems with honey might fare even worse.

Leather Tanning in Morocco. Photo by Burrard-Lucas via http://www.burrard-lucas.com/photo/morocco/leather_tanning.html

Leather Tanning in Morocco. Photo by Burrard-Lucas via http://www.burrard-lucas.com/photo/morocco/leather_tanning.html

Ten minutes into Fumerie Turque’s development, those harsher notes become extremely prominent. The leather feels almost raw, like tannery hides left to cure in the sun. There is a tarry, animalic, phenolic, musky sharpness to the smell. And the rank sourness of the honey now feels quite rancid. Making matters worse is the tobacco, a note I normally love. Here, it feels neither like dried tobacco leaves, nor like sweet, fruited, honeyed pipe tobacco. Instead, it smells like a stale, dirty ashtray with the remnants of a few, old cigars.

Source: skylighter.com

Source: skylighter.com

To be honest, I’m somewhat appalled by the overall combination: urinous, sulphurous, rancid honey with raw leather and stale ashtray smoke is really not my cup of tea. Not even the occasional flickers of rose and vanilla which pop up and down, going back and forth from the background to the foreground, can fix the stale, sour, bitter, animalic pungency emanating from my arm. And, have I mentioned the word “rancid” yet? I once had the misfortune of cleaning a friend’s fridge which had been left untouched for over a year; the smell of the rotten eggs had a similar sulphurous, smoky rancidness. Only here, they’re mixed in with a disconcerting stale sweetness. I know the horrible bouquet is due purely and solely to my skin’s chemistry — just as I know that others may (and do) have a wholly different, extremely positive scent sensation with this much admired fragrance — but I can only recount my own experiences and, thus far, it’s revolting. I’ve never, ever had honey go south on me… until now!

Source: 123rf.com

Source: 123rf.com

Fumerie Turque continues in that painful vein for a while. The vanilla makes every valiant attempt to come to the foreground to soften things, and once in a while, it actually succeeds. It’s short-lived, however, as the rancid sourness marches on like a Turkish army hell-bent on whipping me into submission. Thirty minutes into Fumerie Turque’s progression, beeswax joins the Devil’s Brigade, mocking me with yet another, additional layer of sourness. The animalic, almost dirty, raw leather, and the stale tobacco ashtray aromas join in, cackling gleefully at the faint whimpers that are starting to emanate from my miserable little self. I look at the Fumerie Turque’s longevity rankings on Fragrantica (“very long lasting” say the majority), mutter some expletives, and contemplate sending dear Uncle Serge a “Dear John” letter. I also wonder if it’s too early to start drinking.

Red Currants via onlyfoods.netClose to the end of the second hour, Fumerie Turque decides to take some pity on me. It starts to soften, becoming milder, less feral and brutal. The leather, ashtray and honey elements take on a rounder, less intentionally hostile and aggressive edge, though their undertones retain that rancid stench that is still too bloody sharp and acrid for my tastes. Thankfully, the sillage has dropped from its previously potent levels, making me hope that Fumerie Turque has decided to engage in an olfactory cessation of hostilities. Er… not quite. We are now launching into a whole new sort of merciless madness. At the 2.5 hour mark, Fumerie Turque turns into a strange mélange of vaguely sour, vanillic baby powder infused with the odd tartness of red currants berries, atop a base of light, sweet smoke and somewhat treacly rose. I sighed so deeply, you have no idea, and wonder what Uncle Serge would think of a blotchy, tear-splattered letter.

