Serge Lutens Nuit de Cellophane: Bipolar Extremes

Olfactory bipolarity, a perfume holding you hostage with assault weapons, Michelle Pfeiffer in “Married to the Mob,” 80s big hair, prepubescent girls, Pantene, and generic facelessness that “is not worthy of the Lutens name” — you better hold on, because this is going to be a bumpy ride. All those disparate things (and more) are reactions to Serge Lutens’ Nuit de Cellophane, and not just from me, either. This is a perfume that gave me olfactory whiplash, and whose opening almost verged on the oppressive. It takes a lot to make me cower, but I would have whimpered like a child, were it not for an extreme shift due to the aforementioned bipolarity.

Source: Fragrantica.

Source: Fragrantica.

Nuit de Cellophane is an eau de parfum that was created with Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 2009. On his website, Lutens describes the perfume as follows

When, beneath its cellophane, Haute Couture was but yet an idea.

Are you familiar with the scent of osmanthus? The flower is white or tinged with orange.
From the tight clusters of its petals bursts the scent of jasmine laced with mandarin orange.
On hot summer days, it provides a breath of fresh air.

According to Luckyscent, the notes seem to consist of, at a minimum:

Green note, fruity note, jasmine, osmanthus, carnation, lily, muscs, almond, wood, honey.

I first smelled Nuit de Cellophane on a paper strip in Paris at a Sephora boutique, and I really liked its plummy sweetness. It seemed heady, and like a very opulent fruity-floral. On skin, though…. Oh God. Oh God. Nuit de Cellophane opens with the aforementioned plums, followed by something akin to mandarins, and apricots. Seconds later, a metallic, dewy blast of white lilies arrives on the scene, accompanied by the fiery bite of red carnations and something that smells distinctly like a big, fat, white peony rose. 

White Peony. Photo: Will Borden on Fineartamerica.  (Website link embedded within photo.)

White Peony. Photo: Will Borden on Fine Art America. (Website link embedded within photo.)

It’s a visual of heavily petaled, loud whiteness tinged with vermillion, as if blood were dripping from a long, taloned nail onto snowy flowers. There is a subtle greenness to the scent, along with a concentrated bitter-sweet almond, but neither element is strong enough to cut through the intense florals. The whole thing is encased in fleshy orange, from pulpy, sticky mandarin oranges to a vaguely nutty apricot-peach. All of it feels extremely loud, and a thousand times more vulgar than anything that I’ve tried thus far from Serge Lutens. Part of me likes its unbelievably concentrated forcefulness, while the rest of me feels a little stunned at the assault. 

Source: Wallcoo.net

Source: Wallcoo.net

Five minutes in, a very metallic, synthetic element arises, making me wonder if Nuit de Cellophane was, in fact, the first in Serge Lutens’ recent line of quasi-metallic florals. Here, the note smells simultaneously soapy, clean, like hairspray, and like shampoo, all in one. It lingers around the lily aroma that is increasingly overtaking Nuit de Cellophane and becoming the main note. I love white lilies, but the version here is really quite something else. It is over-the-top in its sweetness on my skin, more dense and syrupy than even LutensUn Lys. At the same time, though, it also has a cool, synthetic steeliness and hairspray quality underlying it, something that wasn’t apparent in its lily sibling.

Michelle Pfeiffer in "Married to the Mob." Movie still from Listal.com.

Michelle Pfeiffer in “Married to the Mob.” Movie still from Listal.com.

Something about the overall combination continually makes me imagine a very big-haired, vulgar woman, like Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in the film, “Married to the Mob.” (It’s a hilarious film, by the way.) The connection in my mind stems from Nuit de Cellophane’s hyper-femininity, blowsiness, excess, loudness, and sweetness, with a very tough-as-nails swagger. And did I mention “big hair”? That too, especially as the floral hairspray element in Nuit de Cellophane keeps growing in volume. I do like Nuit de Cellophane a bit more than that description may sound, but not by much. And certainly not for long.

The perfume just keeps becoming sweeter and more shampoo-like on my skin with every passing minute. I realize my skin amplifies both sweetness and synthetics, but this experience leaves me feel utterly overwhelmed. That’s pretty unusual for someone who likes such forceful, powerful scents as Amouage‘s Ubar, Fracas, and Opium. Nuit de Cellophane’s florals, however, will either stomp on you with 9-inch high, plexiglass stripper heels, or drown you in a vat of sweetness, holding your head down in syrup with the longest, crimson dragon nails. You’d think that the spicy, clove-like note from the carnation or he almonds would counter the sweetness, but they don’t. Somehow, on my skin, they merely add to the wild disparity, especially when the almonds take on a cherry-like subtext.

Osmanthus. Source: blog.proxisante.com

Osmanthus. Source: blog.proxisante.com

I truly don’t smell osmanthus in the way that I’m used to, and it actually made me start doubting my own understanding of the note. I’ve always encountered the flower as a sweet, delicate, white thing with nuances of apricots or tea. Occasionally, it even seems to have a dark, leathered subset. Here, however, my skin is really radiating a quasi-rose peony note with some sort of peach-plum combination. I was bewildered because, even if no-one knows the actual notes in a Serge Lutens fragrance, I’d never seen a list that included “rose” or “peony.”

So, I looked up Nuit de Cellophane in Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez‘ book, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. Well, it seems that Tania Sanchez and I may have the same skin. She categorizes Nuit de Cellophane as a “plum peony” fragrance, and writes, in part:

Nuit de Cellophane is another dramatic lapse in judgment: a fruity floral derived from J’Adore, boiled down to a syrup, and in desperate need of dilution. Clearly, some osmanthus was harmed in the production, and in general the florals are much better than you usually get in this genre. But it never manages to overcome a depressing banality and feels a step down fom the creativity of Sarrasins and El Attarine. [Emphasis to names with bolding added by me.]

20 minutes in, I still didn’t smell the osmanthus, but the shampoo and scented hairspray tones were beating a steady drumroll. Nuit de Cellophane remained as a really intense blast of white lilies, white musk synthetics, and peony rose, infused with heavily fruited sweetness. It wafted about 3 inches until the end of the first hour, when the perfume finally began to soften and the projection shrank.

It takes 90 minutes, all in all, for Nuit de Cellophane to calm down enough for the osmanthus to come out from the shadows. Finally, I smell the note that this perfume is meant to celebrate, but it feels as though there were a hostage situation where the lily held the osmanthus for ransom for a while. As the lily retreats to the sidelines, the thick wave of fruited sweetness sharply drops and is cut in half. The shampoo and floral hairspray impression lingers, but it too is much less aggressive. The whole thing is now a blur dominated primarily by osmanthus, then that peony-like note and an increasingly abstract fruitedness. There is a very hazy, blurry feel to the notes, but I think I can still detect small traces of the clove-y carnation and some peach. However, the overall effect from afar is of a very soft, fruity-floral with few distinguishing characteristics other than sweetness and cleanness.

As time passes, Nuit de Cellophane devolves further. The osmanthus, the peony-rose, and the fruited elements become even more nebulous, and the perfume feels like a generic, department store floral. The problem really seems to be two-fold: shapeless and cleanness. The florals elements don’t stand out in any way except as a blur of some generalized “white flowers,” while the clean musk creates an artificial sterility.

Source: hdwallpaperplace.com

Source: hdwallpaperplace.com

At the end of the 4th hour, my greatest impression of Nuit de Cellophane was of towels which retain the vaguely floral scent of fabric softener and dryer sheets. The softness has a certain fluffiness, which one might argue is a positive, but the scent as a whole has a complete facelessness which is most definitely a negative. When I smelled Nuit de Cellophane really hard up close, I could pick out a vaguely rose-like, white floral scent with some vestige of fruitiness, but it took serious effort. And it may have been wishful thinking.

From the start of the 6th hour until its very end, Nuit de Cellophane was nothing more than a generic blur of floral cleanness. If you put it in a lineup next to any department store fragrance, even earlier on in its development, I honestly doubt I could pick out the Lutens. Regular readers know how I love the house and how much I admire Serge Lutens in particular, so none of this was easy to write, but I really disliked the fragrance that much. All in all, Nuit de Cellophane lasted just shy of 11.75 hours on my skin, and I was unhappy for all of it.

Source: telshopmobile.com

Source: telshopmobile.com

The one thing I kept thinking of when assessing the perfume is how Nuit de Cellophane compares to some of the Lutens florals of the past few years. As many people have noted, 2009 seems to mark a time when Serge Lutens embarked on a course of exploring scents with a light, watery, silvery and/or metallic floral twist. There was his L’Eau Serge Lutens in 2009, Vitriol d’Oeillet in 2011, L’Eau Froide in 2011, La Fille de Berlin in 2013, La Vierge de Fer in 2013, and the upcoming Laine de Verre (i.e., Fiber Glass) next month in February 2014. It feels to me as if Serge Lutens began with L’Eau Serge Lutens, took a detour into a hyper-sweetened (but partially metallic, piercing) Nuit de Cellophane, then decided to keep stripping away at the baseline until he arrived at the recent, metallic, icy, shrieking hairspray lily of La Vierge de Fer.

On my skin, Nuit de Cellophane begins like the earlier 2007 Un Lys, only much sweeter (if you can believe it) and without the narrow lily soliflore focus. It actually fits closer on the scale to La Vierge de Fer given the piercing white musk, yet it has the Serge Lutens’ signature of plummy fruits. La Vierge de Fer feels like the apotheosis of Lutens’ metallic or icy floral trend that Vitriol d’Oeillet and La Fille de Berlin also reflect to some extent, and so, it fits into a definite pattern.

Nuit de Cellophane doesn’t. It has some of the traditional Lutens signature with the plummy fruits, and also, some of the loud schizophrenia of the 2001 Datura Noir. Yet, it lacks the latter’s lushness, more balanced, interesting aspects, as well as the steelier, iciness of recent Lutens florals. Nuit de Cellophane is a bit of everything and nothing for me, as it lurches from one extreme to another. One minute, it holds you hostage with such strongly delineated, syrupy, piercing florals that they feel like assault rifles; the next, it is a faceless girl simpering in a department store in the cheap hairspray and shampoo aisle. Between the discordant notes and the extremes, the whole thing feels quite bipolar to me. As should be quite clear by now, I don’t understand the perfume. I’ve tried but I don’t, no matter how much I search for a pattern. I just don’t get it.

Lest you think this is all just me and hyperbole, let me reassure you that I’m hardly alone in my reaction to Nuit de Cellophane. Take Bois de Jasmin who gave it a rare Two-Star review, and whose bottom-line conclusion was…. shampoo. In fact, try as she might, neither time nor a year’s worth of additional testing could change Victoria’s feelings about the perfume:

… I have held hope that one day I would smell this bland fruity-floral and … figure out what Serge Lutens was trying to achieve with it. It has been a year since I have first smelled Nuit de Cellophane and no such revelation has occurred—it still smells like shampoo to me and I still do not care for it. […]

The opening stage of Nuit de Cellophane is the aspect I dislike the most. The sharp, fruity note that comes through evokes not the velvety softness of apricot skin but rather some drugstore peach shampoo. It is neither pleasant nor interesting, and while eventually it softens enough to reveal the osmanthus heart, the banality of the first impression stays with me.

As the composition develops, the apricot-leather accord becomes stronger, with jasmine and rose highlighting its appealing sweetness. The animalic accents are subtle, never rising above the osmanthus, even in the late drydown. It is a pleasant fragrance at this stage, light and easy to wear. Considering that such compositions are easy enough to find (and often at a much lower price point, I should add) I cannot find any other quality that makes Nuit de Cellophane appealing to me.

However unpleasant her experience, I still think mine was worse. In fact, parts of Nuit de Cellophane on her skin sound almost interesting. Animalic accents? Would that I have been so lucky! At least I’m not crazy in smelling roses in the Nuit de Cellophane.