Vanilla powder and essence. Source: food.ninemsn.com.au

Vanilla powder and essence. Source: food.ninemsn.com.au

Fumerie Turque continues its descent into powdery, smoke-tinged sweetness. It’s quite a relief, given what came before. Close to the end of the fourth hour, there is more vanillic baby powder, tart fruit notes, whispers of smoke, and a definite subtext of honeyed sourness. The new addition, however, is beeswax — and it’s the only part of the somewhat muted, faded combination that I find pleasant. Around the middle of the fifth hour, Fumerie Turque fades into abstract, powdery vanilla with honey and a whisper of beeswax, and remains that way until the end. All in all, Fumerie Turque lasted just short of 6.75 hours, which is much less than the enormous longevity that I had braced myself for. On average, the sillage was moderate: very forceful in terms of projection for a brief period at the start, but then, significantly softer while still being noticeable within the tiny bubble that wafted an inch above my skin.

Normally, with fragrances that take such a terrible turn on my skin, I would give the perfume two tests. Sometimes, maybe even three. I couldn’t do it with Fumerie Turque. I simply couldn’t. It wasn’t only that extremely difficult opening but, rather, how exhausting the progression was in its forcefulness and in the unalleviated monotony. Fumerie Turque isn’t linear from start to finish but, within its two distinct stages, it certainly feels a little singular. I always say that there is nothing wrong with linear fragrances if you love the notes in question but, obviously, that was not the case here. 

Chergui.

Chergui.

There are a few reasons why I’m so incredibly disappointed with the manner in which Fumerie Turque manifested itself on my skin, beyond the really obvious ones, that is. First, many people consider the fragrance to be the more advanced, complex, sophisticated brother to Serge Lutens’ Chergui. Fumerie Turque is supposed to be richer, smokier, less vanillic or powdery (in both its original and reformulated version, presumably) than the fragrance that I own and love. It seemed indubitable that Fumerie Turque would be even more up my alley.

Karl Lagerfeld Cologne. The non "Classic" but vintage bottle.

Karl Lagerfeld Cologne. Not the current “Classic” bottle, but the vintage one.

Second, Fumerie Turque seemed very familiar upon first sniff of the fragrance in the vial. It instantly and immediately brought to mind one of my favorite comfort scents, the superb Karl Lagerfeld Cologne in vintage formulation. Karl Lagerfeld’s 1980s beauty is actually the sole reason I started this blog. I needed a place to properly express my love for this fragrance when I reacquired a bottle on eBay, and I couldn’t do it in a Facebook status post, though I certainly spent a good few paragraphs trying. My very first perfume review was, in fact, a rushed, hurried, rather short affair on the joys of Karl Lagerfeld’s interpretation of and homage to Shalimar. A few parts of that review:

Imagine your boyfriend’s leather jacket, covered with honey, and in an old Russian or Greek Orthodox church filled with smoky incense and the whiff of a passerby in rose and jasmine…. this is better. If there were a honey seller in a stall sandwiched between a musky spice vendor of nutmeg, tarragon and anise, and one who sold sweetly fragrant tobacco that your uncle put in his pipe — all in a giant leather store filled with the finest British leather saddles, which was in a Turkish bazaar… this is better.

[…] Some say that it’s like a male-version of Shalimar and I suppose it’s the faint touch of powder in it. But if Meryl Streep wears Shalimar (and she does), then Tina Turner would wear this. If Shalimar is a Rolls Royce, this is James Bond’s Aston Martin or perhaps a BEAST of a muscle car driven by a Russian Orthodox monk in a leather jacket. That’s it! This is the smell for Rasputin, though one commentator elsewhere said that they thought Robert Redford in the Great Gatsby would wear this. I disagree. This is pure leather smoke covered with honey.

And….. it’s sex on a stick. […] Just be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart and that, depending on your body chemistry, powder may predominate over leather, tobacco or honey. Also, if you’re not into powerful scents, do not put on more than one spray.

Not a week goes by that I don’t regret the brevity of that article (relative to my usual verboseness). Not a week passes that I don’t vow to do the perfume proper justice with a revisit. Karl Lagerfeld Cologne has been a favorite fragrance of mine for over two decades — and Kafkaesque exists purely and solely because of it.

That fragrance is what I immediately came to mind when I took a gandering sniff of Fumerie Turque in the vial: a richer, smokier, drier, less powdery, less sweet Karl Lagerfeld. I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped, and I couldn’t wait to try it on the skin. Later, much later, after the bloody, leathery, stale, rancid chum in Fumerie Turque’s shark-infested waters had faded away, I was surprised to discover that I wasn’t the only one who thought there were similarities between the two fragrances. A passing, brief comment on a Basenotes thread devoted to Fumerie Turque said: “When I read these threads, I wonder how many who enjoy FT have tried the original Lagerfeld Cologne (before it became “Classic”).” I have no idea who the poster, “Bigsly,” is, but I want to give him a hearty Bravo for unknowingly reassuring me that I’m not insane (and, also, for his excellent taste). Because, yes, when I read positive descriptions of Fumerie Turque on Fragrantica, they sounds a bit like what I experience with Karl Lagerfeld.

Source: turkishculture.blogspot.com

Source: turkishculture.blogspot.com

There are significant differences, however. The Karl Lagerfeld is much sweeter, more vanillic, and more powdery than the largely acrid Fumerie Turque. It has a bergamot, citric, and subtle, vaguely herbal element to its beginning. More importantly, the leather is very different in Karl Lagerfeld; it lacks the raw, animalic outbursts in Fumerie Turque, while being significantly stronger and richer than it is in Chergui. Also, the tobacco smoke is sweeter than the more acrid, stale, dirty version in Fumerie Turque, more akin to pipe tobacco, and is additionally supplemented by incense. If the Lagerfeld didn’t precede both Lutens fragrances by almost 20 years, I would call it a lovechild of Chergui and Fumerie Turque, combining the best parts of both in a much stronger, more potent, intense, powerful blast. But Karl did it first. There is also another big difference: the Lagerfeld is available in vintage form for a mere pittance on eBay. You can buy a 2 oz bottle for between $20-$30, depending on times, vendors and competing bidders. Sometimes, they can go up to $45, but I bought my bottle for about $18! The key — and this is really important — is to AVOID anything that has the word “Classic” on the bottle because that is the reformulated rubbish version! (I beg of you, don’t do it. It’s not the same at all.)

I realise that my review of Fumerie Turque has descended into an ode to Karl Lagerfeld Cologne, so let’s return to that Basenotes thread. It’s interesting because the chap had an equally brutal start to Fumerie Turque, which he bought blindly based on the positive praise for the fragrance. Though he subsequently fell in love with Fumerie Turque, I think his experience is illuminating, in part because it also references some other well-known fragrances:

I sprayed some on my bicep. OH NO!!! I REALLY SCREWED UP BUYING THIS STUFF!!! Immediately, I got this sickly powdery feminine stale urine porta-potty smell that some of the negative reviews had mentioned. Totally, totally unwearable. […]  five minutes later I noticed that tobacco note– and it was actually a very nice specimen of tobacco. If only that other “pissy, honey, rose” stuff wasn’t going on…

Yet, he gave it a second shot, mostly due to the many, many raves for Fumerie Turque from people he respected. And, this time, he noticed some differences. First, there was a strong similarity between Fumerie Turque’s “beeswax and the emerging red currants/fruit” and the smell of Chanel‘s Antaeus, a fragrance that he had initially hated but then grown to love. Second, with a little time, Fumerie Turque developed into something lovely on his skin:

… the pipe tobacco was starting to come out very noticeably. I’ve truly NEVER experienced a fragrance that did such a 180 in the wearing and bloomed into something so cool. It still had a bit of that Habanita powdery quality and that dense honeybun beeswax in the base, but the tobacco was starting to steal the show in a big way. Some people call this scent “smokey” but thankfully, it’s not smokey to my nose– at least not in a negative manner. The first time I smelled it, it did conjure the back room of a bar where there had probably been a lot of second hand smoke, but once it started to blossom, it was smooth and ethereal. Again the beeswax is right there in the beginning and it almost makes you nauseous, but it only takes about two minutes for the composition begin unfolding into what it will become. As time goes on, the scent becomes more “blonde” as in blonde tobacco, and begins to feel lighter, but not lesser.