For I Smell Therefore I Am, Nuit de Cellophane is a pretty white floral (with lilies) that “is not worthy of the Lutens name.” The review states:

Nuit de Cellophane does not smell particularly like osmanthus. Instead it is a bright, joyous and billowy white floral, heavy on jasmine, lily, champaca and some fruity citrus. Nuit de Cellophane is a beautiful white floral but it is not worthy of the Lutens name. There is absolutely nothing unusual, unique, jarring or unexpected about Nuit de Cellophane. It is very pretty, very well done and very mainstream. [¶][…]

I must admit that my first thought after wearing Nuit de Cellophane was, “the SL brand must need a mainstream success very badly; they must need some easy sales in a tough economy.”

On Fragrantica, the very first review you see at the top of the page also happens to be the most amusing, in my opinion. “Arabian Knight” sums it up, quite simply, as:

If you want a cheaper alternative to this overpriced scent, shampoo your hair with Pantene, blow dry it and then shake it back and forth. It smells exactly like freshly shampooed hair….

Baffling :/

On Luckyscent, the comments are split between the haters and those who love what they describe as soft, clean sweetness. On balance, though, the haters seem to win out:

  • On me, this smells like Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, the shampoo all the cool girls used back when I was in seventh grade. Two stars for nostalgia, but I wouldn’t wear it.
  • Very boring. It smells like a generic department store scent, nice and wearable, but just not something from dramatic and tasteful Lutens.
  • This is a very soapy jasmine reminiscent of dryer sheets. Piercing and relentlessly dull, it is a huge disappointment coming from Serge Lutens.
  • A full, brash, sharp floral fragrance. This is almost identical to Michael Kors’ Very Hollywood. There are cheaper perfumes that smell similar to this.
  • I’m really confused by this one… I definitely agree that is smells like “Very Hollywood,” but would venture to say that there is absolutely nothing noteworthy or exceptional about this flat, high-school smelling fragrance. If you like to smell like Victoria’s Secret or the generic department-store fragrance, look no further.

I haven’t sniffed Michael Kors’ Very Hollywood in ages, so I can’t speak to the details. All I can remember is that it was a very sweet floral with little character.But I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty, though: the retail price is not $130 for a 50 ml bottle. (In fact, you can find it on a discount perfume site in a bottle twice that size for $28, while the Lutens’ discounted rate is still significantly more.)

In fairness, and to demonstrate the other side of the picture, there are people who truly love Nuit de Cellophane. Some of the positive reviews on Fragrantica:

  • This is truly an exercise in subtlety. Yet it does not smell like anything else. It is peppery carnation, fresh green, osmanthus, a breath of jasmine, a drop of sweet honey, with a bit of lily dust and soft musk to hold together. [¶] It is a quiet, delicate work of art, for the person who wants to keep her (or his) little secret, that they are wearing something special. Not for the person who wants to announce their presence before they have stepped into a room. I think that winter is not the best season; I think this is an ideal early March through end of April scent.
  • I love this fragrance. It’s juicy fruits supported by heady white florals makes it truly swoon-worthy. The opening is brief and to die for, albeit a bit too short lived in my opinion. It dries down to a soft and clean soapy smell. Even though it doesn’t project as much as I would like, I still adore it.
  • OMG, how could I live without this fantastically well done Osmantus scent??? I`m an Osmantus lover, but never I heard this note so pronounced, so clean, tender, innocent but not simple, simple but far from being primitive… it`s hard to describe, it`s a little sweet, a little acid, you keep sniffing it, trying desperately to disclosure the secret: what is this evasive beauty… It smells like a prepubertal girl must smell… Innocent and vicious in the same time. [¶] I love it.

Honestly, I don’t think smelling like a prepubescent girl is a compliment, but it takes all kinds. All the more power to her. Still, it noteworthy that a few commentators — on both sides of the fence — have brought up youthfulness, whether mentioning preteens or seventh grader girls. I do think the fragrance has an innocuous, safely generic, floral freshness that somehow translates to some noses as innocence. Intellectually, there is logic to the perception, even if I don’t understand it personally or emotionally. (The thought of actually wanting to smell like a prepubescent child brings my mind to a skidding, screeching halt. I’m completely flummoxed.)

I suppose if you’re looking for a fresh, clean, sweet Lutens (or for a department store floral with the innocuousness of a shampoo-drenched gnat), then you may want to try Nuit de Cellophane. There are cheaper alternatives, though, even if you buy the Lutens fragrance at the massive discount offered by some US retailers. Frankly, I found the perfume’s bipolar nature to verge on the alarming, and its extreme shift from one end of the spectrum to the other initially gave me whiplash, before leaving me feeling quite exhausted. It was not an experience that I enjoyed. 

DETAILS:
General Cost & Sale Prices: Nuit de Cellophane is an eau de parfum that comes in a 1.7 oz/50 ml size, and costs $130, €85, or £69. However, you can find it highly discounted at a number of U.S. retailers. On Amazon, Nuit de Cellophane costs $64.99; at FragranceNet (which ships worldwide), it is $68.16 with a coupon; and at Beauty Encounter, it costs $69.95 with the coupon code they provide as well. Serge Lutens: you can find Nuit de Cellophane at regular, full price on the U.S. and the International Lutens website, with other language options also available. U.S. sellers: Nuit de Cellophane is available for $130 at Luckyscent, Barney’s Aedes, and a number of other stores. Outside the U.S.: In the UK, you can find Nuit de Cellophane on Amazon UK for £59.35. At the regular £69 price, you can find it at Harrod’s, Liberty London, and SpaceNK ApothecaryIn France, you can buy Nuit de Cellophane from Sephora for €84, though it’s cheaper at Premiere Avenue which sells it for €79. In Germany, you can find Nuit de Cellophane at Essenza Nobile. In Australia, you can find it at FragranceNet Australia for AUD$78.34 with the coupon. For other countries, you can use the Store Locator on the Lutens website. Samples: You can test out Nuit de Cellophane by ordering a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. There is also a Four Lutens Sample Set for $18.99 where the vials are larger at 1 ml each, and you get your choice of 4 Lutens Export fragrances (ie, not those that are Paris exclusives).
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Serge Lutens Bois et Fruits: Autumnal Sweetness

Some of the Lutens Bell Jars. Source: Barneys.

Some of the Lutens Bell Jars. Source: Barneys.

A funny thing happens when a Serge Lutens addict visits the mothership in Paris. A profusion of scents, sensations, sights, and lust floods over you, leaving you rather at a loss to make objective decisions on the spot. Or perhaps that was merely my experience in visiting Les Palais Royal. In any event, it took me two visits to make up my mind about what to buy, and one of the main bell jar candidates was Bois et Fruits.

The rare, 50 ml spray bottle of Bois et Fruits. Source: Luckyscent.

The rare, 50 ml spray bottle of Bois et Fruits. Source: Luckyscent.

In the end, I walked out with Fourreau Noir and De Profundis, but I kept thinking about Bois et Fruits. I know it is a favorite of Serge Lutens’ personal assistant, the Paris boutique manager, Suleiman, with its blend of wooded, spiced, and candied fruits. Upon my return, I took the wild chance of looking up the fragrance to see if this expensive $310 bell-jar might possibly have been released in another form at some point. After all, Rousse and some other Paris Bell Jar exclusives seemed to have come out in a cheaper, limited-edition 50 ml spray bottle from time to time, so perhaps Bois et Fruits as well? To my joy, it had. And not only that, but the $200 retail price in the U.S. was significant undercut by discount retailers who offered it for around $82. Score! I’ve never hit the “Buy” button quite so quickly. Bois et Fruits is not the perfect scent, and it has some flaws which make it hard for me to swallow at $310, but it’s certainly fantastic and perfect enough for $82.

The official bottle for the perfume, the Bell Jar version. Source: Serge Lutens Facebook page.

The official bottle for the perfume, the Bell Jar version. Source: Serge Lutens Facebook page.

Having started at the end of the tale, let’s go back to the beginning. Bois et Fruits is an eau de parfum that was created by Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 1992. It is one of a quartet of “Bois” (or wood) fragrances to follow from Lutens’ ground-breaking, debut perfume, Féminité du Bois for Shiseido. The latter is a highly admired, much-loved fragrance which essentially served as the mothership for all the Bois siblings which followed.

Luca Turin, the famous perfume critic, has a very useful explanation of the history of the Bois line, their perfume structure, and how Bois et Fruits differs from both its mother and its siblings. In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, he talks of how the “woody-fruity structure of Féminité du Bois was first devised by the perfumer Pierre Bourdon, … and then passed on to perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, who developed it with Lutens… to keep it as dark and transparent as possible.” When Lutens decided to open his own perfume house, he needed more perfumes for his line, and decided to do variations on his uber-successful Féminité.

Enter the technique known as overdosage, widely propagated by Bourdon, in which a backstage component in one perfume is moved to the forefront in a new composition, a sort of rotation in perfume space. From Féminité du Bois came four variations, three of which create new effects by bold-typing one of the components of the original: musk (Bois et Musc), fruit (Bois et Fruits), amber (Bois Oriental).

Source: laundryetc.co.uk

Source: laundryetc.co.uk

Serge Lutens explicitly states that Bois et Fruits is the fruit-dominated child of Feminité du Bois:

Like candied fruit.

This is another descendant of Féminité du bois, whose base notes contained a complex blend of several types of plums. Here, unadulterated, it’s like candied fruit.

It’s an accurate assessment, but it is only part of the story. It leaves out the important counter-balance to those sweetened fruits: the spices and wood. Luckyscent puts the woods front and center at the start of its description of Bois et Fruits:

A cornucopia of luscious woods and succulent fruits, Bois et Fruits is what we think Paradise would smell like…We are addicted to the candied cedar note in the heart of the fragrance. Surrounded by ripe, honeyed plums, figs, apricots and peaches, the woody note of Bois et Fruits is absolutely delectable. We would not call this darkly-sensual concoction gourmand in an obvious manner, but there is a sweet, lush quality in Bois et Fruits that is nothing short of mouthwatering. A blissful, endlessly enjoyable bled that is as sensuous as it is comforting, Bois et fruits is divine!

As always, Serge Lutens keeps the notes in his fragrance secret, so it’s a guessing game to know what is involved. Fragrantica, Luckyscent, and Surrender to Chance estimate that Bois et Fruits contains:

cedar, plum, fig, peach and apricot.

Barney’s tosses in cinnamon and Turkish rose, but doesn’t think there is apricot. I would include a lot more than that. To my nose, the notes in Bois et Fruits would be, in order of importance:

Plum, Peach, Cedar, Cumin, Apricot, Cloves, and Figs. Possibly, vanilla, almonds, and either licorice or anise.

Source: RebootwithJoe.com

Source: RebootwithJoe.com

Bois et Fruits opens on my skin with the dripping juices of sun-sweetened peaches, followed by plums and the tiniest hint of apricots. The fruits are infused with a distinct, definite note of cumin, and something strongly resembling chewy, black licorice. The entire bouquet is cocooned by dry, dusty cedar, then softened with what I’d swear is a touch of almond-y vanilla. In the distance, the fig flits about, simultaneously a bit leathered and quite milky. The whole thing is a very soft, airy cloud that radiates out by a foot in the opening minutes, but soon softens to something tamer.

A young cedar tree trunk.

A young cedar tree trunk.

I enjoy the sweetness of the fruits so much that I sprayed Bois et Fruits onto my other arm during my test for this review, and I was completely taken aback to see that the fragrance had quite a different opening. I generally stick to one arm for all my tests, out of some odd thought about scientific conformity, but maybe that idea isn’t so weird after all, as the notes in Bois et Fruits were all jumbled up in a different order and with different strengths.

While the two scents soon ended up in the same place, on my other arm, Bois et Fruits opened with a very cognac-y, boozy note, followed by peaches, dusty cedary, and sweet, light, almost osmanthus-like apricots. The cedar was strong and pronounced, but there wasn’t a lot of plum at first. And there was absolutely no cumin at all — to the point that I thought I’d gotten it all wrong, until it suddenly popped up after about eight minutes. There was also no any licorice, almond, or fig tonalities, and very little vanilla. On the other hand, there was a milky anise element that flitted in and out, and anise is related to licorice. In any event, the two versions end up in the same place after about 20 minutes, so the minor differences aren’t significant in the long run, and I’ll just stick to writing about the version on the arm that I usually use for testing.