To compare this to a tobacco scent like Pure Havane almost makes me laugh now. I like Pure Havane a hell of a lot, don’t get me wrong– but this stuff is on a whole different level. This is adult, it’s grown up seduction in a bottle. Pure Havane is the most playful, fun tobacco scent I’ve tried, but Fumerie Turque is not for children. […]

What Fumerie Turque is, is an ACTUAL PERFUME.  […] Christopher Sheldrake has created a real masterpiece here. Top to bottom. Something that relies on a little necessary chaos out of the bottle to get on its feet, but once it does, and starts walking upright, god it’s beautiful. [Emphasis in bold added by me to the perfume names.]

There are numerous gushing, quite poetic raves about Fumerie Turque on Fragrantica (where it is enormously loved in both of the perfume’s listings), but I chose that particular Basenotes review for a reason. It highlights how some people can have a very positive experience with Fumerie Turque at the end, despite the sour, “pissy” start.

It also shows that, as many Basenotes commentators agree, Fumerie Turque is a perfume that can sometimes take a few tries. A number of Lutens fragrances require patience but, given the trickiness of honey as a note, Fumerie Turque may require more patience than most. In all candour, if I didn’t already have my beloved Karl Lagerfeld and Chergui, I probably would have given Fumerie Turque the necessary second chance that so many people say it requires, especially as I found some of the vintage bottles (which are supposed to be far better than the current version) available online for a significantly cheaper price than the current Bell Jar formulation. But I do have Lagerfeld and Chergui, so I’m not hugely motivated. Plus, there is also the simple reality that some honey fragrances never work out on a person’s skin, no matter how many chances you give them.

Would I recommend that you give Fumerie Turque a shot? Well, never as a blind buy, no. However, if you love Chergui, then yes, by all means, give Fumerie Turque an exploratory sniff. Get a sample, see if it works for you, and, if you love it, then you can get the more affordable vintage version that I’ve found on some of the online retailers below. (Actually, I would highly recommend the Karl Lagerfeld above all else, especially if powder notes don’t go south on your skin.) On the other hand, if you don’t love Chergui, or if you already know for a fact that honey is always one of your fatal notes, then I would advise that you stay clear of Fumerie Turque entirely. If it didn’t work on my honey-loving skin, I can’t imagine how badly it might turn out for those who never have any luck with the note. I suspect you’d end up in a foetal position, crying for a Silkwood shower….

DETAILS:
General Cost & Discounted Sales Prices: Fumerie Turque is an eau de parfum that Serge Lutens now offers only in the large 2.5 oz/75 ml bell jar version that costs $290, or €135. However, you can still find the smaller 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle (that is now considered “vintage” or discontinued) on some U.S. and European perfume websites. About seven of the usual, big, online perfume sites (Amazon, FragranceNet, etc.) have Fumerie Turque listed, but the fine print shows it as “Sold Out.” However, I found the perfume at several smaller vendors. Buy Beauty Deals sells the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle of Fumerie Turque for $108.50, A Matter of Fax for $117.11, Perfume Mart for $121.50, Fragrance Zoo for $127.49, Planet Aroma sells Fumerie Turque for $130.63, Islander Mall for $132.92, and SurfAvenueMall for $140. I have no idea how reputable any of these vendors may be.
Serge Lutens: You can find Fumerie Turque in the bell jar option on the U.S. and International Lutens website (with non-english language options also available). It’s priced at $300 or €135.
U.S. sellers: Fumerie Turque is exclusively available at Barney’s in the bell jar format for $290. The site has a notice which states: “This product is only available for purchase at the Madison Avenue Store located at 660 Madison Avenue. The phone number for the Serge Lutens Boutique is (212) 833-2425.” I did not find Fumerie Turque listed at Luckyscent or any of the big, niche perfume vendors.
Outside the U.S.: In Canada, I think you can find “Fumerie Turque – Retired” at The Perfume Shoppe for what is US$120, since it is primarily an American business with a Vancouver branch, but I’m not sure what they mean by “retired” and if the perfume is actually in stock. For Europe, I couldn’t find the 50 ml bottle sold at a single online vendor. It’s the expensive bell-jar, or nothing. In Australia, you can get Fumerie Turque on sale in the discontinued 50 ml bottle from Brand Shopping for AUD$199.65 with free shipping. In the Middle East, I saw the “vintage” Fumerie Turque listed on the Universal Perfume‘s site. However, there is something weird going on where there is no pricing, and it won’t let you put it in your cart until you give one. Elsewhere on the site, the perfume is priced as $189.99.
Samples: You can test out Fumerie Turque by ordering a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. There is also a Serge Lutens Sample Set of 3 Paris Exclusives (Fumerie Turque, along with Borneo 1834 and Chergui), which starts at $11.50 for a 1/2 ml vial of each. Fumerie Turque is also included as an option in a Lutens Sample Set for $18.99 where the vials are also 1/2 ml each, but you get your choice of 5 Lutens Non-Export fragrances (ie, those that are Paris exclusives).
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Perfume Review- Serge Lutens Chergui: The Desert Wind

africanduststorm

A fire fanned by the wind, a desert in flames.

As if bursting from the earth, Chergui, a desert wind, creates an effect that involves suction more than blowing, carrying plants, insects and twigs along in an inescapable ascent. Its full, persistent gusts crystallize shrubs, bushes and berries, which proceed to scorch, shrivel up and pay a final ransom in saps, resins and juices. Night falls on a still-smoldering memory, making way for the fragrant, ambery and candied aromas by the alchemist that is Chergui.

That is how Serge Lutens describes Chergui, a perfume for men and women created Cherguiwith Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake. It was released in 2001 as a fragrance exclusive to Lutens’ Paris Palais Royal salon and was not available for export. In 2005, however, it was made available worldwide and became a monster hit.

In fact, in 2007, MakeupAlley apparently voted Chergui its #1 favorite perfume. It took that place above: Frederic Malle’s Musc Ravageur (#2), Hermès’ Ambre Narguilé (#3), Guerlain‘s Mitsouko (#8), Andy Tauer‘s L’Air du Desert Marocain (#10), Chanel No. 19 (#11), Chanel Bois de Iles (#12), Guerlain‘s Shalimar (#14), Chanel‘s Coco (#15), Guerlain‘s L’Heure Bleue (#19) and many other, much-loved fragrances. I don’t think I would vote Chergui my favorite scent, let alone of all time (vintage Opium will always have that spot), but I adore Chergui. It is absolutely lovely, and my favorite out of the seven Lutens perfumes that I’ve tried thus far. Until Chergui, I found myself admiring a Lutens fragrance more on an intellectual or theoretical basis, rather than an emotional one. I couldn’t find one that I would actually want to wear. Until now.

Fragrantica classifies Chergui as an “oriental spicy” and lists its notes as:

tobacco leaf, honey, iris, sandalwood, amber, musk, incense, rose and hay.

Dried tobacco leaves

Tobacco leaves drying in Virginia.

Chergui opens on me slightly differently than on others. There is an initial citric and lemon note that I haven’t read of others experiencing. The citrus accompanies a strong rose note along with smoky tobacco leaves over a leather base. The combination of notes reminds me a tiny bit of my much-loved vintage Montana by Claude Montana (now renamed Montana Parfum de Peau) as well as the opening of some chypre fragrances — so much so that, for a minute or two, I wonder if perhaps I received a different sample as part of my Lutens set. But, no, this is definitely Chergui. The tobacco leaves are unmistakable. This is not the tobacco of a cigarette or dirty ashtray, nor is it the fruity tobacco of a pipe. These leaves recall images I’ve seen of tobacco drying under the hot sun of the American South. They have a rich amberous, almost nutty element to them with smoke that goes far beyond the sort in mere incense; it verges into the more extreme, black, tarry aspects of frankincense.