Photo: David Hare. Source: open.az

Photo: David Hare. Source: open.az

After 10 minutes, the notes seamless blend into each other. The fruits are on top, and the woods are diffused throughout, but in the base, the cumin adds a soft, muffled growl. It’s not a sweaty note like body odor, the way cumin can sometimes be, but it’s definitely a subtle touch of animalism and light “skank.” It works subtly from afar to add complexity to what would otherwise be primarily a two-pronged scent. I’ve seen one person describe the cedar as a “sweaty” note, but I would bet my bottle of Bois et Fruits that there is the cumin in the fragrance. For the most part, it’s a dusty note, like the powdered kind you’d find in a spice market, but with a distinct earthiness underneath. I have to admit, it’s my favorite part of the fragrance, even though I’m not usually enamoured by cumin. Something about the spicy dryness and earthy muskiness adds a brilliant counter-balance to the sweetened juices of the fruits, while simultaneously accentuating the dryness of the cedar.,

Soon, a subtle creaminess starts to stir and rises to join the top notes. It’s not vanilla or almonds, but neither is it purely milky fig, either. It’s like a teaspoon of ice-cream flecked with sweetness, as if the lactonic qualities of the fig had melded with the dryish vanilla to create the impression of textural creaminess. I still wonder about the black licorice note that I initially detected because, at the same time as the creaminess, there seems to be some sort of milky white anise lurking about.

Cloves, close up. Source: www.toothachesremedies.net

Cloves, close up. Source: http://www.toothachesremedies.net

About 30 minutes in, there is an accord which strongly resembles parts of Serge LutensSerge Noir, a fragrance dominated, in part, by cloves and cumin. Christopher Sheldrake and Serge Lutens reportedly worked on Serge Noire for more than 10 years, and it was released in 2008. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the cumin-clove-cedar trio in the 1992 Bois et Fruits was later “overdosed” in the way that Luca Turin describes above to become the foundation for Serge Noire. The difference is that the trio are much more subtle and balanced in Bois et Fruits, while they’re tripled in strength in Serge Noire. In any event, both my arms are most definitely radiating cloves, but it’s so well-blended that, from afar, the whole thing merely translates to dry, brown spices.

The unusual thing about Bois et Fruits’ overall development is how the notes never seem to stay in the same place from one minute to the next. It’s like a horse race where several contenders are all racing neck-and-neck near the finish line. Sometimes the Peach-Plum horse takes the lead and dominates, but the next minute, it’s the Clove-Cumin chestnut horse, and three minutes after that, it’s the Cedar stallion. Trailing far, far behind is the vanilla, looking like just a speck in the distance.

Source: narutoforums.com

Source: narutoforums.com

About 2.5 hours in, the horse race looks a little different. The clove has faded away, and the cumin softens to a dryly spiced woodiness with a very earthy feel. The cedar adds a similarly dry touch to counter the fruits which are primarily just plum now, with much weaker amounts of peach. The apricot never really showed up on my skin, beyond the opening minutes, and the almond note didn’t last much longer. What is more noticeable throughout is the muskiness lingering at the edges. It melts into the cumin’s earthiness, evoking the image of heated skin. To be precise, a guy’s skin under layers of thick, winter clothing after he’s exerted himself. Let me be clear: it does not smell fetid, and there is absolutely no impression of ripe body odor or smelly armpits, but there is a subtle sweatiness that evokes warmed, musky skin.

An hour later, around the 3.5 hour mark, Bois et Fruits is a discrete, very soft sheath of dark brown silk. Yet, the scent is still strong up close, and tendrils of spiced plum occasionally float in the air around you. It’s an airy, gauzy, balanced blend of plum, cedar, cumin, with just a touch of peach. Slowly, Bois et Fruits grows more abstract, the cumin and peach fade away, and the remaining notes lose their shape or distinctness. In its final moments, Bois et Fruits is merely plummy sweetness with a hint of dry woodiness. All in all, it lasted just a hair above 8.75 hours on my skin with 3 sprays from an actual bottle (as opposed to an atomizer). Through out it all, Bois et Fruit evoked images of an autumnal forest filled with trees bearing heavy, ripe fruits in a colour palette of red, orange, and dark brown softness.

Source: wallpapervortex.com

Source: wallpapervortex.com

On Fragrantica, the perfume has received mixed reviews. Judging by the longevity votes, a number of people think Bois et Fruits doesn’t last long, and it also has moderate to weak sillage. Quite a few posters talk about Feminité du Bois, the mother perfume, with most commentators agreeing that Bois et Fruits is much more fruited in nature. One woman, “woodlandwalk,” had an interesting comparison of the two fragrances, and her experience with Bois et Fruits mirrors my own to some extent:

Very Autumnal! I find Bois et Fruits easier to wear than Feminite du Bois. I love Feminite du Bois because I love the smell of cedar wood, but often FdB can feel a bit one dimensional – so if you find FdB a little too ‘wood workshop’, Bois et Fruits might suit you.

The sweaty cedar and boozy plum of FdB are softened considerably here with fig and apricot, so Bois et Fruits is a little more pillow-like – you can relax into it. The fig adds a lactonic (milky) note so it just feels more smooth. There’s a ‘nutty’ quality to it – a sort of bitter-sweet almond that again gives a softer edge

The apricot is slightly syrupy in feel, so this with the fig and less spicy notes makes for a sweeter, cosier, easier to wear perfume, still boozy though, and very warm. Friendly.

On me the silage is fairly close to skin, longevity soft to moderate. This perfume is growing on me and I might upgrade from decant to full bottle.

I obviously detected a lot more spices than she did, but little apricot. On the other hand, I’m glad I’m not crazy, and that she noted the almonds too! I also agree that Bois et Fruits feels quite pillowy soft.

Others describe the scent in the same vein, talking about autumn and sweetness:

  • Bois et Fruits is a fragrance that would be perfect for fall and winter- and in a way makes me think of Christmas and those very rich cakes with dried fruit and spices. The fragrance is heavy, oozing with sweet, juicy and smoky plum and apricot. If I could give it a texture, it would be that of a liquid honey that has been warmed up. I would classify it as oriental-gourmand, although it does not feature vanilla nor honey, it is very sweet, almost edible. The scent is so intense and long lasting, 5 hours later smells as if it was just sprayed.
  • I love the dried,succulent fruits(mainly apricot on my skin), against the warm, spicy cedar. It`s like an imagenary tree covered in red,brown and yellow leaves with peaches, plums and apricots(.All growing at the same tree.) Under the heavy loaded branches, a dragon is sleeping peacefully, only opening one eye now and then just in case.. Perfect for autumn!

Some people were not as enthused. Some prefer Feminité du Bois, while a few thought Bois et Fruits smelled “pungent,” no doubt due to the cedar. One thought the fragrance was too cedary, while another thought it was too fruity instead. There is also the same sort of split amongst the Fragrantica critics about whether the fragrance is too dry or too sweet.

In short, for Bois et Fruits more than for most scents, it’s really going to come down to your skin chemistry. Mine happens to amplify base notes and sweetness, and, yes, I happen to find the fragrance very sweet. It would be too much so for me normally, but it works in this rare instance because of the dryness and spices that lurk underneath. Plus, I find the cumin to make all the difference. It is the perfect, well-calibrated amount to add character, while simultaneously helping to cut through the fruits. Still, if your skin chemistry is like mine, then you should try Bois et Fruits only if you enjoy the possibility of a very sweetened, fruity fragrance with a lesser dose of dry woodiness.

All the blog reviews that I’ve found for Bois et Fruits are positive, though none of them rave about the scent as a complex masterpiece. It’s not, as it is too simple for that. But it is still very appealing, as Perfume-Smellin’ Things reports. In fact, it is seems to be her favorite Lutens out of them all, and she imagines it to be “the scent of Paradise”:

Les Eaux Boisées are my favorite part of Les Salons du Palais Royal collection, and of them, Bois et Fruits is the most beloved.

Bois et Fruits combines cedar with notes of peach, apricot, figs, and plums, and thus emphasizes the fruity side of its “Great Mother”, Féminité du Bois. Having said that, Bois et Fruits is actually much drier and less sweet than Féminité. It starts with a dry cedar note, within seconds the ripe fruitiness of figs and plums becomes apparent, the fruits balance the dryness of the woods and cedar keeps the potentially excessive sweetness of fruits in check. The overall effect to my nose is that of dried fruits mixed with a slightly incensy, sometimes even almost leathery accord. Bois et Fruits is a subtler scent, it is much less forceful than Féminité du Bois, and even though it has fruits in its title, it actually translates much less fruity on my skin that its predecessor. I always imagine that Bois et Fruits is the scent of Paradise, or at least of the woodier, wilder part of the Garden of Eden.

Victoria of Bois de Jasmin also didn’t think Bois et Fruits was all that sweet, and she liked it. In her four-star review, she wrote:

Chris Sheldrake and Serge Lutens’s Bois et Fruits (1992) captures a moment of autumn before one becomes aware of its farewell connotations. Warm cedarwood is folded over lusciously ripe fall fruits—figs, peaches, and plums, which speak more of a voluptuous aspect of autumn than of its nostalgic side. This fragrance is one of few instances when fruit is not rendered as treacly and artificial. Instead, sweet resinous cedar married to fruit results in a very elegant scent with the brightness of sweet-sour plum courting the soft powderiness of fig.

I think her four-star rating (which is what Luca Turin also gives it in his Perfumes Guide) is perfect, because the fragrance does have some flaws. I agree with those on Fragrantica that its sillage and longevity tend to be on the lighter side of things, but there is also something else. For me, Bois et Fruits doesn’t stand out enough to warrant inclusion in the Bell Jar line. Those are the most complex, nuanced, morphing, and twisting Lutens scents, so their high price is understandable and usually worth it. They are the masterpieces that, whether or not you can wear them, are brilliant works of olfactory art for the most part.

Bois et Fruits doesn’t measure up to that standard. For me, it would be a perfect addition to the regular export line, and it’s well-worth it at $82. It’s great for autumn, and it also works wonderfully as a layering scent to go with much drier or smokier fragrances. But I’m very dubious about the U.S. retail cost of $200, and I honestly could not imagine spending the much-inflated U.S. Bell Jar price of $310 on Bois et Fruits. Not in a million years.

The bell jar is cheaper in Euros at €145, without the annoying, extra-high U.S. mark-up, and I think it may have been €135 back when I was in Paris. Yet, if you notice, I didn’t buy it even at that price, and the main reason is that it didn’t stand out as much as its siblings in the bell jar line. It simply didn’t feel special, complex, or strong enough — lovely and succulent as it may be. Fourreau Noir, De Profundis, Boxeuses, Un Voix Noire, and some of the other Bell Jar fragrances are in a different class, in my opinion. However, I found one European online retailer to carry the rare, discounted 50 ml spray bottle of Bois et Fruits, which is priced €105, and that may be much more reasonable for what it is.

I wouldn’t recommend Bois et Fruits for everyone. You must like sweet perfumes, and a lot of fruit. You also have to appreciate cedar, and a touch of cumin. If you do, and if you can buy Bois et Fruits at a discount, I think you’ll enjoy it very much. It’s not very intense or edgy, it’s definitely not very complicated, but it is quite an Autumnal treat.

DETAILS:
General Cost & Discounted Sales Prices: Bois et Fruits is an eau de parfum that comes in a 2.5 oz/75 ml bell jar that costs $310 or €145. However, you also can find it in a 1.7 oz/50 ml spray bottle which retails for $200, but which is massively discounted on some sites for much less. Bois et Fruits is currently on sale at FragranceNet where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle is priced at $84.31, when you include their an additional 15% OFF with the coupon code RESFT5. (I think I bought mine for $82, so it may have gone up a wee bit since then.) The site offers free domestic shipping, but they also ship world-wide. Bois et Fruits is also discounted on Amazon, where the seller is listed as Serge Lutens, and the perfume is priced at $96.87. Beauty Encounter sells the perfume for $99 if you use their 20% off code.
You should also check eBay as the fragrance is sometimes deeply discounted there. At the very least, it is commonly in the $95-range. 
Serge Lutens: you can find Bois et Fruit in the expensive bell jars on the U.S. and International Lutens website, with non-English language options also available for the latter.
U.S. sellers: Bois et Fruits in the 50 ml atomizer bottle is available for $200 at Luckyscent, Barney’s, and AedesBarney’s also sells the very expensive bell jar form.
Outside the U.S.: In Canada, you can find Bois et Fruits at The Perfume Shoppe for what may be CAD$200 or US$200. I’m never sure about their currency choice, since it is primarily an American business. They also offer some interesting sample or travel options for Lutens perfumes. In the UK, I couldn’t find any vendors as this is primarily a Paris exclusive bell jar. However, in France, I found it sold at Laurent Mazzone’s Premiere Avenue in the 50 ml atomizer bottle for €106, and the site ships worldwide. French Sephora carries a lot of the Lutens perfumes, but again, Bois et Fruits is a Palais Royal Paris exclusive. In Australia, the perfume is on sale at the FragranceNet site for AUD $94.41, with the discount code, instead of what it says is the Australian retail price of AUD $223.96. 
Samples: You can test out Bois et Fruits by ordering a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $6.99 for a 1 ml vial. There is also a Five Lutens Sample Set for $18.99 where you get your choice of five non-export, Paris exclusives, each of which comes in a 1/2 ml vial. 

Serge Lutens La Vierge de Fer

Joan of Arc. Source: cosmovisions.com

Joan of Arc. Source: cosmovisions.com

It’s hard to live up to a powerful name. Even harder when that name is something that seems to reference both Joan of Arc, and perhaps the most notorious of all medieval torture devices, the Iron Maiden. So, I put all titular and symbolic considerations aside when I tested the latest fragrance from Serge Lutens, La Vierge de Fer, and looked at it in a vacuum. With deep regret and sadness, I have to say that I think it is the worst perfume that I’ve ever tried from Serge Lutens, and more suited to a cheap department store. 

La Vierge de Fer is a floral eau de parfum whose name translates to “The Iron Maiden” (or virgin). It was created by Christopher Sheldrake, and released in September of this year as one of the famous, pricey, bell jar “Paris Exclusives.” The perfume is not sold world-wide, but is limited to Serge Lutens’ Paris headquarters, the Lutens websites, or to the Lutens section of Barney’s New York. 

The inspiration for the fragrance seems to vary depending on which source you read. Some say that La Vierge de Fer was inspired by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, others talk about Joan of Arc, or the medieval torture device called the Iron Maiden. A few mention Serge Lutens’ mother and how the fragrance is partially an homage to her. (You can read about Serge Lutens’ childhood, and how his mother was forced to abandon him as a baby in the first part of my profile on Monsieur Lutens.)

An Iron Maiden. Source: museumofman.org

An Iron Maiden. Source: museumofman.org

In an interview with Ozmoz, Monsieur Lutens seemed to give a nod to a few of these things:

The name you picked, La vierge de fer (The Iron Maiden), is pretty intense. There’s a reference to torture. Is there perhaps a connection to Joan of Arc, too?

SL: All maidens have a connection between them. Joan of Arc kicking the English out of France is one of the loves of my life. Whether she’s wearing armor or crowning the King of France, she’s a reference, absolutely, but not here. The Iron Maiden is more of an attitude. My own attitude towards what creates beauty. You can’t conceive of anything without a certain fragility, a scar at the bottom of it all. Opening that scar to make it universal is the basic principle of Art. An iron maiden used to be an instrument of torture. And if the term ‘to create’ means anything, it means that whoever does it is tortured and sacrificed on the alter of something.

La Vierge de Fer bell jar.

La Vierge de Fer bell jar.

On his website, Serge Lutens doesn’t add any clarification, writing and describing the perfume rather cryptically:

The religion of iron needed a Virgin, and the Virgin, a lily.

“Have you smelt it?”
“Yes, I have.”
“And how is it?”
“As striking as the fleur-de-lis seal on the arm of a criminal.”
“Never?!”
“And deep down, as itchy as a hair shirt on the skin. In fact, a sublime torture!”.

As always, Serge Lutens keeps the perfume’s notes secret. Surrender to Chance says they are:

Lily, jasmine, amber, vanilla and sandalwood.

The notes I detect are slightly different:

Lily, aldehydes, muguet (or lily of the valley), jasmine, generic amber, white musk, vanilla.

Source: cosmovisions.com

Calla lilies. Source: cosmovisions.com

La Vierge de Fer opens on my skin with notes that are, indeed, as itchy as a hair shirt, though the torture is far from “sublime,” in my opinion. There is a heavy layer of soapy aldehydes that have a lemony undertone. They are followed by lilies that don’t smell like indolic Stargarzers so much as the fresher Calla lily shown in the photo. I also detect a subtle, green whiff of dainty, dewy lily-of-the-valley which I’ll just call by its French name, muguet, in order to avoid any confusion. The whole thing smells as fresh as Dior’s legendary Diorissimo, which would be fine and dandy were it not for the white synthetics.

Bounce dryer sheets.

Bounce dryer sheets.

The green-white floral bouquet is infused with a sharp white musk that sends a piercing pain through my eye every time I smell La Vierge de Fer up close. It starts off resembling expensive hair spray, which is bad enough without its fast transition into the most potent of laundryesque dryer sheets. It is astoundingly bad, astoundingly cheap, and just plain astounding — period — from a house like Serge Lutens. One reason why I like his perfumes is because they generally (with some exceptions) eschew very heavy amounts of synthetics, and, even then, it’s rarely the cheapest form around: common white musk. I don’t go to Serge Lutens for a fragrance that smells like any white florals found in Sephora or Macy’s. I don’t pay his prices for what a celebrity might put out for $30, and I most certainly do not expect such a scent in one of the uber-expensive bell jars whose price has just gone up in the U.S. to $310. The depths of my disappointment and disbelief knows no bounds.    

Source: wallpaper.metalship.org

Source: wallpaper.metalship.org

As I struggle to stop wincing at the shooting pains in my head from the Bounce fabric softener sheets, I notice the odd contrasts emerging in La Vierge de Fer. The fragrance runs hot and cold, metallic and gourmand, in a mix that is both discordant and perplexing. The top notes are soapy aldehydes, piercing white musk, and fresh, green-white lilies, but there is a metallic clang surrounding them that goes beyond mere coldness. It’s as though there were a vein of chilled silver running through the notes, no doubt due to the bloody white musk and the aldehydes. The latter quickly lose their lemony overtones, and turn into pure soap with a tinge of waxiness. 

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

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

Appearing underneath the cool, white bouquet are sudden flashes of something warm, dusty, and sweet. At times, it feels like richly custardy, sweet vanilla. Other times, it’s like dusty, dark, vanilla extrait in unrefined, unprocessed powder. The rich sweetness in the base acts like a wave hitting the green-white floral shores before pulling back, then returning once more. It’s almost like a sort of relay race between the sweet gourmand notes and the alternating cool, metallic, clangy element, the soapy aldehydes, and that piercingly sharp, laundryesque, white musk. It’s rather brilliant on an intellectual, theoretical level, but somewhat disorienting and perplexing on a purely olfactory one.

I’m not happy. I have not been happy on any of the occasions when I’ve tested La Vierge de Fer. Lily is perhaps my favorite floral note, and white floral bombs are the one kind of floral scent that I gravitate towards, but I can’t decide which part of La Vierge de Fer I find more off-putting. So, it’s probably a small mercy then that the perfume has such incredibly weak projection. Within minutes, it feels as though it were evaporating off my skin. Well, everything except that revolting white musk. In less than 10 minutes, in fact, La Vierge de Fer is a complete skin scent on me, which is pretty astonishing. I have problems with longevity, not sillage, but 10 minutes? For an eau de parfum?!

Lily of the Valley, or Muguet.

Lily of the Valley, or Muguet.

La Vierge de Fer also suffers from the cardinal sin of being utterly boring. I have nothing against soliflores — perfumes celebrating and revolving around one main note — if they are interesting or well-done. For me, however, La Vierge de Fer is tedious and banal. Exactly 20 minutes into its development, the perfume loses that odd metallic clang and coldness, and the relay race with the vanilla ends. I wasn’t keen on it, but at least it was interesting, and I could see how the metal might be a symbolic representation of either Joan of Arc’s armour, or the steel spokes of the Iron Maiden as it pierced flesh warm from vanilla and white from lilies. Once that extremely clever bit of elegiac sophistication vanishes, you are left with nothing more than lilies infused with soapy aldehydes and horrific commercial musk. Even the more green muguet note vanishes, if it was even there at all. It’s hard to tell under all the synthetics, especially given how wispy the fragrance is on my skin.

Source: hdwallpapers.fr

Source: hdwallpapers.fr

It takes about 75-minutes for La Vierge de Fer to change, though it’s minor at best. At first, there is a subtle, nebulous change in the perfume’s temperature and feel, as though there were a growing warmth in the base. It’s not vanilla, and it’s most definitely nothing that is actually ambered, but La Vierge de Fer seems less crisp and fresh. The jasmine starts to come out, slowly vying with the lily for dominance, and turning the fragrance sweeter. Eventually, by the end of the 2nd hour, La Vierge de Fer begins to shed some of its laundryesque sharpness like an unpleasant snake’s skin, though the jasmine can’t erase all of it. The perfume is now jasmine and lily on an abstract, sweet, warm base that is infused with Bounce dryer sheets. By the end of the 3rd hour, La Vierge de Fer is nothing more than a blur of whiteness (and synthetics) that feels as though it’s about to die entirely.

To my surprise, La Vierge de Fer hangs on tenaciously, chugging away in the most translucent smear on my skin. It still gives me an immediate pain in my head every time I smell it up close, but the perfume is definitely there if you put your nose right on your arm and inhale forcefully. What is surprising is an odd, unexpected fruitiness that suddenly pops up alongside the clean, white musk in the base. To the extent that I can make out anything from La Vierge de Fer’s thinness, it almost smells like dark grapes. It has to be the indoles so prevalent in white flowers like jasmine; indoles can be broken down to something called methyl anthranilate, a natural compound which has a fruity aroma, often like that of Concord grapes (among other things). Whatever the reason for the sudden fruitiness, it is a fleeting thing that shows up on in the tiniest of ways and towards the end on my skin around the middle of the 5th hour.

Source: backdropsforyourlife.wordpress.com

Source: backdropsforyourlife.wordpress.com

The perfume dies shortly thereafter, giving its last gasp just a little over 7 hours from the time I first applied it. In its final moments, it was nothing more than cheap, synthetic white “cleanness.” The 7 hours comes from an average quantity of about 3 smears, or about 2 sprays. At a smaller dosage amounting to one good-sized spray, La Vierge de Fer lasted only 5.75 hours on my skin. Were it not for piercing musk, which my skin clings onto like glue, I suspect the whole thing would have died after three hours, no matter how much I applied.   

If I were to be diplomatic about the reactions to La Vierge de Fer that I’ve observed in groups or on various sites, I would say that they are mixed. Some eventually grow to appreciate the perfume as was the case for Bois de Jasmin, who wrote, in part:

La Vierge de Fer is neither punk nor bizarre. It’s not particularly dark either. I would put it as one of the more approachable and easy to like florals from Lutens’s impressive collection. It’s quite demure and delicate next to the bombshells like Tubéreuse Criminelle or Fleurs d’Oranger. The tender sweetness of jasmine is contrasted with the champagne of aldehydes in the top notes, and this beautiful contrast between softness and sparkle is carried on into the drydown. […][¶]

Jasmine and lily fireworks notwithstanding, La Vierge de Fer was not love at first inhale for me. I found it too simple and not challenging enough. But as I continued to dip into my sample, I found it more and more compelling. It’s simultaneously comforting and sophisticated, which makes it versatile enough to wear for just about any occasion. You simply have to love being showered with white flowers.