Source: etshoneysupliers.

Source: etshoneysupliers.

At the same time, the opening exudes honey. It is not as strong on me, at this time, as it seems to be on others. In fact, I seem to have the reverse experience of a number of commentators who start out with honey, hay and tobacco, only to find a heart of spicy rose later on. On me, the pyramid triangle is reversed. The rose is upfront and on top, with smoke and woody notes following on its heels.

There is also a note of camphor which intertwines itself with the smoke. It’s almost a medicinal note which leads me to wonder if camphor is Christopher Sheldrake’s favorite ingredient for perfumes. The slightly chilled, cold, cool note it provides is interesting, particularly when combined with the rose notes, because it creates a strong similarity to the many rose oud fragrances currently on the market. In fact, I can definitely smell a woody, medicinal, floral oud note in Chergui, though no oud or agarwood is listed. (Then again, I continuously read that Serge Lutens doesn’t list all the ingredients in his perfumes, so who knows.) The note is subtle and not very strong, but it dances around the rose and honey opening, adding dryness and wood to the perfume’s richness.

The camphorous smoke accords strongly call to mind campfires, except you’re not in a forest as you are with oud perfumes. Here, the campfire is in a field of roses sandwiched between a Turkish tobacco bazaar and an ancient Greek Orthodox churchGreek Orthodox Censer that is billowing out incense and frankincense. Unlike so many others, I don’t get impressions of Morocco or the desert from Chergui. I definitely did from Andy Tauer’s L’Air du Desert Marocain, but not from this. On me, it was not spiced enough for Morocco. Instead, for some strange reason, I get persistent images of Istanbul. But all that is mere quibbling because, frankly, I cannot stop sniffing my arm!

As time passes in the opening hour, the leather starts to bloom, alongside subtle hints of sandalwood. This is not the cold, black leather of scents like Robert Piguet’s Bandit or Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie; nor is it the pale suede of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie or Etat Libre d’Orange’s Tom of Finland. This is warm, soft leather that is caramel, nutty and smooth. The accompanying sandalwood is faint, but never synthetic. And the whole thing is cocooned in a backdrop of rich honey. There is great sweetness, but it is never cloying or like the sugar bomb perfumes that are currently saturating the commercial market. This is not diabetes in a bottle; there are no cupcake or dessert similarities here.

Thirty minutes in, the camphorous notes have receded a little, as have the woody oud-like notes. The sandalwood increases its presence, as does the element of sweet hay from what is said to be a healthy dollop of coumarin. (See the Glossary for further details on coumarin and its notes.) To be honest, I really don’t get a hell of a lot of sweet hay at this point but, then again, my perfume triangle seems to be reversed. The strong coumarin accord comes later, about four hours into the fragrance, and its straw-like sweetness is a perfect counterbalance to the different, richer kind of sweetness coming from the honey.

The smoke, sandalwood and florals call to mind several different perfumes. Again, L’Air du Desert Marocain is not one of them. There is, however, a surprising and peculiar impression of YSL‘s Opium made light — a comparison also noted by the blog, That Smell. To some extent, that’s not surprising as Opium is the ultimate benchmark for all spicy orientals with incense and frankincense. But Chergui is much lighter and sweeter than (vintage) Opium with its powerful eugenol cloves, its opening blast of citrus and orange, and its muscular sandalwood, opoponax and balsams. I haven’t tried (yet) Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille which some say is similar to Chergui, but what I think it sometimes resembles is Molinard‘s Habanitaamazing Habanita, one of the original sweet tobacco and leather fragrances which dates back to 1921. Chergui lacks its very strong citric opening and its constant, very powdered vanilla character, but there are similarities especially with the rose, leather and sweet tobacco accords of the opening hours. Chergui is more honeyed tobacco leaves, while Habanita is more powdered tobacco paper, but there are similarities.