Well, I do happen to “love being showered with white flowers,” but I personally wouldn’t wear La Vierge de Fer if it were given to me for free. And no amount of time or testing is going to change my feelings.

In my opinion, La Vierge de Fer could go right next to the sort of clean, fresh, white, Spring-like floral scents found in Dillard’s, TJ Maxx, or Sephora. There’s nothing wrong with that if that is your taste, but I doubt anyone would want to pay $310 for it. One spends that sort of money on a Serge Lutens bell jar to get a wholly unusual, creative, innovative scent with a twist — a scent that has a complex, morphing character that is different from everything else out there, and that doesn’t come with a massive wallop of cheap synthetics. I realise that Serge Lutens has veered as of late towards lighter, thinner, simpler fragrances, and away from the complex (often Oriental) perfumes with which he began his line in the early 1990s, but I think La Vierge de Fer suffers from more than mere simplicity. I find it tedious and absolutely terrible. In almost every case with Serge Lutens — even when a particular fragrance doesn’t suit my personal tastes — I can admire the artistry, think it is well-done, and respect it. That is not the case here. I don’t think La Vierge de Fer even deserves to carry the Serge Lutens name. 

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: La Vierge de Fer is an eau de parfum that is part of the Serge Lutens “Paris Exclusives” line, which means it is available only in the larger 2.5 oz/75 ml Bell Jar size. It retails for $310 or €140 for a 75 ml/2.5 oz bottle. You can buy it directly from the U.S. Serge Lutens website or from the International one
In the U.S.: La Vierge de Fer should be available exclusively at Barney’s New York store, but for some reason, the fragrance is not on the website at the time of this review. Normally, you can call the store to purchase their Lutens bell jars. The number is (212) 833-2425.
Samples: You can order samples of La Vierge de Fer from Surrender to Chance starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. The fragrance 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 vial. 

Serge Lutens Fourreau Noir: Dark, Delectable Magic

Only he could do it. Only Serge Lutens could make a fragrance that a lavender-phobe would not only love, but buy. And not just buy a regular bottle of it, but buy a bloody expensive, exclusive bell jar! Only a true master could make a fragrance that is essentially everything that I dislike in a fragrance, and bring me to my knees.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

It’s as though Uncle Serge decided to make me eat my hat by checking off every box that would normally make me wince — lavender, gourmand, sweet, sheer, discreet, and even sometimes vanishing, no less — intentionally combine them all into a single scent, and make the final result be something utterly beyond my ability to resist. It’s actually amusing at this point — and I say that as one who needs to take frequent breaks in typing to sniff the air around me with the glazed eyes of an addict. Only Le Grand Serge and Christopher Sheldrake could manage that. 

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

Fourreau Noir is an Oriental eau de parfum that was created by Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 2009. As noted above, it is one of the famous bell jar “Paris Exclusives,” which means that it not sold world-wide, but is generally exclusive to Serge Lutens’ Paris headquarters. That said, it can actually be purchased outside of France, either from Barney’s New York or directly from Serge Lutens’ international and U.S. websites, though it’s always at a big mark-up if you are buying outside of France. 

Uncle Serge describes the scent and the meaning of its name as follows:

A fourreau in French means a sheath for a dagger as well as a form-fitting dress… ready to embrace the voluptuous contours of a widow’s body.

Maybe you’ve heard of the brown bean used to extract vanillin? Its name is the tonka bean. It grows in abundance on a tree in the Amazonian rain forest. Sweet and fluid, its fragrance lingers, living its mark.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

As always, Serge Lutens keeps the perfume’s notes secret. Fragrantica says they are:

Lavender, tonka, musk, almonds, smokey accords

Based on what I smell, however, I think the list would be longer. My guess is:

Lavender, Incense, Patchouli, Almonds, Tonka Bean, Vanilla, Cedarwood, and Musk. There may be some ambery element as well.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

Fourreau Noir opens on my skin with lavender. Have I mentioned lately just how much I loathe lavender? It is a note that I struggle with deeply, due to childhood experiences living in Cannes, in the South of France, where dried herbal sachets of the blasted stuff were ubiquitous. Their sharp, pungent, aggressively herbal aroma was everywhere, and it didn’t help matters that the driveway to our house had lavender growing as if it were on steroids. I had a sensitive nose even back then, and the aromatic deluge left a mark, making me avoid lavender as an adult whenever and wherever possible. As you might have gathered by now, this is the first of what will be several examples of Serge Lutens making me eat my hat because, yes, Fourreau Noir opens with lavender. And lots of it. En plus, it’s pungent, herbal, and dried — everything that would normally send a bone-deep shiver through my body.

Source: background-pictures.feedio.net

Source: background-pictures.feedio.net

Those magicians, Messieurs Lutens and Sheldrake, quickly coat and cloak the lavender with the black sheath talked about in Fourreau Noir’s description. Like loving tentacles, incense wraps itself around those blasted purple stalks, lovingly turning them dark and smoky. Within moments, my hated, floral, herbal nemesis is also infused with sweetness from a lightly spiced, chewy, slightly earthy patchouli. It, too, is a bit smoked, and the dark sheath is even further supplemented by what smells to me like dry, also smoky cedar wood.

Source: amyglaze.com

Source: amyglaze.com

There is something a little synthetic about all the sharpness, something biting that almost burns my nose, but it is soon countered by a wave of warm sweetness. Like a pale, white counterpart to the the black incense tendrils, creamy vanilla and tonka bean seep through. They curl their way around the sharp notes, fractionally dulling their razor’s edge. The sweetness is gauzy but strong, light but potent, and always feels like the very frothiest mousse. Subtle hints of a bitter fresh almond soon follow, along with an intangible woodiness that differs a little from the smoky, dry cedar. 

Five minutes in, the patchouli starts to slowly become more prominent, feeling wonderfully red-brown with its spicy, sweet, earthy facets. It’s potent, but never dense, chewy, or opaque in feel. It is true patchouli, even down to the very fleeting, momentary and faint hint of something medicinal in its character. It is a touch which underscores the more herbal aspects of the lavender. Yet, despite that, the flower is never completely like the aggressively pungent, aggressively herbal, dried, acrid note that is the stuff of my nightmares. Thanks to the impact of the other notes, especially the patchouli and incense, the lavender has been transformed into something different. It is now simultaneously incense-y, a little floral, and a little darkly leathered, herbal, and sweet.  

Source: layoutsparks.com

Source: layoutsparks.com

Fourreau Noir encompasses you like a cloud that is at once almost translucent and as tough as steel. I’ve worn differing amounts, but most recently tried 3 decent-sized sprays, and Fourreau Noir’s opening spread its tentacles about 4-5 inches around me. It is potent and intense, yet oddly feels as insubstantial and thin as the smoke it contains. It’s like being covered in a swirl of incense and lavender, tendrils that weave about you as thin as an invisible thread, but with enormous tenacity. I’m amazed by how sheer it is, and by the mental images of translucency. Take that as Exhibit No. Two of Serge Lutens making me eat my hat, as perfumes with a gauzy, almost invisible sheerness are far from my personal cup of tea.

Source: footage.shutterstock.com

Source: footage.shutterstock.com

What’s even more baffling about the odd case of Fourreau Noir is that it actually feels as though it disappears from my skin from time to time. On past occasions, there were times when fragrance felt as though it had evaporated after about 90 minutes, and it wasn’t always easy to detect. Yet, it still lingered all around me, an undeniable cloud of incense, patchouli, and lavender. It would follow me like a lap-dog, leaving a small trail in the air. At other times, however, I couldn’t detect any projection at all, but Fourreau Noir was clearly pulsating and evident on my skin. Occasionally, it seemed to slip away like a ghost, only to reappear, almost stronger than it had been before, just as I was about to apply more. Fourreau Noir is a perplexing creature with a mind of its own, flitting about, encapsulating you, weaving some mysterious spell around you that makes you ignore all your usual issues or concerns as you smell that entrancing mixture of sharp contrasts. Dry, smoky, sweet, earthy, herbal, and woody — it’s all there, all around you, potent and dark, and yet, as insubstantial as a ghost. How can I love it so?!  

Exhibit Three of Le Grand Serge making me tolerate what I normally dislike is the synthetic feel underlying Fourreau Noir’s opening hour. It is most definitely there, and I can’t stand fragrances whose unnatural sharpness almost burns my nose if I smell my arm up close. It’s not only that a few of the notes like the lavender or the incense feel like a razor at times, but something genuinely synthetic in the base. I can’t pinpoint what it may be, though I suspect it’s the musk, combined with notes that are inherently a bit sharp in nature. And, yet, I don’t mind it. Even though it lingers high in my nose and burns a little, Fourreau Noir is simply too beautiful a combination for me to really care. Yes, Uncle Serge, I will have another piece of that humble pie.

Source: dreamstime.com

Source: dreamstime.com

The fragrance continues to subtly shift. Twenty minute in, the patchouli becomes increasingly prominent, while the almond and vanilla foam in the base start their slow rise to the surface. As the supporting actors begin to arrive on stage, they counterbalance the lavender’s herbal, almost leathery undertone, the fierceness of the incense, and the dryness of the cedar. The vanilla tames the beastly lavender and smoke, while the almond’s bitter facets add a fascinating contrast to the earthiness of the lightly spiced patchouli.

Source: A Spicy Perspective. (For recipe for lavender chocolate ice cream, click on photo. Website link embedded within.)

Source: A Spicy Perspective. (For recipe for lavender chocolate ice cream, click on photo. Website link embedded within.)

At the end of the first hour, Fourreau Noir turns much sweeter, and borders almost on the gourmand. The lavender is now creamy, rich, and feels like lavender ice cream infused with almond extract. Yet, the perfume isn’t really a true dessert-y fragrance, thanks to the constant presence of the dry notes that swirl all around like a dark cloud. From the temple-like, black incense trails, to the dry smoky cedar, and even the earthy spiciness of the patchouli, there are too many checks and balances to the creamy lavender-vanilla-almond sherbert. What the sweeter notes really do is to soften that early razor sharpness, though the synthetic undertone to Fourreau Noir still remains at the base.

The perfume continues to soften. About 2.5 hours in, it lingers extremely close to the skin, and the patchouli has become as prominent as the incense, while the lavender has started to recede. There is something almost ambered to Fourreau Noir’s base, though the golden sweetness and warmth may simply be the indirect impact of the tonka bean on the patchouli. Whatever the cause, Fourreau Noir is now primarily a bouquet of patchouli amber with smoky incense, atop a vanilla base that is infused with almond and lavender, and lightly flecked with musk and abstract, dry woodiness.

Source: backgrounds.mysitemyway.com

Source: backgrounds.mysitemyway.com

There is also the merest, subtlest suggestion of something that smells like gingerbread, and it becomes increasingly strong. By the end of the 4th hour, it’s quite noticeable and I suspect that the creamy woods, the vanilla, and patchouli’s spicy, earth sweetness have all melded together to create a sweet-spiced gingerbread accord. It’s too dry, however, to be like actual dessert or cloying; the sweetness is perfectly balanced. In fact, the unexpected gingerbread element eventually turns drier and woody, taking on an almost sandalwood-like aroma. The overall effect strongly calls to mind Chanel‘s gorgeous Bois des Iles with its very close replication of Mysore sandalwood in its base and drydown.

Fourreau Noir turns increasingly abstract, and its final drydown is a simple, utterly lovely mix of sweetness, woodiness, and creamy smoothness. It’s a patchouli amber gingerbread with the lightest hint of spices, incense, and creamy, wispy, gauzy vanillic sweetness. All in all, Fourreau Noir’s duration averages out to about 10.5 hours on my perfume-consuming skin with three sprays being the median quantity applied. A smaller amount yields about 9.5 hours, while 4 big sprays results in about 11.75 hours. At all times, however, the fragrance feels sheer, almost translucent, and gauzy in weight. The sillage generally drops after about 75-minutes with a small amount, 90-minutes with a medium amount, and 2.5 hours with more. Fourreau Noir only becomes a true skin scent on me around the end of the fourth hour, though there are the issues mentioned earlier about the fragrance sometimes acting like a ghost in terms of projection, as well as strength on the skin.

I was surprised to read some of the reactions to Fourreau Noir as it has alternatively been described as a very clean scent, a masculine one, a deliciously gourmand one, a perfume similar to Chergui, and even, on one rare occasion, an animalic, almost dirty fragrance. All those opinions are noticeable on Fragrantica and in blog reviews. The Non Blonde referred to the latter in her very positive assessment of Fourreau Noir where she compared it to a cozy, cuddly, fuzzy, long sweater with a slightly clean vibe: 

Sometimes my taste in perfume makes me question my sanity. Many reviews and impressions of Fourreau Noir, a 2009 non-export Serge Lutens release, mention/lament/ celebrate two accords- black smoke and a dirty animalic heart. For some of the people who tried Fourreau Noir (the loaded name translates as black sheath) these aspects made it difficult to wear. Me? My skin diffuses smoke and domesticates large beasts. I find Fourreau Noir not just soft and cuddly but also as comfortable and embracing as an old hoodie fresh from the laundry.

I mentioned laundry for a reason. The lavender note is strong in the opening and quite persistent after. […] Fourreau Noir is fuzzy and warm as though it just left the dryer. The lavender over a sweet gourmand base supports this idea, though it’s not exactly Downy Lavender-Vanilla fabric softener. Don’t worry.

Fourreau Noir is musky, but to me it’s a fairly clean musk with a hint of fruitiness. The tactile equivalent is of a soft silk-merino knit, kind of like the long wrap sweater with caressing kimono sleeves I’m wearing now as I’m typing this review. This coziness is helped greatly by the sweet gourmand dry-down. Tonka bean, almond cookies covered in very light powdered sugar and lots and lots of immortelle. I love immortelle on its mapley goodness, and in this case the maple smells like it was aged and smoked in old wood barrels. This is the kind of stuff I expect and enjoy from our favorite uncle.

Obviously, my experience is a bit different from hers, and I don’t find that musk to be either clean or dirty, but I definitely agree that our mutually adored, favorite uncle created a beautiful scent whose drydown is of sweet, smoked, woody goodness.

At the end of the day, I find Fourreau Noir to be a delectably dark fragrance that is quite addictive in its coziness. It really shouldn’t have wrapped its tendrils around me in quite the way that it did. It is a fragrance centered, in large part, on a note that I despise, but it was genius to mix lavender with such unexpected elements as dark smoke, almonds and patchouli. It obviously helps that I’m a sucker for patchouli, but still, everyone who knows me is shocked that Fourreau Noir is the fragrance that I chose as my first bell jar. I am too, actually.

Source: wall.alphacoders.com

Source: wall.alphacoders.com

I had initially gone to the Palais Royal with plans to get a very different scent, perhaps the beautiful De Profundis with its delicate floral heart and gorgeous purple liquid. (I actually ended up with De Profundis as my second bell jar perfume!) While there, testing all the different perfumes, the gardenia-tobacco ode to Billie Holiday, Une Voix Noire, beckoned to me even more insistently than when I had tried it. My beloved Cuir Mauresque (the perfume that Serge Lutens himself wears) trumped both of them, but it’s ridiculous to buy it in a rare, expensive bell jar form when the perfume is also available for much cheaper overseas in a regular 1.7 oz spray bottle.

I was actually testing the Bois series of fragrances, and marveling over Bois et Fruits, when I happened to put Fourreau Noir on my wrist. It caught my attention almost immediately, but there was far too much going on, and I needed to assess each fragrance’s longevity. There were no samples to be had, so I clutched little scented strips wrapped tightly in plastic and went home to ponder the issue. Two days later, when I returned, I was still undecided. It was down between Bois et Fruits and Fourreau Noir, with Une Voix Noir perhaps in third place.

In the end, something about Fourreau Noir seemed more special to me, more unique, mysterious, and entrancing. I loved the mix of sweetness with the sharp, dry incense, and the way that dark smoke weaved its gauzy, tenacious tendrils around me like a witch’s spell. Fourreau Noir has never really seemed like a pure lavender fragrance to me; if it had, I would have run a mile in the opposite direction shrieking for help. It also seemed to be beyond easy categorization; neither “gourmand” nor “dark incense” really describe its core essence. In some ways, it’s everything and nothing, just like its peculiar, occasionally ghostly sillage that can also be a tenacious, sheer, potent cloud. It is a fragrance that seems at once very simple, but also very nuanced and layered.

Perhaps the best explanation for Fourreau Noir’s hold over me is the dark elusiveness at its heart, an elusiveness that is so very Serge Lutens. How else can one explain a lavender phobe falling for such a fragrance? I tried the much-vaunted, endlessly worshiped, lavender gourmand fragrance, Kiki, from Vero Profumo, and was bored to tears. I found it simple, uninteresting, lacking in nuance, and banal. Perhaps I simply needed dark magic? Or perhaps only a master like Serge Lutens can create a perfume that encompasses everything one dislikes, but make it so delectable that you can’t help but fall into its addictive embrace. Yes, the answer has to be Serge Lutens. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to put on some lavender, and eat some humble pie.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Fourreau Noir is an eau de parfum that is part of the Serge Lutens “Paris Exclusives” line, which means it is available only in the larger 2.5 oz/75 ml Bell Jar size. It retails for $300 or €140 (I think) for a 75 ml/2.5 oz bottle. You can buy Fourreau Noir directly from the U.S. Serge Lutens website or from the International one. For some reason, the International Site seems to be temporarily out of the fragrance at the time of this review (which is why I can’t get the definitive Euro price), but you can recheck the listing later. There is also the rare option of purchasing Fourreau Noir in 2 refillable black sprays, each of which is 30 ml, for a total of 60 ml. The price is $190 on the U.S. Lutens website, and €120 on the International one.
In the U.S.: you can also find Fourreau Noir sold exclusively at Barney’s New York store. The website has a notice stating: “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.”
Personal Shopper Options: One way of getting Fourreau Noir at a cheaper price is 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 $300 (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.
Samples: You can order samples of Fourreau Noir from Surrender to Chance starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. The fragrance 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 vial. 

Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore

A taste of India. It’s hard not to talk about food when discussing Santal de Mysore, Serge Lutens‘ dark, gourmand tribute to that rare, precious Indian wood. Once abundant, Mysore sandalwood is so depleted and protected that it might as well be extinct for everyone but perfumers with the deepest pockets. In the case of Santal de Mysore, I think some clever olfactory alternatives have been used to recreate the dark, deep, spicy, smoky smell of Mysore sandalwood in a fragrance that is as much about food as it is about the precious wood.

The special, limited, and cheaper, 50 ml anniversary issue.

The special, limited, and cheaper, 50 ml anniversary issue.

Santal de Mysore is an eau de parfum that was created with Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake. It was released either in 1991 or 1997, depending on what you read, and the only reason that is significant is because a special anniversary 50 ml bottle seems to have been issued at some point in time. The bottle is significantly cheaper than Santal de Mysore’s usual bell jar form, and is even discounted further on a few online retail sites. Normally, however, Santal de Mysore is considered one of Serge Lutens’ non-export Paris Exclusives that is only available at his Paris headquarters or at Barney’s in New York.

The Bell Jar form available from Serge Lutens.

The Bell Jar form available from Serge Lutens.

On his website, Lutens gives a brief description of the fragrance that hints at its notes and makes explicit its extremely spiced nature

What incredible sandalwood!

This scent takes spices to the limit – they nearly cry out against the sandalwood base. One perceives saffron and, strangely enough, wild carrot. 
Sweetness paves the way for a blast of heat!

The perfume notes are, as always, kept secret but the list — as compiled from LuckyscentFragrantica, Barney’s, and the Lutens statement — seem to include:

Mysore sandalwood, cumin, spices, styrax balsam, caramelized Siamese benzoin, saffron, cinnamon, rosewood, and wild carrot.

Baghali Polo. Source: Cooking Minette.

Baghali Polo. Source: Cooking Minette.

Santal de Mysore opens on my skin with a burst of spices. There is light curry, followed by leathery burnt styrax resin with a charred caramel aroma, saffron, a slightly herbal note that smells exactly like buttered dill, and a touch of sweetened carrots. I’m actually a little surprised by how the much-maligned curry note, noticeable as it is, feels so light. Perhaps a better description is to say that it doesn’t smell of the stale, cumin, body odor that I had so feared, or of really potent, yellow curry. Instead, for me, the strongest aroma is actually hot buttered dill and, specifically, a dill pilau or rice dish in Persian cuisine called Baghali Polo (or sometimes, Sabzi Polo). (There is a recipe for Baghali Polo with lovely photos at Cooking Minette.) Santal de Mysore is more than 75% Baghali Polo on my skin, right down to the little blob of melted saffron butter that some chefs put on top of mound. I really couldn’t believe it, but there is absolutely no doubt at all in my mind of the similarities.

Styrax resin via themysticcorner.com

Styrax resin via themysticcorner.com

There is a spicy wood note underlying it all, but it doesn’t smell like Mysore sandalwood to me. I’ve stopped hiding the fact that I’m a complete sandalwood snob, but that has nothing to do with it in this case. Santal de Mysore doesn’t smell of sandalwood in its opening minutes primarily because the curry, herbal, spiced accords overwhelm everything else in their path. This is a primarily a food fragrance on my skin, not a woody one.

Five minutes in, the styrax’s burnt, blackened aroma becomes less harsh, and the resin takes on a slightly tamer aspect. Now, it merely smells very dark, chewy, and balsamic, with sweetened leather, caramel and smoke swirled in. Flickers of cinnamon and saffron dance quietly at the edges, adding a spicy richness to the woody foundation, but I still think that this is “Mysore sandalwood” only by virtue of being built up by additives, instead of the real thing. My belief is underscored by a very definite whiff of something synthetic in the base which gives me a tell-tale pain behind my eye each and every time I take a very deep sniff up close. 

Ebanol via Givaudan.

Ebanol via Givaudan.

So, I looked up sandalwood aroma-chemicals, and I would bet that Santal de Mysore uses Ebanol. Givaudan describes it as follows:

Olfactive note:

Sandalwood, Musk aspect, Powerful

Description:

Ebanol has a very rich, natural sandalwood odour. It is powerful and intense, bringing volume and elegance to woody accords and a diffusive sandalwood effect to compositions. Ebanol is highly substantive on all supports.

Javanol via Givaudan.

Javanol via Givaudan.

Givaudan also sells something called Javanol, and there are elements of something similar to its description which pop up at the final stages of Santal de Mysore. Javanol‘s description reads:

Olfactive note:

Sandalwood, Creamy, Rosy, Powerful

Description:

Javanol is a new-generation sandalwood molecule with unprecedented power and substantivity. It has a rich, natural, creamy sandalwood note like beta santanol.

I don’t know about Javanol due to the “rosy” description given above, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Santal de Mysore contained Ebanol. For one thing, the woody note in the fragrance smells extremely synthetic, but also dark and powerful. For another, have I mentioned just how rare it is for a fragrance to have true Mysore sandalwood these days? Finally, there is a support from another skeptic, Tania Sanchez. In her book with Luca Turin, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, she diplomatically and tactfully writes:

Sandalwood oil from Mysore, India, was for a long time both fairly cheap and gorgeous — which is probably why it was overharvested to the point of needing government protection. I have a small reference sample of the real thing, with its inimitably creamy, tangy smell of buttermilk. I have no idea if Santal de Mysore manages to use any of it or if it depends on the Australian sandalwood (totally different plant and material) or synthetics, because it aims to cover any gaps with an overpowering coconut-and-caramel accord reminiscent of Samsara, a tropical fantasy of rum in oak barrels for armchair pirates.