As time passes, Chergui continues to develop. At the two hour note, the tobacco has become softer, the incense milder, the sandalwood smoother and the whole thing takes on a creamy aura. I have a definite impression of creamy tea due to a milky note that is lovely and cozy. And the honey accord is getting stronger now that the powerful incense and wood accords have retreated. The leather is very faint, if it’s there at all. Interestingly, I’ve read a surprisingly large number of comments that say the leather seems stronger on men than on women, with these reports coming from women whose husbands or boyfriends also wear Chergui.

Source: Visual Photos

Source: Visual Photos

After 4.5 hours, Chergui is all honey with some soft tobacco and loads of sweet, dry coumarin. It really smells like bales of hay in a barn, only coated with honey! Those notes constitute the essence of the dry-down phase for me and they remained for several more hours to come.

In terms of sillage and longevity, Chergui became close to the skin after about four hours, but its longevity is impressive. I could smell faint, minute traces of it on my skin after 8 hours and, again, my body consumes perfume voraciously. On others, I’ve read it lasts forever and ever. Also, as a side note, I’ve read a lot of people say that this is a perfume that can actually improve in the heat and in summer, so it should not be considered solely as a winter perfume.

Chergui has many admirers, but some detractors as well. On Basenotes, it has 102 positive reviews, 13 negative ones and 28 neutrals. The 13 negative comments focus on how it is either cloyingly sweet or uninteresting. On Fragrantica, the negative reviews are greater in number with the primary complaints being: 1) it smells too powdery; 2) it’s too sweet or too “old man”-ish; and 3) it opens like “bug spray.” I don’t smell any powder in Chergui and, given how I’m not a huge fan of the note, I would mention it if I did. I can see, however, why some may get the impression of “bug spray.” I think it’s the camphorous element in the opening. According to Luca Turin, in the old days, camphor notes (like that in patchouli) were used as bug repellent. The more common criticism of Chergui — that of its sweetness — is something I don’t personally agree with given the extent of the very dry smoke, incense and coumarin, but I can see how this would be far too much for someone who isn’t into honey perfumes or who generally prefers light, floral, or less heady scents. This is definitely not the scent for them!

Among the many rave reviews for Chergui, a few stood out to me. One was the absolutely beautiful review by Victoria from Bois de Jasmin who wrote:

it is an Arabian Nights vignette in a liquid form.

The candied quality melts in the smoke whispers that fill the arrangement, like incense smoke seeping through the carved screens. The floral accord folded into the smoky layers of Chergui lightens density and sweetness, lending a voluptuous silky quality. The fine cured Virginia tobacco notes overlaid on the smoky leathery base give the composition a slightly masculine character, counterbalancing the sweet notes….

If Chergui is an oasis, it encompasses not only the romantic elements of such a vision—dark black tea served with sugar cubes on the side, narghileh smoked inside leather tents, heavy silks carried by the caravans. The camels resting in the shade are suggested by the animalic sweetness underpinning the honeyed base. Like in an intricate Persian miniature, Chergui is a tale that spills from one story into another.

It maintains the suspense despite the fact that the development of the composition from the top accord to the bottom is not particularly dramatic. Instead, the hints of what is to come—whiff of tobacco, curl of rose petal, creaminess of sandalwood—are suggested in the preceding stages, resulting in the harmony of the narrative. At the same time, the intrinsic romanticism of Chergui fits with the philosophy of Serge Lutens’s work. Like Delacroix, a French painter, was fascinated with the Moroccan scenes, Serge Lutens’s fragrances allow a glimpse into another world through the eyes of an outsider.