I don’t smell coconut and I personally don’t see the similarities to Guerlain‘s Samsara, but I fully agree that Christopher Sheldrake must have sought to cover the gaps created by the use of synthetics in Santal de Mysore’s base by adding an overpoweringly strong spice and food element as a supplement. I may be a sandalwood snob, but that doesn’t change my impression that the “Mysore sandalwood” aroma is an artificially created construct, and it smells like it.

It takes less than 20 minutes for Santal de Mysore to start to shift. The fragrance softens, and drops in projection surprisingly quickly on my skin. Yet, it’s still very potent — even a little sharp — when smelled up close. It’s an intense bouquet of dill, buttered rice and light herbal, cumin curry, followed by saffron, sweet carrots, and chewy, gooey, thickly resinous black sweetness atop a base of spiced, synthetic woods. It’s odd, unusual, very foodie, interesting, somewhat appealing, and somewhat off-putting — all at once. By the 90-minute mark, the green, herbal spiced elements feel even stronger as the styrax’s slightly leathery, burnt caramel aroma continues to soften.

Dried fenugreek leaves via Suhana.co.in

Dried fenugreek leaves via Suhana.co.in

I have to wonder if there is fenugreek in Santal de Mysore, along with something like dried leeks. There are whiffs of something in the fragrance that very much resemble bottles I have of both herbs in my kitchen. Whatever the specifics, the “curry” in Santal de Mysore smells to me like something green in nature, more than spicy red or yellow. To be specific, it’s more along the lines of a Saag than a Korma or Rogan Josh curry made with a possible Garam Masala base. The cumin is there, lurking below, but I truly don’t think it’s as predominant as the more herbal, green curry elements. Even stronger is the burnt caramel aroma that is perhaps the first real thing you smell from a distance.

By the end of the second hour, Santal de Mysore turns creamy, smooth, and much better balanced in terms of its spices. There is almost a floral nuance to the deep woods, but the synthetic element remains as well. On some spots on my arm, it’s even a little sharp. Around the 3.5 hour mark, the herbal notes feel almost solely like fenugreek and dried leeks, rather than the earlier buttered dill rice. The dominant bouquet, however, is of cinnamon mixed with burnt caramel. Santal de Mysore’s sillage drops even further, and the fragrance now floats a mere inch above the skin.

Source: samsunggalaxy.co

Source: samsunggalaxy.co

The perfume’s final dry down begins near the middle of the sixth hour. Santal de Mysore finally — finally — smells primarily of the eponymous woods in its title. It’s rich, deep, smoky, sweet, dark, and beautifully creamy. The woods are now the sole star of the show, though they coat the skin like a veil. The sandalwood probably isn’t real, given the way the woods smelled so synthetic earlier on, but the overall effect is definitely that of Mysore woods. I feel like singing Etta James’ famous song, “At Last.” The lovely drydown continues for another three hours or so, until the fragrance finally fades away as sweetened woods. All in all, Santal de Mysore lasted just shy of 10.25 hours on my skin, with moderate sillage that turned quite soft after a few hours.

How you feel about Santal de Mysore will depend on a few things: your thoughts on curry and cumin, and your patience. Whether your read the comments on Fragrantica or that of samplers/buyers on Luckyscent, it’s always the same issue. For many people, the fragrance is simply too foodie, with curry being the main problem. For a few, it’s the burnt caramel that is the issue. For others, however, the fragrance’s final drydown is worth it, and they urge patience with the early notes, arguing that they are short in duration and quickly mellow into beautiful sandalwood. To give one example, a Luckyscent commentator wrote:

i wish i could afford jugs of this stuff. it is a tricky one, though! at first, it smells gourmande — curry, black pepper, and butter. delicious to eat, but not so great to smell liek a kitchen. oooh, but wait for it… if you are a sandalwood lover, it is worth the wait. and you don’t have to wait long! on the skin, it mellows out (and warms up!) really quickly. the harsh foodie smells dissipate in maybe 5 minutes, and then the silky road down sandalwood lane begins. this sandalwood is deep, warm, rich, and buttery. it is maybe 2:1 sweet:spicy as sandalwood goes. but you know how some sandalwoods are lovely, but kind of mixed up with vanilla or amber scents? this one is subtly more smokey, spicy, and just enough of a sour or a bitter touch to balance out the sweet buttery parts so that they are not overwhelming. this is a rich, deep sandalwood, as long as you are not turned off by the weirdness of its first few minutes.

There are numerous opinions on the other end of the spectrum, however, and they are probably best represented by this Fragrantica review:

Great scent if you’re… an Indian chef ;), as it smells exactly the same as curry. Disturbing cloud of heavy cumin and nose-drilling curcuma. No trace of sandalwood or benzoin whatsoever. Literally spicy scent that is harsh and nauseating at the same time. A big no-no..

I’m afraid that Santal de Mysore isn’t for me. I simply don’t like foodie scents in general, and I would have great difficulty walking out of the house smelling of either Persian Baghali Polo or Indian Saag. If it were merely a matter of minutes, I could deal with it, but it was hours and hours on my skin. You may have substantially better luck, but, in all cases, you have to be able to withstand the curry aspects of the opening stage. If you’re one of those people who is utterly phobic about cumin in all its possible manifestations, then I would advise staying away from Santal de Mysore. If you love sandalwood above all else, and enjoy gourmand scents, then you may want to exercise some patience and see how things develop on you. One thing is for certain, Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake truly give you an olfactory carpet ride to India.

DETAILS:
General Cost & Discounted Sales Prices: Santal de Mysore is an eau de parfum that comes in a discontinued 1.7 oz/50 ml size and in a 75 ml bell jar size. The retail price of the small 50 ml bottle is $200, while the bell jar costs $300 or €135. However, Santal de Mysore is currently discounted at FragranceX which sells Santal de Mysore for $164.50, and Bonanza which sells it for $167.57. Parfums1 sells Santal de Mysore for $180, with free U.S. shipping and no tax. 
Serge Lutens: Santal de Mysore is offered only in the bell jar version on the U.S. and International Lutens website (with other language options also available), and costs $300 or €135. 
U.S. sellers: Santal de Mysore is available in the 1.7 oz/50 size for $200 at Luckyscent and Beautyhabit. It is available in the $300 bell jar version from Barney’s with the following notice: “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.”
Outside the U.S.: In Canada, you can find Santal de Mysore at The Perfume Shoppe for what may be US$200, but I’m never sure about their currency since it is primarily an American business with a Vancouver store. They also offer some interesting sample or travel options for Lutens perfumes. Elsewhere in Europe, it’s extremely hard to find the old 50 ml bottle, leaving your only real option to trek to Paris to get the bell jar. I couldn’t find any UK retailers. However, France’s Premiere Avenue has the 50 ml bottle and sells it for €106. I believe they ship world-wide, or at least through the Euro zone. In Australia, the 50 ml bottle of Santal de Mysore is sold on BrandShopping for AUD$160.95 and on HotCosmetics for AUD$217. In Russia, I found what appears to be SergeLutens.Ru which sells Santal de Mysore in the 50 ml bottle, but I don’t think Serge Lutens has a Russian website. It’s clearly a vendor of some kind, though. 
Samples: You can test out Santal de Mysore by ordering a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. There is also a Five Lutens Bell Jar Sample Set starting at $18.99 where you get your choice of 5 non-export Paris Exclusives with each vial being a 1/2 ml. 

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.

Perfume Review: Tom Ford Private Blend Plum Japonais (Atelier d’Orient Collection)

Tom Ford does Serge Lutens. Or, to be more precise, Tom Ford tries desperately to be Serge Lutens, but falls flat on his face. That is my grumpy analysis of Plum Japonais, the latest Private Blend fragrance from Tom Ford. It is part of a brand-new collection of fragrances within his Private Blend line, and was just released in July 2013. The collection is called Atelier d’Orient, and consists of four perfumes: Shanghai LilyPlum JaponaisFleur de Chine, and Rive d’Ambre. Today is Plum Japonais‘ turn.

Source: Neiman Marcus

Source: Neiman Marcus

According to the Moodie Report, Tom Ford’s inspiration for Plum Japonais was the ume fruit:

Plum Japanais, as its name suggests, was inspired by the ume plum. ‘I have always been fascinated by unusual ingredients from exotic cultures,’ Ford revealed. ‘The ume plum…has great meaning in Oriental culture; in Japan and China, it is a sacred symbol of Spring. I wanted to craft a fragrance around the ume, because it has a texture and aroma that is so luscious.’

Now, I have searched and searched for some official word on who is the actual perfumer responsible for the Atelier d’Orient collection, or for Plum Japonais in specific. I can’t find it anywhere, which is slightly unusual these days when a perfumer’s name is frequently mentioned in press releases or in articles about a new fragrance.

Fille en Aiguilles. Source: Serge Lutens' Facebook page.

Fille en Aiguilles. Source: Serge Lutens’ Facebook page.

Still, it wouldn’t be important or significant except for one thing: Plum Japonais is a total rip-off of Christopher Sheldrake‘s gorgeous, stunning Fille en Aiguilles for Serge Lutens. It is a fragrance that I love with a passion, and it may be my favorite Lutens that I’ve tried in recent memory. So, you can imagine my grumpiness and sour mood when I thought about how Tom Ford was so blatantly copying about 90% of the Lutens/Sheldrake masterpiece. Yes, there are differences, but they are so minor that I will stick with my numeric assessment that 90% of Plum Japonais is Fille en Aiguilles. It’s so close that much of the detailed break-down of Plum Japonais feels almost redundant (though I will do it shortly), but the main thing you should take away is this: Plum Japonais is Fille en Aiguilles done very, very badly.

Some perfumistas have compared Tom Ford’s style of perfumery to that of a frat boy with his fragrances’ over-the-top loudness and their hyper-sexualized marketing. I don’t always agree because I think Tom Ford is quite capable of producing more restrained, elegant pieces, though his marketing definitely verges on the bold and, sometimes, crass. But Plum Japonais definitely felt like a frat boy took a sledgehammer approach to Uncle Serge’s gorgeously refined, well-balanced, utterly beautiful masterpiece. Fille en Aiguilles may not rank among the best-known Lutens, but it is massively beloved amongst almost everyone who has tried it, some of whom rate it as their favorite Lutens perfume ever. And Plum Japonais simply cannot measure up. It’s as though One Direction attempted to cover John Lennon.

Christopher Sheldrake. Source: jonathanfrantini.com

Christopher Sheldrake. Source: jonathanfrantini.com

During my initial test of Plum Japonais, my irritation was becoming increasingly sharp and hostile, so I decided to make a more concerted effort to find out which perfumer was responsible for ripping off Christopher Sheldrake‘s creation for Uncle Serge. You cannot imagine my shock when I finally dug up the rumoured answer: Christopher Sheldrake himself! [Update: 8/4/13see the note at the end of this review for the information that a different nose seems to be responsible for the creation of Plum Japonais.]

According to the blog, Best Things in Beauty, “[t]he fragrance has been unofficially attributed to perfumer Christopher Sheldrake.” I haven’t seen that attribution mentioned anywhere else, so I have no idea if it’s true or not. But it probably is, given the enormous similarity between the two fragrances — and that just irritates me for a whole new set of reasons. It’s not the fact that Christopher Sheldrake is cheating on Uncle Serge (perfumers are allowed, after all, to work freely where they want, and not just for one client). Rather, it’s the fact that he’s taken his Lutens creation, and so barely tweaked it for Tom Ford that it feels almost insulting to Fille en Aiguilles. It’s damn lazy. And, making matters even worse, the result is a nondescript, utterly imbalanced, very flat, badly done, uninteresting version of Fille en Aiguilles. If Fille en Aiguilles were a person, it should sue for defamation and copyright violation. So, let’s get to Sheldrake’s One Direction-like olfactory copy of the Fille en Aiguilles.

Fragrantica classifies Plum Japonais as “Floral Fruity,” and the notes, as compiled from both that site and Premiere Avenue, include:

Japanese ume plum, saffron, Cinnamon Bark Orpur, immortelle, plum blossom, camellia, agarwood (oud), amber, benzoin, fir and vanilla.