I think that may be one of the most beautiful reviews I’ve read for any fragrance! But an equally noteworthy one — albeit less romantic and much more amusing — came from a commentator on MakeupAlley. There, “ThreeJane” gave a wonderful, very down-to-earth review of how Chergui can make one average, harried, stressed-out woman feel:

Chergui is a WOMAN’S scent. You’d better be a mature woman…all curves, breasts, buttocks, and satiny toffee-colored skin to wear this. You can pin a man from across the room with your smoky eyes, beckon him with a narcotic-laced toss of your hair, bend his will to your whim, and break his heart with an indifferent glance. Your clothes meld to your curves, and men can’t say why you are so intoxicating… […]. Women want to be you, men want to possess you.

That’s how this scent makes me feel, anyway. Not like a harried housewife with four homechooled kids and a messy (not dirty! Just cluttered!) house that has dogs bouncing off the walls and a perennial dish or three in the sink. Some days I just drag around in yoga pants and a t-shirt (it’s really a pajama tee from Target, don’t tell) with my hair haphazardly twisted up in a bun. I’m 41, with some wrinkles and sagging skin, standard mom issue.

But when I wear Chergui, I magically transform into Catherine Zeta-Jones in “The Legend of Zorro”, Angelina Jolie in “Original Sin”. Lush, luscious, sensual, unforgettable. After you get past the first almost acrid, medicinal blast of herby incense (about 10 minutes)…almost eyewatering, really…the scent melds into a spicy, honeyed, slightly sugary amber that’s saved from cloying-ness by a fresh bite of tobacco, iris, and I guess it’s hay. There’s supposed to be rose notes in this, which unfortunately, rose never shows up on me. But it’s not needed or missed.

Hours, and I mean HOURS, later, the drydown maintains the amber and slowly includes a woody edge…I guess that’s the sandalwood. I can see the guy from “The Most Interesting Man in the World” beer commercials wearing this. But it’s not manly, oh no. If my florid, overblown prose didn’t spell it out above, it’s verrrry feminine (all dependent on chemistry…always).

[…] There aren’t a lot of things that can elevate me from my rather humdrum hausfrau existence, so when I find something that lifts me up, I’ll take it and exploit it every chance I get. Just lovely.

The two reviews could not be more different and, yet, I think they both manage to capture the gist of Chergui. Try it for yourself, and see where the red desert wind takes you….

Details:
Cost & Availability: Chergui is currently on sale as the “Deal of the Week” at Beauty Encounter where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle is priced at $85.65 and free shipping is available. I don’t know how long that special will last. At all other times, you can find Chergui on the Serge Lutens Chergui Bell Jarwebsite. In the famous bell-jar shape, it costs $280 for 2.5 fl oz/75 ml. However, in the smaller size and regular bottle, it costs $120 for 1.7 fl oz/50 ml. Serge Lutens is sometimes available at fine retailers like Barney’s, but I don’t see Chergui listed on a number of department store sites. Chergui is also available on Penny Lane and Lucky Scent for $140 for the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle — which is $20 more than it costs on the Lutens website. In the UK, you can find Chergui at Harrods where it costs £69.00 for a 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle. You can also find it at Les Senteurs (or perhaps just at their Elizabeth Street shop) where that same bottle costs £79.00. The site sells samples of Chergui for £3.50. In Australia, I found it on the Grays website where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle retails for AUD $124.50. For other countries, you can use the Store Locator on the Lutens website. Sample vials to test it out can be bought at Surrender to Chance (but not Lucky Scent) starting at $3.99. Surrender to Chance also has a special Lutens sample pack of 3 non-export perfumes which includes Chergui (and Borneo 1834) and which starts at $11.50 for the smallest sized vials. Surrender to Chance has the best shipping rates, in my opinion: $2.95 for orders of any size within the U.S., and $5.95 for all international orders under $75 (otherwise, it’s just a tiny bit more).