Ume plums or Umeboshi. Source: Hudson Valley Magazine, hvmag.com

Ume plums or Umeboshi. Source: Hudson Valley Magazine, hvmag.com

Plum Japonais opens on my skin with plum liqueur, plum molasses, brown sugar syrup, lots of ginger, strong frankincense smoke, and a subtle woodiness. It’s totally Fille en Aiguilles. Flittering around Plum Japonais’ edges are saffron, muted traces of fir resin, and candied immortelle. The latter shows off both its sides here: its herbal floral face, and its slightly maple syrup one. Once in a blue moon, the oud will pop up in the minutest trace, feeling as muted as the fir resin. 

Cinnamon tree bark. Source: indiamart.com

Cinnamon tree bark. Source: indiamart.com

Within minutes, Plum Japonais’ syrupy plum sweetness turns darker and significantly woodier. There is almost a burnt undertone to the combination which probably stems from the cinnamon tree bark, which is a whole, different animal than mere cinnamon powder. Amusingly, it’s an ingredient that Sheldrake featured front and center in another Lutens’ creation, the woody cinnamon oriental, La Rousse. The bark has an aroma that is spiced, but more akin to very dry, somewhat bitter, acrid, smoky wood. I wasn’t crazy about its odd nuances in Rousse, and I’m not crazy about it here. Still, it’s very subtle at this point, adding just an indirect effect to the overall woodiness running like a vein through all of Plum Japonais’ sticky, fruity sweetness and smoke.

Ten minutes in, something else rises to the surface. An odd floral note that I assume is the camellia. It’s a very creamy, velvety, white, languid scent with a strange but subtle lemony undertone, and it feels quite out-of-place amidst the increasingly dry, smoky, woody bouquet. The spices feel more noticeable, too. The saffron adds a definite kick of fieriness to the fragrance, though the note is not very distinct in its own right. For a few minutes, it adds such a bite to to the fragrance that it almost seems as though a red-hot chili pepper were thrown into the mix, but that impression quickly fades. By the 15-minute mark, Plum Japonais actually feels a little off-kilter. The lemony, creamy floral camellia attempts to balance out the increasingly harsh smoky-woodiness set amidst all that plum molasses and liqueur, but it can’t pull it off. The note is too muted. And, I still think it feels totally out of place.

Fruit Jam. Source: Bettycupcakes.com (For recipe or website, click on photo. Link is imbedded within.)

Fruit Jam. Source: Bettycupcakes.com (For recipe or website, click on photo. Link is imbedded within.)

Nonetheless, Plum Japonais is still almost entirely Fille en Aiguilles, only with minor differences. The very piney, evergreen forest hues of the Lutens beauty are practically non-existent in Plum Japonais, the inclusion of “fir” or “fir resin” in the notes notwithstanding. Sheldrake (if it is indeed he who is behind Plum Japonais) has substituted instead a different sort of woodiness to the scent. Yet, woody dryness is hardly the main, dispositive characteristic of Fille en Aiguilles. It’s the bloody spiced plum liqueur infused with frankincense smoke, that trademark Lutens’ signature of stewed fruit made more concentrated and plummy, with brown sugar sap, and heaping, walloping, hefty doses of sharp, black incense. And Plum Japonais has that in spades, from start to finish.

The problem is that Plum Japonais is like a knock-off of an expensive designer suit, only all the proportions are wrong. Lutens’ Fille en Aiguilles is stunningly balanced, whereas Plum Japonais is not. It feels significantly more acrid, more unbalanced in the sharpness of the smoke and the dryness of the woods. And nothing in the first two hours changes my impression, even though some of the other notes wax and wane in prominence. The immortelle occasionally rises to the surface, feeling like the herbal-floral version now, and not the maple syrup one, but it is muted and vague as a whole. The spices feel a little punchier than they did in the opening minutes, and I continue to think that there is ginger mixed in the blend. The camellia, in contrast, has now retreated to the background where it adds just a quiet, shy, creaminess and muted floral whisper to the overall bouquet.

The more interesting thing is the oud. It was just a whisper in the opening, hiding in the shadows behind all that plum liqueur. Now, however, the agarwood is more a wave that surges, ebbs, and then repeats the process. Sometimes, it feels muted, but it becomes increasingly significant at the start of the second hour, turning Plum Japonais into a fragrance where the dry woods almost compete with the incense-infused plum molasses. Unfortunately, I don’t particularly like these dry woods as compared to the richer, deeper, and significantly more interesting pine ones in Fille en Aiguilles.

As for the smoke, it varies as well. On certain parts of my arm, it feels quite bitter, pungent, and harsh, while, elsewhere, it’s more blended into the fruit. I think the cinnamon tree bark is behind some of the differences. Its smokiness in Serge Lutens’ Rousse felt quite acrid and bitter at times, and I think the note here has combined with the frankincense to create a combination that feels quite harsh at times. It’s never the smooth, almost sweetened incense that you’d expect, or, indeed, the gorgeous smoke in Fille en Aiguilles. This is much sharper and drier in nature, with a slightly bitter undertone.

Japanese Plum Liqueur, Yamazaki. Source: tokyowhiskyhub.blogspot.com

Japanese Plum Liqueur, Yamazaki. Source: tokyowhiskyhub.blogspot.com

It takes 50 minutes for Plum Japonais to soften and lose some of its harsh edges. The plum top notes start to feel flatter, while the smoky oud and the woods in the base seem smoother and less sharp. There is still a bitter, slightly burnt, pungent nuance to the woods, but the perfume as a whole feels a bit less askew and out of balance. Unfortunately, Plum Japonais also starts to feel a little murky and muddy at this time, both texturally and in terms of the distinctness of its notes. It’s starting to blur into a pretty smoky-woody-fruity fragrance just barely dominated by plum. By the end of the second hour, Plum Japonais is starting to fizzle out with notes that feel increasingly amorphous. The sillage has changed too, as the perfume just barely hovers an inch above the skin, if that. Plum Japonais is now just flat, stewed, sweet plummy jam with vague smoke and dry woody notes. In short, the Serge Lutens signature of dried, sweetened, dark fruits with oriental touches, but without the Lutens oomph and drama. At the 3.5 hour mark, Plum Japonais is a total skin scent, and has devolved to mere plummy sweetness barely flecked by some amorphous dryness and smoke. It remains that way until the very end, growing even more hazy, until its dying moments when it’s just vague sweetness.

All in all, Plum Japonais lasted a little over of 6.75 hours on my perfume-consuming skin, with incredibly restrained, soft sillage after the first hour. I applied quite a hefty portion too, as I had a very large sample from Neiman Marcus, so I basically wetted a long patch on my forearm with the equivalent of about 5 huge smears. If I’d applied my normal amount, I suspect the numbers would be significantly lower.

I have to admit, given the strength of Plum Japonais at first, and the power of Tom Ford’s Private Blends in general, I’m a little surprised at the shortness of time, as well as the restrained nature of the fragrance when taken as a whole. However, the fact that the perfume is ultimately quite subdued makes a lot more sense if you put it into context and in conjunction with the similar characteristics of Shanghai Lily. Both Atelier d’Orient fragrances seem intentionally designed to be more quiet, restrained takes on a spicy Oriental. I suspect that Tom Ford is aiming this collection at wealthy buyers in Asia, buyers who may not appreciate his usual, brash style, or a truly hardcore, intense Oriental in the style of something like Amouage. Plum Japonais is an attempt to give them a more subdued take on a masculine, woody, fruity oriental, with Shanghai Lily attempting to do the same for the more feminine, floral oriental version. That said, I want to emphasize that Plum Japonais is not a masculine scent at all. It’s wholly unisex for everyone except those whose perfume preferences lean towards the fragrances that are either fresh, clean, soapy, dainty, powdery, aldehydic, or some combination thereof.

Plum Japonais is too new for there to be many reviews available for comparison. My sense of how people generally see the Atelier collection as a whole is that they think it’s nondescript and uninteresting, with Plum Japonais being the best of the lot. That does not mean that they think it’s a great perfume, however. The Basenotes review section for the fragrance has only three reviews up at this time. One of them, “kende,” seemed to share my views about Plum Japonais’ development:

The problem is how short lived this wondrous moment is. Within 15 minutes the scent begins to feel more and more flat. The complexities start to vanish and what suddenly remains is a puny, underwhelming “perfumey” base that smells like a very commonplace generic perfume type of scent. This doesn’t take hours, mind you. It takes no greater the length of 45 minutes to unravel from that rich, opulent opening. […]

This perfume could’ve really been something special, that opening is something every perfumista should experience, but there is no backbone to hold Plum Japonais up over the hours. It goes on like a work of art and but feels more and more like a cheap photocopy as the minutes turn to hours. […]

The scent is 4 stars.

The longevity is embarrassing for a Tom Ford private blend. 0 stars.

Kende doesn’t know it, but Plum Japonais absolutely is a “cheap photocopy[,]” and he or she needs to go try Fille en Aiguilles. Over in a separate Basenotes board thread, the common consensus for Plum Japonais is, and I quote, “meh.” As one poster put it, “I’m honestly not impressed with any of the new Atelier scents. I guess this would be the stand out, but thats not saying much.”

No-one talks about Fille en Aiguilles because, as I noted up above, it’s not one of the better-known Lutens fragrances. But the perfume blows Plum Japonais out of the water! It is also significantly cheaper than Tom Ford’s ersatz, wanna-be copy which costs $210 for the smallest version. Fille en Aiguilles retails for $140, but can easily be found discounted at a number of online perfume retailers, with the lowest price I’ve seen being $80. (See the Lutens review for full retail links.) Honestly, writing out that price differential just offends me even more. Plum Japonais is such a total waste of money. It’s one thing to take a great perfume and use it as a source of inspiration for another; lots of perfumers create scents that have some overlap or a common signature. But Plum Japonais is such a completely out-of-whack, wholly unbalanced, fizzling, flat, totally lazy, “cheap photocopy” of such a supremely stunning, refined, mysteriously seductive, incredibly evocative, utterly mesmerizing scent that it’s positively insulting. The irrational side of me feels like shaking Christopher Sheldrake — who may be my favorite perfumer ever — and asking him, “Why? Why??!!”

In fact, I think I’m too irate to continue this review.

[UPDATE: 8/4/2013– According to one commentator to the blog, “Mike,” who left an answer below, Christopher Sheldrake did not mutilate his creation because Yann Vasnier of Givaudan is the actual nose behind Plum Japonais. Mike cites as sources two unnamed bloggers who contacted Tom Ford. He later directed me to a review at CaFleureBon which states that Yann Vasnier is the creator of Plum Japonais. That review was posted just yesterday, a few days after my own, so the information wasn’t available to me at the time, but I’m very grateful to Mike for telling me about it. I would like to extend to Christopher Sheldrake my heartiest apologies for thinking he had plagiarised himself with a bad copy, and for wanting to shake him like a rag doll.]

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Private Blend Plum Japonais is an eau de parfum which comes in three sizes that retail for: $210, €180, or £140.00 for a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle; $280 or £320.00 for a 100 ml/3.4 oz bottle; or $520 for a 200 ml/8.45 oz bottle. The line is not yet listed on the Tom Ford websiteIn the U.S.: you can find Plum Japonais at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. I don’t believe Nordstrom or Saks has the new collection yet. Outside the U.S.: In Canada, I believe Tom Ford is carried at Holt Renfrew, but they only list 2 of the old fragrances on their online website. In the UK, you can find Plum Japonais at Harrods (which only has the small size), Selfridges (which carries both sizes), or House of Frasier (both sizes). The small size is also carried by Harvey Nichols. All the stores sell the small 1.7 oz/50 ml size for £140.00, while the super-large 250 ml bottle costs £320.00. In France, Plum Japonais is available at Premiere Avenue which sells the 50 ml bottle for €180. For other all other countries, you can use the store locator on the Tom Ford website to find a retailer near you. Samples: You can buy samples of Plum Japonais at Surrender to Chance starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial.